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Sept. 3 | This Week in Government: Timely Budget Completion Expected; Group with GOP Ties Readies Voting ID Initiative

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 Appropriators See Budget Being Completed in Timely Fashion
  2. Group With GOP Ties Readies Voting ID Initiative
  3. SOS: No Political Party Committee Admin Funds for Ballot Questions
  4. Redistricting May Have to Unpack Handful of Packed Districts
  5. MI’s Colleges, U’s Slated to Receive $1.7B+ in Federal COVID-19 Relief Funds

Senate Appropriators See Budget Being Completed in Timely Fashion

Senate appropriators are confident a budget can be ironed out between the Legislature and administration and be signed before the budget deadline at the end of the month, with some federal pandemic relief dollars likely to be included in at least one supplemental appropriations package before the end of the year.

Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that budget talks continue to progress.

Stamas said appropriations subcommittee chairs are expected to have their reports completed this week. Appropriations leaders will then review them with Budget Director Dave Massaron next week and begin to hash out differences.

This progress comes on the heels of an agreement on budget targets reached late last month between appropriators and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration.

“I’m very upbeat on where we’re at,” Stamas said, adding he was confident the budget could be finished and delivered to the governor on time.

The senator said he believes a clearer picture of the differences between the Legislature and administration will emerge next week.

As in previous interviews with Gongwer News Service, he declined to get into specifics on areas that might be tough to reconcile between the different parties involved.

Lawmakers passed a record K-12 budget in late June before leaving for their traditional summer recess.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing), the Senate committee’s minority vice chair, was also optimistic about completing the budget with time to spare.

“Every person in this process has pretty strong opinions on where the money should be spent and how it should be spent, but that’s the point of sitting and working on it, and I’m glad we’re doing that now,” Hertel said.

Hertel said he believed there is a great opportunity to make significant investments in the state with the better-than-expected revenues as well as the billions in federal spending that still needs to be allocated.

A major priority for him is in infrastructure, not just in roads, bridges, and water systems, but also in people such as in job training and college programs for residents. The pandemic exposed needs in the state’s mental health system, he said, noting he would like to see an increase in the number of crisis beds as well as treatment beds.

“I don’t think anyone is opposed to the things I just said. I think it’s a matter of how and when we do those things and that’s always … the devil’s in the details,” Hertel said.

When asked about the use of traditional revenue sources and the federal money the state is sitting on, Hertel said he believed the Legislature would finish the budget and work on crafting at least one major supplemental budget bill before the end of the year and go from there.


Group With GOP Ties Readies Voting ID Initiative

A ballot question committee has formed with the goal of bringing an initiative petition before the Republican-controlled Legislature that would require voters to present identification when casting a ballot whether at a polling precinct or via the absentee system.

Secure MI Vote has not yet filed proposed petition language with the Bureau of Elections, a step that a spokesperson said should happen this week. A statement from the organization said it also would prohibit the secretary of state and local clerks from mass mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters and instead could only do so to voters requesting them. Further, the measure would ban third-party organizations from funding public elections.

For much of the year, Republicans – from Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser on down – have said they intended to use the initiative petition process to push through major election law changes. This would allow the Republican-controlled Legislature to enact an initiative petition, provided organizers collect at least 347,047 valid signatures from registered voters, with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer having no opportunity to veto.

The effort comes following the 2020 elections when unprecedented numbers of voters cast votes via the absentee process, with those voters being disproportionately Democratic.

Under current law, voters casting ballots at precincts can either show photo identification or sign a sworn affidavit attesting to their identity. Relatively few voters choose the latter option. Voters using the absentee system are subject to verification of their signature on the envelope containing their ballot against their signature in the Qualified Voter File.

Jamie Roe, a Secure MI Vote spokesperson and longtime Republican operative in Michigan, said the initiative petition would instead declare that anyone not showing identification when voting at the precincts would have their ballot segregated. That voter would then have six business days to go to their local clerk to present identification for the vote to count.

The bigger change would likely involve the absentee system. Voters, when applying for an absentee ballot, would have to either submit their driver’s license number or state identification number and the last four digits of their Social Security number, or a copy of their driver’s license and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

“When crafting this initiative, we sought to find common ground that could be supported across the political spectrum,” Roe said in a statement. “The success of this initiative will make it easier to vote, harder to cheat, and restore confidence in the electoral system for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. These changes have enormous public support, have been repeatedly upheld in U.S. courts, and we believe will be embraced by the entire Michigan electorate.”

