Posted: August 28, 2023 12:23 AM
Governor Gretchen Whitmer will call next week for enabling any employee who wishes to take paid family and medical leave to do so and multiple proposals regarding clean energy, Gongwer News Service has learned.
Whitmer will deliver a speech Wednesday in Lansing to outline her fall legislative priorities. She is calling it her "What's Next" address. Besides paid family and medical leave and energy, Whitmer also is expected, sources said, to offer proposals on reproductive health. Gongwer first reported in May that backers of the legal right to an abortion were preparing legislation to change or repeal several laws restricting abortions like the requirement for minors to obtain parental consent for an abortion.
Other topics expected to be in the speech are prescription drug costs and elections.
Multiple sources, speaking on condition they not be named, said the governor is eyeing a paid family and medical leave proposal similar to what Minnesota enacted in May.
Under that proposal, nearly all employees are eligible to take paid leave, capped at 20 weeks a year, for either their own serious health condition or to care for another family member. In Minnesota, an employee can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for their own serious health condition and up to 12 weeks for parental leave, family care, safety or a qualifying exigency though in a single year the aggregate cannot exceed 20 weeks.
Under the Minnesota plan, employees do not receive their full wages. Instead, employees receive a percentage of their wages depending on how that compares to the state's average weekly wage with lower earners getting a larger percentage. Further, the wages are funded by employers and employees through a 0.7 percent premium, labeled a tax by critics, on income.
The Detroit News, citing unnamed sources, reported Thursday night the governor's plan to propose mandatory paid family and medical leave.
Whitmer Press Secretary Stacey LaRouche did not offer details on the specifics of what Whitmer would propose but shared a document that said surveys show paid family and medical leave is one of the top three policies people prioritize when considering where to relocate. Further the document said paid family and medical leave would particularly help women and potentially mean an additional 150,000 Michigan women entering the labor force.
"Getting this done" will help small businesses attract and retain workers, the document said, calling paid family and medical leave a "pro-family, pro-small business policy that will grow Michigan's population and economy."
LaRouche said the speech would build on work already done this year to "lower costs, make Michigan more competitive, improve energy efficiency, expand opportunity and protect people's fundamental rights. (The governor) looks forward to sharing more next week."
There are already bills in the Senate and the House to require paid family leave (SB 332, SB 333, HB 4574, HB 4575). These were introduced in May and have yet to receive a hearing. The bills, which appear similar in both houses, differ from the Minnesota law in some key ways. They allow for up to 15 weeks of leave and initially leave the size of the premium to the discretion of the state treasurer with the treasurer then setting a premium in 2027 sufficient to generate 135 percent of the benefits paid out in the preceding fiscal year.
There could be exemptions for those employers that already provide for paid family and medical leave. It's also unclear if it would cover all employers or if there would be an exemptions for small ones.
Minnesota used its general fund to get its program started. It's not yet clear if Whitmer's proposal would follow a similar track.
Business groups are voicing early alarm at the reports of Whitmer planning to offer a proposal on paid family and medical leave.
"We urge Governor Whitmer and legislative leaders to move cautiously on new tax burdens and regulatory mandates to consider the real-world impact on manufacturers, who continue to battle the headwinds of labor shortages, ongoing economic uncertainty and supply chain difficulties, and their workers who continue to struggle with persistent inflation," said Dave Worthams, director of employment policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association. "Imposing new operational mandates and payroll taxes will destabilize our economy and reverse recent gains made in job creation and capital investment."
MAJOR PROPOSALS COMING ON ENERGY: The other proposals on which sources said Whitmer would seek legislative passage this year involve clean energy and climate issues. Senate Democrats have introduced and are planning action on a large package of bills that includes requiring utilities to generate all electricity from renewable sources compared to the current 15 percent standard.
Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist recently threw his support behind a 100 percent clean energy standard, so the governor's call for the same measure is not a big surprise. A document LaRouche shared regarding clean energy said the governor will back enacting a 100 percent standard.
The other major legislation Whitmer will back, sources said, is legislation moving siting decisions for wind and solar energy to the state Public Service Commission and away from local governments.
Battles over wind and solar energy facilities have raged in townships across the state for years, sometimes even going up for public votes for voters to decide.
The document from the Whitmer administration says the governor will support empowering the PSC with "more tools" and authorize it to incorporate climate and equity into regulatory decisions. Additionally, the document backs the streamlining of permitting for clean energy projects through the PSC "to move faster, create more jobs and get shovels into the ground."
House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) has been working with stakeholders to draft legislation that as currently drafted would call for moving siting decisions on facilities generating 100 or more megawatts from local governments to the Public Service Commission, putting siting decisions for large facilities in the hands of the state. Those facilities generating less than 100 megawatts would remain in the purview of local governments.
Aiyash said Friday he is still working with stakeholders, and the 100 megawatt threshold could change prior to introduction. The goal is to create a standard process but still give communities input, he said.
"If we are serious about meeting our clean energy goals and our climate resiliency standards, we need to think about the most efficient and equitable way to invest in these projects. There's a way to address these challenges where we are creating jobs and becoming the clean energy leader in the country as well as ensuring communities are not left behind or taken advantage of in the process," he said. "We just want to make sure what is the best approach that the process is not bogged down by unfounded claims about what a clean energy future would do."
Laura Sherman, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, said the PSC has the needed expertise in the subject matter, Sherman said.
"That will make sure that the best projects move forward and benefit those local communities, benefit the entire state, make sure that we're able to meet our electricity needs in a cost effective manner while avoiding some of the really contentious local fights that end up pitting neighbors against neighbors and outside groups versus local officials," she said.
The proposal is drawing opposition, however, from the Michigan Townships Association.
Judy Allen of the Michigan Townships Association said township officials are not against renewables and many townships have multiple renewable facilities in their jurisdictions.
The question Allen asked is why it is necessary to preempt local governments on the issue. She said Aiyash reached out to the association, and they have had a couple conversations but more are needed.
A preemption would mean no role for local government in the decision-making process, Allen said.
"We'd like to know what the identified problem is. One size doesn't fit all," she said. "If there are some areas of the state that have said no, let's look at those and address those versus putting everybody under the same umbrella."
Posted: July 17, 2023 4:38 PM
The K-12 school aid budget for the upcoming fiscal year approved last week by the Legislature contains an unprecedented blitz of funding earmarks for school district-specific projects, initiatives managed by entities other than local school districts and other programming outside of basic school operations.
Democrats, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer, during the era of Republican control would often slam this type of funding and urge it instead be placed in the foundation allowance that each district receives per pupil for operations or be used to weight funding to districts to account for their numbers of special education, at-risk and English language learning students.
Instead, the first all-Democratic government in 40 years, combined with the previous Republican Legislature leaving billions in unspent one-time surplus revenues unused last year, produced an avalanche of spending on items like school pools, new school buildings, funds for career and technical centers and a slew of nonprofits doing work in the education space.
Some of the School Aid Fund surplus also went outside of K-12 for projects: $30 million was appropriated to Michigan State University for an engineering and digital innovation center, for example.
In total, a Gongwer News Service analysis of the education omnibus budget (SB 173) showed $335.4 million in School Aid Fund monies spent on 77 different earmarked items not generally designed to be available to most or all K-12 school districts. If those funds were placed into the foundation allowance, it would translate to another $241 per pupil.
Of course, there was great concern about building one-time money into ongoing programming, which the foundation allowance is, creating an unsustainable ongoing budget.
SB 173 has not yet been enrolled and presented to the governor. Once presented, Whitmer will have 14 days to sign it and issue any line-item vetoes. While line-item vetoes are possible, they would seem far less likely than they were from 2019-22, when Republicans led the budget process in the Legislature.
"We are still in the reviewing stage, and it would be preliminary to discuss what may or not be vetoed at this point," said Lauren Leeds, spokesperson for the State Budget Office, when asked about the possibility of line-item vetoes and the unseen number of individual earmarks in the budget.
An email Whitmer sent out Friday about the K-12 budget focused the more overall investments in the budget like expanding the Great Start Readiness Program, opening up free breakfast and lunch to all public school students, a new high in per pupil funding and more money for mental health and growing the teacher workforce. It did not mention the earmarked funds.
"Our goal is to help anyone 'make it' in Michigan by investing in education at every level, bringing home good-paying jobs, and making communities across our state more attractive places to live and work," the governor said.
Another aspect of the final version of the bill is the volume of projects and money that materialized for the first time during the conference committee process. Of the $335.4 million in total funding tracked by Gongwer, $96.35 million appeared for the first time at a conference committee. It was not proposed by the governor, nor did the House or Senate pass the funds in their originated budgets.
In fact, in a handful of cases, the governor had proposed eliminating all prior year funding for the program, and the House and Senate concurred, meaning the proverbial corpse winked back to life at conference.
Leaders of various public school groups voiced some surprise at the scope of the earmarked funds but did not criticize the spending.
"A lot of it was a surprise to all of us looking through it but I think what you're seeing is this is the first time the Democrats have the pen in terms of writing the budget. This is the first time they've been able to directly deliver some of these dollars to their own districts. They wanted to do that," said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which represents superintendents in Genesee, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties. "I think this is probably a one-off in terms of a budget. We're not going to have these one-time, free to spend on whatever (dollars) in the budget next year. We're looking at this as a one time event and particularly the Democrats having control for the first time on where those dollars (go), I get it. I understand what their rationale was."
Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, which represents 28 largely urban and inner ring suburban school districts, also pointed to pent-up priorities among Democratic lawmakers now in the majority and the one-time nature of the funds.
"This does not solve our long-term problem or need when it comes to an ongoing stream of revenue, but it does help address some of the greatest needs in communities across the state," he said. "However, we are going to continue to advocate for new revenues to ensure that the ongoing expenses like the opportunity index and special ed funding can continue to be a reality and grow to serve our students with the greatest needs."
Asked if the spending concerned him, Spadafore said his biggest concern was the continued use of the School Aid Fund to prop up budgets that once were mainly funded with the General Fund and not the School Aid Fund.
He did not name the budgets, but they are the ones for higher education and community colleges.
"It's something that three administrations have done," stating that former Governors Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder also turned to the School Aid Fund to support those two budgets prior to Whitmer. "We've advocated against. We'll continue to speak out, but we might be losing this battle."
Another positive, Spadafore said, is the budget was done before the July 1 deadline.
School districts have long pleaded with the Legislature and governor to complete at least the K-12 budget before July 1 since school districts run on July 1-June 30 fiscal years.
"And we have finally seen what I call aspirational funding levels toward a weighted foundation allowance," he said of the first real effort to more robustly fund those districts with greater numbers of special education, at risk and English language learner students. "This budget is the first one that puts pen to paper on that concept."
Among some of the specific infrastructure earmarks:
And among some of the programming earmarks:
A complete list of the programs identified by Gongwer is available.
There were a couple of surprises considering the Democratic takeover in January.
The final budget preserved $1 million for nonpublic schools to reimburse them for the costs of complying with health, safety and welfare state requirements. Public schools lost a challenge in court during the Snyder administration to that funding, and Whitmer again sought to eliminate it in her budget. The House also omitted it from its original budget, but the Senate kept current-year funding intact.
Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools, said he is as confident as he can be the funding will survive the signing/veto process. He praised Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township), chair of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, for quickly restoring the funds.
"I think it's kind of a recognition that the nonpublic schools have expenses that are not covered by state funding with regard to health and safety mandates placed on them," he said. "We were pleased that the Senate put it in, and I don't anticipate it would be line-item vetoed by the governor. It wasn't last year anyway."
Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said the Democratic-led budget was hypocritical.
Last year, Whitmer vetoed a Republican-backed program, backed by GLEP and Betsy DeVos, who founded GLEP, to set up scholarships mainly for nonpublic school students to use, with an accompanying tax credit for donors to scholarship funds.
Democrats castigated the program as ripping away money from public schools, though as an income tax credit it would have put more pressure on General Fund programming, not the School Aid Fund.
Still, DeShone said Democrats siphoned away hundreds of millions from school operations with their budget.
"School dollars should be spent on our kids, not lining the pockets of Democrats' campaign donors," she said. "Let's cut through all of the caucus messaging. The same politicians who said we couldn't afford reading scholarships for kids the governor locked out of the classroom quietly turned around and spent that education cash – by the hundreds of millions of dollars – to do favors for the donors and activists that helped get them elected. That's the kind of politics that kills trust in our institutions but worse than that they've slapped away the hands of struggling kids who've been reaching for a lifeline."
McCann said going forward, this style of budget is not what the School Finance Research Collaborative would recommend because there are winners and losers.
That said, McCann said the money is going to good use and spread across the state.
"It's all going to public education," he said. "For a first-year budget and particularly a budget that's still spending a lot of one-time money, it is what it is. I don't have any real critique of it in that sense."
Posted: May 15, 2023 11:45 AM
The threat of a request to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over the persistent Benton Harbor lead in drinking water problem from state government prompted the state to shift from having the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy manage the situation to multiple departments, the governor's staff and eventually the governor herself.
Gongwer News Service obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act covering the time period leading up to and just after the Benton Harbor water crisis publicly intensified and conducted subsequent interviews. While EGLE was working on the problem going all the way back to late 2018 during the administration of Governor Rick Snyder, the threat of a petition to the EPA and the resulting news media coverage was followed by a significant escalation in the state's response and eventual personal involvement of Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
The pace and substance of the state's response appeared to pivot on August 6, 2021.
On that date, Kara Cook, Governor Gretchen Whitmer's policy advisor on energy and the environment, wrote Aaron Keatley, chief deputy director of EGLE, a short, 14-word email with the subject line, "Benton Harbor."
It said, "Please provide a list of what we're doing to respond to issues in BH."
Cook's email did not delve into further detail, but her inquiry was regarding the persistent problems with lead levels in the city of Benton Harbor's drinking water supply exceeding the federal threshold requiring remediation.
With that, a new crisis would hit the Whitmer administration, now halfway into its third year and having already had to confront COVID-19, the Midland flood, civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd and more. And it was one that had uncomfortable similarity – but also some significant differences – from the Flint water crisis that defined the second term of Snyder, her predecessor.
Unlike Flint, where an emergency manager appointed by Snyder made the decision to switch the city's water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River, which precipitated rising lead levels because the city at the state's direction did not add corrosion control treatment, the origin of the lead in water problem in Benton Harbor was more of a mystery. Benton Harbor draws its water from Lake Michigan, considered one of the best drinking water sources in the world.
But like Flint, Benton Harbor is an older city rife with lead service lines and a lack of resources to maintain its water system. And like Flint, Benton Harbor is a lower-income majority Black city, which made the parallels problematic for Whitmer that she, like Snyder, could be subjected to criticism of not helping a minority-majority community.
Whitmer, on the eve of a reelection campaign, would face questions about why a department she oversees had not done more to rectify Benton Harbor's water problems, particularly considering the measures she instituted shortly after taking office designed to assure public health and safety matters rose to the highest levels of the government. The city's water had exceeded the federal action level on lead of 15 parts per billion since 2018.
Eventually, Whitmer and the Legislature would agree to spend tens of millions to replace all lead service lines in the city. Nearly two years later, all but 0.3 percent of lines have been replaced and the city's lead level has been below the federal action level since the start of 2022.
Only 14 total lead lines have yet to be replaced, largely because of property owners refusing access to their property or communications. As of this week, 4,499 out of 4,513 assumed lead service lines were replaced.
The most recent six-month monitoring period, from July 1 through December 31, 2022, showed a 90th percentile in the city of 9 parts per billion in lead across sampling locations, using a sampling standard tougher than federal rules, meaning 90 percent of the test results were at or below 9 ppb.
In 2018, Benton Harbor was at 22 ppb, then it rose to 27 ppb in the first half of 2019 and 32 ppb in the second half of 2019. The readings dropped to 23 in the first half of 2020 before ticking up to 24 in the second half of 2020 and holding there in the first half of 2021. By June 2021, not only had lead levels not dropped from their initial 22 ppb three years earlier, but the range had exploded. The first three monitoring periods had maximum samples of 60, 59 and 72 ppb, respectively. But the next three had maximums of 440, 240 and 889.
Today, the Whitmer administration can point to the millions spent and elimination of lead lines as evidence of success in Benton Harbor, and the city's mayor has long praised the administration's efforts. For several months in 2021, however, there was no shortage of questions about why it appeared to take an outside coalition of groups and its threat to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over management of the city's water to move the governor and her administration into high gear.
Similar to the Flint situation, the state has been hit with multiple lawsuits regarding its handling of Benton Harbor water. The Flint cases eventually led to a more than $600 million settlement. The state's motion to dismiss the Benton Harbor water cases is pending at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.
To gain insight into how the Whitmer administration responded to the Benton Harbor crisis, Gongwer News Service requested communications from and to all EGLE employees from July 1 through October 22, 2021, regarding the use of bottled water in Benton Harbor as a result of lead in the city's water. EGLE cited more than 400 hours of labor required to retrieve and process the information and estimated a total cost of $14,313.
In response, Gongwer limited its request to communications on the topic between high-level EGLE employees or others working on the issue.
This time, EGLE waived any fee.
The documents provided contain nothing between July 1 and Cook's email on August 6.
THE INITIAL RESPONSE: Keatley's response to Cook's email came five days after the initial August 6 email. He attached a document that was not included in the documents EGLE provided to Gongwer. He cc'd then-EGLE Director Liesl Clark.
"See attached. We can discuss if needed. I am familiar with some, but not all of these activities," he said.
Six days later, Cook wrote Keatley, who is now the acting director at EGLE. She also sent the message to Melanie Brown, then deputy chief of staff to Whitmer. Clark was cc'd.
Cook alerted the email's recipients that residents, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center were going to file a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency within the next few weeks asking for "remedies that were in place in Flint like filters, bottled water, etc.
"Is there more you or DHHS can do here, especially on communications around filters? We should find time to talk," she wrote.
The realization of an imminent request for the EPA to intervene appeared to escalate the response from the departmental level into the Executive Office. Until that point, the situation was handled within EGLE.
Clark, who was director of EGLE at that time, told Gongwer in an interview last year when she was still director that she has notes on Benton Harbor going back to when she began as director in January 2019. Clark left the administration late last year. Keatley was just named acting director after the previous acting director moved to a new job outside the government.
"It was early on, regular conversation, so it's been on the radar the whole time," she said. "It's absolutely a community that we've been concerned about and paying attention to."
But Nick Leonard, executive director of the Detroit-based Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and the one heading up the petition to the EPA, said the department's approach was not working and did not address how to protect public health while lead levels were still high.
Groups sent their first letter to EGLE in the fall of 2019, expressing concerns about the department's now year-long response, that actions taken would not bring lead levels down. They offered some recommendations to department staff.
"I remember more or less what EGLE told us is, 'No, we see evidence that it's working. We see evidence that it's bringing lead levels down right now,'" he said.
Understanding that bringing down lead levels in water takes many months or longer, groups monitoring the situation decided to give EGLE time and space to show they had the situation in hand.
But by the summer of 2021, lead levels, far from coming down in the first half of the year, had actually hit some of the highest numbers since the crisis began, Leonard said.
"It just sort of ramped up the sense of urgency and gave validation to the concerns we raised in our 2019 letter of 'Hey, what you're doing isn't going to work quickly enough.' And I think it also made people feel EGLE wasn't being truthful with us," he said.
The center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request early in the summer of 2021 for departmental communications from 2018 to the present day to see what department staff were saying about Benton Harbor water. EGLE staff seemed to have some doubts about the strategy, Leonard said. Further, EGLE continued to allow the city of Benton Harbor to go past deadlines for a new water study to determine the optimal treatment for the water.
"What we saw was basically EGLE not really pushing Benton Harbor along in that respect and really allowing the city to drag its feet as a result and this crisis to go on longer than it should have and not really providing the wrap-around health services we felt were urgently needed," he said.
Groups started to push for quicker replacement of lead service lines and free bottled water.
They were in communication with EGLE. Groups started to push for quicker replacement of lead service lines and free bottled water. When it was determined the city's water study could take another 18-24 months, "It became clear we have to do something else," Leonard said.
The center began preparing its petition to the EPA at the end of July or early August.
Keatley said Benton Harbor did not use corrosion control treatment because it is not required unless there is a lead exceedance. Once that occurred, corrosion control treatment was ordered.
"That takes time for the chemicals to kick in," he said.
As to when a matter staff is addressing rises to his level, Keatley said last year he is responsible for working with six programs that handle inspections, compliance and oversight of facilities in the state and meets with division directors weekly. When a significant issue arises – drinking water, a hazardous waste site, something at that level – he is told.
Once Keatley is involved as the chief deputy director, he would then make a decision on when to inform the director.
"We don't like it here, like you can imagine, being in a situation where we get surprised by things," he said in the interview.
Clark said last year she spoke with the governor's office all the time and would keep staff aware. Starting in 2019, there were check-ins every six months on what communities exceeded the federal action level on lead and which ones were likely to be added to the list and how state government could help those communities.
In an email, Cook said of the list of actions EGLE had taken in Benton Harbor, which was not included in the documents Gongwer received: "This list isn't something I could share externally, right?"
"Prefer not without cleaning it up," Clark responded in an email.
Clark then wrote Keatley on August 26 to see who should put together a document that could be used outside of government.
Keatley said technical materials probably could be shared publicly.
"They are alI a matter of record - but (the) way he described some of the actions may need to be tweaked so it doesn't create unnecessary emotions," he wrote back.
Keatley in an interview last year said he could not recall the specifics that led him to write that sentence.
"We try as hard as we can to make sure that it's factually based, that we've got scientific defensibility behind the statements we make and that they are informative," he said. "And so if there's excess narrative that's not constructive or that doesn't promote that particular value that we have as an agency, then we want to make sure that we address that and get back to the bare bones of what we need to be communicated."
He also said the communication went beyond emails.
"I could see where if you look just at the emails it gets a little confusing in terms of who's responsible for what because everybody involved in this thing whether it's EPA, DHHS, ourselves, governor's office, staff up and down the line of all programs, everybody cares," he said. "We all want to do the right thing and we all want to have input."
THE PETITION TO EPA: On August 19, Cook wrote Clark, Keatley, Melanie Brown and included a few others to alert them the coalition would send the petition to the EPA on August 27. She said it sounded like The Detroit News and the Guardian were planning news stories. She suggested the group find time to talk. The petition eventually would be submitted September 9.
