Oct. 7, 2022 | This Week in Government: Chamber Splits Endorsements For LegislatureOctober 7, 2022
Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, provides 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.
Detroit Regional Chamber Backs Whitmer, Splits Endorsements For Legislature
The Detroit Regional Chamber endorsed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for reelection Monday and split exactly its endorsements for legislative seats between Democrats and Republicans.
Further, the organization endorsed Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for reelection but made no endorsement in the attorney general race between Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and Republican Matt DePerno.
It was another split for the Michigan Supreme Court where the Chamber endorsed Justice Richard Bernstein, a nominee of the Democratic Party, and Justice Brian Zahra, a nominee of the Republican Party, for the two eight-year terms on the ballot.
“The Detroit Regional Chamber and its PAC take pride in its tradition of bipartisanship,” said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Chamber, in a statement. “We strive to support balanced, trustworthy candidates and policies that reflect the diversity of our Detroit region membership and Board leadership.”
While there have been some surprises in what business groups have done in the governor’s race, the Chamber backing Whitmer is not one of them. It endorsed Whitmer in 2018, and while other business groups chafed at some of the pandemic orders the governor issued, the Detroit Chamber sought to work with the administration.
Other than the National Federation of Independent Business-Michigan and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, which endorsed Republican Tudor Dixon for governor, other business groups have either endorsed Whitmer or decided to remain neutral. Whitmer also has the endorsement of the Michigan Manufacturers Association and a PAC representing the interest of several chambers of commerce in the northern Lower Peninsula.
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce was the latest to declare it would not endorse, joining the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association in that category. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has yet to endorse, and it’s unclear whether it will do so.
“When we chose her in 2018, the challenges she would face could not have been anticipated,” the Detroit Chamber said. “Beyond her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s leadership in the development of Michigan Reconnect, the creation of the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund to ensure Michigan’s competitiveness and the optimization of available funds to improve Michigan’s infrastructure, support the decision to endorse her for a second term.”
It was the legislative endorsements where the group appeared determined to endorse a bipartisan slate.
For the Michigan Senate, the Detroit Chamber endorsed 10 Republicans and 11 Democrats. It endorsed in eight seats considered competitive and split with four Democrats and four Republicans endorsed:
- Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) in the 4th District;
- Former Rep. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) in the 9th District;
- Sen. Michael MacDonald (R-Macomb Township) in the 11th District;
- Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores) in the 12th District;
- Washtenaw County Commissioner Sue Shink (D-Northfield Township) in the 14th District;
- Former Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) in the 28th District;
- Sen. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) in the 30th District; and
- Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-North Muskegon) in the 32nd District.
In the House, the Detroit Chamber endorsed 27 Republicans and 27 Democrats. In the 18 races considered potentially or definitely competitive where the group endorsed, it backed nine Democrats and nine Republicans:
- Democrat Noah Arbit of West Bloomfield in the 20th District;
- Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi) in the 21st District;
- Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) in the 22nd District;
- Democrat Rob Kull of Frenchtown Township in the 28th District;
- Rep. Alex Garza (D-Taylor) in the 29th District;
- Republican Dale Biniecki of Erie in the 31st District;
- Republican Kevin Whiteford of Casco Township in the 38th District;
- Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek) in the 44th District;
- Republican Kathy Schmaltz of Jackson in the 46th District;
- Republican Donni Steele of Orion Township in the 54th District;
- Rep. Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills) in the 55th District;
- Republican Thomas Kuhn of Troy in the 57th District;
- Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) in the 58th District;
- Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township) in the 76th District;
- Republican Jeff Johnson of Ada in the 80th District;
- Former Rep. Lynn Afendoulis of Grand Rapids Township in the 81st District;
- Republican Lisa DeKryger of Wyoming in the 83rd District; and
- Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) in the 103rd District.
A full list of the Detroit Chamber’s endorsements can be found on the Elections page of the Gongwer website.
