Senate approves bill to protect state employees who talk to lawmakers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate overwhelmingly approved Wednesday a bill that would ban state agencies from punishing employees for communicating with lawmakers about problems they see in government.

The Senate voted 37-0 for the bill, which came after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cited constitutional concerns while stripping language from last year's state budget that aimed to bring similar protections.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, behind her, acknowledges some guests during the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 29, 2020.  She is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, right.

The Senate proposal originally focused on state departments punishing their employees, but lawmakers changed it on the Senate floor to include language that also protects employees of the GOP-controlled Legislature from being penalized for speaking out.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, proposed the revised language, which he said protects legislative employees who communicate with Whitmer's office.

"The employees of the Legislature should be on par with employees from every other department," Hertel said. "At the end of the day, I think reciprocity is important."

On Tuesday before the bill was revised on the Senate floor, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor had "serious concerns" with the legislation

Last fall, Whitmer stripped a protection for state employees for speaking with state legislators when she ruled the language unconstitutional in 13 department budgets. The language violated the separation of powers in Michigan’s constitution, Whitmer wrote in her letter explaining the change.

Hertel said he hadn't spoken to Whitmer's office about the revised Senate bill.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, a former state employee himself who, like Hertel, represents a district where many state employees reside, is the sponsor of the new proposal. He has argued it would help state officeholders make informed decisions.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte

"We want to make sure that we can have those open and candid conversations," Barrett said Wednesday.

The topic was front and center during a November Senate Oversight Committee hearing on the Michigan Department of Transportation's handling of a 2016 study covering the aggregates market.

The state's auditor general found that the Department of Transportation allowed industry stakeholders to influence the study and didn't follow contracting guidelines. FMI Corp., the North Carolina firm that conducted the study, said the Department of Transportation and the Michigan Aggregates Association did not "attempt to influence the results of our study."

Multiple GOP lawmakers highlighted during the November hearing a report from the State Transportation Commission's Office of Commission Audits, which said one department employee had "expressed fear of reprisal for speaking out against the study."

Attorney General Dana Nessel has opined and state courts affirmed that the previous provisions in the state budget violated the separation of powers in the state constitution “because a department’s disciplinary policy is a core executive function,” Brown has said.