6 issues to watch in Mich. lame-duck Legislature
Lansing — The election is over, but liberal groups are still campaigning to try to discourage Republican lawmakers from gutting minimum wage and paid sick leave laws they approved in September to keep them off the Nov. 6 ballot.
The debate over possible changes to the citizen-initiated laws, set to take effect 91 days after the Legislature adjourns for the year, is expected to highlight a busy lame-duck session that begins Tuesday. GOP majorities will race to finalize legislation before Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer — and her veto pen — takes office next year.
The Legislature is also poised to debate environmental cleanup fees push by term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, additional funding to address PFAS chemical contamination sites, a plan to move Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline into a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac and controversial changes to campaign finance laws.
For Our Future, a non-profit backed by labor unions and California billionaire Tom Steyer, is among a coalition of liberal and progressive organizations that have essentially extended their election season efforts into the lame-duck session to campaign for the minimum wage and paid sick leave laws.
With 50 paid staffers still on the clock, the group is knocking doors and calling voters in Republican districts, explaining how laws initiated through petition drives could be changed by the GOP-led Legislature before they ever take effect. The response has been overwhelming, said communications director Josh Pugh.
“People are shocked by this," he said. "People don’t understand how it’s legal, which it may not be.”
The minimum wage law is designed to raise Michigan’s rate from $9.25 an hour to $12 by 2022 for most workers and by 2024 for tipped restaurant employees. The paid sick leave law would require employers to provide up to 72 hours a year of earned sick leave, which would accrue at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, and provide legal protections for workers who take time off.
Business groups that opposed the initiatives urged the Legislature to adopt them before they made the ballot so they would be easier to change. If they had been approved by voters, legislative changes would have required a three-fourth majority in both the House and Senate, rather than a simple majority.
The Michigan Restaurant Association and some servers have argued that raising the minimum wage for tipped employees could discourage tipping and end up reducing pay for restaurant workers. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is urging lawmakers to address administration concerns business owners have with both initiatives.
“We’re not advocating that the Legislature ignore the issue" the petitions sought to address, but small businesses and large corporations alike have reviewed the paid sick leave law and believe it is “impractical” and “unworkable,” said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
The initiatives were largely funded by out-of-state groups “with a national agenda who may not really care if this works well in Michigan for employers or employees,” Studley said.
Legislation introduced this month in the state Senate would eliminate a legal “rebuttable presumption” for workers if their employer penalizes or punishes them for alleging a violation of the paid sick leave law. The bill would also shorten from three years to six months a requirement to maintain a record of hours worked and earned sick time.
Another measure would would modify the minimum wage law by maintaining a lower wage for tipped restaurant workers.
Some legislators are willing to go much further despite petition signatures from more than 252,523 Michigan voters that were required to advance each measure.
"I’m ready to vote for full repeal of both," said state Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, who suggested most of the signatures were collected in Detroit, Flint and Lansing and do not reflect the will of voters in other parts of the state.
The MI Time To Care ballot committee has erected a billboard on Interstate 496 near the Michigan Capitol promoting the new paid sick leave policy. It directs viewers to a website where they can help "protect" the law by calling, emailing or tweeting at their local legislators.
"There is going to be a political price for anybody in the Legislature who tries to put special interests ahead of the public during lame duck,” said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy.
The danger of pushing through last-minute policy is real, said Art Reyes, executive director for We the People, a political activist group in Michigan. Reyes noted lame duck maneuvers are responsible for the passage of legislation like the 2012 emergency management law that allowed the state to take the reins in Flint prior to the contaminated water crisis.
“It’s wrong,” Reyes said. “They know it’s wrong. And the people across the state of Michigan know it’s wrong.”
Cleanup, water fees
As he prepares to leave office at the end of the year, Snyder continues to push legislators to consider new or increased fees for environmental cleanup efforts and water infrastructure upgrades.
The governor’s plan calls for a 11-fold increase in tipping fees for trash haulers that dump in Michigan landfills to no more than $3.99 per ton from 36 cents, which the administration says is currently the lowest rate in the nation. It would replace a nearly depleted bond from 1998 for environmental cleanup efforts at contaminated sites.
Snyder also wants to create a new fee for water system customers — the equivalent of about $20 per household or up to $400 for businesses — to raise money to help local governments update aging water infrastructure systems. The fee would generate an estimated $110 million a year.
GOP leaders in the Senate and House said this month their caucuses remain opposed to fee increases supported by the Michigan Chamber and Farm Bureau, but Snyder is expected to continue negotiations in coming weeks and will attempt to craft a deal.
A-F School Grades
Rep. Kelly, who chairs the House Education Committee, sent colleagues a letter two days after the Nov. 6 election asking them to "re-engage and take action" on several policy initiatives to help reverse "nearly two decades of decline in student achievement and performance."
Kelly is pushing creation of an A-F letter grade system to rate K-12 schools, a package that would reform teacher preparation programs and a separate plan for "innovative schools" that would let districts seek permission from the state to operate outside traditional guidelines.
He faces opposition from the bipartisan State Board of Education, which this month adopted a statement from Metro Detroit leaders in the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education cautioning lawmakers against making major policy changes during the lame-duck session.
“There is too much at stake for schools throughout Michigan to rush legislation through with little or no time to properly review or debate its impact on our students, parents and teachers,” said Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools.
Snyder is asking lawmakers to approve $371.5 million in new general fund spending this year as part of a supplemental budget request that includes $43 million for ongoing efforts to identify, investigate and remedy emerging environmental contaminants, including perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.
The accountant governor also wants to deposit $160 million into the state's "rainy day" Budget Stabilization Fund, spend $21.2 million to improve child abuse and neglect complaint investigations and $20 million to expand broadband internet service to areas without access, mostly in rural communities.
Beyond the general fund spending, Snyder also wants to devote $183 million in new online sales tax collections to state and local road improvements.
Line 5 tunnel legislation
Lawmakers are poised to consider legislation that would help facilitate an agreement between the Snyder administration and Enbridge to move the company's controversial Line 5 oil pipeline into a tunnel beneath the lake bed at the Straits of Mackinac.
The bill would ensure the 68-year-old Mackinac Bridge Authority has the power to “acquire, construct, operate, maintain, improve, repair and manage a utility tunnel” connecting the Upper and Lower peninsulas. It would create the legal framework for a partnership that opponents have said falls outside the purview of the authority.
The legislation is one of many moving pieces apparently lining up in favor of the agreement, which would allow Enbridge to continue operating its controversial Line 5 below the straits for another 10 years during construction of the tunnel. The agreement tasks the Mackinac Bridge Authority with negotiating the final terms of the deal with Enbridge and taking ownership of the tunnel after it is built.
Campaign finance bills
Campaign finance watchdogs are keeping tabs on two controversial bills set for consideration, including a measure recently introduced by Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, that would further shield donors to non-profit groups that engage in political activities.
The bill would prohibit government agencies such as the state Attorney General’s Office from asking non-profits to identify their donors, even for legal enforcement purposes. Donors to non-profits are already granted anonymity in public disclosure laws.
A separate bill already approved by the Senate and awaiting action in the House would allow lawmakers to use surplus funds from Senate campaign committee to pay off old debts in House committees. Contribution limits for Senate candidates are twice as high as for House candidates.
Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.