Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Jan. 13, 2023 | This Week in Government: Whitmer, Dems Seek to Restore Pre-2012 Retirement Breaks; Boost EITC

Jan. 13, 2023 | This Week in Government: Whitmer, Dems Seek to Restore Pre-2012 Retirement Breaks; Boost EITC

January 13, 2023
Detroit Regional Chamber Presents This Week in Government, powered by Gongwer, Michigan's home for Policy and Politics news since 1906

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, provides members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

Whitmer, Dems Seek to Restore Pre-2012 Retirement Breaks; Boost EITC

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the leaders of the new Democratic-controlled Legislature on Thursday announced the introduction of four bills in both chambers to simultaneously roll back the state’s tax on pensions and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to potentially 30%.

Whitmer was joined by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), and House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) at a news conference detailing the bills, which each called a positive move for working families and those who rely on pensions.

Both measures would undo two of the major components of the 2011 tax changes championed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, whose package offset slashing business taxes by reducing personal income tax credits like the exemptions for retirement income and slashed the EITC from 20% of a filer’s federal EITC to 6%.

Republican legislative leaders urged broader tax relief. They have called for a reduction in the income tax rate.

In the Senate, SB 1 would address the pension tax, and SB 3 expand the EITC. The House has its own versions of the bills by way of HB 4001 for the pension tax and HB 4002 for the EITC.

The two measures would reduce revenues, however, as earlier estimates for similar legislation determined that repealing both the pension tax and increasing the EITC would add up to a cost of somewhere between $700 million and $800 million.

An estimate from the previous legislative term shows that setting the EITC at 30% of a filer’s federal EITC would put the cost at $460 million a year. The hit to revenues would be less in Years 1, 2, and 3 than the full $700M-$800 million hit, however, through a phase-down of the tax on pensions that would not fully take effect until the 2026 tax year.

As for the proposed pension tax phase-down, that could cost about $370 million. Couple that with reports that the Senate Fiscal Agency now predicts a nearly $1.5 billion downturn in revenue over the next two fiscal years while the House Fiscal Agency revised revenues upward by almost $3 billion, and there will be questions on funding for the tax cuts.

Still, Whitmer and the Democrats at the news conference discussed the changes as important for Michigan families and retirees on pensions. The bills also mark the beginning stages of the Democratic majority in the Legislature’s ambitious agenda, which Whitmer said was important to her party’s campaigns.

“These are promises that we all ran on, and I’m excited to say that we’re taking another step toward making it a reality. Right now, we know across Michigan, as across the country and around the globe, people are facing the pinch, seeing the high cost of everything – from milk to gas to everything,” she said. “Every dollar that we can save people right now will make a huge difference, especially for seniors living on fixed incomes, working families who are working full day but still can’t get ahead. By prioritizing these tax changes, we will be putting money back in people’s pockets. And I’m really excited about getting these bills my desk.”

Sponsored by Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-Saint Clair Shores), SB 1 is a four-year phase-down of the tax on retirement income. In 2026, the old method of taxing retirement income would return under the bill. Pensions and retirement income from public sector jobs are fully exempt, and residents with retirement income from private sector jobs can deduct $42,240 for a single return and $84,480 for a joint return.

Whitmer said that could mean savings of $1,000 a year for some.

“If you don’t think $1,000 a year is meaningful, well let me tell you the vast majority … will see real relief because of that,” she said. “These are people who, like I said, they played by the rules. They’ve worked a lifetime and decided when they could afford to retire or maybe someone needed to retire and have then had the rug pulled out from underneath them. Boosting the working families tax credit delivers an average tax refund of $3,000 to 700,000 homes.”

The phase-down would start with the 2023 tax year and proceed until full elimination in 2026.

For the 2023 tax year, a taxpayer who was born after 1945 and before 1959 could deduct an amount of retirement or pension benefits not to exceed 25% of the maximum amount of retirement or pension benefits that the taxpayer would be allowed to deduct for the tax year of the taxpayer’s retirement or pension benefits were subject to the limitations.

