Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > March 29, 2024 | This Week in Government: Redistricting House Map Meets Court Muster, Plaintiffs Appear Satisfied

March 29, 2024 | This Week in Government: Redistricting House Map Meets Court Muster, Plaintiffs Appear Satisfied

March 28, 2024
Detroit Regional Chamber Presents This Week in Government, powered by Gongwer, Michigan's home for Policy and Politics news since 1906

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, provides 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.

Redistricting House Map Meets Court Muster, Plaintiffs Appear Satisfied

The federal three-judge panel overseeing the redrawing of Detroit’s state House districts on Wednesday ruled that the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission Motown Sound FC E1 remedy map meets muster with federal law and will therefore be implemented for the upcoming 2024 elections.

In a per curiam opinion released in Agee v. Benson (USWDM Docket No. 22-00272), the federal panel said there was no basis to reject the remedial House plan that changed 15 districts overall after seven were ruled unconstitutional.

The commission was sued for violating the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause for using race as predominant factor in drawing its 2021 House and Senate configurations for the Detroit area.

The plaintiffs had objected to a special master’s review of the Motown Sound map and wanted the court to enjoin it in favor of another remedy map. The court rejected those arguments and went forward with the commission’s map.

“As adopted, the remedial plan departs significantly from the Hickory plan, in which we invalidated seven House districts in our Dec. 2023 order. The Hickory plan featured ‘spokes’ northward into Oakland and Macomb counties, whose purpose and effect, we found, was to reduce the ‘black voting age population’ in Detroit-area districts,” the opinion said. “As a result of these changes, the number of Detroit area districts that cross the boundary between Wayne County, on the one hand, and Oakland or Macomb, on the other, dropped from nine to four; and the number of majority-black districts in the Detroit area increased from six to eight. In addition – as to the seven districts at issue here – the remedial plan created three majority-black districts, whereas before there were none.”

ICRC Executive Director Edward Woods III in a statement to Gongwer News Service said, “despite doubts and concerns raised, the Commission demonstrated once again that it could focus on its purpose to draw fair maps with citizen input.”

“We appreciate the public input that overwhelmingly favored the Motown Sound FC E1 in making our job easier,” Woods said. “We now have a clear road map to follow in completing the remedial state Senate plan.”

The panel noted the plaintiffs’ various objections were to be rejected for because the record did not support their assertions, specifically a claim that commission used a community-submitted map as a basis for its Motown Sound map and were influenced by outside political actors. Namely, the plaintiffs claimed the map was drawn nearly identically to map submitted by Chris Gilmer-Hill, the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America electoral chair.

“To the contrary, the contemporary record of the commission’s proceedings shows that Gilmer-Hill took a draft plan configured by the commission, proposed some changes to that plan, and then submitted it for the commission’s consideration through the public-comment portal,” the opinion said. “True, the commission later adopted some of the changes that Gilmer-Hill had proposed. But that hardly means – as the plaintiffs allege – that the commission ‘outsourced’ its map-drawing function to Gilmer-Hill. On the record before us here, rather, that allegation is hyperbole.”

The plaintiffs also raised concerns about the lack of incumbent matchups in the Motown Sound map, asserting the commission worked surreptitiously to protect incumbents elected in unconstitutional districts created in the 2021 Hickory plan.

“First, the plaintiffs say, the Michigan Constitution expressly provides that ‘districts shall not favor or disfavor an incumbent elected official or candidate.’ That is true enough. But the Supreme Court has long held that ‘federal courts are barred from intervening in state apportionment in the absence of a violation of federal law,’” the opinion said. “And the plaintiffs offer no basis to conclude that we can intervene on the basis of state law here.”

Another argument raised involving the lack of incumbent matchups asserted that, by avoiding contests between them, the remedial map perpetuates the discriminatory effect of the previous plan.

“That argument assumes a degree of passivity among Detroit-area voters that finds little support in the record here. To the contrary, the record shows an energized electorate that was profoundly unhappy with the racial gerrymander that we later invalidated in our December 2023 order,” the panel wrote. “And in six of the seven districts at issue here, African-American voters will have markedly more power to elect their candidate of choice in 2024 than they did in 2022.”

Specifically, the opinion said, three of the redrawn districts (7, 8, and 11) – as opposed to zero in the Hickory plan – are majority-black. According to the commission’s new VRA counsel – three other redrawn districts (1, 10, and 12) are now opportunity districts based on an analysis of primary election data.

