Print Friendly and PDF

July 16 | This Week in Government: Unlock MI Petition Initiative Approved; Craig Continues to Tease Announcement

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. Unlock Michigan Petition Initiative Approved by Senate Along Party Lines
  2. Craig Continues to Tease Announcement; Dixon Staffing Up
  3. K-12 Budget Signed, Praised As ‘Transformational Investment’
  4. Senate OKs $1.6B in Bridge Spending Amid Questions
  5. Unemployment Rate Remains the Same in June

Unlock Michigan Petition Initiative Approved by Senate Along Party Lines

The Unlock Michigan petition initiative is headed to the House after the Senate Thursday approved the measure, which seeks to repeal the 1945 emergency powers law Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relied on during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vote was along strict party lines, 20-15, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats present voting no.

Under the petition, the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945 – the law used by Gov. Whitmer to keep Michigan under a state of emergency last year during the height of the pandemic – would be repealed. While the law was ruled unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court last October, proponents of the measure want it repealed from law entirely.

The initiative petition now goes to the House. It is not yet clear when it will vote on the issue.

Democratic senators spoke against the initiative, with Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) questioning why the Legislature would seek to hobble their own governor’s state of emergency powers.

“This is about our ability to react to pandemics and disasters in the future … This is not a vote I’m willing to take on behalf of the people who sent me here, to protect our democracy, and create a better, healthier future for them and their families,” she said.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) also charged that the move was rooted in sexism, noting, “I don’t think it’s happenstance that we’re voting to strip the second woman to hold Michigan’s top job of the power granted to her by Michigan law.”

Others speaking against Unlock included Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) (editor’s note: an earlier News Update had the incorrect hometown for McMorrow).

“As we stand here at this very moment, with very few public health orders left, the actions we take today will not amount to unlocking anything,” Hertel said. “The reason we stand here today with such a positive outlook on the horizon for Michigan is because the people of Michigan did the right thing. … The people of Michigan unlocked Michigan.”

Speaking in favor of the move were Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) and Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake). Barrett emphasized the petition derived from the will of the people. Further, he pointed to the fact the law has already been repealed by the Supreme Court, making any arguments for or against it unimportant.

“You want to talk about issues that are moot and no longer important? A number of my colleagues on the other side spoke in opposition to this and said they were going to vote no on this initiative today for a law that has already determined to be unconstitutional by our Supreme Court,” Barrett said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), also speaking in favor of the petition, said in remarks of his own the measure “doesn’t take power away, it just reassesses where power belongs.”

Should the petition pass in the House as well, the repeal would take effect 91 days after the Legislature adjourns sine die in December, as Senate Democrats denied the measure immediate effect.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Whitmer used both the Emergency Management Act of 1976 and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945 to put Michigan under a state of emergency. The 1976 law specifies that emergencies last for 28 days unless the governor requests, and the Legislature agrees to, an extension. The 1945 law provides no role for the Legislature and allows a governor to continue an emergency as long as emergency conditions exist.

The Legislature refused to extend the emergency beyond April 30, so from May 1 until the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the 1945 law in October, Gov. Whitmer relied on the 1945 law. Following the court’s ruling, Gov. Whitmer turned to the Public Health Code and its empowerment of the health department director to issue public health orders to manage an epidemic. Those, however, were less sweeping than the state of emergency powers.

Following the vote, a flurry of organizations came out against approval of the initiative petition.

“Today, Senate Republicans put politics over public health by voting to repeal the emergency powers law that has helped keep millions of Michiganders safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mark Fisk, spokesperson of Keep Michigan Safe, said in a statement. “Because of this irresponsible proposal, future governors from both parties will be hamstrung in their ability to act quickly and decisively in times of crisis. Future generations will look back at this irresponsible decision with dismay and, sadly, future leaders will be handcuffed when they try to save lives during times of crises and public health emergencies.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes, too, slammed the move, saying in a statement that the measure would “hamstring the governor’s ability to protect Michiganders during a global pandemic.”

