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March 5 | This Week in Government: PPE Tax Exemption Moves to Senate; DHHS Eases COVID-19 Restrictions

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. Supplementals Tied to Limiting Administration’s Power Closer to Gov
  2. House Overwhelmingly Sends PPE Tax Exemptions to Senate
  3. DHHS Relaxes Several Restrictions to Cheers, Disappointment
  4. Groups Laud State Clearing Those 50+ For COVID Vaccine
  5. Sen. Runestad Joins GOP Chorus Urging Hertel Appointment Rejection

Supplementals Tied to Limiting Administration’s Power Closer to Gov

Supplemental appropriations bills utilizing mostly federal dollars to address the coronavirus pandemic passed the House on Wednesday, with GOP lawmakers also seeking to tie some of the funding to limits on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s powers during the health crisis.

HB 4047 and HB 4048 passed 85-25 and 77-33, respectively. Both bills include ties to separate legislation limiting the state’s power to issue orders related to the coronavirus.

HB 4047 designates almost $350 million for a contingency fund for federal epidemiology and laboratory capacity grant funding contingent on Gov. Whitmer signing SB 1, which would limit epidemic orders issued by the Department of Health and Human Services to 28 days.

HB 4048 includes language that unless Gov. Whitmer signs HB 4049, which would stipulate only local health departments could close schools for in-person instruction or halt school sports based on specific criteria in the bill, more than $800 million to schools would not be appropriated.

SB 1 could not be taken up by the House Wednesday as it just passed the Senate Tuesday. HB 4047 was enrolled, but HB 4048 was amended and will need another Senate vote before being sent to the Governor’s desk.

HB 4049 passed 60-50 and was also enrolled.

It is unclear what Gov. Whitmer’s options are with the language making portions of funding in both bills contingent on her signing legislation limiting pandemic powers. Republicans do not think she could declare it unenforceable, meaning the funding in question would not be allocated if she vetoed SB 1 and HB 4049. Other sources are mixed but there is no concrete answer. Gov. Whitmer’s office did not specifically respond to a question on if her office believes it could deem that language unenforceable.

While the Senate removed a traditional tie bar in HB 4048 and HB 4049, it did replace it with the language in the supplemental bill tying the more than $800 million to the signing of HB 4049. This change appears to have tied less money to the limits on the Governor’s pandemic power instead of the entirety of the bill (subscribers please note: Tuesday’s story on the supplemental bills passing said the removal of the tie bar made it so Gov. Whitmer could veto HB 4049 without striking authority to appropriate the funding, which is not a certainty).

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said the governor has been clear she wanted the Legislature to send her bills allocating the entirety of the more than $5 billion in federal funds available. He said it’s promising the Legislature took steps to get at least some of the funding out, however.

“The reality is that they’ve been sitting on this money for two months, their bill continues to withhold billions of dollars at a time when we need every penny to help grow our economy, and it was not negotiated with our office,” Leddy said. “Governor Whitmer will ensure that this crucial funding is available to help us ramp up vaccine distribution and testing, support small businesses, invest in our kids and schools, keep people in their homes, and provide food assistance, but we expect the Legislature to step up to fix the bill to allocate all of the money we need to get back to normal.”

As passed Wednesday, the supplementals do not include a provision blocking the state from using the social vulnerability index to distribute vaccine doses. However, there is still a requirement that recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine be informed of the utilization of aborted fetal tissues or embryonic stem cell derivation in the development of the vaccine, which Right to Life of Michigan praised.

HB 4047 also requires the state to expand its COVID-19 vaccine distribution, within 30 days of its enactment, to independent pharmacy networks. It also includes a requirement the state report weekly on metrics used for calculating vaccine distribution and other specific items.

While the bills release more federal funding than the $2 billion that first passed the Senate and the $3.5 billion that first passed the House, they still do not release all federal dollars available. House Democrats proposed substitutes that would have released all federal dollars. They were rejected by the GOP majority.

Republicans have said they do not want to give Gov. Whitmer a blank check. Democrats have countered the federal money comes with many strings attached.

Further, House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) said during a press conference earlier in the day that the state needs money for rental assistance now, not in August, and it needs more funding for its vaccine distribution now, not in September.