Dixon Statewide Campaign Push Relitigates Whitmer COVID Policies
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon this week set off on a campaign tour primarily in business locations that were either directly affected by the COVID pandemic policies of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or sued to fight against the governor’s 2020 health orders.
Light on campaign cash and without a mechanism to place advertisements on TV from her own committee, Dixon has opted for a shoe-leather strategy, with a renewed focus on Whitmer’s COVID policies to frame them as her administration’s biggest failure.
The candidate and her choice for lieutenant governor, former Rep. Shane Hernandez, held what they dubbed as a freedom rally on Tuesday at Iron Pig Smokehouse in Gaylord and the following day held another such rally at Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria in Holland. Both locations were closed during the pandemic.
In the case of Iron Pig, the owners sued the Department of Health and Human Services in Otsego Circuit Court, contending that the health orders were unconstitutional and that it shouldn’t have to pay associated fines for defying them. It won at the trial court level, but DHHS has since appealed the decision and remains active in the Court of Appeals (Iron Pig v. DHHS – COA Docket No. 360175). Notably, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear the case in April and denied a motion to bypass the appellate court (See Gongwer Michigan Report, April 1, 2022).
Marlena’s Bistro was the subject of enforcement of those COVID policies in that its owner, Marlena Pavlos-Hackney, was arrested for violating the emergency health orders issued by DHHS and held in contempt of court. Her story acts as a major calling card for Republicans attempting to frame Whitmer’s and her agencies’ COVID policies as an overreach that saw businesses not only closed but with their owners held as quasi-political prisoners, which was a GOP talking point (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 22, 2021).
Those two scenarios are what Dixon aimed to highlight on her statewide tour this week.
In Gaylord, she was joined by Hernandez as well as Iron Pig owner Ian Murphy, Diane Schindlbeck, owner of Schindy’s on Diamond Lake in White Cloud and co-chair of the Michigan Trump Republicans, and Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton), who is the Republican nominee for the 36th Senate District.
“It wasn’t that long ago that Gretchen Whitmer single-handedly closed down our businesses, locked our kids out of school, shut down our churches, and stuffed sick patients in nursing homes,” Dixon said then. “Whitmer’s tyrannical orders closed down thousands of restaurants and robbed hardworking residents of their livelihoods. I’m running for governor because Michiganders deserve better than the queen of lockdowns.”
Whitmer did order the closure of K-12 schools from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through the remainder of the school year. But she and the Legislature approved a law to reopen them that fall. Whitmer did issue an order closing high schools around the time of the 2020-21 school year winter break. Whitmer did ban all gatherings of various numbers of people in all shared indoor spaces at various points of the pandemic but exempted houses of religious worship from any penalties.
The governor’s orders did close restaurants to indoor dining for long periods between March 2020 and the summer of 2021. Whitmer briefly ordered nursing homes to house residents who tested positive for COVID if they could safely do so but quickly rescinded the order. The Legislature later passed, and Whitmer signed legislation similar to the order.
Dixon said as governor, she would have “instead partnered with our community leaders, neighboring states, and the people of Michigan to follow the science, share the facts and enable individuals to make choices for themselves. There would have been no extreme lockdowns, no extended school closures, and no restrictions and mandates that were outright confusing or cruel.”
Dixon also framed Whitmer’s orders as draconian, contrasted against the backdrop of her campaign promise to unwind nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s regulatory code within the first four years of her would-be administration.
Murphy said he was “humbled and proud” to host the candidate.
“Her visit today cements the notion that she understands and has the backs of Michigan’s small businesses when it comes to executive branch overreach,” Murphy said. “It’s time to rein in these agencies and Tudor’s private sector experience gives her tremendous insight into how difficult it is wading through bureaucracy, even before lockdowns and mandates.”
He added in further remarks that Iron Pig’s defiance had “never been about politics, but a matter of economics.”