That discussion took place August 23.
Leonard said the hope was the specter of a request to the EPA to take control of the situation would prompt the Whitmer administration to move aggressively. Maybe a petition submission ultimately would not be needed.
Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, contacted Cook, the governor's environmental policy advisor, to give a heads up about the planned petition, Leonard said.
The Whitmer administration did not make Cook available for an interview. Whitmer Communications Director Bobby Leddy, when asked about what led up to Cook's August 6 email to Keatley and any contact from the future petitioners, said part of Cook's job is to communicate with stakeholders in the environmental community.
Roper declined to be interviewed. NRDC spokesperson Margie Kelly said in a statement that the organization would not discuss private conversations with government officials other than to say the organization "used every lever available to us to advocate to solve the Benton Harbor water crisis."
At the time and prior to the funding for expedited lead line removal, Roper was highly critical of the Whitmer administration's handling of Benton Harbor water. Almost two years later, Kelly was more supportive.
"Once the petition was filed and the governor's office took over day-to-day operations, the state moved swiftly to replace the lead lines and deliver bottled water," Kelly said. "The governor ordered a whole-of-government approach to ensuring safe water for Benton Harbor residents and issued an executive directive to provide bottled water to residents as the city's lead pipes were replaced on an expedited timeline."
Leonard said the initial response from the Whitmer administration was lukewarm.
At first, the proposal from the administration was replacement of all lead lines in the city in five years, and there was no bottled water commitment. The groups wanted to use the Flint water crisis as a model of how to respond, Leonard said.
"We were seeing a lot of missing pieces," he said.
On September 5, Cook wrote Clark, Keatley and EGLE Senior Deputy Director Amy Epkey to thank them for their efforts. She said an announcement was close on initial investment in lead service line removal and actions to help protect Benton Harbor residents while lead service lines are removed. She asked for feedback on a "broad overview of what I've proposed to my team for an announcement for Tuesday and my list of to-dos that I'll need your team's help with." That document was shown as attached to the email.
The document was not included in what Gongwer received. The next page of the documents after the email said, "Record withheld for privilege."
Cook also asked if the EGLE leadership would be comfortable sharing the materials with Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel and another employee "for their awareness and comments and well." Epkey said she supported sharing it in a response as did Clark.
Cook then asked the EGLE team if there was a timeline that could be set for lead service line removal for the city, if an expedited schedule was possible such as one year.
EPA ASKS QUESTIONS, AND DHHS/GOVERNOR ORDER BOTTLED WATER FOR CITY: Whitmer announced on September 8 a recommendation to spend $200 million statewide removing lead service lines, including $20 million for Benton Harbor. This was one day before the filing of the petition with the EPA.
Four days after the groups filed the petition, Tera Fong, director of the Water Division for EPA Region 5, which oversees Michigan, contacted Eric Oswald, director of EGLE's Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, to ask for EGLE's "assistance in collecting additional information on the water filter program that the state sought to establish in Benton Harbor."
Fong asked for direction from EGLE or documents describing the scope and requirements of the program, educational materials for the program, any assessments of the program so far and any additional feedback about challenges EGLE has faced with the program.
Fong closed with a sense of urgency.
"Given the potential health implications, we would appreciate your prompt response and sharing of any existing and readily available materials as soon as you are able. If needed for expediency, especially to avoid having to take time to create new materials for #4, I'd be happy to schedule some time to discuss as well," she said.
Oswald forwarded the message to Kory Groetsch at the DHHS and George Krisztian at EGLE asking them to work up a response to EPA within a day. He cc'd Keatley, who wrote back asking him to run a draft response by him before sending it to the EPA.
On September 20, Jeff Lippert of the EPA emailed Regina Strong, the state's environmental justice public advocate, to ask if EGLE had an estimate of what it would cost to supply bottled water to Benton Harbor. It's unclear what the outcome was of that message, other than that Strong asked for more specifics.
However, later that day, Orlando Todd of DHHS wrote Strong as well as Kris Schoenow, executive director of the Bureau of Community Action and Economic Opportunity in DHHS.
"I just spoke to Director Hertel and she stated the Governor's Office would like to make bottled water available to Benton Harbor Residents (more information forthcoming)," Todd wrote. "Kris, Director Hertel asked if the community agencies would be able to assist with distribution. I told her based on one of our previous conversations, I believe that is possible considering the community agencies were involved in Benton Harbor's water distribution in the past. Regina she asked me to let you know, you will more than likely be hearing from the Governor's office regarding this matter."
Strong was ecstatic, calling it "fabulous news."
Hertel, in an interview last year, asked when DHHS and she got involved, recalled the concerns raised by the groups behind the petition to the EPA about some of the drinking water sample test results. There were some outlier samples with high results, and those concerned her and DHHS, Hertel said.
Filters generally work but a couple of the lead samples were significantly higher than what the filters were rated to handle, she said.
"That caused enough concern to say, 'Listen, we're still in progress, Benton Harbor's still in the process of working toward this, they're making progress, but in the short term as we continue to see if the water quality is improving, we should make bottled water available to people so they can ensure that the water is meeting these water quality standards,'" she said.
The day after Hertel informed others that the governor's office would assure bottled water delivery, Alexis Travis, senior deputy director for Public Health Administration in DHHS, wrote Epkey regarding plans for bottled water distribution in Benton Harbor. She had a number of questions on who would pay, the duration of bottled water availability, quantity of water per household and more. Epkey said EGLE had the funding to pay for the first $121,000 and that the initial purchase would last two weeks with further details on the duration to be worked out.
The initial two-week plan concerned organizations behind the petition.
Clark's notes regarding a September 22 EPA meeting with the petitioners and EGLE showed that Cyndi Roper of the Natural Resources Defense Council questioned the state's plan to end emergency water on October 8 given the EPA's commitment to emergency water distribution until everyone was sure filters were working.
TENSION IN ADMINISTRATION AMID BOTTLED WATER GLITCHES: Late on October 4, Diane Tooman, director of agency operations, reporting to Chief Operating Officer Tricia Foster in the governor's office, wrote several top officials, including Clark, Hertel, Treasurer Rachael Eubanks and then-Department of Technology, Management and Budget Director Brom Stibitz to say that a water delivery truck did not arrive in Benton Harbor that morning as scheduled.
Foster wrote the next day that "it seems we still have a water delivery problem through the EGLE contract – missed at least two delivery times now." Foster said alternatives needed to be determined as soon as possible. Michelle Lange, now the DTMB director, said DTMB had taken over as backup on water delivery. Epkey followed up with detailed plans for water distribution in past and upcoming days.
On October 5, Clark raised the question of how long water distribution would continue in an email to Epkey and Foster.
"My understanding is that water distribution will continue until we have the filter study. We don't have a timeline to know when the study will be done, expect that tomorrow," she said.
On October 6 came the news that DHHS was advising Benton Harbor residents to use bottled water for drinking and making formula, not tap water. At 12:36 p.m., Strong, the environmental justice advocate, wrote various interested parties about the recommendation and invited them to a special meeting of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.
Sylvia Orduno of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center replied that two hours notice was "completely unreasonable and irresponsible, especially to discuss a public statement that surely was not drafted in the last 24 hours. A respectful and sensible invitation would have provided this Advisory Council with more notification, along with invitations to residents of Benton Harbor and the petitioners to respond and provide additional context for the emergency petition to EPA on EGLE's failings."
The meeting did take place via Microsoft Teams, however.
Based on a document that looked like the minutes of the meeting, Clark provided an overview of past and present EGLE actions. Hertel explained the decision to provide bottled water. The document said, "given some of the circumstances in test results in Newark and evaluations over the last year, DHHS has determined residents in Benton Harbor should not ingest their tap water."
She also said residents should understand that the state cannot guarantee that filters could remove some of the levels of lead coming out of faucets in the city.
Hertel, in an interview, asked if the state should have started bottled water sooner said it was hard to say when the right time would have been. She noted that the truly large outlier lead results that raised concerns about filter adequacy did not show up until the summer of 2021.
"We made the decision that we made because of the data that we were seeing at the time," she said. "Was that the right time or wrong time? I couldn't tell you."
The state overall demonstrated quick action in Benton Harbor, Hertel said.
David Knezek, DHHS chief deputy director for administration, explained that EGLE was in charge of bottled water until October 8 at which point DHHS would begin handling it.
One of the immediate problems was staffing the water distribution sites. On October 7, Epkey said EGLE staff was on site and helping. They reported the "line of cars was extremely long before 4, and WOOD TV 8 is on site."
Foster indicated the lines were unacceptable.
"How can we rectify promptly and get water into the neighborhoods? Ming?" she said.
"Ming" was a reference to the Michigan National Guard.
Knezek said the Guard could help, possibly reaching every door in the community in one day with 60 members of the Guard. He went over a variety of efforts to address the lines and offered to make a call to help get the Guard in place next week.
Clark raised a concern, however. "I'm very hesitant about the optics on MING," she said. She did not offer further details, and the topic of the guard did not come up in any other emails.
Epkey warned that having EGLE staff continue to distribute water was not sustainable.
Clark in her interview last year was asked about her hesitancy in deploying the Guard.
She said she had heard from community members and advisory groups that "there is a real hesitancy in our communities of color to having the National Guard knocking on doors and handing out water and so I wanted to make sure I lifted up what I had heard in conversations with community members."
'WHOLE OF GOVERNMENT RESPONSE': It was clear from the emails that multiple officials from the governor's office were now involved in the response. DHHS was sending a daily report to the governor's office on behalf of all agencies. If prior to Cook's first email Benton Harbor was purely an EGLE matter, that was no longer the case.
On October 14, Whitmer announced the city would have indefinite access to free bottled water and free or low-cost services like drinking water testing and health care as the state accelerated replacement of lead service lines in the city.
At the time, activists who had sharply criticized EGLE's handling of Benton Harbor water welcomed the moves announced that day but made clear the actions should have happened long ago.
"It is long overdue," Roper of the NRDC said in an interview at the time. "There is no scenario where the community should have gone three years drinking high levels of lead while the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy department was tweaking chemicals going into the drinking water and not doing everything in its powers to educate residents and to ensure that they had a safe source of drinking water. Clearly the water was causing lead to be released into the drinking water."
To the question of how EGLE could have moved faster, Clark in her interview said the issue was about lead service line removal.
"We really felt like this community had been under an action level exceedance for an extended amount of time. The best answer is get rid of the lead service lines," she said.
As to how much the petition from the groups to the EPA galvanized EGLE's decision-making, Clark said: "The petition, I think, focused attention. That's how I would describe it. Upon that filing, it really focused attention."
If the petition did not galvanize the all-out response groups had sought, it did produce something in early October that did, Leonard said.
The petition got the attention of the governor's office and generated a wave of local news coverage, Leonard said. That in turn led to an eruption of national publicity in the first two weeks of October – The New York Times, CBS, ABC, National Public Radio, The Washington Post and more all covered what was happening in Benton Harbor.
