Print Friendly and PDF

Oct. 29 | This Week in Government: Senate Debate Precedes Passage of Mask, Vax Mandate Bills; Craig Leads GOP Campaign Fundraising Field

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. Bitter Senate Debate Precedes Passage of Mask, Vax Mandate Bills
  2. Craig Leads GOP Field at $1.4M Raised; Whitmer Continues Using Recall
  3. House Panel OKs HBCU Bills, Reviews Personal Finance Credit Changes
  4. Upping County Commissioner Terms to 4 Years Debated at House Panel
  5. ICRC Discusses Legal Memos in Closed Session After Threat Delay

Bitter Senate Debate Precedes Passage of Mask, Vax Mandate Bills

Senators divided along party lines Tuesday on votes to bar schools from requiring the wearing of masks or to receive vaccines lacking full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

Republicans in support of SB 600, SB 601, SB 602, and SB 603 said the proposals would allow equal access to education for all students, calling mandates an infringement on people’s rights.

Democrats were opposed, citing public health concerns amidst the coronavirus pandemic while accusing the GOP of playing political games in pushing such proposals. All four bills passed 19-15.

Tuesday’s votes were the latest move by legislative Republicans to attempt to rein in emergency powers or ban COVID-related local or statewide requirements. The governor has repeatedly blocked such efforts when bills have been sent to her desk and it is expected she would veto the package if it were to reach her.

The bills if signed would bar local schools from enacting policies requiring coronavirus vaccination for admission to facilities or to participate in events and the same for mask mandates.

Prior to final passage, S-1 substitutes were adopted for three of the bills. The substitute for SB 600 would expand the policy to cover all COVID-19 vaccines, not just ones receiving emergency use approval from the FDA. Language in SB 603 was added to include local health departments to the list of entities banned from issuing emergency orders requiring students to get vaccinated for COVID-19, the wearing of masks, or taking a COVID-19 test to enter school or participate in school-sponsored activities or riding a bus. Technical changes were made in the substitute for SB 602.

Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) said the bills were not just about vaccines but about treating children fairly when it comes to access to education and not treating children or parents differently for having opposing views.

“Just because you disagree with another parent’s decision, you have no right to make that decision for them,” Theis said.

Theis then said there is data to show that mask mandates have not led to better outcomes compared to districts that have not put any such mandates in place. That, however, flies in the face of state epidemiological data showing the exact opposite, that districts with at least some type of mask requirement for students and staff are seeing significantly fewer cases of the virus.

Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) countered by referencing multiple media reports citing studies disputing Theis’ claim.

Democrats sharply questioned the Republican majority’s insistence of bringing forward partisan pandemic policy bills which they said are dangerous.

Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) said she felt at times when in the Senate as if she were on a merry-go-round and her head was spinning by the political rhetoric from the majority party.

“Vaccines and masks slow the spread of COVID. They reduce severe illness, reduce long-COVID and reduce deaths. This isn’t up for debate anymore,” Bayer said. “Opinions are not equivalent to facts. This pandemic is not a political game. We’re talking about real people suffering.”

She went on to call the bills anti-vaccine nonsense that is perpetuating the ongoing crisis.

“People are believing what you’re telling them,” Bayer said. “People are drinking your Kool Aid. These bills are dangerous.”

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) went further, saying bills like those before the chamber Tuesday are an example of a legislative body that he believes actively “is putting Michigan citizens in danger.”

He went further, taking direct aim at the operations of some of the committees from which many of the bills dividing the Senate in recent months were coming from.

“I have now watched for week after week the Health Policy Committee, the Education Committee, turn into a place where conspiracy theories, lies, and nonsense reign,” Hertel said. “This body, the official record of the Michigan Senate, is being used to espouse things that are absolutely false, and dangerous, and lead to questions about the basic medical recommendations that will help stem this pandemic.”

In response, Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) said the words of the previous Democratic speakers were evidence of why the package needed to pass.

“We have seen time and time again parents stepping up on behalf of their own children to make their own decisions on behalf of their kids, and see nothing but the government intrude on them, to stand in their way,” Barrett said. “That’s why we need legislation that protects and defines, clearly draws a line in the sand, and says these are our rights as parents that the government cannot cross.”


