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April 16 | This Week in Government: Chamber Warns Against Limiting Voting Access; Whitmer Vetoes Broadband Tax Exemption

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, will provide members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

  1. Detroit Regional Chamber Warns Against Limiting Voting Access
  2. Whitmer Vetoes Broadband Tax Exemption
  3. Board of Ed Urges Legislature to Waive State Testing Accountability
  4. Shirkey, Wentworth Praise Whitmer Resistance to New COVID Limits
  5. MIOSHA Officially Extends Emergency Rules for Workplaces

Detroit Regional Chamber Warns Against Limiting Voting Access

The first hearing on a trio of bills from a 39-bill Senate Republicans election law package will be heard in committee this week as another organization expressed opposition Monday over elements of the package it said it found concerning as it relates to ballot access.

The Detroit Regional Chamber was one of the latest groups to come forward to voice opposition to at least some of the Senate Republican elections package.

“Of the 39 bills introduced in the Michigan legislature focused on voting processes and access, some are common sense improvements that make an already strong process stronger, including extending early voting opportunities,” the Chamber said. “Others, however, have the impact of unreasonably restricting Michiganders’ ability to exercise their right to vote. Other provisions place undue burdens on already stressed election workers and risk confidentiality of an individual’s vote.”

The Chamber said it will oppose parts of the package that limit voters’ ability to exercise their voting rights, especially those that affect communities of color and less affluent areas.

Principles the group will push during the debate include an understanding the 2020 elections were fair, that any potential changes to the election process must not create barriers for voters and that changes must improve access. The group added more restrictive voting laws could send a negative message about the state as businesses compete for skilled employees.

“The Detroit Regional Chamber will continue to monitor this package of bills and will support those that make an already strong system better, advance customer-centric processes, and will oppose legislation that unduly burdens Michiganders’ ability to participate in elections,” the group said.

Of the 39 bills, three will be heard before the Senate Elections Committee Wednesday.

The first, SB 277, would set up a process for county clerks and local clerks to check and remove dead voters from the Qualified Voter File.

Under SB 281, the secretary of state would be required to obtain verification of voter information on residency as well as investigate potential instances of improper voting.

A third bill, SB 306, would require the Department of State to report on its website which local clerks are not current on election training.

A package of House election law bills also is scheduled to be heard before the committee Wednesday.

Before the committee will be HB 4127 and HB 4128, which would require the Department of State to send mailers to voters that have placeholder birthdays, such as the year 1900, listed in the Qualified Voter File due to unknown dates of birth. The purpose of the mailers would be to have voters prove they are still qualified voters and confirm their actual birthdate.

Also before the committee will be HB 4129, HB 4130 and HB 4131. The bills would require the Department of State to post on its website in odd number years local clerks who have not completed required training, amend the timing for the filing of lobbyists’ reports and amend the timing for correction of errors and omissions in campaign finance reports.


Whitmer Vetoes Broadband Tax Exemption

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have provided personal property tax exemptions for certain broadband providers in unserved areas, saying the bill would cost the School Aid Fund millions without spurring high-speed development.

Under HB 4210, infrastructure would need to provide for internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream.

Critics of the bill said the speed required was not fast enough to be useful for those seeking internet access.

Gov. Whitmer, in her veto letter Wednesday, agreed.

“The bill’s target of 25 mbps service would deliver a mere fraction of the speeds well in excess of 100 mbps that U.S. broadband users have come to expect,” she wrote. “If Michiganders are going to spend their hard-earned tax dollars to incentivize broadband development, it better be fast.”

Gov. Whitmer also touted her administration’s funding of $12 million in grants for broadband expansion and said the state is receiving more money for broadband through the federal stimulus bill.

“Although I am vetoing HB 4210, I look forward to working with the Legislature on a spending bill to put American Rescue Plan funds to work strengthening Michigan’s broadband infrastructure,” she wrote.

Rep. Beth Griffin (R-Mattawan) said the Governor’s veto hurts rural families.

“People need high-speed internet in all areas of the state – not just big cities and booming suburbs – and the COVID pandemic has dramatically accelerated this need,” she said in a statement. “With this veto, the governor is hurting people in underserved areas of the state – patients who can’t get to a doctor and need telehealth options, kids who are relying more and more on online learning, and workers forced to do their jobs from home. These Michigan families face a connectivity crisis, and the governor refused to help them at a time they needed it most.”

Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), a co-sponsor of the bill, blasted the Governor’s veto.

“While Gretchen Whitmer and big city Democrats enjoy access to this basic necessity, far too many people find themselves lacking access to high-speed internet,” she said in a statement. “I can’t even begin to count how many times I had to leave my house and drive into the city just to complete a Zoom or conference call. By vetoing this legislation, Gov. Whitmer is telling rural Michigan that she doesn’t care that your kids are falling behind in school, that you’re out of luck if you run a small business and that you don’t deserve access to a basic necessity she enjoys.”


Board of Ed Urges Legislature to Waive State Testing Accountability

Members of the State Board of Education Tuesday voted 6-0 to approve a resolution urging lawmakers to waive accountability outcomes related to state standardized assessments, citing the pandemic as affecting testing results in such a way that data would be misrepresentative and not useful to Michigan.