“That is exactly the kind of data the plaintiffs have long argued is relevant here; and the plaintiffs do not dispute that Black voters in Districts 1, 10, and 12 will have an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. Whether the voters in these six districts choose to retain their incumbents, therefore, is up to them,” the opinion said. “That leaves one redrawn district with an incumbent representative and a relatively low BVAP. But the U.S. Supreme Court has never suggested that a remedial plan must arrange for the removal of every incumbent in the old plan. To the contrary, that would assign the federal courts a more intrusive role in the redistricting process than the Supreme Court has envisioned.”

Two cases on the matter cited the plaintiffs were distinguishable from the case in Agee, the panel added.

Claims that the new map possibly violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act because the commission drew only eight majority-minority districts, while the plaintiffs say it could have drawn 10, were rejected.

“The plaintiffs make close to zero effort to show that the remedial plan actually violates the VRA. Nor do they offer any authority for the proposition that – when a state map is struck down on Equal Protection grounds – the state bears the burden of affirmatively demonstrating that its remedial plan does not violate the VRA,” the panel wrote. “And this objection ’embraces just the sort of uncritical majority-minority district maximization that’ the Supreme Court has ‘expressly rejected.’ Indeed, that kind of race-conscious ‘maximization’ can itself give rise to a racial gerrymander.”

The remaining objection was an argument that, in five districts in the remedial Motown Sound plan, the commission “impermissibly sorted voters on the basis of race.” The plaintiffs cited here of those districts as House districts 16, 17, and 18.

The court did not find those districts to be unconstitutional because individual voters have standing to challenge only the district in which they live. The Agee plaintiffs noted that none of them live in Districts 16, 17, or 18, and therefore lacked standing to challenge anything about those districts.

That left Districts 10 and 12, and the plaintiffs’ argument was lightly developed, the panel said, noting the assertion did not square with the facts.

In a statement, former Rep. Sherry Gay Dagnogo of Detroit – one of the Agee plaintiffs’ most vocal supporters – said the plaintiffs would accept the court’s decision and did not signal a willingness to appeal.

“While our expert Sean Trende demonstrated that the Motown Sound Map does not provide the greatest number of Black majority seats with the highest Black voting age population (BVAP), we embrace the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ and as such we are grateful that the Agee v. Benson lawsuit yielded a greater opportunity for Detroit voters to elect a candidate of their choice in seven house districts,” the former legislator said. “Our focus now turns towards educating the community on the House map changes, and drawing new Senate maps. We applaud the dedication of our plaintiffs, and our Clark Hill counsel for championing victory for Agee v. Benson lawsuit, along with our countless allies including the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, and Chairman Keith Williams.”

Commission Chair Anthony Eid (I-Orchard Lake) said during a news conference that the opinion was a hit of good news after the commission initially lost the case and was ordered back to the drawing board at the outset of 2024.

“I think really the only winner here is the people of the state of Michigan, who wanted a transparent and independent process and drawing maps,” Eid said. “By the court adopting the work that the commission has done over the past few weeks, that’s what we have. So, we’re certainly happy. We’re certainly excited. And now our focus turns to the Senate maps that we will be doing probably next month.”

Jamie Lyons-Eddy, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that championed the 2018 amendment creating the commission, said she always had faith in the amendment she helped design and in the voters who supported independent redistricting.

The decision today, she added, reaffirmed that faith and upheld the will of the people.

“Despite the challenges the commission has faced, the independent public servants of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission successfully voted for new maps which responded to public comment, addressed the issues identified by the court, and followed constitutional criteria – and which received broad support from the people who live in the affected districts,” Lyons-Eddy said. “This redraw also strengthened Michigan’s independent redistricting process going forward. The transparency that’s central to the amendment allows all of us to witness and participate in every step, and the commission, pro-democracy organizations like ours, and the public are all learning from it.”

She said VNP is looking forward to the state Senate redraw that is to commence soon, are planning to engage in that process as it unfolds.

On the political side, the new map gives those who are planning to run for reelection a clearer view of their new district lines ahead of the late-April candidate filing deadline.

In a statement, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said it was now working to identify its best plan of action to maintain the Democratic House majority under the Motown Sound plan, which was first elected by way of the 2021 Hickory plan.

“The DLCC is already hard at work delivering resources and building sustainable infrastructure to protect our Democratic majority – including in April’s special elections, through November, and for years to come,” said DLCC President Heather Williams. “Michigan will continue to be a shining example of the important work Democrats accomplish in state legislatures and holding the House is one of our top priorities for November.”

