April 1 | This Week In Government: Governor Signs $4.7B Water, Infrastructure Investment Bill; Irwin, McBroom Launch Push For Bipartisan Oversight PanelApril 1, 2022
- Governor Signs $4.7B Water, Infrastructure Investment Bill
- Irwin, McBroom Launch Push For Bipartisan Oversight Panel
- Treasury, Budget Office Discuss Pandemic Effects On State
- Benson: No Decision On Mass Mailing Absentee Applications
- Retailers Report Uptick In February Sales
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, while signing a supplemental bill totaling $4.7 billion in statewide infrastructure improvements, said Wednesday that while not every Michigander is feeling the effects of pandemic recovery they’re bound to with these investments.
Her comments came during a bill signing for SB 565, now PA 53 of 2022, in a restaurant in Grand Rapids.
The bill contains $4.7 billion in supplemental funding for myriad projects including infrastructure for water, airports and roads, rural broadband, renters’ assistance and efforts to fill revenue sharing gaps.
Whitmer, in remarks prior to signing, said she was proud of the plan – dubbed Building Michigan Together – and how it came together on a bipartisan basis, adding that she hoped this would bode well for pending budgetary talks when the Legislature returns from its spring break.
“There’s an opportunity right now, unlike anything we’ve seen in decades,” she said. “Today’s action is a big step in the right direction. I’m excited about it. We’re having the best economic recovery in our state’s history since this pandemic began … there are a lot of signs we are on the right track. Not everyone’s feeling it yet, but because of these investments, everyone will.”
In questions from reporters, Whitmer noted that there was still something close to $2 billion left to spend in federal funds and encouraged expediency in doling the rest of this money out as “Michigan’s behind what other state have done” and that even “most Midwest states” have portioned out their entire pot of resources already.
Given that the federal government is already eyeing clawing back funding, and the fact Michigan is set to receive even more money – beginning in May – as part of a recently passed federal infrastructure package, Whitmer urged legislators to “move quickly with us, to prioritize things like this.”
She also beat around the tax relief bush somewhat when asked what Republican ideas she would entertain as a starting point for dialogue on the subject. Instead, she pivoted to talking about upcoming budget negotiations and how they could be made challenging due to it being an election year.
Whitmer did, however, continue to express her view that the Earned Income Tax Credit should be expanded and repealing the state’s so-called retirement would be the best avenue for the most amount of savings for Michiganders.
“This is a huge opportunity for us to do a great deal of good for a lot of people that really are struggling with inflation, and all the other financial pressures. … Older Michiganders who are retired and living on fixed incomes can’t bear the weight of inflation either,” she said. “These are the two spaces I’m hopeful we can find common ground on. You’ve seen it included in some of the work the Legislature’s done, but I’m interested in not just talking points but giving people relief that is meaningful right now.”
Following the bills’ signing groups like the Michigan League for Public Policy and the Michigan Environmental Council praised the bill as being sorely needed and well thought out policy that would result in real changes for state residents.
“This is exactly what this federal money was intended for, to address the crises facing Michiganders and our communities while also making one-time investments that can permanently transform our infrastructure, our lives and our future,” MLPP President and CEO Monique Stanton said in a statement. “This legislation rightfully recognizes the individual and collective needs of our communities, addressing immediate crises and preventing future ones around the state and directing funding to residents and communities with the greatest current challenges.”
Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer of the Michigan Environmental Council, added in a statement of her own that the Building Michigan Together Plan was among Michigan’s “best and largest environmental investments in decades.”
“Many good policies die on arrival. Others are paired with poor ideas. This funding is almost wholly good, directing resources to critical needs like removing lead service lines, fixing failing septic systems, keeping sewage out of our lakes, restoring our state parks, and creating more affordable, attainable housing,” Jameson said, speaking specifically to the fiscal investments in environmental protections. “These $2.5 billion will improve the lives of millions of Michiganders and will address some of the most pressing environmental challenges facing our state.”
Legislation is to be formally introduced next month in the Senate that would allow for the creation of a bipartisan legislative oversight committee that the bill sponsors say is needed to more thoroughly review government operations and reduce opportunities for corruption.
The legislation, SJR O and SB 997, has not yet been formally introduced but will be after the Legislature returns from its spring recess.
Under SJR O, Section 53 of Article IV of the state Constitution would be amended, and Section 55 would be added to Article IV through a vote at the next statewide general election.
The resolution would create an eight-member bipartisan permanent oversight committee within the Legislature.