Roe said the tougher in-person requirement would prevent potentially fraudulent votes from being counted, and he said the growing number of people voting via the absentee process means a tougher identification requirement makes sense.

“It’s not a huge hardship,” he said.

Significantly, Roe said he considered it unlikely the group would be able to submit their signatures before the end of the year. With Senate Democrats having the votes to deny immediate effect, that means if the Legislature enacted the initiative petition in 2022, it would almost certainly not take effect until 2023, as initiative petitions lacking immediate effect do not take effect until the expiration of 90 days following the sine die adjournment of the Legislature, which generally happens in December. That would mean the initiative would not affect the 2022 elections.

There are a number of procedural hurdles to clear before the group can begin collecting signatures: they have to train circulators, collect the signatures and then have the Bureau of Elections review the signatures, Roe said.

“It’s highly unlikely that we could have that done by the end of the year, but miracles do happen,” he said.

Of the likelihood that Senate Democrats would prevent immediate effect, Roe said that “immediate effect on something that 80 percent of the public supports should probably be easy but in the current political environment is probably unlikely.”

News of the initiative petition was met with intense criticism from Democrats, their allies, and voting activists.

Realistically, however, there is little to nothing they can do to stop the petition drive if Secure MI Vote collects the needed signatures and the Board of State Canvassers certifies the measure, sending it to the Legislature. Their only shot would likely be litigation and hope that the Democratic majority on the Supreme Court rules against a potential new law.

“Michigan Republicans will try every trick in the book to confuse and intimidate voters,” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said in a statement. “They want fewer people to vote because they just discovered what we have always known, when people vote, Democrats win. That is what this ballot proposal is all about, creating barriers to voting so fewer people have access to the polls.”

Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which spearheaded the anti-gerrymandering redistricting proposal of 2018, said the group would mobilize its volunteers to dissuade voters from supporting the proposal.

“A democracy only works when the voice of the people can be heard. No matter what they claim, the purpose of the GOP’s petition drive is to make it harder for some voters to vote, plain and simple. Voters Not Politicians will be alerting the public of the facts of this proposal and how it is anti-democratic and unnecessary,” she said in a statement.

Clare Allenson, Democracy for All director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, slammed the effort as seeking to perpetuate the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

Sam Inglot, deputy director of Progress Michigan, said the proposal is “nothing more than a flimsy justification for voter suppression.”

Roe, asked if this effort was the one Weiser referenced at the beginning of the year, said he anticipated Republicans would support the proposal.

“I suspect that we’re going to have broad support within the Republican Party and we’re certainly seeking that support but we’re also seeking the support of independents and Democrats,” he said.


SOS: No Political Party Committee Admin Funds for Ballot Questions

The Department of State’s Bureau of Elections, in a Tuesday preliminary response to a request for an interpretive statement, ruled that a political party committee cannot use an administrative fund to advocate for the nomination, election, and defeat of candidates as well as advocacy on ballot proposals.

In the preliminary response issued Tuesday, the bureau stated administrative accounts could continue to be used for disbursements unrelated to the party’s political activity but disbursements used for the purpose of influencing the passage or failure of a ballot question become subject to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.

“Administrative account funds may not be used to make contributions or expenditures to ballot question committees in contravention of the act’s requirements,” the initial response stated. “Allowing administrative account funds to make contributions or expenditures using money from restricted sources in an account not subject to MCFA regulations would contravene the very purpose for which the Act was created.”

The preliminary ruling stems from a request for a declaratory ruling filed in June by Robert LaBrant, who has long advocated for conservative causes and served as the former head of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee. He in the past two years has become estranged from the Republican Party, however. He requested the ruling in response to Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser declaring at the beginning of the year the party would seek an initiative petition to change election laws.

He first raised concerns in 2020 through a formal complaint with the department. This complaint was over the nonprofit Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, claiming the group was improperly registered and should instead be classified as a committee due to the donations it made to the Unlock Michigan initiative campaign. The department, in April, later found that LaBrant did not have enough evidence to prove a potential MCFA violation had occurred.

In June, however, LaBrant filed a request with six questions related to the administrative account issue. That came as a response to the chair of the Michigan Republican Party’s announced intent by the party to launch an initiative petition drive to amend state election laws.

