July Legislative Report by Todd Tennis
The Legislature has recessed for the summer and will not be back in session until September. They completed the 2018 budget process and the Governor signed it into law in July. Governor Snyder also signed legislation making major reforms to the public school pension system, and another package of bills creating a new tax credit for corporations. Although legislative work has ceased for the next two months, other issues relating to state employees continue to proceed. The courts are still working through various litigation stemming from the Flint water crisis, and Attorney General Schuette recently announced felony charges against several employees at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.
More on these issues below.
Attorney General Files Charges against Former Employees of Veterans Home
On July 24, Attorney General Schuette filed felony complaints against 11 former employees of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. The charges stemmed from a highly critical Auditor General report released in February of 2016. The charges involve putting false or misleading information into medical records, a felony that could result in a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to 4 years. Attorney General Schuette also stated that the investigation is not yet concluded, and more charges could be filed at a later date.
The initial Auditor General report cited numerous problems at the home, many of which could be traced to a lack of oversight and follow-up to resident complaints. Some of the actions that led to criminal charges stemmed from employees failing to perform required treatment and then falsifying records to indicate that they had. Each of the employees charged were certified nursing assistants.
Complaints about treatment of residents at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans is not new. Five years ago, most direct care positions at the home were privatized, with contractor J2S winning the contract (all of the former employees charged so far were employed by J2S). In 2013, State Representatives Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) and Tim Greimel (D-Pontiac) conducted a surprise tour of the facility and raised alarms as to the poor quality of service there. The lawmakers called for an investigation at that time, and urged the Civil Service Commission to put an end to the privatization and return those positions to state employees. Sarah Dunne, the administrator of the home at the time, called the accusations “disingenuous,” and a “disservice to our veteran community.” After news of the criminal charges was released in late July of this year, Representative Brinks stated that state officials have known about the poor conditions at the home for years but did nothing. “I implored the governor to open an investigation then,” said Ms. Brinks. “Our veterans needlessly suffered for four years, which is inexcusable.”
Catherine Kooyers, an advocate for residents at the home, was unhappy that the charges only include direct care staff and did not name any supervisors or administrators at the home. “It seems to me more folks could be held accountable for overseeing operations,” Kooyers said. “If they say they didn’t know, then should they have?” Kooyers also said that, until leaders at the home were also charged, she and other veterans’ advocates would not participate in “Michigan Attorney General Schuette’s political dog and pony show.”
James Robert Redford, the director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, issued a statement saying that, since the 2016 audit report, the home has made substantial progress in addressing the poor findings in the audit. The home has increased staffing and replaced J2S with two other contractors – MAXIM and Career Staff Unlimited.
Resident Tony Spallone, who filed a lawsuit in 2011 to stop privatization of services, was unimpressed with the criminal charges. “When the state privatizes our care to save money,” Spallone said, “even if that means bringing in workers who abuse us, what it really means is the state doesn’t care.”
Governor Signs 2018 Budget, Line-item Vetoes Some Provisions
On July 14, Governor Snyder signed into law PA 107 of 2017 – the omnibus appropriations bill for the 2018 state budget. Last month’s report provided an outline of some key appropriations changes by department. When Governor Snyder signed the bill, he also line-item vetoed a number of provisions. These include:
Agriculture Draft Beer Delivery Systems Training $150,000
DEQ Drill Core Storage Facility $500,000
DHHS Pediatric Brain Injury Project $1,000,000
DNR Bay City Recreation Area Playscape $500,000
DNR Onaway State Park Pavilion $500,000
A number of other items were vetoed as well. A full list is attached to this report.
Campaign ’18 Already Ramping Up
On the political front, Lt. Governor Calley took many observers by surprise in June when instead of announcing his bid for governor in 2018, he announced the creation of a petition campaign to create a part-time legislature. Attorney General Bill Schuette has also not officially declared his candidacy, but Lansing insiders still expect both he and Calley to be the major contenders in the Republican primary. On the Democratic side, Gretchen Whitmer, who announced her candidacy in January, continues to dodge serious potential Democratic rivals. Congressman Dan Kildee (D-Flint) declared that he would not run for Governor in 2018 back in May, and another well-known figure, attorney Mark Bernstein, did the same in July.
The other major statewide race in 2018 will be for U.S. Senate. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) is running for re-election against what may be a crowded Republican Primary. In addition to Lena Epstein (former Trump campaign leader), and Robert Young (former Michigan Supreme Court Justice) who are already running, Detroit businessman and army veteran John James has filed an exploratory committee. Of course, the most famous name who is mulling a Senate run is musician Kid Rock, who would hope to follow the Trump formula to victory. In fact, the conventional wisdom in Lansing is that Mr. Rock would have the best shot of the above listed in winning the Republican primary, and possibly becoming Senator Rock. After the outcome of the 2016 campaign, nothing seems impossible anymore.