Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > May 3, 2024 | This Week in Government: New Michigan Voter Rights Package

May 3, 2024 | This Week in Government: New Michigan Voter Rights Package

May 3, 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.

Senate Elections Debates New Michigan Voter Rights Package

Michigan’s secretary of state, voting rights experts, and activists told a Senate panel Wednesday that they supported legislation to enact a State Voting Rights Act.

The bills – SB 401SB 402SB 403, and SB 404 – were up for discussion and testimony only before the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, but the committee did adopt S-1 substitutes for each before the bills were properly brought before the body.

Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), the sponsor of SB 402, said the panel would take on the different pieces of the package chunk by chunk, introducing each bill before starting discussions on SB 401, sponsored by Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township). Moss said the committee would discuss and take testimony on SB 401 across two committee sessions before taking up the others during subsequent meetings.

Camilleri opened to introduce the package, saying his bill and the others would protect against disruptions of voting rights if federal court orders struck down key protections like the U.S. Voting Rights Act, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has in the past few decades dismantled key pieces of longstanding civil rights and voting rights laws.

His bill, SB 401, would prohibit a local government or state agency from imposing any law, practice, policy, or method of election that would lead to a disparity in voter participation between a protected class and other members of the electorate or that would impair the ability of a protected class to participate in the political process – or otherwise influence the outcome of an election. The bill spells out specific violations of the proposed act, which would allow a legislative body of a local government to adopt a Michigan VRA resolution for a remedy to any potential violation after receiving approval from the Department of State.

SB 401 further outlines the guidelines a court could use to determine whether racially polarized voting by protected class members in a local government occurred and whether an impairment of the right to vote for any protected class member or of the opportunity or ability of protected class members to influence the outcome of elections, had occurred.

Under the bill, the department must also create an annual list of covered jurisdictions whose changes to elections laws or practices would be considered covered policies that would have to be approved by the department or the Court of Claims before taking effect.

Camilleri also said it would help prevent bad actors from subverting the right to vote or pressuring officials to take actions that would ultimately subvert the sanctity of voting rights – and votes cast – due to actions like pulling voters from rolls.

“Just recently, the New York Times reported that extremist activists had pressured the Waterford Township clerk to wrongly remove over 1,000 voters from their rolls, including an active service member. Those voters were subsequently reinstated upon action from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson,” Camilleri said. “We should be alarmed that it took reporting from a national news outlet for this incident to come to our attention. SB 401 will address these exact kinds of incidents, establishing notice requirements for potentially nefarious activity that can alert communities and voting rights advocates and allow them to organize and utilize the pathways outlined in this bill to protect their rights.”

Moss’s bill would direct the Department of State to partner with one or more state universities to hold election information, without identifying information included, to help keep that data safe and available for public use and study. It also institutes training on systems and other information and fosters research into Michigan elections.

Sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Change (D-Detroit), SB 403 would ensure language access and assistance at polling places. It also allows for new causes of action related to language access in the Court of Claims.

Speaking for Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), sponsor of SB 404, Camilleri said it would expand disability access, helping voters who cannot enter a physical polling place and codifying disability assistance language that already exists in statewide election worker manuals.

Benson spoke in support of the package via Zoom. She praised the state’s local clerks for meeting the moment of intensified scrutiny on election security, the unfounded claims of voter fraud propagated during the 2020 election, and modernizing same-day registration and early voting all while in the midst of a pandemic.

“However, this moment has also seen a great deal of noise, and a great deal of noise targeting not just our election infrastructure, but really targeting the voters of this state. And we’re going to see that noise escalate in the months ahead. And that noise can take a lot of different forms, but a lot of it is rooted in lies and misinformation about the integrity of our elections,” Benson said. “A lot of it is geared toward making citizens afraid to vote. It also, in many ways, intentionally or not, leads to the mobilization of many citizens who, through a grievance or other types of anger, feel the need to potentially interfere with our election system.”

