Sept. 22, 2023 | This Week in Government: House Panel OKs Bill Allowing Millages for Detroit MuseumsSeptember 22, 2023
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.
House Panels OKs Bill Allowing Millages for Detroit Museums
Legislation allowing counties to seek a millage for two Detroit museums cleared the House Regulatory Reform Committee on Tuesday.
The bill applies the same model that helps fund the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo with millages in Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties to the Detroit Historical Society and the Charles H. Wright Museum.
However, the entities are only seeking to create authorities that will levy the millage in Oakland and Wayne counties.
Under the bill, a county board of commissioners would be able to create a history museum authority and seek a millage of up to 0.4 mills, which would need voter approval.
Leaders of both institutions told the House committee last week that they need additional monetary support.
Neil Barclay, President and Chief executive officer of the Charles H. Wright Museum, said the facility has $25 million in deferred maintenance.
“This is an important asset not just for Michigan but for the country,” he said “We continue to serve not only our regional, local Detroit audience but a regional, a national and an international audience.”
Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, which are operated by the Detroit Historical Society, face similar issues, Elana Rugh, its President and Chief Executive Officer told the committee last week.
“We are challenged to protect our cultural legacy of our past, present, and our future. This is truly an existential time,” she said, adding the institution has been underfunded for decades.
Groups Sound Off For, Against Renewable Energy Mandate Package
Environmental groups voiced support Wednesday for updated versions of legislation that would require the state to move toward a 100% carbon-free energy standard while business, manufacturing, and utility officials voiced concerns over reliability and ratepayer costs.
The Senate Energy and Environment Committee took testimony from dozens of stakeholders Wednesday on three bills that are part of a Senate Democratic renewable energy transition bill package. No vote was taken.
Supporters of SB 271, SB 273, and SB 502 sought to make the case that the proposed changes would put Michigan in a place to address climate change while reducing costs for ratepayers and improving public health.
“These bills represent significant steps in making Michigan a national climate change leader,” Scripps said.
Scripps also stressed there are provisions in the bills enabling the commission to provide exemptions and extensions if there are concerns over cost or feasibility issues.
“This isn’t Thelma and Louise: we’re not just going to drive the car off the cliff,” Scripps said. “Guardrails are in place, and if compliance becomes overly costly, we have the flexibility to modify the timelines involved.”
Scripps called the bill package a reasonable and responsible path on renewable energy.
Sen. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) asked where climate change efforts have worked. He used the example of countries such as Germany reverting to an increase in fossil fuels.
“Has this lowered the cost of the average Joe’s electricity?” Hauck said.
To this, Scripps said he believes Michigan has already seen improvement with the increase in renewable energy production and the reduction in coal.
Tim Minotas with the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter said the time is now to address climate change, pointing to extreme weather in the state and country in recent months.
“The transition is not only possible, it’s already happening, but we need to move even faster to make sure Michigan is competitive and able to capitalize on massive investments in clean energy being made on a national scale,” Minotas said.
Charlotte Jameson, Chief Policy Officer with the Michigan Environmental Council, said utilities are making significant strides in the shift to renewable energy but more is needed along with a robust regulatory framework to drive the change.
Nick Occhipinti with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters told the committee the state needs to modernize its regulatory regime and have utilities do more to transition quickly to renewable energy.
“There’s a very narrow path to mitigating the climate crisis and climate change; that path is rapidly closing,” Occhipinti said.
Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) asked the environmental groups testifying if the state can significantly affect climate change if the bills become law.
“You have an opportunity to do something right for Michigan,” Jameson said.
Occhipinti said if not for the purpose of climate change, he urged members to consider the local health benefits of cleaner air.
Manufacturing and business groups expressed concerns over the bills as currently written.
Mike Johnston, Director of Regulatory Affairs with the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the group supported the 2016 energy law.
“Our concern about the package before this committee (is) moving the fundamental shift from goals to mandates,” Johnston said.
He said mandates would have a ripple effect on utilities and can lead to higher prices and concerns about reliability.
Johnston said he appreciated some of the relaxation of provisions in the package.
Further concerns the group has, Johnston said, include the scope of PSC regulatory authority under the changes, the possibility of lawsuits if the renewable mandates are not met, and the ability to meet battery storage requirements with the current technology.
Hauck asked Johnston if he had any idea how many plants that need natural gas to fuel their operations might be affected by the bills. Johnston said certainty is hugely important in manufacturing overall.
