March 17, 2023 | This Week in Government: Advocates Cheer as Civil Rights Law ExpandedMarch 17, 2023
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.
‘Long Overdue:’ Advocates Cheer as Civil Rights Law Expanded
The mood was celebratory at a venue in Old Town, Lansing, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act with some of the fiercest advocates for the change by her side.
Whitmer signed SB 4 in the afternoon, joined by former Rep. Mel Larsen, one of the law’s namesakes, Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), Rep. Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield), Attorney General Dana Nessel, and others.
The new law will add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected classes under the state’s civil rights law, which blocks discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Although it does not take effect immediately, previous court decisions have determined the new categories to be protected classes, so they are covered currently.
Expanding the state’s civil rights law to include the LGBTQ community has been a long time coming. Advocates have been pushing for the change for decades. The change has broad support from Democrats and the business community. It has less support from Republicans, with just two voting yes in the Senate and eight voting yes in the House.
When the Legislature was under GOP control, members did not bring up the expansion despite the business community support. Some have said the expansion does not protect the religious community. To that, supporters have said religious institutions are strongly protected already by federal court decisions, the First Amendment and under ELCRA, as religion is a protected class.
“If you go back to the original intent of the civil rights act between Daisy and myself, the original intent was and still is that every citizen in Michigan has the right to be protected under the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Larsen said, referencing the late Rep. Daisy Elliott, the other half of the act’s namesake.
Larsen urged attendees to never forget Ms. Elliott, noting the first thing she did after getting elected was to ask for a Michigan civil rights law. She held onto it for five years until she found a Republican to co-sponsor – Larsen – and then they waited four more years before the law passed.
“It’s never an easy task,” he said. “For all of us sitting in this room, the best thing I can say to you is we are on this earth to move the pendulum a little bit in our lifetime.”
Moss said the moment was long overdue and too many suffered waiting for action.
“Turns out, they were waiting for us. They were waiting for a Legislature with the courage to stand up to hate and stand up for equality,” Moss said.
Nessel said after decades of advocacy, the LGBTQ community will see protections enshrined in state law. She thanked Moss, Hoskins, and the Legislature for making the legislation a priority.
“I am exceedingly grateful to at long last have a governor who doesn’t just quietly tolerate our community but lifts us up each and every day in large and small ways alike,” she said. “And she has done so since her very first day in office.”
Whitmer praised Larsen and Elliott and all the leaders who worked to bring the ELCRA expansion across the finish line, thanking them for fighting to make the expanded law a reality.
The new law, she said, ensures no one will be fired or evicted from their home because of who they are or who they love.
“Michigan is a state where we stand up for people’s fundamental freedoms. We’ve proved it over and over again these last few months,” she said. “Whether it’s your freedom to make your own decisions about your body. Your freedom to go to school or work without worrying about a mass shooting. Your freedom to be who you are, love who you love. Michigan will always, always fight to protect that freedom. To start a family, to be safe and to live in the state with respect and dignity.”
The governor said that in 2015 after marriage equality was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, former President Barack Obama said progress on the journey of equality comes in small increments.
“But sometimes, there are days where that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt,” she said. “In Michigan, we are making our own lightning.”
GOP Claims a Win as Legislature Passes Sales Tax Exemption Bills
House Republicans branded Thursday’s session “Republican results week,” following the passage of several bills that advanced some of the caucus’ priorities.
The House passed legislation that would add representation for the minority party to the Michigan Strategic Fund Board, exempt delivery and installation from sales tax and exempt industrial processing from sales tax.
“House Republican are leading our state forward and achieving much needed tax relief for the taxpayers of Michigan,” Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) said in a statement. “Overzealous state bureaucrats have unfairly tried to extract taxes that businesses never should have owed in the first place, and clarification will deliver fairness and cost savings to our small businesses and the countless customers they serve. A clearer, more affordable tax climate will make Michigan more competitive and attract businesses and high-paying careers to our state– so every Michigander can thrive.”
Many of the bills represent Republican priorities that were brought up during the negotiations to pass a supplemental package two weeks ago, which included $650 million for Ford’s electric battery facility in Marshall (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 1, 2023).
Jeremiah Ward, press secretary for Mr. Hall, called the legislation part of “Republican results week.”
