Capitol Services October Legislative ReportLansing in Full Campaign Mode as Election Nears – Lame Duck Session Looming
Although the Legislature has had a few session days this fall, they have taken relatively little action on controversial issues such as transportation funding and education reforms. A hearing was scheduled on a package of bills that would shift school employees into a defined contribution pension system (much like state employees were who were hired after 1997), but that hearing was cancelled until after the election. For most of October the Capitol has been empty as lawmakers pound the pavement trying to win re-election or help others to do so.
Once the election is over, there will be a short period before the end of the year where the current Legislature will still take action. This so-called “Lame Duck” session is commonly associated with controversial issues that are easier to pass when many of the legislators voting on them do not have to face the voters again. It was during the 2012 Lame Duck session when the misleadingly named “Right to Work” law was enacted.
In 2014, there are a number of possible issues that could rear their heads in Lame Duck. These include:
1. Repeal of PERA
The Public Employee Relations Act granted public employees the right to collectively bargain. It was enacted nearly 50 years ago and allows public employees in Michigan the ability to establish unions and collectively bargain. Much like what happened in Wisconsin, there is a chance that Governor Snyder and the Michigan Legislature could seek to repeal this act this December. The effect would be the immediate disbanding of all public sector unions in Michigan, or of any public sector locals in industrial unions. It is likely that police and fire would be spared this fate, much like they were in Wisconsin. If the Legislature makes such an attempt, it is expected they would do it without public hearings in the same manner that Right to Work was passed.
2. Public Pension Reforms
As mentioned above, there could be a serious effort to close the Michigan Public School Retirement System and enroll newly hired school employees in a defined contribution scheme much like what was done to state employees in the Lame Duck session of 1996. While this would not directly impact active or retired state employees, it would be another example of moving the full risk of retirement security away from the employer and onto the employees.
3. Electoral College Reform
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, many swing states with Republican controlled legislatures began looking at changing the way Electoral College votes are awarded to presidential candidates. A proposal was hatched in Michigan last year that would change the current “winner take all” system to one that awarded votes based on congressional districts. If such a system had been in place in 2012, it would have had the effect of granting a majority of Michigan’s Electoral College votes to Romney even though Obama won the popular vote in Michigan. This would be hugely controversial, but the current Legislature has not been bothered with controversy over changing election rules when they have done them in the past.
Staffing Issues at Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital Worsen due to Suspensions
After warning lawmakers and the administration of a staffing crisis at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital for over a year, the situation continues to worsen. The Department of Community Health blamed overtime issues on an abnormally high rate of employees calling in sick or taking family and medical leave. They expressed a hope that the situation would improve as these staff returned to work.
Recently, however, several employees at KPH were suspended which has placed an additional burden on the remaining staff there. Staff members at KPH report that working conditions have deteriorated to unsafe levels as they are being forced to work a large number of double shifts to the detriment of their own physical and mental health. Moreover, these staff members are working with arguably the most challenging and dangerous patients in the state.
This issue is not solely related to KPH, as similar complaints regarding the overuse of mandatory overtime have been made at Hawthorne Center and the Caro Center.
For its part, the Department of Community Health plans on doing expedited interviews with applicants for job vacancies at KPH with the goal of filling as many openings as possible as quickly as possible. In addition, there have been conversations inside the department and with the Legislature over the possibility of increasing funding for staffing at state psychiatric hospitals.
MAGE members are encouraged to raise this issue with their own State Representatives and State Senators and ask them to provide additional state funding for psychiatric hospital staffing in order to safeguard the wellbeing of both staff and patients alike.
Despite Continued Problems, Administration Backs Private Food Vendor
The privatization of food service in Michigan prisons to the company Aramark has been one embarrassing moment after another for the administration. First it was food shortages. Then it was employees having sexual relations with prisoners. Then it was maggots found in food service areas and rotten food (the state insists this was not Aramark’s fault). Then it was employees smuggling contraband to prisoners. Most recently, and astonishingly, it was an Aramark worker attempting to hire an inmate to arrange a murder of another inmate. In all, over 100 Aramark workers have been terminated for improper activities such as sneaking contraband into prisons and having relations with prisoners.
Proponents of privatization in the Snyder administration and the Michigan Legislature have claimed from the beginning that these problems were routine and being addressed. The company itself has maintained that problems like those listed above existed when prison food service was performed by Michigan State employees, but they were never reported (though they offer no evidence to support this assertion). They claim that they are victims of a union propaganda machine.
The issue has become more and more politicized as the election nears. Governor Snyder gives assurances that the problems are being addressed and the situation is improving. He hired Ed Buss, a former corrections director in Indiana and Florida to oversee the Aramark contract. He also points to the $12-$16 million in savings the state will see from the privatization.
Meanwhile, his opponent, Mark Schauer, has repeatedly called for the contract to be terminated. Other prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer have also called for the contract to be ended, claiming that the Governor is “…more interested in protecting a company than protecting the people of our state.”