Board members Nikki Snyder (R-Dexter) and Tom McMillin (R-Oakland Township) were absent during the vote.

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would waive the accountability portion of mandated summative assessments, though in April noted it still would be requiring Michigan educators to still issue the exams.

At the state level, however, lawmakers have yet to waive accountability rule requirements for both students and teachers. There are three state-level accountability laws tied to the results of state summative assessments: teacher evaluations, retention mandated through the Read by Grade Three literacy law and the A-F system.

Tests that would measure such outcomes include the PSAT delivered to 9th and 10th graders.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice, speaking on the necessity of the resolution, said that this is not the first time the board has attempted to raise this issue and that there is a need for lawmakers to move expeditiously on this topic.

“In the absence of the state Legislature’s actions, and prompt action, we are going to have high stakes accountability requirements associated with state summative assessments, with small numbers – and uneven numbers – of our young people testing across the state of Michigan,” he said. “Those would include, but not be limited to, the potential for third grate retention of some of our young people, educator evaluations being – in part – associated with these assessments in the midst of a pandemic and the running of an A through F system. That was premised on virtually every child taking the state summative assessments, not a fraction thereof.”

While states are beginning to issue summative assessments, mandated at the federal level though with the accountability of outcome waived, the Michigan Department of Education has made a point to stress that required testing does not need to be immediately issued by districts.

Regarding the M-STEP – which many districts are beginning to issue this week – the department has extended the exam’s testing window through June 4 and has also secured two alternate testing dates in the spring for administering the SAT. It also noted that additional windows are available for PSAT testing as well.

But in the instance where, regardless of when the exam is offered, parents still feel like it is unsafe for their child to physically come to a school building and participate in testing, state board officials also stressed that it was necessary for parents to know that it was their right to not have their child or children participate in the assessments.

This notion led to the board’s second unanimous approval – absent again were Snyder and McMillin – of a statement of parental rights, which indicated that members supported “the fundamental right of all parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching and education of their children.”

Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods), who read the statement into the record, noted that though the federal waiver for the spring 2021 state summative assessment was not granted, the accountability portion was, meaning the federal department “will not penalize Michigan or other states for failure to secure 95 percent or higher student participation in the administration of these assessments.”

“Given that coronavirus infection rates are increasing in Michigan and many students are still attending school remotely, the State Board of Education supports the guidance to parents and legal guardians that these students need not be brought into school solely for the purpose of state assessment, and will not be required to come into school for the sole purpose of taking the assessments,” she said, reading the end of the statement.

Board President Casandra Ulbrich (D-Dearborn) praised the statement making clear the ability for parents to not have to send their children into school buildings for testing, noting that parents had recently gotten ahold of her to say their districts were operating under the pretense that assessment participation was absolutely mandatory.

“I did have a parent who wanted to opt their child out of testing, but was afraid that the school would suffer negative consequences as a result of that … I also have heard from parents who, it seems, are being told even though their students are remote because of health reasons in the home, that they are required and mandated to send their student for face-to-face testing,” Ulbrich said. “I think it’s important that we reiterate: If you don’t feel it’s safe to send your student into a school for in-person learning, you do not have to send your student into a school for the sole purpose of taking a test.”

In her later comments, Ulbrich added that the board was not “opposed to assessments” but that “when there are consequences that are attached it changes the game completely, and that needs to be taken into consideration.”

BOARD APPROVES PERKINS V UPDATES: Board members Tuesday also gave the OK to changes made to the Perkins V Core performance Indicator plan, which has since been updated following a public comment period earlier this year. Updates to the plan would account for revising performance indicators due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic’s effect on increasing statewide unemployment and decreasing first-year college enrollment.

“Youth unemployment is significantly higher than it was a year ago – also significantly higher than adult unemployment – and also the number of students who are entering post-secondary institutions was much lower this past September,” said Brian Pyles, MDE’s Office of Career and Technical Education director. “Key in the Perkins Act is that there’s a core performance indicator that our school districts are not going to meet. We need to adjust that number before we don’t reach that number, because once we fail to reach the number we can no longer adjust.”


Shirkey, Wentworth Praise Whitmer Resistance to New COVID Limits

For the first time in more than a year, Republican legislative leaders are praising Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers have skyrocketed in the past six weeks to become the worst in the nation’s, Gov. Whitmer has steadfastly refused to reinstate any of the restrictions her administration has relaxed or rescinded since the start of the year. In the past week, the administration of President Joe Biden called for Gov. Whitmer to reinstate a stay-home type order to address the explosion of cases, crush of hospitalizations, and sharp uptick in deaths.

Gov. Whitmer also has been asked repeatedly by reporters in the past week why she has not brought back the same types of restrictions on businesses, gatherings, and other activities that she repeatedly said in 2020 were critical to arresting control of the virus during the first wave in the spring and the second wave in the fall. Her response has been the same: that the context has changed, that vaccines are now available and represent the best way out of the pandemic.

