Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > August 11, 2023 | This Week in Government: Potential for a Split House Grows After Mayoral Primaries

August 11, 2023 | This Week in Government: Potential for a Split House Grows After Mayoral Primaries

August 11, 2023
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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.

Potential For a 54-54 Split House Grows After Mayoral Primaries

Democrats are doing the math on the likelihood of a 54-54 split in the House following the November general election following the success of Rep. Kevin Coleman and Rep. Lori Stone in local primaries.

Coleman (D-Westland) and Stone (D-Warren) are running for mayor in their respective hometowns, and both took second place in their primary elections.

Coleman came in second with 41% of the vote to current Interim Mayor Mike Londeau, who took 44% of the vote. Stone, who won 27.7% of the vote, took second place to Warren Human Resources Director George Dimas, who won more than 33% of the vote.

Coming out of the primary, Coleman said he felt good about his chances to win the mayor’s seat in November (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Aug. 7, 2023).

“There’s only a 300-vote difference between the two of us that made it through, and any time you get above 40% in a six-way primary, you’re doing something right,” he said. “The majority of voters voted for change.”

In a statement, Londeau said he was honored to receive the highest number of votes in the primary.

“This resounding victory is a testament to the progress we have made and our plans for an even brighter future. The trust and support I have received from the citizens of Westland inspires me to work even harder to serve our community,” he said. “We’ve started a journey towards a brighter future for Westland. This achievement is a testament to our shared vision for progress. Let’s continue to build momentum and create positive change.”

Londeau also extended his appreciation to the other candidates.

“Your commitment to our community and democratic process is commendable,” he said. “Let’s continue working together for a brighter future for our city. Thank you for your efforts and passion.”

Coleman said he spoke with House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) and people from Governor Gretchen Whitmer‘s team about his plans to run for local office early into the term.

“We’ve all chatted about it, and the understanding is that a special election will be called as soon as possible,” he said. “That way, it would be a short window.”

Because Westland is holding a special election, the candidate who wins in November will take office upon certification of the election.

Coleman said that if he should win the mayor’s seat, it would be important to him that Westland still have good representation in the House.

“While I’d be laser focused on being mayor, I would still have an interest in making sure that we elect a great person to fill my shoes and advocate for Westland and our district because that’s super important,” he said.

The 25th District is a safe Democratic seat, so Coleman said he isn’t concerned about his party losing the majority.

“That kind of narrative is really not realistic because we lean so heavily towards the Democratic side of the aisle that’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s just making sure it’s the right person.”

Stone’s seat in the 13th District is similarly safe for Democrats.

Coleman said his sense was that if he wins in November, his seat would only be vacant for a few months and that the same would be true of Stone’s seat if she wins the mayoral election in Warren.

“My understanding is leadership looked at it from a legal standpoint,” he said. “So, there’s not that concern that leadership or committees would be affected.”

The possibility of a 54-54 split isn’t as big of a deal for Democrats as it could have been, said Josh Pugh, senior director of public affairs at Truscott Rossman.

“The speaker wrote the rules so that he and the Democrats retain control of the gavel at 54-54,” he said. “They don’t need 56 to retain the current set of House rule and Republicans have no way to get to a majority, so there’s nothing that would threaten that. So, when it comes to controlling the agenda, which is the first and most important reward of majority, nothing is threatened.”

The only real question is how a potential 54-54 split could delay Democratic priorities, but Coleman said that challenge would be easily solved by a quick turnaround on a special election.

“We would still have the better part of a year in 2024 to legislate,” he said. “And I think good things come to those who wait.”

Pugh agreed, saying that if both Coleman and Stone win, the question for Democrats would be how to advance their agenda without any Republican votes.

“The first six months of session were extraordinarily productive and really making up for lost time in passing things that weren’t necessarily red meat for Democrats, but were certainly things that Republicans, when they were in the majority, had no real interest in,” he said, citing the implementation of Proposal 2 and spending the state’s budget surplus. “The question is going to be now, what are those bipartisan areas of agreement?”

Pugh said that in the first half of this legislative term, the Republican caucus held together as a 54-vote block to gain leverage, but that calculus might change.

“The thing about leverage is that it doesn’t just apply to the 54 members of the Republican caucus as a block,” he said. “It can be used by individual members as well.”