For the 2024 tax year, a taxpayer who was born after 1945 and before 1963 could deduct an amount of retirement or pension benefits not to exceed 50% of the maximum; 75% in the 2025 tax year for payers born after 1945 and before 1967; while the 2026 tax year and each tax year after 2025 could allow a taxpayer to deduct retirement or pension benefits as provided without any additional limitations or restrictions.

For a joint return, the limitations and restrictions would be applied based on the date of birth of the older spouse filing the joint return. If a deduction was claimed on a joint return for a tax year in which a spouse died, and the surviving spouse has not remarried since the death of that spouse, the surviving spouse is entitled to claim the deduction in subsequent tax years subject to the same restrictions and limitations under that would have applied based on the date of birth of the older of the two spouses, SB 1 states.

Sponsored by Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City), SB 3 would increase the state’s match of the federal EITC from 6% to 30%, resulting in an annual income increase of approximately $600.

“What working families need most is more money in their pockets and they need that right now. This bill would deliver an urgent and essential tax cut for Michigan workers hit hardest by inflation,” Rivet said in a statement following the news conference. “Families, businesses, and struggling Michiganders all agree the EITC is an effective way to uplift families while at the same time rewarding work. That’s why I’m prioritizing this legislation now and why I’m committed to getting it over the goal line as quickly as we can.”

Her office noted that nearly 230 organizations had signed a letter urging Michigan’s legislative and executive branches to adopt a 30% match of the federal EITC, citing it as a “pro-work” policy with an immediate impact to boost local purchasing power. It is estimated that a 30% match would return around $553 million to local economies and small businesses.

She also said that the bipartisan coalition expressed support for a 30% match “because they know it would meaningfully reduce poverty, move low-wage workers toward financial stability, and encourage workforce participation.”

“Fourteen regional Chambers of Commerce across the state, including every business chamber in our region, agree the best approach is to trust Michiganders to do what is best for them and their families with their hard-earned dollars,” she added.

The House bills were noted to contain differences, but HB 4001, sponsored by Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township), contains almost entirely the same language and phase-down scheme presented in SB 1 regarding the taxation of retirement income.

As for the House analogue to SB 3 – HB 4002, sponsored by Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) – the major difference is that the state match percentage for tax years that begin after December 11, 2011, and before January 1, 2023, would remain at 6%, while the tax years that begin after December 31, 2022, would see a rise to 20% of the federal match.

The Michigan EITC Coalition, in a statement issued late Thursday, showed a particular interest in Rivet’s bill, however.

“Expanding Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit to 30% rewards work, helps struggling businesses find employees, and supports Michigan’s working families at a time when inflation is significantly impacting household budgets,” Ken Sikkema, a former GOP Senate Majority Leader and a co-chair of the Michigan Consensus Policy Project, said in a statement. “Passing Senate Bill 3 into law will put money back into the pockets of Michigan’s working residents and helps Michigan’s economic recovery from the pandemic.”

Also supportive of SB 3 were Monique Stanton, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, and Tom Hickson, vice president of public policy at the Michigan Catholic Conference.

Whitmer was asked during the news conference if there was a particular permutation of bills that she preferred, but she quipped that she was unable at the moment to choose between “her favorite child” as far as the bills go.

That said, Brinks said the new majority was making good on its promises to tackle challenges the state faces in the hope of paving a better future for their constituents.

“A key component of this effort is helping more folks keep more of their hard-earned dollars in their pockets,” Brinks said. “One of the most impactful ways we can do that, while also infusing more money into our economy, is by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit to address the needs of struggling Michiganders. Michiganders can expect that, in the weeks and months ahead, Democrats will continue to deliver on solutions that help improve family budgets in every community across the state.”

Tate noted that increased costs hit those on fixed incomes the hardest.

“The state should not rely on retirees to bear the cost of government. House Democrats are committed to making good on our promises to deliver meaningful relief to Michiganders and that starts with the repeal of the retirement tax and increased tax credits for our hardworking families,” he said. “We are ready to work with our partners in the Senate to deliver these bills to the governor’s desk.”

Whitmer was asked about the cost of the proposals and deferred to the State Budget Office for specifics.

