Legislative Report as of January 28, 2016Legislative Report by Todd Tennis of Capitol Services
We are halfway through the 2015-2016 Legislative session, and issues surrounding Flint water and Detroit Public Schools have taken over in Lansing. The Flint water situation has become national news, and deteriorating infrastructure in the Detroit Public School system may be the next big news item. Teachers in Detroit are making waves in Lansing by calling in sick to work, which some elected officials are referring to as an illegal strike. However, as more people learn about the atrocious and hazardous conditions prevalent in Detroit school buildings (and the fact that the current DPS Emergency Manager is the same Emergency Manager who switched the Flint water system to the Flint river), the public sentiment is more and more siding with school employees and students.
One potentially dangerous outcome of the Flint water crisis is an effort by some officials in Lansing to shift blame onto the civil service system. More on that, and other issues, below.
Flint Water Issue Dominates State of the State Address
The ongoing crisis with the water supply in Flint has changed the landscape – at least temporarily – in Lansing. News about the lead poisoning of potentially thousands of Flint residents due to actions and errors by Flint Emergency Financial Manager, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Health and Human Services and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been the main headline for Michigan media outlets, but increasingly national ones as well. Governor Snyder spent a great deal of time in his State of the State address last week talking about the issue, and he pledged to do everything in his power to make up for it.
While his Republican allies have rallied to his defense, Democrats and most neutral observers have been highly critical of the state’s actions. While the laying of blame for the creation of the disaster has been fairly complicated, so far the direct solutions are less so. The House and Senate have already passed a supplemental budget bill that will allocate $28 million toward the crisis. The Governor is also expected to call for a great deal more in state spending to attempt to address the lead content in the Flint water system.
The ultimate fallout from the Flint situation could be far reaching. At the very least, it has added huge new budget pressures to the state appropriation process that will almost certainly require shifts from other spending priorities. In addition, some elements in Lansing are trying to blame the Civil Service system for creating a culture that led to this failure. While this is generally being seen as a smokescreen, there is potential for some in Lansing to try to use this tragedy as an opportunity to advance an anti-state employee agenda (see article below).
State Civil Service System Being Blamed By Some for Flint Water Crisis
Since Governor Snyder’s State of the State Address, an increasing drumbeat has been building in Lansing regarding the role that Civil Service rules played in the poisoning of a city. Right after the Governor finished his address, former Speaker of the House Jace Bolger opined on the television show “Off the Record” that it was the Civil Service system that led to this crisis by making it impossible to fire bad employees. He seemed to be testing out a new talking point that would be used to deflect blame away from Governor Snyder, and since then it has been repeated often in the halls of Lansing.
In fact, Senate Majority Leader Arlen Meekhof (R-Olive Twp.) stated his intention to have the Senate take a close look at Civil Service rules in the upcoming months as part of the investigation into what went wrong in Flint. Some national right-wing organizations are even upping the ante. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – whose pro-privatization ideology some have blamed for the crisis – recently opined that the Flint water crisis was caused by public employee pensions.
Michigan’s Civil Service system was created to protect the public against cronyism and the “spoils system” wherein state employees were completely beholden to politicians. There have been numerous attempts to weaken it throughout the years as elected officials have tried to exert more influence over the actions of state workers. Privatization and outsourcing has been a surefire method of bypassing the civil service system and awarding patronage to political allies (e.g. prison food service, liquor control commission, etc.) but now it seems there may be more direct attacks on Civil Service using the Flint crisis as the impetus.
Union Leave Time Bill Awaits Action in House
Senate Bill 280 passed the Senate just before the December recess, and was referred to the House Commerce and Trade Committee. The bill seeks to ban the ability for public employees to bargain for union leave time. The concept of union leave time dates back to the founding of the labor movement, where it was considered essential that union officials be able to conduct labor/management business during working hours. SB 280 would prohibit this practice for public employees, forcing the union members to either perform union functions such as contract negotiations, grievance processing or representing members at disciplinary hearings either without pay, or after hours.
Proponents of the legislation argue that the union should pay for this work, but that is not the practice in the majority of private-sector collective bargaining agreements. In fact, most employers of unionized employees find it advantageous to allow for paid union leave time since it fosters a better working relationship between labor and management. This is why several public employer organizations have expressed opposition to the bill.
The bill could come up for a hearing in the House Committee as early as March.
Governor’s Budget Message Planned for February 10
The traditional start of the state appropriations process is the Governor’s presentation of the budget proposal. This usually takes place in early February, and has been scheduled for February 10 this year. Unlike most years, there have been few early indications of the Governor’s budgetary priorities, mainly due to the ongoing crises in Flint and with the Detroit Public Schools.
The most recent Revenue Estimating Conference found that the state had actually had greater revenues in 2015 than had been previously predicted. However, much of those funds will likely be reserved for further assistance to Flint to deal with the water crisis there, as well as increasing costs stemming from Michigan’s expanded Medicaid program – the Healthy Michigan Plan. In fact, there are growing concerns among state and local officials that any appropriations increases from state coffers will be moderate at best in 2016.