State to Forgive $3.5M Loan to Q-Line, Gets Ad Rights for Streetcar

The state will forgive the remaining $3.5 million of a $10 million loan it made to the M-1 Rail nonprofit in 2014 for the construction of Detroit’s Q-Line streetcar, in exchange for advertising rights on the sides of the vehicle.

In a unanimous Tuesday vote, the Michigan Strategic Fund traded the loan funds for acknowledgement rights that include “wrapping the streetcars with promotional materials, affixing logos to the base exterior of the streetcar, and running static video content to each of the 20 streetcar stations.”

M-1 Rail requested the change in payment structure in Nov. 2023. Jake Winder, director of community development incentives for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, wrote in a briefing memo to the MSF on the request that M-1 Rail’s philanthropic contributions to Detroit during a period of bankruptcy and its ineligibility for state and federal transit funding as a nonprofit warranted the unique resolution of the loan.

“The lack of public transit in Detroit had long been a detriment to economic growth in the area, but since construction began on the Q-Line in 2014, the Woodward Corridor has seen $10 billion in investment,” Winder wrote. “The amendment request stems from the unique structure of M-1 RAIL. It was originally structured as a nonprofit corporation during the Detroit bankruptcy, with a long-term goal in mind of being donated to a public entity after an initial period of operations… The long-term philanthropic commitments for M-1 RAIL have been exhausted over the last 10+ years and there is a critical need to unlock new sources of funding.”

Given that M-1 Rail is current with its reporting requirements and cooperation of the nonprofit with local and regional officials, MEDC recommended the replacement of the cash payment model with the acknowledgement rights model.

More Work to Be Done on Electronic Signatures for Estate Planning

Legislation to modernize Michigan’s estate-planning statues and allow Michigan residents to electronically sign wills, powers of attorney and other estate planning documents still needs work before it comes up in committee.

Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee where the bill was sent, said conversations still need to happen around HB 4654, which is sponsored by Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale).

“Some more work needs to be done. I encourage the bill sponsor to try to bring the stakeholders together,” Breen said. “My door is always open for discussion.”

Breen is also a cosponsor of the legislation.

Fink said there might need to be conversations around potential issues that stakeholders are having.

Some legal groups have problems with the language, Fink said.

“There’s just sort of an overall concern … that this legislation, as introduced, will create additional opportunities for litigation,” he said. “Things will be litigated because there’ll be more ambiguity or whatever about what a person’s intentions are.”

Although Fink said he didn’t see those issues in the language, he said he was open to specific language suggestions.

“If we need more work, I would just ask anybody who thinks the bill needs more work to give us specific language suggestions,” he said. “I’d like to see alternative language that accepts what I think is the reality that we have to have something in the code to deal with electronic notarization of estate planning documents.”

Fink said that the legislation is intended to be straightforward to codify the ability to accept electronic signatures for legal documents. The state was accepting electronic signatures for a time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At some point, there’s going to be a successful attempt to establish a standard for electronic documentation,” he said. “I’d just like to have a conversation now.”

There are no immediate plans to bring the bill before the committee for a hearing, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table, Breen said.

“Anything can happen,” she said. “Right now, it’s a race to see which bills are ready.”

MetLife Legal Plans supports the legislation, as it would simplify estate planning.

“Most Americans die without leaving a will in place, often leading to families having to spend significant time in probate court and wasting money on associated costs. By enabling the signing, witnessing, and notarizing of estate-planning documents online, House Bill 4654 presents an incredible opportunity to make the process of passing down assets to future generations more accessible and efficient, and less expensive,” said a statement from Ingrid Tolentino, Chief Executive Officer of MetLife Legal Plans. “In a world where we can now do almost everything electronically, Michigan should take this important step in becoming the next state that champions safe, affordable access to wills and other estate planning documents for everyone.”

If the bill becomes law, Michigan would be the 14th state to codify electronic signatures for wills.

Launch Michigan Data: Schools Lagging Top Performing Peers

A nonprofit organization calling for the state to reimagine its public education system released a dashboard Wednesday showing Michigan trails some of its peer states in math, reading, and graduation rates.

Launch Michigan said its dashboard uses first of its kind analysis to show how Michigan stacks up to similar districts in top-performing states.

The group said seven out of eight districts do worse than national comparison districts in math, 70% underperform in reading and 71% underperform in the graduation rate.