Benson added that the intimidation local election workers felt over the last two major elections was real and harmful and that voters are now feeling this heat, too.

“It sends a message that’s designed to and has the impact of creating fear and creating an anxiety around the very simple act, the powerful act of casting a vote. An anxiety and fear that is also rooted in historical efforts or linked to historical acts that amount to voter intimidation and suppression,” Benson said. “Pushing for these changes is to really look at the last piece that we need to do in Michigan to protect and expand our democracy to really be prepared to meet this moment, not just in 2024, but in the future, to do so with an eye towards what voters need in this moment.”

Civil rights leaders like the Rev. Wendell Anthony and Yvonne White, president of the NAACP Michigan State Conference, both spoke in support of the bills. White said that, overall, the people of Michigan, especially Black and other minority communities, deserve to know that there isn’t a lot of red tape blocking their voting rights and that bad actors would be prevented from inflicting disturbances to their voting rights.

White also said that Michigan needs to “finish the job” of storied civil rights activists by ensuring federal statutes were also enshrined in state law.

“This bill and the companion bills will cement Michigan’s status as a national leader in protecting the fundamental right to vote,” White said.

Erica Peresman with Promote the Vote said her organization strongly supported the bills.

She noted that, in addition to the Waterford Township incident, there was an incident following the 2020 election where clerks were pressured into releasing voting machines and tabulators to “unauthorized individuals.”

“Now, those individuals who received those machines have now been indicted, but it took almost four years,” she said. “It certainly would have been helpful if that activity had been reportable at the time.”

The incident Peresman was referring to involves the alleged actions of a former lawmaker, a MIGOP nominated candidate for attorney general and a lawyer associated with former President Donald Trump who pressured clerks to hand over voting machines for supposed inspection and testing to ferret out conspiracies of manipulated systems changing votes for current President Joe Biden. Those individuals are former Rep. Daire Rendon of Lake City, attorney Matthew DePerno and attorney Stefanie Lambert Junttila, each charged with unlawfully obtaining the equipment and tampering with it (editor’s note: this story has been changed to correct Peresman’s quote).

Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township) and Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) asked White about instances where people’s rights to vote were curtailed in specific jurisdictions.

White said that members of minority communities have a multitude of stories about things they’ve been told that had the net effect of deterring their rights to vote, including being told that if you owe back taxes or child support, registering to vote or voting in person could mean being arrested at the polling place. In some of those cases, community members and organizations like the NAACP have had to physically accompany individuals to the polls who were fearful of those actions being taken against them.

“(The fear) is very real,” she said.

The committee was nearing its end when Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) dropped a philosophical question that the committee and the bill sponsors would be remiss to not ponder: Why put all of these new laws and requirements on local clerks when the state could, like many others, run the elections itself.

“With all these changes, with references to other states doing a better job, why continue with local elections?” McBroom asked, relating it to putting old wine in new bottles.

The room fell silent.

Moss said that was “a big question” and was something the committee could brood over in subsequent meetings. (Gongwer Editor’s note: this story has been changed to correct Moss’s quote.)

Prevailing Wage Expansion Clears Divided Senate

The Senate voted Wednesday along party lines for legislation that would require renewable energy projects without state funding to pay the prevailing wage over objections from Republicans who said the changes were a slippery slope in expanding the prevailing wage beyond public projects.

Under the bill, solar and wind projects that are connected to or providing electricity to a utility’s distribution system would be required to pay the prevailing wage. Contractors and subcontractors working on such projects in the state would be required to be registered, renewing yearly, and to submit certified payroll to the state.

The bill, SB 571, passed 20-18 with Republicans pushing back on the proposal before the final vote.

“This bill would expand prevailing wage to the private sector for the first time … it also sets a dangerous precedent,” Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) said. “Today, it’s limited to solar projects. What industry will Democrats target for artificial costs next? It’s a bridge too far and we must not cross it.”