It was during these first two weeks of October when the Whitmer administration urged residents not to drink the water, pledged to make bottled water available indefinitely and Whitmer got more personally and visibly involved by issuing an executive directive on October 14 directing a "whole of government response." It was also on October 14 when Whitmer sped up the timeline for 100 percent lead line replacement to 18 months, and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist visited the city to discuss the administration's plan. Whitmer made a surprise visit to the city October 19 for the first time to address the crisis personally.
"It was shortly after (the national media coverage) that the governor came out more directly. We really started to see the things we wanted to see," Leonard said. "The petition sort of got us a little way there. But then the petition led to the media coverage, which really pushed it across the finish line."
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the focus on Whitmer's response and that of EGLE's handling has been both unfair and inaccurate. EGLE, and its predecessor Department of Environmental Quality, had been working the problem all the way back to 2018, he said.
"I think that the narrative is skewed in some respects because it began with 'nothing is being done' – which I challenge," he said. "This wasn't something the governor created. It was inherited. We were engaged with the DEQ before her."
THE EPA, STATE EXCHANGES: The exchanges between EPA and EGLE were a mix. It was apparent that the potential for the EPA to exert authority worried EGLE, yet there were also clear indications that each agency ran potential public statements by the other so as not to catch the other off-guard.
On October 15, Hertel wrote Elizabeth Cisar of the EPA, with Clark and Knezek cc'd, to thank her for a discussion and presentation on October 14 and said she looked forward to working more closely with the EPA on the Benton Harbor response. Cisar responded, thanking her for taking the time to meet with EPA staff.
"I look forward to continuing to be in close communication with you and LiesI. I think that will be critical to our ability to respond effectively in Benton Harbor," she said.
Hertel said she did not know when asked if the EPA's involvement drove the state's actions in any way. However, she also said the EPA had long been involved.
"From where I sit, I feel like EPA is very involved in everything and had been up until then as well," she said. "So it didn't feel to me like a situation where all of a sudden EPA stepped in. I think all of these issues are a partnership from the very beginning."
Keatley in an interview described the EPA's role as "extremely limited" in Benton Harbor. The EPA has no jurisdiction on alternative water supplies, he noted, only to assure EGLE implements the Safe Drinking Water Act with the ability to do so themselves. Even then, Keatley said the criteria for EPA to take over were never met, he said. EPA never did assume control.
"In fact, we invited them to come in and be a participant because we wanted to take advantage of their expertise, their opinions, their processes and bring them in as partners, so that worked out well for us. So you'll see a lot of trails between them about things like bottled water and filters and stuff like that," he said. "Their role on filters, it wasn't even a legal role, but their technical role on filters was to do the study on our behalf. They have expertise nationally. They have a great lab down in Cincinnati on lead lines. They were the right people to go to, to get that answer about whether those filters were working, so we needed their partnership on that."
Of the EGLE-EPA email exchanges, Keatley said, "So as you see those exchanges between us, you're going to have to filter between what is them being helpful but not necessarily having a legal role in that area vs. what things were their legal steps they were taking that they had jurisdiction over."
EGLE redacted several items, citing attorney-client privilege or the exemption for frank communications in the Freedom of Information Act if the agency determines the importance of encouraging frank communications outweighs the benefits of making them public.
One item withheld under attorney-client privilege was an email from Peter Manning, division chief of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Division in the Department of Attorney General. It was sent October 18 to Clark with the subject line "Chronology" and included an attachment that was dated September 15 titled, "_EGLE Response – DRAFT".
On October 19, Cheryl Newton, the acting regional administrator for EPA Region 5, sent Clark a document described as "follow-up from our discussion last week."
The letter was carefully nuanced to thank the state profusely, expressing EPA's appreciation for the state's ongoing efforts to protect public health in Benton Harbor. It described the actions by EGLE and DHHS, as well as the executive directive Whitmer issued on October 14 directing a "whole of government" response to the Benton Harbor crisis as "significant and important steps to address the endangerment to public health from drinking water from high lead levels."
The letter, however, also said "as part of our oversight responsibility, EPA will closely monitor" the state's commitment to provide bottled water and filters to residents. It seemed to say, in essence, yes, the state has primary enforcement authority, but EPA is watching and will be involved now.
"As we discussed, EPA needs additional details regarding the State's plan for alternate water and filter distribution," Newton wrote. "While our early emphasis sought information on the State's filter distribution plans, to which EGLE responded in emails dated September 16th and 21st, we have also been seeking more detailed information on the bottled water delivery plan and overall communication materials since Michigan's decision to provide this resource. From our discussions and our participation in command calls, we recognize the complex logistics involved. We also understand that within the overall framework of the State's approach, important details on supplies, delivery, and transport require frequent updates to continue adjusting to needs and conditions on the ground. As part of our oversight role, EPA will continue to engage on this aspect, offer technical assistance, and if problems arise, we will not hesitate to exercise our independent authorities to ensure that the residents of Benton Harbor are provided safe drinking water."
The letter then asked for the state to confirm a variety of items as soon as possible.
"We also appreciate your staff's cooperation in conducting a joint inspection of the Benton Harbor Public Water System during the week of September 20th to assess the compliance status of the system," she wrote. "We are currently considering our enforcement options to address any violations or deficiencies that are identified. We expect to work with you and the Benton Harbor Public Water System to address any issues. We believe a joint approach will result in consistency of obligations and a better result."
Clark forwarded the email to Cook with no commentary.
WHITMER ADMINISTRATION, UNDER FIRE, SCRAMBLES TO FIND MESSAGE: On October 20, Tiffany Brown, then the communications director for Whitmer, emailed Clark. There was no text but an attached file, titled "Key Messages for Ensuring Benton Harbor Has Safe Drinking Water."
This came one day after Benton Harbor declared a local state of emergency and Whitmer made a visit to the city that was not announced in advance beyond southwest Michigan.
The governor's office announced after the visit that Whitmer was calling for the Legislature to pass an additional $11.4 million to enable the replacement of all lead service lines in Benton Harbor. To that point, $18.6 million from the state and federal governments had been allocated. This email also came on the same day that the Whitmer administration said the governor would not be declaring a state of emergency for Benton Harbor. And it was one day before Clark would go before the House Oversight Committee to answer questions on the crisis.
The key messages largely focused on the critical need for safe drinking water and defending/outlining the actions the governor and her administration had taken so far and would take in the future. It included several talking points to potential questions.
There was an example Q&A in the document.
For example, on the possible question, "Why did it take the state three years to act," the answer focuses on the state and local governments working since the first lead level exceedance in 2018 to remedy the situation and then says: "But we agree we have to move faster and do more to protect Benton Harbor families. Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water. The actions we have taken with the city to date haven't yielded the results we need to keep people safe, which is why the administration is bringing a whole-of-government approach to this challenge."
After this answer, there was guidance on what to say "if pushed." Under the "if pushed" section, the document says: "What matters right now is getting the people of Benton Harbor safe drinking water, and we've got a plan to get it done. Everyone agrees we have to move faster, and that's what this executive directive does – it brings the kind of urgent, whole-of-government approach we need. Many efforts have taken place since 2018 including but not limited to educational outreach, regular water sampling, mobile blood lead testing events, nursing case management of children who have elevated blood lead levels, health care provider outreach, filter distribution, free lead environmental investigations and lead abatement, and community training."
The suggested answer to why didn't the state do something differently was not a direct answer.
"We need to take a step back for a moment and recognize that Benton Harbor is not alone.
"There are cities across Michigan and across America with drinking water problems," the document says. "This is an infrastructure crisis that is decades in the making. Here's the good news: the state has adopted some of the strongest drinking water laws in the country, and we are taking action now to replace the pipes in Benton Harbor and provide safe drinking water. But we know we have more work to do as a country. And that's why it's so important that Washington comes together to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, so we can get help to communities like Benton Harbor right now."
This was similar to how Whitmer responded to a reporter's question November 4 about whether she thought measures she earlier put in place to prevent a Flint-style water crisis – advocates for environmental justice and clean water as well as procedures for state employees to follow if they spot a danger to the public – worked in the case of Benton Harbor.
Whitmer did not answer directly.
"I hear the question and let me just say this," she said. "We're taking it very seriously. We're providing bottled water. We're working closely with everyone from Congressman Upton to conversations I had just this week with people like (U.S. House Majority) Leader Steny Hoyer."
WAS THE OUTCOME IN BENTON HARBOR A SUCCESS?: Muhammad said the replacement of nearly every lead line in Benton Harbor in 18 months was a tremendous success and one that other governments should replicate.
"What started out as a negative I think has turned into a positive," he said. "Benton Harbor's a model and example of what to do, how to do."
Muhammad knows of the criticism directed at EGLE. He said he rejects it.
"The DEQ or EGLE can say we have a problem in Benton Harbor. The lead exceedance has gone on three years. But does EGLE allocate money? They don't," he said. "I don't think it's fair to blame one agency. State government is not one person."
A state agency like EGLE can diagnose a problem but it cannot unilaterally come up with the tens of millions needed to fix it, he said. Whitmer, the Republican Legislature and then-U.S. Rep. Fred Upton got the money, Muhammad said.
"When the money came in, the problem was solved," he said.
Muhammad also pointed to the 2022 election results.
Republicans hit Whitmer hard on Benton Harbor water. There were legislative hearings. Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon visited the city about a week before the election.
The heavily Democratic city, however, did not budge from Whitmer's side, giving her 93.4 percent of its vote. Percentage-wise, that was up from the 92.5 percent she received in 2018 though turnout did drop in the city from 2,378 total votes to 1,703.
"Ninety-five percent of the vote in Benton Harbor," he said, rounding up a bit. "So if somehow the residents of Benton Harbor felt like or thought that she was guilty of gross negligence and malfeasance and neglectful, I think the results would have possibly looked different."
Leddy, Whitmer's communications director, was asked if the governor considered Benton Harbor a success or if it took longer than it should have.
"The governor issued an executive directive to ensure a whole-of-government response and provide safe drinking water for the people of Benton Harbor," he said. "Under the governor's directive and in partnership with the Legislature, we had all the tools needed to begin replacing 100 percent of lead service lines, distributing free bottled water and providing additional testing and health services without declaring an emergency. This is a perfect example of what can be accomplished when everyone is working together to solve problems. The accelerated campaign to replace aging lead water lines in the city of Benton Harbor was completed five months ahead of schedule, on budget and at no cost to residents."
Leonard, however, said he did not consider Benton Harbor a success story.
"Once they got moving, it was the kind of response that you would like to see," he said of the state. "But I wouldn't categorize it as a success story given the long delay. It's hard to call anything a success story when you have high levels of lead for that long."
Benton Harbor was ripe for a lead in water crisis, Leonard said. It had large numbers of lead pipes combined with a city struggling with its water treatment plant. Not using corrosion control treatment in those circumstances should have prompted EGLE to realize "this is a ticking time bomb."
In 2025, a new administrative rule promulgated after the Flint water crisis will create a new state action level for lead of 12 ppb, tougher than the federal one. Many more communities are expected to be found in exceedance. It speaks to the need for the state to address some statutory gaps, Leonard said.
Currently, there are 10 jurisdictions in the state, mostly small water operators, with lead levels in their water in excess of the 15 ppb federal action level. Some of those are individual condominium complexes or single buildings. As far as communities, Leslie and Eastpointe are the two in excess currently.
