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Oct. 23 | This Week In Government: House Districts Likely to Flip, Business Leaders Call for Unity in Lansing to Fight COVID-19

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. See below for this week’s headlines.

  1. House Districts Most Likely to Flip
  2. Whitmer Signs Surprise Billing, COVID Liability, Nursing Home Bills
  3. House GOP Plan Would Allow Counties to Loosen COVID Restrictions
  4. Biz, Hospital and Labor Leaders Plead for Legislative Unity on COVID
  5. Whitmer Signs COVID Unemployment Extension

House Districts Most Likely to Flip

It’s a little more than two weeks to go before Election Day and the House districts currently in play to tip the scales for either side remain limited, though an additional Democratic-held seat has increased in competitiveness, expanding the list ever so slightly.

The activity in the 96th House District where Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) is seeking a third and final term prompted Gongwer News Service to move the seat from on the radar to the top five.

Elder is working but Democrats and Republicans agree the environment here favors the GOP in an area where President Donald Trump is popular and their candidate, Timothy Beson of Bay City, who owns a local market and is well known in the community, has traction.

Otherwise, since mid-September, not too much has changed in the battle for House control. The map is limited for Democrats to pick up and Republicans see a few opportunities, such as Elder’s seat, but they all involve knocking out an incumbent, which has historically been a tougher task.

Trump is running poorly in suburban Oakland and Kalamazoo counties, where many of the districts up for grabs are located. The question is how far down the ticket do voters go to show their distaste for the Republican president.

Gongwer is breaking down its House races into the top seats to flip, seats that are on the radar because of activity from either side and a group of seats that have dropped off the list completely.

The following is a breakdown of House races in order of likelihood to flip:

1. BAD GOP ENVIRONMENT IN 61ST DISTRICT (SAME RANKING): The 61st House District seat in Kalamazoo County’s Portage area is not a good environment for Trump. Democrats are bullish on this seat and think it is theirs. Democratic Kalamazoo County Commissioner Christine Morse of Texas Township is up against Republican Bronwyn Haltom, and while both are working hard, Haltom is facing increasing headwinds here. A month ago, Republicans were using terms like “goner” to describe this seat and it has only solidified more.

2. TURNER, BREEN IN NOVI’S 38TH DISTRICT (SAME RANKING): Republicans and their candidate Chase Turner of Northville are still working this seat and have attacks on Novi City Councilmember Kelly Breen pointing to the issue of police funding in particular. Still, the 38th House District in southwest Oakland County is changing and its demographics are friendlier to Democrats. Democrats and other allied groups are also spending for Breen. This one will go to the end and Breen appears to have an edge.

3. PULVER PUSHING BERMAN TO LIMIT IN 39TH (SAME RANKING): Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Township) is expected to have a tight race against Democrat Julia Pulver of West Bloomfield in the 39th House District. The environment here also isn’t great for the president. Though Berman is an incumbent and reportedly working hard. Democrats feel good here but it seems likely to go down to the wire.

4. GOP MORE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT ROCHESTER’S 45TH (SAME RANKING): Democrats are hoping their candidate Rochester Community Schools Board of Education member Barb Anness can get a win in the 45th House District covering Rochester and Rochester Hills, but Republicans are still confident in former Rochester Hills City Councilmember Mark Tisdel. Trump’s numbers are purportedly not as bad here as in other Oakland County districts, so Tisdel could eke it out. That said, this area is changing rapidly in the Democrats’ favor and the Democrats think they have a great chance, especially as Trump falls apart in Oakland.

5. ELDER FACING A CREDIBLE CHALLENGE IN 96TH (UP FROM ON THE RADAR): Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) is bullish about his own chances in the 96th House District, but Democrats are worried. Republicans feel good about Timothy Beson of Bay City, who is well known in the community. Trump carried this district in 2016 but then Whitmer did in 2018, though the area is still thought to be trending away from the Democrats. It’s a mostly white, heavily Catholic, working-class district. That’s the prototype for one-time Democratic districts moving GOP.