“Republicans, even in the minority, are showing that they’re ready to work together and get things done for the people of Michigan,” he said.
The House passed HB 4219 in a vote of 93-10. The bill, sponsored by Hall, adds two members to the Michigan Strategic Fund Board which are chosen by the minority leaders of the House and the Senate, respectively. The board currently has 11 members. Of those, two are chosen by the majority leaders of the Legislature, and the rest are appointed by the governor.
HB 4039 and HB 4253 Track, sponsored by Rep. Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes) and Rep. Kevin Coleman (D-Westland), were also passed in a vote of 84-19 and 88,15, respectively. These bills exempt delivery and installation from sales tax. Versions of these bills were taken up last legislative session, but never made it across the finish line.
“I think we can all agree that delivery and installation are service, not products, and it’s time to let these products, and it’s time to lift these burdens and eliminate unnecessary costs,” Outman said during a speech on the floor.
Similarly, the House passed HB 4054 and HB 4055, sponsored by Rep. Greg VanWoerkom (R-Norton Shores) and Rep. Jamie Thompson (R-Brownstown Township). The bills would exempt industrial processing from sales and use tax. HB 4054 was passed in a vote of 80-23, and HB 4055 was passed in a vote of 81-22.
HB 4137, also sponsored by VanWoerkom, updates references to the Use Tax Act to reflect the changes proposed by House Bill 4253 and update certain other language.
The Senate also passed a version of delivery and installation legislation on Thursday.
In a trio of bipartisan votes, the Senate passed SB 158, SB 159, and SB 160 in a vote of 36-1.
The first two bills would amend the General Sales Tax Act and Use Tax Act, respectively to exempt certain delivery and installation prices of those charges. Under the final bill the governor’s yearly budget message to the Legislature on specific tax information would be modified to include a reference to the proposed changes in SB 159.
Substitutes for SB 158 and SB 159 were adopted prior to final passage.
Among the changes to the bills would add limited liability corporations to the definition of a person for the purposes of the bills and that the sales and use tax exemptions do not apply to the sale of electricity, natural gas, or artificial gas by utilities.
The ongoing audits by Treasury under the existing law would be cancelled as would the remaining balances owed by businesses to the department. A final change would make sure the School Aid Fund would be held harmless.
The House also passed HB 4045, which preserves access to the Michigan State Police background check following a change in federal law. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Schmaltz (R-Jackson), passed 96-7.
“We just want to make sure everybody’s protected, especially our children,” Schmaltz said.
Thursday’s session was an example of bipartisan cooperation, Schmaltz said.
“It was a good day. We actually got stuff done,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to get things done when you don’t talk to the other side. … I don’t care who’s in charge, if it’s good policy, you want to get it through.”
Senate Dems Move Gun Regulations They Say Will Save Lives
A trio of gun control policies long pushed by Democrats cleared the Senate on Thursday more than a month after a mass shooting at Michigan State University, with the new majority contending the expanded background checks, ability for a court to remove weapons from a person deemed a danger and safe storage requirements will prevent future deaths.
“The action the Michigan Senate took today will save lives,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said in a statement. “These bills are years in the making, waiting for the Legislature to finally have a gun violence prevention majority. That time is now. Today, I asked my Senate colleagues to summon the courage and heart that the students of MSU and Oxford were forced to have on those days when gun violence ripped through their communities. I’m proud that we answered the call and delivered for Michigan’s young people.”
Arguments by Senate Republicans over the legality and effectiveness of changes to firearms law proposed by their Democratic counterparts dominated a lengthy floor debate and series of votes Thursday to respond to gun violence in the state.
Democrats, with their narrow majority, ultimately won the day, passing an 11-bill slate of firearms bills that would expand background checks, put safe storage requirements for guns in place and enable the temporary removal of weapons from individuals that could be a danger to themselves or others.
Republicans sharply protested the measures before the chamber, questioning both the legality and effectiveness of such law changes.
Despite passage of the bills, Republicans delayed their enactment by denying immediate effect for each bill. Without immediate effect, bills take effect 91 days after the sine die adjournment of the Legislature for the year.
Prior to the vote, language that would have removed immunity for the firearms industry in lawsuits was eliminated from the package. That language was added last week and raised the ire of Republicans and opponents of the legislation (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 9, 2023).
