The Gongwer Blog

by Elena Durnbaugh, Staff Writer

Muscular Dystrophy Motivates Morgan To 'Spend Every Minute Of Every Day Doing Something To Help People'

Posted: September 11, 2023 9:20 AM

Rep. Jason Morgan lives every day to the fullest.

The Democrat from Ann Arbor takes phone calls, holds meetings with stakeholders, works on legislation, and in between, spends time with his fiancé.

Morgan, 33, said his drive comes from a deeply held belief that government can and should do good for people, but also, the knowledge that life is short.

When he was 14, Morgan was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a rare neuromuscular disease that causes progressive weakness and breakdown of skeletal muscles over time.

"It's something that I, even today, flinch a little bit about talking about because it's so deeply personal," he said. "But it's also the entire reason that I work in government and politics … the reason I'm here is because I have never known how long I will have to live and have always wanted to make sure that I spend every minute of every day doing something to help people and to make the world a better place."

Morgan is aware that his reasoning can come across as overly earnest.

"It sounds so cheesy, but it's so real for me," he said. "I do live with a disease that could strongly impact my health at any moment. I am generally very positive, and upbeat and cheery, and it's very hard to sound upbeat and cheery when you're talking about a potentially terminal illness."

Knowing his time is limited gives Morgan an immense sense of purpose.

"The way I've always looked at my diagnosis is that this was ultimately a really amazing gift," he said. "To make sure that I'm making the most of every day of my life, and that is something that so few people ever get…that drive to be able to wake up every day and take on new challenges and push harder than you pushed the day before."

When Morgan decided to run for the House in the summer of 2021, he never thought he'd get the chance to be part of the majority, especially not a majority trifecta.

"It was my expectation that I could really push in the areas I wanted to push in, focus on constituent services and be a strong voice for the Washtenaw County, Oakland, Wayne area," he said. "The really exciting thing has been that we get to do a lot of very big things that I didn't expect to have the votes to work."

Morgan's been in and around political office since he was 17, starting work in the office of U.S. Congressman Bart Stupak in 2010. He went on to work for U.S. Congressman John Dingell, U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, U.S. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and U.S. Congresswoman Haley Stevens.

Prior to running for the House, he served on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. He also taught at Washtenaw Community College.

"It was just sort of an unexpected journey for me," Morgan said. "I never anticipated going into politics when I was a kid, but I've been very happy with the work that I've been able to do."

Ultimately, Morgan believes that government exists to do good things, but that optimism can feel counter-cultural in Lansing.

"The system that we have in Lansing is far less pure and good than I would like it to be," he said. "So much of our state government and the way that our legislature operates – and has operated for decades – is focused on power and money and the influence of those two things."

People get caught up in the horse race of politics, whether that be raising the most money, passing the most bills or getting the most news coverage, and what's best for Michigan residents gets lost in the shuffle, Morgan said.

"What matters at the end of the day is, 'Are we helping people, and are we doing the most to help people?'" he said. "If we're not, then I get really mad because that's what we're here to do."

That leaves Morgan feeling conflicted, he said, because although he's excited about what the Legislature has been able to do so far this term, he feels like they should be doing more.

"I do think we're passing major things that are going to help people, but I'm also frustrated that we're not moving even more with the unique opportunity we have with a Democratic trifecta," he said.

On bad days, it's easy to wonder if he's actually making a difference, Morgan said.

"I have very much wondered whether we are actually able to move the needle enough to help people to make the stress and frustrations of this job worth it," he said. "I see the challenges systemically of how we operate as a government, and I understand it all very well … but to feel it myself has been both discouraging and encouraging."

Morgan said it's discouraging because he sees how much work the system truly needs, but it's encouraging to find colleagues who share his values.

"I think there's a lot of hope, especially in the freshman class – both the Republican and Democratic side," he said. "If you look at where there may be divides in our caucuses, a lot of it does seem to stem from the half of the Legislature that is new and the number of folks who've been around for a while. A lot of the new folks have come in with this idea that we should do good things for the right reasons and understand what those political consequences may be but not let them stop us from doing the right things."

Morgan balances his desire to do more with an appreciation of what is being accomplished.

