May 7 | This Week in Government: Vaccine Plateau Concerns; Sen. Johnson on Election PackageMay 6, 2021
- Wentworth, Shirkey Concerned About Vaccine Plateau
- Senate Wades Through Mountain of Amendments, Reports Budgets
- Sen. Johnson: No Rush on Election Package, Seeking Full Input
- Bill Limiting Severance Pay for Some State Employees Passes House
- Lawmaker Financial Disclosure Bills: A Good First Step or Meaningless?
The day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the state could fully reopen after 70% of adults receive the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Republican legislative leaders questioned what would happen if the state never reached that benchmark.
House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said they generally appreciated Gov. Whitmer moving toward a metrics-based plan toward reopening during a virtual discussion hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber with the Legislative Quadrant, but said more discussion is needed.
Wentworth asked if the state were to plateau on vaccine rates, what other metrics would the state use to continue moving forward.
“When that plateau happens, what other items are we going to look at – you know infection rates hospitalization rates – what are we going to use to help get through that phase of potential plateau? That’s just looking ahead,” he said. “That’s another additional piece of hope and certainty that we can give people. So, because a lot of that conversation is, what if you don’t ever get to 70 (%)? What does that look like?”
Wentworth said there are people who have had COVID who may not want to get vaccinated and other people who are choosing not to get the vaccine for whatever reason. He also acknowledged Republican men and women are more likely to resist the vaccine, adding that the state should focus on encouraging people and stay away from “vaccine shaming.”
Shirkey called it a personal choice to get the vaccine and not a patriotic duty.
“We get up in the morning every day and we take risks, just about everything we do. And this is just another risk assessment for every single person,” he said. “And so basically be making sure that you’ve studied the data, study the information, understand where things are accessible and where they’re available.”
Both Shirkey and Wentworth said they are encouraging anyone who wants the vaccine to get it. Shirkey said it appears a vaccination should be easy to find right now, with more shots available than arms to put them in.
Wentworth said accessibility is still an issue in some places, noting that there aren’t any at his local pharmacy. He wants people, when they want the vaccine, to be able to get it the same day, he said.
House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) said that when people look at the risk assessment of the COVID-19 vaccine, they need to look in the context of others as well, not just themselves individually.
“I think that as we look at that risk assessment, we need to remember that we’re not just putting ourselves at risk when we choose not to be vaccinated. It’s like looking at a red light. … We’re all better off when we all stop at red lights, and I may want to make a risk assessment that, ‘yeah I can just shoot through that and it won’t be a problem,'” she said. “That’s just not okay. And so, we need to look at vaccination: what’s available, where we can get it, what we know about it, safety and effectiveness – not just in the context of our personal selves, but in the context of those who are around us. … You can think about your patriotism, you can think about your community, you can think about your loved ones also as a factor in your decision to move forward with a vaccine.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said he is very confident the state will reach the 70% mark with many people intending to get the vaccine and more who have some hesitancy but are open to it. He said it is important to focus on what the vaccine means for the collective good.
“I’m just a firm believer that we’re in a moment here in our state and our country, where inspiration – where encouraging folks to think about the ‘we’ not necessarily just the ‘me’ – is a much stronger way to do things,” he said.
Looking at the billions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds the state has at its disposal, Wentworth said he is hopeful there will be an agreement with the governor. Currently, the House plan includes ties to limits in the State Administrative Board’s transfer power and a condition that the toddler mask mandate be removed.
“When it’s just two branches or one acting unilaterally, we’re not going to have better outcomes. So, it goes both ways,” he said. “I want the administration at the table when we’re negotiating the budget. At the same time, the Legislature has to be at the table in the path of how we’re going to get out of this pandemic. What happens next month or two months or three months. If we have a variant or, you know, a vaccine-resistant variant. What is the involvement with the Legislature?”
Wentworth said on the prospect of another emergency order that it’s not a non-starter since the state doesn’t know what is going to happen. It is just a matter of the Legislature being at the table, he said.
Shirkey said the Senate is going to focus the federal funds on roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, broadband, education, and business recovery.
