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Nov. 5 | This Week in Government: Senate Panel Moves Employment Opportunity Program; State Must Fund, Set Vacant House Seat Special Elections

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. Senate Panel Moves Employment Opportunity Program
  2. Wentworth: State Must Fund, Set Vacant House Seat Special Elections
  3. Huizenga, Wozniak Victorious, Will Fill Vacant Senate Seats
  4. Republicans Feel Midterm Momentum After NJ, VA Results
  5. Celebrations As Whitmer Signs End To Tax On Feminine Hygiene Products

Senate Panel Moves Employment Opportunity Program

A new Michigan Employment Opportunity Program would use captured withholding tax to encourage developing certain jobs under legislation reported Tuesday by the Senate Economic and Small Business Development Committee.

The program (SB 615 and SB 623) would require businesses to maintain certain levels of qualifying jobs in exchange for keeping a share of the withholding taxes from those employees under agreements with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The committee rejected a series of amendments from Democrats, who then objected to the main bill, but Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), sponsor of the bill and chair of the committee, said he would consider the amendments before the bills go to the Senate floor.

Among the amendments, Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) urged including a claw back provision for businesses that do not meet the minimum certified jobs and would give preference to export-related businesses.

Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) urged rejecting businesses with outstanding enforcement actions against them and that already have agreements at other locations that have not used the full tax credit.

The bills saw bipartisan objection with SB 615 moving on a 5-2 vote and SB 623 on a 7-1 vote. Sen. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway) opposed both bills and Ms. McMorrow joined him on SB 615. Ms. Geiss abstained on SB 615.

The committee gave unanimous support for an S-1 substitute to SB 671, which would extend the Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act through the end of 2027. The substitute would allow employers to use a safe harbor system to calculate the jobs, rather than having to track every employee on-site every day, Horn said. It also would allow keeping up to 100 percent of the income tax withholding if the project includes an affordable housing project and would allow combining the project with the Community Revitalization Program, he said.

The bill was reported 8-0, with Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) absent.


Wentworth: State Must Fund, Set Vacant House Seat Special Elections

With the House poised to have its greatest number of vacancies in the last 30 years due to one lawmaker dying and three others winning elected office elsewhere, House Speaker Jason Wentworth called on the governor announce special elections as soon as possible.

The longer seats remain vacant, Wentworth said in a statement Thursday, the longer more than 300,000 Michigan residents sit without representation at the Capitol.

“The Michigan House of Representatives will soon have four vacancies, the most in at least thirty years. Fortunately, we can solve the problem within weeks if we’re willing to do the right thing for Michigan voters,” he said. “Governor Whitmer should immediately call special elections to fill those positions as soon as possible. … The only reason not to do so would be to gain some political advantage by leaving thousands of Michigan families without representation. Obviously, that’s not an option.”

Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) was elected as mayor of Dearborn on Tuesday, the same day Rep. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) and Rep. Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township) won their own elections to fill the vacant 8th and 28th Senate district seats, respectively.

Those elections, coupled with the passing of former Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Township) at the start of October, means the chamber will sit at a 55-51 Republican majority once the three still sitting lawmakers resign for their new roles. It puts the Republican majority with less breathing room. Fifty-four votes will be required to pass a bill, meaning only one Republican could vote no or be absent and the majority party still be able to act.

Should the special elections be set for dates where the state is not already holding a regular election, costs would fall to the localities putting on these elections. This has led to past governors trying to time special elections with already scheduled even-year August primary and November general elections.

The Constitution allows the governor to call an election whenever she wants.

The state could call for an election any time it wanted – and fund those elections, if it so chose, and that is what Wentworth seems to be lobbying for, saying that the House “stands ready to work with the governor to fund these new elections and make this happen.”

Whether quick elections will happen remains unclear. During a bill signing Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she had a meeting with the quadrant on Wednesday and “the issue wasn’t raised” but said she must wait until the election is “formally certified before we fill a seat.”

“We’re taking a look at all of the variety of openings and determining when we can fill those in terms of special elections,” Whitmer said. “I’m not making any sort of announcement today. We are waiting for the certification and then we will take the next steps from there.”

Legally, Whitmer cannot call a special election until a seat is officially vacant.

It was not immediately made clear why no special election has been called for the seat formerly held by  Schroeder.

Not long after Wentworth’s statement on the issue, the Michigan Republican Party issued a statement as well that urged Whitmer to call the various special elections.

“It’s time the governor announces special elections, as mandated by the Michigan constitution, for the open seats in the Michigan House of Representatives,” MIGOP Communications Director Gustavo Portela said. “She’s already failed so many communities across the state, and keeping these communities without representation in Lansing is unacceptable.”