"Even if it means everything doesn't get done," he said. "This is worth doing the work because we're moving forward in a positive direction and doing positive things for people that have needed to be done for decades."

The Legislature is currently working to undo policies that were harmful to many Michigan residents, Morgan said.

"You saw labor rights being rolled back, LGBTQ rights not being able to advance, rollbacks on reproductive health decisions, education funding continuing to be under-invested in," he said. "All of these this were just devastating to our state."

But those policies became law over the course of decades, Morgan said, so they can't be unwound in six months.

"The challenging part is that I operate with a mindset of potentially limited time, and so I have this sense of urgency for myself," he said. "I have to level-set with myself to say 'It's OK if we don't get everything done immediately. We're still moving in a positive direction at a pretty good pace. And it's worth it.'"

This fall will be busy for Morgan, but not just because of the legislative calendar. In October, Morgan will be getting married.

His fiancé, who works in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, helps keep Morgan grounded and balanced while he continues to push for change.

"As busy as I am, I also still feel like it's all balanced pretty well," he said. "And my fiancé is both extremely understanding, while also gently nudging me when I'm working too much."

Although 2024 looms on the horizon, Morgan is focused on what's immediately ahead of him.

"I'm really focused on trying to make sure that the things that we do this fall are as thorough and comprehensive as we can make them," he said.

During the next few months, Morgan said he hopes to start work on more complicated policy issues that aren't as headline grabbing, such as affordable housing, transit and environmental concerns.

"Heavier, meatier public policy questions that involve so many different facets of state government bureaucracy," he said.

Above all, Morgan wants people to understand why he does the work that he does.

"I have found, on some occasions, that colleagues will be confused about how stubborn I am about good government–as if you can't be hopeful and optimistic in this work and also be pragmatic and realistic," he said. "I firmly believe in constantly being a voice for being the best that we can be with a firm understanding of the realities of working in politics at the same time. But somebody has to be that bright light … otherwise, there's no chance at all."

What Are The Chances Of A 54-54 Split In The House?

Posted: August 14, 2023 11:44 AM

Democrats are doing the math on the likelihood of a 54-54 split in the House following the November general election following the success of Rep. Kevin Coleman and Rep. Lori Stone in local primaries.

Coleman (D-Westland) and Stone (D-Warren) are running for mayor in their respective hometowns, and both took second place in their primary elections last week.

Should both get elected mayor, there would be a period of perhaps six weeks at the start of 2024 when the House would be split 54-54. Democrats would still hold the gavel and control under the House rules but would be unable to pass anything without at least one Republican vote until a Democrat would presumably succeed Coleman, who would take office in mid-November, in his safely Democratic seat and give them a 55-54 majority until Stone's replacement was elected several weeks later.

Coleman came in second with 41 percent of the vote to current Interim Mayor Mike Londeau, who took 44 percent of the vote. Stone, who won 27.7 percent of the vote, took second place to Warren Human Resources Director George Dimas, who won more than 33 percent of the vote.

Coming out of the primary, Coleman said he felt good about his chances to win the mayor's seat in November (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 7, 2023).

"There's only a 300-vote difference between the two of us that made it through, and any time you get above 40 percent in a six-way primary, you're doing something right," he said. "The majority of voters voted for change."

In a statement, Londeau said he was honored to receive the highest number of votes in the primary.

"This resounding victory is a testament to the progress we have made and our plans for an even brighter future. The trust and support I have received from the citizens of Westland inspires me to work even harder to serve our community," he said. "We've started a journey towards a brighter future for Westland. This achievement is a testament to our shared vision for progress. Let's continue to build momentum and create positive change."

Londeau also extended his appreciation to the other candidates.

"Your commitment to our community and democratic process is commendable," he said. "Let's continue working together for a brighter future for our city. Thank you for your efforts and passion."

Coleman said he spoke with House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) and people from Governor Gretchen Whitmer's team about his plans to run for local office early into the term.

"We've all chatted about it, and the understanding is that a special election will be called as soon as possible," he said. "That way, it would be a short window."

Because Westland is holding a special election, the candidate who wins in November will take office upon certification of the election.

