Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Sept. 8, 2023 | This Week in Government: Dingell, James Discuss Budget, Mental Health, and Other Issues

Sept. 8, 2023 | This Week in Government: Dingell, James Discuss Budget, Mental Health, and Other Issues

September 8, 2023
Detroit Regional Chamber Presents This Week in Government, powered by Gongwer, Michigan's home for Policy and Politics news since 1906

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.

Dingell, James Discuss Budget, Mental Health, and Other Issues

BIRMINGHAM – U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and U.S. Rep. John James gave their thoughts on a variety of issues the country is facing, including the budget process, mental health and caregiver crises, as well as an age limit for elected officials.

During a lunch hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber on Thursday, Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) and James (R-Shelby Township) fielded questions from WJR-AM morning host Guy Gordon and audience members, starting with the negotiations of the budget before the start of the fiscal year.

The U.S. government will shut down at the end of September 30 if Congress does not pass spending legislation. There are currently 11 of the 12 appropriations bills that need to be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, and Dingell said Wednesday that in reality, the bills would likely not get done. She called for a continuing resolution that would fund the federal government for the short term.

“I flatly believe that it is the wrong way to govern is to shut the government down. It is not responsible. It is not the way we run our government, endanger some national security and there are government colleagues that you depend on every single day for all kinds of things, from TSA at the airport, to our military, to your food safety. I could go through the list of things,” Dingell said.

Members of the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House are threatening to shut down the government if their list of demands is not met, like restarting construction of the border wall and an open impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

Gordon asked how representatives could overrule the partisan side of the parties, particularly the House Freedom Caucus. James said he introduced a bill called “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” that would stop the pay of congressional members if the government shuts down.

“And I put that bill on floor because these fools, these selfish fools, are taking hostages with American lives,” James said. “You know what happens when you shut the government down? What happens is when a veteran who’s struggling with PTSD on his or her last legs reaches out for help for a veteran hotline, they pick it up and they get a busy signal.”

Child care and senior care also were discussed at length by the congressional members. When asked about the child care crisis, Dingell said the country was going through a caregiver crisis affecting both children and seniors.

“We do not have enough caregivers. We do not have enough people and while we’re focused on child care, senior care … so many women left the workplace found themselves sandwiched taking care of young children and their parents at the same time,” Dingell said.

She continued to say that there are those who have immigrated to the country who would be eager to work in care giving spaces and James agreed, saying the federal government had a role in helping care providers and changes to tax and immigration laws were key to absolving the issue.

The representatives also touched on the need for support services to tackle mental health. Dingell recalled when former Gov. John Engler cut the budget for mental health and closed nearly all state mental health institutions.

“We have too many people that are homeless,” she said. “I think we’ve got people that use drugs and drink alcohol because they suffer from anxiety and depression and they self-treat and they take care of that. We don’t have enough providers.”

James talked about the stigma around discussing mental health issues, saying that many veterans try to hide their “invisible wounds of war.”

“We need to have a system or a plan or a resource that is driven from your communities, not from the top down, but addressing the need from the communities up the grassroots, up to be able to better take care of folks who are going through mental issues,” James said.

Though the two agreed on nearly every topic, there was much disagreement regarding an age limit being introduced for elected officials, particularly congressional members and the presidency. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) have endured calls to retire after health issues caused absences.

James, a freshman congressman in his early 40s, said the world is not slowing down, it’s only becoming faster.

“I believe that if you look at what will make us move forward, is there are too many of us who are dealing with issues at home that are not reflected in our policymakers,” James said. “You have issues with students coming out with degrees they can’t use, a debt they can’t pay, because it’s not on a priority list of people who are in their 80s.”

The country needs a new generation of leadership, he said.

He also mentioned how both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden would be in their 80s if either is elected to presidency. Both would be older than former President Ronald Reagan, who was done with his second term by his late 70s.

“I remember growing up and hearing that he was too old back then,” James said.

Dingell, who has affectionately refers to herself as “seasoned,” disagreed with James, saying that seniors are entitled to have representation too.

“I think there is such a thing as term limits and it’s called voting every two years, every four years and every six years,” Dingell said. “People need to pay attention. Your vote matters.”

She said the real issue with elections is money and said she wished they could find a way to make money less prevalent to politics.

Report: State Losing Billions Due to Lack of Child Care

The need for child care costs Michigan nearly $3 billion annually in untapped economic potential, according to a new report released Tuesday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, in partnership with the Grand Rapids Chamber, Michigan Chamber, and the Early Childhood Investment Corporation.

