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Feb. 5 | This Week in Government: Michigan Reconnect Launches; Road Bonding Update

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. Benson Floats June Consolidated Election, Other Changes Inspired By ’20
  2. Michigan Reconnect Program Launches
  3. GOP Rejects 5 More Whitmer Appointees in Political COVID Battle
  4. Rice: More School Days Might Be Needed to Recover From Pandemic
  5. Senate Panel Receives Update on Road Bonding

Benson Floats June Consolidated Election, Other Changes Inspired By ’20

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson unveiled on Monday legislative priorities the Department of State hopes to tackle ahead of future elections, many of which deal with streamlining and security in an effort to prevent any future false allegations of fraud and wrongdoing, though one would consolidate the May and August elections into a June election.

The agenda itself is broken into the three topic areas of access, infrastructure, and elections, with each section featuring multiple initiative ideas to work on for the year.

“We looked at the data from last year’s elections, best practices from across the country, the confidence in our system demonstrated by voter registration and turnout trends…and sought ways to improve our systems,” Benson said during a press conference Monday. “Advancing the vote and protecting democracy are the goals of our agenda.”

Some of the initiatives Benson touted Monday stem from legislation previously introduced during the 2019-20 Legislative session that either did not see movement, did not pass, or did pass but had a sunset installed so that the topic would be forced to be revisited in the future.

Among them, specific to the equitable access category, is a commitment to require absentee ballot applications be mailed to registered voters every federal election cycle, ballots postmarked by election day – yet received a short time after – be counted and for overseas service members and their spouses be allowed to return their ballots electronically.

Another includes prohibition of the open carry of firearms in and around voting locations and allowing for advocacy organizations to hire transportation for voters to the polls.

Many of the topics were litigated in court and it was determined the state’s laws did not allow Benson to take action under current law, like the gun issue, or current laws were upheld, like the transportation of voters to the polls and late-arriving absentee ballots.

To the question of why the department was so confident in getting those specific proposals through this time around, Benson spokesperson Jake Rollow said that there has been, “demonstrated, widespread public support for really all the proposals that are in this legislative agenda.”

He referenced the passage of Proposal 3 of 2018 – which allowed for no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration – and pointed to the historic turnout in the 2020 election as proof voters want and believe in “accessible, safe and secure elections.”

“These are common sense proposals to advance the vote and advance democracy,” Rollow said. “We hope that folks don’t play politics with elections. …We’ve seen over the past couple of months how elections administrators have been stepping forward from across the aisle to protect elections. We’ve seen less of that from lawmakers.”

As for how the department plans to fund some of these initiatives, Rollow said the agenda was still in its earliest stages and that in further talks the issue of cost will become clearer in time.

Other issues touted under the equitable access header include establishing early in-person voting at clerk offices and satellite offices prior to Election Day, making Election Day a state holiday, requiring translated elections materials where a significant non-English-speaking community lives, allowing transportation assistance to the polls, and for funds to be provided to voting locations to ensure they are not only ADA compliant but to establish curbside voting as well.

Regarding strengthening infrastructure, the Department of State touted the following initiatives:

  • Allowing the processing of absentee ballots two weeks prior to Election Day;
  • Providing an additional week for the county canvass;
  • Allowing recounts of precincts with clerical errors;
  • Consolidating the May and August elections into one June election;
  • Providing dependable funding for local elections officials; and
  • Updating language on absentee ballots and applications.

As for secure elections, the department is looking at a number of initiatives, including:

  • Prohibiting deceptive election practices that deter or mislead voters;
  • Prohibiting the open carry of firearms within 100 feet of a voting location;
  • Providing election officials additional tools to maintain the registration list;
  • Requiring election challenger and election worker training;
  • Updating security requirements for election vendors; and
  • Requiring a statewide risk-limiting audit prior to state election certification.

In a separate statement Monday, Benson said her legislative initiatives already had the backing of several lawmakers, such as Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), and Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren).

“The state Bureau of Elections, local clerks and election workers around the state worked tirelessly to execute one of the most safe, secure and successful elections in recent history despite unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Koleszar, minority vice chair of the House Elections and Ethics Committee, said in a statement. “We learned a lot about meaningful steps we can take to expand equitable access to the ballot box, strengthen our voting infrastructure and increase security and transparency going forward. I strongly support Secretary Benson’s legislative recommendations and look forward to showing the rest of the nation how democracy can thrive in the 21st century.”

But to the idea that Benson is leading her legislative agenda in the spirit of bipartisanship, some lawmakers are calling foul. Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton), a former clerk herself, pointed out that of the lawmakers joining the secretary of state none are Republicans.