Coleman said that if he should win the mayor's seat, it would be important to him that Westland still have good representation in the House.

"While I'd be laser focused on being mayor, I would still have an interest in making sure that we elect a great person to fill my shoes and advocate for Westland and our district because that's super important," he said.

The 25th District is a safe Democratic seat, so Coleman said he isn't concerned about his party losing the majority.

"That kind of narrative is really not realistic because we lean so heavily towards the Democratic side of the aisle that's not going to happen," he said. "It's just making sure it's the right person."

Stone's seat in the 13th District is similarly safe for Democrats.

Coleman said his sense was that if he wins in November, his seat would only be vacant for a few months and that the same would be true of Stone's seat if she wins the mayoral election in Warren.

"My understanding is leadership looked at it from a legal standpoint," he said. "So, there's not that concern that leadership or committees would be affected."

The possibility of a 54-54 split isn't as big of a deal for Democrats as it could have been, said Josh Pugh, senior director of public affairs at Truscott Rossman.

"The speaker wrote the rules so that he and the Democrats retain control of the gavel at 54-54," he said. "They don't need 56 to retain the current set of House rules and Republicans have no way to get to a majority, so there's nothing that would threaten that. So, when it comes to controlling the agenda, which is the first and most important reward of majority, nothing is threatened."

The only real question is how a potential 54-54 split could delay Democratic priorities, but Coleman said that challenge would be easily solved by a quick turnaround on a special election.

"We would still have the better part of a year in 2024 to legislate," he said. "And I think good things come to those who wait."

Pugh agreed, saying that if both Coleman and Stone win, the question for Democrats would be how to advance their agenda without any Republican votes.

"The first six months of session were extraordinarily productive and really making up for lost time in passing things that weren't necessarily red meat for Democrats, but were certainly things that Republicans, when they were in the majority, had no real interest in," he said, citing the implementation of Proposal 2 and spending the state's budget surplus. "The question is going to be now, what are those bipartisan areas of agreement?"

Pugh said that in the first half of this legislative term the Republican caucus held together as a 54-vote block to gain leverage, but that calculus might change.

"The thing about leverage is that it doesn't just apply to the 54 members of the Republican caucus as a block," he said. "It can be used by individual members as well."

If the House finds itself in an even 54-54 split, Pugh said Republican members would be faced with the question of how much they cared about supporting a bill or solving an issue and secondarily if they could get something out of Democrats in return for their vote.

"It's crass, but that could be a calculation," he said.

Coleman said that he chose to run for mayor in Westland because that's where his heart is.

"It's about where can I serve best to be most impactful," he said. "Westland has a ton of need. The lowest amount of public safety staff that we've ever had, so crime is an issue. Economic development is an issue because we have vacant commercial property all over town. And the status que hasn't done anything to improve that."

Despite his campaign for mayor, Coleman said he's still focused on representing his community well at the state level.

"I love representing my district and my community, and I'm going to work even harder as we go forward," he said. "On both ends of things."

The likelihood of the 54-54 split might not be as high as everyone is expecting, though, Pugh said.

"Voters may seem a little ill-tempered right now with politics and with their current representatives, but that doesn't really extend to the local level," he said. "When you have someone locally who's a known entity and has a demonstrated track record, voters oftentimes like that and want to stick with that known entity."

That could complicate Coleman's efforts to unseat the interim mayor. Stone might have an easier path to winning her election because everyone in Warren has an opinion about current Mayor Jim Fouts (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 7, 2023).

"She, in many ways, is running against the ghost of Jim Fouts, where Rep. Coleman has to run against a little bit more stability and competency and that's always a little bit more stability and competency and that's always difficult," Pugh said. "If there's even an implication of incumbency, you have to convince voters to vote against that before you even start talking to them about why to support you as an alternative."

Neither Stone nor Dimas returned a request for comment last week.

If either Stone or Coleman win their local races, the gameplan for Democrats should be to have them stepdown immediately, Pugh said.

"The clock doesn't start until they do that," he said. "There are a number of procedural hurdles … but you can be sure that the governor will move swiftly to make sure that voters have a chance to be represented in the State House in Westland and Warren."