Craig Leads GOP Field at $1.4M Raised; Whitmer Continues Using Recall

Republican gubernatorial candidate James Craig lapped his competitors for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in funds raised for the past quarter while Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continued to seize on a contested mechanism she says allows her to raise unlimited sums from donors because of attempts to start a recall against her.

Monday’s deadline to file campaign finance reports for activity between July 21 and Oct. 20 was much anticipated because it was Craig’s first as well as to see if Gov. Whitmer would continue the surprise fundraising tactic that allowed her to raise $2.66 million during the period from Jan. 1 through July 20 that she otherwise could not raise.

This time, Gov. Whitmer’s use of the unlimited donor provision for officeholders subject to recalls (which Republicans are contesting in court) was less robust at $692,102 raised from 39 donors who gave more than the $7,150 limit on individuals or $413,252 more than she otherwise could have raised. In total, Gov. Whitmer raised $3.1 million, to bring her to $17.3 million raised for the cycle.

The Governor’s campaign committee, Whitmer for Governor, greatly escalated its spending during the quarter, reporting $1.2 million in expenditures, almost half of the $2.8 million the campaign has raised for the cycle. The Whitmer campaign did not immediately respond to a message asking how much of the approximately $3 million raised over the $7,150 limit as a result of recall attempts had been spent. The campaign will have to spend, return or donate that money before Jan. 1 if a recall committee fails to file the necessary signatures by that date.

Gov. Whitmer’s campaign has $12.65 million in the bank.

“The campaign is grateful for the support of Michiganders in every single county as we work to re-elect Gov. Whitmer so that she can continue to fight for Michigan families, small businesses, and communities,” Preston Elliott, Whitmer campaign manager, said.

On the Republican side, Craig had a strong fundraising debut at $1.43 million raised. Still, at $966,873 cash on hand, he has a long way to go to cement a major advantage over his competition for the Republican nomination.

The Craig campaign received donations from the two living former Republican governors, John Engler and Rick Snyder.

“I’m humbled and honored at the outpouring of support we are seeing from Michiganders across this state,” Craig said in a statement. “Whitmer and the Democrats will be well-financed by the permanent Washington political class and coastal elites, but our message of personal liberty and leading from the front is resonating with Michiganders. All the money in the world cannot cover for Whitmer’s failed pandemic response, poor leadership, and hypocrisy.”

Of the other 10 contenders, it’s rapidly becoming clear who is going to lack the resources to gather the minimum 15,000 signatures for ballot access.

Two candidates, Articia Bomer and Austin Chenge, have filed waivers indicating they will spend less than $1,000. Four others – Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown, Ralph Rebrandt, and Ryan Kelley – raised less than $50,000 for the period and all have less than $40,000 in the bank.

Second behind Craig was the anti-COVID protections activist Garrett Soldano, who raised $495,979 for the period, bringing his total for the campaign to $1.12 million. However, that was down from Soldano’s first period and his high burn rate left him with $473,615 cash on hand.

“I’m incredibly proud of this campaign and grateful to our supporters who contribute to our vision for a better Michigan,” Soldano said in a statement. “We are seeing a groundswell of Michiganders who are sick and tired of Gretchen Whitmer’s failed leadership, who want their freedoms back, their elections secure, and their kids back in school without endless mandates. Establishment politicians won’t get the job done – our grassroots movement will.”

There were two surprises in Monday’s filings. Tudor Dixon, who has hired some top staff people, again turned in an underwhelming report. She reported raising $215,116 for the period, bringing her to $347,651 total. She has just $165,743 cash on hand. The other surprise is that business executive Kevin Rinke, who is considering a run for governor, reported raising and spending no money. Rinke is expected to self-fund if he runs.

The Dixon campaign tried to downplay the candidate’s total by saying a super PAC supporting her, Michigan Strong, “received seed funding of $200,000,” thus bringing “Team Tudor” to more than $415,000 for the quarter. The campaign announced that Anne Minard has joined the Dixon campaign to “begin rapidly expanding Dixon’s finance operation in southeast Michigan.”

The Rinke campaign did not indicate why he had no expenses for the period. He has said he is exploring a run for governor. In a late September interview, he said he anticipated a decision in two to three weeks. That time has passed. A Rinke source, speaking on background, said he continues to explore a bid and sees the fundraising numbers filed by the candidates as evidence only he would have the resources to defeat Gov. Whitmer. He has said he is prepared to start his campaign with $10 million of his own money.