“In their desperation for power, Michigan Republicans are willing to put all of our lives on the line while we wait for them to decide how to react during a public health crisis when time is of the essence,” she said. “Stripping the emergency powers from the Office of the Governor is both short-sighted and dangerous.”

Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in west Michigan and Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Health Care, said the vote showed that “Republican legislators are more interested in scoring political points than protecting their own constituents with the guidance of scientific and medical facts.”

“As a physician who cares for patients from all walks of life and who sees the devastation of COVID-19 up close, I am deeply concerned that politicians are putting the lives of Michigan families at risk by removing our state’s ability to respond quickly to public health emergencies,” he said in a statement. “Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decisions to ensure people stayed at home and socially distanced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were based on science, and they saved lives. That’s why, unfortunately, I fear the Legislature’s short-sighted and ill-advised decision to remove public health emergency safeguards will endanger people.”

Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, however, applauded the Senate for its vote, with State Director Annie Patnaude saying in a statement that lawmakers “carried out the will of the people and honored our Constitutional system of checks and balances by voting to repeal the unconstitutional Emergency Powers of the Governor Act.”

“It was bad policy in 1945, and it’s still bad policy today,” she said. “Unilateral, one-size-fits-all government mandates don’t reflect the values of our state or respect the diversity of needs and opinions across Michigan. This is the first step to stopping top-down mandates that put faith in government control over belief in people.”


Craig Continues to Tease Announcement; Dixon Staffing Up

There have been increasing signs of the Republican gubernatorial field coming to life of late with former Detroit Police Chief James Craig saying late Wednesday he would have an important announcement next week and Tudor Dixon putting together the most experienced staff of any announced candidate so far.

Further highlighting the awakening campaign was the revelation, first reported in the Metro Times, that Craig filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy twice in 1997 and 1998 while a ranking officer at the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s not clear why he filed.

Additionally, the latest name out of the rumor mill is top Republican financier Betsy DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chair and leading school choice advocate who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Education under former President Donald Trump.

Appearing Wednesday night on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Craig said he would have “an important announcement for Michigan’s future” to announce on Carlson’s show next week.

However, Craig gave no further indication of what that announcement would be.

Craig’s movement toward a run for governor comes as one of the many announced candidates, Tudor Dixon, has started to show signs of assembling a credible, experienced campaign staff.

Working for Dixon, a resident of the Muskegon area who has spent most of her career in sales for steel companies but in the past two years has been a commentator for an online conservative network, are Fred Wszolek and Charlie Spies. Wszolek is a longtime veteran of Michigan Republican politics who most recently has helmed the Unlock Michigan initiative petition campaigns.

Spies is a longtime campaign attorney for Republican candidates across the country. Most recently, he performed that role for 2020 Republican U.S. Senate nominee John James. That’s a signal, some Republicans have said, that James has no intention of running for governor even though he has yet to take his name out of the race.

Rounding out the rest of Dixon’s team so far are Susie Wiles, who has been heading up Trump’s political operation and previously ran the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and James Blair, a Florida political consultant who briefly worked for DeSantis’s gubernatorial staff.

Up until the recent hires, there was little indication Dixon had any more strength than the fringe Republicans who have formed campaign committees.

“She’s going to be a real candidate. This is for real,” Wszolek said, citing her work ethic, ease in front of the camera, and ability to grasp and debate policy.

The official GOP field so far, based on candidate committee filings, is as follows:

  • Articia Bomer, the Republican nominee in the heavily Democratic 13th U.S. House District in 2020 and in the heavily Democratic 10th Michigan House District in 2018;
  • Austin Chenge, an Army veteran who is Black and has empathized with U.S. Capitol rioters, wants to cancel Black History Month and has dabbled in election conspiracy theories;
  • Ryan Kelley, an Allendale Township planning commissioner who participated in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol;
  • Ralph Rebrandt, a pastor from Oakland County;
  • Bob Scott, whose campaign refers to COVID-19 as a “virus” in scare quotes and discourages anyone from getting the vaccine; and
  • Garrett Soldano, who helped start a group protesting Ms. Whitmer’s orders during the pandemic.