Yesterday, House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) criticized the House bills, saying they would repeal only the pension tax and would primarily be repealing taxes for people with public pensions, but the governor said that the legislation is not on her desk yet and there are a lot of things that are going to happen between now and when they get there.

“I will tell you that I just left a meeting with all four leaders. I’m glad that both Minority Leader Hall and (Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt) were part of the conversation,” she said. “It was very broad strokes, a foundation, but I think that the promise that we’re going to repeal this new tax that was such a hardship on so many is the first step.”

She anticipated variations of the bills that have been introduced in each chamber and a heavy dose of negotiation along the way. As to whether she and Democrats would entertain including full exemption for all retirement plans in the tax overhaul, Whitmer said that this was a process and that negotiations would determine the final makeup of the bill.

Brinks spoke with Gongwer News Service following the news conference and was asked how the Legislature plans to pay for the proposals given the potential downturn in revenue in the coming years.

“We need to see what the estimates are. So, I don’t want to get out in front of my skis on that,” she said. “I do know that we are doing this early and while we are in the budget process so that we can ensure that we are acting responsibility.”

Brinks said the Senate will soon begin committee hearings on the bills but with a caveat that the Democratic majority’s train has only left the station.

“I’ll remind you that we just got here, yesterday was day one. We’re still doing some training. We’re getting committees up and running. And after 40 years of Republican control, we’re having Democrats in charge,” she said. “So, we’re getting our feet under us … and we’ll get there. We’re going to be thoughtful, but we are not going to wait. We’ll get started on this budget and this list of bills in our initial priorities.”

GOP NOT THRILLED WITH DEM TAX PACKAGES: Republican legislative leaders said they were open to negotiations on the bill packages but said that the tax relief package should be open to all those with retirement plans.

“It is important that any serious tax relief legislation works to provide that relief to all Michiganders and not just pick winners and losers. All Michiganders need tax relief – relief from high inflation, high grocery prices, high gas prices and energy costs, and just making ends meet,” Nesbitt said in a statement. “They need that relief immediately, now, not given as crumbs scattered out over years and years. … Senate Republicans are ready to work with our legislative partners and return taxpayer dollars to all – and not just some – of the hard-working families, seniors and retirees of this state.”

Those with retirement income from private sector jobs would see their current exemption as much as double from what it became in the Snyder-era law under the bills – though it would not be a full exemption like those with public sector jobs.

Hall further criticized the Democratic majority of playing political games and not coming to the table sooner on tax relief last session.

“Let’s get to work to make life more affordable for the people of Michigan. We could have secured relief for working families last year, but the Democrats played games and refused to negotiate,” Hall said in a statement. “Now, their proposal would make Michiganders wait a year to receive any relief. The governor and Democrats should work with House Republicans to secure real relief for the people without delay.”

Nesbitt Calls Right to Work Repeal ‘Extreme’ as Dems Make it Top Issue

Democrats are setting the table for a likely fierce battle to repeal the state’s Right to Work law as the Senate’s minority leader called such a move a step in the wrong direction Wednesday and warned it would negatively impact economic development in Michigan.

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) called the Democrat’s plans to repeal the state’s Right to Work law by Democrats “a real extreme position” following the first day of the new legislative session Wednesday.

Later that afternoon, House and Senate Democratic leaders announced the repeal legislation would be among the first bills to be introduced Thursday.

“Even Virginia, when they had a Democratic trifecta in Virginia, knew if they repealed their right to work law that that wouldn’t be on lists for economic development and investments in that state,” Nesbitt said. “That’s something that the governor and the Democratic leadership are serious about growing our economy and investing in jobs, then I think they’d stay away from repealing right to work.”

He said he believed Michigan has been on the list of states that businesses want to spend in and grow their operations because the state enacted a Right to Work law.

Ever since Democrats won narrow House and Senate majorities in the November 2022 election, there has been talk among elected officials about repealing the state’s Right to Work law that prohibits requiring employees working under a collective bargaining agreement to join the union or pay non-member dues.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), in November, after being elected as majority leader by her caucus, said a Right to Work repeal would be on the table (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 10, 2022).