Damoose echoed this concern and asked if the bills could drive manufacturers out of the state, to which Johnston said it is a possibility.
Mike Alaimo with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce said the Chamber supports the transition to renewables and whatever policy is enacted needs to incentivize owners and operators of the grid and businesses to decarbonize the grid.
Alaimo then pointed to capacity shortfalls in the grid and potential reliability concerns citing comments from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator stating that aggressive renewable energy pushes by states are driving energy portfolio changes and could make reliability more of a concern.
“We need to make significant investments to harden our infrastructure and to increase reliability and better understand the capacity needs of the state and region to ensure our generation portfolio has the capacity to keep the lights on when it at an affordable rate,” Alaimo said.
As substituted, the bills would require utilities to reach a renewable energy standard of 60% by 2032 and be 100% carbon-free by 2040.
The initial version of the legislation included requirements of 60% renewable energy production between 2030-34 and 100% by 2035.
Another major shift is a move from a renewable-only standard to a “carbon-free” standard. Existing statute contains a strict definition of renewable energy including solar, wind, water, and waste-to-energy. The Democrats’ plan would loosen this to likely include nuclear and natural gas, with the possibility for other forms as well.
Utilities would also need to reach 2500 megawatts of energy storage systems by 2030 while also making changes to the targets for energy waste reduction and natural gas while providing incentives for exceeding those targets.
10 Public Universities Agree to Admit Students With 3.0 GPA
Ten of the state’s 15 public universities on Tuesday announced a new initiative granting admission to Michigan students who graduate high school with a 3.0 grade point average.
Beginning this fall, participating universities in the Michigan Assured Admission Pact will admit Michigan high school graduates who have earned a cumulative high school grade point average of 3.0 or above (on a 4.0 scale).
The following universities have committed to joining the MAAP in the fall 2024 admissions cycle: Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State University, Lake Superior State University, Northern Michigan University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University, University of Michigan-Dearborn, University of Michigan-Flint, and Wayne State University.
“Our future depends on helping young people graduate without debt so they can get a good-paying job and ‘make it’ in Michigan,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “The MAAP is proof of what’s possible when we come together to create opportunity for tens of thousands of Michiganders. In tandem with the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, we are lowering costs, building a skilled workforce, and leading the future of advanced manufacturing, technology, and so many other industries.”
The goal of the initiative, MAAP universities believe, is that a uniform and widely communicated standard for admission will reduce the uncertainty and anxiety that are often part of the college admissions process and empower students to achieve their educational goals.
MAAP is a cooperative, cross-institutional effort aimed at increasing awareness of educational options among recent high school graduates and making the admissions process more efficient and transparent. This initiative is aligned with the state of Michigan’s goal to have 60% of working-age adults possess a college degree or other post-secondary credential by 2030, a statement said.
Not participating: Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and Western Michigan University.
Data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education shows the number of high school graduates in Michigan is expected to decline by 11.4% from 2022 to 2037. Additionally, the number of high school graduates in Michigan has been flat or declining since 2008, when it peaked at over 123,000. By 2037, that number is expected to have decreased by nearly 40,000 graduates.
Michigan high school graduates are also less likely to pursue higher education than in previous years, with the college-going rate among Michigan graduates decreasing each year since 2013.
“Higher education is the surest path to prosperity for our state and its residents, yet college enrollment has been declining each year over the past decade,” said Daniel J. Hurley, Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities. “MAAP aims to counter this trend by assuring that every high school graduate in Michigan with a 3.0 or higher will be admitted to all 10 participating public universities across the state. Combined with the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship, this collaborative effort will send a powerful message that a public university education in Michigan is more accessible than ever before.”
House GOP Calls for Ethics Bills To Be Discharged From Committee
In an effort to highlight the lingering controversy over potential conflicts between Rep. Angela Witwer‘s legislative role and her ties to the consulting firm she founded, House Republicans moved to have their ethics passage discharged from committee during Wednesday’s session.
The bills included HB 4264, HB 4265, HB 4266, HB 4267, HB 4268 , and HB 4269. The ethics package was introduced in March and would address conflicts of interest, create an ethics committee, and require financial disclosures from lawmakers.
Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare), a member of the House Ethics Committee, made the motions to discharge the bills, which were voted down by Democrats. None of the bills have had a hearing.