The DeVos chatter appears to be just that.

Asked if DeVos is considering running, longtime DeVos aide Greg McNeilly said, “I think everyone who cares about this state is looking at the failure of the current administration and saying, ‘I could do better.’ And I mean everyone.”

Asked again if DeVos is considering running, McNeilly did not say.

Wszolek said he did not expect DeVos to run.

A DeVos bid would have echoes of the 2006 contest between DeVos’ husband, Dick, and then-Governor Jennifer Granholm, who was seeking a second term. Granholm won in a rout after DeVos spent more than $30 million of his family’s fortune amid a huge year for Democrats nationally.

DeVos would have limitless resources and the support of many in the Republican establishment but also would carry the baggage of having served as Trump’s education secretary, which earned her national enmity of Democrats. She might also have some problems with Trump loyalists after she resigned following Trump’s actions during the riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol when Congress was meeting to certify his defeat to President Joe Biden.


K-12 Budget Signed, Praised As ‘Transformational Investment’

Educators and advocates shared their praise Tuesday as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the K-12 budget for the next fiscal year, a budget touted as providing key investments in per-pupil funding and supports for students in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

The more than $17 billion in HB 4411, now Public Act 48 of 2021, was agreed upon by the Legislature last month with other budget items left open for continued discussions.

At the bill signing Tuesday, Gov. Whitmer thanked lawmakers and called the budget a team effort.

“A team effort that is going to benefit millions of Michigan kids and their families and their teachers. … This is a really good day,” she said at East Kentwood High School.

Under the budget, all schools at or below the target foundation allowance would be at $8,700 per pupil under the K-12 budget proposal. In total, $680 million would be used to increase the minimum and target foundation allowances with $3 million to provide $171 per pupil for out-of-formula districts. $40 million would be provided to the hold harmless districts.

The Great Start Readiness Program, which provides pre-school for children in the state, would also see a big boost under the proposal.

The bill increases funding by $168.5 million for a total of $418.5 million. The funding would increase the allocation per child for a full day from $7,250 to $8,700 for a full-day program and from $3,625 to $4,350 for a part-day program.

Gov. Whitmer said while the budget closes the gap in the per-pupil funding, it does not mean equity. She said there is more work to be done in that space.

“We recognize that funding should increase with student need, and I’m proud that we are taking steps toward the weighted foundation formula in this budget too,” she said. “It’s a historic milestone.”

On the Great Start Readiness Program, Gov. Whitmer said access to preschool programs helps children and their parents who want to get back to work.

“Every parent needs a safe place for their child while they work,” she said. “We’re committed to supporting quality affordable options for all parents and that’s what GSRP is, it’s a great start.”

Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), who attended the bill signing, noted the Legislature has been particularly focused on closing the funding gap during the last few budget cycles.

“On top of providing additional resources that will help teachers in the classroom and help students get back on track as we work to emerge from the pandemic, this bipartisan budget would increase per-pupil funding and ensure every school district across Michigan will receive the same amount in minimum per-pupil foundation allowance funding from the state,” he said in a statement. “I’m happy we’ve finally been able to reach this milestone that levels the playing field for all Michigan students.”

Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit) agreed, saying in a statement lawmakers have been working toward closing that gap for decades.

“With a budget surplus, federal support, and the hard work of dedicated policymakers, we’ve finally reached that goal,” Tate, minority vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “Coupled with the increase in Great Start funding, this K-12 budget is a historic, transformational investment in Michigan’s children that will have a positive impact for years to come.”

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) also praised the budget in a statement issued by Gov. Whitmer’s team.

“This is a historic step – nearly three decades in the making – benefitting our students and schools at a time they need help the most,” he said. “After the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, our kids need unprecedented support to catch up on lost learning and return to normalcy. This measure provides that support for kids no matter where they live or go to school.”

