July Legislative Report by Todd Tennis of Capitol Services
The Legislature has wrapped up the Fiscal Year 2018-19 appropriations process and has recessed for the summer. Before they left, they passed a large package of bills dealing with sexual assault in response to the events at Michigan State University. The Legislature will return in September, but they are expected to have a light workload until after the election. Depending on the outcome of the election, however, the Lame Duck session in November and December could be quite difficult.
Governor Signs 2019 Budget – Corrections Facility to Close
On July 25, Governor Snyder signed his last state budget into law. The appropriations for FY 2018-19 come to $39.94 billion for state operations and $16.84 billion for school aid, community colleges and universities. This represents a relatively flat budget, with most departments seeing modest increases. The Legislature set aside an additional $300 million for road funding, and placed sufficient funds in the “Rainy Day Fund” to bring the total there to over $1 billion.
The most impactful changes in this year’s budget process will occur in the Department of Corrections. Despite last minute efforts by some legislators to undo the plan to bring food service back under state management, the contracts with private vendors for prison cafeteria operations will end. As of the next fiscal year, state employees will once again be providing meals for inmates and staff. This ends one of the more costly and embarrassing privatization attempts in recent memory.
Another major change in the MDOC budget is a directive from the Legislature to close another facility. Governor Snyder and MDOC officials opposed the demand for another closure, but in the end they will comply. MDOC leaders have stated that they will track the inmate population over the summer months and make a decision on which facility to close in the early fall. A popular theory is that the Ojibway facility may be chosen for closure, but MDOC officials say that any facility with a high population of Level 1 or Level 2 prisoners is on the potential list.
There are a number of changes coming in the Department of Environmental Quality budget as well. Funds from the 20-year old Clean Michigan Initiative bonds are nearly depleted. Governor Snyder had proposed a $75 million program funded by solid waste tipping fee increases to partially offset the loss of Clean Michigan Initiative Funding. The Legislature balked at that amount, and instead agreed to a one-time program of $25 million that would be aimed at remediation and redevelopment of polluted sites. Instead of an increase in solid waste fees, the funds would come from the General Fund. These changes will result in potential staffing changes in 2019 and beyond.
Senator Calls for Investigation into Marijuana Bribery
After three individuals admitted their guilt in a scheme to bribe local government officials in exchange for granting licenses to distribute marijuana, State Senator David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) called for a state investigation into the matter. The three individuals pleaded guilty to a scheme to provide bribes to Garden City employees, as well as other state officials. On July 23, Senator Knezek requested that Governor Snyder direct the Michigan Department of State Police to investigate whether any state officials had received bribes from the defendants in this case, or from any other marijuana-related entities.
On July 27, Governor Snyder approved Senator Knezek’s request and instructed the MSP to begin an inquiry. The FBI is also reportedly investigating potential fallout from this bribery case. Senator Knezek referenced the $150,000 account defendants created with which to bribe governmental officials, including state employees. He stated his hope that this investigation will uncover any possible contacts, if any, the defendants may have made with state officials.
Of the 600 applications for medical marijuana licenses submitted to the state, only 7 have so far been approved.
Campaign ’18 Heating Up
Statewide candidates. Ballot initiatives. Constitutional Amendments. Hundreds of state and local candidates both partisan and non-partisan. Local millages and ordinances. Voters across the state will have a long ballot to complete both in the August 7 primary election and the November 6 general election this year.
So far, the bulk of election media attention in Michigan has focused on the race to succeed Governor Rick Snyder. The most recent polls show that Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Governor Brian Calley are leading the race for the Republican nomination, with Schuette as the frontrunner. On the Democratic side, former State Senator Gretchen Whitmer leads both Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed, but their combined attacks on Whitmer could narrow her lead in that primary. By the time this goes to print, those questions should be answered.
Most pundits are guessing that Whitmer and Schuette will face off in the Governor’s race, and most pundits feel that it will be a nail biter. Other top of the ticket races include Attorney General, where Democrat Dana Nessel will face either State Representative Tom Leonard or State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker on the Republican side. The Republicans will choose between Stan Grot, Joseph Guzman or Mary Treder Lang to be their Secretary of State nominee, while the Democrats have unofficially chosen Jocelyn Benson to be their candidate.