“I believe our state’s best chance for a bright economic future lies within these two candidates,” Murphy said. “We are excited to have Dixon/Hernandez join our fight to save Michigan from four more years of Big Gretch as we head to the Supreme Court to fight for our business!”
The Iron Pig case is pending before the Court of Appeals.
In Holland, Dixon and Hernandez were joined by Pavlos-Hackney, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), 79th House District candidate Angela Rigas of Caledonia, and former Holland mayor Nancy DeBoer, who is the Republican nominee for the 86th House District.
The visit propped Pavlos-Hackney as a “lockdown warrior” who stood up to Whitmer’s administration. There were hundreds of supporters at the Holland rally, the campaign said, which required a spillover event to be held outside so Dixon could address all of those who came to hear her speak.
“Gretchen Whitmer’s draconian and extreme lockdown policies are still impacting Michiganders who are struggling to make ends meet,” Dixon said then. “Just this week, it was reported that Michigan small businesses closed at a higher rate than any other state in the country. That is her economic legacy. She singlehandedly shut down our state and continues to rule as a tyrannical and all-powerful queen. This November, we will take back our state, support our businesses, partner with parents, and stand up for common sense policies.”
Her next stop is a town hall event to be held Friday evening at an Emagine Theater location in Rochester Hills. A different location of the theater chain in Royal Oak sued Whitmer over her COVID orders shutting down movie theaters, but it was a case that the theater lost – U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney of the Western District of Michigan in late 2020 denied the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction in CH Royal Oak LLC v. Whitmer (USWDM Docket No. 20-000570). The case was later dismissed.
The town hall is billed as an “ask me anything” type of event made popular on the digital media platform Reddit, where celebrities start threads on message boards to give fans a spontaneous chance to interact with said celebrity. Arizona GOP gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake has employed the same tactic in several campaign events.
In response to Dixon’s campaign movements this week, Whitmer campaign spokesperson Joseph Costello said the incumbent governor “faced an unprecedent crisis” during the pandemic and that she “took quick action and studies confirm her leadership saved lives.”
“The governor has cut taxes for small businesses and invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create and retain jobs well into the future,” Costello said in a statement to Gongwer News Service. “While Gov. Whitmer is moving Michigan forward – putting more than 170,000 Michiganders on a tuition-free path to higher education and skills training and fighting to cut taxes for working families, Tudor Dixon would drag Michigan backward and weaken the economy with her opposition to bipartisan economic development deals landing thousands of new jobs and her DeVos-backed agenda to ban abortion, slash infrastructure funding and dismantle public schools.”
School Board Races Highlight Statewide Tension
Contests for local school boards this November have gained statewide attention as those opposed to discourse surrounding LGBTQ issues and racism in the U.S. are seeking seats in various districts as part of a movement that seems to have morphed from anger at coronavirus restrictions.
Decisions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 were tolerated at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. However, as the months went on, many parents struggled to understand why their children were still learning virtually, especially as initial studies and anecdotal evidence showed strictly virtual learning was not beneficial for students.
Months into the 2020-21 school year, some parents and many conservatives were adamantly opposed to masking and vaccination requirements in schools. However, these same masking requirements and online schooling were also blamed as the reason for fewer students attending public schools.
COVID-19 has since been pushed to the back burner, but there is no question that schools’ decision for students’ health has sparked an anger for some and has led to questioning decisions made by school boards, particularly from Republicans. In addition to a lack of transparency, many Republicans are incensed by the notion that public schools are indoctrinating students with a “Marxist agenda” that includes critical race theory, social and emotional learning, and gender and sexual orientation ideology.
However, some who are part of this movement say it is apolitical, even if conservatives might be more accepting of the message. Republicans, though, made a concerted effort to recruit school board candidates heading into the 2022 election.
While CRT is currently not taught in schools, many districts include literature that advocates for diversity and inclusion. Regarding gender ideology, educators have discussed the possibility of students coming out as members of the LGBTQ community, even if their parents are not made aware.