She also on Wednesday touted a newly recommended monoclonal antibody treatment that medical experts say can reduce the severity of the virus for those who have it.

Only in March of 2020 did Gov. Whitmer receive support from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering). By April, as Gov. Whitmer tightened her stay-home order, then-President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked Gov. Whitmer and Gov. Whitmer and legislative Republicans prepared to go to court over the Governor’s emergency powers, the tone shifted and both – especially Shirkey – became virulent critics of Gov. Whitmer.

On Wednesday, however, Shirkey took to Twitter to offer Gov. Whitmer some support.

“I applaud @GovWhitmer for resisting the tremendous pressure to lock down our state and trusting Michiganders to do the right thing,” he said.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell), who took office in January, also offered his first real praise for the Governor of the year.

“Gov. Whitmer is right to reject calls for new restrictions and shutdowns. This is no time to go backward in our fight against COVID,” he said in a statement. “Instead, this is a time to look forward. Michigan has made strong progress with vaccinations, with more than 60% of seniors fully vaccinated and almost half of the state having had at least one dose. We have appropriated tens of millions of dollars that is still being used to fund this effort, open up vaccine clinics, and make shots available to anyone who wants one as soon as possible. The expanded use of antibody therapy will also help our highest-risk friends and neighbors. The Governor should continue focusing on vaccinations, encouraging personal responsibility, and moving Michigan further along the path to normalcy.”

The state’s seven-day average for newly confirmed COVID-19 cases held steady Wednesday at 7,006, still close to the all-time high set in late November.

Hospitalizations edged downward Wednesday for the first time in many weeks, falling from 4,205 to 4,187 among those suspected or confirmed to have the virus.

Two dozen hospitals in the state are at 98% capacity, Gov. Whitmer told reporters.

“We’ve got some work to do to get our COVID metrics headed in the right direction again,” she said. “We have a tough couple of weeks ahead of us.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said she spent much of the previous weekend in a hospital emergency room.

“Patients again are lining our hallways like they were last spring,” she said. “This situation is very serious.”

Khaldun then offered this recommendation.

“We need to be using every tool in our toolbox right now to get these cases and hospitalizations down,” she said.

Gov. Whitmer was later asked about that comment and why the Governor is not using one of those tools – the Department of Health and Human Services’ power to issue new public health orders restricting activity.

The number one tool to use right now, Gov. Whitmer responded, is the vaccine. The next best tool is a mask, and now people with the virus if eligible should seek the antibody treatment.

“That’s what we’re trying to do is get our hospital rates down,” she said.

Gov. Whitmer was then asked about her repeated statements of 2020 that her orders had worked to bring down cases, hospitalizations and deaths and whether she now believed because of pandemic fatigue or other factors they would no longer work.

“We’re having a lot of conversation about what makes sense to contribute to bringing down the spread,” she said. “The national experts with whom we consult have said you don’t have a policy problem. Michigan still has some of the strongest protocols in place – capacity restrictions, we’ve got a mask mandate. Other states have dropped all of these things. We still have them in Michigan, and yet we have high positivity. It’s not a question about whether the policy is the right policy, it’s really more of a testament to the fact that we have combining issues – we have variants that are very present here in Michigan in greater numbers than other states are seeing, we have reservoirs of people who didn’t get COVID thankfully but are now vulnerable to these variants and we have exhaustion, the fatigue where people are dropping their guard.”


MIOSHA Officially Extends Emergency Rules for Workplaces

As expected, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration extended its emergency rules first issued in October for another six months, which require, among other things, workers who can feasibly work remotely to do so.

The rules were extended for another six months, as allowed by law, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday they likely would not be in place as written for the full six months.

“MIOSHA’s emergency rules help keep us all safe by ensuring that employers implement common-sense safety standards to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “When employers maintain a safe workplace, that gives workers and consumers the confidence to keep our economy moving.”

The state said in the midst of a third wave of spiking coronavirus cases, the protection of workers is its top priority.

Since March 2020, employers have reported more than 40 worker deaths from COVID-19 in Michigan and MIOSHA has received over 12,000 complaints from employees alleging COVID-19 hazards in the workplace. In addition, over 605 referrals were received from local government, including local health departments, indicating that businesses were not taking all the necessary measures to protect their employees from infection.

“As we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the rules reinforce the importance of keeping workplaces safe for employees from COVID-19 transmission,” said COVID-19 Workplace Safety Director Sean Egan. “We want employers to create a safe work environment for their employees, which is why we will continue to work with employees and businesses to help them understand how to safely stay open.”

Businesses had been urging the state to allow more in-person work.

The Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance said it was disappointed to see the rules extended, but hopeful the restrictions on in-person work would be rolled back soon.

“The Alliance and all of our member organizations are frustrated to see the MIOSHA Emergency Rules extended after we have been working to advocate against such an extension,” Stacie Bytwork, the chairperson of the Alliance and president and CEO of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “Our businesses are eager to get back to work and continue our economic recovery from this pandemic.”

Rich Studley, Michigan Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, called the move a “body blow” to businesses.


Related:

Michigan Business Leaders Unite On Voting Rights