Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Jan. 5, 2024 | This Week in Government: Distracted Driver Law Sees Ramped Up Enforcement

Jan. 5, 2024 | This Week in Government: Distracted Driver Law Sees Ramped Up Enforcement

January 5, 2024
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.

Distracted Driver Law Sees Ramped Up Enforcement in Late 2023

Troopers with the Department of State Police wrote more than 700 distracted driving citations involving the use of a mobile device, with enforcement ramping up each consecutive month since new laws went into effect in late June 2023.

Gongwer News Service requested data on cell phone-related distracted driving citations from State Police through the Freedom of Information Act. The data provided ranged from the day the law went into effect until late November 2023. It includes the type of citation written with specifics on the offense and the time of day a citation was written.

The new law bans drivers from holding and using a mobile device under most circumstances.

The data shows just 27 of the citations involved crashes. The few that did, however, persisted in volume across five months of data and did not show a demonstrable decrease in cell phone-related crashes.

Subsequent violations decreased, showing that those cited for the law did not often re-offend months after receiving a citation. All repeat violation tickets were also written within the first few months of enforcement, bolstering a trend that repeat violators did not reoffend after being reprimanded by State Police.

The data showed that 13 citations were written for subsequent law violations but were issued in July and August 2023. No subsequent violation tickets were issued from September through November.

The same was true of the first violations written to drivers of commercial vehicles or buses, as those who received CMV or bus distracted driving violations did not appear to re-offend in the following months after receiving a citation a first citation.

The remaining 661 citations issued by State Police were characterized as general distracted driving reprimands for either using a mobile device or holding one while operating a motor vehicle.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in June 2023, signed three distracted driving bills into law – Public Act 39 of 2023, Public Act 40 of 2023, and Public Act 41 of 2023 – aimed at decreasing cell phone-related incidents on the road. Part of the package makes it illegal to manually use a cell phone or other electronic device while driving, which includes holding or supporting those devices with your hands, arms, or shoulders.

Information from the state’s Office of Highway Safety Planning states that the law also bans actions that cannot be down with a single touch, like making or answering voice or video calls, sending or receiving text messages, engaging with videos, browsing the Internet or using social media while driving.

First violations carry a $100 fine and/or 16 hours of community service, with subsequent violations carrying a $250 fine and/or 24 hours of community service. Three violations within a 3-year period require drivers to complete a driving-improvement course, and fines are doubled if a traffic crash occurs and the at-fault driver was holding or manually using a mobile device while operating the vehicle. Civil fines can also be doubled in the event of a crash.

Although the data is just a snapshot of enforcement for the new laws, State Police Lt. Michelle Robinson, public information officer for the Sixth District in Grand Rapids, told Gongwer she hopes the laws will deter future crashes and make drivers more aware of their surroundings on the roadway over time.

That was the case with mandatory seatbelt laws passed in 1985, Robinson said in an interview. But despite having a law on the books banning cell phone use, the data obtained by Gongwer shows cell phone distracted crashes were still occurring consistently in the months after the new laws were signed and in the summer months that see peak driving volumes.

State Police wrote 10 crash citations involving the use of a cell phone in July 2023, five in August 2023, three in September 2023, seven in October 2023, and two in November 2023. The data did not disclose whether those crashes resulted in death or injury.

Robinson said curbing those crashes will come down to changes in driver habits and making concerted efforts to be more aware of their surroundings while driving.

“Education is a top priority of ours, but we are still seeing a lot of distracted driving behaviors. … Me, personally, I’m still seeing individuals that are driving down the road and are using their phones,” Robinson said. “They are texting while driving, and they’re trying to do it in an inconspicuous manner where the phone is on their lap. That’s still distracted driving. It’s still against the law. So those are the kinds of things that we’re seeing. People that are aware of the law and still want to circumvent the law will try to hide their cell phone. That’s just as dangerous as having the phone in your hand.”

The intended effect of the law will take time to make an impact, but five months of data shows State Police worked to ramp up citations enforcement following a period of trying to educate drivers about the new laws.

State Police wrote just 95 cell phone-related distracted driving citations in July 2023, but that nearly doubled in August 2023, with 134 citations issued. The number rose again in September, with 150 total cell phone-related citations, and in October, with 183 citations issued.

The number of citations issued in November 2023 fell slightly, with 146 distracted driving citations related to cell phone use.