With the election less than 40 days away, the usually sleepy and hyper-local seat of local school board members has become a political minefield. “Parents Against Whitmer” has labeled itself a grassroots group. However, it caused some speculation as to who was behind the grassroots movement when the coalition was launched by the Michigan Republican Party in June (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 15, 2022).
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon has also made parental involvement and issues in schools, such as book banning and the so-called indoctrination of students a key part of her campaign.
Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield), in a recent interview with Gongwer News Service, said she personally felt it was a grassroots movement of parents and community members who have advocated for taking more of a role in their children’s education.
“Now that we’re two years in, a lot of people are much more organized,” Hornberger said.
The focus on school boards has been seen nationwide, starting with anger at mask requirements and then turning into an uproar about books at school libraries and seeking to get some banned.
In Michigan, the increased focus can be seen at State Board of Education Track meetings where public comment at times has lasted for hours with individuals calling in with a seemingly coordinated message related to culture war topics.
The Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also pivoted to school districts to determine if individual districts would be open in person or virtually at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Districts were also in charge of determining mask requirements as the pandemic started to wind down.
A source with connections to local school boards speaking on background said school boards are very aware of the highly politicized candidates on the ballot this fall.
“Some members are worried about who does win and what direction they could take the district,” the source said.
While school boards have been highly aware of the target on their backs since COVID-19, it seems to have only become bigger, the source stated.
Many of these candidates, the source said, are running on a single issue, such as opposing critical race theory, social and emotional learning, and diversity and inclusion.
Even more concerning to the source was that many of these candidates are not fully aware of how these districts are run.
Hornberger, a former school board member, also echoed these same concerns. The former public school teacher said she felt almost hypocritical about sending her child to a private school rather than a public school and opted instead to run for the school board to see if she could implement some changes.
She called the experience “eye-opening,” and said change is slow in politics no matter what level. Hornberger said because the school boards are so intertwined with the public, many on the boards are afraid to make decisions in fear they could upset at least half of the community.
“I think a lot of people, if they do get elected, and they just keep the kids, our students as their focus … I think that they’ll do a good job, but I hope that they don’t just go in and just start being divisive on either side,” Hornberger said.
Regardless of party, Hornberger said it was important that more voices are involved.
Republicans, ahead of the 2022 election, made an effort to recruit candidates for the school board. In an April email to supporters, the Oakland County Republican Party announced an event for interested individuals to learn what running for school board entails and what would happen if elected.
“Leftist extremism has ventured far too deep into our schools, and our children deserve better from their educators,” the email from the Oakland GOP said. “We need more common-sense, conservative citizens on our school boards throughout the county.”
Matt Wilk is the director of the Get Kids Back to School PAC, which supports candidates who “will push back the tide of erosion on the traditional curriculum,” particularly candidates who push back against “wokeness.”
Wilk said the candidates he is endorsing advocate for an increase in transparency, authentic parental engagement, and parental choice. He mentioned how over time, teachers have been asked to take on situations that they “aren’t good at,” asking why there were COVID clinics in schools, saying that’s not the schools’ purpose.
“Schools were asked to hand out free lunches all summer, free food all summer. We’re acting as a food bank. Inappropriate,” Wilk said. “Now you saw this last cycle, schools were asked, were pushed into demanding that their parents make medical decisions on behalf of their kids. Those are parent decisions, not school decisions.”
Wilk mentioned Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and a scene in the book depicting “graphic incest.” This book and many others like it have been brought before the State Board of Education Track during public comment, with many saying they found it too inappropriate for their school-aged children.
Wilk said there were parents coming in while he was serving on a local school board who voiced their opposition and their support of the novel. He said they ultimately decided to post the pages for parents to read and choose between that novel or “Fahrenheit 451.”
All of the candidates endorsed by Wilk’s PAC are in contested races. Wilk said some interesting feedback he has heard from his endorsed candidates when they talk with constituents and parents is that people’s opinions about school operations do not align with party politics.