Huizenga, Wozniak Victorious, Will Fill Vacant Senate Seats

Republicans as expected recaptured two Senate seats in strongly conservative territory that have sat vacant for 11 months in special general election victories Tuesday.

General election wins Tuesday night by Rep. Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township) and Rep. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) in the races for the 8th and 28th Senate districts, respectively, will soon restore the Republican majority to 22-16.

Unofficial results with about 96.9 percent of precincts reporting showed Huizenga earning about 60.5 percent of the vote in the 28th Senate District. Behind him with 37 percent of the vote was Democratic candidate Keith Courtade of Wyoming, a former Kent County commissioner. Candidates with Libertarian and U.S. Taxpayers parties had taken the remaining few votes in the race.

With 60.2 percent of precincts reporting in the 8th Senate District, unofficial results showed Wozniak taking 58.4 percent of the vote compared to 41.6 percent for Democratic candidate Martin Genter of Harrison Township.

The results in the strongly Republican districts that make up parts of Kent and Macomb counties were in line with recent elections of the predecessors of the two senators-elect.

Both are expected to be sworn in following the certification of the races by canvassers.

Both Wozniak and Huizenga emerged from hard-fought Republican primaries in August. Mr. Wozniak won a seven-candidate primary. Huizenga narrowly came out on top of an extremely close three-person primary, winning by just 176 votes.

Huizenga told Gongwer News Service Tuesday night the results were trending well in his favor, and he expected to emerge with a strong win as the final precincts were reported.

“Getting through the primary was the big one. We had a good absentee-chase program,” Huizenga said, acknowledging the strong GOP tilt in the district and the absentee-ballot program his campaign had to help advance him to the general election.

He said once he is seated, he plans to “be a team player” and quickly speak with leadership to find where he would be best suited for committee assignments. Huizenga added he has a diverse background with government experience in the appropriations process as well as private sector experience in health care and accounting.

A key priority for Huizenga once taking office is doing his part in helping figure out what the state will do with the billions in coronavirus relief funding that still needs to be appropriated.

“We have to be judicious,” Huizenga said making the right choices in prioritizing the one-time investments that could be made in infrastructure and other significant long-term state needs.

Wozniak was not immediately available for comment Tuesday evening.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser congratulated the two in a statement Tuesday night, saying the special elections give the party momentum heading into next year.

“They are both incredible public servants who won hard-fought races to represent the people of Michigan in the Senate,” Weiser said. “Together, they join a great group of Republican Senators who are working to hold Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson accountable for their reckless and detrimental actions. We can’t wait to retire Whitmer, Benson, and Nessel and continue to hold GOP majorities in the Legislature.”

Vacancies occurred in the 8th and 28th Senate districts due to the resignations of Peter Lucido and Peter MacGregor, who won election in the November 2020 elections to the offices of Macomb County prosecutor and Kent County treasurer, respectively.

Both will serve the rest of the terms, but the boundaries of their districts for the 2022 elections are not yet set, as maps are still in the process of being developed.

A proposed Senate map was voted on Monday by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, with the 45-day public comment period beginning later this week. Wozniak could be pitted against Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township). Wozniak would have a much more competitive district than the solidly GOP one he won Tuesday.

Wozniak said throughout the campaign that he had strong name recognition in his Macomb County district, having served in local government before being elected to the House. He is in his second term in the House and also runs a law firm that he founded. He previously was a Shelby Township trustee.

Huizenga has been serving in his second term in the House. He previously was on the Walker City Commission from 2011-13 and was Walker mayor from 2013-18. During the race he said his time in local government and in the private sector running a health care systems consulting firm since the late 1990s gave him extensive experience needed to be able to be an effective lawmaker and serve the district.

Victories by Huizenga and Wozniak will now leave new vacancies in the 74th and 36th House districts, respectively. Both are strongly Republican House districts as currently drawn, but that could change under redistricting. With redistricting and an election year coming, how long the House seats might remain vacant is unclear.

The departure of the two senators-elect, along with Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) winning the Dearborn mayor’s race, will increase the number of vacancies in the House to four, the other being the 43rd House District left vacant by the death of former Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Township) from cancer.

Republicans will hold a 55-52 majority when the two leave for the Senate and then 55-51 after Hammoud resigns to become mayor.


Republicans Feel Midterm Momentum After NJ, VA Results

Michigan Republicans said Wednesday that the opportunity to unseat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer next year is more real than ever after watching their party flip the governor’s seat in Democratic-leaning Virginia and come astonishingly close to doing the same in solidly Democratic New Jersey.