Robinson said it was hard to determine the number of verbal warnings issued in those first few months versus the number of citations issued without looking at all the data, but she did say State Police tried to give a bit of leeway to people who did not know about the new laws.

“You’re talking about a lot, given the dynamics of the month, and the summertime is a high volume of visitors to our state. They may not know that, OK, Michigan is a hands-free state,” Robinson said. “If somebody’s coming in here vacationing if we stop them for using their cellular devices, then we may be more apt to say, ‘Hey, just to inform you, you are vacationing in our state, please be aware that it is a hands-free state.’ That’s always something that we will consider that if somebody is vacationing.”

Drivers who live in Michigan and should be aware of the law, or those who are just now getting citations under the new laws, may receive less leeway and could receive citations.

“That’s something that we weigh the pros and cons. If you’re speeding and on your cell phone, we’ll give you a verbal warning for your cell phone use and issue a speeding citation,” Robinson said. “There’s a combination of a lot of factors that come into play based off from traffic stops.”

Among the more than 700 citations issued, commercial vehicle and bus drivers were cited a total of eight times, with six first violations written in July 2023, another in September 2023, and once more in November 2023.

State Police issued the highest volume of generalized cell phone distracted driving tickets in October, with 176 citations issued. There were 146 general cell phone distracted driving tickets issued in September, 143 in November, 128 in August, and just 67 in July.

Most tickets in the data provided were written in the afternoon or in the evening hours, resulting in 417 citations. A total of 246 citations were issued in the morning hours before noon, while just 32 citations were issued after midnight or in the early morning before 5 a.m.

The data did not include the race of those cited, the location of the citations issued nor any other factors related to stops, like impaired or reckless driving.

One factor not represented in the data was distracted driving in construction zones, which could become more costly and more dangerous when cell phone use becomes a factor.

“Traffic will all of a sudden slow down quickly, and if you’re paying attention, you’re going to be able to slow down, as well. But if you’re not and you’re distracted, you’re doing something else; you’re looking at text messages (then crashes could occur),” Robinson said. “We’ve seen individuals that are reading books, or the commuters that are going to different jobs that are reviewing documents. You have to focus on the roadway.”

A study published in November 2023 by Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which was cited by Whitmer’s office and State Police, shows that Michigan’s hands-free laws showed positive results in deterring distracted driving. The study shows distracted driving dropped by 13 seconds in the first month of enforcement, falling again to 1 minute and 33 seconds of awareness time, a 13.7% difference from the month before the laws were enacted.

The study notes that Michigan’s law showed strong results because it lacked a mandated grace period, and drivers knew tickets would be issued after the law was in place. That said, distracted driving ticked up in the following months.

“The distraction pattern we see with Michigan is typical of hands-free performance,” the study found. “There’s a strong initial push, but without a sustained media strategy, awareness falls over time, and distraction returns.”

Still, the study showed distracted driving fell by 10.8% in Michigan since the law took effect. It estimated the law has “prevented 2,800 crashes, eight fatalities, and $78 million in economic damages since going into effect in late June (2023).”

Stacey LaRouche, press secretary for the governor, in a statement to Gongwer reiterated Whitmer’s belief that the new laws can save lives.

“Gov. Whitmer was proud to sign bipartisan legislation last summer to reduce distracted driving in Michigan and save lives. The new law is a step toward reducing distracted driving deaths and making sure everyone can be safe on their way to school, home, or work,” LaRouche said. “By each doing our part to set down the phone and keep our hands, eyes, and mind on the road, we can all contribute to our goal to see zero traffic deaths by 2050.”

With those early successes in mind, Robinson said the best deterrence against crashes still comes down to driver responsibility.

“We’re seeing a lot of very high increase speeds on the expressways. You add that with higher speeds, the distracted driving, the slower response rate, and that’s what’s causing a lot of these crashes,” she said. “Not to mention that now you have impaired drivers. You add distraction, you add alcohol, you add drug use, and people feel they feel like they can get behind the wheel of a vehicle. That’s just it’s putting everybody at risk. It goes far beyond the laws. They certainly help in the enforcement of that, but it really comes down to individual drivers’ responsibilities to be in control of the vehicles that they’re in.”

Rice Talks Silver Linings From Pandemic, Improvements For All K-12

Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice discussed at length the exponential increases in funding for K-12 programs during the past few years, saying students who are often underfunded had their needs better addressed.