“We haven’t even talked about it,” Kunse said of the bill package. “If you don’t like the bills we introduced in March, because we haven’t heard testimony on a single bill on the Ethics Committee … that’s fine. Take them and make them better, but let’s at least talk about it.”
The Legislature is required to pass laws requiring financial disclosures for lawmakers by the end of the year as part of the mandate from voters, who passed Proposal 2022-1 last fall.
“I think we just had 56 Democrat members vote against what was constitutionally required by voters in the last election, which is financial transparency, increased accountability,” he said. “I think it’s incredible that we are sitting here and continuing to take zero action on these very important issues. And I think voters across the state of Michigan just had a thumb stuck in their eye.”
Schuette went on to say that given the controversy around Witwer right now, acting on ethics bills was especially important.
“There are lots of questions about conflicts of interest around transparency in the budget,” he said. “We should be above reproach in the Legislature. We should show and take the steps to answer any questions that are out there.”
Press Secretary for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) Amber McCann characterized the GOP’s actions as “antics.”
“I think it’s Republicans taking advantage of what they perceive to be a weakness at this point,” she said. “I appreciate their antics, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to fall for it.”
McCann said that the Democratic caucus was eager to work on ethics reform, and that Rep. Erin Byrnes, Chair of the House Ethics Committee, planned to introduce her bill next week.
Tate has not asked Witwer if she is making any money from her consulting firm, McCann said.
“The speaker is satisfied with Rep. Witwer’s remarks up to this point,” she said. “She’s publicly stated she’s no longer an owner.”
After McCann’s comments to reporters, The Detroit News, which first reported on Witwer was still listed as a “member” and “resident agent” of Edge Partnerships in a state filing as recently as Feb. 2022, published another story on the connection.
On Wednesday evening, The News reported Witwer drives an SUV leased by the company. Witwer told the newspaper the vehicle is part of a structured buyout from the firm.
Flint Criminal Cases Seemingly Over as High Court Punts Appeals
The Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a short, single paragraph ruling that may have put the final nail in the coffin of the state’s Flint water criminal cases.
Three years after Attorney General Dana Nessel‘s office refiled criminal charges related to the crisis, the high court ruled that it was not persuaded to hear the department’s appeal to overturn a lower court’s dismissal of the charges.
But the prosecutorial team on Wednesday, despite the back-to-back shellacking of its case by the high court, said it was still exploring options and state statutes to consider next steps for the dismissed felony charges against eight former state officials.
Wednesday’s ruling affects the cases against former Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, former Flint emergency managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, former Snyder Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen, former Snyder aide Richard Baird, and DHHS Early Childhood Health Section Manager Nancy Peeler.
The misdemeanor charge against former Gov. Rick Snyder was not included in the Supreme Court orders Wednesday. A court spokesperson said that appeal was on a different timeline and that the department had only within the last few weeks filed its reply brief before the high court.
Charges against former Flint Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft were also thrown out, but the appeal is still working its way through the appellate process.
Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement did not participate in the ruling, as she was once Snyder’s legal counsel.
In a statement, the Flint water prosecution team in the attorney general’s office said it was deeply disappointed with the outcome.
“The Flint water crisis was not caused by an act of nature,” the statement said. “It resulted from the direct actions of a small group of people in power who chose financial savings for the state over the health of Flint residents, and then conspired to hide the truth from the public. … The Flint water crisis is not some relic of the past. At this very moment, the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of certain public officials, who trampled on their trust and evaded accountability for far too long.”
Randall Levine, attorney for Baird, said he was “elated” upon hearing of the ruling. He added that it affirms his client’s claim that the process used to indict him and others was unconstitutional and unfair.
“This finally puts an end to the case against my client, who worked tirelessly for the citizens of Flint in an effort to remediate the Flint water crisis,” Levine, Managing partner of Levine & Levine, said in a statement. “For the past three years, Baird has been unfairly disgraced by state prosecutors in an effort to rectify the government’s wrongdoing that was done to Flint citizens nearly a decade ago.”
Levine added that Baird can now “finally go on with his life without this case continuing to interfere with the stellar life that he has led and of which his family has been proud.”
Chip Chamberlain, attorney for Lyon, said he and his client were heartened by the ruling.
“As Lyon has said before, the court’s decision is a victory for public service in Michigan. State employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for just doing their job,” Chamberlain said in a statement. “It is a great injustice to allow politicians – acting in their own interests – to sacrifice government servants who are performing their roles in good faith under difficult circumstances.”