“If her goal is truly to work together in a bipartisan manner, I can’t imagine why she would continue to bring up emotionally charged policy proposals that have already been struck down by our courts,” she said in a statement. “Our focus must be on improving transparency, protecting election integrity, and restoring the public’s trust – not on constitutionally questionable proposals that advance the Secretary of State’s own political agenda.”

Rep. Matt Hall (R-Emmett Township) on Monday also announced his own concepts for improving the state’s elections process, some of which run antithetical to what Benson proposed earlier that afternoon like explicitly calling for no mass mailings of absentee voter ballot applications.

Should Benson choose to continue pursuing mass mailings, however, a Court of Appeals panel found that she is within her authority to do so. The state’s Supreme Court declined to hear further arguments on the subject in late December by an overwhelming majority.

Hall also took issue with what he termed as ballot harvesting, writing that “no one besides family or legal guardians should be able to deliver an individual’s ballot to a polling or drop-off location.”

He said he based many of his own improvement concepts on the slew of testimony that came before both House and Senate elections committees after the November election, in which Hall said he drew the conclusion that there were “areas of weakness in Michigan Election Law that should be shored up.”

“Among these areas are the roles and responsibilities of elections challengers and workers, procedures in absent voter counting boards, issues surrounding absentee voter lists and the mailing of absentee voter applications, procedures for County Boards of Canvassers, and post-election audits,” he wrote. “The people of Michigan must have confidence in our elections process because it’s the foundation that keeps our country strong. And due to many reported irregularities last November, many people had concern and questions. They deserve to have confidence in knowing that future elections will be processed more smoothly.”

Benson addressed that very idea in her own press conference earlier Monday, saying in her opening remarks that there are lawmakers “trying to make it harder to vote in person and impossible to vote absentee.”

“They claim this will restore faith in elections, when the only voters who have lost faith are those who believe the lies about our elections that the same leaders told, amplified, or allowed for their silence to go uncorrected,” she said. “Indeed, if these legislators truly want to support elections their task is simple: Tell the truth. There is no evidence of wrongdoing in last year’s election, and it was in fact the most successful and secure election in our nation’s history.”


Michigan Reconnect Program Launches

The new Michigan Reconnect program, which is designed to assist those 25 and older who do not have a college degree with the chance to earn a tuition-free associate’s degree or skills certificate, opened Tuesday.

There are 4.1 million Michigan residents who are 25 or older and lack a college degree or skills certificate.

Funded with $30 million in state money, the program is modeled on a similar one in Tennessee. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed the idea in her first year in office, and it has been one with strong bipartisan support.

The program will pay the cost of tuition at a community college for those pursuing an associate’s degree or skills certificate. Residents can apply online.

Gov. Whitmer and others, including Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), held a news conference Tuesday to announce the launch of the program.

At this point, they said they do not have an estimate on how many people might participate.


GOP Rejects 5 More Whitmer Appointees in Political COVID Battle

Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to reject five more appointments from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the second batch of rejections in as many weeks as the caucus seeks to apply pressure on the Governor over her administration’s coronavirus response.

The Senate voted 20-14 along party lines to reject the five appointments following another sharply worded floor debate, with Democrats lambasting Republicans, who have insisted the moves are meant to get the Governor’s attention and get her to actively involve the Legislature in the COVID-19 response.

Those disapproved in Wednesday’s vote were: Andrea Dickson to the Michigan Technological University Board of Trustees, Jason Morgan to the Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees, Mikyia Aaron to the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees, Noreen Myers to the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees, and Gabriella Abel to the Board of Cosmetology.

Wednesday’s vote brought the total number of appointments disapproved in the past two weeks to 18.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) said again he was not happy to have to put a batch of appointees up for disapproval, but it was one of the few tools the Republicans have to push back on the Governor and try to bring her to the table. He said the Governor has rejected working with Legislature.

“This Governor has done everything possible to avoid working with the elected members of this chamber as our founders had intended,” Nesbitt said. “This should not be a partisan issue. Every time the Governor circumvents the Legislature, she circumvents the voices of each of our constituents.”

Bobby Leddy, Gov. Whitmer’s press secretary, in a statement said the Governor is not going to let the Republicans’ actions, which he called “petty partisan games,” get in the way of important pandemic response work.

“The Governor is focused on achieving the state’s goal of equitably vaccinating 70% of Michigan adults as soon as possible so we can get our kids back in school safely, return to a strong economy, and get back to normal day-to-day activities,” Leddy said. “Michigan families, students, and small businesses are counting on the Legislature to stop the partisan games and pass a robust recovery plan that doesn’t block badly-needed resources for vaccines and classrooms.”

Democrats questioned the motives of Republicans and what their proposals are for addressing the pandemic.

