MIRS provides comprehensive news and analysis of state government delivered in written reports detailing the activities of the House, Senate, Judicial and Executive branches of Michigan state government.
Michigan News And Capitol Report, Week Ending, Fri., Sept. 13, 2019
Republican Plan To Put $500M More Toward Roads
Republican lawmakers began passing Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budgets Thursday with an eye toward putting $500 million in additional General Fund money into the roads, something Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called a "gimmick" and Democrats decried as not being nearly enough.
Republicans moved budgets Thursday that put $300 million more into a "record-high" K-12 public school budget, $120 million into clean drinking water initiatives and enough money to train 85 additional Michigan State Police troopers (for a net increase of 51 officers) without a tax increase.
"It's common sense. It's what the people expect so we're continuing to have those negotiations," said House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering).
Republican leaders didn't close off the possibility of re-starting FY 2020 budget negotiations with Whitmer. But, in the meantime, the GOP's priority is to find every additional dollar they can dig up in the budget and stuff it into fixing roads.
Negotiations broke down between Republican leaders and Whitmer after they suggested putting $500 million of additional money into the roads. The Budget Office came back and said it was willing to fulfill the statutorily obligated $130 million in additional General Fund revenue.
The Senate and House came back with a $300 million number and, as Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said, lawmakers heard "crickets."
"This phony game that we're fixing the roads with one-time money; it's not going to cut it," Whitmer advised capitol correspondents after an appearance at an electric school bus launch on the capitol lawn. "This the exact kind of gimmick that got us in this problem in the first place . . . One-time money does not fix the problem. In fact, it makes it more expensive to do the work because there is not the ability to plan."
House Transportation Committee member Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance) countered that as a Governor calling for a road fix, her opposition to this $500 million is "very inconsistent." He said it's understandable in that, "the ultimate plan of hers is to raise taxes and not reprioritize budget items . . . We're going to agree to disagree."
Some feel in the messaging war of words, all the Republicans have to say is that the Governor had a chance to spend $500 million, but did not do it. The governor countered, "It's a $2.5 billion problem (and) the only money they put on the table was $300 million in undisclosed tax revenue . . . that's 35 miles of four lane road. That's a joke."
Whitmer is concerned Republicans will view the $500 million as a reason to not seek long-term road funding options, but Shirkey told reporters he doesn't view it that way.
"I'm still committed to a long-term road-funding plan. More so than maybe some of my caucus members," he said. "I think we have an obligation to do so. I think the Governor was right in separating the two. That shouldn't be a surprise because I've been suggesting it for weeks. I'm very committed to doing that as soon as we get the budget done."
Shirkey was asked if he believes more revenue will be needed for long-term road funding.
"I think we're going to find that after we've done a very thorough job of reprioritizing spending and evaluating our cash-flows, we may conclude that we're a bit short," Shirkey explained. "And, yes, it will likely require some modest revenue spread out over a few years."
Across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) hasn't given up the ghost in tying a comprehensive roads solution to the FY '20 budget and "I'm going to do whatever I can to facilitate that outcome.
"The Governor's budget invests in roads, invests in talent, invests in our education system," he continued. "It's just -- objectively -- a better budget than what I think we're going to be voting on. I hope we can find common ground over the next couple of weeks."
Ananich was asked if he opposes $500 million more going to roads.
"I think there's a lot of talk about records," Ananich said, apparently referring to the Republicans repeatedly saying their budget has record funding for education and road funding. We've been hearing this over and over again for the last eight years. The status quo was what I would call a participation ribbon – 'record' meaning nothing if it's not enough money."
A reporter asked if the Senate Democrats are prepared to vote against a GOP budget that spends "too much money" on roads?
"I think the biggest question is if it spends an adequate amount on roads," Ananich said. "Right now, these budgets aren't right in front of us. In a number of cases we're not prepared to support them until we feel we've adequately addressed the concerns we have."
There was an agreement to do one-time funding while they bargained over a long-term solution, as opposed to what we're hearing now, a reporter pointed out.
"I think the agreement was that the road discussion will be on 'pause,' while we work on finishing the budget and then go back to it," Ananich said. "If we're not at a place where we can find consensus, I think we should still figure out what to do about roads. If we can't, we still have a budget that reaches the goals that were intended."