Lasinski said she has been reflecting on the prospects of working together, especially on Friday, which marks the one-year anniversary of the armed protest at the Capitol where some protesters were seeking to enter the House chamber and others were in the Senate gallery with long guns.
Eventually, some of those men would be charged and accused of plotting to kidnap the governor.
“A year ago today, politics in Michigan changed. The Legislature changed. How we work together changed when armed men and militia were welcomed inside our Capitol. … And it’s with that change that we have to have some accountability as we move forward, and we have to have the language of leadership change in order for us to work together on what can be transformational change here in Michigan,” she said. “Working together to me means supporting and strengthening our democratic institutions and not tearing them down.”
Senate Wades Through Mountain of Amendments, Reports Budgets
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee reported 17 budget bills largely along party lines during a marathon hearing Wednesday, wading through discussion on 100 amendments in the process.
The committee’s work sets the table for the Senate to soon begin moving budgets over to the House, which will soon send its budgets to the Senate.
Reported by a 12-6 vote along party lines was the S-2 substitute version of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity budget, SB 85.
Before the vote to report, senators took up 17 proposed amendments. Only one, introduced by Sen. Roger Victory (R-Georgetown Township), was adopted and done so along party lines.
The amendment would, among other things, decrease unclassified position salaries by 25% in the budget. The Unemployment Insurance Agency director or acting director position would be unrolled from the full-time equivalent staff line and the person’s salary be capped at $99,000. A 20% cut to the Bureau of Employment Relations was also in the amendment, as was boilerplate language stating that only the funds in the UIA director line item can be used to pay the director or acting director’s salary.
Opposed to the amendment was Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing).
“This amendment has little to do with the proper belief of how the department should be run or anything to do with the appropriate funding,” Hertel said. “In fact, it has everything to do with (a) webinar that was done on people’s rights to collectively bargain.”
Hertel said it was punitive to propose cutting funding to a department far beyond the cost of holding the webinar, which he said was perfectly legitimate.
One Democratic amendment that drew debate before failing along party lines was to restore a proposed 20% cut to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed in the Senate version of the LEO budget.
Hertel said the proposed MIOSHA cuts would have a negative impact on worker safety. He added such deep cuts could undermine the department and prompt the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step in to take over oversight and inspections from MIOSHA.
“That does two things. It slows down the actual investigation process, which means that workers will be in unsafe situations longer, which I can’t believe anyone in this Legislature wants, and two, you are federalizing the actual oversight of businesses here in Michigan,” Hertel said. “The idea that you would be making the workers less safe and actually making businesses more responsible to the federal government, to me, makes no sense whatsoever.”
To this, Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the purpose of the proposed cuts is to draw a response from the department and the Governor’s administration.
In response, Hertel said workers in the state do not want to be in the middle of a political fight between the Legislature and the administration.
“I think that neither do the businesses that the department continues to seek out and target want to be in the middle of that discussion as well,” Stamas countered.
The budget that saw the most proposed amendments was the Department of Health and Human Services, with 24. Of those proposed for SB 79, only three were adopted into the S-1 substitute that eventually cleared the committee by a 12-6 vote.
One of the adopted amendments provided clarifying language for the proposed direct care worker wage increases proposed within the budget. A second amendment that was adopted deals with the 2018 federal law change in how federal child welfare funding can be spent; the amendment requires the three existing family preservation programs in the state to maintain current funding and maintain the number of threat prevention program slots available. The third amendment adopted was for a $100 placeholder to continue negotiations on the creation of a dementia care unit within DHHS.
By votes of 10-8, the S-1 substitute versions of both the community colleges budget (SB 94) and the higher education budget (SB 93) were reported with no proposed amendments adopted.
Proposed amendments to restore the governor’s requests for a 2% increase in operational funding to universities and community colleges were rejected. However, Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Township) said she supported having further conversations on a potential increase above the current proposal in both budgets of keeping operational funding flat. She abstained during the votes on both amendments.
A single amendment was adopted for the S-1 version of SB 91 – the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy budget – which was reported 12-6. The amendment was a technical change to move funding for a lake management program to within the Water Resources Division.