On Monday, the Secure MI Vote ballot question committee was formed. The group intends to launch a petition drive to get an initiative before the Republican-controlled Legislature that would require voters to present identification when casting a ballot whether at a polling precinct or through an absentee ballot.

The bureau in its response to LaBrant said of the six questions posed, the key issue was whether administrative account funds could be used to make contributions or expenditures to a ballot question committee. By answering this question, the bureau wrote, the other questions posed would be answered.

“Since their inception, it remains true that administrative account funds are outside of the regulatory scope of the MCFA because they are not used for contributions or expenditures as those terms are defined in the Act,” the bureau wrote. “Administrative account funds are not designed to be used for contributions or expenditures because the administrative account is not subjected to the same source and amount restrictions that other committee under the Act are bound by.”

In its response the bureau noted if disbursements are used for a ballot question the disbursement and the account becomes subject to the MCFA and no longer can be classified as an administrative account.

Requirements under the act include the formation and registration as a committee, filing of independent expenditure reports, filing campaign finance reports containing donor disclosure and restrictions on sources and contribution amounts.

A political party would not be prevented from forming a proper committee in line with the MCFA and proceeding.

Public comments on the department’s preliminary response are due Sept. 8.


Redistricting May Have to Unpack Handful of Packed Districts

Michigan’s current legislative and congressional district maps have only a handful of areas where voting is racially polarized, meaning the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission may not have to draw new majority minority districts to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, the body learned Thursday.

That said, there were districts in Michigan that have high numbers of minority residents, and more specifically a high number of Black residents, that were also areas where the state experienced some degree of racially-polarized voting in the last decade’s major contests.

Those areas appeared to elect Black-preferred candidates – who were in some cases minorities themselves – in several of past elections with ease, and in some cases with Black polarized voting percentages as high as 90 percent. Thus, the commission may need to rethink how it redraws those districts to even out and unpack the Black voting bloc while still ensuring strength in their voting power to meet the Voting Rights Act.

The commission in that case would have to either widen or split some in half, for example, to get to a more reasonable percentage while continuing to protect minority voter power.

Revelations regarding the state’s current racial voter bloc climate came about during a presentation to the commission from its consultant, Lisa Handley, with commentary from Bruce Adelson, the commission’s Voting Rights Act attorney.

“I will tell you that there are some very packed Black districts. We have some districts that I could not produce estimates of white voting behavior because there were virtually no whites voting in these districts,” Handley said. “We have state House districts that are well over 90%, and Black preferred-candidates are getting well over 90% of the vote. … And those are not necessarily prettily shaped districts. It wasn’t like they were creating districts that were nice little compact districts.”

Handley also showed the commission how it might go about considering the requirements of the act against the maps it spent the last few weeks drafting.

Compliance with federal redistricting guidelines is the top-ranked criterion for the commission to consider per the constitutional amendment that created it. Among those guidelines are adherence to the U.S. Constitution’s mandate to create districts with equal population compared to their sister districts and adherence to the Voting Rights Act’s Section II.

The section prohibits states or local jurisdictions from applying any voting standard, practice or procedure – which includes a proposed redistricting plan – that results in the denial or dilution of minority voting strength. A redistricting plan would violate the act’s tenets if the plan “packs” a minority community into a single district or “cracks” a minority community unreasonably across several districts, essentially diluting its vote.

After detailing the various approaches to figuring out if a district indeed experienced racially-polarized voting, and to see if those districts are either packed or cracked, Handley presented her own racial bloc voting analysis of Michigan’s current maps against 2020 U.S. Census data.

Such an analysis, she said, would help the commission ascertain whether minority voters are politically cohesive and if a White voter bloc votes to routinely defeat minority-preferred candidates.

She noted that if a bloc analysis determines voting is indeed polarized along racial lines, and candidates preferred by a politically cohesive minority group are usually defeated by White voters supporting other candidates, then a district that offers minority voters an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice must be drawn.

On the other hand, if such a district already exists, and minority-preferred candidates are winning only because those districts exist, they must be maintained in a manner that still provides minority voters with an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.

Overall, Handley said she found few areas of the state where there was evidence of racially-polarized voting due to packing or cracking, but singled out area-specific analyses for Wayne, Oakland, Genesee and Saginaw counties. She also noted that Black candidates of choice appeared to win despite what appeared to be evidence of racially-polarized voting.

