Print Friendly and PDF

Mar. 18 | This Week in Government: Gas Tax Suspension Bill Heads to Whitmer; Senate Passes Trio of Election Bills; Community College Leaders Urge Expanded Job Training

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. Gas Tax Suspension Bill Headed to Whitmer, Likely Veto
  2. House OKs Increased Penalties for Assaulting Health Care Workers
  3. Senate Passes Trio of Election Bills Along Party Lines
  4. Community College Leaders Urge Expanding Job Training Program
  5. Carra Ends Run for Congress After Trump Endorsement Switch

Gas Tax Suspension Bill Headed to Whitmer, Likely Veto

A proposed suspension of Michigan’s gas and diesel fuel tax is headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk following a Senate vote Tuesday along party lines, setting the table for a likely veto.

Passing by a 24-14 vote was HB 5570 which intends to pause the 27.2 cents per gallon tax from April 1, 2022, through September 30, 2022. However, because the measure failed to get the two-thirds supermajority needed for immediate effect, even if Ms. Whitmer signed it, it would not take effect until the expiration of 90 days following the sine die of adjournment of the Legislature, meaning likely sometime in March 2023.

Two Democrats voted with all 22 Republicans in favor of the proposal: Sen. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo and Sen. Dayna Polehanki of Livonia.

Following session, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) told reporters he would hope the governor signs the bill. He added he would also like to “drive a stake in the heart of the sales tax on gas” and that he looked forward to talking with legislative leadership and the administration about that possibility.

“I’m just following the governor’s lead. … She asked the feds to do the same thing, we can’t have any control over that,” Mr. Shirkey said of the proposed gas tax suspension. “If it’s important enough to ask the feds to do it, it must be important enough to do here, and we have complete control of doing that. That’s why we made that move.”

When asked about the failure to provide immediate effect on the bill, he said that means immediate relief will not be able to be provided to drivers.

Mr. Shirkey said he believes eliminating the sales tax on motor fuel is the next logical move. To this, he was asked how a permanent elimination of the sales tax on motor fuel would be addressed when it comes to monies that are placed in the School Aid Fund.

“We’ve got a multibillion-dollar surplus in the School Aid Fund,” Mr. Shirkey said. “Based on my math, the part of the sales tax that goes to the School Aid Fund, we have enough in surplus to fund that for multiple years. I think it would give us plenty of time to determine if it needs to be backfilled and the proper and right way to do so.”

When asked if it was fiscally responsible to do a sales tax elimination on motor fuel and the $2.5 billion tax cut bill the Legislature has been pushing, he said yes.

“We can absolutely do both together. It’s just a matter of will,” Mr. Shirkey said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) told reporters after the vote he has had conversations with the administration and Mr. Shirkey on the idea of suspending the 6 percent sales tax from fuel. He said he would prefer to go this route rather than the Republicans’ proposal, which he said would require a significant backfill in the budget for road projects.

“I think it’s a much more fiscally responsible way,” Mr. Ananich said of a sales tax suspension. “It also solves the problem. … We don’t have to backfill anything.”

The House Fiscal Agency estimated the cost of the proposed gas tax suspension at $725 million while the Senate Fiscal Agency estimate was $750 million, which if not replaced through General Fund could have a significant impact on road projects statewide.

“I want to make sure that we have our roads being fixed because they’re crumbling around us,” Mr. Ananich said. “I think we can keep our schools, educating our children, we can make our roads improved and we can also give people relief.”

Mr. Ananich said based on revenue projections the sales tax from fuel has far exceeded expectations. He said depending on the price of gas, the relief would fluctuate under his proposal, although his hope would be to see a drop in prices.

Ms. Whitmer has voiced support for a suspension of the federal fuel tax instead of the state fuel tax, with her administration stating a federal tax suspension would not lead to potential impacts on road work.

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said the legislative proposal would not provide any relief until next year at the earliest even if it were signed.

“Governor Whitmer is ready to take action to immediately lower costs and put more money back in people’s pockets,” Mr. Leddy said. “Michiganders can’t wait until next year. They need relief now. That’s why Governor Whitmer worked to secure $400 refund checks for drivers, which are hitting mailboxes and bank accounts months ahead of time. Governor Whitmer is ready to bring together Republicans and Democrats to negotiate a bill that saves Michiganders money, just as she has done for the past 780 bipartisan bills.”

The debate over fuel taxes has come following the recent spike in gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has led to significant economic sanctions by western nations and concerns over oil supplies given that Russia provides more than 10 percent of global crude supplies.

Prior to the final vote on the bill, Democrats put forth multiple amendments that each failed in votes along party lines.

Amendments that failed included tie-barring passage of HB 5570 to changes to the state’s no-fault auto insurance medical provider rates that were lowered when that law went into effect last year, changes to drugmaker lawsuit laws, changes to the state road funding formula to provide more to urban counties, strengthening price gouging statute and providing $250 checks to families for fuel tax relief.

During the floor debate prior to the vote, Democrats pointed to large profits from major oil companies and compared that to struggling families seeing rising gas prices.

“Michiganders deserve real solutions that provide real relief at the pump and good roads,” Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said. “This bill would … drastically move us backwards on a bridge to nowhere.”

Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) called the proposal political posturing that does not guarantee relief at the gas pump. She added with poor road conditions the damages people have to their vehicles would far exceed whatever residents would receive through the bill.

“Sometimes I wonder if the folks who propose these things are actually driving on the same roads that the rest of us are, or if you already have those hovercrafts that don’t seem to exist yet,” Ms. Geiss said.

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said he believed Democrats needed “political cover” for exploding gas prices before proceeding to blame the rise on prices on the energy policies of President Joe Biden. He compared the price of gas from the day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine while also pointing Mr. Biden’s rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Mr. Runestad drew an objection from Democrats, demanding he stick to the topic of the bill, when he began referencing an instance of Mr. Biden speaking to a woman at an event regarding the elimination of fossil fuels, during which he made a mocking imitation of the president’s voice.

He was able to continue but was subjected to a second objection from Democrats when he continued speaking about the president’s energy policy. To this, the senator said it was difficult to speak to the bill without mentioning what he said he believed was the reason behind rising gas prices.

“So now we are here working on behalf of the working class and middle class in Michigan to reduce gas tax,” Mr. Runestad said. “That is due to, again, these massive increases caused by the Biden administration.”

Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said during a joint committee hearing prior to session lawmakers were told of a lack of profitability in the sale of gas at gas stations. He added the amendments put forth by Democrats were unrelated to the issue at hand.

“Somehow, we need to overcomplicate this bill. It’s a gimmick,” Mr. McBroom said.

The average gas price in Michigan for regular unleaded gasoline was $4.23 per gallon as of Tuesday, AAA of Michigan said. This was up from $4.18 per gallon one week ago and $3.34 per gallon one month ago.


House OKs Increased Penalties for Assaulting Health Care Workers

An increase on penalties for those who assault a health care professional passed the House by a wide margin on Wednesday.

HB 5682, sponsored by Rep. Mike Mueller (R-Linden), passed the chamber in an 88-16 vote.

It would amend the Michigan Penal Code to create enhanced fines for simple assault, aggravated assault and assault with a deadly weapon if the victim is a health professional or medical volunteer who is performing his or her duties at the time of the crime.

The enhanced fines would be double the standard fines for the offenses, while terms of imprisonment would not change. However, the enhanced fines would not apply if the defendant were a patient who is receiving treatment from the victim. The bill also would require the operator of a health facility to post signs there describing the enhanced fines – which would up simple assault fines from the standard $500 to $1,000, aggravated assault fines from $1,000 to $2,000, and assault with a deadly weapon fines from $2,000 to $4,000 – under the bill.

Mr. Mueller’s bill was initially part of a two-bill package, though the second portion was dropped to simplify and streamline the matter according to the legislation’s sponsor.

Also passing the House Wednesday was HB 5586 in a 71-33 vote. The bill would authorize the State Administrative Board to accept from the city of Mount Pleasant for the consideration of $1 a 304-acre parcel of land previously conveyed to it through a 2010 law (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 23, 2022).


Senate Passes Trio of Election Bills Along Party Lines

Legislation allowing for poll challenger access to combined absent voter counting boards passed a divided Senate on Thursday.

The bill, SB 279, is intended to ensure sufficient challenger access to those combined absent voter counting boards that might cover multiple jurisdictions as well as potentially large jurisdictions.

The bill would also let challengers work in shifts on those boards as they might work for more than 24 hours. New challengers could come in after polls close, with the bill ensuring that there would not be more challengers than election workers.

