Michigan House to nix some Nassar bills, scale back others
Lansing — Legislation inspired by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal likely will pass out of committee Wednesday but with changes that significantly limit the scope of the proposed legislation.
Proposed expansions to the statute of limitations bills will be more than halved, a retroactive window will be limited so much so that it is likely it will only ever apply to Nassar victims. Coaches and volunteers will not be added to the list of mandatory reporters, and bills stripping government entities of immunity in certain cases involving sexual misconduct won’t make it out of committee.
The legislation was introduced this year as an attempt to address the failings that allowed former Michigan State University sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar to abuse girls and women for nearly 20 years before he was convicted of sexual assault and child pornography charges in 2017. Hundreds have claimed he sexually assaulted them.
But concerns about the unintended consequences of the legislation have been recurrent during six weeks of testimony in the House Law and Justice Committee. Additionally, the recent $500 million settlement between Michigan State University and Nassar victims included a provision that victims pull their support from the governmental immunity bills with the belief that lawmakers would follow suit.
Lawmakers said they weren't party to the settlements and, instead, the changes were in response to the hours of testimony and data presented over the last six weeks.
Governmental immunity is a protection that ensures taxpayers don't foot the bill when someone sues the state — a protection the committee ultimately decided should stay in place, said Rep. Klint Kesto, chairman for the House Law and Justice Committee.
“We believe that putting the taxpayers on the hook significantly outweighed the rationale to put them (institutions) on the hook,” Kesto told reporters Tuesday.
The new statute of limitations bills would allow victims to file a criminal complaint within 15 years of the incident and a civil complaint within 10 years after reaching the age of majority or within three years of realizing sexual abuse had taken place. The provision is more than halved from the Senate proposal of an up to 30-year statute of limitations.
The bills also would create a 90-day retroactive window in which victims could file civil litigation for incidents dating back to 1997. The retroactive window would only apply to cases where the alleged perpetrator was a physician who had been convicted of sexual misconduct under the guise of a medical procedure, essentially limiting the retroactivity to Nassar victims.
Kesto said the hour’s worth of testimony the Senate considered on the statute of limitations bills was not enough to understand the legislation’s impact on taxpayers, its potential violation of due process rights for victims and defendants, or other practical means of ensuring prevention.
“This was what we believed to be a reasonable, practical, pragmatic, logical statute of limitations for the state of Michigan,” Kesto told reporters. “…I don’t look at it as a scale-back. I actually look at it as an enhancement from where we are today in current law."
Other amendments would limit proposed additions to the state's mandatory reporter list to physical therapists and physical therapy assistants. The initial legislation proposed adding coaches and volunteers to the list of mandatory reporters to address a report that one of Nassar’s victims told a gymnastics coach about Nassar in 1997, but the coach failed to report him.
Concerns were raised during hearings about the negative impact the provision would have on youth sports, Kesto said, as well as the cost to the state for additional personnel to handle increased, but not necessarily substantiated, reports.
And, even if coaches were added to the list of mandatory reporters, they wouldn’t necessarily be required to report someone like Nassar since he is not a parent, guardian, teacher or member of the clergy.
“It doesn’t address the issue we’re trying to prevent,” Kesto said.
Even with the changes, the package of bills the committee is expected to advance Wednesday is strong, said Rep. Stephanie Chang, minority chairwoman for the House Law and Justice Committee.
“When you look at them as a whole, we’re doing a lot,” Chang said.
State Sen. Margaret O’Brien, a Portage Republican who worked with Nassar victims to craft the initial legislation, said the political process has not been kind to those who were sexually assaulted by the sports doctor.
“They haven’t necessarily been treated the same way as other people who testified, and so that’s been very disturbing for them,” she said, referencing tough questions posed in the House Law and Justice Committee.
Nassar victims likely will be disappointed in some amendments that narrowed the legislation to apply only to that case, O’Brien said. “This was never about them. They wanted to use their experience to impact all children.”
Still, the senator said she will likely recommend the Senate approve the House changes and send the package to the governor’s desk “without further delay.”
O’Brien and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, have vowed to continue pushing new limitations on governmental immunity into next session. Both are up for re-election this fall.
“I understand this is not the right environment in the House today, and that’s fine and I can accept that, but I will continue to work on it," she said.
Rep. Rosemary Robinson, D-Detroit, expressed frustration with the settlement’s impact on the legislation. Robinson said she understands settlements require concessions from both sides, but was “blown away” that victims would abandon legislation that stood to benefit more than just Nassar's victims.
“It just shows that the whole thing was orchestrated for one purpose,” Robinson said after the hearing. “Where is the fight? Where is the crusade for all?”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, called the original package a “thoughtful, reasonable survivor-based plan” but said Democrats could support modified legislation that still meets those goals.
“This has been a problem for a long time, and (the Nassar scandal) highlighted how bad it was,” Ananich said, noting he had not yet reviewed House changes.
"If we can move the needle and really make a difference, then we’ll continue to support it. If it waters it down too much, then we’ll have to take a serious look at it.”
Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.