state legislature

A political fight between Republicans and Democrats at the state Capitol has landed in court. Democrats in the state House say Republicans in the majority are violating the Michigan Constitution. The lawsuit says the House GOP majority refuses to hold recorded votes on a procedure that requires super-majorities to pass. It allows bills to become effective upon being signed by the governor.

Otherwise, bills cannot become law until 90 days after the end of a legislative session. The minority party often uses that to slow down controversial measures.

“We feel the constitution’s been violated over the past year plus and we have not been allowed to have immediate effect votes," says House Democratic Leader Rick Hammell.

A judge has ordered Republicans to show up in court on Monday to explain why they won’t hold recorded votes on the procedure. Democrats will ask the judge to order record roll call votes.

Republican leaders say they have complied with the constitution.

The state House has approved measures that would make it a crime to threaten or coerce a woman to have an abortion.

The measures would cover threats of physical violence, but also withdrawing housing or financial support if a woman does not end a pregnancy. 

Republican state Rep. Bruce Rendon spoke in favor of the measures.

“When a woman or a young girl is threatened of losing a lifeline, whether it’s shelter, financial support, or even a brief period of calm between incidents of emotional or physical abuse, let’s be clear, that is extortion,” Rendon said.

Critics of the measure say it should offer similar protections to women who are threatened or assaulted if they want to end a pregnancy.

The package now goes to the state Senate.

Ifmuth / Flickr

Measures on the state Senate calendar this week would require health insurance plans to cover autism treatments for children. Supporters of the autism mandate say early treatments can ensure children transition into healthy adults, and ultimately save money on health care costs.

There are an estimated 15,000 children in Michigan diagnosed with autism. But some mental health advocates say there are many more children with other brain disorders – such as severe depression or bi-polar disorder – who would similarly benefit from coverage.

Psychologist Judith Kovach says autism coverage is a good start – but singling out one condition isn’t fair to other families affected by mental illness.

“What do we say to those parents – your children don’t matter?”

Kovach appeared on Michigan Public TV this past weekend. The autism mandate is backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has a daughter with autism. They do not support expanding the requirement to cover all brain disorders.

JSFauxtaugraphy / Flickr

A lawmaker from the Upper Peninsula says every region in the state could benefit from a strong and vibrant Detroit.

Republican state Senator Tom Casperson has become an unlikely advocate for a regional transit system in southeast Michigan that would connect Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

Casperson’s district in the U.P. would not benefit directly from the transit system. But the U.P. could benefit long term from newfound political ties to Detroit.

Republican state Representative Bob Genetski
Photo courtesy of Rep. Genetski's office

Michigan State University has cut portions of a videotape and police report on the arrest of a state lawmaker who is a key decision-maker on higher education spending. State Representative Bob Genetski was stopped last month on the MSU campus and arrested for drunk driving.

The news service M-Live requested the police report and video after the full versions were used in a public hearing. MSU at first refused, but later provided versions that redacted Genetski’s responses to field sobriety tests such as reciting the alphabet, counting, and standing on one leg.

Michael MacLaren is the executive director of the Michigan Press Association. He says MSU’s action undermines the public’s trust in open government.

“It’s very troubling. And I worry about the pattern of behavior that would ensue from this. It just doesn’t smell right.”

An MSU spokesman says the redacted portions would have needlessly invaded Genetski’s privacy and that every freedom of information request to MSU is reviewed by a lawyer. Genetski chairs the House higher education budget subcommittee.

You can find the incident report (with portions cut out) here.

House panel to begin medical marijuana hearings

Feb 23, 2012

A state House panel is expected to begin hearings at the state Capitol today on a series of bills that would add regulations to the state’s medical marijuana law.

The bills before the state House panel would add regulations to how medical marijuana ID photos are taken and how the IDs are distributed. They would also add requirements for transportation of medical marijuana in a car. Several state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said the medical marijuana law is too vague and needs some clarification.