When asked Wednesday by reporters if she supports repealing Right to Work, she pivoted by saying there have been discussions on “issues of valuing workers, and that certainly fits into that bucket.”

“We are talking with all of the parties that we need to talk to in order to be successful with our entire legislative agenda, and that includes valuing workers,” Brinks added.

“The phrase ‘right-to-work’ is a lie. These laws do nothing but hurt hard working Michiganders by hamstringing their ability to effectively organize for good benefits and competitive wages,” Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park), who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said in a statement. “Unionized professionals are the backbone of our state – they are our teachers, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, and skilled-trade workers who provide the services that make our communities safe and strong. House Democrats will always stand in solidarity with working families.”

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) has already indicated that the Republican caucus plans to push back against any attempts to repeal Right to Work laws (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Dec. 16, 2022).

Americans for Prosperity Michigan is among the first advocacy groups in the state that has stated it plans to fight the proposed Right to Work repeal (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 4, 2023).

The group’s plans include town hall meetings, talking to residents at their doors, phone calls, and lobbying efforts targeting swing districts in the Legislature to apply pressure on lawmakers to not support a repeal the law.

Chang to Chair Senate Judiciary; Cherry to Lead Labor

Sixteen different Democratic senators were given the gavel for at least one of the 18 committees in the chamber, with two members being named chair of two panels.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) announced assignments for standing committees and Appropriations subcommittees.

The four remaining Senate Democrats not chairing a standing committee were each given a chair position out of the 13 subcommittees.

Brinks, in a statement, said the most important work of the Legislature takes place in committee rooms.

“It’s where problems are identified and people can participate in shaping policy decisions,” Brinks said. “We have a tremendous group of committee chairs who hail from a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds, making them uniquely equipped to handle the challenges that will come before them. Our majority is for the people, and as such, this pragmatic and people-focused group has been tasked with ensuring a range of Michigan voices are heard and reflected in everything we do.”

Shortly after the November election, Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) was named chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 16, 2022). Serving as minority vice chair on appropriations will be Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-North Muskegon). Brinks will chair the Senate Government Operations Committee and Legislative Council.

Among the appointments to Senate committee chair positions were several reported Wednesday by Gongwer News Service (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 11, 2023).

The Senate Energy and Environment Committee

will be chaired by Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) along with the Senate Appropriations Universities and Community Colleges Subcommittee. The minority vice chair of the Energy and Environment Committee will be Sen. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway), who chaired the committee last term when it was the Energy and Technology Committee. Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) will chair the Senate Education CommitteeSen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) will be the minority vice chair.

Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) will chair the Senate Appropriations PreK-12 SubcommitteeSen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) will be the minority vice chair.

Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Township) was selected to chair the Senate Finance, Insurance, and Consumer Protection Committee along with two appropriations subcommittees: the Senate Appropriations LEO/MEDC Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations LARA/DIFS Subcommittee.

The Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

will be chaired by Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor). Serving as minority vice chair will be Sen. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe). Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) will chair two committees, one being the Senate Elections and Ethics CommitteeSen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township), who chaired the Senate Elections Committee last term, will be the minority vice chair this term. Moss will also chair the Senate Regulatory Affairs Committee, with Sen. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) as minority vice chair.

The Senate Health Policy Committee will be led by Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-Saint Clair Shores), with Sen. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) as the minority vice chair. Hertel will also chair the Senate Appropriations Military, Veterans, State Police Subcommittee.

Chairing the Senate Appropriations Health and Human Services Subcommittee will be Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit). Sen. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes), who chaired the subcommittee last term, will be the minority vice chair.

Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) will chair the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Committee, while Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) will be the minority vice chair. Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren) will chair the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Chairing the Senate Economic and Community Development Committee will be Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak). Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) will chair the Senate Oversight and Ethics Committee, with Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who chaired the committee last term, serving as minority vice chair.

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) will be the chair of the Senate Housing and Human Services Committee. He will also serve as chair of the Senate Appropriations EGLE Subcommittee.

Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint) will chair the Senate Labor Committee. He also will serve as chair of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations General Government Subcommittee.