In an interview Wednesday with Gongwer News Service, Rice said the Department of Education has made “tremendous progress on improvement of public education.” This includes repealing the retention component of the 3rd-grade reading law, restructuring the educator evaluations, and repealing the A-F accountability system.

Addressing the teacher shortage in the state has also been a highlight for the department, he said.

“Pulling from out of state, we get 1,000 teachers a year from out of state. They’re initially certified out of state … but we thought we could do better with reduced regulatory barriers,” Rice said. “So we recommended … the Legislature approve teacher reciprocity.”

During fiscal year 2020, Rice said there was nothing to address the teacher shortage. During the fiscal year 2022-23, the Legislature allocated $575 million for scholarships, Grow Your Own programs, and stipends for student teachers.

This was one of the many initiatives expanded due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic was a tragedy in many cases, very messy and very disruptive in many cases,” Rice said. “But the pandemic also opened up opportunities … one is the teacher shortage funding.”

The same can be said for children’s mental health funding, he added.

“When I started in the position, it was $30 million for children’s mental health. $30 million sounds like a lot of money, but on a per-pupil basis, it’s like 20 bucks,” Rice said. “So there’s more than $400 million now for children’s mental health.”

Also born out of the pandemic was the awareness to feed all children at school. Rice said the day after schools closed in March 2020, the department was working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get waivers to feed children outside of school settings. He said they were granted waivers for two years until they were told by the federal government the pandemic was largely over.

“What we found in ’22 and ’23, unsurprisingly, was the number of meals that were eaten, that were served and eaten by our kids plummeted. That gave us the opportunity to make the case to the Legislature for universal meals, $60 million for universal meals.”

The School Aid Budget for fiscal year 2023-24 totaled $23.4 billion and includes $611 million to increase the per-pupil funding by $458 per student. Rice noted the increases in funding for students with disabilities and English language learners as well, with the latter receiving $13.3 million to provide a 50% increase in funding.

“Those categorical increases help us with the equity of funding. It’s not simply about more dollars,” Rice said. “It’s about how the dollars flow. Do you get greater dollars to educate children with greater needs?”

Rice also said the transportation reimbursement for districts, particularly for rural and isolated districts that must transport more children longer distances, will be significant in the coming months.

“$125 million is a big deal,” he said.

The department also recommended expanding Great Start Readiness preschool to five days a week of instruction rather than four days a week. Rice said the department was competing with child care at five days a week and almost after a year since its recommendation, the Legislature approved the new model as well as providing $70 million to the fiscal year 2023-24 budget.

Graduation rates have continued to slowly increase the past few years. Rice said there was a slight decline during the pandemic year 2021, but they are at an 81% graduation rate for students graduating within four years, 83% graduation rate for students graduating in five years, and 85% graduation rate for graduating in six years.

The department is also focused on helping students achieve a degree or certificate once they graduate high school. Rice said they have seen an increase in students taking AP classes and tests and in scoring higher on the tests. Early middle college, dual enrollment, and career and technical education also saw increases in student participation.

Several of the programs aimed at helping children transitioning to kindergarten and transitioning out of high school have been moved to the Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential. The State Board of Education initially expressed concerns over the constitutionality of the move, saying there were concerns the political whims of the executive office could affect education.

The board received an opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel that said, on its face, the department was constitutional. Rice reiterated the attorney general’s statement that it was constitutional, adding that they will wait and see how the change is implemented.

“What the AG said very clearly was that MiLEAP is constitutional,” Rice said.

Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit) spoke before the state board during its December meeting about her bills HB 4676HB 4677, and HB 4678, which would ensure children in the foster education system are accounted for and stay on track for the graduation requirements of the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Rice was adamant that the department would work to get the bills “across the finish line.”

“This is going to happen. I feel very strongly about this,” Rice said of the bills being signed.

“I see no impediment to this at all. I will tell you, it takes an astonishingly long amount time to get certain things accomplished,” he added. “It’s not necessarily opposition that holds you back in a given area. It’s just the need to compete for airtime in the Legislature.”

He mentioned the teacher and counselor reciprocity bills that removed barriers for out-of-state employees to work in the state, saying even though those bills were unanimous, they still took 18 months to get signed.