House Panel OKs HBCU Bills, Reviews Personal Finance Credit Changes

A pair of bills setting standards for a school to label itself a historically black college or university was unanimously reported out of the House Education Committee Tuesday amid positive testimony.

The bills, HB 5447 and HB 5448– sponsored by Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit) and Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield), respectively – would define what an HBCU is and then set provisions allowing for a private college to apply with the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to reopen a defunct educational operation.

Current law dictates that a person, society, association, or corporation cannot use the name of a benevolent, humane, fraternal, or charitable organization or an imitation or deceptive version of that name. If two such entities claim a right to the same or a substantially similar name, the one that first used the name is entitled to its exclusive use.

In HB 5447 language would be added that an educational corporation also falls under those restrictions on use. It would also add that a person, society association, or corporation cannot assume, adopt or use the HBCU designation unless it was a Part B institution as defined under federal law or is an educational corporation that was reopened under PA 327 of 1931.

A Part B institution, under federal statute, means any historically Black college or university whose principal mission is the education of Black Americans, that was established by 1964, and meets certain accreditation requirements.

Provisions in HB 5448 then amend that 1931 act to let a private college apply with LEO to reopen an educational corporation if all the following conditions are met:

  • The private college is in a city with a population of 500,000 or more;
  • Before ceasing operations, the educational corporation to be reopened was designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a historically black college, and
  • Before ceasing operations, the educational corporation to be reopened was in a city with a population of 500,000 or more.

A private college would mean a Class Y educational corporation – meaning it has capital of at least $1 million – authorized by LEO to offer degrees. Further, due to the way the bill is written, Detroit would be the only city in Michigan eligible for this opportunity.

“I think it’s a historic opportunity for Detroit, for our students,” Hornberger said. “And, quite honestly, I’m super excited … that kids are going to have this immersed, hands-on experience and be able to step into that space (and) immediately design clothing, shoes, furniture. It’s a world-class opportunity that we’re going to have right here in Detroit.”

An applying college seeking designation as an educational corporation would have to include an attestation from an officer of the educational corporation to be reopened that it has capital of at least $500,000 and a list of proposed fields of study its offering in its application.

It must also possess an attestation from the private college that the educational corporation to be reopened would be managed and operated by the private college in accordance with an operating agreement and that the proposed facilities, equipment, and staff are adequate for the proposed fields of study.

Within 30 days after receipt of the information in the application, LEO would have to approve the educational corporation to be reopened to conduct business in Michigan for the purpose of operating as a private postsecondary educational institution. That would include offering bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs, as well as certificate and diploma programs.

An educational corporation that received this approval would be considered Michigan’s first HBCU. It’s looking likely that honor will go to the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, which is eyeing setting up shop in Detroit through reopening the Lewis College of Business.

The college originally operated from 1939 until 2013 and received its HBCU designation in 1987.

D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Pensole Design Academy, during testimony stressed the need for such an opportunity for HBCUs, saying that when he first entered the design industry in 1989, he was “only the second African American in the entire industry to design footwear.”

Less than 5% of Black individuals work in all design industries, Edwards added, noting that the lack of access begins for many in middle or high school due to their schools cutting art programs.

Of those the 9% of Black students that do go on to one of the country’s 96 traditional design schools, half of those students drop out after either their sophomore or junior year, leaving for only about a 2% graduation rate. With Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design coming to Detroit – and the company bringing along a footwear company in the next four years – Edwards said the academy would be able to offer “the whole cycle from the beginning side of business … the design, and all the way through to manufacturing.”

OTHER BUSINESS: Lawmakers Tuesday also took testimony on HB 5190, sponsored by Rep. Diana Farrington (R-Utica). The bill would amend the Revised School Code to add a 1/2-credit personal finance requirement and reduce the foreign language requirement from 2 credits to 1-1/2 credits in the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

The Department of Education would have to develop subject area content expectations for the personal finance course, and current requirements would apply for the last time to students entering 8th grade in 2022. New requirements would then apply to all subsequent students.