6. 19TH WILL BE CLOSE AGAIN (PREVIOUSLY FIFTH): Democrats feel Rep. Laurie Pohutsky has done everything right her first two years in office while Republicans think the 19th House District is going to come back to the GOP column with Martha Ptashnik, Livonia Public Schools mathematics department chair. Like when Pohutsky won it in 2018, it is expected to be close. It’s another seat where Trump carried the district in 2016 only to see Whitmer carry it in 2018. Even Michigan Republican Party Chair Laura Cox ran well below what was expected as a Senate candidate in 2018 (when she was also a sitting representative). It’s hard to say if Livonia will go back to its 2016 self. The GOP, though, feels good about the numbers they are seeing here. It’s a whiter, slightly more working-class suburb. Still, the demographics here are those of an emerging Democratic area.

7. BOTH SIDES STILL PLAYING IN 104TH (PREVIOUSLY SIXTH): Republicans and Democrats are committed to the 104th House District covering Grand Traverse County and will stick it out until the end. Democrat Dan O’Neil of Traverse City had a good showing in 2018 but with Trump on the ballot and Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) off the ballot, it’s not as friendly of a year. Republicans are happy with John Roth of Traverse City here and have the advantage.

ON THE RADAR (IN NUMERICAL ORDER)

23RD: Republicans are starting a late push for their candidate John Poe of New Boston with a significant television ad buy. He’s up against Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) in the 23rd House District. Camilleri won in 2016 as Mr. Trump also carried the seat and won again in 2018 in a less competitive contest. Democrats say they haven’t seen anything to cause them concern and Camilleri has been working and up on TV as well.

43RD: Some Democrats are saying if there is a sleeper seat in 2020, it will be the 43rd House District where Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Township) is seeking a second term. It’s a non-race to the GOP, who feel good here. Democrats have Nicole Breadon of Clarkston, who is working. This one would be a surprise and have more to do with the environment. Independence Township has a large number of voters with bachelor’s degrees, but there’s not a lot of racial diversity. Waterford Township is a white working-class wild card.

48TH: Rep. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison) is seeking a second term in the 48th House District where Republicans are making moves with David Martin of Davison. Still, Kennedy knew she would have a tough reelection fight from the beginning and is said to have run her race as such. She has the edge here, though the GOP says Martin is working.

72ND, 73RD: No one is talking about these west Michigan districts and if they flipped they would have more to do with environment than anything else. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. House candidate Hillary Scholten have money flowing into this region and if the president implodes, it might be seen here. Bill Saxton of East Grand Rapids, a Dem, and Bryan Posthumus of Oakfield Township, a Republican, are fighting it out in the 73rd. Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Shelbyville) and Democrat Lily Cheng-Schulting of Kentwood are running in the 72nd.

79TH: Outside progressive groups are coming in to spend for Democrat Chokwe Pitchford of Benton Harbor. Republicans aren’t worried about Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), who is running for her second term. Mr. Trump won this seat by more than double what Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette carried it by in 2018, so some Democrats see an opportunity here.

98TH: Republicans are going to keep spending for Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Midland) in the 98th House District as Democrat Sarah Schulz of Midland is going to keep working until the end. But the GOP feels like they have it more than locked down. The Democrats are not confident.

DROP OFFS

20TH: No one is talking about Rep. Matt Koleszar’s race in the 20th House District as the Plymouth Democrat seeks his second term. Republican John Lacny of Canton doesn’t appear to be making moves. A GOP tracker was following Koleszar after House session last month, though it had more to do with the fact he was walking with Ms. Pohutsky of the 19th District.

25TH: Republican Paul Smith of Sterling Heights downplayed the terrorist plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said the House Republican Campaign Committee wouldn’t spend a dime in 25th House District and then called him a loser for good measure. Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) was already a favorite to win reelection and the events of the last couple weeks solidified the status.

71ST: Democratic Rep. Angela Witwer of Delta Township is a strong candidate in this moderate seat. Republican Gina Johnsen doesn’t appear a good fit for the district. This is another race no one is really talking about and doesn’t seem likely to materialize into anything competitive, though it has gone back forth in the past.