The analyses used elections that included minority candidates as a control to see how Black populations voted in the 2012 presidential election (Barack Obama), the 2014 Secretary of State election (Godfrey Dillard) and the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Senate elections (both times featuring John James as the Republican Party candidate). The analyses also reviewed Black turnout in the 2018 gubernatorial election, which featured Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s running mate, and the 2020 presidential election, featuring Vice President Kamala Harris as a running mate, to see how Black residents voted in those elections.

When looking at the 2018 race, Handley noted that a little more than 95% of Black voters statewide turned out to support the Whitmer/Gilchrist ticket, whereas 2.5% turned out for former Attorney General Bill Schuette and his running mate, Lisa Lyons. That race was racially-polarized and saw Black voters have the overwhelming ability to elect their candidates of choice, whereas White voters were more evenly split between the Whitmer campaign and the Schuette campaign.

The state saw several racially-polarized general elections between 2012 and 2020 in those areas, Handley noted. At the county level, Saginaw and Oakland counties were the only ones to experience racially-polarized elections in each of those major elections that featured minority candidates. In total statewide races, 11 of 13 had racially-polarized voter turnout for candidates in Saginaw and all 13 races in Oakland County.

Genesee County experienced racially-polarized voting in five of six contests with a minority candidate, but only saw nine of 13 statewide contests with polarized voting.

Wayne County, on the other hand, saw only three of six racially-polarized elections featuring minority candidates and just seven among 13 for all statewide contests.

That led Handley to caution the commission that it might not have to draw additional minority majority districts than those that already existed and noted that the commission might also want to consider breaking up some of those areas with high minority populations that aren’t quite as racially polarized.

Adelson concurred, noting that even if these areas saw 50 percent of Black voters vote for their candidate of choice, that would still put the bloc in strong position to see that candidate elected. He added that going as low as 45% or even 40% was still enough to elect minority candidates of choice.

He also noted that the commission may have to unpack the districts in question because in all his time of working in redistricting, he has never suggested, approved or endorsed majority minority districts with percentages as high as those presented by Handley.

Some watching the meeting noted that would likely be the case for the Detroit metro area, since Wayne County had less racially-polarized voting and still chose its candidates without the aid of overwhelming racially-polarized voting.

Since it was clear that some areas were packed with Black voters, Commissioner Anthony Eid (I-Detroit) and Commissioner Rhonda Lange (R-Reed City) both asked how to go about unpacking those districts.

Handley said that would all be determined by running individual racial bloc voter analyses on the maps they’ve drawn thus far, using past election data to help guide them along the way. What they may find, she added, is that the body could in some cases effectively create two districts out of one that could meet muster of the Voting Rights Act.


MI’s Colleges, U’s Slated to Receive $1.7B+ in Federal COVID-19 Relief Funds

Thanks to three separate federal packages which provided funding to deal with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Michigan’s public colleges and universities have obtained more than $1.7 billion to assist in areas such as direct student financial aid and with supplanting lost revenue.

Estimates from a recent Senate Fiscal Agency report note that while the pandemic has created immense and unprecedented operational challenges for postsecondary education institutions, Congress has allotted a total of $76.2 billion in spending across three COVID-19 relief bills to help mitigate those issues.

Three of six COVID relief packages – the CARES Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan – specifically provided funds to postsecondary institutions, with roughly 40-45% percent of those funds being earmarked for student aid, scholarships, grants or distance learning, grants for students’ basic needs, and more.

Within the first shot of funding through the CARES Act, Michigan’s public universities and community colleges received a combined, estimated $289.2 million – $192 million for the universities, $97.1 million for the community colleges – which were provided directly to each institution from the U.S. Department of Education and were not subject to the state appropriations process.

Under the second, given through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, Michigan’s public universities and community colleges received a combined total of $519.1 million. Divided up, that translates to $307.2 million for public universities and $221.9 million for the state’s public community colleges.

Finally, under the American Rescue Plan – the money of which is not yet paid out in full – Michigan’s higher ed institutions are expecting to receive at least $897.5 million.

Allocation tables for the 7.5% tranches of the rescue plan formula were not available as of the time the SFA published its memorandum. It is anticipated the state’s public universities will receive $537.2 million while its community colleges receive $360.3 million.

In all, that allots $1 billion in federal COVID-19 funding for Michigan’s public universities and $669.3 million for its community colleges.