The board has expressed opposition to another bill, SB 463, sponsored by Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township), requiring students to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid to graduate high school. Rice said he was supportive of students filling out the FAFSA but acknowledged that plenty of parents are “unnerved by government and government forms.” He also said other board members noted this would be the only non-academic graduation requirement.

Looking to 2024, Rice shared several goals of the department. He said he would like to see more students who wish to opt out of college receive credentials in the skilled trades. Last year, there were approximately 109,000 children in career and technical education.

“We can do better than that … and the state really needs to fund CTE better,” Rice said.

Mandatory training for principals, superintendents, and board members was also important. Rice said even those who have been a superintendent in another state still need mentorship, saying the state needs to “pour into adults who are responsible for kids as well.”

Gordie Howe International Bridge Pivots to 2025 Opening

The Gordie Howe International Bridge is planning a fall 2025 opening, officials said Thursday.

Construction of the second international bridge connecting Detroit with Canada is expected to be completed in September 2025, with the first vehicles to travel across the bridge that fall.

Originally, the $5.7 billion (in Canadian dollars) project was scheduled to be completed in November 2024 and open to vehicles at the end of the year, but the coronavirus pandemic led to delays.

The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority and Bridging North America also agreed to an increase in the project’s overall cost to $6.4 billion (Canadian dollars).

“We appreciate the ongoing commitment of our partners at WDBA and BNA to keeping this vital project on track during an unprecedented worldwide pandemic that presented many obstacles on both sides of the border,” Department of Transportation Director Brad Wieferich said in a statement. “We are especially pleased that along with a revised timeline comes a pledge for further community benefits in Southwest Detroit and BNA’s pledge to add cycling lanes to streets on the Detroit side. We saw a great deal of work completed in 2023 and look forward to opening this great bridge in 2025.”

Gongwer’s Top 10 Laws of 2023

The first all-Democratic government in 40 years finished out 2023 with 321 public acts, the most bills signed into law in the first year of a term since 2011.

That year, probably not coincidentally, also was the first year of a new Republican trifecta, which similarly brought an onslaught of pent-up policy.

2023 also was the first veto-free year since 2015.

Four months into the year 2023, we had already seen the largest number of significant policy changes signed into law. That trend continued until the Legislature adjourned for the year on November 14, the earliest sine die adjournment for a Legislature since the 1960s in the years before the Legislature moved to a full-time schedule.

Here are the top 10 new laws Gongwer sees as the most significant. In ranking the statutes, Gongwer assessed the sweep of each law’s impact on the public and the controversy surrounding it. Some similar acts are grouped together.

In a sign of how many significant bills were signed into law this year, some examples of those not making the top 10: ending the asset test for food assistance, broadening school sinking funds to transportation, moving the presidential primary up to February 27, a wide array of election law changes, banning child marriage, among many others.