“There are some on the right who wouldn’t agree with me and there are some on the left who would,” Wilk said.
One of the areas that saw considerable angst about COVID closures was the Ann Arbor Public Schools, which remained in a virtual learning mode well into the 2020-21 school year, and a large number of parents in the state’s most liberal city were furious.
He said there are candidates who identify themselves as apolitical but care about their schools. Wilk pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, reading scores, saying just because a student was a B+ before and tested at a B+ now doesn’t mean there was no learning loss since the test is graded on a curve.
“There’s almost more enthusiasm around fixing schools than there is in any other sort of political issue that’s going on right now,” Wilk said.
As to issues related to the coronavirus and schools, Wilk said he took issue with schools trying to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated kids, and most of the candidates he endorsed would disagree with this decision.
“That’s not their job, they’re not in the public health field,” Wilk said of school administrators.
While it is not politically affiliated, Wilk said Republicans are typically more sympathetic to their message, especially parental choice, and parental engagement. He said Dixon is definitely aligned with the PAC’s message of parental involvement.
“The tough part for the sitting governor is that most parents know that she had the ability to make changes and she chose not to,” he said. “For example, she could have eliminated virtual classes for the districts that really struggled getting back online.”
Wilk expressed his disapproval of virtual classes going on past the end of the 2019-20 school year, saying the learning loss in the Detroit Public Schools Community District was massive.
Wilk also said he was taking steps to make sure his candidates understand how schools work and what they can do if they are elected to school boards. As a former school treasurer, he said many functions are challenging, but “slicing it up into little pieces” can make the work more manageable.
In 2020, the Northville School Board voted to remove Wilk after he posted on social media that the coronavirus was a hoax.
Still, Wilk recounted how his district was one of the first to post its check register online, saying every check per month the school district sends out is available to the public. Wilk said the board encouraged onlookers to alert the school district to a cheaper alternative if they saw something the district could save money on.
Gongwer asked Wilk about his endorsed candidates’ stances opposed to critical race theory and gender identity and sexuality education, asking if these would also be key issues that could garner a Get MI Kids Back to School endorsement.
“I feel like a vast majority of my candidates feel that you have to meet children where they are and if a child presents to you gender confusion, as a school you want that kid to be educated you have to work from where they are,” Wilk said. “When the school’s belief for how these non-educational issues should be handled is different than what the parents think and that’s where the problem is.”
It’s not up for the schools to say that they don’t approve of how parents are raising their kids, Wilk said.
The Freedom of Information Act has also been a debate for parents. Many have requested curriculum and school expenses, sharing online they have struggled with receiving the information. Wilk said FOIA should be unnecessary when it comes to curriculum, and parents should have ready access to their child’s reading material.
Schools counter that the curriculum is generally available online.
There is a feeling that parents have that schools are almost a bureaucracy, Wilk said.
He also said FOIA is “not a maximum, it’s a minimum,” and a school district can always provide more information than the FOIA requires.
Becky Olsen started an organization with other mothers called Support Forest Hills Public Schools in the 2021-22 school year when a recall attempt against five of the seven school board members began, initiated by the Forest Hills for Just Education group. She said this group tried to gain momentum in the community by advocating for more regular bus services during the bus driver shortage.
“They very quickly pivoted to this whole anti-CRT message in schools and what we started to see happening very clearly alongside the national narrative of trying to attack public schools,” Olsen said, saying the Michigan-based group started to follow along with what was happening in Texas and Virginia.
“To me, one of the most telling things that occurred (was) in December 2021, they were approaching the deadline for the recall petitions that they had hoped to advance, and they held a campaign signing event at a location with Ryan Kelley,” Olsen said. “That sort of opened the door of what was really happening here, that this was not about school bus service.”
Kelley was a Republican gubernatorial candidate best known for participating in anti-COVID regulation demonstrations and the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Olsen said it was an attempt to have a “clean slate for hyper partisan or America First” candidates who want to rebuild public education from the ground up.