Business and early childhood leaders met in Grand Rapids on Tuesday to discuss the report and Michigan’s current child care landscape and how it affects working parents, employers, communities, and the economy.

The cost can be broken down into direct labor costs and direct tax revenue loss. Employee turnover costs employers $1.04 billion annually, and employee absences cost employers $1.26 billion annually. The current employee turnover rate means the state is losing $460 million in state tax revenue. Because of employee absenteeism, the state is losing $116 million annually for a total loss of $2.88 billion, the report stated.

“The findings … denote clearly for Michigan policymakers the need to become creative in addressing the child care dilemma,” said Jim Holcomb, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “We want employees to be able to bring their best every day.”

Data for the report was collected with the help of Cicero Group, which conducted a statewide survey of 501 Michigan parents with children under the age of six years old. The survey found that 14% of parents left a job in the past six months due to child care needs, and 52% of parents needed to make a significant change to their school or work training due to child care issues during the last 12 months.

One data point not addressed directly by the report was the inability of child care locations to hire enough employees. That contributed to the shortage of child care in the state overall, said Dawne Bell, CEO of the Early Childhood Investment Corporation.

There were also not enough child care facilities to meet the needs of Michigan parents. The study noted data from a 2020 report by the Michigan League for Public Policy, which found that of the approximately 560,000 Michigan children under the age of 6, there are only enough licensed child care facilities to provide care for 31% of them.

About 71% of Michigan families pay for child care for children younger than six years old, and 58% of families pay for child care out of their personal budget, spending an average of $672 a month on child care, the survey found. Most of the parents surveyed use at least one governmental assistance program to help pay for child care, with the most common being the Child Tax Credit.

Most low- and middle-income parents have experienced employment changes due to child care issues. The survey found that 75% of parents in this income bracket made a change in their employment, and 47% are considering leaving the workforce in the next 12 months to meet their child care needs.

“That’s definitely very alarming,” said Marcus Keech, director of government affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Child care is critical to current workforce development and future workforce development, said Kuna Tavalin of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Access to child care allows for greater stability for workers, which results in better productivity. Additionally, early childhood education is critical for learning and development, which helps kids in the long run.

“Having access to affordable and high quality child care really is the critical first step of building an excellent workforce,” Tavalin said. “A world-class education is key to a world class workforce.”

Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation released the first cohort of studies examining the economic effect of child care. The reports, which came out in 2019, found that about 30 to 40% of respondents said that someone in their household had left a job, declined a promotion, or left the workforce because of child care needs within the last 12 months.

“Due to the pandemic, we’ve really only seen that things have gotten worse,” Tavalin said.

Easy, short-term solutions could include backup child care options, flexible scheduling, and subsidies or vouchers so that employees can pay for child care, Tavalin said.

The coalition behind the report also put forward several other next steps for policy.

One recommendation was to expand the tri-share program, a pilot launched in 2021 that brings together employers, employees, and the government to contribute to child care costs through a regional hub.

“Since offering the tri-share program at Plascore, we have been able to recruit parents who most likely would have not been able to reenter the workforce due to child care,” said Emily Babson, human resources director at Plascore, a Zeeland-based company. “We’ve also been able to retain employees who have come to us after having another child or potentially a change in child care provider. They’re about to hand in their resignations, and we are able to support them with this program.”

Another recommendation is to create and expand child care facilities and personnel capacity by identifying ways to allow businesses to pool resources and advancing strategies to expand and support the talent pool for child care professionals.

“We must find ways to promote individuals to join the child care workforce while also making sure that they are making a livable wage without putting an overwhelming burden on our child care provider business that at times struggle with profitability,” Keech said.

Finally, employers can reduce the number and severity of challenges that parents face by implementing family-friendly policies, like flexible work hours and remote work, when possible.

The child care crisis has a real and profound effect on the economy, said Chana Edmond-Verley, CEO of Vibrant Futures, a Grand Rapids organization that works to provide leadership, services, and education to advance quality care for children, programs for youth, and training for providers.

“It’s an opportunity … for us to be successful for working families,” she said. “The future of work is inextricably tied to the future of child care.”

Whitmer on Energy: ‘I’m Not Being Overly Prescriptive’

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlined last week two clear policy goals for this fall’s legislative session on energy: requiring utilities to generate 100% of their power from renewable sources and putting the Public Service Commission in charge of siting authority for large-scale solar and wind facilities. The details of those eventual bills, however, will come later. Whitmer, in her “What’s Next” address last Wednesday, did not delve into key details.