There is nothing in statute to trigger a public health response, like bottled water and other supports, when a community hits a threshold of lead in its drinking water. That should be fixed, Leonard said.
Going back to late 2021, an EGLE spokesperson said more could have been done to communicate with residents about filter installation and maintenance.
EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid Jr. said this week the department also has learned valuable lessons about lead line replacement as efforts to remove those lines occur in other communities.
Hiring good contractors with good contracts to ensure quick, professional work that is minimally disruptive to the community is one lesson, McDiarmid said. Another is to encourage municipalities to make lead service line removal mandatory. Also key is doing everything possible to educate the community about what work will happen and why and what residents can expect before, during and after line replacement, he said.
Leonard said he has regrets about Benton Harbor. He said he wishes he began pushing sooner for action and trusting EGLE for too long.
"It sort of speaks to the fact that if you get enough attention, you can make something happen," he said.
Posted: April 10, 2023 7:27 AM
The move by former House Speaker Rick Johnson and three other men to reach plea agreements with federal prosecutors admitting to a bribery scheme in medical marijuana licensing, U.S. Attorney Mark Totten's declaration that the case is ongoing and the four charged men agreeing to cooperate clearly signals the case is only beginning.
Mr. Totten was fully expected to announce charges Thursday. But the surprise was that federal prosecutors filed it as a felony information document with all four people charged reaching plea agreements instead of fighting the charges and taking their cases to trial.
That assuredly means Mr. Totten's office, which covers the Western District of Michigan for the Department of Justice, has proverbial bigger fish on its target list beyond Mr. Johnson, charged for accepting bribes while chair of the now-defunct Medical Marihuana Licensing Board in exchange for favorable treatment, and three men who either paid bribes or conspired to do so.
Sources tracking the case closely and knowledgeable about some aspects of it said there is no question more is to come.
"First of many dominoes," one said.
Another source with no direct knowledge of the inquiry but knowledgeable about law enforcement and some aspects of the flurry surrounding the licensing system that launched in 2017 said "dominoes are starting to fall, and they probably are looking at much bigger fish."
Thursday, considerable speculation surrounded two men, though neither has been accused of anything, and Mr. Totten would say nothing about who else is on the federal government's radar.
The two are former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, who led the Senate from 2015-18 and nominated Mr. Johnson for the licensing board, and Steve Linder, a longtime top political fundraiser for Senate Republicans until Mr. Meekhof left office in 2019, who also was heavily involved in the marijuana industry.
Mr. Meekhof nominated Mr. Johnson (the statute directed him to submit three nominees to then-Governor Rick Snyder, who would make the appointment) and adamantly insisted Mr. Snyder pick Mr. Johnson. Under PA 281 of 2016, the Senate majority leader was to submit three nominees, one of whom the governor would appoint, as was the House speaker.
Thursday, in an interview with Gongwer News Service, Mr. Meekhof said Mr. Johnson at the time seemed the perfect fit for the board because of his legislative background, having served in the House from 1999-2004 and as speaker from 2001-04.
"We thought it was a good thing for the organization because who better than a former speaker of the House to help them with legislative intent," he said. "I also understand an extensive background check was done by the governor's staff prior to his appointment and there didn't appear to be any issues with having him on the board."
Mr. Meekhof said federal authorities have not contacted him. And asked whether he had any concerns about the investigation turning toward him, Mr. Meekhof said, "None at all."
Asked about reports he was adamant with Mr. Snyder that Mr. Johnson be appointed, Mr. Meekhof restated, "We believed Mr. Johnson was the best candidate."
And regarding the charges in general, Mr. Meekhof said he was just hearing about them and learning bits and pieces. Following the dissolution of the licensing board in 2019, he said he lost track of what was happening in the industry. Mr. Meekhof is a registered lobbyist but said most of his work involves consulting that does not fit the definition of lobbying in Michigan. He said he neither lobbies nor consults for anyone in the marijuana industry. Michigan lobbying records show his sole lobbying client is the city of Holland.
As to Mr. Johnson admitting to accepting bribes in exchange for favorable treatment in the licensing process, Mr. Meekhof said he is "always disappointed in folks from leadership that have failings." He also said the licensing system set up in the 2016 statute had checks and balances.
"Not one single person can make an influential decision," he said. "It has to be done as a board. The system seemed to be sound. It just seemed to be failings of individuals."
Mr. Meekhof had little to say as far as what the news of Mr. Johnson's admission meant to him personally. The two had no overlap in the Legislature. Mr. Meekhof joined the House in 2005 and the Senate in 2011.
"Ours was a professional relationship," he said. "He was speaker long before I entered the Lansing scene. We don't have a personal relationship."
Mr. Linder, reached late Thursday afternoon, said he was about to walk into a meeting and not immediately available for comment. Mr. Linder became executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association in 2019.
The Detroit News previously reported that Mr. Linder had "become a focus of a grand jury probe because of his role in a marijuana lobbying business." The newspaper cited three sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. It further reported Mr. Linder told a committee in the Kansas Legislature last year that he helped work bills in the Michigan Senate involving the marijuana industry and regulations after they came over from the House.
Mr. Linder's position during that 2015-18 term in which he worked both the marijuana legislation in the Senate and remained a key fundraising leader for Senate Republicans has attracted notice though that by itself does not appear to violate any laws.
Posted: March 20, 2023 9:22 AM
Elections Director Jonathan Brater is recommending significant changes to how the Bureau of Elections canvasses initiative petitions and candidate petitions to access the ballot following an outside review.
In a memo dated Tuesday to the Board of State Canvassers, Mr. Brater said the bureau hired the Rehmann Group to review its petition canvassing procedures that have largely stood in place without notable change since 1980. Questions arose about the petition process, particularly on the candidate side, after the bureau recommended the disqualification of five of the 10 Republican candidates for governor who filed petitions in 2022.
The bureau found widespread fraud in the five candidates' petition signatures and recommended the board disqualify them on the basis of the pattern of fraud from certain circulators. It did not review every signature from these candidates for validity, saying there were too many to review and based on the pattern of fraud from certain circulators, it should disqualify them.
Unlike initiative petitions, where the bureau pulls a sample of 500 signatures to determine whether a group collected enough valid signatures from registered voters, the bureau reviews all candidate petition sheets and does not use sampling.
Mr. Brater recommended the board approve the changes recommended by Rehmann. That includes adopting the same sampling procedure for candidates as is used for initiative petitions. If approved, the bureau would pull a 750-signature sample of signatures for candidates required to file at least 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters to access the ballot for a statewide office.
For initiative petitions, the recommendations include eliminating the face review prior to sampling and the shuffling of the petition sheets. They also include pulling one, larger sample instead of the current 500/2,000 two-stage process sometimes needed and replacing the software program used to identify and pull signatures for a sample.
In his memo, Mr. Brater said in the past the bureau did not need to expend a great amount of time reviewing individual signatures on candidate nominating petitions but that changed in 2022 as a result of the fraud scandal.
"Staff spent hundreds of hours attempting to validate signatures," he wrote. "In reality, given the volume of filings, it was not possible to look up each and every signature submitted by the fraudulent petition circulators to individually verify that each and every signature was fraudulent, although all of the signatures reviewed were fraudulent."
Rehmann said to achieve the same plus or minus 2.3 percentage point error margin at a 90 percent confidence factor used in statewide initiative petitions, 750 signatures should be pulled as a sample from candidate petitions.
Mr. Brater said this system would enable staff to better assess signature accuracy and detect fraud.
"To whatever extent invalid signatures were submitted as part of candidate nominating petitions – whether through circulator fraud or invalid signatures that the circulators did not know were invalid – these signatures would be reflected in the representative sample and inform the bureau's recommendation to the board on whether or not to certify," he wrote. "This would, in turn, provide greater confidence as the valid number of signatures contained within the filing."
Another significant change would be scrapping the "face review" now done of initiative petitions prior to a sample being pulled.
Under current practice, bureau staff sort and review petition sheets and signatures prior to the pulling of a 500-signature sample. The review is designed to total the number of potentially valid signatures on all sheets and stamp a number on each one as well as confirm the mandatory elements of each sheet are present and correct. Invalid sheets are removed from the universe of signatures eligible for the sample.
Rehmann found the face review process to be time-consuming and to have no statistical effect on the results of sampling. A simulation Rehmann conducted found that the results of a hypothetical petition using face review and not using face review had statistically insignificant differences in valid signatures.
"This step of the process alone is extremely time-consuming and burdensome for staff; it accounts for nearly 66 percent of the 60-day process," Mr. Brater wrote. "For example, in two statewide petition filings in 2022, staff spent approximately 2,500 personnel hours over 14 business days to conduct face review of two statewide petitions."
Under current practice, the bureau starts out with a 500-signature sample. If the validity percentage falls into a gray area below automatic certification and above automatic rejection, the bureau then pulls a 2,000-siganture sample for a final review.
Rehmann recommended going to a single, larger sample instead of the two-stage process. It did not indicate a number.
"Rehmann found that eliminating the two-stage review process in favor of gathering a larger, initial sample would create an efficiency without negatively impacting the current 90 percent confidence factor," Mr. Brater wrote. "In the past, in instances where a second, larger sample had to be pulled, an extreme burden was placed onto staff, sponsors, and challengers because it left very little time in the calendar. Rehmann concluded that there were significant administrative time savings by drawing a larger sample immediately, and that coupled with the time savings of eliminating the face review and shuffling processes, the additional time to review the increased signatures would be offset."
On software, Rehmann said the current system cannot be upgraded because it was developed in the 1980s using a platform no longer supported by modern PCs. It did not offer a specific recommendation for a new software but said one possibility is Visual Basic for Applications in Microsoft Excel.
Rehmann's report said the state's current overall system of drawing random samples "remains fundamentally sound" but "opportunities exist to improve its efficiency without sacrificing accuracy."
Posted: March 15, 2023 11:50 AM
There's a scene in "The Untouchables" where Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness laments what he has had to do to get Al Capone.
Mr. Ness, who had a goody goody reputation, committed a variety of crimes, including throwing Capone goon Frank Nitti off a roof to his death, in the totally fictionalized account of Mr. Ness and his team of officers eventually arresting Mr. Capone for income tax evasion.
"I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right!"
That feels a lot like something legislative Democrats, almost three months into their first majority since 1983, might say.
For all but the four years Democrats had control of the House from 2007-10, House and Senate Democrats between 1999-2022 excoriated Republicans for various procedural atrocities and making a mockery of a deliberative legislative process. A shortlist of Democratic grievances during their long years in the wilderness would include:
Of all of those, nothing produced the ire and pure rage than the move by the Republican majority in 2000, with the support of then-Governor John Engler, to add an appropriation to the bill moving Michigan from a "may issue" to "shall issue" state for concealed pistol licenses. The bill required counties to issue concealed pistol licenses to any applicant, provided they did not have a history of certain crimes and completed training. In the past, now-defunct county gun boards often refused permits to the frustration of some gun owners. The bill also implemented the gun-free zones still in place today that did not previously exist.
A well-funded coalition of groups opposed to the bill, led by the incoming Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan (you may have heard of him) was planning a petition drive to put the bill up for a voter referendum in the November 2002 election.