She recounted that when the Forest Hills for Just Education group launched the recall attempt, the community was “horrified.” It started with a private Facebook group called “Stop the Attacks,” with more than 1,100 members in its group. Then, in October 2021, they decided to file as a political action committee at the state level, citing former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ plan to bring tax monies to parents who send their children to private schools.
In an attempt to raise money, Olsen said they sold two versions of yard signs, one saying “We love our public schools,” and a few variations of car stickers. Their Facebook page also has almost 1,000 followers and is available on Instagram, where the group shares information combatting political rhetoric.
“What we tried to do all along is share factual information not just about, not just ‘hey this stuff you’re hearing about CRT, let’s take a look at where it actually came from. It came from a think tank and here’s the guy who tweeted about who said he’s going to make this a thing,’ and let that guide you,” Olsen said. “This isn’t something that some kids came home from Forest Hills Public schools with assignments that were labeled CRT on the headline.”
The group is now working on a proactive approach for the upcoming election year. In her district alone, Olsen said 13 candidates have filed to run for local school boards. Olsen stated how in years past, parents who were involved in their communities would run for school boards. Now, she said groups like the Forest Hills for Just Education have their own candidates running on a more political platform.
To help educate voters, the Support Forest Hills Public Schools organization sent surveys to the candidates, specifically asking the candidates what their goals are for the district. Olsen said nine of the 13 candidates responded to the survey, with the candidates who called for the recalls the year prior failing to respond to the survey.
They also hosted a community forum for the candidates, moderated by a third party, and sent out a survey for the community, gauging what parents and residents felt was important in terms of education and what matters to them in this election. They endorsed three candidates based on the information provided to them via the survey; finding candidates who were welcoming to diverse students and supported social and psychological safety were top priorities. She also said funding the district rather than limiting it was a key priority for survey takers.
“I really think the recall sparked a lot of activism in people,” Olsen said about the past year. “People were just so offended.”
There was no reason for this at all, she said, of the vitriol schools her school district has faced.
MSF OKs SOAR Funds for Two Large EV Battery Projects
State and local officials hailed the incentives set to be awarded for two large electric vehicle battery production sites in Michigan on Wednesday, calling the developments, which are expected to create thousands of jobs, a huge win for the state.
Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund monies will be part of state and local incentive packages for both billion-dollar projects, which are projected to create a combined 4,462 jobs.
SOAR Fund dollars may also be used for a wastewater infrastructure project in Ottawa and Muskegon counties. That project is expected to spur spending by multiple companies and create 145 jobs.
Lawmakers will have to approve the use of the SOAR dollars to make it official.
On Wednesday, the projects were announced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The Michigan Strategic Fund Board Track met Wednesday morning and approved the state incentive packages.
The first project is a $2.36 billion EV battery plant to be built near Big Rapids by Gotion, a subsidiary of an EV battery company based in China that has locations in the United States. Gotion expects the battery components manufacturing facility project to bring 2,350 jobs to the region.
A second project, a $1.6 billion battery manufacturing campus to be built by Novi-based Our Next Energy, would be in Van Buren Township and is expected to create 2,112 new jobs.
The wastewater infrastructure project is expected to allow for additional wastewater capacity and should spur a combined $187 million in spending between multiple food and agricultural industry companies and create about 145 jobs.
“I am proud that Republicans and Democrats worked across the aisle to build up our economic development toolkit and empowered Michigan to compete for every project and every job,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Together, we will continue winning investments in this space and become the preeminent destination for electric vehicle and mobility companies. We will work with anyone and compete with everyone to keep bringing supply chains of batteries, chips, and electric vehicles home to Michigan.”
At least three other projects have received funding from the state’s SOAR Fund since the program began in December 2021. Ford and General Motors are among the companies that previously received incentives.
Last week, the Legislature approved a $1 billion supplemental appropriations package that included $846 million for the SOAR Fund (See Gongwer Michigan Report, September 28, 2022).