In an interview with Gongwer News Service about an hour before the speech, Whitmer said the details will come as the Legislature works on the legislation and during eventual talks with her office.

Majority-Democrats in the Legislature began introducing energy legislation in the late spring to set a 100% renewable energy standard by 2035, among other issues. The standard, first begun in the late 2000s at 10%, now sits at 15% after the 2016 energy law rewrite.

Utilities have historically resisted a government-set requirement on renewable energy minimums. As Democrats have unfurled their proposals, spokespersons for Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have refrained from criticism but instead sought to pivot, noting that both intend to phase out carbon in the coming decades regardless.

In the interview, Whitmer was asked where she thought the state’s two largest utilities stood on the idea of state government requiring them to generate all their energy from renewable sources by a certain date.

“Well, we talk to the utilities all the time. They’ve been great partners,” she said. “I can just say this. You know, Michigan has set aggressive standards over the years, and we’ve always exceeded them. We’ve gotten there faster than we ever thought. So, I think our experience is that if we put our mind to it, we work together, we’re going to be successful.”

When the state first set a 10% standard and then bumped that up to 15%, in both cases, the utilities hit those marks before the required year.

Whitmer said she wanted to reach 100% carbon neutrality in 10-15 years.

“I’m not being overly prescriptive in terms of what a specific date looks like, in this speech, but I want people to know this is an important goal, and I want to work with stakeholders and the Legislature to make sure that Michigan is on the trajectory that we need to be,” she said.

The utilities have come under heavy criticism over the repeated, large, sometimes long-lasting power outages following winter storms and severe weather. Nearly 500,000 lost power last week after seven tornadoes and straight-line winds up to 90 mph swept the state. An ice storm earlier this year, which devastated the Ann Arbor and Jackson areas, drew particularly scorching criticism over lengthy outages.

Whitmer, however, declined to criticize the utilities’ performance.

“Like our road infrastructure, our grid infrastructure is 100 years old,” she said. “And we’re now dealing with climate change, disasters that are playing out every single day right now, and Florida – hurricane. Canadian wildfires. We’ve had our share of challenges with being inundated with water. And so, the utilities I know are investing, the state of Michigan is investing, and we’ve got to push and challenge and encourage one another, but I think that they’re making some progress. But it’s very frustrating.

Whitmer noted the executive residence where she lives in Lansing lost power from the recent storms for several days.

Asked if she would consider herself someone who is angry at the utilities and thinks they must do better or believes the utilities are improving a difficult problem, Whitmer said: “They’re focused on the right things. We all want them to move faster.”

Michigan law currently defines renewable energy as solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, or waste to energy.

Whitmer said she wanted to make sure there is room in that definition for innovation, mentioning hydrogen.

“I know there’s a lot of debate about what quote unquote clean energy is,” she said. “We know wind and solar is. I think everyone agrees on that. I would submit that when we look at some of the great things that we’re doing in hydrogen, there are a lot of different methodologies that are clean and sustainable, that we need to be building out. And that’s why the Legislature will hold hearings. I think we will negotiate, but I think ultimately the goal is to make sure that we don’t compromise ourselves and compromise the possibility that there are innovations that are going to happen on the horizon, that we can’t be too overly prescriptive.”

While the 100% requirement has drawn attention, the question of moving siting authority away from local governments and to the PSC promises to be an enormous fight, and it’s a more immediate issue than phasing in an eventual renewable standard that the utilities say they already are working to meet.

The Michigan Townships Association opposes the idea.

Whitmer said the state needs to consolidate the decision-making process with the PSC instead of having it so spread out.

“It’s very challenging for investment when there are so many different layers and such a difficult process and so, putting permitting, all things energy in the public in the MPSC – they’ve got the expertise that ensures local voices are heard but also gives us the ability to move faster,” she said. “And I think industry and business and individuals alike, have shared that they think there’s improvements to be had in our permitting, and we’ve made some improvements. I think this will be another big step toward a system that works better that helps us move faster but also protects local voices.”

Rogers: Gotion Plant Fight, Econ Issues Lit Fire for US Senate Bid

DEWITT – Former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, who recently launched a bid for his party’s nomination to fill a soon-to-be-open U.S. Senate seat, told reporters Thursday that the fight over the Gotion battery plant, the nation’s slog with stagnant inflation and other economic issues led him to seek office.

Rogers’s campaign stopped at DeWitt’s Family Tree Café to hold a “kitchen table” discussion event with residents to discuss policy and the issues that might shape the race. The event was closed to the press, who were invited to the event, but Rogers was made available for questions from reporters following the discussion.