But a Republican looked at this language in Article II, Section 9 of the Michigan Constitution: "The power of referendum does not extend to acts making appropriations for state institutions." The suggestion was made that if some money was added, in this case $1 million for the Department of State Police, it would trigger the language blocking a referendum.
There was an explosion of opposition, including from delegates to the 1961-62 Constitutional Convention that wrote the language who said it was designed to prevent anti-government zealots from putting the appropriations bills whose main purpose is to fund state departments/agencies/other functions annually up for public vote and risk crippling the state. Democrats were absolutely irate.
In fact, the following no-vote explanation came from now Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren), then a member of the House.
"The reason that the proponents of this legislation added this appropriation in violation of our body's rules is inappropriate and insidious," he said. "The Michigan Constitution provides that the people of this state are supposed to have a right of recourse when the Legislature takes legislative action that is contrary to the will of the people of this state. That constitutional right is the right of 'referendum,' and this conference report attempts to take away that right through the disingenuous addition of a handful of appropriations into this bill. I support the constitutional right of Michigan citizens to keep and bear arms under Article I, Section 6 of the Michigan Constitution, but I also support the other constitutional rights of our citizens. As legislators we have taken an oath to uphold the entire Constitution, and not just bits and pieces as we find convenient."
Opponents of the law sued, contending it was nonsensical to interpret the Constitution as constructing the referendum language – clearly designed let the people have an up-or-down vote on a bill passed by the Legislature – to give the Legislature a tool to render the referendum totally meaningless.
The Michigan Supreme Court, then with a conservative majority, on a 4-3 vote held that the constitutional language meant the new law could not be subject to referendum.
And for years thereafter, Republicans used the mechanism to thwart any possibility of a referendum on most controversial bills. Yes, there were some examples of policy bills with an appropriation that passed from 2007-10 during an era with a Democratic governor, Democratic-controlled House and Republican Senate. But anything signed into law during that period had to be bipartisan, so it was impossible for one party to use an appropriation to undermine the other one during that time.
And every time the appropriation tactic was used, Democrats fumed.
One of those instances was when the Republican majority and Governor Rick Snyder made Michigan a right to work state in 2012 where workers under a collective bargaining agreement cannot be compelled to join the union or to pay a non-member agency fee.
The usage of the tactic was so galling to Democrats that now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer, then a candidate for governor, pledged never to use it. During her first year as governor, the Legislature included an appropriation in a bill making changes to compensation for people wrongly imprisoned. It was an uncontroversial bill with no chance of being subjected to a referendum, but Ms. Whitmer was so committed to eschewing the tactic, she line-item vetoed the funding to preserve referendum rights. The Legislature had to place the money in a supplemental appropriations bill, and Ms. Whitmer signed it. She issued an executive directive saying she would veto any policy bills with an appropriation.
Which brings us to 2023, and the first all-Democratic state government in 40 years.
Democrats have used every procedural tactic listed above. None of that is terribly surprising.
House Speaker Joe Tate's (D-Detroit) mantra that there are no secrets or surprises with the Democratic agenda has echoes of House Speaker Chuck Perricone, a Republican, saying in 1999 that the Republican agenda was the priority, not making concessions on style/process/bill content to obtain a veneer of bipartisanship. When he was about to leave office, Mr. Perricone (the speaker when the appropriations/referendum tactic was first used) said he had no regrets about the tactics used – and while it seemed aggressive then it would be positively charitable by today's standards. He said had the House gone more toward the middle on style, it would have had less success in passing Republican priorities.
But I was flabbergasted to see Democrats use the appropriations/policy bill tactic in their legislation to repeal the right to work law in the past week to prevent a referendum. Ms. Whitmer, without any apparent hesitation, cast aside years of promises and said she would sign the bill with the appropriation. On Tuesday, Mr. Wojno – elected to the Senate in 2018 and reelected in 2022 after leaving the House in 2003 – voted for the right to work repeal with the appropriation.
Yes, Democrats will say they are merely returning the favor Republicans used in 2012 and many other times.
But the issue was less about the weeds of legislative process or any one proposed policy and more about the rights of the people under the Constitution.
After the Supreme Court ruling in 2001, then-Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer said he was disappointed as far as it preventing a referendum on the gun bill, but the real affront was the death knell of the referendum.
It is just the latest example showing that Democrats have concluded with their first legislative majority in 40 years, and a tenuous one at that given one-vote majorities in both chambers – they cannot miss this opportunity. And that means using every tool available to them, including the ones Republicans invented, even the ones they abhorred while in the minority. I don't know how many of them even know who Mr. Perricone is, but it appears they have adopted the same strategy.
The agenda is the priority.
Posted: February 15, 2023 1:06 PM
The mass shooting at Michigan State University this week struck at the heart of the MSU campus, the Lansing region and the state of Michigan itself.
The heart of campus because among the 50,000 current students and half-million living MSU alumni (this reporter among them), everyone spent some time in the MSU Union (where the second attack occurred) and a large percentage (again, this reporter included) had classes in Berkey Hall, where the first attack occurred. That walk to Berkey twice a week from South Case Hall in the winter (about 17 minutes if I really hustled) is seared into my memory from 1994-95.
The heart of the region because MSU is the beating heart of the Lansing area. It's a huge employer, economic driver, fuels people residing in the area and, even more than Lansing serving as the state capital, is what people think of first when they hear Lansing or East Lansing.
The heart of the state, or perhaps one of them, because I doubt there is a single resident of Michigan who has more than three degrees of separation from someone who attends or works for MSU. And for everyone in the Lansing region, there are no degrees of separation.
Three students dead, five critically injured, eight families shattered, tens of thousands traumatized.
This is a gut punch.
But while of course shocking, it also is not shocking. Gun violence and mass shootings, particularly at educational institutions, are all too common in the United States. Michigan just got lucky for so long in avoiding them until the mass shooting at Oxford High School in late 2021.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature now face more urgency on what changes in law, if any, should be made.
The new Democratic-controlled Legislature, until Monday, seemed to have shunted firearms legislation to the backburner. In the month since officially taking majority in the House and Senate, lawmakers have gotten completely tangled up on their tax priorities that have not yet been sent to Ms. Whitmer.
Exactly zero bills have been introduced so far by Democratic lawmakers regarding firearms (editor's note: about 25 hours after this column posted, Senate Democrats introduced several firearm regulation bills). In fact, the only bill so far that contains a new firearm restriction is sponsored by a Republican, Sen. John Damoose of Harbor Springs, addressing a loophole in charging someone for bringing a firearm into an airport.
Now the focus is on three areas from Democrats: a red flag law allowing a judge to order a person's firearms seized if shown to be a danger to themselves or others (which possibly might have made a difference in Monday's attack) as well as mandatory background checks for all sales and a safe storage law (it's unclear if either would have helped based on the limited facts known about the shooter).
Democrats at some point will have to reckon with other firearms statutes they have lamented for years but could do nothing about so long as Republicans, who have long opposed new gun regulations, continued to oppose changes.
State law prohibits local governments from suing gun manufacturers, something now-Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan wanted to do more than 20 years ago as the Wayne County prosecutor but couldn't. There's the statute prohibiting local governments from regulating firearms, reserving that power to the state. What about codifying the 2018 Michigan Supreme Court ruling barring the open carry of firearms in schools, which otherwise are gun-free zones? Surely there is more.
Democratic lawmakers also will have to reckon with the move by some Democratic county prosecutors to ease up on the charging of nonviolent gun offenses and whether to remove some of that discretion.
The shooter was charged in 2019 for carrying a concealed pistol without a license, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He eventually pleaded guilty to a high-level misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to probation. This meant he was still eligible to legally purchase a firearm. The felony would have prevented that.
Now, two things.
Former Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, a Democrat who was leading the county prosecutor's office at the time, was notorious for astonishingly soft charging, even on violent criminals. Her declaration in 2020 that she does not believe in life without parole sentences, even in the case of man on parole for domestic assault who was accused of bludgeoning two women to death with plans to kill two others, brought a torrent of criticism. The judge on the case rejected her offer of a 30- to 50-year sentence for the man for second-degree murder (he eventually pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to 70 to 100 years, the Lansing State Journal reported).
So the MSU shooter getting off with a misdemeanor and probation has gotten a lot of attention given Ms. Siemon's history.
However, the notion of someone with no known prior convictions (as appears to be the case with the MSU shooter) getting a felony conviction and prison time for a nonviolent gun charge seems unlikely, regardless of the county or the prosecutor. How, if at all, the Legislature addresses this question will be closely watched.
Republicans have led the criticism of Democratic prosecutors' charging habits in the wake of the MSU shooting, but they also have some questions to answer.
In the last three terms, Republicans have introduced bills to end the requirement that someone wishing to carry a concealed firearm obtain a license to do so. Legislation passed the House in 2017 but died in the Senate. It moved from a House committee to the House floor in the 2019-20 term but died there. And in the 2021-22 term, legislation was introduced (now-Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt of Porter Township introduced one of the bills in the package), but it never left committee. Supporters have dubbed the legislation "constitutional carry," contending under the Second Amendment persons should have the right to carry a concealed pistol without having to go through the training and licensing required under Michigan law for more than 20 years.
Had these bills been law in 2019, when the MSU shooter was charged with carrying a concealed pistol without a license, he wouldn't have been charged at all because he would not have broken the law. So Republicans will have to reckon with that if they want to attack Democratic prosecutors for undercharging a gun offense.
How does the legislation produced by a school safety task force at the end of the previous term and reintroduced this week factor into any upcoming action is another question.
All this is happening after a week of partisan procedural battling and recriminations on the tax issues at the Legislature that exactly zero people outside of the two-block radius around the Capitol will want to see on whatever legislation results from the MSU and Oxford High School shootings.
I'm currently watching two students jogging west on East Michigan Avenue toward the Capitol for a sit-in to back gun legislation, carrying signs. I seriously doubt they want to hear about a bunch of partisan posturing in the wake of what happened Monday.
Posted: February 3, 2023 8:36 AM
Originally published November 23, 2004
House Speaker Rick Johnson's four-year run as House leader ends this year, and he will leave a legacy of guiding an inexperienced House through one of the state's most turbulent budget eras, but also one of frustrating several House Republican colleagues at his lack of emphasis on conservative policy and spending cuts.
Mr. Johnson's tenure – he is the first Republican to serve four consecutive years as speaker since Michigan switched to a full-time Legislature in 1963 – in many ways consists of two speakerships with a sharp contrast between his first two years and the second two. Term limits prevents him from returning to the House next year.
He wins considerable praise for the 2001-02 term when he moved then-Governor John Engler's agenda through the House while using his friendship with Mr. Engler to ease the governor's signature of House Republican bills. Along with then-House Democratic Leader Kwame Kilpatrick, he was instrumental in repairing the deeply distrustful and bitter relationship between the political parties in the House after a rancorous previous two years.
The speaker reversed the practice of his predecessor and gave chairs of House committees relatively free rein to pursue legislation. And then Mr. Johnson reached the height of his tenure when House Republicans crushed Democrats in the 2002 elections for a five-seat gain that gave them a 63-47 majority for the 2003-04 session – the party's strongest standing in the House in 50 years.