But supporters of the law say it was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2008, and lawmakers should not tamper with it. Similar public hearings to the one scheduled this week have attracted hundreds of medical marijuana supporters – many of them in wheelchairs and suffering from chronic disease or pain.

Cedar Bend Drive / Flickr

Legislation introduced in the Michigan House would generally prohibit doctors from performing abortions after a woman's 20th week of pregnancy.

The legislation introduced last week by Republican Rep. Eileen Kowall of Oakland County's White Lake Township is similar to laws approved in a handful of other states in the past few years. Supporters say the proposals are based on the premise that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, a claim that opponents dispute.

Opponents also say the proposals are a departure from Roe v. Wade, which lets states limit abortions in cases where there's a viable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb. That's generally considered to be 22 and 24 weeks.

The Michigan proposal would provide exceptions for when the mother's life is at risk.

Cedar Bend Drive / Flickr

A legislative subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for later this month on Michigan State University’s new policy that this year’s freshmen carry health insurance. Students that don’t have coverage will be enrolled in a university plan.

State Representative Bob Genetski chairs the House higher education budget subcommittee. He says the Michigan State rule sounds a little too close for his comfort to the federal health care law, and its mandate that everyone has to have insurance.  

“If MSU is mandating that students buy health insurance, it’s definitely something to look into. It sounds like the early onset of Obamacare and I don’t know that that’s their right to put it in.”

Genetski says the policy should wait until there’s a Supreme Court ruling on the federal health insurance mandate.

In published reports, MSU officials say mandatory coverage makes sense because it encourages students to get health care when they need it. They say a sickness can quickly sweep across campus when students forego a visit to the doctor.

Community college students may soon be able to get a bachelor’s degree without transferring to a four-year college or university. A bill before a state Senate panel would allow community colleges to offer the degrees in a few fields.

The measure would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in culinary arts, maritime studies, concrete technology, energy production, and nursing. State Representative John Walsh says the state needs more highly trained nurses. “We do at present have a shortage, and it’s only going to increase according to every study, including ones conducted by our own government.”

Those who oppose the measure say it would create unnecessary competition between community colleges and universities, especially in the field of nursing. But supporters of the bill say many people are not within a reasonable driving distance of a university, and community colleges could offer people in rural areas more opportunities to pursue four-year degrees.

Lawmakers weigh rail-to-trail dilemma

Jan 27, 2012
All Things Michigan / Flickr

A conversation at the state Capitol about turning an old stretch of train track in Petoskey into a public recreation trail has become a debate about the future of train transit in Michigan.

Officials in Petoskey are asking lawmakers to give them the go-ahead to purchase a section of train track from the state to add onto an existing trail. Kelly Bartlett is with the Michigan Department of Transportation, which supports the request from Petoskey. Bartlett said the state does not sell viable train track.

The newsroom 8-ball says: "Answer hazy, try again later."

As we reported earlier this week, a proposal in the state legislature that would create a "Choose Life" specialty Michigan license plate cleared a Senate committee and has made its way to the chamber floor. If the proposal passes, proceeds from the plates would go to a newly-formed organization called the Choose Life Michigan Fund.

A Facebook fan responded, writing:  "These 'pregnancy resource centers' and 'other prolife entities' actively evangelize and attempt to convert vulnerable women to their version of Christianity."

This comment got us wondering, if the proposal passes, what exactly will money from the plates pay for?

MPRN's Capitol Bureau Chief Rick Pluta weighed in on the question of whether or not the proposed legislation would allow pro-life groups to use money raised by the state to proselytize in any way.

Some health advocates say Governor Rick Snyder was not bold enough in his State of the State speech on fighting childhood obesity. Governor Snyder mentioned a program in his speech last week that would teach parents about proper nutrition for young children to help combat childhood obesity.

Katherine Knoll is with the Midwest chapter of the American Heart Association. She says kids need direct instruction on how to control their weight, and that should take place in school.