The congressman most recently served as the representative for Michigan’s 8th Congressional District across seven terms but did not seek reelection in 2014. He was succeeded by former Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop. That seat was eventually won by current U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) before redistricting placed her in the new 7th Congressional District.

Slotkin is now running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat, which is soon to be vacated by retiring U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing). There are several other candidates in the race, but some view Slotkin as the favorite.

Rogers has been out of political office for eight years but said he has spent that time involved in Republican politics. Much time has passed, and much has changed in politics since he was last on the ballot.

The Republican Party – nationally, not just in Michigan – has swung hard to the right following the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump and his failed attempt at reelection in 2020. After losing the election, Trump propagated falsehoods of election fraud when now-President Joe Biden was certified as the victor and later egged on a mob of followers at the U.S. Capitol in what has been labeled as insurrection to maintain his grip on power.

Rogers was particularly critical of Trump during that period and after the election, and some see him as a more center-right candidate who might be able to get the GOP on course to navigate a post-Trump world.

He also could be seen as a throwback. During his heyday in Congress, flipping Stabenow’s former U.S. House seat in an epic 2000 race against Dianne Byrum, he established himself as one of the state’s most gifted retail politicians. But he’s also of an era when the Michigan Republican Party tended to focus on business climate type issues not the culture wars that dominate today’s party.

Given those factors, Rogers said he wouldn’t let preconceptions about him define the race. Rather, his current policy stances and the issues of the day should define his candidacy.

“I wasn’t living in a cave (for the past decade), I was still engaged in politics either by conversation or by trying to help other folks get where they wanted to go and develop solutions to bigger problems,” Rogers said. “The issues that we’re talking about now are resonating with almost every stripe of the Republican Party. Given the opportunity to have that conversation before everybody says you are this or you’re that is our key, and we’re working really hard to do that. What we’re finding is we can actually put people who don’t like each other in the same party in the same room and have a conversation about solutions. Why? Because the clock is ticking.”

If that’s the case, Rogers would likely be a rare Republican statewide candidate to thread that needle in the Trump era, particularly post-2022, when the new party chair, Kristina Karamo, is on a mission to purge the party of its former establishmentarians.

The rest of the primary field lacks the name recognition of Rogers, who was not only in Congress but served as the state Senate majority leader during his tenure in the Legislature. But a smooth sail toward victory is not guaranteed in what appears to be a five-way Republican primary.

There’s also time for other candidates, like former congressman Peter Meijer, to join in the race.

Rogers was asked if he’s spoken to Meijer about his intentions, and if he does run, would that mean their votes would be split among more centrist Republican voters versus a Trump-backed candidate who could garner enough votes to move forward. The candidate did not say whether he has communicated with Meijer, but he said that kind of speculation was inside baseball for the moment.

What he does know, Rogers said, was that early excitement was there for his candidacy.

“We were hoping for about 15,000 people to watch our launch video, and wanted to see if we got any kind of traction, which we thought we would just based on conversations we’ve had,” Rogers said. “We had over 300,000 people watch that video yesterday. It’s not because I’m the greatest, smartest candidate in the world. It’s that we’re offering solutions to real world problems and people know that something’s broken. That’s what that tells me. And the Biden administration and all of their congressional allies have been making sure that your groceries are $700 more a month.”

He also claimed that 70% of Michiganders were living paycheck to paycheck, and that meant further economic hardship and inequity in a system “like I’ve never seen in the history of the nation.”

“We’ve got to fix this,” he said.

The candidate was also asked if he, as a U.S. senator, would do anything to undermine Michigan’s constitutional amendment allowing for the right to reproductive health, including abortions. Rogers said he would not do anything that would be inconsistent with Michigan’s laws.

Rogers also referenced what he called “the Chinese problem,” citing the foreign nation’s nuclear arsenal becoming stronger and more modern than our own, complete with a naval and armed fighting force that is outpacing U.S. funding.

“They’re rattling their saber,” Rogers said. “They’re trying to knock the U.S. currency off the world stage to their advantage.”

Rogers will also be making a stop in Battle Creek to talk specifically about the Gotion electric vehicle battery plan to be built in Michigan, which activists within the GOP have called a ceding of property, jobs, and influence in Michigan’s manufacturing sector to the Chinese communist government.

Gotion has denied that it is directly linked to the Chinese government, and state officials have also rebuffed those claims. But Republican activists wary of China have not relented in their fight against the plant.

Rogers said that as a policy point, he is never “inclined to give U.S. taxpayer money on a mandated government program where 85% of the product is processed in China.”