Albert said he believed in the last year, under the Democratic majority, two of the worst policies enacted were the renewable energy mandate and the reinstatement of the prevailing wage.

“This doubles down on those bad policies and joins them together,” Albert said. “How do big government central planners take over an economy? It does not happen all at once. It happens bit by bit, law by law, solar panel field by solar panel field, until one day we’re all living in a state where the government dictates the economy and the free market that built this great nation is just an afterthought. … It is centralized planning, plain and simple.”

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) pushed back on Albert’s comments.

“There’s nothing artificial about how those paychecks (for) the hard-working people who build our roads and build our schools, there’s nothing artificial about how those paychecks end up paying their mortgage,” Irwin said. “There’s nothing artificial about how those paychecks (are) putting food on the table for them and their families.”

Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint), the bill sponsor, said the energy legislation signed into law last year included provisions for the use of prevailing wage for building renewable energy projects.

“Part of the reasoning behind that is because we understand that when we do work using trained, well-paid workers, it’s cheaper than doing the same work twice with untrained, poorly paid workers,” Cherry said. “By allowing our agency to enforce the laws that we passed in the fall, we are actually holding down the cost of our transition by making sure we’re doing that work most efficiently and with well-trained workers.”

Albert offered two amendments, both of which failed along party lines. The first would have removed language allowing for the prevailing wage to be allowed for renewable energy projects. The other would have changed the requirement for contractors and subcontractors to register with the state yearly to once every 10 years, which he said would ease the administrative burden on businesses.

Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said he does not disagree with the premise of prevailing wage and there could be occasions where contractors could come in with workers without proper training, without proper supervision and with faulty equipment.

“However, to now see us move in this dangerous direction, away from public projects, away from the publicly financed taxpayer-funded projects, and especially to move into solar and wind projects which don’t present some sort of public safety danger as school buildings or skyscrapers do, is very much not in line with any of the premise that’s been established for why we have prevailing wage in the first place,” McBroom said.

McBroom said the proposed changes would decrease the production of energy in the Upper Peninsula and increase the cost of building renewable energy infrastructure.

Cherry told reporters the yearly business registration provision would be better for businesses because the registration fees go toward enforcement through the Wage and Hour Division within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Having a yearly registration fee would be better than having a large fee once per decade, and would better provide regulators with the money to cover enforcement. Cherry added he would anticipate the yearly fee to be between $300 and $500, which would be in line with that of other states.

The senator also dismissed the arguments made by Republicans during floor debate against the bills.

“When it comes to energy projects, all these projects go through our Public Service Commission,” Cherry said. “We’re already regulating the rate set by our companies. … We already have a significant amount of regulation, which makes sense because these are natural monopolies outside of government regulation.”

As to Republican arguments that the bills create a slippery slope, Cherry told reporters he has no plans to introduce similar energy beyond what was passed Wednesday.

Senate GOP Introduces ‘Grow MI State’ Plan

Senate Republicans introduced an economic package that would restore Michigan’s right to work law and cut state regulations, moves the caucus said would help spur growth and prosperity and reverse what they called damaging policy decisions passed under the current Democratic majority.

The Senate GOP bill package, which they called their “Grow MI State” plan, would also divert funds from the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund to improve statewide bridge infrastructure.

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) in a statement said the proposals introduced Wednesday by his caucus would put Michigan on a stronger footing for economic growth and reduce red tape for businesses and workers.

He also ripped the economic policies passed under Democratic legislative control as being destructive and undermining the economy and families.

“Senate Republicans will not sit on our hands while Democrats continue to suffocate Michigan’s economic future by kowtowing to union bosses, doling out millions of taxpayer dollars to their favorite global corporations, and stifling business growth with overburdensome red tape and bureaucratic regulations,” Nesbitt said. “We have a plan to change course to a better path and will continue fighting for the future prosperity of all Michiganders.”