Intermediate school districts would also receive 104 percent of their 2020-21 funding under the proposal and an increase for general operations support. The budget would increase funding for operations by $2.8 million for a total of $71.9 million.

The bill contains a $285 million increase for the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System as well as adding $140 million into the MPSERS Retirement Obligation Reform Reserve Fund.

Another $240 million would be used for districts with the greatest need for psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nurses. Staff hired would be fully funded during the first year, 66% funded or the second and 33% for the third.

At-risk pupil supports would also see an increase. Another $2.5 million, for a total of $524.5 million, would go to schools and could also be used for security, coaching models, support staff, or professional development.

Funding would also be provided for benchmark assessments for K-8 pupils to be given at the beginning and end of the school year. The Department of Education would have to approve four to six providers of the assessment.

The budget would also fund school safety grants at $10 million, isolated districts at $7.3 million (a $342,700 increase), court-placed pupils at $8.4 million (a $1.4 million increase), $6 million General Fund for attendance recovery, partnership model districts at $6.1 million and provide $1 million for reimbursements for nonpublic schools.

Another $17 million would be put into school mental health supports for a total of $53.9 million ($1.3 million General Fund). Payments to intermediate school districts would increase from $460,700 to $575,000.

Early literacy coaches would see $31.5 million, the same as current year. Special education would see a $49.4 million with total estimated expenditures at $1.6 billion. Another $30 million, for a total of $90.2 million, would go toward reimbursing an estimated 3 percent of total approved special education costs.

Another $1.5 million would go toward a task force to develop a comprehensive plan to attract, prepare and retain qualified personnel for children with disabilities.

An additional new program would provide $7.5 million for grants to cover eligible career education planning districts for a skilled trades initiative.

Other new items include $1.5 million for Project SEARCH to help students with disabilities find and maintain competitive employment, $3.8 million for the State Alliance of Michigan YMCAs for competitive grants to districts for the Youth in Government program.

Educators and advocates have also almost universally praised the spending plan signed Tuesday.

“By signing this historic budget, Gov. Whitmer has once again proven herself a strong advocate for Michigan’s public schools,” David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan, said in a statement. “This is what happens when our elected officials listen to educators, make the well-being of our students a priority, and work in a bipartisan manner. For too long, our public schools have suffered from underfunding and an unacceptable gap between the highest- and lowest-funded schools, and this budget will go a long way toward righting those wrongs.”


Senate OKs $1.6B in Bridge Spending Amid Questions

More than $1.6 billion in federal aid was approved by the Senate Thursday for bridge and rail infrastructure purposes, among other transportation-focused issues, which caused some unrest between Democrats and Republicans due to the rules around use of these funds.

The bill, SB 529, passed 23-12 with some Democratic lawmakers crossing the aisle to vote in favor of the supplemental.

Under the legislation, $1.625 billion in federal funding from the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery fund would be provided to the Department of Transportation to address bridge and rail grade separation issues and to offset lost revenue for county road commissions, cities, and villages.

Of this amount, $1.3 billion would go toward bridge programs, $126 million would go for rail grade separation efforts, $125.8 million would go toward county road commission bridge funding and the remaining $70.1 million would go to cities and villages for bridge funding.

Issue arose, however, as the use of this fund’s monies is limited to only water, sewer or broadband infrastructure under the interim rule posted to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s website.

Some states, however, have found a loophole around this very narrow allotment of projects through a clause within the rule which does allow for funds to be used to provide government services to the extent that a state has experienced a revenue loss due to the pandemic. Under this umbrella, SB 529 considers funding for road, bridge, and rail infrastructure projects to be included.

Should the federal government not agree, however, the money provided to Michigan could be subject to recoupment. The bill even acknowledges this, reading that “at this time, it is not known if some or all of the appropriations in part 1 would meet the accepted uses listed in Sec. 9901(a).”