Not everyone has been happy with the use of state funding for certain projects.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon has been critical of the Gotion project. Last week, she questioned what she called the providing of “taxpayer-funded corporate welfare” to a Chinese-backed company, going further in a statement when she asked: “Why is Gretchen backing China over her own country?”
There has been some opposition from a few Republican lawmakers over replenishing the SOAR Fund, given that Ford Motor Company was provided $100.8 million in June before announcing in August that it planned to lay off 3,000 employees.
The Gotion incentive package includes two SOAR Fund performance-based grants. The first is a $125 million Critical Industry Program grant, and the other is a $50 million Strategic Site Readiness Program grant. The latter grant will be administered through The Right Place, a western Michigan economic development organization that helped secure the project. The state also approved a Designated Renaissance Zone totaling $540 million. Local governments in the project area also have approved a 30-year renaissance zone for the project.
When operational, the Big Rapids facility is anticipated to produce 150,000 tons of cathode material per year, with two production plants on-site. Two production plants producing up to 50,000 tons of anode material per year also will be built.
The ONE Circle facility in Van Buren Township will receive an incentive package, including SOAR Fund grant dollars and a $200 million Critical Industry Program grant. Also included in the package is a State Essential Services Assessment Exemption of $21.6 million and a $15 million Jobs for Michigan Investment Fund loan.
The facility will be the company’s first cell and EV battery pack gigafactory. The company anticipates scaling up to 20 gigawatt hours of capacity within five years and would include raw material refinement, cathode materials production and cell and battery manufacturing.
A $60 million SOAR Fund Strategic Site Readiness Program performance-based grant was also approved Wednesday for the Southeast Regional Force Main project. The project would allow Coopersville to redirect wastewater north to the Muskegon County Resource Recovery Center.
The additional wastewater capacity would allow for additional growth by several companies in the region, with expected capital spending of $187 million by industry and leading to 145 new jobs.
Despite the pockets of opposition, the response to Wednesday’s announcements was positive.
“We are thankful to the Big Rapids community, state of Michigan and all who have supported us in getting the project to this important milestone,” Gotion Global Vice President Chuck Thelen said. “We are dedicated to bringing world class lithium battery production to North America and delivering high-quality products to our customers in a timely fashion. We look forward to our continued partnership to ensure a smooth launch.”
Our Next Energy Founder and CEO Mujeeb Ijaz also expressed excitement at the possibilities involving his company’s project.
“ONE is thrilled to select Michigan for our first cell factory, due to the state’s unique combination of battery talent, proximity to material supply and access to low-cost energy,” Ijaz said. “We applaud the leadership of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the MEDC team, led by Quentin Messer. In addition, our collaboration and new strategic partnership with DTE Energy, Van Buren Township, and Wayne County have helped ONE build a strong foundation for clean tech manufacturing in Michigan.”
Area lawmakers who supported the wastewater project proposal said they were pleased about the infrastructure buildout in their region.
“This project is a prime example of how government should work to solve a problem and bolster our state’s economy,” Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-North Muskegon) said in a statement. “The approval of this wastewater pipeline will ensure that the agricultural industry in Muskegon and Ottawa counties can continue to operate safely and give them the opportunity to grow and expand here in West Michigan.”
Rep. Terry Sabo (D-Muskegon) agreed, saying the project was long overdue.
“It’s been at least a decade in the making for this project to receive the comprehensive funding it deserves, and I want to send a huge thank you to the MEDC and the Southeast Regional Force Main team for their efforts in making these community-changing funds come to Muskegon County,” Sabo said in a statement.
Rep. Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville) said the project would help the city grow, calling it an investment that will allow growth without overextending infrastructure capacity.
“Our agricultural community relies on wastewater treatment to process our agricultural products into food and this collaborative effort with Muskegon County will ensure the city can continue to prosper and support our farmers,” Meerman said.
