Whitmer vetoes $10M for wrongfully imprisoned, cites procedural issues with spending

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Richard Phillips shows his order of dismissal of homicide in Judge Cox's courtroom in Detroit on Wednesday. March 28, 2018. A bill that would add money to the state fund to compensate those wrongfully convicted has been vetoed by the governor.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed a $10 million appropriation to compensate people who were wrongfully imprisoned in Michigan, blaming how the Legislature passed the bill.

The line-item veto, the Democratic governor’s first, was made because the appropriation was included within a policy bill instead of going through an appropriations bill, Whitmer said in a statement.

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature has included appropriations in major controversial policy bills in recent years, which makes them immune to a voter referendum under a constitutional provision designed to protect state budgets from voter challenges.

In 2012, voters overturned a controversial emergency manager law, but Republicans quickly approved a slightly different replacement that included implementation funding. It also attached an appropriation to the state's right-to-work law. 

Earlier this year, Whitmer signed an executive directive indicating she would veto appropriations included in such legislation.

The governor had included $10 million for the fund in her proposed fiscal year 2019 and 2020 budgets and said she "would support an appropriation of money to the fund in a supplemental appropriations bill or a general appropriations bill.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, called the veto “disgraceful” and accused the governor of using the veto as political leverage to pass her supplemental bill, which contains other spending priorities.

“She ought to be ashamed of herself for playing political games with people’s lives,” Johnson said. The bill passed with unanimous support in the Legislature, and he anticipates a veto override would garner the same support.

“If it was up to me, I would say the first vote we take Tuesday is a veto override, but we’ll see what the speaker decides,” Johnson said.

Whitmer has made budget provisions that would allocated the funding through an appropriations bill, her spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

"We have been transparent throughout the process as our initial recommendation included the funding as part of the supplemental," she said.

The allocation was part of a larger bill that would require more reporting from the Attorney General’s office to the Legislature about payments from the fund, claim denials, the fund balance and each claim awaiting settlement. Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office supported the legislation.

The 2016 Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act requires exonerated former inmates to be paid $50,000 for each year spent in prison. Ex-inmates make the claim through a lawsuit filed against the state in the Michigan Court of Claims.

The state had chosen to settle some cases rather than make exonerees go through further litigation, but that option became unavailable because of a lack of money in recent months.

The veto will have a devastating impact on exonerees like Richard Phillips, who was imprisoned for 45 years on armed robbery and murder charges, his lawyer Gabi Silver said. The nation’s longest-serving exoneree, Phillips goes to trial in the Court of Claims for his compensation in June.

“It's horrific to think we could go to trial and win and then there’s no money to pay this man,” Silver said. “He’ll be waiting for politicians to finish playing their games.”

Silver represents others who are awaiting trial to claim their compensation from the state.

“They’re all traumatized and damaged by what happened to them and to drag this nonsense out is just beyond me,” she said.

Though she vetoed the $10 million appropriation, Whitmer supported the policy within the legislation and added her signature to the bill.

“This bill will help restore trust in our state government by requiring a higher standard of transparency and ensure that the state meets its commitment to those who were wrongfully convicted,” Whitmer said.

Farmington Hills attorney Wolfgang Mueller, who has 11 clients awaiting payment from the fund, criticized Whitmer's action.

"While we appreciate the governor's approval of the bill, vetoing the $10 million penalizes those who have had their lives turned upside down by wrongful convictions,” he said. “They should not be pawns in a political game. They deserve better."

"One client was told this week his claim for $782,000 was approved. Now he is told that the state can't live up to its agreement because there is no money in the bank. Politicians holding exonerees hostage is unacceptable,” said Mueller, whose 11 clients have served a total of 225 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

About $6.5 million has been appropriated to the compensation fund since its creation in 2016. The fund had a balance in early March of $323,800, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.

The state faces liabilities of roughly $24 million for up to 39 pending wrongful imprisonment cases, 11 of which are awaiting a change in the law that would allow an expansion of the window in which they can file their claims. The 11 cases represent roughly $2.7 million of the $24 million total.


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George Hunter contributed.