Regardless of what happens in November, Pugh said the Democratic majority will likely continue to move quickly when they return in the fall.

"Even if both of these representatives lose and you have a two-seat majority for the next 18 months, that's only 18 months, and nothing is assured," he said. "It's still a narrow majority, and nothing is assured. It's still a narrow majority, and we often have representatives who leave their seats for unexpected reasons, not just local elections. And so, you have to govern like there's no tomorrow."

State's $50M To Pontiac To Boost City's Downtown

Posted: August 1, 2023 9:07 AM

Pontiac has existed as the forgotten seat of Oakland County for decades, but local leaders and state lawmakers are hoping an injection of state funding will reverse years of disinvestment and financial woes for the city.

As part of the general enhancement grants included in the budget passed by the Legislature last month, Oakland County is receiving $50 million for downtown revitalization efforts – the biggest single grant to one community – plus an additional $5 million available to Pontiac. The city is also receiving $10 million to rebuild its Martin Luther King overpass bridge and $2 million for its community health program.

The $55 million toward downtown revitalization will be used to move some county offices into the city center. That level of funding is nearly the size of the Pontiac's entire budget, which is between $60 million and $80 million.

"Investing in older, central cities is important both from a quality-of-life standpoint, but also from a social justice and economic justice standpoint," Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel said in an interview. "The county's substantial investment in the heart of downtown is in large part about reversing decades of bad policy on the part of the county that was largely influenced by racism. By reversing that history it's staking a claim that its rightful place is in the heart of the county seat."

County government has been absent from downtown since the 1960s, and under the tenure of L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive's office was moved out of Pontiac into neighboring Waterford Township.

The idea of moving some county employees back into downtown Pontiac came up during County Executive Dave Coulter's first year in office. Coulter said he thought it was a great idea to show commitment to the city and inspire confidence in business owners and developers.

"Now, I'll be honest, I didn't anticipate something this large," he said. "I was thinking about a department that might move to a building there to put a flag in the ground."

The influx of cash into Oakland County and Pontiac due to the American Rescue Plan Act changed Coulter's perspective. He recalled a conversation with Greimel in early 2023 about what sort of transformational projects could be done in the city.

"He said, 'I'll tell you what would be impactful, Mr. Executive: We've talked about moving some employees downtown since you got here, but the county hasn't had employees downtown since the early '60s. And if there was a way to have a significant presence of county employees and investment downtown, I believe that could be a catalyst for others,'" Coulter said. "There was possibility to do something that would be a radical change to the office space in downtown, which is what we're talking about, and it just went from there."

Now, Oakland County plans to purchase the Ottawa Towers, the former General Motors building and the Phoenix Center parking garage. Both are in the heart of downtown Pontiac.

Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) immediately understood the difference that an investment in Pontiac could make, Coulter said.

"They were incredible champions," he said.

Carter has lived in Pontiac for nearly three decades, and she knew as well as anyone that this is not the first time there have been efforts to pump life back into the city.

"There have been several attempts to revitalize downtown Pontiac, but it needed a major infusion of feet on the streets," she said. "There's been nothing that really sustains an impact for a long period of time, but actually moving these offices down…will revitalize the businesses and give them new hope, which is something they haven't had in a very long time."

For decades, Pontiac has been ignored, Moss said.

"Pontiac was our county seat but was very much neglected by our previous county executive. The local government was an emergency manager appointed by the state, and it just didn't get a lot of attention," he said. "It was a blue city in the middle of a Republican (county). And so now, all these years later, all of the pieces are there for Pontiac to get its deserving attention after years of neglect from the state, the city and the county."

In 2009, General Motors shut down its assembly plant in Pontiac, which was a devastating blow to the economic fabric of the city.

"I saw the economic decline that happened after the manufacturing community had to unfortunately leave Pontiac," Carter said. "Pontiac was a GM town, with lots of good paying jobs. We had good schools, we had great businesses, we had a vibrant downtown, but as with any community, not just Pontiac, once the manufacturing sector left, the community became a ghost town."

From 2009 until 2016, the city was operated by an emergency manager appointed by the state.