Political consultants in both parties said Tuesday’s results signaled that the 2022 midterms, already challenging for Democrats with their party controlling the White House and Congress, could potentially go worse than expected for them. Further, they said the victory of Republican Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin showed a path to statewide victory for a party still grappling with internal feuds and a decline in support from its old suburban base.

Consultants in both parties said the New Jersey and Virginia results – which have generally served as a signal toward the environment in the next year’s midterms – show Whitmer faces unusual danger to her reelection in a state where the governor has not lost a bid for a second term since 1962. They also noted  Whitmer’s rapid moves toward the economy, bipartisan cooperation and vocal support for law enforcement and away from COVID-19 restrictions this year was a sign her team was aware of the shifting political terrain that showed up in Tuesday’s elections.

Perhaps most alarming to Democrats, several said, should be the bleeding of support their gubernatorial candidates experienced in suburban areas. Whitmer’s 2018 victory, as well as President Joe Biden’s in 2020, had suburban support as a key component.

“It’s no secret that those voters didn’t like President Trump. Just the same, they don’t like defunding the police and they don’t like being told they can’t have a say in what goes on in their kids’ schools,” Kristin Combs, a Republican who is co-founder and political director at Bright Spark Strategies, said. “I think (the Whitmer team) definitely sees it and I think they should be concerned. Because that’s the majority maker. Oakland, Kent County, those suburban areas, those win legislative majorities and those win statewide races.”

One of the elements that showed up in Virginia was that Youngkin brought out supporters of former President Donald Trump without Trump on the ballot and while walking a tightrope between the former president, who demands fealty and attention, and suburban voters, who turned on him and cost him the presidency.

In 2018, without Trump on the ballot, the occasional voters who showed up to back him in 2016 did not show up in the same numbers and Democrats won sweeping victories in Michigan and across the nation. There were doubts about whether those voters would show up in 2022 without Trump on the ballot. Tuesday’s results suggest they will in a big way. In many rural areas of Virginia, Youngkin topped Trump’s already big margins.

“Youngkin was able to thread this needle,” John Sellek, a Republican who is CEO of Harbor Strategic, said. “He figured out how to have Trump and the suburbs.”

Youngkin gave suburban voters who disliked Trump permission to vote Republican again, Sellek said.

Democrats said there are signs 2022 could be tougher than expected for their party.

“You could have 2010 again. I think that yesterday should be a strong signal to Democrats that there’s some downside risk to that happening,” Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest, said, referring to the Republican tsunami that put them in charge of the entire state that year. “They need to do a hell of a lot better.”

Hemond said New Jersey and Virginia were instructive as to where Democrats are vulnerable. A huge emphasis from Republicans in Michigan and nationally has been on schools, and it’s clear parents want their children back in school despite the COVID-19 pandemic and playing sports without masks, he said.

Combs and Sellek said the comment from the Virginia Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, that parents should not have a say in curriculum at their children’s school was a huge moment that helped Youngkin win the race.

Sellek said he anticipated Republicans would press Whitmer on whether she agrees.

There will be a continued push from the GOP on supporting law enforcement and using the calls from some progressives to shift funding from police to other services against Whitmer. The governor has never embraced that idea and has made a point of emphasizing the need to fiscally support police.

Unlike 2020, when Whitmer was focused on COVID-19, she is now emphasizing more Michigan-specific issues that have the potential to broadly appeal to voters. This week, she called for a large refund from the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association to auto insurance policy holders earlier than required.

“I think they’ll tell themselves that they were seeing what was happening in Virginia and acted accordingly months ago,” Sellek said. “They’re not going to suddenly pivot next week. They were already trying to.”

Mark Burton, an attorney with the Honigman firm, former member of the Whitmer administration and longtime Whitmer political confidante, said Whitmer is well positioned to mitigate the likely good national environment for Republicans in 2022.

“Michigan as a state in terms of its recovery will continue to produce wins on that front that she’s going to kind of continue to reap rewards from,” he said. “The election of ’18 is just different than 2022 is going to be. It’s the people in the middle. It’s the moderates on both sides and sort of those actual true independents, that kind of swath in the middle. I would continue to be hypersensitive to being an effective communicator with those voters and the issues they care about.”

The big x-factor is the Republican field. There are 12 candidates with committees set up though at this point there are three announced candidates who appear to be mounting credible campaigns: former Detroit police Chief James Craig, conservative commentator Tudor Dixon and Republican activist Garrett Soldano.

The field was the Whitmer campaign’s focus when asked about Tuesday’s election results.