“Just as we don’t expect them to know how to read when they enter school, we don’t expect them to know how to balance that calories-in-calories-out equation, and we need to work with them on that," Knoll says.

Knoll says she hopes the state Legislature will approve a measure that would require all kids in elementary and middle school to have physical education twice a week.

A spokeswoman for Governor Snyder says the governor wants to take a comprehensive approach toward tackling obesity. She says the administration expects to hear soon from the Department of Community Health on details of an obesity-fighting plan.

Matthileo / Flickr

Tea Party activists and health care advocates packed a public hearing yesterday at the state Capitol. State lawmakers will decide over whether Michigan should create a website that would allow people to comparison shop for health insurance. Most people who showed up used the event to voice their opinion on the federal Affordable Care Act.

The online health care exchange is required under the new health care law, which is why many Republicans at the state Capitol have been hesitant to approve the website. They say it would be an endorsement of the Affordable Care Act.

Doctor Fadwa Gillanders is a chronic disease management specialist. She opposes national health care. She told lawmakers about a patient with several chronic conditions who called her – in her words – begging for help.   

“I get beggars every day. We’re turning into a nation of beggars, ‘Can you give me? Can you give me?’ Because we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, and we’re hoping insurance will make it better, but it actually makes it worse.”

Those who support national health care say health care is too expensive and too few people receive adequate care. The Republican chair of the House panel says she has no timeline to approve or reject the creation of the health exchange website.

msmail / Flickr

The Michigan Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to review a bill today that would create a specialty license plate to raise money for the Right to Life of Michigan Fund.

According to Right to Life of Michigan, drivers would be able to purchase the specialty plates to support the pro-life cause.

Lawmakers have previously tried to bring up similar legislation, but it has failed. According to

About half the U.S. has "Right to Life" specialty plates, but their roll-out has been contentious. Groups in several states have mounted legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, some successfully, some not. The Supreme Court has let stand state rulings barring production of the plates.

Most recently, in November, a North Carolina judge blocked production of the plates until a legal battle was resolved. The American Civil Liberties Union argued production of the plates constituted "viewpoint discrimination" because there was no corresponding pro-choice alternative.

Michigan State Senator Patrick Colbeck introduced the legislation, also known as Senate Bill No. 600.

A national advocacy group for autism-treatment says Michigan tops its list of states it believes could require insurance companies to cover treatments for autistic children this year.

Rick Remington, with the New York-based group Autism Speaks, said the support of Republican leaders in the Michigan legislature along with Governor Rick Snyder bodes well for autism-treatment legislation.

“It’s been before the legislature for a number of years, it’s gotten strong support from Governor Snyder, as well as the advocacy of the lieutenant governor,” Remington said. “We’ve got strong support, bi-partisan support from the Michigan legislature. So, we’re very confident we will see a bill become law this year.”

Twenty-nine states already have insurance mandates for autism-treatment.

Remington said advocates for autism coverage are becoming more prevalent in legislatures throughout the nation as the number of autism diagnoses increases.

Many insurance companies oppose the idea, saying it would increase costs.

AFL-CIO: still broad support for unions in Michigan

Jan 13, 2012

State union leaders say lawmakers should focus on creating more jobs in Michigan with more support for education and public services. And they say lawmakers should not try to make Michigan a right-to-work state.

Karla Swift is president of the Michigan chapter of AFL-CIO. She says most people in Michigan still support unions and collective bargaining rights, and would not want Michigan to be a right-to-work state. And she says Governor Rick Snyder has signaled he does not favor a right-to-work law, either.

“The governor’s made his position clear that he wants to do the work of rebuilding Michigan’s economy and creating jobs, and not spend time on right-to-work," Swift says.

Swift says right-to-work laws have not proven effective in many states with high unemployment rates. Supporters of right-to-work say it would help Michigan attract new businesses.