Proposed amendments for restoring the proposed $290 million MI Clean Water Plan funding, increasing funding for high water emergency infrastructure grants to $40 million, and restoring $20 million for contaminated site cleanups, all in the Governor’s budget recommendations, were each rejected.
The S-1 version of the judiciary budget, SB 81, was reported 12-0, with all six Democrats abstaining, following the adoption of a single amendment. The amendment fixed an error in a funding line within the budget but did not impact overall appropriations.
The school aid budget, SB 83, was reported with an S-3 substitute by a 10-8 vote. Two amendments – one that would provide flexibility in the testing dates for various college entry examinations due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the other related to reporting requirements to the Legislature – were adopted.
The Department of Natural Resources budget, SB 90, was reported 12-6 with an S-1 substitute. A single amendment, for the inclusion of a quarterly report to the Legislature on timber harvesting on state forest land, was adopted.
Several other budgets were reported Wednesday, but without any proposed amendments being adopted. The budgets were: The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (SB 77); the Department of Corrections (SB 80); the general government budget (SB 82); the Department of Education (SB 84); the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (SB 86); the Department of Insurance and Financial Services (SB 87); the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (SB 88); the Department of State Police (SB 89); and the Department of Transportation (SB 92). Each of these budgets was reported by votes of 12-6 except for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs budget, which was reported 18-0.
Sen. Johnson: No Rush on Election Package, Seeking Full Input
The chair of the Senate Elections Committee said Friday that she intends for a thorough review of a major Republican election package that will not be rushed, saying she intends on trying to gather as much input as possible for, hopefully, a bipartisan end product.
Two hearings have been held on bills from the package thus far before the committee, chaired by Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), with the most recent being on Wednesday.
Some of the bills before the committee this week drew opposition from local clerks over proposals to prohibit local clerks from covering postage costs for absentee ballot return envelopes as well as prohibiting the use of clerks’ names and likeness on informational communications about elections.
On Wednesday, Johnson said she was not in a hurry to review and report the bills to the full Senate, adding that she expects some bills will be shelved and many will undergo changes during the process.
She reiterated her intent Friday to provide a fair hearing process for the 39-bill package that has quickly become a lightning rod among members of both political parties.
“The pace is slow and thorough, with input from all stakeholders,” Johnson said. “Nobody’s told me to rush anything.”
Johnson said a batch of bills will be heard at each hearing while also taking up other items before the committee.
When asked about the Michigan Republican Party’s intent to push an initiative petition to pass any bills that might eventually be vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, she said that has no bearing on the process she is undertaking.
“They can do that right now,” Johnson said, stressing that her goal is to come to a bipartisan consensus.
Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser has said if Gov. Whitmer vetoes the bills, the party would pursue an initiative petition with the goal of having the Legislature enact it. However, if they wait for a presumed veto, it now appears the party might be waiting well into the summer or longer. That would call into serious question the ability to get an initiative petition to the Legislature before the end of the year and have a new law in place in time to affect the 2022 elections.
If the Legislature does not have the petition before it until next year, Democrats would presumably deny immediate effect.
She noted that the bills require the governor’s signature, so bipartisan buy-in is needed.
Some potential changes to a couple of bills have already been identified based on testimony, Johnson added, proving that the process can work despite partisan rhetoric over the proposals.
Republicans have framed the package as an effort to reduce the potential for fraud, increase efficiencies and expand opportunities to vote. The party has also pushed a message of a need to restore the public’s faith in the election process, which they said for many has been cast in doubt.
Democrats have lambasted the bills as an effort to throw up roadblocks to voting, particularly to communities of color, adding they believe it a continuation of pushback from former President Donald Trump’s November 2020 election loss. They have contended that the GOP’s refusal to stamp out unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud spread by the former president and his supports is the source of much of the alleged lack of faith in the election process.
Republicans have rejected the criticism from Democrats, saying election integrity is critical.
Johnson introduced six bills in the package: SB 273, SB 274, SB 279, SB 280, SB 310, and SB 311. She did not co-sponsor any of the other bills in the package. Most of the other bills, which are the more controversial ones, have several Senate Republican co-sponsors.