In an attempt to remedy this, Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) attempted to introduce an amendment that would bar the Legislature from using the funds unless they knew for certain the money was being utilized appropriately under federal stipulations. It was not adopted.

Following session, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) seemed adamant the funds were being used within their mandated bounds, saying: “I’m not going to play ‘Mother May I’ with the federal government – other states have already won that argument, and we’ll do the same.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), though, was not as optimistic.

He said the amendment Chang offered was a one line “contingency provision” which would have allowed for Democratic lawmakers to comfortably support the bill while allowing for the opportunity to reverse a spending course should projects the state hoped to tackle be unallowable under federal rules.

“Assuming this is allowed under federal rule, then we would have supported it, but we have a pretty good understanding that it’s not,” Ananich said.

Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) also knocked Shirkey’s attitude over use of the money, saying that simply because other states are willing to try and circumvent federal stipulations, “that’s not something that we’re going to endorse … that’s a bad idea.”

Republicans, however, are already championing the spending as much needed and portraying its use as inevitable.

“We owe it to the people of Michigan to wisely use our state’s federal recovery funds to make long-term investments that improve their lives,” Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) said in a statement. “This transportation infrastructure funding would fix hundreds of aging bridges throughout Michigan — including more than 20 in Monroe and Lenawee counties. If finalized, this plan would be a historic commitment to improve the safety of our roads for families, workers, and tourists.”

Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), in a statement, called the funding effort historic and said that it was needed to “make long-term and transformational changes that will benefit the people of Michigan for decades — and that is exactly what this proposal would do.”

“Our roads and bridges are critical to our economy and way of life,” he said. “Investing this one-time funding in fixing our worst bridges would dramatically improve safety on our roads and provide much-needed relief to local communities to fix their local roads.”

Non-elected officials, too, praised SB 529’s passage.

Dan Gilmartin, Michigan Municipal League CEO and executive director, said that the amount of money needed to repair and replace the state’s bridges “far exceeds the financial ability of Michigan’s local road agencies” which was why this bill was so sorely needed.

“This is a strong start to the kind of bold investment our communities need. We look forward to partnering on similar strategic proposals for water infrastructure, housing, community, and economic development, and public health and safety in a comprehensive and coordinated way to amplify our prosperity now and into the future,” he said in a statement. “The Senate’s action today represents a key first step in catalyzing the impact of available resources. We encourage the Legislature and the governor to continue to work together to fully realize Michigan’s enormous capacity to ensure the health and wealth of its people.”


Unemployment Rate Remains the Same in June

Michigan’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate in June remained 5%, the same as the month prior, the Department of Technology, Management and Budget said on Wednesday.

Employment increased slightly by 9,000 during the month with the workforce rising by the same number. The number of unemployed remained the same.

“Michigan’s labor market indicators were little changed in June,” Wayne Rourke, associate director of the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, said in a statement. “The Michigan unemployment rate has been near 5% for five consecutive months. Payroll job counts in June were similar to March levels.”

The national jobless rate edged up by a tenth of a percentage point in June to 5.9%. While unemployment rates were significantly elevated a year ago due to the pandemic, since last year, the U.S. rate decreased by 5.2% and Michigan’s rate fell by 9.1%.

Michigan’s workforce increased for the second consecutive month in June and has increased by 19,000 since April, a release from the state said.

The Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate remained unchanged in June at 4.4%. Employment advanced by 7,000, while unemployment exhibited no change during the month, resulting in a minor monthly labor force increase of 7,000.

During the past year, the Detroit metro area jobless rate declined sharply by 14.3% points, reflecting recalls of workers to jobs following pandemic-related layoffs. Employment rose by 229,000 and total unemployment plunged by 304,000, resulting in a net workforce decrease of 75,000 since June 2020.

While the leisure and hospitality sector registered the highest percentage job rebound in Michigan since June 2020, it has still been hit hard and is still 93,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels.