March 26 | This Week in Government: Biz Groups Oppose Oral Chemo Parity, Insulin Cap Bills; Hertel Remains DHHS DirectorMarch 26, 2021
- Biz Groups Reiterate Opposition to Oral Chemo Parity, Insulin Cap Bills
- Hertel Remains DHHS Director as GOP Short of Votes to Reject
- Senate GOP Elections Package Unveiled, Dems Quickly Oppose
- Wayne County Downriver Wastewater Project Nets $18M From EPA
- Redistricting Commission to Seek 3-Month Delay on Map OK
With the House prescription drug package now over to the Senate, a coalition of business groups and health plans on Thursday again declared their opposition to two key bills that passed with wide margins this week.
The Michigan Association of Health Plans, Economic Alliance for Michigan, Small Business Association of Michigan, Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Detroit Regional Chamber, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, and General Motors are opposed to HB 4346 and HB 4354.
One would cap insulin co-pays at $50 per prescription and the other would see to create cost parity between oral chemotherapy and traditional chemotherapy treatments.
These groups said the bills would simply provide for cost-shifting to employers while not actually lowering the cost of those treatments. Many small businesses may not be able to provide health care for employees because of the cost shift, they said.
House members have panned those arguments. On Wednesday, as the bills passed, Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette) said another state with a similar bill saw nearly nonexistent premium increases. House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) said those arguments were simply false and he would be surprised if some of the groups in opposition supported the legislation.
Now that the bills are in the Senate, it is unclear what kind of reception they may have. Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington), chair of the committee that will review the bills, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Wendy Block, Michigan Chamber of Commerce vice president of business advocacy and member engagement, said the bills won’t cut the costs of prescription drugs, just force Michigan businesses and other entities to pay more.
“These bills really don’t do anything to cut costs, they just simply shift costs,” she said. “And however well-intentioned, the bills amount to government price controls and unwanted governmental interference in private contracts. They try to cap out-of-pocket costs for consumers, but really what that means is that those costs get shifted around or elsewhere. And it gets shifted to health insurance, which ultimately gets pushed down in the form of higher premiums to employers, and employers who cannot absorb the cost of those premium increases, turn around and increase co-pays coinsurance and deductibles for employees.”
Bret Jackson, president of the Economic Alliance for Michigan, a group of businesses and unions working to control health care costs, said these bills run contrary to earlier efforts by the Legislature to control insurance premiums.
“When the Legislature has increased mandates in the past, we’ve seen health insurance rates go up,” he said. “It just seems contrary for a Legislature that recently took great steps to control the cost of insurance premiums for auto insurance to now decide to increase costly government mandates on small businesses who pay health insurance premiums for their employees.”
Matt Patton, Detroit Regional Chamber government relations director, said cost shifts have consequences.
“This package squeezes one side of the balloon, the cost. It looks like the balloon is getting smaller, but the cost really (goes) to the other side, the job providers,” he said. “So, there’s no reduction in costs, just the change in who’s paying. So, business will be forced to pay.”
“Some folks, a few, may see lower out-of-pocket costs, but everyone will end up paying higher insurance premiums,” he said.
Hertel Remains DHHS Director as GOP Short of Votes to Reject
Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel survived a Republican push Tuesday to reject her appointment and will remain in her role overseeing the state’s largest department.
Coming on the 60th and final day the Senate had to decide to let her appointment stand or be rejected, Hertel’s confirmation was a victory for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration.
There were not enough votes to approve her. However, the Senate under the state Constitution can only reject appointments, which did not occur. Hertel as a result remains director.
The vote on approving Hertel’s appointment was 18-16, with four Republicans siding with all Democrats, save Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, who is Hertel’s husband and recused himself.
Siding with the Democrats in support of Hertel’s appointment were Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).
Approval of the appointment was not necessary for Hertel to keep her post, but it appeared enough Republican pressure was applied by opponents to grant an opportunity to have their say. A parliamentary point of order was called for following the vote by Democrats. It clarified that the Senate only has the power under the Michigan Constitution to reject appointments, not approve them.
Nixing Hertel’s appointment would have been among the sharpest rebukes of the Whitmer administration during the Republican-controlled Legislature’s months-long fight against the governor over her coronavirus pandemic response.
A central complaint by Republicans opposed to the appointment was over her first of two confirmation hearings before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee. While under questioning, she was unable to list any specifics mistakes the administration made during the pandemic on policy, what could have been done differently and what metrics are driving departmental decisions. During her second confirmation hearing, she sought to address those concerns in greater detail.
This, along with references to the administration’s nursing home policy during the pandemic and what Republicans said was a lack of change in department direction, were the other main points of contention cited during floor debate prior to Tuesday’s vote.
Republicans admitted Hertel was qualified, yet their concerns outweighed that consideration.
“Michigan is the only state in the country not using a matrix to inform its policy and restrictions and closures of restaurants and other businesses,” Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) said. “Over 3,000 restaurants in our state have permanently closed, and yet there is zero transparency. The people of Michigan deserve to know how decisions are being made.”
Johnson said the most recent data shows a disconnect, with Michigan ranking 10th nationally in total COVID-19 deaths and ranked among the worst in unemployment.
“I will not vote to confirm a director for our state’s health department who cannot admit that mistakes were made,” Johnson said. “Nor will I vote to confirm my health director who continues to obscure the data her department is using to make very important decisions.”
Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said he did not believe the department under Hertel would make any significant changes in policy related to the pandemic response.
“Absolutely nothing has indicated that anything is going to be new under this new director, the same one-size-fits-all, strong-armed unconstitutional approach will continue,” Runestad said. “The orders given by the Department of Health and Human Services have closed our restaurants, stores, disrupted schools, changed family’s lives forever, and without demonstrating the science for the decisions.”
Runestad said he found concerning Hertel’s responses in committee on mistakes made by DHHS. He pointed to what he called restrictions early on during the pandemic seemed to make no sense.
Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) said as of Tuesday the state has been under 378 days of “emergency rule.”
Most concerning to Barrett were answers to committee questioning by Hertel regarding the use of department power and for how long that might continue.
“She could not articulate any limit to how long she could hold that authority,” Barrett said. “She admitted that she believes that it could last forever.”
Barrett then pointed to the arrest last week of a Holland restaurant owner over repeated violations of DHHS pandemic orders over a period of months that also resulted in her food license being revoked.
“We have to stand up for those that have been harmed by these orders, people like Marlena Pavlos-Hackney … who is Michigan’s first political prisoner of the pandemic,” Barrett said, before issuing an appeal to the governor to put him in jail in Pavlos-Hackney’s place. “You can send your secret police to get me if you want. You don’t even need to snatch me up before dawn. Come in the broad daylight. I just need a minute to pack my toothbrush.”
Pavlos-Hackney was reportedly released from jail later Tuesday. State police arrested her Friday after a bench warrant was issued by a judge. After breaking coronavirus orders for several months, including not requiring masks of staff or guests, Pavlos-Hackney lost her food license but continued to operate.
Hertel spoke about his recusal from the vote, calling what was about to take place “the hardest vote I will ever skip in this body.”
He said his wife was the most qualified person for the job and has earned bipartisan respect around Lansing. Hertel is a former Republican staffer and worked in the administration of former Governor Rick Snyder. After some time working in the private sector, she returned to government work by joining DHHS.
“I cannot ask this body to vote a specific way. It would be inappropriate for me to do so,” Hertel said. “What I will ask is that each of you search inside yourself and do what you believe is right.”
Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) said Hertel is a hard worker and she would hope the Legislature could take some of the weight off her shoulders by being able to do it jobs again.
“The Legislature, we don’t just need a seat at the table,” Theis said. “We need to be able to legislate again, to do our jobs again, and the authority to legislate is not vested with the director of health. It is vested with the Legislature. This is not personal. This is a recognition of what the proper authority of government is and what the proper balance of powers should be, and 378 days is way too long.”
Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), chair of the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, said the Senate learned information about Hertel during testimony before the committee.
“We learned that the director stands in lockstep with the Whitmer-Gordon era nursing home policies, business, and school shutdown orders and failures to properly engage the private sector to solve these challenges,” Nesbitt said. “The director believes unelected bureaucrats can continue to issue these orders for years without the approval of this body of the Legislature. And she opposes a regional approach.
“I do believe that the people in Michigan do deserve a fresh start at the Department of Health and Human Services,” Nesbitt added.
Shirkey in a statement following the vote said his hope is that Hertel continues to communicate with the Legislature to repair the damage he said has occurred between the body and the department caused by her predecessor.