“The Michigan GOP is grappling with a chaotic and divisive primary, with a dozen extremist candidates who are focused on false election fraud claims at the expense of attention on issues that matter to Michigan families,” spokesperson Maeve Coyle said. “By contrast, Governor Whitmer has a strong record of putting Michigan first – she made the largest investment in K-12 education in state history without raising taxes, moved dirt to fix the damn roads and fought to cut costs for hardworking Michigan families.”

Dixon said a “coalition of parents who feel they’re not being listened to by schools and political elites, and voters who wanted to make a statement about the socialist Democrats in Washington, D.C.” propelled Youngkin. She said she is positioned to capitalize on the same themes.

Craig tweeted “Michigan is next!” in congratulating Youngkin. He said voters rejected the Democratic Party’s agenda of “raising taxes, defunding police and indoctrinating our children through Critical Race Theory.” Republicans have turned Critical Race Theory into a huge issue to motivate their base though it’s not clear where, if anywhere, the concept is being taught in K-12 schools.

The GOP field is the unknown, several said. Can any of them capture what Youngkin did?

“We really don’t know,” Sellek said.

Gustavo Portela, spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party, said Tuesday’s results send “a clear message to Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson: No matter how much illegal money is injected into their campaigns, their days (of) lying to Michiganders and displaying a lack of transparency and accountability are numbered because voters will show them the door next year.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes, however, highlighted Democratic wins in cities across the state, including some history-making wins with the first Arab American and Muslim mayors of Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck and the first Black mayor of Jackson.

“All politics are local and last night’s victories for Democrats across Michigan prove just that,” Barnes said in a statement. “I am thrilled to see so many people of color and women now elected to city councils and local boards. It is a start to having true representation of Michiganders on all levels of government. These big wins for Democrats send a clear message to supporters of the ‘Big Lie.’ We will no longer tolerate elected officials that continue to spin dangerous conspiracy theories and support lies about unfair and unsafe elections. I look forward to working alongside all of the Democrats elected yesterday to move Michigan forward.”

“The global dynamics are not favorable. However, it’s also true that candidates matter,” Hemond said. “The governor’s got a boatload of money and she’s got a ton of experience as a politician. She’s won statewide office. And that doesn’t appear to apply to any of her potential challengers.”


Celebrations As Whitmer Signs End To Tax On Feminine Hygiene Products

A years-long effort to remove the 6 percent sales tax from feminine hygiene products came to fruition Thursday as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed one of the two bills to enact the change supporters have called a matter of fairness.

Whitmer signed HB 5267. She said she will sign the other bill in the package, SB 153, Friday. Ninety days after the bills are filed with the Office of the Great Seal, the new exemption will take effect.

It is an effort that goes back at least to the 2015-16 legislative term. For years, Democratic lawmakers would introduce the legislation only to see it die in the Republican-controlled Legislature. In the 2017-18 term, bills moved out of a Senate committee but never cleared the full chamber. There were multiple hearings on bills in a House committee in the 2019-20 term but still no significant action.

Whitmer’s election to the governorship in 2018 helped build momentum.

Finally, this year, Rep. Bryan Posthumus (R-Cannon Township) became the first Republican lawmaker to embrace the legislation and the GOP majorities allowed votes where the bills passed by wide margins. Posthumus was on hand for the bill signing at a Greater Lansing Food Bank facility.

Among those present were former Rep. Sarah Roberts, who introduced bills in the 2015-16 term, as well as current lawmakers like Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), sponsor of the bill Whitmer will sign Friday, Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) and Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Okemos).

“This transcended many different legislatures and legislators but we are here today and I know it’s going to make a difference for every menstruating Michiganders,” Whitmer said.

The application of the tax to feminine hygiene products has long been labeled inconsistent with other sales tax law, which exempts essentials like food and medicine from the sales tax. Whitmer called it an “unfair, one-sided tax.” She also took pride in calling it a “bipartisan tax cut.”

Among the other bills Whitmer signed earlier in the day was HB 4485 (PA 102, immediate effect), which eliminate the sunset on a provision in the cigar tax, keeping in place a 50-cent tax cap on individual cigar sales while blocking a return to a 32 percent tax rate. There has been speculation that Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders agreed on a trade that would result in both the sales tax exemption for feminine hygiene products and the cigar tax bill becoming law.

Asked Thursday if there was a deal, Ms. Whitmer smiled and said, “Not on my part.”

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network slammed Whitmer and the Legislature for the action, calling it a giveaway to the tobacco industry.

“The Michigan Legislature has again put Big Tobacco above the health of Michiganders by giving the industry a tax break,” said Andrew Schepers, head of the cancer society in Michigan. “It is important that tobacco taxes apply to all tobacco products at an equivalent rate to encourage people to quit rather than switch to a cheaper product as well as to prevent youth from starting to use any tobacco product.”