September 2015 Legislative ReportSeptember 18, 2015 Legislative Report
Although the Michigan Legislature had planned to work through the summer to find a solution to the road funding issue, those plans went largely unfulfilled as discussion over how to raise/shift over $1 billion to transportation purposes bogged down. Instead, the major discussions in Lansing this summer focused on whether or not two members of the Michigan House inappropriately used taxpayer funds to cover up their illicit affair. As the Legislature returns to full session in September, it is expected that more efforts will be made to find common ground on transportation funding, but so far more attention seems to be aimed at discipline for the above-mentioned state representatives.
Before the Legislature left for summer, they completed work on the 2016 budget. Even though the transportation funding issue is still unresolved, the final budget signed by Governor Snyder included approximately $400 million extra for road and bridge funding that was diverted from the General Fund. This decision made it much more difficult for other areas that depend on GF dollars to receive increases or even stave off cuts. Looming in the 2017 budget discussion is the possibility of diverting even more GF dollars to roads (a plan endorsed by the Michigan House), as well as the continuing shortfall and uncertain future of the Health Insurance Claims Assessment and Michigan’s expanded Medicaid program, Healthy Michigan. Even if the economy continues to improve and push GF revenues higher, the politics surrounding transportation and health care may spend those dollars faster than they come in.
Despite Wrangling, Still No Solution to Transportation Funding Problems
After the defeat of Proposal 1, the Legislature and Governor Snyder went back to the drawing board to address Michigan’s poor transportation infrastructure. Upon its defeat, many Legislators felt that it would be a simple thing to increase fuel taxes and “get it done.” They based this belief on the notion that voters defeated Proposal 1 because it was too complicated, and that voters wanted the Legislature to enact a simple solution.
However, many other state legislators interpreted the defeat of Proposal 1 very differently. A good number of them felt that its defeat was evidence that voters wanted no tax increases at all, and preferred a solution that transferred funds from other areas of state spending. There were also lawmakers who believed that Michigan voters wanted a tax increase, but preferred an increase on business taxes.
The truth is that there were likely large numbers of “no” voters on Proposal 1 who fell into each of these categories. The end result, however, is continuing stalemate in Lansing.
The 2016 budget, which was adopted in July, includes a shift of approximately $400 million from the General Fund to pay for transportation needs. That hit was felt primarily in human services spending, and resulted in additional staffing reductions in numerous departments. The most recent proposals from the House and Senate would continue to shift funds – perhaps up to $600 million – from the General Fund, while increasing fuel taxes to raise an additional $600 to $800 million.
At this point, the standoff seems to be between lawmakers who insist that more shifts in General Fund spending will unfairly require cuts in other needed state programs, and lawmakers who refuse to raise the requested amount of taxes – or even any taxes at all. Governor Snyder has urged a solution that relies more on tax increases than funding shifts, but he faces a tough path through the very conservative Senate and House.
Lawmakers continue to make fixing the roads their top priority, but it is still unclear how soon a compromise will be reached.
Gamrat/Courser Drama Captivates Lansing
In addition to attempting to pass a transportation funding plan over the summer, the Legislature was also forced to concentrate on a much more sordid issue. Reports surfaced in July that Representative Todd Courser (R-Lapeer) and Representative Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) had been involved in a romantic affair, and allegedly had misused taxpayer resources to cover it up. While their tryst was shocking, it was the alleged misuse of staff resources that led to calls for their expulsion from the Legislature.
According to former staff members of Representatives Courser and Gamrat, they had concocted a scheme in which an anonymous email would be sent (written by Courser) accusing Courser of engaging in homosexual relations with a male prostitute. The goal was apparently (in Mr. Courser’s words) to “inoculate the herd,” meaning that his supporters would be so outraged at the obviously false accusations of gay sex that they would conclude that the rumors of his actual affair with Ms. Gamrat would be disbelieved.
To paraphrase every Scooby-Doo villain, “It would have worked if it weren’t for those darn tape recorded conversations made by my staff.”
Once the news broke of the recorded conversations where Mr. Courser not only outlined the scheme but admitted to the affair with Gamrat, that was the beginning of the end for both of their political careers. There was some further controversy when House Democrats stated that the House Republicans were moving too quickly on resolutions to expel both Gamrat and Courser and demanded a more thorough criminal investigation. In the end, that demand was agreed to, and the resolutions to expel moved forward.
Interestingly, Mr. Courser decided to resign at the last moment when it became clear that the votes were sufficient to expel him. Ms. Gamrat, however, hung on to the end until she was expelled by a vote of 91-12. Special elections have been called to fill the vacancy, and, creating even more of a stir, Ms. Gamrat announced she will run again for the seat from which she was just removed. One day later, Mr. Mr. Courser went on CNN to announce that he will do the same. This guarantees at least another two months of drama until the primary election in November.
Senate Bill Targets Public Employee Union Leave Time
Senator Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) has introduced a legislation aimed at creating barriers for public employee union members to be released for union activities. Senate Bill 280 would prohibit collective bargaining agreements in which a public employee could be paid by the employer for union leave.
These bills are being promoted with the mantra that tax dollars should not be spent on union work. However, this glib argument ignores the practical reality that a good amount of work done on union leave time is actually beneficial to the employer. For example, grievance procedures, collective bargaining, and employee representation for disciplinary matters would have to be shifted to off-work hours if the employer was barred from paying for union leave time. This would pose a burden on management staff and will cause delays in conflict resolutions.
SB 280 was reported from the Senate Education Committee last June, but its future is somewhat uncertain on the Senate floor. One of the bills’ co-sponsors, Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) has already indicated that he has withdrawn his support. Labor organizations are keeping a close eye on these bills as they await action on the Senate floor.
Written by Todd Tennis, Capitol Services, Inc.