Sen. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) introduced SB 847, which would reinstate the state’s right to work law which Democrats repealed last year upon taking the majority in the Legislature. SB 846, introduced by Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), also deals with bringing back the right to work law.

Hauck said in a statement he was a union member for nearly 30 years and, during that time, did not need a government mandate for membership.

“Right to Work initially created a lot of opportunities for workers in this state, and I think the recent repeal closed that door and sent us backwards,” Hauck said. “Not only does the repeal of Right to Work eliminate opportunities for people seeking employment, but it also allows unions to lower their standards because the government forced this choice on workers. I don’t think that benefits anyone, especially the workers the law claims to favor.”

Other legislation (SB 852 and SB 853) would divert monies from SOAR into a proposed Bridge Repair Fund to address structurally deficient bridges in the state.

Further legislation (SB 854 >and SB 855) would enable Michigan to enter multi-state compacts to prevent funds like SOAR to pit states against each other in attracting economic development.

Under SB 848, state departments and agencies would be prohibited from promulgating and enacting rules that are more stringent than federal rules. A repeal of the prohibition that was passed in 2018 under former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration was signed into law last year (See Gongwer Michigan Report, July 27, 2023).

Further legislation would require yearly reports be produced on reciprocity for certain health occupations under the Public Health Code (SB 849), reports for occupations under the Skilled Trades Act (SB 850), and requiring the state to conduct yearly reviews of rules, regulations, and licensing requirements imposed on businesses (SB 851). Under SB 845, changes would be made to the program requirements for Michigan Reconnect grants.

House Republicans announced their own slate of bills last month seeking to reinstate the right to work law and increase oversight on programs, including the SOAR fund, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the Michigan Strategic Fund (See Gongwer Michigan Report, April 17, 2024).

Senate LEO Budget Focuses on Housing, Some Changes From Governor’s Recommendations

Senators moved a Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity budget with recommendations of over $200 million more than the governor’s recommendations on Tuesday while removing funding for multiple key items and instead directing monies toward housing and other grant programs.

Members of the Senate Appropriations LEO and MEDC Subcommittee reported a LEO budget containing $2.2 billion ($560.3 million General Fund), up from the governor’s proposal of $1.8 billion ($228 million General Fund).

Housing was a top Senate priority, with a $150 million General Fund included for housing affordability program grants.

One key change in the Senate budget was the inclusion of a $201 million ($177.5 million General Fund) one-time funding pool for several grant programs.

The Senate panel voted 5-2 along party lines to report the S-1 substitute version of SB 766 to the full Senate Appropriations Committee.

One significant addition by the Senate was $201 million ($177.5 million General Fund) in one-time funding for several grant programs. These included grants for community development grants ($50 million), critical infrastructure ($23 million) business attraction and workforce development ($22 million), community centers ($20 million), talent attraction and youth development ($18 million), community revitalization ($15.5 million), cultural vibrancy ($11 million), minority-owned businesses ($10 million), parks and recreation ($5.5 million), ARISE Michigan ($5 million), career and technical education equipment ($5 million), short-term loans ($2 5 million), tree safety ($2 million) and mental health worker scholarships ($1.5 million).

Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Township), the subcommittee chair, told reporters the most significant change in the Senate budget bill was the focus on housing.

She said about $50 million of the housing monies under the Senate proposal is for matching funds to groups such as nonprofits.

“I think there’s several different ways that we can utilize these dollars,” Cavanagh said of total housing spending, between matching dollars and providing money to several communities across the state.

A focus on low-income and minority-based housing was key in the housing funds, she added.

Cavanagh said the proposed $201 million in one-time grants was an attempt at listening to a wide variety of stakeholders and “making sure that our earmarks and our investments are going to who need it most in our communities.”

In the Senate budget, several other recommendations made by the governor were not included.

The Senate budget removed line items for the governor’s proposed $15 million one-time and $5 million ongoing, all General Fund, for the Michigan Marketing Initiative.