110TH: Republicans surprisingly flipped this one with Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) in 2018, and it doesn’t seem likely the Democrats will get it back in 2020. Dems have Janet Metsa of Houghton.


Whitmer Signs Surprise Billing, COVID Liability, Nursing Home Bills

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed a variety of significant bills providing some business protections from COVID-19-related lawsuits, codifying her previous nursing home policies and seeking to curb large, out-of-network health care bills.

HB 6030, HB 6031, HB 6032, and 6101- now Public Acts 236, 237, 238, and 239 of 2020, respectively – protect Michigan businesses that comply with relevant COVID-19-related laws, including epidemic orders and rules. HB 6030 makes clear that when a business complies with all relevant COVID-19 related statutes, orders, and rules issued by federal, state, and local authorities, it cannot be held liable for a person becoming sick at the business. HB 6031 makes clear that when an employer complies with all relevant COVID-19 related statutes, orders, and rules issued by federal, state, and local authorities, they cannot be held liable under the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Act for a worker becoming sick at work.

The legislation also requires employers to allow workers who are exposed to COVID-19 or exhibit the symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home and prohibit retaliation against employees for staying home when sick or exposed to the virus. The bills also provide a minimum damages award of $5,000 for violations.

Whitmer said in a statement no one should have to worry about going to work when they are sick, especially during the current pandemic.

“These bipartisan bills ensure crucial protections for our workers and businesses who do their part to protect our families and frontline workers from the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “I look forward to more collaboration with the Legislature where we can find common ground. Michiganders: remember to mask up, practice safe physical distancing, wash your hands frequently, and get your flu vaccine. Be smart and stay safe.”

The bills saw broad support among the business, health care, and higher education community. Both a local union president and an official with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce praised the bills in a statement issued by the governor’s office.

“Across our state, businesses, nonprofits, child care, academic facilities, and the medical community have invested resources, time, and energy in complying with public health requirements and operating in a safe manner. This legislation is good news for entities that have made these investments, and that continue to follow COVID-19 laws and regulations, allowing them to proceed with confidence and certainty,” said Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy and member engagement for the Michigan Chamber. “We applaud the governor and legislative leaders for coming together to resolve a controversial issue.”

Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt), one of the bill sponsors, said in his own statement the bills will give employers peace of mind “that if they act responsibly and invest time and money to follow public health protocols they will be protected from lawsuits related to this pandemic.”

“Workers will have the peace of mind that they will not be punished for following public health protocols,” he said. “Our health care heroes on the front lines have reassurance so they can focus on providing the best care possible to patients without worrying about COVID-19 lawsuits.”

Whitmer also signed SB 1094, which requires the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to evaluate the operation and performance of nursing homes throughout the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also creates a series of requirements that surround the state’s COVID-19 nursing home policy. DHHS, in consultation with LARA, will work to provide a statewide visitation policy, implement plans concerning COVID-19 laboratory testing, create a process to approve care and recovery facilities, among other things, before Nov. 15, 2020.

The recovery centers created within the bill are similar to what the state moved toward after a task force on the issue provided recommendations.

“It is our moral duty as a society to protect our elders and this new law will help do just that,” Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township), the bill sponsor, said in a statement. “Approving this bill was part of a process of putting aside political differences and working together to enact critical protections to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among our most vulnerable people.”

HB 6159 (PA 240) codifies protections for medical providers and facilities previously covered under an executive order.

Rep. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant), the bill sponsor, said in a statement the health care workers have earned the protections provided under the bill.

“Thankfully, we were finally able to get everyone together to find a solution that protects the medical professionals who have made incredible sacrifices to treat patients and save lives during this pandemic,” he said. “This is the type of bipartisan collaboration we need to continue guiding our state through the remainder of the pandemic.”

Whitmer also signed HB 4459, HB 4460, HB 4990, and HB 4991 (PAs 234, 235, 232, and 233, respectively), which seek to combat the potential for unexpected high out-of-network charges for medical procedures.