  • CLEAN DRINKING WATER: Child care centers and schools must install water filters to prevent lead contamination, develop a drinking water plan, conduct routine sampling and ensure safe drinking water for children under HB 4341HB 4342 and SB 88 (PAs 154, 155 and 173). These bills were an outgrowth of the Flint and Benton Harbor water crises as the state continues to reckon with the presence of lead in drinking water lines and fixtures.
  • THIRD GRADE READING RETENTION REPEALED: Pupils not reading at a second-grade level by the end of third grade no longer must be held back from advancing to fourth grade under SB 12 (PA 7). While PA 306 of 2016 had several off-ramps enabling third-grade pupils unable to read at the second-grade level to still advance to the fourth grade (more than 90% of those eligible still advanced), hundreds were held back (545 in the 2021-22 school year). Supporters of the bill said holding students back would not improve eventual outcomes.
  • ORAL CHEMOTHERAPY FINALLY PASSES: A more than decade-long battle to require insurers to handle oral chemotherapy similar to intravenous treatment became law this year in HB 4071 (PA 170). Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills), who repeatedly shared her story about her breast cancer battle and need for oral treatment, almost single-handedly willed the bill through the Legislature. She also agreed to a couple of concessions to get the Michigan Association of Health Plans, a longtime opponent, to move to neutral.
  • JUVENILE JUSTICE CHANGES: Who says task force recommendations always collect dust? Some 19 bills addressing various components of the juvenile justice system were signed into law. The bills signed allow juvenile courts and law enforcement to use risk and mental health screenings to be flexible about where a juvenile is detained or adjudicated and remove certain fees and costs for juvenile defendants. Additionally, the bills ensure courts factor in a juvenile’s developmental maturity, emotional health, mental health, tribal status, and victim impacts when determining whether to try them as an adult. Signed were HB 4625HB 4626 , HB 4628 , HB 4629 , SB 418 , SB 421 , HB 4636 , HB 4637 , SB 428 , SB 429 , HB 4639 , HB 4640 , HB 4643 , SB 432 , SB 435 , SB 436 , HB 4633 , SB 425 and SB 426 (PAs 287-302).
  • DECADES OF ABORTION RESTRICTIONS ERASED: Voters made the big decision in 2022 when they passed Proposal 2022-3 to legalize abortion in Michigan. What followed was a series of bills that implemented that proposal and more. HB 4006 and HB 4032 (PA 11, 12, and 13) repealed the state’s 1931 law, making it a felony to perform an abortion, a statute that dated to 1846. What followed was first SB 147 (PA 31), barring a person’s abortion from leading to discrimination against employment, housing, and public accommodations, and then an omnibus package lifting various abortion restrictions like requiring persons to purchase separate insurance coverage for an abortion, a prohibition on a procedure opponents called partial-birth abortion and requirements that abortion care facilities be regulated like freestanding surgical clinics. Backers of legalized abortion were unable, however, to gain the support needed to lift the state’s ban on Medicaid-funded abortions nor the 24-hour required waiting period before a woman can undergo an abortion.
  • NEW FIREARMS RESTRICTIONS SIGNED: Not in recent memory had Michigan enacted new restrictions on firearms. And at the start of 2023, the Democratic Legislature didn’t seem particularly eager to move on the issue either. That all changed after the deadly mass shooting at Michigan State University. Democrats swiftly passed a new, stronger background check bill, legislation allowing courts to order the seizure of firearms from dangerous persons, and bills requiring safe storage of guns around children.
  • K-12 BUDGET BRINGS FREE BREAKFAST, BIG FUNDING, AND UNIVERSAL PRE-K: The 2023-24 K-12 School Aid budget achieved several longtime Democratic dream items. SB 173 (PA 103) paid for all public school students to get free breakfast and lunch and took the first step toward free pre-kindergarten for all students. The budget also had a hefty per-pupil increase of $458, or 5%, substantial increases for academically at-risk students, funds to help schools with mental health and safety and much more.
  • LABOR ERASES THE SNYDER ERA: A slew of laws loathed by organized labor and cheered by business groups got the axe. Democrats erased a major win for non-union construction companies when they restored the requirement for the payment of union-scale wages on public construction projects in PA 10 of 2023. Former Gov. Rick Snyder held off repeal attempts with the promise of a veto, but foes of the prevailing wage collected enough signatures from registered voters to bring an initiative petition before the Legislature in 2018, and the Legislature approved the repeal. Democrats also repealed the right to work laws of 2012. That means unions in the private sector can again require workers in a collective bargaining agreement to pay dues or a non-member fee. Democrats also repealed right to work for public employees though it has no effect because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled public bodies cannot require employees to belong to a union or pay non-member fees. Democrats also repealed a prohibition on school districts from collecting union dues from their employees, overhauled school employee evaluations, added county corrections offices in the binding arbitration law, required public employers to provide contact information to the employee union, made graduate assistants public employees and repealed a ban on public bodies from deducting payroll for union PAC contributions.
  • EITC QUINTUPLED, RETIREE TAXATION EASED: The tax credit the working poor can claim on their state income taxes went from 6% to 30%, and a longtime Democratic bogeyman, the application of the state income tax to retirement income was substantially reduced in HB 4001 (PA 1). Democrats backed off their original promise to “repeal the retirement tax,” but the fundamental change is significant. Most retirees will now pay little to no income tax on their pension and 401(k) income. This bill also set aside a big earmark for the state’s primary economic incentive program in the next couple of years.
  • A NEW ENERGY LAW: Democrats passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s energy law, setting a new clean energy standard and quadrupling the percentage of energy that utilities must generate from renewable sources. There also are substantial new environmental justice measures and regulations for the utilities. And the bills move siting authority on large-scale solar and wind energy projects to the Public Service Commission if local governments balk. Only time will tell just how the complex array of bills passed in the middle of the night in November play out. Democrats think it positions the state at the vanguard of cleaner energy. Republicans are warning of massive price hikes and potential outages.