There was no floor debate on the bill, which passed 22-16 along party lines.

Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) told reporters following the vote that it would afford poll challengers the same ability to work in shifts enjoyed by election workers.

“Sometimes counting takes a long time, and you can only do that for so long,” Ms. Johnson said. “So we realized that and made a law that those that work the elections can work in shifts, kind of like when my dad worked on the line for Chrysler. They’re going to be more alert, and have better outcomes when people haven’t worked for 18 hours straight.”

Also passed by votes of 22-16 along party lines was HB 4127 and HB 4128.

As passed, the two bills would require the Department of State to send mailers to voters that have placeholder birthdays 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 birthdate.

The secretary of state would also be required to send a return card to a city or township where a voter who has not voted since the November 2000 election could verify their current address information. The agency would further be responsible for sending a notice to applicable voters, and then cancel the registration of a voter who had not voted or engaged in voting-related activity after the second November general election after the date on the notice.

OTHER BUSINESS: Senators took several other votes Thursday, including a 22-16 vote along party lines on SB 758, a supplemental appropriations bill for the 2021-22 fiscal year. The bill as passed is a shell bill.

Passing unanimously as well as HB 5701 and HB 4880.

Under the first bill, the administrative authority of a school building to submit plans for approval to install a temporary door locking device or system; the second would expand mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse or neglect to include physical therapists and physical therapy assistants.

HB 4074 also passed the chamber in a 21-17 vote. The bill would encourage school districts to provide for a course of instruction on free enterprise and entrepreneurship for high school social studies students. Its effective date would be the 2023-24 school year to allow time for implementation.


Community College Leaders Urge Expanding Job Training Program

An effort to extend and expand a program for community colleges to train workers was heard by a Senate panel Thursday with a generally positive response.

Members of the Senate Economic and Small Business Development Committee took testimony only on a bill package that would broaden eligibility for the program.

Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Township) said SB 739 would lower the wage threshold under the New Jobs Training Program from 175 percent of the state minimum wage for a new job within the program to 125 percent of the state minimum wage.

“This training is company-specific and assists in filling the skills gap by training employees to fit their employer’s needs,” Ms. LaSata said.

Under the bill, it would also increase the aggregate outstanding obligation of all bonds issued under New Jobs Training Program agreements entered by community college districts from $50 million per calendar year to $75 million.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) asked Ms. LaSata about the proposed minimum wage threshold decrease under the bill, pointing to increased wages in areas such as retailers like Target during the coronavirus pandemic. She asked whether the changes would still set people up for long-term careers.

Ms. LaSata said rural businesses would be fine with paying higher wages, but “the fact is they can’t.” She said she believed the changes in the bill would provide increased access to the program to businesses in rural communities.

Two other bills, SB 740 and SB 741, would extend sunsets within the New Jobs Training Program from December 31, 2023, to December 31, 2028.

Under SB 740, the act would expect the sunset on a community college district’s authority to authorize, issue or sell New Jobs Training Program bonds. For SB 741, the sunset would be extended on a community college district’s authority for entering New Jobs Training Program agreements.

Also before the committee was HB 5527, which would double the limit of the aggregate outstanding obligation of all New Jobs Training Program agreements from $50 million to $100 million per calendar year.

Ms. LaSata said she was willing to work out differences between the House and Senate legislation.

Community college officials from there all testified in support of the bills.

Michigan Community College Association President Brandy Johnson said 280 employers have used the program to date at various institutions, with an estimated 31,971 new jobs being created through agreements between employers and community colleges.

Jackson College President Dan Phelan said the program allows companies and colleges to work together and map out long-term goals and noted that his institution is “hitting that $50 million cap all the time.”

He agreed with other supporters of the bills that an expansion of the aggregate outstanding obligation would go a long way in improving access to the program, adding the demand is high. The demand has created a waiting list for employers wanting to take advantage of the program, he added.

The New Jobs Training Program was authorized in 2008, allowing community college districts to operate programs through which the districts enter into training agreements with Michigan employers to train and educate new employees. Under the program, the new employees’ income tax withholding can be diverted directly to the community colleges instead of the state treasury.


Carra Ends Run for Congress After Trump Endorsement Switch

Former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga came down to redistricting, Rep. Steve Carra told reporters Tuesday, despite the fact Mr. Trump had previously endorsed Mr. Carra in the contest and district lines have been solidified since January.