“My vote in favor of Elizabeth Hertel’s appointment does not reflect agreement with her decisions as deputy director and now director of MDHHS, but rather my belief that her background and expertise make her qualified for the job,” Shirkey said. “In our conversations, I have made it clear to Elizabeth that I will continue to push for an end to the nonsensical loophole that allows the department director to control and harm the lives and livelihoods of Michiganders for months or even years on end.”
The state health director has authority under the Public Health Code to issue orders to protect public health during a pandemic. The law has not been challenged in court since DHHS began issuing orders under that law in October 2020.
COVID ORDERS BILL: The Senate along party lines passed a bill Tuesday that would ban the Department of Health and Human Services and local health departments from issuing emergency orders limiting the size of families at restaurant tables, at children’s athletic events, and in private homes.
A staffer for DHHS noted on Twitter that large families with minor children are exempt from the six-person limit for restaurant seating.
Senate GOP Elections Package Unveiled, Dems Quickly Oppose
Senate Republicans teed up a partisan battle Wednesday after introducing a sweeping bill package proposing significant changes to state election laws which they say would improve the overall process as Democrats quickly rebuked legislation as an effort to make it more difficult to vote.
Among the proposed changes in the package are increased security requirements for absentee ballot drop boxes, training requirements for poll challengers, allowing for the recording and public viewing of election audits, and banning the secretary of state from mass mailing absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters.
Republicans said all voters should have confidence in a free and fair election, while Michigan election officials, including Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson reiterated the 2020 election was fair and accurate.
The package was introduced as hundreds of bills containing similar proposals have been introduced in legislatures across the country by Republicans pushing for major election changes.
“Senate Republicans are committed to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said in a statement following introduction of the package.
The package was referred to the Senate Elections Committee, chaired by Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly).
“For our democratic system to work, we must ensure the people of Michigan have the ability and opportunity to exercise their right to vote and have confidence in the fairness and accuracy of elections,” Johnson said in a statement. “This legislation includes commonsense measures that will protect the integrity of our elections by safeguarding the right for people to vote and ensuring our elections are safe and secure.”
Democrats called the package an extension of the pushback by Republicans following the November 2020 elections in which former President Donald Trump and some of his supporters made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.
No evidence of this has been found and state election audits have found no widespread irregularities.
“No one should be fooled: this is nothing more than an extension of lies and deceit about the last election,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in a statement. “We cannot and should not make policy based on The Big Lie. Our elections are fair and safe and that has been the case under Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. The fact that Republicans didn’t win as many races as they wanted to does not justify their attempt to silence voters.”
Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) in a statement called the bills “an unconscionable resurrection of Jim Crow” that limits access to the ballot box and that several provisions disproportionately impact voters of color and the communities in which they live.
“That a political party in this country would turn to subverting even the most basic tenet of a democratic republic – the right to vote – is pathetic,” Geiss said. “Introducing bills that violate the right of people to vote and restricting their access to the ballot box is electoral violence and we must prevent this electoral terrorism at all costs.”
The proposal also includes a requirement that the Board of State Canvassers complete the canvass of all initiative petitions within 100 days of the petitions being submitted to the state (SB 280). If deemed sufficient, the petition must immediately be forwarded to the Legislature for consideration.
This proposed change stems from Republican complaints against the secretary of state for alleged delays in reviewing an initiative petition to repeal the 1945 law Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to keep Michigan under a state of emergency during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said many of the bills introduced Wednesday make it harder to vote, not easier.
“Rather than introducing bills based on disproven lies and copied from other states, lawmakers should be codifying what worked in 2020,” Benson said. “Michigan voters demonstrated they want our elections to be accessible in 2018 when they enshrined new voting rights in our state Constitution, and again in 2020 when millions exercised those new rights. Everything we do should be based on protecting the right to vote, and too many of these bills would do the opposite.”
Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, also the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, was even more blunt.
“This package of bills contains some of the most egregious voter suppression ideas Michigan has seen,” Swope said. “With nearly 30% of Michiganders not participating, we need to focus on expanding ballot access, not attempts to disenfranchise certain voters.”
Legislation to allow clerks in larger communities to preprocess – but not count – absentee ballots the Monday before Election Day was also included in SB 283. The change was temporarily allowed last year due to the expectation of high turnout and clerks said more time was needed for preprocessing.
One proposal would require the secretary of state to obtain information on any voters who may have cast improper votes in the previous November election and launch investigations into each possible improper vote.