“My bills, I’ve worked on them for a while, I’ve vetted them,” Johnson said, adding that through the process further changes may be needed, to which she is open. “The other bills, I’m not for or against them. I’m for listening to the input.”
For the bills she did not cosponsor, she said her goal is to improve them so that they will earn her vote and bipartisan support.
Johnson also questioned the immediate and sustained opposition to the package from partisan groups.
“The rhetoric and partisanship is not helpful right now,” Johnson said.
She said the proposals are intended to improve the voting process and prevent potential fraud. Johnson said she believed the opposition to the package is being driven by groups or individuals without an understanding of the content of the bills.
Johnson said regarding one of her bills she recently was on the phone for about one hour with a constituent explaining the concept behind the bill. She said, unfortunately, such one-on-one explanations are not possible with all constituents.
Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren), the minority vice-chair of the Senate Elections Committee, said he has concerns about much of the package and would likely vote against most of the bills as they are written.
Some bills, such as SB 274 which allows those between 16 and 17 and a half years old to preregister to vote if they have a driver’s license or official state identification card, could work well with some improvements, he admitted.
“I think Chairman Johnson has indicated that she’s supportive of the proposals,” Wojno said.
Wojno said he has not seen any signs of her being unsupportive of anything in the package thus far.
He added that Johnson has also worked closely and deliberately on House elections bills that have come before the committee recently.
With there being 39 bills in the Senate package, he anticipated it will take some time to wade through them all.
Wojno said in the Senate, as well as during their time in the House together, Johnson does take a deliberate approach, which he appreciates.
“She does take her time,” Wojno said, adding he was pleased that no votes have yet been taken on any of the bills that have come before the committee.
Wojno said he and other Democrats have heard from stakeholder and political groups that are opposed and have concerns. His hope is that Johnson takes those concerns into account before moving on the legislation.
Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said he was encouraged by how Johnson was approaching the gathering of significant input on the bills. He was optimistic some concerns with parts of the package can be ironed out.
“I feel like the senator is open to discussions with clerks,” Roebuck said.
Roebuck added that the best legislative results come through listening to the frontline experts who deal with the policy being discussed, in this case, local clerks.
Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Ted Goodman in a statement defended the package and the efforts of the Senate GOP caucus.
“We support election security measures to protect the integrity of our elections,” Goodman said. “Our legislators are open to working with anyone interested in protecting democracy, and that’s what they are doing.”
Bill Limiting Severance Pay for Some State Employees Passes House
Legislation looking to limit severance pay for employees of the legislative and executive branches of government unanimously passed the House Tuesday, with its sponsor saying the move to cap such payments was long overdue.
HB 4591, sponsored by Rep. John Roth (R-Traverse City), would limit severance pay for employees working for the executive and legislative branches of government to 12 weeks unless part of a legal settlement with state officers prohibited from receiving severance pay except if part of a settlement. This would still be limited to a 12-week window.
Roth, in recent comments, emphasized that the impetus of this bill had nothing to do with the recent severance agreement for former Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon – as both the Legislature and previous executive officeholders have used the practice before – but was instead meant to make sure taxpayer dollars are used more sensibly.
On Tuesday, he again said as much.
“The bill sets of parameters for who makes these decisions, limits the amount of taxpayer money being used, and also increases the transparency of these transactions,” Roth said, during a floor speech. “This does not stop public officers from disclosing factual information on alleged violations found in the course of doing their duty. Prudent use of taxpayer money should not be a partisan issue at all. … It’s time for us to take care of this. Our constituents rely on the notion that we’re using their tax dollars wisely. I believe this bill would ensure to do exactly that, regardless of who’s in power in Lansing.”
The bill will now move over to the Senate for consideration.
As for what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will do when the legislation inevitably lands on her desk is unknown, and a request for comment from her office was not immediately returned.
Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill.
Lawmaker Financial Disclosure Bills: A Good First Step or Meaningless?
Legislation touted as a bipartisan agreement to require financial disclosure from lawmakers saw some concerns from House members on Tuesday as the bills would mostly only allow a legislative committee not subject to the Open Meetings Act to see those forms.