Finally, the Governor signed HB 6192 (PA 241), to extend the validity of certain permits, licenses, and registrations issued by the Department of State.


House GOP Plan Would Allow Counties to Loosen COVID Restrictions

Counties would be able to increase business capacity or loosen other restrictions if they hit certain new coronavirus testing measures and other metrics under a proposal discussed by some House Republicans on Tuesday.

Neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office provided official statements on the proposal – which was outlined Tuesday though actual bill language was unavailable – though the Governor’s office said they would review it.

The proposal seeks to allow counties to loosen restrictions on restaurant capacity or retail capacity, among other things, if they meet metrics related to case rate, positivity rate, hospital capacity, personal protective equipment, and testing capacity.

On case rate, the threshold for loosening restrictions would be keeping the number of confirmed cases during a 14-day period below 55 per 1 million people. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief executive for health at DHHS, has emphasized keeping cases below 70 per 1 million people.

Additionally, the metric for case positivity rates is set at keeping it below 5% (while excluding state and federal inmates), and Khaldun has pointed to 3% as an important threshold.

The other metrics include health facilities being able to manage a 20% surge in hospital admissions or patient transfers while having not experienced a 25% or higher hospitalization increase during the previous two weeks; local hospitals having at least two weeks’ worth of PPE on hand and local health departments having the ability to test 15 people per 10,000 residents each day with a test turnaround time of three days or less.

Under the plan, if a county meets or exceeds those thresholds, the county public health director can modify restrictions if they choose. If the county does not meet the benchmarks outlined, then intervention strategies will go into effect, “creating an ongoing incentive within the community to maintain safe practices.”

Rep. Ben Frederick (R-Owosso) said at a press conference the proposal would move toward the ongoing goal of keeping the coronavirus infection curve flattened.

“One further goal, which is less tangible, but which has come up again and again in this process: restoring hope to the people of Michigan,” Frederick said. “By answering questions such as: ‘what is our ongoing goal?’ (and) ‘what needs to be done and why?’ we can bring greater certainty and hope to a population which has already sacrificed greatly and is suffering.”

Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland) said the plan would act as a “means of navigation,” as the state continues in unchartered waters.

“The Legislature and the medical professionals who stand before you today have fielded thousands of questions from concerned Michiganders,” she said. “The people we serve long for measurable goals and benchmarks for success. Many states have had similar plans in place for months. By establishing clear metrics, we each become active partners, instead of subjects in the battle against COVID-19. Counties which actively exercise precaution will see their metrics improve, and they will be rewarded with a locally focused response tailored to meet their own needs.”

Frederick said the plan would work alongside orders that have come from DHHS and other agencies on COVID-19 protocols. He also said he hopes the proposal would move in a bipartisan fashion.

He also said other states use county data to determine protocols in various regions. He said the proposal relies on “very real” benchmarks and the data will drive various decisions. Frederick also said he believes the conversation needs to focus back on the stress on the state’s health care system and look at if the curve is remaining flat.

On if a county could drop all restrictions if they met the thresholds required, Frederick said that would be a “reckless” decision and noted public health officials answer to a local board of some sort in many cases.

“It does not undo any of the existing regulations,” he said. “It comes alongside the statewide response with a pathway toward interventions that reflect local conditions.”

Bobby Mukkamala, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, said in a statement he appreciated Frederick for including the physician community in developing the plan. However, he also said the state dropped below metrics by acting a certain way, and those behaviors must continue until there is a vaccine.

“If we continue to be diligent about wearing masks, handwashing, social distancing and testing measures, we will get to a point where the disease is not spreading freely. If we go back to the way things were – sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a restaurant or theater, etc – the number of cases will inevitably increase,” Mukkamala said. “In fact, that’s what we are seeing in Michigan and across the country right now because we are now indoors together and are mentally fatigued of dealing with this virus. We dropped below the metrics listed by acting a certain way and must continue those actions until we get a vaccine.”


