LANSING, MI – This week in Lansing was more about molding legislation than passing bills, at least on major topics.
Both chambers made moves to further clarify key initiatives, with budget talks picking up in the House and Senate and amendments made to Senate Republican election bills.
The House continued to tackle ethics reform, while Republicans in both chambers moved to allow high schools to hold in-person commencements. Here’s what happened this week at the Michigan Capitol:
Budget talks evolve
Quarterly budgets for many state agencies, staffing cuts and additional limits on how state agencies can respond to the COVID-19 pandemic all remain on the table as Michigan lawmakers move forward with setting the state’s annual budget.
Both the state House and Senate appropriations committees reported initial proposals for the state budget to the floor this week, the latest step in ensuring state government agencies and programs are funded for the next fiscal year.
In the House, many proposed state agency budgets are currently designed to operate on a quarterly basis, a departure from the annual budget cycle that House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said would help the Legislature be “nimble” in responding to economic changes.
The House-proposed budget also would reduce the number of unclassified positions within state departments, put in place requirements for opening Secretary of State and Unemployment Insurance Agency offices and prohibit state agencies from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of providing services.
The Senate plan reported to the floor includes a number of significant changes to the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, including decreasing salaries of the Unemployment Insurance Agency director and others in the department and cutting the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget by 20%.
Small tweaks to GOP election bills
Michigan Senate Republicans deliberated on elements of their 39-bill election package for the third straight Wednesday afternoon. This time, their focus was on the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.
During a May 5 hearing of the Senate Election Committee, Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, amended his Senate Bill 286, which would close drop boxes at 5 p.m. on Election Day, or three hours before polls close.
The bill previously would have close them at 5 p.m. the day before. In the bill’s current form, absentee voters could submit their ballots to their clerk’s office in person after 5 p.m. McBroom has previously told MLive that the bill could make allowances for emergency situations, such as a pandemic.
The intent, according to Broom, is alleviating the burden of local clerks and election workers on dlection night, “so they’re not out after hours working all night to process thousands and thousands of ballots.”
“This was really an effort to help with that administrative hurdle,” he said.
Multiple people testified against the bill even with this relaxation, including clerks, Secretary of State representatives and activists.
“I think that clerks, what we want to do is meet voters where they are, provide them with access,” said Adam Reames, legislative policy director for the Secretary of State, at the hearing. “I know clerks share that, as well.”
Reames also discussed how the Secretary of State would like to see more time for pre-processing absentee ballots prior to Election Day. Michigan allowed one extra day of prep time for election workers to do this, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has indicated that he would support more time for future elections.
The current bills don’t provide more time for pre-processing. The committee did not vote on any bills.
Ethics reform in the House
The House Elections and Ethics Committee discussed a proposal Tuesday that would require lawmakers to disclose their personal finances, debating the merits of a plan that would subject elected officials to new disclosure requirements – but without allowing the public to access to that information until after they’re out of office.
The legislation, House Bills 4680 through 4686, would compel lawmakers to submit financial information for themselves and immediate family members — including income sources over $5,000, properties valued over $50,000 excluding their primary residence, and stocks, bonds and annuities valued at $10,000 or more — to a new, permanent legislative ethics committee in their chamber.
The bills have support from House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, and House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, as well as the group Voters Not Politicians. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who has long held concerns about making lawmakers’ finances available to the public, has expressed openness to the plan.
Additionally, the House approved a bill setting limits on severance pay and adding new requirements barring nondisclosure agreements.
Sponsored by Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City, House Bill 4591 would limit the use of nondisclosure agreements and severance pay for outgoing employees and officials in both the administration and the legislature.
House hearing on vaccine passport ban invokes Holocaust comparisons
Government-issued COVID-19 vaccine passports are not a thing in Michigan.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office confirmed Thursday that her office isn’t exploring any implementation of them. But House Republicans are pushing for a preemptive ban, and they invited anti-vax testimony into a May 6 hearing on the proposed law.
There were two halves to the House Oversight Committee hearing: One featured debate on a bill to bar government agencies from issuing or incentivizing vaccine passports. The other involved a cavalcade of statements from anti-vaccination activists, with a few comparing the idea of mandating passports to the Holocaust.
House Bill 4667, sponsored by Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, would ban state agencies, departments, districts or other government entities from producing, issuing or entering into a contract to produce or issue a COVID-19 vaccination passport.
Michigan House and Senate moves to ensure high school commencements go off as planned
On Wednesday, Michigan House and Senate Republicans pushed to allow in-person high school commencement across the state.
Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 335, sponsored by Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, with a vote of 21-15. The bill would ban the state health director or local health officers from ordering a ban or limit on high school commencement ceremonies for this year’s class of students.
The legislation would apply to public and nonpublic schools alike, and the vote came a day after Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services relaxed mask and outdoor gathering restrictions.
The House also passed House Bill 4728, sponsored by Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton. It would also ban emergency orders to limit or shutdown high school commencement ceremonies. It passed 60-48.
Shirkey wants natural immunity included in 70% vaccination goal
Michigan still has the worst COVID-19 case rate in the country.
As of Thursday, the state had seen 235 cases per 100,000 residents over a week, the highest of all 50 states, according to the CDC. About 10% of COVID-19 tests still come back positive, per state health data.
But Shirkey advocated for dropping Michigan’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions in a Monday radio interview, using misleading figures to support his argument.
The state senator spoke on WJR Radio about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Vacc to Normal” plan, which ties state reopening metrics to the percentage of the population with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
Under Whitmer’s plan, as the state achieves set percentages of vaccinated residents, different business restrictions will be lifted, such as indoor capacity limits on restaurants, stadiums and gyms. The ultimate goal is 70%, when the state will lift mask and gathering limits.
Michigan should be opening “this week,” Shirkey argued, as he partly cited state health data to speculate that the combination of vaccines administered and COVID-19 recoveries should meet Whitmer’s thresholds.