But even with a majority whose size no Republican speaker had enjoyed the beginning of a full-time Legislature, the next two years would prove difficult for Mr. Johnson. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm had taken office, and several Republicans now say Mr. Johnson and the House GOP failed to offer a conservative policy agenda of their own while too often agreeing to Ms. Granholm's proposals to raise taxes and fees to solve ongoing budget problems.
The two major bills for which he fought hardest – comprehensive charter school expansion and racinos – would not succeed.
An aggressive conservative freshmen class, itching to cut the budget, entered the House in 2002. He deeply worried that Ms. Granholm and the Republican-led Legislature could hit a budget stalemate leading to a government shutdown. He began putting a tighter leash on committee activity although not nearly to the extent that occurred before him.
A tough two years seemed to culminate on Election Day this year when Democrats surprised Republicans and most Capitol-watchers by gaining five House seats in elections to wipe out the GOP gains of 2002 – the biggest Democratic gain in the House since 1986.
Mr. Johnson, 51, leaves office with many Republicans and some analysts viewing him as having been a good leader for his first two years in office, with poorer reviews the second two when Republicans needed a strong foil to the Democrat in the governor's office.
Democrats bid him farewell with a mixture of warmth for how he improved relations between the parties in the House and made it possible for many of Ms. Granholm's budget proposals to become law, but also disappointment at his treatment of House Democratic Leader Dianne Byrum of Onondaga. Ms. Byrum was the third Democratic leader to serve opposite Mr. Johnson during his tenure.
"I'm looking forward to being done, moving on to something else," Mr. Johnson said in an interview this week with Gongwer News Service at his Capitol office. "It's a cool job, it's neat, have had some great experiences -and some not so great – but the great ones are far more than the not so great. I don't have any regrets. I've enjoyed it."
'Homespun' style eased relations between parties
Craig Ruff, president of the Lansing-based think tank Public Sector Consultants, called Mr. Johnson a "conciliatory coalition builder who rose to the occasion."
The House was filled with rookie lawmakers, but Mr. Johnson's "homespun geniality" resonated and helped maintain the relevance of the chamber, Mr. Ruff said.
And the collegial relationship Mr. Johnson had with House Democratic leaders – although the relationship between he and Ms. Byrum eventually soured – was a huge improvement from the rancor that marked the two years before he became speaker, Mr. Ruff said.
"We all remember Mike Hanley and Chuck Perricone," he said. "Who wanted to go through that again? It was so personal."
Mr. Johnson loved to play off his background as a dairy farmer from tiny LeRoy. He often would draw analogies between legislating and farming.
Mr. Johnson is at his best when "he's just Rick, farmer Rick," said Rep. Larry Julian (R-Lennon), perhaps Mr. Johnson's closest ally in the House.
Rep. Jack Minore (D-Flint) served in the House during the same six years as Mr. Johnson and said he grew to like Mr. Johnson personally. What was a "very divisive and lousy atmosphere" in 1999-2000 "improved greatly" under Mr. Johnson, Mr. Minore said. Concern did arise in the latter portion of Mr. Johnson's tenure that he was not relating as well to Ms. Byrum as he did to Mr. Kilpatrick, he said.
Indeed, Mr. Johnson and Ms. Byrum never seemed to get along in the way that Mr. Johnson did with her predecessors. Tensions were exacerbated when House Republicans took a surprising gamble in the 2004 campaign and tried to defeat Ms. Byrum for re-election with a heavily negative television and flier campaign that failed, much to her delight.
It is telling that Ms. Byrum declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Johnson said of the three Democratic leaders with whom he worked, he had the best relationship with Mr. Kilpatrick. He said he also had a strong relationship with then-Rep. Buzz Thomas.
"I don't have anything against Dianne. I don't know if she does against me," he said. "You don't see Dianne and I sitting on the floor talking as much as what Kwame and Buzz did, but in reality, we worked on a lot of issues and produced a lot of votes for some tough issues in some tough budget times."
One issue that the candidates to succeed Mr. Johnson as speaker emphasized was their plan to give more power to committee chairs, letting them set the agenda for the caucus and their panels. Complaints had popped up that Mr. Johnson was wielding too much control over what committees did or did not do.
But those lodging such complaints might be surprised to know that Mr. Johnson ran for the post on the same issue in 2000. Shortly after assuming the speakership in February 2001, he said: "Our agenda is going to be put together by the committee chairs working with their committees. My message has been to members that we're not going to manufacture anything. It's going to come from the bottom up."
Mr. Johnson did deviate from this bottom-up philosophy a little. He occasionally circumvented the Tax Policy Committee, sending tax legislation to other committees after he had problems moving bills that could be painted as tax increases through the panel. He took the extraordinary step of removing then-Rep. Bob Gosselin from his committee chairmanship after Mr. Gosselin went in a sharply different direction on an important unemployment benefits bill than Mr. Johnson wanted.
The speaker also upset allies of Rep. Stephen Ehardt (R-Lexington) when he junked a key bill his Health Policy Committee drafted on health insurance rates for small businesses for a version he, Democrats and other Republicans preferred.
But Mr. Ehardt said despite a couple of disagreements on where to take Health Policy bills, he always felt Mr. Johnson respected his role as chair.
"I ran my committee, and he respected that," he said. "As far as I was concerned, there were never times where Rick stopped me from doing my job."
Mr. Johnson said he thinks the perception of him micromanaging committees to an extent stems from term limits producing inexperienced committee chairs who have not yet learned how to rule their committees with authority.
Many times, committee chairs ask Mr. Johnson to be the heavy on an issue, the speaker said.
"Another member goes to a committee chair and wants his or her bill moved," he said, laying out what he said is a common scenario. "The committee chair knows, 'Oh that's not a good bill. I shouldn't move that.' But they don't want to tell the member no. So they say the speaker said, 'Can't move this bill.' Or they move the bill, and then they come to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, don't run that bill on the House floor.'"
Budget dominates tenure
When Mr. Johnson won the Republican leader race in November 2000, it was hard to imagine that budget deficits would define his time as speaker. At that point in time, surplus revenue was overflowing state government thanks to the stock market run-up and superheated economy.
But by spring 2001, it was apparent that the good times were over. No one realized that another three years would pass with revenues well below where they were then, forcing two increases in the cigarette tax, a delay in the income and business tax cuts that passed when Mr. Johnson was a freshman and sharp spending cuts to public universities, health care, the prison system and economic development.
"The budgets have been, in the last four years, just much tougher to do from the standpoint of how you piece it all together," he said. "Members have gotten to the point now where they realize that cuts have got to be made, and it's a little easier to get the cuts made where before it was harder to get consensus."
Mr. Ruff called Mr. Johnson's management of a strapped budget the highlight of his tenure. Mr. Johnson found the balance between cutting spending without crippling key services and raising taxes and fees without harming the state's economic climate, Mr. Ruff said.
"For all the doomsayers cackling about how the House was going to be irrelevant and chaotic, Rick Johnson pulled it through," he said. "Nobody came to Lansing to oversee this ongoing wretched financial mess in state government."
There is something of a debate occurring in Republican circles about whether Mr. Johnson was a deft deal-maker or whether he failed to stand up to the Senate and Ms. Granholm and capitulated in key budget talks.
Perhaps the House Republican frustration over Mr. Johnson's style in budget negotiations with the governor and Senate was most palpable in one private discussion among House Republicans during House session. Mr. Johnson was informing Republican representatives that certain actions they wanted to take were a "deal-breaker" for the Senate or for the governor.
Eventually, one member rose and asked Mr. Johnson, "What's our deal-breaker?" Those who were there said Mr. Johnson did not directly answer that question.
But Mr. Johnson said lawmakers have to realize that an idea only matters if it can clear the House and Senate and win the signature of the governor. He also said such criticism ignores the many items on which House Republicans did succeed in negotiations, like stopping most of Ms. Granholm's proposed closing of tax loopholes, which Republicans deemed tax increases. He also pointed to the defeat of Ms. Granholm's estate tax and liquor tax increase as GOP successes and the preservation of the Merit Award scholarship and Tuition Grant program.
"You trade and bargain off different things," he said. "It's just the way the system is put together and the way the process works. You're going to win some, and you're going to lose some. Frankly, as you look at the cuts we've made, we've won quite a few the last four years."
Mr. Julian hinted at a certain naivete pervading those legislators who think Mr. Johnson failed to deliver on House priorities in budget negotiations. He suggested that reporters should ask the 2002 class of lawmakers, including House Speaker-elect Craig DeRoche (R-Novi), when their terms are up in two to four years for another appraisal of Mr. Johnson.
But Rep. Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Township), perhaps the spiritual leader of the aggressive conservative faction of the House Republican caucus, said the decision to raise some taxes and numerous fees were mistakes.
Instead of allowing the House to pass an increase in the cigarette tax, raise scores of fees and move up the date of property tax collections (something Mr. Drolet and other conservatives label a tax increase), Mr. Johnson should have insisted on cutting spending, he said. The House priorities he successfully protected were "Republican pork" like the Merit Award scholarship and life sciences funding, not the spending cuts that many House Republicans wanted, he said.
"Those things eroded Republican confidence and certainly blended our brand identity with the Democrats," he said.
But Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R-Wyoming), one of two Senate Republican leaders during Mr. Johnson's tenure (former Sen. Dan DeGrow being the other), said Mr. Johnson was confronting a reality that many House Republicans would not support the cuts that conservatives wanted.
It was the December 2003 budget resolution that was particularly hard to take for many conservatives. Ms. Granholm had been urging a one-year delay in the income tax cut scheduled for the following January to balance a budget that was slipping deeply into deficit.
Mr. Sikkema proposed a compromise: a six-month delay in the tax cut offset by a reduction in the Single Business Tax. Mr. Johnson had to tread carefully after Ms. Granholm seized on Mr. Sikkema's proposal because House Republicans were furious at Mr. Sikkema and the governor for making their own deal.
But eventually it became clear that Mr. Johnson supported the plan. After it passed, Mr. Johnson explained that he felt he owed it to Mr. Sikkema to allow a vote and "stand side by side" with him.
"I appreciated very much what he did, knowing the dynamics of his caucus, knowing the criticism he would take," Mr. Sikkema said.
And to those House Republicans who think Mr. Johnson negotiated poorly and capitulated on obtaining spending reductions, Mr. Sikkema said they are simply wrong.
"I thought he stood up very well for the House Republican caucus in terms of spending cuts and other issues," he said. "I just disagree with some people who say he wasn't tough in these sessions. He was."
Mr. Minore said Mr. Johnson worked well with Democrats in passing controversial proposals that Ms. Granholm wanted, such as the cigarette tax, earlier property tax collection and fee increases despite considerable resistance from his fellow House Republicans.
"The hallmark may be that he cooperated with and got along better with the governor (and) sometimes he may have had more problems with his own caucus on the critical issues," he said.
On policy, racinos and education dominate; conservatives left disappointed
Mr. Johnson's signature policy achievement was his enthusiastic, urgent support for bringing wireless Internet access into the state's classrooms through his "Learning Without Limits" program (since renamed "Freedom to Learn").
The speaker, when announcing the proposal, left news reporters somewhat dumbfounded when he stated his goal of having every classroom in the state equipped with a computer laptop containing wireless Internet access. The program is far from that goal, but together with the Michigan Virtual University and Department of Education, Mr. Johnson has led some big strides in that direction.