If the House finds itself in an even 54-54 split, Pugh said Republican members would be faced with the question of how much they cared about supporting a bill or solving an issue and whether they could get something out of Democrats in return for their vote.

“It’s crass, but that could be a calculation,” he said.

Coleman said he chose to run for mayor in Westland because that’s where his heart is.

“It’s about where can I serve best to be most impactful,” he said. “Westland has a ton of need. The lowest amount of public safety staff that we’ve ever had, so crime is an issue. Economic development is an issue because we have vacant commercial property all over town. And the status que hasn’t done anything to improve that.”

Despite his campaign for mayor, Coleman said he’s still focused on representing his community well at the state level.

“I love representing my district and my community, and I’m going to work even harder as we go forward,” he said. “On both ends of things.”

The likelihood of the 54-54 split might be lower than everyone expects, though, Pugh said.

“Voters may seem a little ill-tempered right now with politics and with their current representatives, but that doesn’t really extend to the local level,” he said. “When you have someone locally who’s a known entity and has a demonstrated track record, voters oftentimes like that and want to stick with that known entity.”

Stone has an easier path to winning her election because everyone in Warren has an opinion about current Mayor Jim Fouts (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Aug. 7, 2023).

“She, in many ways, is running against the ghost of Jim Fouts, where Rep. Coleman has to run against a little bit more stability and competency and that’s always a little bit more stability and competency and that’s always difficult,” Pugh said. “If there’s even an implication of incumbency, you have to convince voters to vote against that before you even start talking to them about why to support you as an alternative.”

Neither Stone nor Dimas returned a request for comment on Wednesday before publication.

If either Stone or Coleman wins their local races, the game plan for Democrats should be to have them step down immediately, Pugh said.

“The clock doesn’t start until they do that,” he said. “There are a number of procedural hurdles … but you can be sure that the governor will move swiftly to make sure that voters have a chance to be represented in the State House in Westland and Warren.”

Regardless of what happens in November, Pugh said the Democratic majority will likely continue to move quickly when they return in the fall.

“Even if both of these representatives lose and you have a two-seat majority for the next 18 months, that’s only 18 months, and nothing is assured,” he said. “It’s still a narrow majority, and nothing is assured. It’s still a narrow majority, and we often have representatives who leave their seats for unexpected reasons, not just local elections. And so, you have to govern like there’s no tomorrow.”

Key Stakeholders, Lawmakers Haven’t Forgotten ‘Dark Stores’

Before 2015, once a month on Sundays, the Peter White Public Library in Marquette would hold an open-mic music program where musicians, singers, and local artists could drop in and play for a small audience.

These performances would happen while families visited the library on their days off or while students from the local high school or Northern Michigan University would meet to do schoolwork.

But then, in March 2015, the library, which serves nine surrounding townships as well as the City of Marquette, announced that it would be closing on Sundays. Library Director Andrea Ingmire said eight years later, she and her staff are still asked every day when Sunday hours will be returning.

Her answer? Likely never.

Ingmire said it pains her to tell the library patrons Sunday hours won’t be returning, but the library lost too much of its funding after 2015. She pointed to decisions by the Michigan Tax Tribunal, which ruled local big box retailers in Marquette owed less money to the city for their property taxes. Forced by slashed revenue, Sunday hours at the library were cut.

The Tribunal justifies its rulings through a method of measuring property taxes for big box retailers like Meijer, Walmart, Menards, or Lowes as if the stores were vacant.

Local governments argue this metric is unfair and leaves them with “dark stores” that have less overall property value, while retailers say the revised property value is justified.

The issue originated soon after the 2008 recession when many retail locations emptied out. A Target store in Novi brought forward a case against the city which, using the argument, said the property should be valued at $5 million less than what it was originally assessed.

Since then, the Tax Tribunal has ruled in dozens of cases lowering the value of big box retailers throughout the state, including stores in Lansing Township, Escanaba, Big Rapids, Marquette, and many others. The crux of the issue is that local budgets rely on the revenue provided by these retailers. Local governments then have two choices – raise taxes on everyone else to make up for the loss or cut local services, like library hours or road paving.

In an interview in March, Andrea Bitely, the vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association, said retailers use the metric because most of them build with a specific floor plan for their store.