Other one-time items in the governor’s recommendations that were not included in the Senate proposal include for the Build Ready Sites program ($25 million), business attraction and community revitalization ($20 million), an increase in the Going Pro program ($20 million) and for talent solutions ($20 million).

Further recommendations from the governor removed under the Senate budget include funding for the New Michigander program ($8 million), arts and cultural grants ($5 million), community and neighborhood initiatives ($5 million), global talent and retention ($4 million), the Michigan Growth Office ($4 million) and the Prosperity Bureau ($1 million).

Several additions were included in the Senate budget.

The Senate budget added $10 million ($7 million General Fund) for supporting community development financial institutions.

An additional $5 million General Fund was recommended for the Office of Global Michigan, which would bring total funding to $45 million ongoing.

For the Community and Worker Economic Transition Office that was created under a renewable energy policy package, the Senate proposed 10 new full-time equivalent staff and $2.5 million General Fund, which was half of the funding and staffing levels recommended by the governor.

The Senate proposal would also provide $2 million General Fund for voluntary income tax assistance grants, as well as additional funding for arts and cultural grants ($750,000), and for the Going Pro program ($250,000).

Three $100 placeholders were included in the Senate budget. These were for the Black Leadership Council, the Veteran Property Tax Exemption payment and for the proposed Michigan 360 Program the Senate has been pushing as part of changes to the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve fund.

MDARD Director Declares Bird Flu in Cattle ‘Extraordinary Emergency’

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Tim Boring signed an emergency order Wednesday in the wake of continued outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in dairy cattle in Michigan, which will require the implementation of biosecurity measures to ensure the state’s food supply remains uncontaminated.

“This outbreak has highlighted areas within our industry that require immediate attention,” Boring said in a statement. “Producers must immediately implement robust biosecurity practices and create emergency preparedness plans and this order starts to address these on-farm risks. Implementing these measures must be the highest priority for every farm and agriculture worker. Working together, we can combat HPAI and reduce the long-term impacts on our dynamic food and agriculture industry.”

The emergency order was made after consulting with the federal government and State Veterinarian Nora Wineland. It will require all Michigan dairy farms to establish security perimeters with limited access points, plan for cleaning and disinfection practices and procedures for both vehicles and individuals coming and going from farms and maintain a record of anyone who has passed through the farm, which must be made available for examination upon request by MDARD.

“As we work together with our federal partners to gain a more complete understanding of this virus and its transmission, it is necessary to re-evaluate, refine, and enhance the measures being taken on Michigan farms to lower the risk of introducing this disease to animals,” Wineland said in a statement. “By limiting the opportunities for vulnerable species to be exposed to the virus, we can better protect animal health throughout the state.”

Regardless of the emergency order, state officials said it’s still safe to consume pasteurized dairy products statewide. Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement that avian flu still only poses a low risk to the public.

“Recent testing by the Food and Drug Administration has shown that consuming pasteurized dairy remains safe,” Hertel said. “We know pasteurization is effective in inactivating HPAI in milk, and milk sold in stores in Michigan is pasteurized. It’s important to make sure the milk products you eat and drink are pasteurized.”

The emergency order also prohibits lactating dairy cattle and all poultry from being exhibited at events like state or county fairs until further notice. Boring said the state continues to partner with veterinary experts to find solutions to stop the spread of the virus.

“Significant collaborative work is currently underway in Michigan and across the nation to better understand how the virus is spreading within and across herds,” Douglas Freeman, with the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said in a statement. “MDARD, the MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and epidemiologists from the College of Veterinary Medicine are partnering to gather information that will guide the local and national response to the ongoing outbreak. As these studies advance, it is vital to implement stringent biosecurity measures to mitigate virus transmission within our state.”

Further information on how to report potential HPAI cases and next steps for affected farmers can be found on the MDARD website.

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