This endorsement led to Mr. Carra (R-Three Rivers) dropping out of the race and supporting Mr. Huizenga (R-Zeeland) for the seat. Redrawn district lines were adopted by the Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission on December 28.

“Prior to redistricting, I made the decision to replace Congressman Fred Upton and President Trump agreed when he endorsed me, but the district lines have changed,” Mr. Carra said during a press conference announcing the move. “In order to ensure the vote isn’t split, I have decided to seek reelection as state representative for St. Joseph and Cass counties.”

Mr. Carra first announced his campaign in March 2021 with the goal of unseating U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Saint Joseph) after Mr. Upton voted to impeach Mr. Trump. While it was unclear which district Mr. Upton would run in, it was clear throughout the entire redistricting process Mr. Carra wanted to take his place. This earned Mr. Carra his endorsement from Mr. Trump.

The U.S. House Maps finalized late last year placed Mr. Upton’s St. Joseph and Mr. Huizenga’s Zeeland in the same district, setting up one of the most anticipated August primaries in the state. Mr. Carra was the outsider in the incumbent-versus-incumbent race and – until Friday’s announcement – was Mr. Trump’s top choice for the 4th District despite his home of Three Rivers residing in the 5th District.

Mr. Carra said Tuesday that his residency ultimately led to Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Huizenga. However, candidates for U.S. House do not need to live in the district they are running for, and Mr. Trump’s endorsement comes nearly three months after Michigan’s maps were finalized, begging the question of why the former president waited to change his endorsement.

Interestingly, Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock was on a phone call with Mr. Trump and one of his advisors to discuss his choice for the 4th District. Mr. Carra, though the subject of the call, was not present and Ms. Maddock relayed the information of the endorsement change after.

When asked by a reporter if he was okay with the MIGOP co-chair playing a significant role in the president deciding whom to endorse in Michigan races, Mr. Carra said he thought it was important the Republican Party have strong leadership.

“She advocated for me back in September last year. She told President Trump there are several of us who are in the race, and she said, ‘Steve Carra is your guy. You should go with Steve Carra’,” he said. “‘If you were to make a decision today’ – because President Trump was asking what her recommendation was – she said I ‘was the one who made the most sense,’ but she did also caution there was redistricting and (he) may want to see how things happen.”

Gongwer News Service reached out to MIGOP spokesperson Gustavo Portela seeking a comment from Ms. Maddock on her possible influence swaying Trump to endorse certain candidates in Michigan.

“Meshawn Maddock is a steadfast and unwavering supporter of President Trump, as such they talk often, and he asks for updates on what’s happening in the state. The contents on their conversation are private and between the president and Meshawn Maddock,” Mr. Portela said.

Ms. Maddock also made headlines Monday by endorsing secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo and attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno weeks ahead of the endorsement convention set for April 23 (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 14, 2022).

Mr. Carra is now running for the redrawn 36th House District where he will face off against Republican Congressional 6th District Chair Scott McGraw and former competitor Jack Coleman.

Mr. McGraw and Mr. Coleman both said Mr. Carra’s announcement will not steer them away from the 36th, with the former saying he was surprised Mr. Carra dropped out given Mr. Carra’s mission to upset Mr. Upton. Mr. McGraw said he was all in and believes he could enact real change in the state House.

“I think I’d be a better representative than Steve,” Mr. McGraw said. “I think it’s hard to lead in the state house when you’re voting no on everything. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to legislate better and I think I’m the person to do it.”

During the press conference, Mr. Carra mentioned he voted no more than anybody else.

“I’m known as the most conservative. There’s seriously a problem here in Lansing,” he said. “Why would I vote no more than every single Democrat when we have a Republican majority? If I’m the most conservative, we have a major problem.”

As for Mr. Coleman, he also thought Mr. Carra would not come out victorious in the 36th House District race, saying of Mr. Carra’s pivot back to running for state government: “I think it’s going to show the voters both how emotional and indecisive that he is.”

Mr. Carra raised more than $358,000 for his congressional campaign. When asked what would happen with the money, he said he and his advisors are still figuring out the details and legalities of the funding.

“I’m going to continue to drain the swamp here in Lansing and when the time is right, Washington will be seeing me someday,” he said.