“As a Legislature, we provide oversight every year for over $50 billion in our state budget. To say that there’s something different about $5 billion, that all of a sudden the Legislature has no oversight or accountability for, again, is a partisan political game,” she said. “That’s not what this moment is about. This is a historic pandemic. We are in the throes of it, in the clutches of it right now. We need our vaccine distribution system now. We need rapid testing now. And we need to make sure that folks don’t go into a financial death spiral that withholding rental assistance, food assistance will cause.”

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) during a floor speech called on Ms. Whitmer to loosen the state’s COVID restrictions – of which many have been already – and said her efforts are not based on science but are “calculated measures to retain power.”

“The economic devastation that is being unleashed is significant. It is felt by our families, and it is being hidden by a massive infusion of federal dollars. There is no shortage of small businesses that have closed their doors or are hanging on by a thread,” he said. “Listen to what the people of Michigan are saying. Enough. Open your eyes and see what’s going on. The greatest effect of your over-the-top measures is not an improvement of public health, it is the loss of one’s dignity of being able to provide for one’s family, and their community through work. To use a word from the governor’s statements on this relief plan, her actions have been just plain cruel.”

House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) praised the package in a statement following the vote, and specifically thanked Albert for his work on the legislation.

“This is a comprehensive plan that puts money where it’s needed most, that holds government accountable, and that helps struggling Michigan families, students and businesses heal from a devastating pandemic,” Wentworth said.

HB 4047 includes $2.3 billion with $632 million from the General Fund, with money going to the Department of Health and Human Services for food assistance, the continuation of increased pay for direct care workers and money for vaccine distribution and COVID-19 testing.

It also includes funding for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity for rental and utility assistance and General Fund dollars to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. A series of tax and fee relief items for businesses is also included in the bill for the Department of Treasury.

HB 4048 includes $1.95 billion for schools, mostly made up of federal dollars but also includes $136 million in School Aid Fund for districts that receive less than $450 per pupil through the federal formula. Schools would have to offer at least 20 hours of in-person instruction to all students by March 22, 2021, to receive the funding.

The two supplementals were mixed with a couple dozen Democrats voting in support. HB 4049 was a mostly party-line vote, with two Democrats, Rep. Sara Cambensy of Marquette and Rep. Karen Whitsett of Detroit, voting yes.


House Overwhelmingly Sends PPE Tax Exemptions to Senate

A pair of bills exempting businesses from sales and use tax when purchasing personal protective equipment and supplies related to mitigating the effects of the coronavirus passed the House on Wednesday with wide margins.

HB 4224 and HB 4225 passed 104-6.

The bills would only exempt PPE and other tangible personal property from the taxes if they were specifically used in relation to COVID-19. Businesses would also have to have implemented a COVID-19 safety protocol plan.

The exemptions under the bill would be retroactive and would apply beginning March 10, 2020, until Dec. 31, 2021.

A House Fiscal Agency analysis said the bills would reduce mostly sales tax revenue by an estimated up to $5 million for 2019-20, up to $10 million for 2020-21 and up to $4 million for 2021-22.

The Department of Treasury previously took no position on the bills, which are sponsored by Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) and Rep. Jim Lilly (R-Park Township).

In committee, Anthony said she has been impressed with employers and businesses that have persevered and kept their doors open during the pandemic.

“The reality is there is a significant cost in order to actually implement those changes needed to operate in a global pandemic,” she said last month. “They are doing everything they can. They are doing it right. They are following the rules. And I feel like it is now our responsibility to extend support.”

Lilly, in a statement Wednesday, said the bill would benefit workplaces that continue to buy PPE because of COVID-19 and state requirements.

“Over the past year, job providers all across Michigan have faced unprecedented challenges simply to stay in business and keep their doors open,” he said. “The cost of personal protective equipment to keep their employees and customers safe is part of that challenge. With this legislation, we have a fantastic opportunity to help. Keeping people safe should not be a barrier to keep a business open, earning a living, and keeping our economy and communities strong.


DHHS Relaxes Several Restrictions to Cheers, Disappointment

The most significant relaxing of restrictions the state has imposed to address the coronavirus since last summer was announced Tuesday, allowing larger social gatherings, greater capacity in restaurants, bars and retail stores and more people into entertainment venues.

Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel issued a new epidemic order, effective Friday, that makes wholesale changes following what was – until the past 10 days – a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases. The state’s seven-day case average of newly confirmed cases on Tuesday was 1,071, up from a recent low of 818 on Feb. 21. Still, that is well below the November seven-day average peak of 7,270 new cases per day. Deaths continue to fall, and the number of people hospitalized with the virus also continues to fall.