Chairing both the Senate Local Government Committee and the Senate Veterans and Emergency Services Committee will be Sen. Veronica Klinefelt (D-Eastpointe). She also will chair the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee.

Put in charge of the Senate Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee

was Sen. Sue Shink (D-Northfield). She also will chair the Senate Appropriations Corrections and Judiciary SubcommitteeSen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) will take the helm of the Joint Capital Outlay Subcommittee. At the same time, Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Keego Harbor) will chair the Senate Appropriations Michigan Department of Education Subcommittee.

Committee rosters can be viewed on Gongwer’s website.

Slim Committee Pickings for GOP Members Who Crossed Dems

House Speaker Joe Tate on Thursday announced committee membership for the House this term, and Republican members who bucked tradition on opening day were left with few assignments on less than stellar committees.

Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), Rep. Neil Friske (R-Charlevoix), Rep. Angela Rigas (R-Caledonia Township), Rep. Jim DeSana (R-Carleton), Rep. Mike Hoadley (R-Au Gres), Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford) and Rep. Joseph Fox (R- Fremont) all voted against Tate for speaker, something that is traditionally a unanimous vote. Rep. Jay DeBoyer (R-Clay) joined those eight in voting against Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) to be speaker pro tempore.

Those nine received just one committee assignment each, with Maddock, Hoadley and Rigas appointed to just one appropriations subcommittee, though those were not officially announced on Thursday.

All committee rosters, other than the full slate for Appropriations subcommittees, can be reviewed on the Gongwer website.

Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Port Huron), who did not vote against Tate’s speakership on Wednesday but attempted to submit legislation before House Democrats, was given one committee assignment on the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

House Democrats did not comment on the complete list of Standing Committee assignments on Thursday, but Tate said in a statement that his caucus members were ready to get to work.

“The committee process is invaluable to the work of the Legislature,” Tate said in a statement. “Committee is where residents and stakeholders can make known their positions on public policy and where legislators can get a better understanding of the potential impact of newly introduced laws. House Democrats are eager to begin committee work and to make good on the promises made to the people of Michigan.”

House Democrats did not release the list of Appropriations subcommittee assignments and did not respond to inquiries about when that would happen.

Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) criticized Democrats for rejecting many of the recommendations the GOP made for committee assignments.

“They stacked committees with more of their own members, and they’ve gone to new extremes by rejecting so many of House Republicans’ committee recommendations. And after politicizing the nonpartisan clerks and moving an office to keep Rep. Beeler from submitting the first bill, they exploited committee assignments to retaliate against him – even though he followed precedent and waited in line,” Hall said in a statement. “This divisive abuse of power limits the voice of the people of Michigan and distracts from our work to help Michiganders.”

The minority party gives recommendations to the majority on committees, but it is ultimately up to the speaker what committees look like. One high-profile committee disagreement in recent times was under former House Speaker Kevin Cotter when Democrats did not get their request for minority vice chair on the House Appropriations Committee.

There will be 21 standing committees this term.

Freshman Democrats were chosen to chair several panels. Several of the committee chair choices were previously reported by Gongwer News Service (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 11, 2023).

Rep. Reggie Miller (D-Van Buren Township) will chair the House Agriculture Committee. She will be joined by Rep. Jerry Neyer (R-Shepherd), serving as the minority vice chair.

Rep. Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield) will chair the House Economic Development and Small Business Committee, and Rep. Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills) will act as minority vice chair.

The Elections Committee will be chaired by Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing), and Rep. Gregory Markkanen (R-Hancock) will serve as the minority vice chair.

Higher Education is a new committee for the House this year. It will be chaired by Rep. Carol Glanville (D-Walker). Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) will act as minority vice chair.

The committee’s purview will be post-high school advancement, including workforce development certifications, community college, and four-year colleges.

“I see this committee as helping to bridge some of those gaps and to work in concert with the Education Committee to make sure that students are getting the right opportunities … so they understand what their options are,” Glanville said.

Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) will chair the House Insurance and Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Mike Harris (R-Clarkston) will serve as minority vice chair.