“This political game has real consequences for state government and real consequences to the people we serve,” Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) said. “Colleagues, even hostage-takers are decent enough to give a list of demands.”

Hertel also hinted at Democrats fighting back with tactics of their own at some point if the actions of Republicans continue. He used the halting of granting immediate effect on all bills as just one example.

“We can learn to play games back. At some point that certainly will have to happen,” Hertel said. “I hope that this ends before we get there. Because at the end of the day, the people of Michigan deserve better than this.”

Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said the appointment of Myers was being needlessly blocked, adding that she had served previously on the board.

“Denying people like Noreen the ability to serve our communities on these university boards does not accomplish anything to help our students or to attract talent to our state,” Brinks said. “It’s unfortunate and disappointing that with all that is going on in our world and people still suffering and dying from COVID-19, this is where some people are choosing to spend our short and valuable time together as a Legislature. It’s shameful. It’s unnecessary.”

Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) called Wednesday’s vote a shame and said the Republican majority was telling the state that political stunts are more important than service.

“What kind of signal does that send when you reject qualified applicants due to political stunts?” Moss said. “Never mind, the signal that it sends (is) how increasingly dysfunctional this body (is), but what signal are we sending to the residents of the state of Michigan with a desire to serve?”

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said the majority party was preferring to spend its time making political attacks than working to develop constructive solutions and offer its own plan to help those impacted by the pandemic.

“Instead of passing bills that would require the Governor to react to the power that you have, we’re still mired in the pettiness of rejecting appointments,” Irwin said. “The sad part is that this petty fight between the Legislature and the Governor over power and politics means that our people are being left behind. …It’s not the Governor that’s getting hurt. It’s actually our children. It’s our parents.”

Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) fired back by turning the arguments around on Democrats.

“Here we go again. Good people in our state kept from going to their jobs. Kids kept from their schools and sports,” McBroom said.

McBroom said Gov. Whitmer has had her administration enact onerous restrictions on where they can go and spend their money, who they can allow into their own homes, what businesses can be open, and for what hours and more, all without debate or votes.

“Where’s the balance at the bargaining table? It’s gone,” McBroom said. “It’s been abrogated, emasculated, taken away.”

He said the Senate must use what tools it can to demand the voices of the people be heard.


Rice: More School Days Might Be Needed to Recover From Pandemic

Data to determine how successful distance learning was for Michigan students over the course of the last 10 months should be available by the end of the year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice told a joint panel of both House and Senate education committee members.

News of a defined end date came following a question from Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), who asked for Rice to quantify how much has been lost to virtual learning because of the pandemic to “understand what worked, what didn’t work and how those processes are functioning.”

That data, he said, will come following the gathering of benchmark assessment data that will be available at the end of the school year. Anecdotally, Rice said, he’s said he’s heard from some superintendents who believe that there “hasn’t’ been an enormous amount of adverse impact on those young people who have been largely in person.”

The same cannot wholly be said for those who have been learning at a distance.

Rice appeared before a joint meeting of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee and the House Education Committee on Tuesday. There he hit on several topics regarding the successes and failures of distance learning, underscoring that while the need for distance learning is a must during the ongoing pandemic, nothing will supplement the superiority of in-person schooling.

In a presentation prior to questions, Rice told lawmakers that the percentage of districts offering the option of in-person instruction increased during January to 61%, with 35% still choosing to remain remote. If disease mitigation efforts continue, Rice said he believes that number will be higher in February, and that March’s percentage of districts offering in-person will be even higher than that.

Coupled with vaccine distribution efforts, Rice said if the state does “all of these things and keep(s) the new case curve largely flat, all districts should be able to open at some point this winter.”

He stressed, however, that moving forward some changes might be needed to account for the overall learning loss that the bulk of Michigan’s students experienced. This could mean increasing the minimum number of days in a school year from 180, lowering class sizes, or providing more tutoring capabilities to certain districts, to allow for summer learning, depending on overall needs.

“We’re not going to be able to address all the forgone learning in school,” Rice said. “Some will have to take place out of school, with our partners, in support of our children and families – whether that’s in social and emotional learning, or children’s mental health.”

He closed prepared remarks by reminding lawmakers that Michigan has historically underfunded its educational efforts and is doing so to the tune of more than $3 billion – meaning that, too, could hinder efforts to address lost learning due to the pandemic.

Rice also later pushed for the Legislature to come to an agreement regarding the federal funding being held in limbo, saying that while an agreement does not need to be reached today it must be reached before springtime – otherwise there would be consequences to schools’ budgets and budget planning.

