Legislative Report as of February 2019
The first month of a new legislative session is coming to a close, and it has been a whirlwind of meeting new legislators, perusing committee assignments, and re-acquainting ourselves with policy makers in new positions. Moreover, the changeover from the Snyder Administration to the Whitmer Administration is moving along slowly but steadily as her cabinet and key staffers have been announced on a piecemeal basis. One of the last department heads to be named was Robert Gordon, the new DHHS Director. Mr. Gordon previously was a member of the Obama Administration where he served as the acting deputy director at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and also as the acting assistant secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.
The Governor presented her State of the State address on February 12 in which she made several positive remarks about state workers and their value to Michigan. Her budget presentation will take place in early March, and it will be there where she lays out more detailed specifics about her policy goals.
New Committee Assignments Named
The House and Senate have completed the work of naming committees and assigning legislators to them. Some committees from last year were eliminated or combined with others, but there were relatively few changes overall. Key committees for state workers include Appropriations (as always) and Government Operations, although nearly every legislative committee relates in some way to the work that are done in various departments.
Representative Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) will chair the House Appropriations Committee, while Senator Jim Stamas (R-Midland) will chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. They, along with House and Senate leaders, will be the key negotiators with Governor Whitmer’s administration over the budget for the next two years. During her State of the State address, Governor Whitmer called on the Legislature to forego summer recess until the budget is completed, and that statement was met with enthusiasm by both parties in the Legislature. So far, all parties seem optimistic that common ground can be found, and the days of waiting right up until the September 30 deadline to pass the budget will not return.
Whitmer State of the State Address Praises State Workers
On February 12, Governor Whitmer presented her first State of the State address to the Michigan Legislature. Her speech highlighted her policy priorities, much of them centered on good roads, clean water and better schools. She also used the speech to give credit to state employees, and talked about the challenges they have faced trying to do their jobs in an era of squeezed budgets and understaffing.
Governor Whitmer spoke about how she and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist visited every state department in their first month in office and talked with hundreds of state employees. “I listened and learned about the obstacles they try to navigate on a daily basis to serve the people of our state,” Governor Whitmer said. “I promised I will do everything I can to support them. Because while many focus on what happens here at the capitol, the real work of state government — protecting the public, educating our kids, working with business — is done by the 48,000 people of our state workforce. And they don’t get the gratitude they deserve.”
Governor Whitmer’s speech talked about the steps she has taken to improve the functioning of state government. She issued an executive directive with the goal of empowering state employees to alert state leaders if they perceive a threat to public health, safety or welfare. She also focused her attention on improving transparency and ethics in state government, as well as on banning discrimination in state employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Legislature Overrules Governor’s Second Executive Order
One of Governor Whitmer’s first major actions was an executive order revamping the Department of Environmental Quality into a new department known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (DEGLE). Part of the restructuring would eliminate three newly minted environmental boards that were created just last year through legislation: the Environmental Rules Review Committee, the Environmental Permit Review Commission and the Environmental Science Advisory Board. Proponents of these new boards (groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau) decried their abolishment saying that they were created to give regulated businesses a badly needed say in environmental oversight. The boards were viewed by environmental activists, however, as an obstacle to pollution prevention.
In a very rare move, the Legislature voted to overturn the executive order. On a party-line vote in both the House and Senate, Republican majorities passed House Concurrent Resolution 1, effectively blocking the implementation of the executive order. This is the first time in 42 years that the Legislature has blocked an executive order, and sends an ominous signal as to just how much bipartisan cooperation there will be between the Democratic Governor and Republican Legislature.
Other changes contained in the executive order that is now effectively stalled include:
Abolishing the Michigan Agency for Energy and moving its functions to an Office of Climate and Energy housed within the new DEGLE;
Transferring the Office of Great Lakes from the DNR to DEGLE;
Abolishing the current Michigan Administrative Hearing System and creating a new Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules.
Budget Presentation Set for March
Governor Whitmer and State Budget Director Chris Kolb will present the governor’s budget proposal the first week in March. Labor leaders met with Budget Director Kolb in mid-February to discuss general concerns and requests. The Governor is keeping details of her proposal very close to the vest, but it is assumed that her budget will reflect the same priority issues she outlined in her State of the State address – namely roads, education and public health.
Legislative leaders have expressed only a slight willingness to look for new revenues to address Michigan’s crumbling roads, bridges and highways. Therefore, there is a concern that any new funds for infrastructure repairs could come out of other departmental budgets. However, while the Governor’s top policy goal is certainly “fixing the damn roads,” she has also expressed a desire to resolve chronic understaffing issues throughout State of Michigan departments and agencies.
The staffing issue was raised by several labor representatives during the meeting with Director Kolb. Specifically, chronic use of mandatory overtime in state psychiatric hospitals and in correctional facilities was brought up as a major problem. We are hopeful that the Governor and the Legislature will finally take steps to address this ongoing problem.