October Legislative Report by Todd Tennis of Capitol Services
The election is upon us and it is one of the strangest our nation has ever had. Rarely have there been two presidential contenders that were so unpopular. Donald Trump’s highly unorthodox campaign could still bear fruit on November 8, but the latest polls show him a longshot to defeat Hillary Clinton. In Michigan, Clinton is up by anywhere from 5-8 points in the polls, but it is still hard to say how that will affect down-ballot races, if at all.
The Michigan Legislature has been in recess for the majority of the last four months, with members of the House back in their districts working for their own reelection campaigns or one of their colleagues. Both the House and Senate are, however, gearing up for the Lame Duck session that will begin after the election. This is a dangerous time period – especially for public employees – as a number of rumors surrounding possible Lame Duck legislation surround public workers. More on that below.
New Report on Flint Water Criticizes EPA
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the Flint water crisis on October 20 that stated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have issued warnings about lead contamination in the Flint water supply a full seven months earlier than they did. The report found that EPA administrators were aware of the contamination and had the authority to issue an emergency declaration as early as June, 2015. The actual declaration was made in January, 2016.
The report somewhat mitigated the criticism of the EPA by noting that EPA staff felt that they had to wait for the State of Michigan to take action. However, the OIG stated that the EPA staff should nonetheless have taken action on their own if they felt that the state was not doing enough to protect the safety of Flint residents.
Meanwhile, the state investigation into wrongdoing within the Department of Human Services continues. Last week, a subpoena charging DHHS Director Nick Lyon with felony “misconduct in office” was delivered to a DHHS attorney. However, no corresponding charge has been filed in any court. The Attorney General’s office, which issued the subpoena, had no comment, but legal observers have opined in the last few days that it could have been a case of “letting the cat out of the bag too soon.” In any event, even if Mr. Lyon avoids a criminal charge, it is clear that the current investigation into the Flint water crisis is reaching very high levels of state government.
Senate Committee Looks at Veterans Homes
Since the release of a scathing Michigan Auditor General report citing numerous quality issues at the Grand Rapids Veterans Home, the Michigan Legislature and Governor Snyder have been attempting to address the issue. A large portion of the staff at the Grand Rapids home was privatized in 2015, and the Auditor General’s negative findings related directly to the new privatized staff and the contractor that employed them. In a situation reminiscent of the privatization of food service in Michigan correctional facility that also went spectacularly wrong, Lansing’s response was not to rehire state workers, but to fire and replace the contractor.
Most recently, Legislation was introduced in the House and Senate that would create a new statewide authority to manage current and potentially new veterans’ homes. The legislation, Senate Bills 1097-1100 and House Bills 5919-5922, were discussed in a meeting of the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Homeland Security Committee last week. One concern that was expressed at the hearing is that the new authority would create easier opportunities for further privatization, the kind that has led to horrendous care for veterans at the Grand Rapids home. Senator David Hildenbrand (R-Lowell), one of the bill sponsors, disputes that claim, saying that the legislation would not tie the hands of the new authority one way or the other regarding the use or state employees or privatized workers.
Committee Chair, Senator Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage), stated that the bills are not on a fast track, and that the committee wants to take a very careful look before making major changes to state law affecting the state’s most vulnerable veterans.
Public Employees a Likely Target in Lame Duck
Four years ago, Michigan became a Right to Work state in merely a week. It was something that many thought could never happen in the state that helped create the labor movement. But then, in the blink of an eye, it was done.
That is Lame Duck in a nutshell.
This year, the same groups that made the push to make Michigan a Right to Work state are gunning for public employees. They are targeting public pensions, public employee benefits, and even the right of public employees to belong to a union. And as we learned in 2012, just because an issue is not currently “on the agenda” does not mean it won’t move fast in the late hours of December.
The Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank operating out of Midland, has issued their wish list for the Lame Duck session, and it is filled with attacks on public workers. First and foremost, they would like the Michigan Legislature to ban pensions for public workers. The Mackinac Center and their allies claim that this will actually benefit public employees by giving them more control over their retirement. Hogwash. State employees know better than anyone in this state just how much they lost when they were switched away from a traditional pension and into a 401(k)-style “defined contribution” plan in 1997. A study conducted in 2015 by the National Institute of Retirement Security estimated that Michigan state employees who were placed in the new plan (those hired after April, 1997) on average will receive a retirement benefit a third less than their counterparts in the old plan.
Even those who are in the old plan may not be safe from these attacks. Although the Michigan Constitution protects pension benefits, the Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that these protections do not extend to retirement health care benefits. The Legislature could unload a great deal of debt merely by eliminating retirement health care for all public employees, and several voices in Lansing are calling for just that.
Aside from attacks on pensions, the Legislature might decide to change laws making it harder for public employee unions to operate. Bills to ban leave time for union activities and require decertification votes on an annual basis have been introduced or proposed. If the Republicans lose control of the House, there may even be an attempt to repeal PERA altogether, which would spell the end for all public employee unions in Michigan.
This is why elections matter. Whether you vote for Republicans, Democrats or other, it is important to know who our friends are on the ballot. If you value things like retiree health care and collective bargaining, the best time to ask candidates about their positions on those things is before the