"It's fair to say a lot of factors went in those shortsighted decisions that have been made over the last half-century or more," Greimel said. "Certainly, a general disinvestment in central cities, a bad-driven infatuation with suburbia were factors, but also, I think a very systemic, racist view of majority-Black cities and the downtown environment in Pontiac."

Pontiac also was a victim of various well-intentioned urban renewal projects.

In the 1960s the Woodward Loop was built around the city. Also known as Wide Track, when it was built in 1964, The Loop, up to six lanes wide in places, was hailed as a modern success. The one-way roadway was an effort to untangle bottlenecked traffic created by GM workers and tractor-trailers carrying auto parts to the city's bustling factories. But instead, it shuffled people away from downtown.

Last year, the Department of Transportation agreed to unwind the Woodward Loop. The construction will take place during 2024-25, and the roadway will be transformed into a two-way boulevard with sidewalks, traffic signals and bike paths. The goal is to create a pedestrian friendly boulevard that will decrease traffic speeds and reconnect neighborhoods to downtown.

The Phoenix Center– an amphitheater, parking garage and plaza located downtown – is another example of urban renewal gone wrong. It was built in the 1970s at the edge of downtown, and like the Woodward Loop, it divided the downtown and separated the heart of the city from the surrounding area. The amphitheater on the roof has not been fully functional for about 15 years.

"That ugly, concrete structure bifurcated our downtown into two halves and really disrupted the walkability," Greimel said.

The facility was the cause of legal battles for more than a decade, which centered around the parking deck and the deck's adjoining office towers. The court cases were settled in 2021.

Many of Pontiac's challenges were heightened by neglect from the state, Moss said. That's coming to an end.

"Some of the crises were amplified by state actors, especially when it was in emergency management," he said. "I feel very strongly, as the senator for Pontiac, that Pontiac's day has arrived."

Now, the goal is to get people back into the city.

"We're fixing The Loop so that it's two-way, slower, so there's more ingress and egress into downtown Pontiac so that it makes it easier for people to get in," Coulter said. "If we can get this project on top of that and add 500 or more county employees into the downtown, which gives foot traffic, which helps with restaurants and shops, I think that's a model that can be replicated in other communities that have faced similar challenges."

Coulter said the investment also would make Pontiac a more attractive place for young people and young families.

"The governor wants to grow our population, and so do I," he said. "So, how do we keep and attract young people? One of the things they want is an urban, walkable experience … this could be an attraction."

The county and the city are currently in negotiations about what parking will look like for the properties the city plans to purchase, and the county plans to close on the building next month.

The timeline for moving county employees downtown is less certain, but Coulter said the goal is to do that as quickly as possible.

"We've got to do it the right way," he said. "We will issue RFPs for all of this and be very transparent about the process. But our intent is to do that just as quickly as feasible."

Greimel said the city will be following the county's lead.

"The county is looking to very quickly begin renovation on the office towers, and they're looking to probably stage any actions when it comes to the parking garage because no matter what occurs with the existing parking garage … it will have to be staged in such a way there is a continuing adequate number of parking spaces."

Many of the tenants in the second office building are state employees with the Department of Health and Human Services, Greimel said.

"Our hope is that this substantially boosts demand for amenities like restaurants so that the existing restaurants have more business, and that hopefully more restaurants are encouraged to open in our downtown," Greimel said.

Already, business owners have taken notice of the plans and are exploring starting new enterprises downtown, he added.

"It's a new day in the city," Greimel said. "The county's willingness to invest in the city, as well as the Legislature's willingness to invest in the city, is a testament to their confidence in the new administration and the new city council. And certainly, as these projects get off the ground, it will be a very visible indication to residents and businesses alike that the city is moving forward, and we are improving the quality of life and the investment climate in the community."

The attempt to revitalize downtown is different from attempts of the past half-century because this time, the city, the county and the state are working together on a cohesive vision, Moss said.

"There have been a lot of challenges that Pontiac has faced, and I think a lot of them have been due to lack of revenue sharing, due to other mismanagement and certainly due to an emergency manager who made decisions that the city is still reeling from more than a decade later," Moss said. "This is a bookend moment to really correct some wrongs that were driven by the government."