Its powers would include requesting and obtaining audits from the Office of the Auditor General, the executive branch and other sources. It would be granted investigatory powers regarding state finances.
The eight-person panel would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with two members appointed by the House speaker and minority leader and the Senate majority and minority leaders.
The bills are to be introduced by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who chairs the Senate Oversight Committee. The two announced their legislation in a Monday release.
In a release announcing the legislation, the two pointed to a 2019 report from the Levin Center that outlines the level of oversight of all 50 states.
“Evidence suggests that legislative oversight is generally lax,” the 2019 report says, adding the state’s oversight resources vary by how active the oversight committee chairs are. “There are apparently no reports that specify legislative actions taken in response to audit reports. This is part of the oversight process in higher performing states, and something like this might improve Michigan’s performance. Moreover, a closer relationship between the OAG and the legislature might increase the use of audit reports in the appropriations process.”
McBroom in a statement said term limits and the changes in partisan control in Lansing are signs of the need for improved oversight.
“We have taken some of the most robust methods from the states and are trying to adapt them to Michigan,” McBroom said. “I hope this will leave a mechanism in place to protect the people from unrestrained, partisan bureaucracy and executive branch power.”
Irwin in a statement agreed.
“We have a responsibility to the people of Michigan to investigate the functions of government no matter who the governor is and what party they represent,” Irwin said. “Our plan puts accountability and the public interest first.”
Under SB 997, the term of members is outlined as being for the duration of the legislative session in which a member is appointed or until a successor is appointed as a replacement, whichever comes later.
Committee members would meet at least quarterly or as called upon by the chair or a majority of members.
Members would receive all audits from the Office of the Auditor General for review, would be empowered to make recommendations to the full Legislature and have the authority for the hiring of staff and committee functions. It also would have subpoena powers.
In the release from the senators, it was stated that having partisan balance on the proposed committee would ensure the minority party has a voice in the process. It was also stated the hope would be it would help create more cooperation and bipartisanship in its work.
State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks and State Budget Director Chris Harkins spoke before a virtual conference Tuesday regarding how the pandemic has impacted the economy.
During the conference held by Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber of Commerce, Eubanks said the Michigan Labor Market lost almost one million jobs instantaneously due to the onset of the pandemic.
“We have been recovering at a steady pace ever since and we’re projecting that will take us another couple years to get back to pre-pandemic levels as far as how many individuals are actually in the labor force,” she said. “But as to date through January, we have about 900,000 of that million jobs there, so we’re a good chunk of the way there.”
Eubanks also said not every industry was equally impacted by the pandemic. Hospitality was one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, though Ms. Eubanks said it has since made an extremely strong recovery.
Retail, financial and even health services industries are among those making a slower recovery.
While the decline in automotive sales is mimicking that of recessionary sales, Eubanks said supply chain shortages – especially the semiconductor chip shortage – can be directly linked to the decline and has caused automakers to pivot. She said light trucks such as SUVs and pickup trucks are now the focus of automakers and she continued to say the supply chain shortages has not impacted the profitability of the automakers.
Inflation was also a topic of discussion, with Eubanks saying it has been ticking up the last few months. The consumer price index, she said, is at 6.4% and is the highest it’s been for several decades.
It is unclear how long it will persist, especially with the war in Ukraine and U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Russia expected to impact the economy in the long run.
Inflation will be a major story in the economic picture going forward, Eubanks said.
Used cars and trucks is estimated to make up nearly 35% the share of inflation. She said overtime, categories outside of energy have been inching up and the state and country is starting to see a shift that in inflation in these other areas.
Consumer sentiment for confidence in the economy is down to 59.7%, with Eubanks crediting this drop to the Delta variant surge and other variants shaking up confidence. Inflation, however, has brought consumer confidence to the lowest it’s been since 2011.
Harkins went over the fiscal year 2022-23 budget recommendation highlights, saying Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is focusing on education, road and bridge infrastructure improvement, workforce, families and improving communities.
He also said the budget office hopes to finish up the budget with the Legislature by June or early July.
When an audience member asked if another supplemental was to be expected such as the $4.7 billion supplemental the Legislature passed last week, Harkins said the state can expect to see a fiscal year 2021-22 supplemental when the budget for 2023 is finalized.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday no decision has yet been made on if her agency will send absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters later this year, a move from 2020 that brought staunch criticism from Republicans.
Benson, asked about the possibility during a press call, said her agency has not “made any decisions in that regard yet.”
