Legislative Report as of 11/26/19
It’s been a tumultuous two months since the Governor and Legislature settled on a 2020 budget about which no one is happy. The past six weeks have provided little clarity on how the Legislature and Governor will work together moving forward. After the Legislature’s presentation of a finalized budget a mere three days before the end of the fiscal year, and the Governor’s unprecedented use of the line-item veto and administrative board powers, trust is presently a rare commodity in Lansing. Governor Whitmer and Legislative leaders have both proposed their own supplemental budgets that would restore the bulk of the nearly $1 billion that was line-item vetoed on September 30, and there is even some overlap in the proposals. However, with over a month gone by to allow dust to settle, the two sides seem no closer to a compromise agreement on restoring the cuts, let alone on a plan for future road funding.
One of the major sticking points centers on the Governor’s use of the State Administrative Board to re-route over $600 million in spending allocations that had been approved by the Legislature. Former Governor John Engler entrenched this power in the Executive Branch by winning a Supreme Court case in the 1990s, but it has never been used to this extent. Republicans in the House and Senate are demanding that the Governor agree to sign legislation removing this power from the Executive Branch before they are willing to negotiate restoration of line-item vetoes. So far, the Governor has flatly refused.
Conversations with Republican lawmakers indicate that their caucus is very dug-in on this point. If it is not resolved in some manner, it could have huge repercussions on next year’s budget process, let alone make it very difficult to negotiate any kind of supplemental budget before then. The Governor has offered to guarantee in writing that she will not use this power on any budget bill where there is an agreement between the Governor and the Legislature. She has also offered to reverse a large portion of the line-item vetoes and administrative changes provided that the Legislature return to the negotiating table and show a willingness to fund some of her priorities. On November 7 there seemed to be a compromise close at hand to restore at least a portion of the line-item vetoes. Senate Majority Leader Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) adjourned the Senate with no deal at hand citing the Governor’s failure to relinquish administrative board powers as the sticking point preventing a deal. Since then, the relationship between Republican state legislative leaders and Governor Whitmer have, if anything, deteriorated.
Bill Introduced to Require Online Posting of State Employee Salaries
The Freedom of Information Act requires public employers to release salary data for public employees to those who request it. A bill recently introduced by Representative Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) would go a step further and require the state to post such information on the state website. House Bill 5015 would amend the Electronic Open Access to Government Act to require that the information for each department include a list of the department’s employees that includes the position title, classified or nonclassified civil service distinction, salary, and general benefits information for each employee.
Proponents of the bill argue that the public should have easy access to employee information including names and compensation data for public employees. Moreover, this information is already available via a FOIA request, and the bill would only make it more easily accessible to the general public. Opponents of the bill have countered that employee privacy concerns should also be weighed when promoting transparency. Although there is a provision in the bill that would allow a state department to request that employee information not be published if it is determined it would threaten the safety of the employee, that is small comfort for the vast majority of state employees whose neighbors would easily be able to view salary and benefit information that most workers would prefer remain private.
House Bill 5015 was referred to the House Oversight Committee where it received a hearing on November 7. At the hearing the bill received opposition from SEIU 517m, the Michigan Corrections Organization, and the United Auto Workers Union. The bill may be taken up for another hearing in December.
Caro Hospital Included in Final Budget
Nearly a year ago, former Governor Snyder agreed to a reconstruction project that would build a new 200-bed hospital on the grounds of the current Caro Psychiatric hospital. Governor Whitmer placed that project on hold after she took office, and over the past year a large debate occurred in the Legislature, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Governor’s office and the Caro community itself as to the future of that site. In the end, an agreement was reached to replace the aging hospital with a new (albeit smaller) 100-bed facility in Caro.
The agreement creates as many questions as answers, because it does not include a decision on how and where those beds will be replaced. When it became clear that the full 200-bed facility would not be built in Caro, the Legislature placed language in the 2020 budget giving planning authorization for a potential new psychiatric facility in Chippewa County. That language was vetoed by Governor Whitmer. Instead, the Governor funded an additional $11 million for the Behavioral Health Community Supports and Services with the goal of using local services to reduce the demand on state hospitals.
The demand for mental health services continues to increase, so the next budget process will doubtless continue the debate as to how best meet that demand, and where facilities should be built to do so. For now, however, Caro will continue in a new, smaller site adjacent to the current facility. Construction is expected to begin early next year.