The money coming from the state for downtown enhancements and for other projects, like repairing the city's Martin Luther King bridge and the investment in community health, is a commitment to correcting past wrongs, Coulter said.

"Pontiac is not alone in being a community, like others in the state, that have seen a great amount of disinvestment over the last decade," he said.

Other cities across the state could use what's happening in Pontiac as a model, Carter said.

Additionally, the investment is crucial for economic growth, Greimel said.

"It's about improving the business climate in the state," he said. "We're not going to have successful regions or successful counties unless the historic cores of those regions and counties are lifted up and are successful. … By investing in historic downtowns, it will make it easier for the state and for southeast Michigan to recruit the best and brightest, and to retain the best and brightest here in the area."

The funding for Pontiac demonstrates the priorities of state leadership, Greimel said.

"The state's budget is very much an expression of progressive values and about its concern and compassion for everyone in the state, not just a select few," he said.

The goal is to provide the city with the support it desperately needs to thrive, Carter said.

"It's been a ghost town for so long, that it's taken away their hope," she said. "What we are doing now, by bringing all this support back to Pontiac, is bringing back hope."

Lawmakers Approve $750M+ In Grants; Plan Website To Reveal Sponsors

Posted: July 5, 2023 8:45 AM

The Legislature earmarked more than $750 million in the final budget for specific projects throughout the state for community enhancement grants, health care grants, housing grants, public infrastructure grants, public safety grants and workforce development grants.

Lawmakers also approved new boilerplate language outlining requirements for departments issuing the grants and requiring information on the grants, including the legislative sponsor, be posted to a website by September 30, 2024.

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township) said that funding was given to specific projects to address a backlog of need.

"People came to us with great projects that they've been working on in, and their government officials and the people in their areas came to us and requested funds that worked out for the programs that the state wanted to fund," she said.

Many of the places that received funding were large cities, including Lansing, Grand Rapids and Detroit.

"Big cities in the state of Michigan received a large amount of help to improve their streets, to improve their downtowns, to improve their communities … and yes, our large urban cores are mostly Democratic," Witwer said. "It's been a very long time since we've had a Democratic majority, and they have been ignored."

Funding for Michigan's cities, especially Detroit as the state's most populous city, is important, House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said in a statement from the Detroit caucus sent out celebrating investments made in the city.

"A budget is a statement of our priorities. As Detroit legislators, we know that what benefits our city will benefit all of Michigan," Tate said. "The investments we made today– including more than $10 million in added revenue sharing and more than $20 million for Belle Isle–will improve lives, create meaningful opportunities, and make the city we love a better place to live, work, learn and raised a family."

Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) said that providing funding to specific projects and groups instead of setting up funds for a competitive grant process allowed the Legislature to give money to organizations with a proven track record.

"What I heard loud and clear from our colleagues, both on the Democratic side and the Republican side, is that if there are trusted entities and organization that have a track record for doing good work, but maybe have not been prioritized, those are entities that we wanted to ensure had the resources to serve our various communities," she said. "You don't have to leave it up to chance if we know that there's an organization that has a 20- or 30-year track record."

The boilerplate language included in the budget requires information on each grant or project, including the receiving entity and grant sponsor, to be posted on a public website. That likely won't happen until next year, however.

Lawmakers have until January 2024, to submit a letter on their sponsorship. The state has until September 30, 2024, to post the information on the website.

"We have taken major steps to address transparency in this budget," Anthony said in a floor speech. "For the first time in the state's history, we are making investments more easily accessible so that taxpayers can see where their money is being utilized."

Republicans criticized the appropriations, saying the spending was wasteful.

"If it's spending that is designed just to make a small group of people happier in one district, one town, one place, at the expense of the general welfare, then it's irresponsible," Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale) said. "I don't think there's a single project in my district, but my people got taxed just as much as everybody else. So how is this a fair and legitimate governmental process?"

More than $122 million was granted for community enhancement. Some of the larger projects include $5 million for the Canton Charter Township Youth Center, $5 million for a Special Olympics Center in Grand Rapids, $5 Million for capital improvements the Western Michigan Hispanic Chamber and $5 million for redevelopments to the Fisher Building in Detroit.