Voters under the package would be required to present their state-issued photo identification when applying for an absentee ballot. Local governments would also be prohibited from providing prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes, and the secretary of state would be banned from providing reimbursement for such efforts.
A vote of the Legislature would be required to appropriate federal funds available to the state or a stage agency for election-related purposes.
A process for checking for dead voters and removing them from the Qualified Voter File is outlined in the package as is a move to preregister 16-year-olds to vote when getting their first driver’s licenses.
The bills introduced Wednesday focus on numerous Republican priorities, many of which were topics brought up during oversight hearings following the November 2020 elections.
Early voting times and procedures are spelled out under SB 300, requiring polls to be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the second Saturday before Election Day, with penalties for violations covered in SB 301.
Voter registration and maintain the Qualified Voter File figured into multiple bills.
The use and security of absentee voter drop boxes was a subject of multiple bills.
Under SB 273, the use of absentee ballot drop boxes would require approval by the secretary of state and county canvassing board and sets out video surveillance requirements. A chain of custody is set out under SB 278 for ballots collected from drop boxes. A 5 p.m. deadline the day before an election is set in SB 286 for dropping off ballots at a drop box.
Prepaid postage being provided by cities or townships for absentee voter ballot return envelopes would be prohibited under SB 287. The secretary of state would also be prohibited from reimbursing local governments for prepaid postage.
Several proposals for the training of poll workers, poll challengers, and precinct inspectors were included.
Poll challengers under SB 290 would be required to wear identification badges. SB 291 prescribes penalties for violations. Comprehensive training for all political parties for poll challengers would be established under SB 292 and SB 293 prescribes penalties for violations.
Under SB 295, training of precinct inspectors is required for regularly checking ballots issued and tabulated to ensure they balance. Rights of poll watchers and challengers are spelled out in SB 309 while the number of allowed poll challengers at absentee voter counting board locations is specified in SB 279.
Voters would be required to present their state-issued photo identification when applying for an absentee ballot under SB 285 and SB 303 required those without ID to receive a provisional ballot. Voters would have six days under SB 304 to verify their identity with their local clerk for their ballot to be tabulated.
Preregistration to vote would be allowed under SB 274 to those at least 16 years old.
A majority vote in both legislative chambers would be required under SB 289 for the state or any state agency to receive or be eligible for federal funds related to election-related purposes.
Several restrictions primarily targeting the secretary of state and additional responsibilities were also included.
A prohibition is created in SB 305 of the use of the name or likeness of an elected or appointed official in any communication that is paid for with public money that involves an election-related activity.
The Department of State in SB 306 would have to report which local clerks are not current on election training. Signature verification training for local clerks would be established and required under SB 308.
Under SB 310, the secretary of state would be prohibited from sending out mass solicitations to voters for absentee ballot applications.
The secretary of state would be required under SB 281 to get verification of voter information on residency as well as investigate potential instances of improper voting.
Reporting to the Legislature would be required in SB 284 by the Department of State on contracts entered into for election-related activities or services.
Under SB 294, local boards of elections would be required to appoint to the extent possible an equal number of election inspector from major political parties in all precincts.
Through SB 307, the full text of all ballot initiatives or proposed constitutional amendments would be required to be provided to individuals getting in-person or absentee ballots.
SB 311 would allow for the electronic return of absentee ballots by military voters using U.S. Department of Defense Common Access Cards.
Other subjects covered in the package include: the term length and size of county canvassing boards (SB 296), political party viewing of county canvassing (SB 297), certification deadlines (SB 298), reporting returns to local clerks (SB 299), and place of residency (SB 302).
Republican sponsors of bills in the package defended their work in statements, saying changes are necessary to restore the public’s faith in the elections process, which they said was shaken in 2020.
“This package is designed to make it easier for people to vote and ensure our elections are conducted fairly and honestly – so that citizens can trust that their votes are protected and that the results accurately reflect the will of the people,” Sen. Michael MacDonald (R-Macomb Township) said.
Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) said she had heard “firsthand accounts” that people’s faith in elections have been eroded and the bills introduced Wednesday would rectify just that.
Many Republican voters have said the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, though there has been no proof of any of those conspiracies.
“The reforms introduced today seek to make Michigan’s elections more secure, more accurate, and trustworthy, while at the same time streamlining participation in the election process,” she said.
Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), chair of the Senate Oversight Committee that held several lengthy and at times chaotic hearings following the November 2020 elections, agreed.
“I have been reassured by the resilience of our election system, but while the system’s safeguards held, real vulnerabilities do exist,” McBroom said. “To ensure the long-term health and viability of elections in our state, these issues must be resolved.”
Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Ted Goodman said in a statement that the bills proved that Republicans in Lansing are “committed to restoring the public’s confidence in our elections,” by eliminating “as many opportunities to commit fraud as possible while making sure every eligible Michigander can exercise their right to vote.”
The Michigan Democratic Party, however, begged to differ.
“Shirkey is using the same playbook as Republicans across the country to ensure the Big Lie plagues our democratic process for decades to come,” Michigan Democratic party spokesperson Rodericka Applewhaite said. “It’s time for Republicans in the Legislature to get to work and focus on helping Michigan’s working families instead of creating more barriers to voting.”
“Mike Shirkey and his merry band of voter suppression supporting idiots may have a majority of the Michigan Legislature, but their efforts don’t have the support of the majority of Michiganders,” Scott said.
Wayne County Downriver Wastewater Project Nets $18M From EPA
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday its award of an $18 million loan to support infrastructure work on wastewater systems managed by the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority, serving 13 communities in Wayne County.
The loan was made possible through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and is the first of its kind, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Wednesday during a livestreamed news conference featuring remarks from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), as well as local officials from the Downriver area.
Regan said the benefits of the project were clear, as the DUWA system is the second largest in the state, serving close to 350,000 residents in the Detroit metro and Downriver communities.
The project will upgrade system facilities, jumpstart biosolids handling – or organic wastewater solids that can be reused after proper treatment – to reduce the use of landfills, all the while lowering system operational costs by roughly $1.8 million per year. It also includes other critical repairs on an accelerated timeline that are estimated to save the utility $5 million.
“EPA is working hard to improve and upgrade our nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, while closing the water equity gap and addressing the climate crisis that disproportionately harms communities of color,” Regan said. “We’re committed to ensuring that all people, no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin, or the zip code that they live in have access to clean, safe, affordable water. For Downriver communities, EPA’s WIFIA loan means stronger public health and environmental protections, alongside significant cost savings for residents, including in small and disadvantaged cities where affordability is paramount.”
The contingent of Gov. Whitmer and members of Michigan’s Democratic congressional delegation each thanked the EPA for the loan and praised the administration President Joe Biden for making water quality, equity and affordability a top priority.
“We’re so thrilled that Michigan was selected as one of the early sites in this administration for investment under WIFIA,” Gov. Whitmer said. “This partnership between the EPA and the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority shows how investments in infrastructure can uplift working families and disadvantaged communities, create good-paying jobs, lower bills for working families and protect our environment. As with so many things, there’s no false choice to be had here. We can and we will do all of these things. The Biden administration and all of us here in Michigan have a shared enthusiasm for federal infrastructure investment, and the Build Back Better agenda.”
Gov. Whitmer added that Michigan is attempting do its part to tackle statewide water quality and infrastructure issues, noting that in her executive budget released last month, she proposed $290 million for the Michigan clean water plan which she said is aimed at repairing critical infrastructure and creating thousands of jobs.
Stabenow said the project at hand was exactly the type that Congress envisioned when it passed the act, adding that water infrastructure was about so much more than pipes and drains, it was about public health and safety.
“In 2019 alone, water systems in 12 Michigan counties including Wayne County discharged more than 3 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated water during the storms,” Stabenow said. “And, unfortunately, that’s enough dirty water to fill more than 4,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools, not that we would ever want to do that. That is a lot, a lot of wastewater. Preventing problems like that requires sustained investment, as we all know, in our wastewater infrastructure. So, this $18 million WIFIA loan will help the Downriver Utility Wastewater Authority makes necessary upgrades to operate smoothly and efficiently.”
Redistricting Commission to Seek 3-Month Delay on Map OK
The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission voted Thursday to ask the Michigan Supreme Court to approve a delay in the dates when it must take various actions to redraw the state’s political maps to Jan. 25, 2022, instead of the constitutionally required Nov. 1, 2021, date.
The body is seeking an extension of its deadline because of delays in critical 2020 census block data.