2023’s Top Blunders: Dems Take Over With Some Hiccups

Democrats took control of state government for the first time in decades in January, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer winning reelection and the party taking both the House and Senate. The new dynamic came with a few blunders as everyone got used to their new roles: Republicans in the minority and Democrats in charge.

While 2023 felt a little quaint compared to the last years of split government, the coronavirus, and intense election years, there were still plenty of mishaps to choose from for this year’s list.

  • PERRY JOHNSON FLOPS: Perry Johnson’s presidential bid served little purpose other than to spend his money. Johnson spent millions, didn’t qualify for a debate, and at one point was boasting a 1% polling level before dropping out, in a comical life imitates art echo of Connor Roy’s presential bid in “Succession.”
  • DEMS ATTEND SESSION WITH COVID: When Democrats were in the minority in 2020 and 2021, they constantly criticized the Republicans who led the Legislature coming to session without masks and potentially having the coronavirus. This year, some Democrats attended House sessions, sometimes for hours, masked and in the gallery – and with COVID-19. Rep. Natalie Price(D-Berkley) did so in January but opted not to attend the State of the State, which occurred the day she tested positive. Rep. Veronica Paiz (D-Harper Woods) attended a session while infected with coronavirus in February. House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said the chamber followed federal guidelines, but vaccinated COVID-positive individuals are asked to isolate for five days before masking in public.
  • FREEDOM CAUCUS VOTES NO, GETS OSTRACIZED: Several members of the House Freedom Caucus made up of ultraconservative members, vote no on almost everything to come before the chamber. Eight of them voted no on the ceremonial vote for House Speaker Joe Tate(D-Detroit) on the opening day of the session. They all received just one committee assignment to start out the term. Later, four members – Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), Rep. Neil Friske (R-Charlevoix), and Rep. Angela Rigas (R-Caledonia Township) – lost even that one committee assignment. This caused no real dust-up in the House Republican Caucus. In fact, House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) said through a spokesperson the removal of the four members, along with other changes made at the time, helped bring the caucus in line with what it requested for committees.
  • PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY SPILLOVER EFFECTS: Although the Legislature adjourned early in 2023, it was an action mostly rendered moot by the fact that the House is now sitting at a 54-54 tie after two of its members won local elections and resigned. However, long before that election, questions swirled about what Democrats would do after voting to move up the presidential primary to late February without immediate effect on the bill. It will never be known whether the Legislature would have adjourned early if House Democrats hadn’t lost members, but the primary change put the Democrats in a tough spot for no reason. Those supporting the primary change talked about the attention Michigan would get as one of the first states to vote, but this primary season is, well, not exciting. President Joe Biden is seeking reelection for the Democrats with no real challenger, and former President Donald Trump is the frontrunner by a mile in the GOP primary. Had the Democrats left the primary where it was, in mid-March, the vacant House seats could have been filled using that election, meaning had Democrats not adjourned early, they would have been at 54-54 for two months instead of five.
  • EGLE’s FOIA OMISSION: An email to a Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy official scorching how Gov. Gretchen Whitmer‘s administration handled Benton Harbor’s water crisis, saying the lessons of the Flint water crisis had not been learned, was omitted from a Gongwer News Service Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents on the city’s water problems. The department said the omission was an oversight. The existence of the email came to light after others discovered it in a separate FOIA request showing part of it was in Greek letters, which appeared to be a strange technology formatting issue but was condemned by the governor’s critics as a concealment tactic. The portion of the email in English, however, was more than enough to have required the department to produce it to Gongwer in response to its FOIA request.
  • MSU BOARD OF TRUSTEES: The Michigan State University Board of Trustees saw more controversy in 2023. In April, the board declined to vote on releasing documents related to Larry Nassar to the Department of Attorney General. Later, in 2023, when the former MSU football coach Mel Tucker was implicated in a scandal and eventually fired, questions started on what the school’s leaders knew and when. Then, in October, Trustee Brianna Scott (D-Muskegon) wrote a letter to the board calling Chair Rema Vassar (D-Detroit) to resign or be removed. Vassar has denied the claims. The board did vote to release the Nassar documents this month, though.