This makes the property’s resale value lower because whoever would buy the lot would have to do significant renovations, she said.

The issue has long plagued municipalities in the Upper Peninsula.

Rep. Jenn Hill (D-Marquette) said she remembers when the Peter White Public Library started closing on Sundays because her husband was on the library’s Board of Trustees.

“It has a direct impact on our ability to provide local services,” Hill said. “Addressing these kinds of tax policy issues is why I ran – people are hoping we can do something about this.”

Currently, there are two bills, SB 19 and SB 20, which would remove some of the authority from the Tax Tribunal to make decisions on high-valued commercial properties and give it to a “county Board of Revision.” Any decision made by these boards would be appealed in circuit courts. Both bills have a lone sponsor, a longtime fighter of “dark stores”: Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan).

McBroom said he faces constant pressure from locally elected officials in the U.P. to get something done on the issue. Many county and township boards in the area have passed resolutions that endorsed McBroom’s bills.

“It comes up when I’m walking the street in parades,” McBroom said, “People ask about it consistently all over the U.P.”

This is a sentiment that Hill has experienced when talking to local elected officials too.

“With the staffing, we are struggling to hire firefighters and police officers and cost have gone up and we need to raise people’s pay,” Hill said. “It’s very tight in Marquette. We continue want to offer the best services to our residents and those who visit and it’s challenging.”

So far, the only action taken on McBroom’s bills is a referral to the Senate Committee on Finance, Insurance, and Consumer Protection. When probed, committee chair Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Township) said both caucuses are interested in addressing the issue, but the McBroom bills are not currently in the plans for the fall session.

This seems to be the attitude of many of the stakeholders. Neither Hill, the Michigan Municipal League, nor the Michigan Townships Association have a formal position on McBroom’s legislation but said they would like to explore crafting other legislation about the topic.

The Michigan Municipal League, which has long advocated for the Legislature to act on the issue, does not have a set timeline for seeing legislation passed, said legislative associate Dave Hodgkins, but emphasized the topic’s importance.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing this right,” Hodgkins said. “It’s really the premier thing that we’re working on.”

Hodgkins said the MML is interested in addressing self-imposed deed restrictions, which don’t allow for essentially anyone except for the previous store owner themselves to utilize the property for its intended use. It prevents other businesses that may want to use the property for possible retail purposes.

Judy Allen, the director of government relations for the Michigan Townships Association, said these deed restrictions put a “cap on the market,” because they prevent any competitors from coming into an area to utilize the store.

“They really limit how that building can be used when they’re vacant,” she said. “If there were a way to address that legislatively, I think that would have a huge impact that would be beneficial.”

There are different metrics the MML is looking at for assessing the properties, Hodgkins said, including costs assessment, sales comparison, and income-based valuations. Allen said the MTA is also examining some of these as recommended assessments.

MML, Hodgkins said, would also like to see “guardrails” when it comes to the Tax Tribunal.

“Examining the Michigan Tax Tribunal process for providing those needed guidelines for a uniform and fair treatment of the appeals process,” he said. Hill said she has “impressed upon” the entire Democratic leadership how important the issue was for her and the communities she represents.

One of the latest cases that was to face the Tax Tribunal was in the City of Houghton, where a Walmart store filed an appeal that utilized the “dark store” argument. The hearing in front of the Tribunal was expected to start on June 5 and was scheduled to last five days. On June 2, three days before the trial, it was announced by Houghton City Manager Eric Waara that the city and Walmart would come to a solution privately, and the hearing would not proceed. Since then, Waara has not responded to requests for comment from Gongwer News Service.

The Walmart, Waara said during an interview in March, was arguably the biggest retail taxpayer in the city. He said the store accounts for 10% of the law enforcement calls placed in the city. Eventually, he said, the store became a Walmart Supercenter, which he said was a herculean task by the city to help the property develop.

“A lot of small units of government have suffered over the years,” Waara said. “The ability for large corporations to take the small units of governments like us to court and Michigan law in some cases, for a lack of a better word, is on their side which feels criminal. When you explain it in real simple terms to people, they kind of screw up their eyebrows and they say, ‘How can they do that?’… and hopefully the state is going to find a way to fix this. Other states have. Michigan just seems to be lagging behind on this, but I think there is some new traction.”