Most vocal of all lawmakers to the points Rice made Tuesday was Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield) – chair of the House Education Committee – who said she was “disturbed” by MDE advocating “for a lack of accountability to the people they’re serving” in again seeking federal testing waivers.

She likened the teaching profession to that of a physician or a lawyer, saying that while there were ways to hold a physician accountable if they did something wrong, either by way of finding a new one or reporting them to an ethics board for an investigation, there was no way of doing that for teachers.

“We have a whole group of parents and students and families across our communities across our state, that are really struggling right now to understand why they should keep their kids in public education,” Hornberger said. “And it is a difficult sell. They feel like they’ve been shortchanged. They feel like their kids aren’t getting what they need. …Teaching is a profession, and we need to treat it as a profession. There has been, in this pandemic, no other profession that I’ve witnessed that has advocated for a lack of accountability in their job.”

Hornberger then clarified that it was not the teachers she felt were advocating for a lack of accountability, but the department itself.

She also later brought up that she had an issue with the notion that if federal money was not immediately allocated to districts that there would somehow be a negative effect, telling Rice: “When you’re talking about this money need needing to be released sooner rather than later, I know of no school system in the state that is not getting what they were budgeted to get for this school year.”

“These extra dollars will – sooner or later – make it to our school districts,” Hornberger said. “But acting like this is some emergency and they’re not going to get the funds that they need to operate? They’re getting their budgets that were budgeted for this school year.”

Rice, in response, clarified that specific to funding districts could not know how to “pivot to a better normal” in the coming school year – post-pandemic – without knowing what their resources would be, adding that this coming year “will be the most complicated school year for which most of us have ever planned in their careers.”

Theis also questioned what MDE wanted from the Legislature in terms of addressing changes needed in returning to school such as a higher mandatory minimum number of days and smaller class sizes, pointing out that those types of determinations are typically negotiated at the local level.

While Rice agreed it was a local level decision, he said the state could “incentivize or otherwise work” some of these initiatives into state law.

While he touched on several other topics Tuesday – including the possibility of introducing a way to count homeschooled children, as the state has no current mechanism to do so, to help find roughly 13,000-14,000 children otherwise unaccounted for in school enrollment data – much of the hearing was marred by technical issues wherein Rice could not hear the questions lawmakers were asking and mostly spoke over them when addressing a question.

Answers regarding COVID-19 versus flu mortality rates among elementary students, how MDE has been collecting pandemic experience information from teachers, and what the department is doing to try and find those more than 13,000 children missing from enrollment counts were either not answered or only partially answered due to some sort of technical mishap on Rice’s end.

He did, however, confirm in a question posed to him that the department did confer with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer when making the decision to temporarily suspend in-person learning at the high school level in mid-November through early December of last year.

Due to the connection problems, and for time sensitivity, Theis later concluded the meeting by saying lawmakers would compile questions to send to Rice, who would later resubmit his answers to the committee.


Senate Panel Receives Update on Road Bonding

Construction of major road projects as part of the Governor’s push for infrastructure rebuilding through state bonding will continue to ramp up this year, Department of Transportation officials told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

The MDOT update to members of the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee centered on road bonding and projects planned for the five-year, $3.5 billion Rebuilding Michigan plan pushed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Patrick McCarthy, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Finance and Administration, said the first sale of bonds totaling about $800 million was closed in September 2020.

McCarthy said the next round is expected to be issued in July or August of this year.

“Depending on how the cash flow needs are proceeding and how the lettings in projects are moving along this summer, we will probably issue another $800 million,” McCarthy said.

He said the most recent MDOT numbers put the amount of remaining bond proceeds at about $966 million of the nearly $1.1 billion in bond proceeds that resulted from the initial bond sale.

More than $422 million has been let for eight construction projects so far, he added, with another $1.4 billion in letting for 18 projects expected this summer.

McCarthy said most of the about $49 million spent by the department so far was for the I-496 project west of Lansing.

“Many of these projects are significant projects that are going to take multiple years to construct and complete,” McCarthy said. “What you will see is a significant increase in construction activity starting in ’21 and really ramping up in fiscal year ’22, and ’23.”

MDOT Bureau of Development Director Brad Wieferich said early on this year as the coronavirus pandemic began to arrive in the state, the department began working with its main contractors to develop plans to ensure work would be able to be done safely.

Contractors could self-suspend operations if they run into significant problems, he said.

“A few of the contractors did take advantage of that,” Wieferich said. “But even with those delays for the most part people were able to pick up and maintain their schedules by the end of the year. So as far as we’re aware right now, there were no significant delays that were a result of COVID.”

When questioned by the committee, McCarthy said MDOT would have to go before the State Transportation Commission for permission for additional projects if the overall slate of 49 projects ultimately were completed with funding left to spare.