A total of $66.2 million in economic development grants were also allocated in the budget. Of that, $12 million will go to the Midtown Cultural Center Planning Initiative, $10 million for the Marygrove Development and $10 million for the Adrian Workforce Development Center.

The Legislature appropriated $91.1 million in health care grants. Just more than $30 million will go toward building the Saginaw Economic Development Medical Center, and $20 million will go to the Henry Ford Health Center. Detroit will get $10 million to support health care for its firefighters, and Lansing will get $6.8 million for prevention and treatment services and a warming center.

Just under $40 million was appropriated for housing grants. Detroit Blight Busters will receive $1.45 million, with $1 million for Orchard Village Apartments and $450,000 for tiny homes. The Grandmont Rosedale Mixed Use Development in Detroit will receive $1 million. The largest housing project to receive funding was the Muskegon Saw-Walker Housing Development, which will receive $18 million.

There were 69 public infrastructure grants that received funding, totaling $234.4 million. Among them were $50 million for downtown Pontiac, $20 million for Greektown Corridor development, $20 million for infrastructure development in the City of Wyoming, $15 million for water infrastructure in Midland and $10 million for an economic development site readiness project along 5 Mile in Wayne County. One of the smaller more niche projects to receive funding was $900,000 for cricket fields in Troy.

The Legislature earmarked $176.4 million for public safety grants. The Macomb County Jail will receive $40 million, Grand Rapids fire stations will receive $35 million and $15 million will go toward freeway camera. Bloomfield Hills will receive a $15 million grant for public safety.

Finally, the Legislature allocated $35 million for workforce development grants. Among the projects to receive funding were $10 million for the Henry Ford Student Success Center, $5 million for the AFL-CIO Workforce Development Institute and $5 million for the Global Michigan Talent Initiative.

Will The Bill To Allow Alcohol Sales At College Games See A Vote Soon?

Posted: May 1, 2023 7:57 AM

A recently introduced bill that would allow alcohol to be sold at certain on-campus sporting events at Michigan universities made a splash last week, but it's not clear that the legislation will get a hearing any time soon.

Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns) and Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) are leading a bipartisan effort to allow university governing boards to apply for liquor licenses to sell alcohol at basketball, football and hockey games.

HB 4328 and SB 247 would allow the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to issue up to three tavern licenses or three Class C liquor licenses to be used for events within the public areas of university football, basketball and hockey stadiums. Sales would be permitted one hour before each game.

The legislation was referred to the House Regulatory Reform Committee and Senate Regulatory Affairs Committee for consideration, but Rep. Tyrone Carter, who chairs the House committee, said the bill wasn't one he was in a hurry to move.

Mr. Carter (D-Detroit) said the bill wasn't at the top of his list priority list for the committee as there were other reforms he felt needed to be discussed first.

"That's one of those things that if we do nothing, it's not a big deal. It's not a huge need," he said. "But we'll wait and see what side wants what."

Other committee priorities include eliminating sunsets on some laws and addressing legislation related to the cannabis industry.

"We'll get all the facts, and I'm sure that if and when we do get a hearing, we'll have people for and against. I'm sure that both sides will…advocate pretty strongly for their positions," Mr. Carter said.

One thing Mr. Carter said the committee would need to keep in mind is balancing the potential to generate revenue with any concerns about liability and safety.

"We know that people are tailgating in the parking lots and other places before and after games, and nobody's asking for ID. But the thing of it is, at least if it's being done at the stadium, we at least know that to purchase it, you have to be of legal age," Mr. Carter said.

He also said that he didn't want to create unnecessary work for people in charge of campus safety, but that lawmakers would need to be honest about what was already going on at university games.

"If you can't control it, you have to figure out a way to manage it," he said. "So, would that give us an opportunity to manage some things? Possibly."

Managing what is already going on at college games is an important part of the conversation for the bill sponsors.

"Giving universities the option to serve alcohol at their sporting events is about freedom, fairness and recognizing that the responsible consumption of alcohol inside the stadium is much safer that the binge drinking that goes on in the parking lot," Mr. Filler said in a statement. "Multiple examples exist that show alcohol-related incidents inside stadiums declining after alcohol sales are allowed."