Nessel Urges Legislature to Strengthen Child Labor Laws

Attorney General Dana Nessel called upon the Democratic trifecta in Lansing on Tuesday to reevaluate the strength of fines for employing minors with permits and statutes and penalties surrounding employing minors in hazardous occupations.

Nessel said so in a statement issued as a response to an Ionia man pleading guilty and being sentenced to employing a minor in a dangerous profession. A 17-year-old illegal employee’s hand was amputated by a meat grinder while working for U.S. Guys Processing in 2019 while under the supervision of the defendant, Darin Wilbur, the owner of the company.

Her comments were meant to illustrate that even though Wilbur was held accountable, the state’s labor laws were lacking in their ability to protect minors from abuse.

“Our labor laws were written to protect children from dangerous workplaces; however, they lack the teeth needed to properly hold bad employers accountable for violations,” said Nessel at the time of Wilbur’s plea. “This case highlights the need to strengthen these protections, as well as the consequences for violations, and I look forward to working with the Legislature on this critical work to protect the state’s youth.”

Wilbur was ordered to pay fines and costs of $1,143 after pleading guilty and being sentenced by Ionia District Judge Raymond Voet.

News of Wibur’s sentencing comes after the state was roiled by a bombshell New York Times investigation, which reported that migrant children are working in factories across the country, including a facility in Grand Rapids.

Hearthside Food Solutions, an Illinois-based company with multiple facilities in the Grand Rapids area, was at the heart of the Times article. The company produces packages and snacks for big-name food companies. Children interviewed for the story described working in factories lifting 50-pound cases of cereal or breathing in air filled with stinging dust from Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s Wage and Hours Division investigated the matter detailed in the Times article in February. LEO spokesperson Jason Moon told Gongwer News Service in an email that the investigation that arose from the Times article was ongoing while noting the complexity of the issues and the multiple agencies involved, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Nessel’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan.

A news release on Wilbur’s sentencing issued by Nessel’s office also stated that the LEO division received a referral for investigation after the minor was illegally employed at his processing plant. It determined that he was illegally employed under the Youth Employment Standards Act.

Additionally, the division’s investigators found that Wilbur did not ensure that the minor obtained a work permit, as is required for employing individuals under the age of 18 in Michigan.? The division’s findings were then submitted to the Department of Attorney General to pursue criminal charges.

While some in the Legislature, like Rep. John Fitzgerald (D-Wyoming), decried the potential child labor law abuses happening in Michigan, it is yet unclear how the Democratic-led House or Senate might tackle the issue or if it is a priority for them when they return from their summer break.

A message seeking comment on the matter from House Speaker Joe Tate‘s office was not returned at the time of publication.

EGLE, EPA to Resolve Civil Rights Complaint Filed by Flint Residents

The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said Thursday it had entered an informal resolution agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to resolve a complaint filed by Flint community members in late 2021.

The informal agreement with the EPA will help EGLE address some of the concerns listed out in the Title VI Civil Rights complaint. The agreement will require EGLE to:

  • Provide equitable means of input from the community on the new Environmental Justice Public Health grants included in EGLE’s 2023-24 budget;
  • Provide a Purple Air monitor for the community;
  • Enhance community engagement with local residents;
  • Continue to work on the online portal for the Air Quality Division to promote transparency, especially for permits;
  • Update public participation policies;
  • Revise and continue air-permitting focused education; and
  • Pursue funding for a community-led public health assessment.

“The agreement is not a finding by EPA or admission by EGLE of noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” EGLE said in a statement. “EGLE is confident that its program fully complies with Title VI and the protection of civil rights. The purpose of this agreement is to memorialize our ongoing commitment to environmental justice.”

Flint activists in October 2021 marched through the Capitol in protest of an AJAX Asphalt plant in Genessee Township. The activists told Gongwer News Service at the time that approximately 90% of the community knew nothing about the asphalt plant and were in protest of more pollutants released in the air.

Since the plant would be built in a majority-minority community, some activists called the decision an example of environmental racism, asking why it was to be built in a city crippled by health and environmental dilemmas a decade earlier. Mona Munroe-Younis with the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint told Gongwer that environmental racism experienced in Flint is the death of environmental justice.