Another statewide race that has received much less attention is the U.S. Senate. Incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) will face the winner of the Republican primary - either businessman Sandy Pensler or businessman and veteran John James. Two other Republican candidates – former Supreme Court Justice Robert Young and Trump Campaign Co-Chair Lena Epstein – withdrew from the race earlier this year. So far, the polling shows that James and Pensler are neck and neck (though the President’s recent endorsement of James could be very helpful), but either would face an uphill battle against the well-funded Stabenow in November.
Some of the most interesting questions to be decided this year will be the ballot proposals. Michigan voters have been bombarded with an unusually high number of ballot petitions this year, ranging from marijuana legalization to non-partisan redistricting. Some of these still need to receive final approval from the State Board of Canvassers and some are facing legal challenges before they will officially be placed on the ballot. One of the petitions – to eliminate the Michigan Prevailing Wage Law – was approved by the Legislature and therefore will not appear on the ballot.
As of this writing, two proposals have been certified to appear on the ballot. One is an initiated law to legalize marijuana for recreational use. The other is a constitutional amendment to create an independent citizens redistricting commission. The latter is currently subject to a lawsuit brought by an organization called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution – a group primarily backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the lawsuit, in which the plaintiff is alleging that the proposal contains sufficient changes to be a constitutional revision, rather than a constitutional amendment, and therefore cannot be implemented via a ballot proposal. Attorneys for Voters Not Politicians, the organization that spearheaded the proposal, have successfully defended the proposal in the Court of Appeals and are hoping that the Supreme Court will allow the proposal to be placed on the ballot.
Currently, redistricting in Michigan is done solely by the Michigan Legislature. Districts were last updated in 2012 when the House, Senate and Governor’s office were all controlled by the Republican Party. A separate ongoing federal lawsuit has alleged that the current district lines were “gerrymandered,” drawn in a way to benefit Republicans and ensure GOP majorities in the State Legislature and in Michigan’s Congressional Delegation. The goal of the ballot proposal would be to have an independent commission handle redistricting duties to avoid partisan gerrymandering.
The decision on whether to allow the redistricting petition to be placed on the ballot could impact another important election this November – that of the Supreme Court itself. Two newly appointed members of the Michigan Supreme Court – Elizabeth Clement and Kurtis Wilder – will both face the voters for the first time this year. Although Supreme Court races appear on the non-partisan portion of the ballot, the most common way to appear on that ballot is to be nominated by the Republican or Democratic Party at their August conventions. The Democrats have already indicated that their nominees will be Megan Cavanagh and Samuel Bagenstos, although that will not be official until August. It would be shocking should the Republicans nominate anyone other than the incumbent Justices Clement and Wilder, both of whom were appointed by Governor Rick Snyder.
Polls show that the redistricting proposal is very popular among Michigan voters. The fact that the proposal itself came about primarily by a legion of citizen volunteers collecting petition signatures (rather than the more customary paid petition gatherers) demonstrates the political popularity of the issue. However, with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce leading the charge to invalidate the proposal in the Supreme Court, Justices Clement and Wilder are facing a highly politicized legal decision – one that could potentially affect their own reelection chances – very early in their careers on the high court.
By the time this goes to print, three other ballot proposals could also be approved by the State Board of Canvassers. One would increase the minimum wage to $12 per hour. Another would require employers to offer a minimum amount of paid sick leave for their employees (40 hours per year for employers with fewer than 10 employees; 72 hours per year for employers with more than 10 employees). There is also a ballot proposal on voting rights that would make several changes to current practices, including no-reason absentee-voting and same-day voter registration (currently one must register 30 days before an election in order to vote). The minimum wage and sick leave proposals could be subject to lawsuits from business organizations if they are approved by the State Board of Canvassers, so – like the redistricting proposal – their fate could be decided by the courts before the voters can make their choice.