“We’re getting there Michigan. This is good news,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a news briefing.

Besides the changes affecting capacity at gatherings and Michigan businesses, Ms. Hertel also relaxed restrictions on visitors to nursing homes.

Among the major changes in the order announced Tuesday that runs through April 19:

  • Private residential gatherings can now have up to 15 people from three different households, up from 10 people across two households. Outdoor gatherings at residential locations can now have up to 50 people with no limit on households involved, up from 25 among three households;
  • Indoor gatherings at non-residential venues can now have up to 25 people, a move seen as opening up city councils, school boards, township boards and county boards to meet in person. Outdoor non-residential venues can have gatherings up to 300 people;
  • Restaurants and bars can now seat people for dine-in service at 50 percent of capacity, up from 25%, though the previous cap of 100 people total from the Feb. 4 order remains in place. The 10 p.m. curfew on dine-in service was pushed back to 11 p.m.;
  • Retailers, libraries and museums can now operate at 50% of capacity, up from 30%;
  • Exercise facilities can operate at 30% of capacity, up from 25%;
  • Pools, previously limited to 25% capacity, can now operate at 30% if indoor and 50% if outdoor;
  • Ice and roller rinks can now have 10 persons per 1,000 square feet, up from four;
  • At sports stadiums, indoor venues with capacity under 10,000 can have 375 patrons and those with more than 10,000 can have 750. Outdoor entertainment and creation facilities can have gatherings up to 1,000 people.

“Due to the trends we’re seeing, we’re taking a step forward, but a cautious one,” Hertel said.

Gov. Whitmer announced a new workgroup on reopening offices to in-person work. Business groups have called for changes once emergency rules prohibiting in-person office work unless it cannot be done remotely to end.

s the state relaxes these restrictions, the question will be whether it opens the state up to a new surge in cases or whether the continuing rise in the number of people vaccinated and warming weather enabling people to get outdoors more will prevent that from happening.

Reaction to the announcement was mixed.

“We welcome the Governor’s decision today to expand restaurant, banquet and meeting space occupancy and consider this change critically important, but the six-week duration of this order is concerning and significantly too long to adapt to rapidly changing metrics around this virus,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We are hopeful that this DHHS order represents a paradigm shift in the administration’s overall approach to the hospitality industry, accepting that the dramatically reduced hospitalization rate and increased vaccine distribution mean our most vulnerable populations are protected and that reopening should advance in a timely manner.”

Scott Ellis, head of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said he was “truly disappointed” the new order maintains the 100-person cap, saying larger establishments with greater capacity have more space to spread out patrons and abide by social distancing.

Bill Hallan, president and CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association, said he was pleased by the capacity increase.

“This is a good step towards reopening our economy, but until we are at 100 percent capacity, retailers will continue to struggle,” he said in a statement. “We appreciate the confidence given to retailers who have worked consistently to ensure the safety and health of customers and employees. The timing of this message is especially good news for pharmacies as they get ready to administer the vaccine to Michiganders quickly and efficiently at trusted and convenient retail locations.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) in a statement called Gov. Whitmer’s announcement “woefully inadequate.”

But Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway) praised Whitmer for the 25-person non-residential indoor limit he said would allow government bodies to meet in person again.

“The Governor’s orders were limiting residents’ access to their local elected officials and the community entities necessary to carry out the functions of municipal life,” he said in a statement. “Today’s update fixes that. I thank the governor for her response, and I urge her to lift some of her other restrictions doing so much damage to our residents and their way of life.”


Groups Laud State Clearing Those 50+ For COVID Vaccine

A major expansion in eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to those 50 and older announced Wednesday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer received praise from a variety of business and health care organizations.

Starting March 8, those 50 and older “with medical conditions or disabilities and caregiver family members and guardians who care for children with special health care needs,” can receive the vaccine, a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services said. Starting March 22, all residents 50 and older will be eligible.

This move comes as more than 40% of those 65 and older in Michigan have been vaccinated and with President Joe Biden saying Tuesday he anticipates all adults wishing to receive a vaccine in the United States will be able to get one by the end of May.

“The more people we can get the safe and effective vaccine, the faster we can return to a sense of normalcy,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “I urge all eligible Michiganders to get one of the three COVID-19 vaccines to protect you, your family and your community. We’ve already administered over 2.3 million doses to Michiganders of all races and backgrounds, and yesterday’s announcement that our national supply will be enough to protect all Americans by the end of May is incredible news.”