Ananich was asked if the one-time expenditure for roads makes it harder to reach a deal on long-term funding.
"I think so. No doubt about it," Ananich said. "It puts a band-aid on a broken leg. "Michigan now has four flat tires and we're changing the oil."
Would Vaping Ban Lure Folks Back To Smoking?
The Governor's health emergency ban on flavored e-cigarettes, nicotine gum and mints would drive nicotine-addicted adults back to cigarettes, putting them back at risk of contracting smoking-related diseases, according to testimony before a House committee Thursday.
Following Thursday's testimony that adult vapers use flavored e-cigarettes at rates as high as children, House Oversight Committee Chair Matt Hall (R-Emmett Twp.) urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pump the brakes on her rule.
He'd like her to consider taking out a ban on "alternative nicotine products" since he didn't hear any evidence that kids are using the mints or gum at emergency high levels.
And he also seemed sympathetic to a suggestion from Battle Creek vaping store owner Keri Bruneel, who urged the Governor to limit the ban on flavored e-cigarettes in stores 'that are not closed off to customers under 18."
"These rules would be better if there is public comment before they go into effect," Hall said. "My goal is to engage in a process that leads to better rules in place than these."
Bruneel urged the state to tightly regulate vaping shops to make sure they're not selling to minors, but that stores like hers remain open so former smokers can still use e-cigarettes as a stepdown from cigarettes.
As the order stands Thursday, vaping shops like hers and 906 Vapor in Houghton will close and need to file for bankruptcy, putting at risk those trying to quit smoking tobacco.
"With this order, you won't be banning flavors, you'll be banning a life-saving industry in this state. Guaranteed," said Mark Slis, owner of the 906 Vapor shop.
Slis said the 80 vaping flavors in his shop have all been requested by his customers -- all of whom are over the age of 18. His oldest customer, an 87-year-old grandmother, prefers the flavor modeled after Fruity Pebbles cereal.
For his part, Slis said he had tried to quit smoking for 30 years until he tried e-cigarettes at the Houghton shop he later purchased. He hasn't touched a cigarette since. The key has been the flavors. Without them, he fears he'd go back to smoking, as would many of his hundreds of customers.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced her administration is putting together an emergency order that would pull flavored e-cigarettes off the shelves in response to an alarming rise in teen vaping rates.
Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun re-iterated to Hall's committee the reason for this. E-cigarette use among middle school students increased 900% from 2011 to 2015 and 78% among high schoolers from 2017 to 2018, according to the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth survey.
Khaldun noted the rules are not final, but wouldn't be specific as to whether they would be coming out in a matter of weeks or months. As to Hall's point about "alternative nicotine products," Khaldun said nicotine is dangerous to the developing brain and that is why all nicotine products were roped into the emergency order.
"Nicotine, from a medical perspective, is bad for youth," she said.
Hall said he appreciated the answer, but said he believes that the mints and gum should be broken off from the emergency order and run through the regular administrative rules process since he didn't hear evidence of a health emergency for those non-vaping products.
Committee members agreed that the problem with youth vaping is a real one. Rep. Dave LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) said his teenage daughter said "everyone" at her school vapes, which -- while surely an exaggeration -- still speaks to a large number.
Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Twp.) said her parent-teacher association (PTA) has been talking about the rise of vaping for five years.
A school administrator in Rep. Darrin Camilleri's (D-Brownstown Twp.) district has lamented that they don't feel they have the tools to stop the vaping going on in their schools and that's the top issue they're facing.
However, the committee heard from a tobacco company-hired health care professional and a think tank analyst from the Reason Foundation in Great Britain, who argued that banning flavored cigarettes makes the problem worse.
They argued the six deaths and numerous reported health issues stemming from vaping is coming from black market-products laced with another substance, not the products being bought at legitimate stores.
Dr. Michael Madden said e-cigarettes carry 5% of the health risk as tobacco cigarettes and that with the advent of vaping, teen smoking is at record low rates.
If vendors aren't allowed to sell the products anymore, users will go to the unregulated streets to buy their liquid, likely increasing the health issues.
"We will see a number of people who use e-cigarettes go back to combustible cigarettes (if these rules go into effect)," Madden said. "I think it would be a disaster for public health."