EGLE approved an air quality permit for AJAX in November 2021, and some months later, the activists filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA. In February 2022, Earthjustice and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center announced a lawsuit against EGLE for approving the permits.

Recall Petitions Refiled for Four House Dems

A second attempt is being made at petitions to recall four Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield), Rep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City), Rep. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor), and Rep. Reggie Miller (D-Van Buren Township) recently had recall petitions filed against them with the Department of State’s office.

The petitions against Arbit, Conlin, and Miller cite their vote supporting HB 4474, the Michigan Hate Crime Act, which defines and prohibits hate crimes to include ethnicity and sexual orientation. The petition against Coffia cites her vote in support of HB 4145, the House’s version of gun legislation signed into law earlier this year to create extreme risk protection orders in Michigan.

“I think they would have recalled us on anything they could find,” Miller said on Thursday. “(Republicans) want the seat back, that’s very obvious, and they didn’t win it through the election process, so I think this is … the attempt they’re using.”

Arbit said that the recall petitions were not going to slow him or his colleagues down.

“If the Republicans think they can break our majority with these recalls, they are wrong,” he said. “If the Republicans think they can break our spirits with these recalls, they are also wrong.”

At the beginning of the month, the Board of State Canvassers denied recall petition attempts against seven lawmakers, including Rep. Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte), Coffia, Conlin, Miller, Rep. Sharon MacDonell (D-Troy), Arbit and Rep. Donni Steele (R-Orion). The previous petitions failed because the board members were deadlocked over whether the language was sufficiently clear (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Aug. 1, 2023). During the Board of State Canvassers

meeting earlier this month, attorney Mark Brewer argued that the petitions should be denied, stating that the handwriting on the forms was nearly identical and that the forms lacked a description of what the bills do. The new petition forms include additional information about the legislation.

Miller said that she originally didn’t think the recall attempts were coordinated, but after she heard that the handwriting was similar on the first round of petitions, she changed her mind.

Miller also said the current petitioner who filed against her, Holli Vallade, ran to represent the 31st House District last year but lost in the Republican primary. Miller went on to win that race in November.

Arbit agreed, saying that although he suspected that the petitions were coordinated, he found them “desperate.”

“What is so ironic about this is I am being recalled for delivering on my number one campaign promise – the thing above all else I promised my district and my constituents I would fight for if they elected me: combating hate crimes,” he said in a text message. “That fact has not been lost on my constituents as they have digested this news.”

The petition against Arbit was filed by Gerald Clixby of West Bloomfield, who is the same petitioner who filed against him earlier this year.

Arbit also said that Meshawn Maddock, former MIGOP co-chair who is currently facing felony charges in the false electors’ case, was in his district organizing supporters for his recall last week.

“I think Oakland County Republicans have a lot of resentment towards me, in particular,” he said. “I helped un-gerrymander West Bloomfield and take away on of their seats in Oakland County that they had held onto through the Trump years against all odds … I think I infuriate them more than many Democratic officials, partly because they know they can’t beat me in a normal election. This is just intimidation.”

The recall petition against Conlin was filed by Linda Ensley of Brighton. The petition against Coffia did not include the name of a petitioner, but the first time it was submitted, it listed Barbara Willing of Traverse City.

Despite the recall attempt, Miller said she wouldn’t change her vote on the hate crime bill.

“I’m going to vote the way I feel my constituents would want me to vote,” she said.

Within her district, Miller said she’s received a lot of positive feedback.

“It was very affirming. It was very comforting,” she said.

Democratic leadership in the House also has been very supportive, Miller said.

“They contacted me and told me what was happening with the first recall, and now, with the second one, they’ve been very supportive,” she said.

Arbit likewise said leadership and his colleagues were very supportive.

“I am most grateful for the support of Speaker Tate and my colleagues – especially those also being recalled for voting in support of my hate crime legislation,” he said. “Every single one has told me they would not take back their vote. That is what solidarity looks like.”

House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) issued a statement of support for members facing a recall attempt last month.

“House Democrats are driven by our commitment to put the people of Michigan first,” he said. “We know Michiganders want their children to be safe at school; their places of worship to be free from threats of violence; and to feel safe and secure in everyday life. Similarly, people want those who commit crimes motivated by hate and bias to be held accountable.”

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