Legislative Report as of 1/15/2020
We are now halfway through the 2019-2020 Michigan legislative session, and if the first year was anything to go by, year two could be a tumultuous one. Last year began with Governor Whitmer calling for a $.45 per gallon fuel tax increase to fully fund road repair and construction. It ended with a budget standoff, an unprecedented use of the line-item veto pen, and a final compromise budget that restored much if not all of the nearly billion dollars in cuts and transfers made by Governor Whitmer. While there were moments of bipartisan collegiality (e.g. no-fault auto insurance reform), much of the year was marked by fighting words.
We enter 2020 with the relationship between the Governor’s office and the Legislature on shaky ground. This is understandable, since the Legislature is controlled by Republicans and the Governor is a Democrat. It will be interesting to watch as we begin the 2020-2021 budget process in February how the two branches will interact. The Governor will present her State of the State Address on Wednesday January 29, and she will present her 2020-2021 Fiscal Year budget proposal on February 6.
Revenue Estimating Conference Predicts Modest Growth for 2020 and 2021
Officials from the Michigan Department of Treasury, the House Fiscal Agency and the Senate Fiscal Agency convened on January 10 for the latest Revenue Estimating Conference. Budget and tax policy analysts attempt to predict future revenues to the Michigan General Fund and the School Aid Fund. The participants agreed that a steady economy will bring in an additional $235 million in the General Fund and $85 million in the School Aid Fund for the current (2020) fiscal year. For FY 2021, the conference predicts an additional $274 million for the General Fund, and $148 in the School Aid Fund. On a related issue, the Senate Fiscal Agency also estimates that there is approximately $640 million in General Fund dollars that were unspent in Fiscal Year 2019.
While the news of future and existing funding for the state is positive, officials from the Department of Technology, Management and Budget have been quick to remind lawmakers that a large portion of those new revenues have already been spoken for via prior commitments. For example, the state’s commitment to reimburse local units of government for their losses from the repeal of the Personal Property Tax will continue to cost the state more money as time goes on. Similarly, commitments to shift more and more General Fund dollars into road maintenance will eat up a significant portion of the new revenues.
Even without past decisions to divert future revenues to roads or local governments, increases in Medicaid caseloads and corresponding reductions in federal funding for health care and child care may also place further burdens on the state coffers. The indication from the Governor’s office is that her budget recommendation could even include cuts to some programs so as to ensure sufficient funding elsewhere for promises already made. The consensus that the state will receive an increasing share of tax revenues in 2020 and 2021 is no doubt good news. However, it may not provide the latitude some might have hoped when it comes to a departmental budgeting level. With state policy makers choosing to spend future revenues before they are received, one can only imagine the problems that would ensue should the economy stumble sometime in the next few years.
Bill Seeks to Publish State Employee Salaries on State Website
Back in 2017, a conglomerate of media and ideological organizations, using the Freedom of Information Act, placed online the salary information of state and public school employees in Michigan. While seen as a shocking invasion of privacy by many public workers (with a shockingly high rate of errors and mistakes), the law was nevertheless on the side of groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that claimed the public had a right to know how much every public employee earned in annual wages.
In an effort to have the state itself take on the cost of publishing this data, Representative Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) sponsored House Bill 5015 that would require the Department of Technology, Management and Budget to include salary information in its online state employee directory. The bill would grant an exception to the requirement if a department requested that certain employee information not be published out of concern for an employee’s safety.
An effort is being made by labor organizations representing state workers to amend the bill so that salary information will be listed only by position and not by name. Many state workers may endure harassment or even threats should their salaries accompany their names on a state website. While groups like the Michigan Press Association could still conceivably use the Freedom of Information Act to publish identifying data about specific state workers and their wages, sadly that is the price of working in the public sector.
HB 5015 is awaiting action in the House Oversight Committee.
Bill Seeks to Protect State Workers who Communicate to Lawmakers
Elected officials have a love/hate relationship with whistleblowers. They love them when they are dishing dirt on their political rivals, but they absolutely hate them when they are talking about special deals with foreign governments. But all that aside, legislation was introduced in December that seeks to protect State of Michigan employees from repercussions for any conversations they have with members of the Michigan House or Senate.
Introduced by Senator Tom Barrett (R-Grand Ledge), Senate Bill 686 would prohibit a department or agency of the state from taking disciplinary action against an employee because the employee communicated with a member of the House or Senate, or a member’s staff. Such protections have existed in appropriations boilerplate language for several years, but they have routinely been removed or ignored by the executive branch.
The bill, if signed into law, would provide a level of protection for state employees who communicate with lawmakers about state issues, even if such communication is frowned upon by their superiors. The bill would not apply to communication that is specifically prohibited by law (e.g. violating the privacy rights of a Medicaid patient). The bill received a hearing in the Senate Oversight Committee on January 14, and is expected to be voted on as early as January 21.