January Legislative Report by Todd Tennis of Capitol Services
The Legislature has returned from after the holiday recess and will soon turn much of its attention to the budget process. Governor Snyder gave his last State of the State address on January 23, and his final budget presentation will take place on February 7.
Last year much of the focus of the House and Senate was taken up by efforts to reform Michigan’s No-Fault Auto Insurance system, making changes to public pension rules, and various discussions regarding possible tax cuts. Going into an election year, it is less likely that hugely controversial issues will come to the fore, although that conventional wisdom may go out the window in these unconventional times.
More Corrections Closures May Be Coming in Budget Process
The sudden announcement closing the West Shoreline facility in Muskegon on January 29 demonstrates conclusively that personnel in the Department of Corrections are much more aware of decision making than the state legislators who oversee the department’s budget. Rumors of an imminent closure have been circulating among department employees for months, but as recently as December, lawmakers were unaware of that possibility. However, legislators and staff who are tied to the department were aware that, due to reductions in prisoner populations, there was a possibility for multiple closures to be proposed in Governor Snyder’s budget recommendation scheduled for February 9.
MDOC Director Heidi Washington, as part of the West Shoreline announcement, stated that the prisoner population in Michigan has dropped by 7% over the past three years. The overall population dropped below 40,000 for the first time in over twenty years. The department credits educational programs that have reduced recidivism rates, along with community correctional programs, for the reduction in population.
Governor Snyder Delivers Eighth and Final State of the State Address
On January 23, lawmakers and their guests flooded the State Capitol to hear Governor Snyder’s last State of the State message. The theme of the evening was progress, as the Governor spoke about how Michigan’s economy has bounced back over the last 8 years. The Governor also touted improvement in Flint’s water supply, an issue that has dogged his administration for the past few years.
For the Governor’s last year in office, he laid out goals for increasing funding for K-12 education and for infrastructure improvements – mainly road and bridge funding. Governor Snyder also talked about his upcoming “Marshal Plan for Talent” initiative that he hopes will help Michigan be more competitive for projects like the Amazon Headquarters that decided to go elsewhere. He promised that more details of these plans will be forthcoming.
An important message in the Governor’s speech was also one of fiscal responsibility. Governor Snyder made it clear that he preferred shifting state funds toward infrastructure and education projects rather than passing further tax cuts. However that message does not seem to be resonating since the Legislature just over-rode Governor Snyder’s veto of legislation that reduces taxes on automobile purchases when the buyer is trading in a vehicle.
Revenue Estimating Conference Expects Stable Economy
The latest meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference took place on January 11. The House and Senate Fiscal Agencies, along with the State Treasurer, reported to the Legislature their predictions for tax collections in the coming year. The conference also took into account the overall status of Michigan’s economy in making their predictions. Presenters agreed that the Michigan economy is stable and is projected to continue adding jobs over the next few years.
Despite the decent economic forecast, the report predicted a slight reduction in General Fund Revenues. The General Fund, which is mainly made up of income and business taxes, is expected to be approximately $150 million less than what was predicted last May. In contrast, the School Aid Fund, which receives most of its revenue from the Sales Tax and local school property taxes, is projected to increase by approximately $134 million.
Auditor General Finds Problems at Walter Reuther
The most recent report from the Michigan Auditor General found major issues affecting patient care and security at the Walter Reuther Psychiatric Hospital. While this audit was limited to only Walter Reuther, based on information from MAGE members working at other psychiatric hospitals in Michigan, the problems found at Walter Reuther also exist elsewhere.
Of critical importance to MAGE members is the continuing overuse of mandatory overtime. The Auditor General found that from October 2014 through September 2016, 52 direct care nursing staff worked over 1,000 hours of overtime each. Moreover, in one 70-day period, the Auditor General found that 164 nursing staff worked a total of 1,709 double shifts. Hospital administrators stated that they attempt to fill overtime needs with volunteers, but agreed that the amount of mandatory overtime was excessive. Part of the response from Walter Reuther administrators included remediation efforts that include improving methods for tracking overtime and hiring additional staff.
The Auditor General also found serious issues regarding security at the hospital. For example, it found that hospital administrators could not account for 470 missing key rings, a condition that can seriously impact safety and security for patients and staff. The hospital is implementing a new tracking system to ensure that keys are not in the hands of inappropriate individuals.
Other less serious findings in the audit include issues relating to hazardous materials training (nearly half of employees had not received it); concerns related to the security of access to electronic health records; and deficiencies in entrance security and emergency preparedness.