How Transparent Do Tax Tribunal Hearings Need to Be?
A bill that would amend the Tax Tribunal Act to allow Michigan Tax Tribunal hearings that involve commercial trade secrets to be exempt from the Open Meetings Acts and Freedom of Information Act disclosure requirements is too broad, some officials argued, while supporters of the legislation said it was necessary.
The House Local Government and Municipal Finance Committee Track met Wednesday to discuss HB 5697 Track, sponsored by Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland).
The proposed legislation would add a new provision to the Tax Tribunal Act that would allow qualifying tribunal hearings to be held in a closed session and would exempt trade secrets and other confidential information or testimony from FOIA disclosure. If a party appealing to the tribunal could establish that certain evidence contains trades secrets or other personal, research, development or commercial information that has been kept out of the public domain, then the tribunal would have to grant a protective order that keeps the information confidential.
This would make it easier for businesses and other parties to appeal the amount they are being taxed, supporters of the bill said.
“Taxpayers should never be forced into the conundrum to choose between maintaining the confidentiality of their private business information and appealing their tax valuations,” said Mike Johnston, vice president of governmental affairs and workforce development for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, who testified in support of the bill.
Dan Stanley, a tax appeals attorney, also testified in support of the bill.
“As the language exists right now, they don’t have the tools to protect taxpayer information,” he said of the Tax Tribunal.
Some lawmakers questioned the language of the bill, saying that it provided businesses with a blank check to keep things out of public view.
“I’ve always followed and respected business trade secrets, things that needed to be kept within that process. My concern here with this bill is that it keeps everything open,” said Rep. William Sowerby (D-Clinton Township). “Anything and everything that a business may want to deem confidential and not open to FOIA … I’m concerned that this is a little bit too broad.”
Although supporters agreed the language could be narrowed down, Stanley said there was an argument to be made to keep it broad.
“It has to be broad because you don’t know what type of confidential information is going to be sought,” he said. “Imagine you’re a bank: Do you want the location of your vault and the blueprint for your vault coming into public record? There’s no state statute or federal statute. It’s not a trade secret. But you really don’t want anybody to know this is where you hit the concrete if you want to go into the vault.”
Sowersby said that because a business was contesting the number of tax dollars it owed, there needed to be a degree of openness to the process.
“You can’t say I’m going to contest these local taxes or state taxes or whatever and then expect everything to be given your way at tribunal,” he said.
Judy Allen, director of government relations for the Michigan Townships Association, said that although the organization agreed with the bill’s concept, its scope was too broad.
“Our bottom-line concern is just to make sure that the scope is narrowed as to what we’re referencing to provide clarity and streamline that process, if possible,” she said. “The question presented is finding that balance – ensuring there’s uniformity for fair taxation, for protecting taxpayers, and protecting local units and protecting that specific information for businesses.”
Ideally, the bill should define what information could be considered confidential, said Scott Smith, city attorney for the city of Wyoming, who testified during the meeting.
“Protective orders should be written as narrowly as possible,” he said. “As the bill is written … every party desiring secrecy would simply prepare all records and coach all witnesses to include confidential information.”
He suggested that confidential information should be defined as information that cannot be disclosed under federal and state law or a court order, information that’s exempt from disclosure under FOIA, information that, if disclosed, could competitively disadvantage a party, or information that could reasonably compromise the security of a place or person.
“We think that instead, a party should be required to redact the confidential information, much as we do in response to FOIA requests now, and that a process should be in place where only that part of the proceed at which confidential information is the focus of the discussion should be held in secret,” he said.
Transparency should remain a priority of the process, Sowerby said.
“Sometimes that transparency keeps everybody honest and keeps everybody from rushing to the table because they can hide things that maybe their competitor may want to know and possibly have the right to know. And if we are not a society and a state of this kind of transparency, especially at the taxation level, I see all kinds of problems,” he said. “There certainly are legal ways to keep things out but – darn it all – the public has the right to know.”
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