Richardville talks Senate priorities in 2012

Jan 12, 2012
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.
Photo courtesy of Richardville's office

Republican leaders in the state Legislature say they will not be quick to spend any potential surplus money left over from the last budget year. An annual conference to determine how much money the state will have to spend this year is scheduled for Friday. A few hundred million dollars in additional revenue is expected to be available for lawmakers to spend on state-funded programs.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says special interest groups and advocates won’t get far if they ask him for more funding. “It doesn’t matter to me if they ask or not. You know, we’ve all been about financial responsibility from the beginning, and I think the reason you have emergency financial managers, the reason the president of the United States is trying to figure out ways to print new money is because we haven’t been financially responsible in the past," Richardville says.

Richardville says the Legislature was smart last year by adding to the state’s rainy day fund and helping to pay off long-term debts. Some Democratic lawmakers say a priority for surplus revenue should be to fill cuts to K-12 schools and higher education.

Meanwhile, Richardville also says he does not think Michigan should be a right-to-work state. He says he does not think eliminating the requirement that some workers pay union dues would help the business climate in Michigan.

“I believe any economic benefits that are talked about with regard to bringing jobs into Michigan are overstated quite a bit because the jobs that we’re trying to attract in Michigan aren’t the lower-level jobs that right-to-work might address," Richardville says.

Governor Rick Snyder has also said he thinks a debate over right-to-work would be divisive. Supporters of right-to-work legislation say Michigan could lose business and jobs to neighboring states if they adopt similar measures.

Photo courtesy of Senator Whitmer's office

A developing proposal from Senate Democrats would allow Michigan high school graduates to get grants of up to roughly $9,500 a year for attending college by ending some tax credits and other revenue changes.

The grants could be used to pay tuition or associated costs for attending public universities and community colleges in the state.

The plan would be paid for by closing what Democrats call "tax loopholes" and ending some tax credits, collecting sales tax from out-of-state Internet retailers and saving money on state contracts.

Democratic Senator Gretchen Whitmer told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it's a bold step needed to make Michigan more prosperous and attractive to businesses.

The proposal likely would face stiff opposition in the Republican-dominated Legislature, particularly at a time of tight state budgets.

thetoad / Flickr

A scuffle between lawmakers interrupted a session of the state House of Representatives yesterday evening. Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta was at the Capitol and reports:

Representative Harvey Santana lunged at fellow Detroit Democrat David Nathan during a heated discussion at Nathan’s desk. State Representative Roy Schmidt got between the two and was knocked about. A staffer was also accidentally pushed to the floor as House security rushed to break up the altercation. Santana was escorted out of the room by the House sergeant at arms, but was later allowed to return to his seat to vote.

"No physical contact was exchanged in the incident that occurred at about 8:45 p.m. as the chamber was winding down after passing a flurry of bills before to the Legislature's holiday break, " the Detroit News reports.

State Representative Schmidt, "had his teeth clenched around a lollipop stick that remained lodged in his mouth through the several seconds of the fracas," Pluta reports. Wood-TV has this statement from Schmidt's spokesman:

"News reports of a 'fist fight' on the House or Floor tonight are greatly over stated. (sic)

Two Democrat Representatives had a difference of opinion that got a little heated. Representative Roy Schmidt, wanting to avert any escalation of the problem, stepped in between the two gentlemen and stopped the argument.

No punches we (sic) ever thrown. The House Sergeants responded immediately and had one of the Reps step outside to cool off while Representative Schmidt returned to his seat."

It's still unclear just what, exactly, the fight was about. Pluta reports that shortly after the scuffle, everyone BUT the lawmakers were ordered off the House floor and House members were confined to their seats under Rule 32.2 of the House of Representatives. Rule 32.2 reads:

The members shall keep their seats until the Majority Floor Leader announces that no further voting will occur or the Presiding Officer announces that the House is adjourned.

This, reportedly, led to discussions in the Capitol lobby that lawmakers were in an "adult time out."