“I think this is a serious mistake,” he said. “We’re giving the adversary money to put them in a better position to attack us. … There is no company in China that isn’t a part of the Chinese government.”

Some reporters pushed back, noting that American companies have been doing business with China for some time and building plants there on their soil, which he argued was also a mistake because it set up an unfair exchange with a stated adversary.

“I’m for fair commerce, and that’s not fair commerce,” Rogers said. “They have Chinese companies on the New York Stock Exchange that don’t have to meet the same standards of transparency that U.S. companies have. That disadvantages U.S. companies and I think that’s wrong.”

Questions also focused on his view on Trump’s current legal woes and his view of the 2020 election.

On Trump’s four criminal indictments, including criminal charges related to the January 6, 2021, insurrection, Rogers, a former FBI agent, said that the “worst thing you want to do is say you should or should not go to jail.”

On the 2020 election, Rogers said he would have once wrote that he believed it was free and fair. Now, he says that there were problems in certain places observed, but the biggest problem for Trump was that “we didn’t get as many votes as the other team.”

Should Rogers win the Republican nomination, he will try to become the first Republican to win a Michigan U.S. Senate seat since Spencer Abraham in 1994. Abraham’s 1994 win is the lone Republican senatorial victory in Michigan in the past 16 contests here.

“What I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen in the Republican Party and to independents is, the goal here is to get more votes than the other person and that has been my focus,” he said. “That is one of the reasons we decided to come here.”

Witwer’s Business Ties Raise GOP Calls for Ethics Reforms

House Republicans are calling for ethics reforms after an investigation by The Detroit News revealed that Rep. Angela Witwer has openly maintained a close relationship with the consulting firm she founded.

Witwer (D-Delta Township), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, listed herself as a “member” and the “resident agent” of Edge Partnerships in a filing with the state as recently as February 2022, according to The News.

Edge has an ongoing contract with the Michigan Department of Education, whose funding is set by lawmakers, including Witwer. The agency has also done work with the Ingham County Health Department, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, and the County Road Association of Michigan. According to The News report, Edge also has ties to the Food Bank Council of Michigan and the Michigan Film Industry Association.

In response to the investigation, Witwer told The News that she is no longer an owner of Edge.

“At this time, the speaker is satisfied with the remarks that Representative Witwer has made publicly about her status as a business owner,” said Amber McCann, press secretary for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit). “He does not believe that there is a conflict of interest violation that needs to be explored, and there’s no action that he plans to take at this time.”

It is unknown if Witwer has received any money from Edge this year since becoming chair of House Appropriations.

McCann said that Tate hasn’t been made aware of any conflicts of interest that “would put him in a position to need to seek that information from Rep. Witwer to where he would need to do any further exploration of her finances.”

Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare) is the minority vice chair of the House Ethics and Oversight Committee.

He said Witwer should provide documentation on when the interest in her business was divested and called for action on the legislation that was introduced earlier this term that would require lawmakers to file personal financial disclosures to screen for potential conflicts of interest.

“I think the legislation that we’ve proposed would have answered a lot of these questions, and it disappoints me that the committee has done nothing. We have heard testimony on zero bills. We have voted on zero bills. And this just brings to light that this needs to happen,” Kunse said.

Rep. Mike Harris (R-Waterford Township) also raised concerns over the report in a statement on Wednesday.

“These shocking revelations set off alarm bells about Chair Witwer’s business ties and possible conflicts of interest, and they clearly illustrate the need for greater transparency and stronger ethical standards in Michigan government,” Haris said. “Michiganders deserve a more open and accountable government. We laid out a plan to make our state government more transparent and hold officials accountable to ethics rules. Democrats should stop stonewalling reform and help clean up our government for the people of Michigan.”

It doesn’t matter if the bills are sponsored by a Democrat or a Republican, Kunse said. What’s important is that the Legislature acts.

“This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Ethics and oversight is not a partisan issue.”

Kunse went on to say that he didn’t think that Witwer needs to step down as chair of Appropriations, as there isn’t any evidence that she has broken a law.

“The people of Michigan deserve documentation, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable to ask for,” he said. “And I think they deserve more out of the Ethics and Oversight Committee. More than zero. Because that’s what’s happened.”

McCann said that Rep. Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn) and Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) are working on legislation that would implement the financial disclosures required by Proposal 2022-1.

“They’ve been working on it for quite some time,” she said. “We obviously have a deadline to have that implemented in statute by the end of the year, and we will meet that deadline.”

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