The attraction of wireless access is that it saves schools the cost of installing wiring.
"He's – this is kind of hokey – kind of the Johnny Appleseed in terms of technology in education," said Iva Corbett, Assistant Superintendent of the Chelsea Public Schools, which receives a Freedom to Learn grant. "He planted seeds that are going to continue to grow."
While Mr. Johnson succeeded in winning funding for his Freedom to Learn program, the one piece of public policy that he wanted most – authorizing slot machines at the state's horse racetracks, or so-called racinos – fell just short of becoming law despite his tireless effort. Mr. Johnson, with his farming roots, wanted racinos so they would provide new funding streams to bolster the struggling horse racing industry and agriculture in general.
Despite the probable defeat – it is not expected to receive a final vote before the year ends – Mr. Johnson's efforts won him the tremendous respect of the Michigan Farm Bureau, which already was a big fan. Perhaps Mr. Johnson's best sales job was both in convincing Mr. Sikkema, who personally opposed the proposal, to allow a Senate vote and then winning the votes there to pass it in the upper chamber.
Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, the bill bogged down over differences between the House and Senate versions and then was crushed by voter approval of Proposal 1 in November, mandating a successful statewide vote for any new or expanded forms of gambling.
Wayne Wood, president of the Farm Bureau, said he marveled at Mr. Johnson's legislative skill. He recalled his surprise at Mr. Johnson engineering a quick, overwhelming victory in 2002 for a zero percent interest loan program to aid farmers who had been hurt by that year's drought.
Mr. Wood said he was anxious about taking a House vote on the issue when Mr. Johnson scheduled one, fearing it may be too soon. "But Rick's leadership had been able to make enough people aware," he said. "He obviously had done one heck of a job on it."
Mr. Drolet credits Mr. Johnson for a tireless work ethic and being well-suited to lead House Republicans when Mr. Engler was in office and setting the policy agenda. "He was able to very steadily guide the caucus when Engler was in power," he said.
But once Ms. Granholm took office in 2003, House Republicans resorted to tinkering when it came to policy and muddled through the next two years, Mr. Drolet said. Mr. Drolet qualified his criticism by suggesting that perhaps the enormity of leading a House with so little experience in a time of budget stress may have made an aggressive policy agenda impossible.
Mr. Johnson's primary legacy will be the legislative map that he shepherded to passage in 2001, Mr. Drolet said. The map put Republicans, who controlled the redrawing process, in the driver's seat to control the Legislature through 2012.
"The rest of his legacy is that you can't coast," he said. "Rick never coasted. He worked hard. But he and the rest of the caucus failed to deliver on substantial and relevant Republican policy."
But Mr. Julian said disappointment over the lack of a comprehensive conservative agenda is "kind of a facade" because many of the bills conservatives wanted to see passed in the House stood no chance in the Senate or with Ms. Granholm.
"What good does it do to send the helmet bill over to the Senate when they've said they're not going to take it up," he said, citing the House's recent passage of that doomed bill.
Tom Shields, president of Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group, which works with Republican candidates, said Mr. Johnson's principal focus was on the budget and on racinos, distracting from classic Republican themes (his firm opposed the racino package). He characterized Mr. Johnson as a "good leader," but one who did not always take Republicans in the right direction.
"They've gotten away from some basic elements of what a Republican caucus should stand for," he said, citing a need to emphasize cutting spending to eliminate deficits and cut taxes to address the business climate.
Mr. Johnson expressed disappointment at the fate of racinos and charter schools while encouraged that some charter school expansion outside of Detroit can continue because of Bay Mills Community College's ability to sponsor charter schools statewide, free from the 150-school limit imposed on how many universities can sponsor.
The speaker named land use legislation, greater authority for optometrists to conduct work that had previously been limited to ophthalmologists and – somewhat surprisingly – the legislation protecting Taubman Centers from a hostile takeover as major achievements during his tenure.
"From my background, you know, as agriculture and (a) farmer, we use to buy properties from a farmer whose father would die, pass on, and the kids, it was always, 'How many zeroes are on the check kind of thing?'" he said. "And Bobby Taubman was trying to save his father's business. And I thought that was really admirable."
While most of those interviewed for this story pointed to 2004's election losses as the low point in Mr. Johnson's tenure, Mr. Ruff of Public Sector Consultants cited the December 2002 House vote to ratify a new casino in Allegan County.
West Michigan Republicans were ardently against the casino, and aghast that their party leaders in the House, such as Mr. Johnson, would push hard to make it happen. The issue was clouded by allegations that the casino represented a favor to those wanting to open the casino - friends of Mr. Engler. Ethical questions on the casino eventually resulted in Mr. Engler declining to sign the casino compact.
"For many people, that just didn't pass the smell test," Mr. Ruff said. "That probably bruised him (Mr. Johnson) and his stature to some extent."
No issue inspired the type of deep anger within the ranks of Mr. Johnson's fellow Republicans as when he held a second House vote on ratifying the casino. West Michigan Republicans said Mr. Johnson pledged to hold only one vote on the issue (when the first one was held, the compact failed).
Longtime Republican uber-activist Peter Secchia of West Michigan ripped into Mr. Johnson on the issue afterward and remains unsparing in his criticism.
"We don't trust him," Mr. Secchia said of Mr. Johnson's standing in that part of the state. "We spent 30 years so that Speaker Johnson could have a majority. And then he comes along, new kid on the block, and runs over his caucus."
But Mr. Johnson said he had no regrets over scheduling a second vote on the casino resolution. "As a matter of fact, that's the only resolution that passed with more than 56 votes ever in this chamber," he said, speaking of casino compact resolutions.
Elections: A glorious night in 2002, but a disappointing one in 2004
It is telling that a number of those interviewed for this story cited Mr. Johnson's two election nights as speaker as the high and low points of his tenure.
Mr. Drolet said Mr. Johnson worked feverishly in the 2002 elections to boost the Republican majority, and it paid off with a five-seat gain to 63 seats. Republicans had used shrewd messaging, impressive fund-raising and a tireless work ethic to overcome several Democratic candidates who started out with a more impressive profile than their GOP counterparts.
But in 2004, cracks began to show in the vaunted House GOP operation that had produced an 11-seat gain over the 1998, 2000 and 2002 elections.
Mr. Shields said the shift away from conservative Republican themes cost the House GOP in the 2004 elections.
"He took a conciliatory approach the last two years in working with Granholm instead of setting a course that Republicans have traditionally taken in this state," he said. "If you go along with everything the governor wants, what makes you any different? Why vote Republican?"
Mr. Julian, who also cited the two elections as the high and low point for Mr. Johnson, said it would be unfair to blame him for the decline to the 58 seats that GOP had when he became speaker.
Democratic Party Executive Chair Mark Brewer said Mr. Johnson's exiting office with Republicans at a 58-52 majority despite a Republican-led remapping process speaks ill of the speaker's performance in elections. He also was critical of Mr. Johnson departing with the House Republican Campaign Committee having a substantial debt given the lack of gains in seats.
"That gerrymandered map that they operate under should be giving them 66-67 seats," he said. "They're underperforming now, and they're going to be underperforming even worse (next term)."
But Mr. Johnson continues to defend House Republicans' performance in the 2004 elections as sound. Republicans simply had a ton of seats to protect in a presidential election year that brought out more voters without any competitive races on the ballot besides the presidency and the House.
"We were in the same position in this election as what the Democrats were in '98," he said of the situation where term limits deprived the party of many popular incumbents in competitive seats. "They lost majority. We kept it. And we're set up to pick up seats in '06 and '08. Which was always my plan from the beginning.
The speaker looks to the future
Mr. Johnson plans to remain involved in Lansing after he leaves the House. He is waiting on making a final decision until after the Legislature adjourns for the year December 9 to avoid any conflict of interest questions.
At this point, Mr. Johnson said he would like to become a behind-the-scenes player in building Republican candidates in his part of the state while also spending more time at his farm.
"I've been involved since '78. Pretty hard to walk away entirely (from) the political world. I'm not planning for running on anything right now," he said. "Might be fun to work behind the scenes."
Mr. Johnson sees major challenges ahead for the next Legislature on the budget. The state has "nibbled on the edges of cutting government" over the past four years, but the next two years will be about "eliminating government," he said.
Basic questions like whether the state needs 148 legislators and as many local officials as it has will have to be examined, he said.
In thinking back on any mistakes he made, Mr. Johnson recalled a night in 2002 when the House was trying to pass a 50-cent cigarette tax increase to keep basic funding for K-12 schools intact. Mr. Drolet, an opponent of the tax increase, also decided to vote against the precursor to the tax vote - the school aid budget, which was premised on getting the tax increase.
The House fell short of votes, and Mr. Johnson angrily confronted Mr. Drolet on the House floor, leading to the usually amiable Mr. Drolet storming off the House floor.
"I got into an argument with Leon Drolet one night that I probably shouldn't have. Apologized to him later," he said. "But he was in this office after session that night, and we talked it through."
Of the great moments and not-so-great moments of which Mr. Johnson spoke earlier, he said the highlights have been meeting Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as they exited Air Force One. He also savored the opportunity to work with two different governors from different political parties. And he enjoyed the process of working the House floor to win tough votes.
The tough times have come in dealing with the personal situations confronted by representatives over a family member's health or in navigating the occasionally snippy relationships between lawmakers, Mr. Johnson said. The other difficulty of the speakership is the Capitol Building's isolation, being away from the wheeling and dealing and chitchat that occurs in committees and the House floor, he said.
"You get isolated in this office a lot from other members. I like to talk to people and meet with people. That's why I do the Beaner's coffee or go out to dinner more often with other members because (you) try to make yourself accessible to members all the time," he said. "That's really important. And you lose that in this office just because of the demands in the office and everything that goes on with it."
Posted: January 3, 2023 10:21 AM
When the 102nd Legislature is sworn into office on January 11, the new House will have a climate unlike any in more than 30 years with nearly the entire body eligible to seek reelection in 2024 thanks to voters passing Proposal 22-1 to change term limits.
The new 12-year limit on legislative service means that only Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Onsted) will be ineligible to run.
Not since the 1990 election, the election prior to voters adopting term limits in 1992 that set a limit of three two-year terms in the House, have so many members had the ability to run again.
The House has 57 new members, one of the highest ever (the modern record was 64 in 1998 when the 1992 term limits law first took effect on that body). Most of them, other than Mr. Zorn, Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) and Rep. Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township), who all have prior legislative service in the Senate, the House or both, will be eligible to run for six two-year terms in the House if they wish.
Twenty-seven members who won in November what would have been their third and final term allowed under the old term limits law will instead be eligible to run for three more House terms if they wish.
Meanwhile in the Senate, 14 new members have joined the body. Under the language of the constitutional amendment, those winning their first term in November who had enough prior service in the House that would have prevented them from running in 2026 are eligible to seek a second term. That means Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township), Sen. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills), Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores), Sen. Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe), Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), Sen. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) and Sen. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) all can run in 2026.
All had served six years in the House.
Additionally, the following members who won reelection in November will be eligible to run for a third term in 2026 if they wish: Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Keego Harbor), Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) and Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia).
In 2026, 18 of the Senate's 38 members will be ineligible to seek reelection under the new limit.