The commission on Thursday also voted to approve start times for a slew of public outreach meetings slated to begin in May, adopted a strategic plan to guide its work through the process, and gave approval to its outreach and communication director to change meeting dates and locations if last-minute complications should arise.
On the proposed extension, commissioners approved the second of two options presented by general counsel Julianne Pastula, who was tasked by a vote of the commission with petitioning the high court for an extension. Whether the Supreme Court actually can do so will be an interesting discussion. The constitutional language does give the court authority to “direct the secretary of state or the commission to perform their respective duties.”
The proposed schedule approved by commissioners Thursday is outlined in a memo sent to the body on Tuesday. Subscribers can view that document here.
Pastula’s proposal would have the commission continue its public outreach work from May until September, with the final census block and apportionment data released to the commission Sept. 30.
The commission would then have a Dec. 11 deadline to propose a redistricting plan to the Department of State, or about 72 days after receiving the data in the final week of September.
A date of Jan. 25, 2022, would be the proposed new deadline to adopt the final plan after a mandatory 45-day public comment period. The original deadline for adoption of a final plan would have been Nov. 1, 2021.
Adoption of the plan then would give the Bureau of Elections three months or 20 days from Jan. 25, 2022, (May 14, 2022) to update the state’s Qualified Voter File.
The filing deadline for the August primary would be moved from the current date of April 19, 2022, to May 14, 2022, giving candidates an additional 25 days.
The August primary election would remain Aug. 2, 2022, and the November general election would remain Nov. 8, 2022.
The other option that was rejected by the commission would have seen the deadline to propose the plan change to Nov. 30, a deadline of Jan. 14, 2022, to adopt a final plan, and four months (Jan. 14, 2022, through May 14, 2022) for the bureau to update the voter file. May 14, 2022, would have also been the new August filing deadline and the primary and general elections dates would have also remained the same.
Prior to the vote, commissioner Anthony Eid said he was comfortable with the proposal but wondered if three months was enough time for the bureau to update the voter file.
Mike Brady, chief legal director with the Department of State, said the department reviewed both timelines. While three months is a significantly shorter window than its typical six-month period to update the voter file, Brady said the department will do everything possible to make it work and that staff was ready to rise to the challenge.
Pastula also noted that the deadlines were hard stops rather than dates by which the commission needs to file its plan. If the commission somehow finished its work early, although there would be no pressure to do so if adopted by the high court, that could potentially give the bureau more time to update the voter file.
While the commission attempts to extend its deadline, its work on public outreach should continue as planned, unhindered by the Census delays.
Commissioners on Thursday voted to set 5 p.m. as the start time for public hearings scheduled to begin in May, enabling community members to attend in-person or virtually, with public comment taken in-person only.
There was debate among commissioners over the proposed times – Outreach and Communications Director Edward Woods III had initially floated a morning session from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with a break before commissioners would begin again at 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Woods said those times were put in place not to only accommodate the commissioners taking their show on the road but also residents who work jobs on various schedules and senior citizens who might need greater latitude in terms of time to give public comment.
The body voted down a motion by commissioner Doug Clark to set the time a 6 p.m., with those opposed noting that once the meeting started, they would not be able to end the public hearing until everyone present had an opportunity to speak if they wished to do so.
Both commissioners MC Rothhorn and Rhonda Lange expressed some frustration with that plan seeing as a later start could be a catalyst to mental fatigue. Votes were then taken on two options, which ultimately saw the commission settle on a 5 p.m. start time for all public hearings.
Given that some locations on the proposed schedule have been chosen as coronavirus vaccination sites, and the continued uncertainty of the pandemic overall, Woods was given the authority to change dates and locations of meetings at the last minute should COVID-19 restrictions or complications with scheduling arise.
Although granted that authority, Woods was adamant that he would return to the commission with an update if such a situation occurred.
The commission’s strategic plan was also approved Thursday, a repackaging of the commission’s goals and code of conduct.
When asked by Lange why the commission was essentially repackaging and voting on documents that had already been approved, Executive Director Suann Hammersmith said it would be wise for the commission to have a guiding document clearly stating what it planned to do, how and under what legal framework.
It would also be a way to show the public exactly what the commission was tasked with doing as presentations in cities, counties, and communities across Michigan are being planned in conjunction with its mandated public hearings.
In other business, Hammersmith announced that it would soon be hiring an executive assistant with a $25 an hour wage to help the body’s staff. A job posting on the state’s website is forthcoming.