Out-of-state comparison districts are in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

“It’s important to remember that Michigan didn’t get here overnight,” Launch Michigan President and Chief Executive Officer Venessa Keesler said in a statement. “After decades of Band-aid fixes and a lack of investment in education, Michigan has fallen far behind most states – not due to a lack of effort from educators but because of a broken system.”

Keesler said Launch Michigan wants system-level changes. The group argues the state ranks last in the nation in total education revenue growth since 1994 and is only one of six with a disjointed K-12 governance model.

“While critical investments have been made in education in recent years, Michigan needs to build on those early steps and commit to fully reinventing our education system,” Keesler said.

The group’s board includes leaders of the Business Leaders for Michigan and the Small Business Association of Michigan, which are calling for reinvention.

“Michigan’s underperformance in key areas such as math and reading underscores the urgency of our situation,” SBAM President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Calley said in a statement. “The misalignment of our system with what our students need to succeed in the jobs of today and the future needs to be treated as an emergency. Launch Michigan’s advocacy for system-level changes is essential for driving progress and achieving world-class outcomes in our education system.”

RELATED: Read the 2023 State of Education and Talent Report

Audit: MEDC Should Ensure Eligibility Before Releasing Grant Money

Insufficient oversight allowed the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to release grant payments before ensuing eligibility, an audit released Wednesday said.

Republicans jumped on the audit‘s finding as a reason for additional oversight of the economic development agency.

The audit found that the MEDC didn’t have sufficient internal control to ensure the recipients met all eligibility requirements before authorizing grant payments.

According to guidelines for the MEDC, grantees must meet eligibility requirements identified in the contract, called milestones, to be eligible to receive grant payments, and any changes must be agreed upon in writing.

In its review of grant payments, the audit found one instance where the grantee met the first milestone and received a $10 million grant payment. The release of additional funds was contingent on the grantee documenting it expended all initial funds, but the MEDC approved and distributed an additional $10 million payment, though the grantee didn’t provide support that the initial funds were spent.

MEDC officials told the Office of the Auditor General they had verbal communication with the grantee and thought its payment approval was sufficient to revise the contract terms and didn’t require a written acknowledgement.

The error was corrected prior to the financial statements being issued.

The MEDC agreed with the audit’s findings, saying in the audit report it would improve internal controls.

In response to the audit, Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton) is calling for additional oversight for the MEDC.

“If the state is going to give our hard-earned tax dollars to big corporations in the name of economic development, there should be strong safeguards in place to protect those investments,” Bollin said in a statement. “This audit uncovered a betrayal of the public’s trust and a disturbing lack of accountability from the MEDC.”

Bollin introduced legislation last fall to provide additional accountability for companies awarded funding through the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund. The bill came in response to Ford Motor Company downsizing its plan at the BlueOval battery plant in Marshall.

The bill, HB 5137, shifts money previously appropriated to SOAR for the Ford plant back into the state’s general fund. Money appropriated to the Department of Transportation for road improvement near the Marshall site would also be reappropriated, for a total shift of $725.3 million back into the General Fund.

The second bill in the package, HB 5138, would ensure that SOAR funding was automatically returned to the general fund when a project is canceled or put on indefinite hold. HB 5136, another bill in the package, would require an annual audit of the fund.

“When the state invests taxpayer dollars on economic development, transparency and accountability are non-negotiable,” Bollin said. . “I’m working to make sure those safeguards are in place and that every project demonstrates a clear and substantial return or investment for taxpayers footing the bill. Anything less is simply unacceptable.”

Rep. Mike Harris (R-Waterford Township) also put out a statement Wednesday in response to the audit.

“Michigan’s taxpayer-funded economic development has been marred by high costs and disappointing results – we pay too much for low-wage jobs that may not even materialize,” Harris said. “Awarding $10 million illegitimately is yet another example of the lack of respect for taxpayers that prevails in Gov. Whitmer’s approach to the economy. While Democrats dream up blueprints for economic development additions, they’re ignoring the fire inside the house. We need more accountability to detect problems and give taxpayers insurance against deals that turn to ashes.”

Last week, House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) also pushed for additional oversight for SOAR (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 20, 2024). He suggested clawbacks that put the funds back into the original SOAR fund, rather than its sub accounts.

The Senate passed legislation last week that would transform the SOAR fund, renaming it the Make it in Michigan Fund, which is expected to be debated in the House once the Legislature returns to Lansing after its spring break.

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