Rep. John Fitzgerald (D-Wyoming) will chair the Local Government and Municipal Finance Committee, and Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Onsted) will be the minority vice chair.

Rep. Laurie Pohutsky of Livonia will chair the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation CommitteeRep. David Martin (R-Davison) will serve as minority vice chair.

The House Transportation, Mobility and Infrastructure Committee will be chaired by Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights). Rep. Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes) will act as minority vice chair. On the Appropriations side, Rep. Sarah Lightner (R-Springport) will be the minority vice chair for the House Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township), as previously known.

“As vice chair of appropriations, my goal is to work across the aisle to produce a state budget that funds all of the essential programs while also showing respect for the taxpayers who continue to feel the pinch of climbing inflation,” Lightner said in a statement. “Household budgets are tight right now, especially for working families and retirees. The cost of groceries, fuel, home repairs and everything else keeps going up. We must avoid unsustainable long-term funding commitments and focus on providing relief by allowing Michiganders to keep more of what they earn.”

While the full roster of Appropriations subcommittees was not announced, Tate did announce chairs.

Of note, the House Appropriations Higher Education and Community Colleges Appropriations Subcommittee will be chaired by Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills.)

Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) will chair the House Appropriations Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) is the chair of the House Education CommitteeRep. Jaime Greene (R-Richmond) is the minority vice chair.

In a statement released Thursday, Koleszar said he was excited to get to work on the committee.

“There is a lot of work ahead of us, and it is an honor and a privilege to be entrusted with this great responsibility,” he said. “I look forward to working with our partners in education in every corner of this state, so we can once again return Michigan to its position as a top 10 state for education and destination for educators.”

Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit) will chair the House Energy Communications and Technology Committee with Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) as the minority vice chair.

Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo) will chair the House Health Policy Committee

with Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) as the minority vice chair. Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek) will chair the new House Labor Committee with Rep. Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township) as the minority vice chair.

Rep. Cynthia Neeley (D-Flint) will chair the House Tax Policy Committee, and Rep. Greg VanWoerkom (R-Norton Shores) will serve as the minority vice chair.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative non-profit organization, criticized some of the chair appointments in a press release on Thursday, saying that Democrats were putting forward a “radical agenda.”

The group took issue with the appointment of Rep. Joey Andrews (D-Saint Joseph) as the majority vice chair of the House Criminal Justice CommitteeRep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) as the majority vice chair of the House Committee on Families, Children and Seniors and Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit) as the majority vice chair of the House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee.

“Democrats are out of touch with mainstream Michigan and willing to put an extreme agenda ahead of what is best for our state as demonstrated by the appointments of Joey Andrews, Betsy Coffia, and Helena Scott to these committees,” Michigan Freedom Fund Executive Director Sarah Anderson said in a statement.

Andrews likened police to Nazis in a June 2019 tweet. He has since said that the tweet was taken out of context in a longer thread and clarified his stance on police funding, saying that he was in favor of training programs for police that focused on community policing (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Oct. 13, 2022).

The Freedom Fund criticized Coffia, saying she supported Medicare for All and abolishing ICE. The organization also criticized Scott for voting against Line 5.

Clement as Chief Justice: Independence is at the Core of Who I Am

Throughout her career, Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement has endeavored to keep an open mind, to listen first and talk later, and to hear every voice at the table before making a consequential decision.

And, as she takes the reins of the state’s judiciary as the high court’s newly elected chief justice, the same mantra remains at the heart of her work: to better the lives of those who interact with the courts – particularly in the mode of juvenile justice, elder abuse and data sharing.

It also allows the newly elected chief to further exhibit her reputation as an eagerly independent jurist and a reliable swing vote that is always ready to buck her party’s minority to side with its majority Democrats, and often vice versa, depending on the legal challenge and arguments presented.

In a wide-ranging interview with Gongwer News Service, Clement detailed the moments that kept her motivated to serve on the state’s highest court, her views on the partisan nature of judicial nominations in election years, and why it was important to maintain collegiality on the bench even after a rocky start to the latest term – one that saw two of the bench’s Democrats have a public spat over the hiring of a clerk with a criminal history.