She said there were unique circumstances to consider in 2020, mainly the coronavirus pandemic and no-reason absentee voting having been available for the first time during that election cycle. With many such factors being no longer the case, Benson said that difference will likely play a major role in determining if such an effort is undertaken again.
Republicans opposed the move in 2020 and have introduced bills that would stop the Department of State from mass mailing applications altogether.
Her comments came during a Zoom press conference with Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United/Let America Vote. During the call the two repeatedly sought to highlight what they called the difference between candidates like the incumbent secretary of state and Republican opponents for statewide office.
“We are in a precarious moment,” Benson said. “Democracy truly is on the ballot this fall, and my job and I believe the job of everyone in our state and across the country is to ensure voters are informed about the real consequences of this election, their true choice they’ll have between protecting our democracy and elevating those who have clearly espoused … falsehoods intended to dismantle it and undo voters’ confidence in it.”
The call was ahead of a Saturday rally in Washington Township planned by former President Donald Trump featuring appearances by Republican candidates the former president has endorsed in their primary races, including Kristina Karamo for secretary of state and Matt DePerno for attorney general.
Trump endorsed Karamo, who has continued to falsely claim President Joe Biden was fraudulently awarded the presidency in 2020. These claims come despite Biden winning Michigan by more than 154,000 votes and no evidence from numerous audits showing any widespread fraud.
“I am hopeful that voters will be informed this fall about the choice they will have before them, and it’s a choice that will essentially determine who is on the field to protect their voice and their vote and their democracy in the years to come,” Benson said.
DePerno was endorsed by Trump back in September, who has repeatedly praised his efforts in questioning and seeking to overturn the November 2020 election results.
No evidence of widespread voter fraud has been found in Michigan or elsewhere, despite nearly 18 months of claims of such activity by Trump, DePerno, and a portion of the former president’s base.
A Senate Oversight Committee report also found no evidence of claims made by Republicans. The report also called on current Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate those who held fundraisers off the inaccurate claims, which did not name any specific names but has been considered to mean a few individuals including DePerno.
When asked if the complaints about the 2020 election will stop, Benson said voters have a key role at the ballot box in the fall to reject those who have been making such claims.
She also made a direct appeal to Republican officials running for office and Trump supporters making false claims about the 2020 election results.
“I really call on everyone, including all candidates for office, to stop lying, to stop throwing around falsehoods in an effort to gain political power and further partisan agendas,” Benson said. “Respect the will of the people, respect our election laws and our democracy and move forward in working with us to ensure that our elections do continue to be run well and be run with integrity.”
Republicans in the Legislature have pushed dozens of bills they say would improve election processes and strengthen the integrity of the vote. Democrats have cried foul over the proposals since their introduction about one year ago, saying they would make it more difficult to vote and target voter constituencies including people of color.
A ballot proposal containing key initiatives in the Republican legislation that Democrats oppose is also being circulated for signatures. If enough signatures are gathered, the proposal would be passed by the Republican majorities and preventing the governor’s veto pen.
Muller told reporters the rhetoric by Republican candidates with views of the likes of Karamo and DePerno are not just potentially damaging to democracy if elected, but also dangerous.
“We saw how these kinds of lies and threats led to January 6, where five people lost their lives,” Muller said, referencing the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack by Trump supporters who stormed the building. “We also shouldn’t overlook the dangerous rhetoric that’s going on and the very real personal consequences that that can cause.”
February saw a bounce-back in sales from a stagnant January, Michigan retailers said in a survey released Thursday.
The Michigan Retailers Association said the February retail index survey came in at 74.1, an increase from January’s 58.3. The seasonally adjusted performance index is conducted by the association in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. It is a 100-point index and the higher the number, the stronger the activity.
59% of Michigan retailers reported a sales increase in February, with 31% reporting a decrease, and 10% reporting no change.
77% of retailers predict their sales will continue to rise through May, but 10% said they expect their sales to decline, and 13% anticipate no change. That results in a 70.1 Index rating, an increase over last month’s prediction Index rating of 64.8, and a strong indication for high sales activity in the next three months.
State-wide sales tax receipts in February were up 8.5% compared to last year, coming in at $81.8 million above the forecasted amount. According to MRA members’ retained credit card volume reports in February 2022, total credit card volume was up 1.84% over February 2021.
“With a slower start to 2022 than preferred, it’s nice to see this rebound take place before spring. With the upcoming warmth and seasonal change, we hope to see Michigan shoppers come out of hibernation and visit local retailers,” William Hallan, president and CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association, said in a statement. “This early bounce-back could be an indication for a strong spring season in whole.”