In related news, Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) announced legislation Thursday that would ban harmful chemicals, such as Vitamin E acetate, from e-cigarettes.
"Evidence is mounting that these chemicals are directly causing serious health issues and tragic deaths nationwide," Hammoud said. "I am committed to developing a legislative solution to this growing concern."
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CRC: Teacher Retirement Costs Eat Up Recent Ed Funding Increases
State education funding went up 12% between 2013 and 2018, but a lot of that money is going toward funding teacher retirement obligations, according to a new Citizens Research Council (CRC) report.
The CRC found that in the same time period, retirement contributions went from taking up 22.6% of district and/or state payrolls to 32.3%. At the same time, the state's average teacher salary has stayed flat at around $62,000.
"Student test scores are unacceptably low, schools are underachieving, and teachers are leaving the field," according to a CRC press release Wednesday. "Funding is up, but stagnant salaries are making it difficult to attract new teachers and retain the ones we have. Why? In a word: Pensions."
The report concluded that the rise in state retirement contributions of over $1 billion since the reform to meet unfunded liabilities directly accounts for the majority of the spending increase in education in recent years.
The CRC noted that while some of this can be attributed to workforce composition -- such as senior teachers leaving and younger, lower paid entering -- the bulk of the squeeze is tied to paying down unfunded liabilities.
The issue of teacher pensions and retirement health taking up a greater share of the school funding pie is one reason why the West Michigan Policy Forum (WMPF) -- and some legislative Republicans -- favors a restructuring of the repayment schedule for MPSERS, the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.
Jase Bolger, policy analyst for the WMPF, has previously said all School Aid Fund growth in the next five years would be swallowed up by MPSERS payments if the current pay-off plan stayed in place.
He favors a proposal to issue a 30-year, $10 billion bond to pre-fund the retirement fund and then pay the bonds back on a set schedule by investing the cash the state would receive in the deal.
The MPSERS bonding plan is one that has been put up by Republicans as a way to free up cash for road funding repairs, as well, something Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Democrats and the education community has balked at.
Yet Michigan Education Association (MEA) spokesperson Doug Pratt said the "simple fact is that we’re underfunding schools," and that "education funding hasn’t kept up with increasing costs over the past 25 years," while noting pensions are part of the overall compensation for educators.
"We can meet pension obligations and pay educators better, but we have to fix our broken education funding," Pratt said.
Shirkey Open To Giving Locals More Road Taxing Options
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said Wednesday he has "no problem" with the idea of giving local governments the option to raise their own road revenue through a special tax assessment.
Not speaking for the caucus, Shirkey said giving locals an option to raise revenue has been part of the negotiations with the Governor and the House as the three look into long-term reforms.
The Citizens Research Council (CRC) suggested expanded taxing options for locals interested in raising more money for their roads. House Transportation Committee Chair Jack O'Malley (R-Lake Ann) and Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) scheduled a Thursday press conference to talk about a plan to do just that.
Shirkey was asked about the problems of giving locals the ability to raise their own road revenues, such as drivers going to other communities to purchase gas.
"We could do it by counties or regions," Shirkey pointed out. "That's all to be discussed. That can happen today between Hillsdale and Ohio, too. And it leaves it up to the locals to make their point. You know, 'Buy local -- help us with the roads.'"
On another subject, Shirkey was asked if it gave him pause about the idea of offering voters dueling road funding plans at the ballot box considering a 2015 ballot proposal to raise road revenue went down to an historic 20%-to-80% defeat.
"I have less pause about it because it was done poorly and executed poorly," Shirkey said. "I don't ever take options like that off the table. But, to me it's something we'd consider doing after we'd provided a longer-term road solution.
"To give the voters a choice, the execution of that, compared to what we have in mind -- this one would be completely different," he said.
Reporters asked Shirkey spokesperson Amber McCann about documents obtained by MIRS and other news outlets containing long-term road funding proposals, such as putting a one-cent sales tax increase on the ballot.
"The document outlined options people floated, but it didn't dive deeper than that," McCann said. "To have released it gives the impression that there was a greater detailed discussion, or deeper dive, into each of those options. But these were all starting points for discussions. The idea of what would happen with the sales tax increase was never fully flushed out."