Clement has come to be known as the high court’s most reliable wildcard, but she also said that her penchant for fierce independence was neither for show nor a sign of philosophical inconsistency, saying instead that it was at the core of why she got into public service.

“I think I have a reputation from when I was in the Legislature and when I was working in the executive branch of being open minded and being a listener more than a talker. Someone that wanted all of the information, wanted to hear every voice, and take all of that in and make really thoughtful decisions and recommendations,” Clement said. “And I brought that experience with me to the court starting day one as a justice. … I had never been a judge before, but I think the experience that I had prior to that really made it a transition that that felt natural. At bottom, the role of the judiciary is to be independent.”

The new chief justice was tapped to fill in as chief justice during the end of former Justice Bridget McCormack’s tenure after the latter announced her retirement in November 2022. Last week, with the installation of McCormack’s immediate successor, Whitmer-appointed Justice Kyra Harris Bolden, the new bench voted unanimously again to elect Clement as its leader.

She will now hold the post for the entirety of the current two-year term.

The selection is significant because Clement is a GOP-nominated justice, who was first appointed to the bench by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, and the Supreme Court has a 4-3 majority of justices nominated by Democrats.

Justice Richard Bernstein, the bench’s ranking Democrat, in a previous interview with Gongwer, noted Clement’s independence as a key factor for his vote and her previous work in the other two branches.

That, too, is a strength Clement said she possesses that will guide her as chief justice. She served in various capacities as a Republican legislative staffer before becoming the chief counsel to former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who later appointed her to the bench before she won election to an eight-year term in 2018.

“I think when it comes to being the chief, I think that experience really brings something to the table that I’m excited about,” she said. “I know how the other two branches of government work, having extensive experience in them, and also having five years on the court, seeing how our court interacts with those other branches.”

That experience will undoubtedly be useful as the judiciary furthers its goals in data sharing, expanding reforms and enhancements to the juvenile justice system, and efforts in elder abuse – all things Clement has championed during her time on the bench.

She credits much of that effort to the work of McCormack. However, she was part of the group that developed recommendations for juvenile justice reforms and has worked in child welfare for the better part of her career.

A major focus for the judiciary will be to implement its data-sharing goals by creating a statewide data repository of pre-trial data to better inform judges and prosecutors and assist defendants as they face decisions on bond or pre-trial incarceration (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Feb. 9, 2022 and Gongwer Michigan Report, Nov. 12, 2021).

With money in the 2023-24 budget to make that a reality, or at the very least implement its first steps, Clement said the judiciary was “incredibly fortunate to have the support of the governor and the legislature to create a statewide case management system, which is really going to be transformative.”

“It’s a huge appropriation that we received. It’s one of the things that we’re working on day in and day out to get implemented. The goal is to make the courts more understandable and user friendly to all of the individuals that use the court system and to expand our educational and other resources so that so that the public is able to access and conduct business successfully, whether they’re in person or virtually. That’s one of the things that is at the at the very top of our list.”

Clement said the judiciary is still at the preliminary stages of identifying the systems that work and the best approach to either growing or overhauling the current system.

“Once that decision is made of how we’re going to move forward, it is it is going to be a multi-year project,” she said. “I’ll say that I don’t know that we have an end date in mind of when we can say we have a statewide system that is usable to all of the users of that system. But I can tell you, with the appropriation that we got and with the team that we have in place, this being one of our very top priorities, we’re putting an extreme amount of resources behind getting that up and running as quickly as we can, because it’s so important.”

Those issues with data extend to the juvenile justice system, and that, too is a priority for Clement.

McCormack was, by and large, one of the biggest supporters of the project. She had a knack for getting stragglers on board with something that could mean massive change in how the court inputs offender data and disseminates it across the state. Asked if any of the support has faltered with McCormack’s departure, Clement said she didn’t see any regression.

“I’ve got a very strong relationship with those various stakeholders in the system. And I think that they know my approach and me taking up the priorities of the court. These are not just my priorities because these are priorities that have been expressed by the Supreme Court,” she said. “That’s not to say that there may be judges or court staff or other partners in the system that maybe want to want to see us do things differently or may not be supportive of some of these efforts. But I’m not hearing that there’s that there’s been a shift since Bridget has stepped down as chief and is no longer with the court.”