Currently, the half a credit economics requirement in the curriculum may be satisfied with at least a half-credit course in personal economics. Under the bill, that provision would last apply to students entering grade 8 in 2022 and would apply to personal finance.

No vote was taken on the legislation.


Upping County Commissioner Terms to 4 Years Debated at House Panel

Whether to extend county commissioner terms from two years to four was the subject of much debate Wednesday when a package to make such a change came before the House Local Government and Municipal Finance Committee.

Before the body was SB 242 and SB 245, sponsored by Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), respectively (editor’s note: this story changed to correct Moss’ title). The bills would make it so that county commissioners elected in 2024 and beyond would serve four-year terms rather than their current two-year stints.

If a vacancy on the board occurred more than a week before a nominating petition for the even-year “midterm” election of that term – meaning that, if the bill takes effect, a vacancy was to occur in the 2026 election cycle with the body already operating under four-year terms – an election would be held for the commission seat during that year’s general election. The person appointed to fill that vacancy would serve only until that successor was elected.

Should the vacancy occur after that time, the appointee would serve out the remainder of the time – in the prior example, meaning until 2028.

The package also removes a provision that makes individuals who were convicted of providing or possessing test answers for a county civil service examination ineligible to serve as a county commissioner for a period of 20 years. (This was a provision added following an investigation in the 1980s regarding allegations of that nature in Wayne County).

“We feel that a four-year term is a proper amount of time to ensure that all the things that come before a county commission can get done within a member’s term,” Moss said.

He later added that Michigan was one of only five states to continue utilizing two-year terms for county commission, and this legislation would bring the role in line with other four-year county titles such as county prosecutor, drain commissioner, and sheriff.

Some on the panel, however, were concerned about how the change could affect a constituent’s ability to offer some sort of check-in on how they believed a commissioner was doing in their position. Rep. Julie Alexander (R-Hanover), Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch), and Rep. William Sowerby (D-Clinton Township) each shared this opinion.

The commission did not vote on either bill.

OTHER BUSINESS: The panel unanimously reported HB 4833 and HB 4834, each with H-1 substitutes. Under the first bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Ellison (D-Royal Oak) would amend the General Property Tax Act to exempt qualified heavy equipment rental personal property from taxation under the act beginning Dec. 31, 2022.

The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills), would then create a new act called the Qualified Heavy Equipment Rental Personal Property Specific Tax Act which would – beginning Jan. 1, 2023 – levy a qualified heavy equipment rental personal property specific tax on each transaction of a qualified renter for renting eligible personal property. The tax would be a state-specific tax imposed directly on the customer of a qualified renter in an amount equal to 2% of the rental of the property price, net of any customer credits given at the end of the rental.

Supporting the bills were United Rentals, American Rental Association, the Michigan Municipal League, and the Michigan Association of Counties. Opposed were Operating Engineers 324 and the Department of Treasury. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce was neutral on the package.


ICRC Discusses Legal Memos in Closed Session After Threat Delay

A first-ever closed session of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was held Wednesday to discuss two legal memos surrounding Voting Rights Act compliance and the history of racial discrimination in Michigan as it relates to voting.

However, some argued the closed session may violate the constitutional language that guides the commission’s work, as it states that all meetings and business shall be conducted in public. Constitution Article IV, Section 6 (10) says that the commission must use technology to provide “contemporaneous public observation and meaningful public participation” in the process and during all meetings or hearings.

Others said even if the commission was allowed to go into closed session under the Open Meetings Act – which was up for debate as the session was called to discuss legal advice on a pair of memos and not active litigation or personnel matters – the state statute does not supersede the Constitution.

Reporters were shuttled out of the commission’s meeting area in the Michigan State University Union after it voted 11-2 to hold the closed session. The doors were shut with the windows papered to obscure the view inside. The commission remained in closed session for an hour before returning to adjourn the meeting without much of a word other than another brief explanation of why it held a closed session.

Commissioner Rhonda Lange rebuffed the motion to adjourn, noting that the commission was scheduled to work until 8 p.m. and that, based on public comment collected over the last week, there was much more work to be done. Lange and fellow Republican Erin Wagner both voted against entering a closed session.

During a press conference following the meeting, Woods and General Counsel Julianne Pastula doubled down on the commission’s right to enter a closed session to discuss memos and seek legal advice.