The introduction and movement on the legislation came just over one month after the mass shooting at Michigan State University that left three students dead and five others injured (See Gongwer Michigan Report, Feb. 14, 2023).
For Democrats, Thursday’s votes were a significant step towards enacting stricter firearms laws that they said they believe will lead to a reduction in gun violence and suicides.
Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Keego Harbor) said the bills were “some of the most important legislation that we will ever have a chance to vote on,” in remarks prior to the votes.
“Today, we are finally going to do what the people of Michigan are overwhelmingly demanding that we do,” she said.
Bayer told reporters that the immunity language was removed from the package because the proposed language needs more work. She said the immunity issue is one the Democrats are likely to address as a standalone topic in legislation after they flesh it out further.
“I think we are going to move forward in that direction at some point, we just have to do the homework,” Bayer said.
Nine of the bills in the package (SB 76, SB 77, SB 78, SB 79, SB 80, SB 83, SB 84, SB 85, and SB 86) passed along party lines 20-17.
Two bills, SB 81 and SB 82, passed in a vote of 22-15, with Sen. Mark Huizenga of (R-Walker) and Sen. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) siding with the Democrats. The sale of firearm safety devices would be exempt from sales and use taxes under SB 81 and SB 82, respectively.
Prior to the votes, several Republican amendments were rejected, including multiple proposals to provide additional funding for school safety.
“This is a big problem, one that will require some serious investment,” Webber said after introducing an amendment that would have provided $1 billion in funding for public safety.
It included $800 million in safety grants for schools and $200 million for grants to county prosecutors to help reduce caseloads.
The amendment to SB 76 failed along party lines, as did one from Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), which would have provided $51 million to house individuals charged with gun crimes.
Albert spoke about the MSU shooter having pleaded down to a misdemeanor offense rather than being charged with a felony. He said the existing laws, if enforced, could prevent shootings like the one in East Lansing.
“What good does it do to have laws if they are not enforced?” Albert said. “The solution to reducing gun-related crimes must start with better enforcement of the laws we already have. We must end reckless plea deals and stop letting people commit gun crimes and avoid jail.”
Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township) introduced an amendment to SB 79 that would have provided $800 million in school safety funding. It failed along party lines.
Bayer said the amendment was unnecessary, as funding for school safety has been provided in recent years and those efforts will continue.
The remarks on funding not being necessary at this time later led to one of the sharper exchanges between the two parties.
Sen. Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe) attacked Democratic remarks about school security funding not being necessary.
“What world could we possibly be living in?” Bellino said. “We don’t think we need to invest more money in security? This is unconscionable.”
Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) condemned the remarks from Bellino and others, saying school safety funding will be dealt with during the current budget process for K-12 and higher education.
“I appreciate the theatrics, but the false outrage? Don’t do that,” Singh said. “We will be doing this, and you know that we’re going to be doing this.”
Self-defense and the empowerment of women also created a partisan divide.
Sen. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) said gun control “disempowers women” from the ability to defend themselves.
“I choose to protect my body with my firearm,” Hoitenga said. “It is a choice that we all should have, and it is a right that should be protected by law and not infringed upon by law.”
Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) countered her GOP colleague by pointing to statistics she said proved the effectiveness of red flag laws, adding that there are penalties in place for those who file a false report against someone.
“I think the greatest thing that we can do, in terms of empowering women when it comes to gun violence, is to make sure that we take the guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to them,” Chang said.
Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said if Republicans had their way “there would be no laws to enforce at all,” referencing support among some members of the GOP to do away with concealed weapon permits.
“These bills were never against responsible gun owners. These bills are against gun violence,” Moss said. “The bills in this package are some of the most popularly supported legislation we’ve introduced. … We are ready to enact these laws that the public demands and safe communities require. Every Michigander deserves to live without fear.”
Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) gave several examples of people who tried to prevent family members with problems from purchasing firearms due to concerns about their safety. In each case, the person ultimately obtained a firearm and someone was killed.
“Red flag laws create a preventative tool, a stopgap, for a loved one,” McMorrow said. “While it is difficult to measure events that did not happens, evidence shows that these extreme risk protection orders can and do save lives.”
Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) called the bill package a missed opportunity, pointing to the huge sums Democrats and the governor have poured into economic development projects this year compared to school safety.