However, supporters of HB 4680, HB 4681, HB 4682, HB 4683, HB 4684, HB 4685, and HB 4686 said the legislation represents a good step forward as currently no disclosure is required.
HB 4680 would require the House and Senate to each create a committee with equal members of both political parties, with the chair alternating between the two parties every six months, to enforce ethics and conflicts of interest laws and rules.
The committee would receive financial disclosures from lawmakers, which would not be made public unless there was a determination of wrongdoing. Additionally, the House or Senate would have to release a disclosure report related to a former lawmaker if requested.
Under HB 4684, lawmakers would have to annually file a confidential report, that includes any amount earned over $5,000 for themselves or immediate family member. Property valued over $50,000, stocks, bonds, and other special assets valued over $10,000, and interests in legal entities or lobbying activities by immediate family would also need to be reported.
HB 4685 and HB 4686 would require state officers to report financial disclosures to the state Board of Ethics. These reports would also be confidential.
“I believe that the concerns of those skeptical and who have opposed efforts in the past are adequately addressed in this package, and we now have a chance to impose meaningful changes on the transparency of the government,” Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale) told the House Elections and Ethics Committee on Tuesday.
Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Wayland), though, said the disclosure is not really public, it is instead to a small group that’s appointed by leadership to a committee. Johnson also expressed concern about the power those committee members would have and potentially more power in leadership that could be weaponized against members.
“This would still be an opportunity to have an improvement to the system we have now, which doesn’t have anything like this. So nobody knows at all who has stock in any particular company or any other kind of financial interest right now,” Fink said. “Unless a member has as publicly disclosed it himself or herself. So I guess to speak to your concerns, I only see this as a possible improvement because at a minimum, you’re getting committee the responsibility of preventing that kind of situation.”
Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton) agreed, saying the bills create a pathway forward.
“I think it improves the process, one for which now lands solely in the hands of one individual,” she said.
Rep. Kyra Bolden (D-Southfield), another bill sponsor, said residents’ faith in government has been deeply shaken and it is more important than ever lawmakers take action.
“I would support measures that go further but as we currently have nothing, this bipartisan compromise is a step in the right direction,” she said.
Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), one of the leading voices in requiring financial disclosures from lawmakers, told members of the committee if it moved the financial disclosure package out as written, it would be a “grave error.”
LaGrand said with a “crisis of trust,” from residents on politicians, the bills would make it worse.
“I think this disclosure, which isn’t disclosing to the public, is not disclosing. You can use another word for it, but ‘secret disclosure’ is an oxymoron, you can’t make the English language do that. Another representative just came up and said we’d be ‘confidentially disclosing,’ again that’s a contradiction of terms,” he said. “As constituted, I think this disclosure might best be characterized as politicians not voters. I’m afraid that if we have disclosure to a secret committee that’s exempt from the Open Meetings Act, that only has a limited membership and limited access to the information, we’re actually creating a swamp.”
LaGrand said the panel should amend the bill to make the financial disclosures public or remove the financial disclosure piece from the legislation.
“If the problem is that the voters don’t trust us because they’re concerned about our self-dealing. How on earth would this help them, how on earth would a voter ever be able to make a complaint? … If the information about my financial interests aren’t a matter that the public can access, then the public is cut out of the discussion about whether I, an elected, am honest or not,” he said. “I believe that we have a sacred relationship with our voters, which is something like a marriage, and I think that we have an obligation to be honest with our voters in exactly the same way that I have to be honest with my wife. And I think that that, saying ‘trust me,’ to the voters when they don’t already trust us, is exactly the wrong thing to do here.”
Voters Not Politicians Executive Director Nancy Wang, the group behind Proposal 2 that is also in support of the compromise represented in the legislation discussed Tuesday, said they are open to improvements but believe the legislation is a solid foundation that can be built on over time.
“Over the past two years, Voters Not Politicians has worked collaboratively with leadership on both sides of the aisle to develop a comprehensive package of ethics and transparency bills that will fundamentally change the way our state government operates,” Wang said in a statement. “Bills like HB 4680-4689 and 4692, which would require financial disclosure with an investigation process and prohibit conflicts of interest, will set Michigan in the right direction to ensure our elected officials are accountable to voters.”