The House finished its work for the year last night.

user gadgetgirl / Flickr

Potential large-scale changes to Michigan's workers' compensation laws now hinge on a stroke of Governor Rick Snyder's pen.

The Associated Press reports that Snyder "will likely support the bill pending final review."

In case you haven't been keeping up on the issue, here's a list of important facts about workers' compensation in Michigan from Changing Gears Public Insight Analyst, Sarah Alvarez.

We've also highlighted one of the more controversial changes that could take effect should the governor sign off on the bill.

5 things to know about workers' compensation:

Cedear Bend Drive / Flickr

A fight could be brewing at the state Capitol over funding an exchange that would allow people and businesses to comparison-shop for health insurance. The state is supposed to create the exchange as part of the new federal health care reform requirements.

Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol have debated whether funding the health insurance exchange would be showing support for the new federal health care law.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says it’s one of the handful of pressing questions that should be settled this week before the Legislature begins a month-long winter break. He says there are other issues that can wait.  

“We want to have a docket ready to go come January, and we want to use that month of January a little more effectively than in the past.”

The Legislature is also still debating whether to allow more K-12 charter schools, and whether to overhaul the state’s workers compensation rules. And a lingering question remains whether the state House will vote to dramatically alter Michigan’s no-fault insurance laws.

Republican leaders at the state Capitol say they expect to wrap up work on a plan to ensure there’s money to help low-income families with their heating bills this winter. But, their efforts are already being criticized because they don’t encourage energy efficiency.

About 600,000 Michigan households needed heating aid last winter. House and Senate leaders say they will continue discussions to fix a problem created last summer by a court decision that forced lawmakers to find a new way to pay for the program.

Republican state Representative Ken Horn says the new program will not include money for a part of the program that pays for energy efficiency projects on public buildings.

“That is not helping low-income families. What we are doing very specifically it is very targeted, is helping the most-vulnerable families in the state of Michigan.”

Representative Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, says that’s a mistake.

“Shouldn’t we at least continue with the projects that are half-baked and not waste hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money?”

Republicans say that’s a discussion that can wait until next year.

user dominic's pics / Flickr

At the state Capitol, the debate continues over how to ensure there’s money available to help thousands of low-income families that need help paying their heating bills this winter. The need for a solution is becoming more urgent as temperatures start to dip below freezing, and the Legislature is a week away from starting its winter break.

Senator Mike Nofs chairs the Senate Energy and Technology Committee. He said a solution will be in place before the Legislature begins its holiday break next week.

user csuspect / Flickr

Michigan lawmakers are working  to fine-tune a law intended to protect both freedom of speech and the dignity of military funerals.

The Grand Rapids Press reports:

The bill on Tuesday cleared the Senate's Military and Veterans Affairs Committee by a 3-0 margin, with two Democratic senators absent.

The original law came in response to members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which has staged controversial protests at military funerals. Church members assert that military deaths are God’s punishment for tolerance of gays.

Michigan’s law keeps such protesters at least 500 feet from a funeral ceremony, but lawmakers have said other people could have been affected – such as a person parked near a funeral home with an an anti-war bumper sticker on their car, or someone mowing their lawn near a cemetery.

The new version of the bill which cleared the House would make it clear that the actions must be intended to intimidate, threaten, or harass people attending a funeral, service, viewing, procession, or burial.

The Grand Rapids Press reports that the law is in accordance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Westboro members' rights to conduct their controversial protests.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Charter school expansion up for possible vote

Dec 5, 2011
Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

More charter schools may soon be allowed to open in Michigan. The state House is expected to vote this week on a measure that would get rid of the cap on the number of university-sponsored charter schools in the state.

State Representative Tom McMillin chairs the House Education Committee. He said it’s important for lawmakers to approve the changes before they leave for a winter break.