“The stark differential between what the governor has proposed for corporate welfare and the amount she has spent for student safety is quite literally pennies on the dollar and an insult to our schools and our communities,” Theis said.
At one point, Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) sought to pick apart Republican arguments.
“We can’t promise in a free society that any particular law is going to be obeyed 100 percent of the time,” Irwin said, referencing murders, robberies, speed limits and seatbelt laws. “You don’t take that approach to literally any law. That’s why to people like me, it just sounds like an excuse for inaction.”
He added that in listening to residents, the Legislature is often blamed for inaction on preventing gun violence.
Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) asked members if they have listened to members of the public, whom she said have been begging for action on the issue.
“It is time to do our jobs,” McDonald Rivet said. “We have to get this done to protect the children and citizens in our state.”
Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said the opposition is not against the concepts behind the bills but specific details of the legislation and implementation. He added that his stance did not come from within a vacuum but from listening to his constituents and various groups.
“This state is very divided right now, and those who believe as I do may not be represented by the majority, but they are going to be represented,” McBroom said.
Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township) expressed disappointment in a statement following session, saying the proposed amendments for spending on school safety should have been approved.
“Our efforts need to be focused on efforts that can actually prevent gun violence. It cannot be doing something just to say we did something,” Nesbitt said. “In a world where we cannot predict when the next lost student or disturbed individual will target our children or our communities, it is essential that we work together on real solutions to better protect our schools and public spaces. We have to do better than the partisan bills passed today.”
Organizations supporting the firearms package issued statements praising the Senate’s votes on Thursday.
“It’s been just over a month since the MSU shooting. Classes have resumed. The news has quieted down. But for the students who lived through it, we’ve spent a month reliving it, we’re still on edge, ready to run for cover,” Saylor Reinders, president of the MSU Students Demand Action, said. “Right now, Michigan has a real opportunity to make meaningful change for generations of students and our leaders are heeding that call. Voters have done our jobs, and now, lawmakers must do theirs.”
Dylan Morris, executive director of No Future Without Today, a group founded after the Oxford High School shooting in 2021, was also pleased with the votes.
“After the shooting at Oxford High School, students and parents begged the politicians in Lansing to act, but they refused,” Morris said. “Today is different. Our senators worked hand-in-hand with students and advocates to pass these bills that will save hundreds of lives.”
Education Committee Considers School Ratings System
Members of the House Education Committee broadly agreed that transparency for school performance is important and that the current system leaves something to be desired, but the best way to communicate that information to parents was the question at the center of Tuesday’s hearings on HB 4166.
Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), along with others, gave testimony on his bill that would repeal Michigan’s controversial letter grading system for schools (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 6, 2023).
The system was put in place during the 2018 lame-duck session. Under the legislation, schools receive letter grades, A-F, based on student proficiency in math and English, student growth in math and English, student growth among English language learners, graduation rates and the school’s academic performance of the state assessment compared to similar schools.
The system does not meet federal guidelines, so it can’t be used as a standalone ranking of Michigan schools. Michigan also has a school index system that provides feedback on how schools are performing in different areas, but the letter grade system was introduced because some people felt it wasn’t sufficiently clear for parents.
“The issue is, when parents are looking for reports on their schools, whether it be the local schools or a different school, it’s often very confusing and very contradictory to have two competing systems,” Koleszar said.
Rep. Jaime Greene (R-Richmond) said she was concerned that if the state removed the letter grade system, people would no longer know the lowest performing schools.
Koleszar said that wasn’t the goal and that the state index system still held information about what schools needed support.
“We want to know who needs the most support,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re supporting those who need it the most.”
Rep. Brad Paquette (R-Niles) said he was concerned that the index system was difficult for parents to understand and that eliminating the letter grading system would make it harder to judge school quality when choosing a school.
“I’m all for is making sure that parents have information that’s easily accessible and easy to digest,” Koleszar said. “In the future, if you see ways of making the index system better, or another federally approved system that we could use instead, I’d be happy to have that conversation.”
Having two systems, one that is overly simple – the letter grades – and one that is overly complicated – the school index – makes things inherently confusing for parents, and Koleszar said the Department of Education had gotten a lot of feedback from parents about the disconnect.
“To say that one is helping the other is simply not true. They offer contradictory information and therefore create confusion,” he said.