The charges were initially brought by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who was appointed to lead the prosecutorial team, along with Chief Deputy Attorney General Fadwa Hammoud, after Nessel dismissed previous charges brought in the case by her predecessor, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Nessel built a conflict wall around herself to handle the Flint civil trials that were pending at the same time. Hammoud was solicitor general when the charges were filed. While the conflict wall existed, critics of the prosecution routinely put the ball in Nessel’s court and became a talking point when then-GOP attorney general nominee Matt DePerno ran against her in 2022.
A series of setbacks plagued the new case, however, and the team was chided on multiple occasions for using privileged evidence – many such items were under seal from the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings – and for employing a one-judge grand jury that issued felony indictments without first holding a preliminary examination to determine probable cause.
That last item triggered a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that said one-judge grand juries cannot issue felony indictments without first providing a preliminary examination, throwing the entire prosecution into jeopardy.
The court likened the process to a backroom “Star Chamber,” a reference to an old English court system that has become synonymous with unfair or arbitrary proceedings.
Nessel’s office had vowed appeals when the high court’s mandate led the lower courts to reaffirm its dismissal of the charges, and the Supreme Court showed no sign of relenting on its previous holding that the case was marred by several procedural missteps.
The statute of limitations is ticking down on continuing the prosecution of Lyon and others, which makes for what could be the biggest defeat for Nessel and her time as attorney general. Some have surmised that the clock has run out on seeking to hold the defendants accountable for the water disaster.
The prosecutorial team had argued throughout the case that its use of a one-man grand jury process was legally sound and had been used by Worthy’s office in the past. But the contention gummed up the works and ground the case to a halt as the defendants appealed the indictments as being unconstitutional.
In its statement issued Wednesday, the attorney general’s office again said the one-man grand jury had “been applied for over 100 years by prosecutors all over the state of Michigan and has resulted in thousands of prosecutions and convictions.”
“Due to these MSC rulings, the evidence in the seven affected Flint Water cases has not been heard by any court, aside from the grand juror who found probable cause to charge these defendants,” it said in a news release. “The court’s ruling was not based on the facts of this case and did not in any way imply that the defendants are innocent. … Outside of the one-man grand jury, no court has ever ruled on the merits of these cases and evidence has not been made available to the public.”
The office went on to say that the evidence supporting the felony charges remains sealed and the statutes involved make it a misdemeanor to release any of the information presented to the one-person grand jury, per MCL 767.4.
“Failure to follow this law would result in misdemeanors for anyone responsible for releasing this material,” the department said.
The protective orders on some of the evidence and discovery items gathered as evidence could also pose a burden to releasing info that would bolster the office’s case, at least in the court of public opinion. A big sticking point for some of the defendants was that the team had used documents and information from the Detroit bankruptcy that were prohibited from being disseminated under seal.
As it relates to MCL 767.4, the prosecutorial team also said Wednesday that it would be “exploring this matter with the Legislature, prosecutorial partners, and others to take the necessary action to allow for the evidence to be shared with the public and the people of Flint, who most deserve to know the truth.”
“It is imperative that our team be empowered to release all of the reports, testimony, opinions, and documents that supported the prosecution of these defendants,” the team said in additional statements. “The people of the state of Michigan, and in particular the people of the city of Flint, deserve to know the truth, and this team is committed to that goal.”
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley shared similar disbelief and frustration in a statement sent by Nessel’s office.
“The Michigan Supreme Court owed it to the people of Flint to let this case be heard. Through legal maneuvering, the people of Flint have been denied the opportunity to even bring evidence into a courtroom, layering on another injustice perpetrated against Flint residents,” Neeley said. “As we attempt to rebuild trust in government in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, this decision further erodes that sacred trust in a representative government’s ability to serve the people through appropriate checks and balances. The powerful men and women in this state, who poisoned the water in our faucets, found a very unfair victory today based on a technicality.”
Neeley also said the ruling “does not mean that they are innocent; only that they will not be held accountable for their crimes.”
“I appreciate the Flint Water Prosecution Team’s dedication to seeking justice on behalf of Flint residents,” he said. “I urged the attorney general’s office to investigate in Sept. 2015, to determine whether agents of the state were culpable for the crimes of the Flint water crisis, and I will continue to diligently fight on behalf of the people of Flint.”
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