Those eligible to receive a vaccine should check the website of their local hospital or health department to determine their process or check other sites such as local pharmacies, the statement from DHHS said.

“The MHA and our member hospitals and health systems are pleased to see eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination expand in the coming days and weeks to include those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions or disabilities and caregiver family members and guardians who care for children with special healthcare needs, and then to all Michiganders 50 and older,” said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, in a statement. “Hospitals and health systems will continue to partner with their local health departments and other providers to vaccinate all eligible and vulnerable populations as quickly as possible. The significant increase in vaccine supply to our state this week is an encouraging sign that we will be able to vaccinate 70% of our adult population more quickly than originally planned.”

The Michigan State Medical Society also lauded the news.

Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, president of the MSMS said in a statement, however, that primary care physicians should be involved in the effort.

“We applaud the governor and Director Hertel for expanding eligibility to the COVID-19 vaccine to residents 50 years of age and older,” he said. “The fastest and best way to return to pre-pandemic life is for people to be vaccinated. Expanding access by age will help do that, and expanding access even further means involving primary care physicians in the delivery of the vaccine. Michigan’s primary care physicians must be allowed to be involved in the important work of vaccination distribution, especially now as more and more residents become eligible. I can assure you that Michigan physicians stand ready to assist in this vital effort.”

Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said the announcement meets its recommendation for a simpler eligibility system that prioritizes those with the highest risk of serious illness or death.

“SBAM applauds Governor Whitmer for enacting this approach and encourages all Michiganders to get the vaccine as soon as you are eligible,” he said in a statement. “Widespread vaccine administration will be the key to ending this pandemic.”

There some were problems with waitlists after the state broadened eligibility from those 75 and older to those 65 and older.

Mark Hornbeck, spokesperson for AARP Michigan, said even though there is still large number of people 65 and older to be vaccinated, expanding eligibility to those 50 and older is a sound move.

“National statistics tell us 95% of COVID deaths are among those 50 and older, so the priority for adults 50 and up is based on science,” he said. “Supplies of vaccine are ramping up, especially with the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so we’re hoping the percentage of inoculations of Michiganders 65 and older will pick up significantly in the weeks to come.”

MHA spokesperson Ruthanne Sudderth, to concerns that expanding the vaccine eligibility could slow progress for the 65 and older population, said the ability to move to the new threshold will vary based on the progress of an area’s providers in getting through those 65 and older.

“This is not a mandate to providers; it simply allows those who are prepared to do so to get more people in line,” she said. “We know that some parts of the state are starting to have fewer seniors and others who are currently eligible and haven’t yet been vaccinated. We don’t want those providers or their supplies sitting idle.”


Sen. Runestad Joins GOP Chorus Urging Hertel Appointment Rejection

Sen. Jim Runestad became the third Senate Republican to urge the rejection of the Governor’s appointment of Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel and the second in as many days.

The call by Runestad (R-White Lake) was the third in a week among members of the Senate Republican caucus and may signal the willingness by the party to further its fight against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the administration’s pandemic response.

So far, 18 of Whitmer’s appointments have been rejected by Senate Republicans seeking to push Gov. Whitmer to change her pandemic response policies.

Hertel is scheduled to appear at noon Thursday for a second round of questioning before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee.

In a statement Wednesday, Runestad cited Hertel’s response to questions during last week’s Senate Advice and Consent Committee hearing. He noted that the director under questioning declined to provide examples of instances in which the department’s policies may have been a mistake during the pandemic response.

“The administration’s executive orders led to putting COVID-19 infected patients into the same facilities as our most vulnerable, yet Hertel can’t think of anything they could have done differently? That is unacceptable,” Runestad said. “The families who lost loved ones deserve answers for how this happened, why it was allowed to happen, and why the administration isn’t providing the data on nursing home deaths Director Hertel needs to share that information now.”

The Senate has 60 days to accept or reject gubernatorial appointees, with a decision needing to be made on Hertel’s appointment by March 23.

Also calling for the rejection of Hertel so far are Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) and Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly).


Related:

Chamber Advocacy Leads to Passage of PPE Tax Exemptions in MI House

COVID-19 Restrictions Relaxed After Letter from Chambers Advocating for Safe Opening of Restaurants