Sue Carnell, chief deputy superintendent of the Department of Education, testified in support of repealing the letter grade system.
“The intent of A-F was to improve the national education ranking of Michigan. However, the reality is the state A-F accountability system is redundant, confusing and pales in comparison to the federally required school index system,” she said.
Greene said she was looking for an easier system for parents to understand how their school was performing.
“I think we’re all agreeing this doesn’t work,” she said. “(The index system) doesn’t work though, either. … As a parent looking at this, it’s not easy, and I wish there was a way that we could come together and find something that will hold schools accountable, that will help low performing schools and bring them up and, of course, also high performing schools. We want to move the goal post and make them better.”
Rep. Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte) said the index model was more comparable to how elementary school students are graded in that it provides detailed information about where schools are succeeding and where they are falling behind.
“We learn a lot more about what a child can do or cannot do with these standards,” Carnell said. “It is more specific. It is more targeted. You walk away saying, ‘This student can do this. This student can do that,’ versus, ‘They can do math.’”
The Department of Education also developed a parent dashboard to help interpret the school index system, which was launched in 2019.
The dashboard took a year to develop and was tested with parents, said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability for the Department of Education.
“The problem with our current system is that we have two systems, when we’re only federally mandated to have one,” said Rep. Dylan Wegela (D-Garden City) “Having parents have one place to go is much better.”
Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park) also noted that the letter grading system lacks information about how schools perform for students with individualized educational programs, which makes it less useful.
“We want to know that we’re bringing the right solutions for any low performing school, however we get to that point,” said. Rep. Gina Johnsen (R-Lake Odessa).
Dan Quisenberry with the Michigan Association of Public School Academies said that the organization is neutral on the bill, but that school accountability is important.
“We are more comfortable having an accountability system that’s in state statute because we need something that’s consistent, and that’s not happened in Michigan,” he said. “We’re neutral on the bill because there’s a lot of complicated moving parts.”
Brad Williams of the Detroit Regional Chamber testified in opposition to the bill because he said the letter grade system provided a useful, if imperfect, accountability system for parents.
“We should be working to improve our accountability system rather than disassembling it,” he said.
Koleszar clarified that removing the A-F system would not prevent the Legislature from working to make the current index system easier for parents to use.
Matt Schueller with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators testified in support of the bill.
“We are not opposed to accountability and transparency,” he said. “This law was born out of a misguided notion that you can shame schools into high performance.”
Officials from the Macomb ISD, Education Advocates of West Michigan, Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, Wayne RESA, Oakland Schools, and the Michigan Education Association all supported the bill.
Officials from the Michigan Council of Charter Schools Authorizers said they were neutral on the bill, and officials from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Great Lakes Education Project opposed the bill.
No action was taken on Tuesday to report the bill from committee.
House Panel Moves Strategic Fund Board Membership Bill to Floor
A bill to amend the Michigan Strategic Fund Act to allow the minority leaders from both chambers in the Legislature to appoint one member each to the MSF Board of Directors was unanimously reported Tuesday to the House floor.
Twelve of the 13 members of the House Economic Development and Small Businesses Committee voted in favor of reporting HB 4219, sponsored by House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township). Rep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) was not present for the vote.
Hall’s HB 4219 would add two members, appointed from a list of three nominees each submitted by the Senate Minority Leader and the House Minority Leader. The members appointed by the minority leaders would represent the private sector on the board.
The governor would appoint the new members by Dec. 31, 2023, under the bill and their terms would expire on Dec. 31, 2027.
Hall in brief testimony before the committee Tuesday said the change would help improve economic development decision in the state by further bolstering representation from both political caucuses.
“It’ll help these things move smoother in the future. It’ll help advise our caucuses and I think it’ll result in a more informed Legislature and better outcomes on these projects moving forward,” Hall said. “They probably should have done this a long time ago. It would have made sense, but I think it’ll help improve government. It’ll make the Strategic Fund work better and be more responsive to the legislators.”
Representatives asked few questions but Rep. Alabas Farhat (D-Dearborn) echoed Hall by saying that it would be good to have both the majority and minority boards like the MSF oversight body to ensure there’s a seat at the table for every working party at all levels of government.
Supporting the bill but not wishing to speak were members of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Detroit Regional Chamber.
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