Pastula said, to questions from reporters, said there was no other business discussed during the closed session and that she would have not advised her clients to so openly violate the OMA.

Her interpretation OMA was rejected by another attorney following the process Wednesday.

“The Michigan Constitution requires the MICRC to conduct ALL of its business at open meetings. (Const 1963, art 4, sec 6(10)),” Dykema attorney Steven Liedel wrote on Twitter. “Under FOIA, closed OK ‘to consult with its attorney regarding trial or settlement strategy in connection with SPECIFIC PENDING LITIGATION, but only if an open meeting would have a detrimental financial effect on the litigating or settlement position of the public body.’ While OMA permits a closed session to ‘consider material exempt from discussion or disclosure by state or federal statute’ a memo from lawyer to public body is not ‘exempt’ under any statute.”

Liedel added that the Freedom of Information Act exempts information or records subject to attorney-client privilege but does allow disclosure.

“I have never advised a public body client to enter closed session to discuss a legal memo except when the memo relates specifically to a specific litigation (or other employment-bargaining exception under OMA),” he wrote. “In my view, the public has a right to know what the legal guidance – provided to the Commission at taxpayer expense – is, so the public can understand how it will affect the decisions of public officials.”

Condemnation over the closed session swiftly followed.

“Voters were promised that handing redistricting over to an ‘independent commission’ would guarantee a fair and transparent process. Sadly, as many of us predicted would happen, we’ve gotten only secrecy and incompetence,” FAIR Maps Executive Director Tony Daunt said in a statement. “There is no reason, let alone statutory authority, that provides this Commission and their attorneys the ability to discuss one of the most important aspects of redistricting – the Voting Rights Act – behind closed doors. They should immediately cease this nonsense and produce the memos they are so desperately trying to hide.”

Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gustavo Portela similarly questioned the legality of the move, calling it a “gut punch for Michigan voters.”

“Michiganders were sold on a commission that would be transparent and accountable in the creation of fair state and federal districts under the Constitution,” Portela said in a statement. “Today, after repeated violations of the Michigan Constitution, the redistricting commission entered a new low in holding a closed-door discussion about the applicability of the Voting Rights Act. It’s another gut punch for Michigan voters who were lied to about how this commission would conduct its business and create fair maps for which Michiganders could choose their representation in Lansing and in Washington, D.C.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes also questioned why a closed session was necessary.

“Last week, hundreds of people stood up in Detroit during the MICRC’s first public hearing demanding changes to the maps to ensure fair representation for Black and Brown voters. We have yet to hear the Commission’s debrief on the public hearings,” Barnes said in a statement. “Instead of having an open and transparent discussion, the Commission retreated behind closed doors to discuss VRA. This process cannot move forward until the Commission addresses what they’ve heard from the public, what was discussed in closed session, and how they plan to fix the maps accordingly.”

Public comment was cut short Wednesday because the meeting was delayed several hours due to a death threat received via email Tuesday but opened just before the meeting began on Wednesday. The body was scheduled to meet today at 1 p.m., but ICRC Communications Director Edward Woods III said the commission received the death threat at around 1:06 p.m., leading the group to alert law enforcement.

MSU Police Captain Chris Rozman said in an email that there was a report taken of a threatening email and that detectives are conducting a follow-up investigation.

“We do not believe there is any safety concern for the community and we have not determined the threat to be credible at this time,” Rozman said.

When the commission was evacuated from the room, a reporter who was present at the time noted the body was shuffled into a separate room for an extended period.

The same reporter asked Pastula how the public and the press could be sure the body was not discussing business during the closed session that was abruptly placed on the agenda following the evacuation.

Pastula said she would not put her reputation nor the commission’s at risk over an OMA violation.

When asked why the commission would ding its reputation to go into a closed session to discuss a sensitive matter with pressure mounting from all sides over the mapmaking process, Woods was adamant that the commission’s reputation was in good standing with the public even after Wednesday’s meeting.

There was also a discrepancy on when the doors of the meeting room were papered over. Woods said that was done after members were made aware of a safety threat, but did not definitively say whether that was done at the suggestion of MSU police or the commission.

While Woods maintained the windows were papered following the threat, reporters on social media had only mentioned the papered windows once the commission had resolved to go into a closed session.