State worker whistleblower protection effort fails in Michigan House

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

An effort to place before voters a constitutional amendment that would cement whistleblower protections for state workers speaking to lawmakers failed to get enough support Wednesday in the Michigan House. 

The resolution, which passed unanimously in the Senate in May, passed 65-38 Wednesday in the House, several votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for the proposition to appear on the November 2022 ballot. 

All of the no votes were Democratic lawmakers.

Michigan State Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Township

House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski warned lawmakers ahead of the vote that the proposal would have unintended consequences for collective bargaining procedures and the state's civil service rules. 

"This constitutional amendment as written overrides portions of the civil service code," said Lasinski, D-Scio Township. "As Democrats, we’ve come to know the phrase: 'The devil is in the details.' My friends, we are paying attention to the details.”

Still, 10 Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of putting the proposal on the 2022 ballot.

After the failed vote, Republican leadership called for reconsideration of the vote but did not hold a new vote.

The resolution, sponsored by GOP state Sen. Tom Barrett of Charlotte, would prohibit a state department or agency from taking disciplinary action against workers in a classified civil service position for communicating with a lawmaker or lawmaker's staff. 

The protections would not apply if the communication was otherwise barred by law or if employees make false statements. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed a similar bill last year saying it would have amounted to an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers and the Michigan Civil Service Commission. By placing the provision before voters, lawmakers would have avoided the governor's veto pen. 

Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said the protections would help in the Oversight Committee's review of problems at the Unemployment Insurance Agency. 

"We’ve actually had people within the unemployment agency … they’ve reached out to us telling us things are going on with the agency but they're afraid that if they go public they’ll lose their job, they’ll be demoted, they’ll be penalized in some form or manner," Johnson said. "There’s a culture of being afraid to speak out as a state worker.”

Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, argued the measure could have helped during the Flint water crisis or among corrections workers in her Jackson-area district. 

"They keep our community safe and they should not have to fear for their own jobs for helping me do my job,” Alexander said.