When McCormack spoke to Gongwer in her final interview last month, she said she gave little to no advice to Clement because she didn’t need it, adding that she was eminently capable, equipped, and ready to take on the role.

One thing that seems to be common between the two – aside from their close personal relationship and reverence for judicial independence – is their view that collegiality and public trust are what keep the court relevant and viable as an arbiter of law, a backstop for constitutional rights and a check on the other branches.

Collegiality appears to be a major focus for Clement. The commitment will be even more important as the Clement court got caught in a snag last week when Bernstein publicly lambasted Bolden’s choice of a clerk in the press, leading to that clerk’s resignation. It is unclear whether the two have fully moved on outside of statements to Gongwer that show they’ve moved on – at least professionally – from the situation (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 6, 2023, and Gongwer Michigan Report, Jan. 5, 2023).

Although she had to put out a few fires within her first week, Clement said she was committed to keeping the court’s streak of collegiality going. Despite that bump in the road, she said she didn’t believe that the Supreme Court, nor its lower state and local courts, were affected or influenced by the same kind of blind partisanship sometimes seen on the national stage with the federal courts.

“I have read and seen things that do cause me concern, whether it’s actual or whether its perception, or in outside pressure trying to bring politics into the judiciary. I definitely can see that on the national and federal level. I do not see that in our state courts,” she said. “I work with my colleagues on the Court of Appeals, and our in our trial courts, and these are dedicated jurists that that are going to work every day and understand that the people that are before them, this is their day in court. And I truly believe – and I am sure there may be an exception that someone can raise – but when I look at the judiciary as a whole and I look at my colleagues, I do not see partisan politics or politics in general in play in in the judicial branch.”

That said, Clement had a particular distaste for party politics even before she joined the high court bench and even though she was a partisan actor as the chief counsel to Snyder.

Although she was appointed by the former Republican governor, Clement found herself in hot water with MIGOP delegates and activists when she was one of five justices who ruled that a ballot proposal changing the state’s redistricting process could go before voters.

That measure eventually passed in 2018 and created the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The body’s mission was to create fairer maps than the state had before by virtue of the process not being handled by the Legislature, but its work was mostly derided by Republicans who saw it as creating an advantage for the state’s Democrats.

The Democratic Party went on to gain a narrow majority in both the state House and Senate during the 2022 elections, the first year the new maps were in play.

Rewind to 2018, when Clement faced enormous pressure from outside Republican activist groups to rule against the proposal, which Clement labeled then as bullying and did not cave. That led to her being removed from election door hangers in certain targeted areas, with the hangers instead carrying information on the MIGOP’s other judicial candidates. She also received boos and jeers at the party’s nominating convention that year.

In retrospect, Clement said the process of the parties nominating candidates for Supreme Court justice and the Court of Appeals was flawed.

“I thought this before I went through it, but it was demonstrated to me in my experience. I think it’s an unfair system for the public to have to have your highest court nominated by a political party and then, immediately after that nomination, that that nominee becomes a candidate that is on the nonpartisan section of the ballot,” she said. “I have had conversations and thoughts what the what the better way is, but I’m not going to say the ‘right way’ because I don’t know that there’s a perfect solution to this.”

The Court of Appeals candidates run on the nonpartisan primary ballot. Nonincumbents must collect sufficient signatures from registered voters to gain ballot access. Incumbents can simply file an affidavit of candidacy.

Despite the 2018 anger among some Republicans, Clement was the top vote-getter among the justice candidates, proving her abilities as a strong candidate, and as a justice, the people wanted her returned to the bench.

“What that told me is that, because of my experience and because the media took an interest in what was going on with my campaign, I think people were informed and I think people said, ‘We do not want justices that are connected or beholden to partisan politics,” Clement added. “We want justices that make independent decisions based on how they read the law and leaving any of those other relationships or connections or past experiences out of that decision making. And I think the fact that I was successful in that election really speaks volumes of the people of the state of Michigan that saw through that.”

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