  • REP. ANGELA WITWER IN THE NEWS: The revelation that House Appropriations Chair Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township) remained involved with the public relations firm she helped found before running for office gave Republicans fodder for several months this year. Aside from questions on the relationship with the firm, which represents clients doing business with the state – and seeking dollars through the budget Witwer helped craft – The Detroit News also reported she allowed friends to use the House Appropriations Room for a baby shower.
  • FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER A ‘CORRUPT POLITICIAN’: Former House Speaker Rick Johnson pleaded guilty this year to accepting bribes as chair of the now-defunct medical marijuana licensing board. He is serving a 55-month prison sentence. His actions included accepting $110,200 in cash, airfare to Canada, a sham loan, sports tickets, lavish meals, trysts with a commercial sex worker, and a man cave at a Detroit business location where those interactions occurred in exchange for assistance in entering the new regulation medical marijuana market in the state. The licensing board was criticized as inefficient, and its members were sometimes inconsistent in decisions from the beginning. Johnson’s appointment as chair was also questioned from the beginning, given his time as a lobbyist.
  • DEMS BLINDSIDED AS SENATE GOP DELAYS KEY VOTE: In February, Sen. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe), associate president pro tempore in the Senate, took advantage of the Democrats leaving the floor by recognizing his colleague Sen. Dan Lauwers‘ motion to adjourn and granting it. The move delayed voting on a key tax cut and economic development bill for a weekend. It also led to a kerfuffle that included Bellino and Lauwers both getting temporarily removed from committees and a threat of changes to the Senate’s immediate effect rules requiring roll call votes. Democrats also abolished the associate president pro tempore term to prevent minority Republicans from making the same move again.
  • ROADS? WHAT ROADS?: Road funding saw minimal attention as the first Democratic trifecta took control of state government this year. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer‘s bonds are still being used along with an influx of federal dollars, though the bond funds will soon be exhausted, and long-term, additional funding for infrastructure is getting scant attention. Democrats spent down a $9 billion surplus this year and put the equivalent of pennies toward additional road funding. Even more, Whitmer – the “fix the damn roads” governor – tasked her population council with coming up with a recommendation on road funding. It declined to do so.
  • FLINT CRIMINAL PROSECUTIONS WHIFF: Attempted criminal prosecutions of state officials for the Flint water crisis imploded in 2023. Many raised their eyebrows after the Department of Attorney General started from scratch four years ago and scrapped the investigation and charges brought by the team then-Attorney General Bill Schuette hired, a group Attorney General Dana Nessel and the team she put in charge disparaged. Then, the Michigan Supreme Court knocked down the department’s use of the one-person grand juror system in its refiling of charges. The agency still tried appealing the resulting dismissals of its criminal cases, but the Supreme Court officially declined all of those appeals this year. It has been nine years since the city’s water source was switched without proper corrosion control, allowing lead to leach into the drinking water for the city’s population. And although there were two investigation teams under two attorneys general, there were no significant convictions.
  • REDISTRICTING COMMISSION LOSES LAWSUIT, TURNS ON ITSELF: Members of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commissionkept themselves on the payroll for all of 2023, even as they only met sparingly because of ongoing litigation. By the end of the year, that litigation exploded the maps the commission completed in 2021. A three-judge panel ordered the commission to redraw several legislative districts just months before the filing deadline for the Michigan House that is up for election in 2024. With the potentially tall task before it (it is facing the possibility of the court appointing a special master to handle map drawing), commissioners are in disarray. Three members have resigned and will need to be replaced. One member, who is in strong agreement with the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit and is critical of the commission’s work, is being targeted for removal.
  • MICHIGAN REPUBLICAN PARTY IN CHAOS: In 2023, Michigan Republican Party delegates chose Kristina Karamo as the state party’s new chair, putting the unsuccessful secretary of state candidate in charge of the party’s operations. From the beginning, her time as chair has brought controversy. Shortly after taking office, she compared gun control legislation being pursued by Democrats to the Holocaust and never backed down. Karamo and the Republican legislative leaders openly loathe each other. The party seems to be running out of money as traditional top donors aren’t giving. It held the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, but instead of drawing presidential candidates and top party leaders from across the country, it drew a series of election deniers and the actor Jim Caviezel, whose speaking fee has brought heated criticism for Karamo as the event turned into a money drain for the party. There have been two fistfights at party functions. There is also currently an effort to oust Karamo as chair, but that might be for the 2024 list.
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