Biz, Hospital and Labor Leaders Plead for Legislative Unity on COVID

More than 30 business, health care, labor, and education leaders from across the state and the political spectrum sent a letter to legislative leadership Wednesday, urging a unified front on fighting the new coronavirus and preventing a second wave of the virus from battering Michigan.

The group’s letter stressed the need for mandatory standards on mask usage, workplace practices, and public gatherings – as outlined in recent orders from both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration – in light of recent DHHS forecasts that the state could be staring down the possibility of a second wave.

Already, COVID-19-related hospitalizations are up in every MERC region in the state, and some hospital systems are seeing their admittance rates for the virus up more than 80% in the past few weeks.

Signatories include University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber.

“We commend the governor and Legislature for working together on legislation to extend unemployment protections and provide common-sense liability protections. We now need that spirit of cooperation focused on reigning in surging case levels,” the group wrote. “Michigan cannot afford for the recent case surge to evolve into an uncontrolled outbreak of the sort underway in Wisconsin, where case levels are over 2.5 times those in Michigan and many hospitals are again under pressure.”

DHHS this week already reported 17 new COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and 25 new outbreaks in long-term care facilities in Michigan.

The group goes on to say that they support the use of “science-based mandatory standards across the state – standards like those we currently adhere to in our hospitals and businesses” to suppress COVID-19’s spread and protect the most vulnerable, which they explicitly outline as the immunocompromised and elderly.

“We hold these views because of what we have learned in our hospitals and businesses: the disciplined use of COVID-19 safety practices clearly works to minimize viral spread,” the group wrote. “And we hold these views because the evidence strongly suggests – both in Michigan and the other states/countries in which many of us operate – that without such clear standards, people struggle to band together to effectively control viral spread.”

In response to the letter, Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) said he agreed the Legislature should lead by example on issues like mask wearing and social distancing though added that Senate Republicans “fought for months to include the Legislature in the COVID-19 policymaking process.”

“Ultimately, it was a ruling from the Supreme Court that restored the normal legislative process and affirmed the need for the legislative and executive branches to work together,” said VanderWall, who also chairs the Senate Health Policy and Human Services Committee. “While the governor has yet to engage with her legislative partners regarding DHHS orders, I am committed to a legislative process in which all voices are represented, as has always been clearly defined by the Constitution.”

A request for comment from House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) regarding his thoughts on the letter was not returned in time for publication.


Whitmer Signs COVID Unemployment Extension

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Tuesday signed legislation expanding unemployment benefits for residents during the new coronavirus pandemic from 20 weeks to 26 and said the GOP-led Legislature should make the move permanent.

Whitmer signed SB 886 and SB 991 (Public Acts 229 and 230 of 2020, respectively), which extend the duration of the benefits and codify other pieces of Whitmer’s previous executive order.

“No Michigander should have to worry about how to put food on the table or pay their bills, especially during a global pandemic,” Whitmer said in a statement. “These bipartisan bills are an important step in providing immediate relief for working families, but given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Michigan, I urge the Legislature to take further action to make this permanent. (Forty) states, including all of our neighbors, automatically provide at least 26 weeks of unemployment relief. Michiganders deserve better than a short-term extension that expires at the end of the year. It’s time to work together on a long-term solution for working families.”

Whitmer said, though, the Legislature failed to extend her efforts to speed up claim processing by allowing the Unemployment Insurance Agency to review only a claimant’s most recent employer separation. UIA must now evaluate every job a worker has left in the past 18 months – a waste of resources because employers are not being directly charged for benefits paid at this time, she said.

“When we get back to session, I look forward to taking up our bills to expand unemployment benefits and create stronger pathways to get Michigan families the resources they need during a pandemic,” Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) said in a statement.


Related:

Chamber-Backed Business Liability Protections Signed Into Law

Gov. Whitmer Signs Bipartisan Bills Extending Unemployment Benefits to 26 Weeks

Chamber Among 30+ Organizations Calling for Unity in State Leadership to Fight COVID-19

Joint Letter Calls for Bipartisan Leadership Through COVID-19