“I want to unchain as many kids as I can from failing schools,” said McMillin. “And the sooner we put in place how that can be done, the more that people who are interested in filling that need that desperate need, will be able to start planning and putting it in process so they don’t lose a year, you know so they can do it quicker.”

But Peter Spadafore disagrees. Spadafore is with the Michigan Association of School Boards, which opposes the proposed changes. He said most of the testimony lawmakers heard was from representatives of high-performing charter schools.

“But what’s not being talked about is that one third of failing schools in the state of Michigan are charter schools, and one third of all charter schools are on the bottom 20 percent of the Michigan Department of Education’s list of persistently low-achieving schools,” Spadafore said.

Spadafore said the proposal should include requirements that all charter schools perform well as a condition of staying open.

Supporters of the measure say parents and students –especially in neighborhoods with low-performing public schools – deserve more options.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Organizations representing retiree groups say they want the Michigan Legislature to repeal an unpopular tax on pensions, or lawmakers will pay the political price in the 2012 election.

The AARP and groups representing public employee retirees called for a repeal Friday before the new tax plan takes effect in January.

The groups say they haven't ruled out filing suit in federal court to try and block the changes, but they are focused on getting lawmakers to take action.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A proposal designed to allow more charter schools or public school academies in Michigan has taken a step forward.

The Republican-led House Education Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would end some numerical and geographical limits on charter schools. The bill passed by an 11-6, mostly party line vote and advances to the House floor.

The measure narrowly passed the Republican-led Senate in October.

The state has roughly 250 charter schools. Supporters say more should be allowed to boost educational options in public schools.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder could veto his first bill this week. He faces a Friday morning deadline to sign or a reject measure sent to him by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The bill would make it difficult for state agencies to enact rules that are stricter than federal standards without first getting permission from the Legislature.

Sara Wurfel is the governor’s press secretary.

Democrats in Lansing have outlined a package to help small businesses grow and hire unemployed people.

The plan includes taking a portion of the money that’s in a state trust fund and investing it in local banks and credit unions to make small business loans.

State Representative Vicki Barnett said that will help small businesses having trouble getting credit from larger banks and investment funds.

“We know that a very teeny investment can have huge dividends in terms of job creation and access to capital,” said Barnett.

“There is no other state that I know of that is taking this approach to aggressive investment – doing things they already do with taxpayer money and targeting it to grow jobs in their own state,”she added. 

The Democratic package would also allow small banks and credit unions to pool their finances to invest in larger projects.

Barnett says that would make larger loans possible while allowing the institutions to share the risk.

The plan also calls for a tax credit for small businesses that hire long-term unemployed people and veterans.

Republicans shy away from job creation credits. They say the state should not single out specific businesses for tax breaks.

Democrats at the state capital are calling for a two-year moratorium on a procedure used to extract hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits.

They are taking aim at a process called hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – where water, sand, and chemicals are sent down a well to loosen stubborn pockets of gas and oil.

Here's a demo of how it works from Chesapeake Energy:

Critics say it has caused pollution and dried-up water wells in other states.

State Representative Jeff Irwin thinks the procedure needs to be more tightly regulated as it becomes more common in Michigan.

He said more study is needed on the potential effects of deep-rock fracking on the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

“We have a tremendous amount to protect here in Michigan with our surface waters and our Great Lakes,” Irwin said. “When you think about what makes Michigan a special place to be, it’s really our water. It’s the one thing that we have that makes us unique over and above anyplace in the world. We have the best water resources in the world.”

Irwin said new rules should include limits on groundwater withdrawals and full disclosure of all chemicals used.

Brad Wurfel with the state Department of Environmental Quality said Michigan has some of the strictest fracking regulations in the country, and that the process has been safely used in the state's shallow rock for decades.

“If you look around the state, you’ll see where oil and gas producers over the past 60 years have fracked probably on the order of around 12,000 wells,” said Wurfel.

Wurfel said the state updated its drilling regulations in May to address hydro-fracking deeper into the rock.