Of the 14 schools in the Big Ten, eight allow alcohol sales at football games, and most have seen positive results with the decreases in the number of alcohol-related incidents, a press release from House Republicans said. After Ohio State started selling alcohol stadiumwide in 2016, university police reported a 65 percent decrease in alcohol-related incidents inside its sport venues.

Mr. Filler introduced similar legislation last year, but the plan did not get brought up for a vote. The current plan has bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate.

Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), chair of the Senate Regulatory Affairs Committee, could not be reached Monday to discuss the Senate bill's chances of getting a hearing.

"To me, it's not one of those hot button issues, because when you look at it, it really to me circles around capacity," Mr. Carter said. "But there's a lot of things that would have to go into that. And I'd have to probably reach out to some universities and have them come and testify…what would be the economic impact versus what would be some of the unintended consequences."

Those unintended consequences could be related to what happens if a university overserves someone and other liability concerns.

"As the old saying goes…is the juice worth the squeeze, in terms of that," Mr. Carter said.

Could The Legislature Be Ready To Revisit No-Fault Auto Insurance?

Posted: April 3, 2023 12:23 PM

In the first three months of the new legislative session, the Democratic majority has raced through its initial six priorities laid out at the beginning of the term. As lawmakers prepare to dive back in after the spring recess, one issue that could be taken up is no-fault auto insurance.

"The energy and the desire … to take up the issue is there," said Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac), who chairs the House Insurance and Financial Services Committee. "After we get through these first six bills and the gun legislation bills, then auto no fault becomes the priority."

How fast those changes could take place also is complicated by current litigation over the implementation of the 2019 overhaul in the Michigan Supreme Court case, Andary v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company.

Changes were made to Michigan's no-fault auto insurance in 2019 with the passage of bipartisan legislation that created multiple levels of personal injury protection coverage to make it more affordable. The multi-tiered PIP rate was created as an alternative to the mandatory lifetime health coverage (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 30, 2020). The legislation also mandated medical fee schedule that imposed a 45 percent provider rate cut and limited reimbursement for family-provided attendant care to 56 hours per week (See Gongwer Michigan Report, May 12, 2021).

"The impact has been devastating," said Tom Judd, executive director of Michigan Brain Injury Provider Council, a trade association that serves providers in professions related to brain injury rehabilitation, and which has strongly objected to the reforms (editor's note: This story was changed to correct Mr. Judd's first name).

The fee schedule went into effect in July 2021, causing problems for the approximately 17,000 people receiving care under the prior no-fault law, which assured unlimited coverage for "all reasonable charges" needed to provide care for those catastrophically injured. Providers also said they could no longer afford to provide care for patients due to a lack of funds.

"We warned legislators about this before the fee-cap system was implemented in 2020, and everybody kind of took a wait and see approach," Mr. Judd said. "Well, we've seen the impact."

Erin McDonough, executive director of Insurance Alliance of Michigan, said that the reforms have benefited Michigan drivers.

"The goal of them was to drive down costs for Michigan's 7.2 million drivers, and we think the reforms are working," she said.

The Department of Insurance and Financial Services released a report showing that as a result of the new law, the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association deficit of approximately $2 billion had been eliminated and the associations assessment could be reduced by $1 billion. The MCCA also stated the changes resulted in an estimated $3.5 billion reduction in liabilities.

The report also said that, as of December 29, 2022, the department reviewed 47 percent of the personal auto insurance filings, and those filings reflected $106 million in savings passed on to consumers as the result of the application of the fee schedule provided by the no-fault reforms.

"They've kept costs in check by preventing overcharging and reducing incentives for medical providers to push harmful procedures and have established a reasonable reimbursement rate for medical services," Ms. McDonough said.

The state also developed a hotline to ensure that fees were being paid in a timely manner, Ms. McDonough said, and people who didn't have car insurance before the reforms are now buying that protection.

"We have a choice," she said. "We have savings in the form of a fee schedule. We have accountability through programs like utilization review that allow third party disputes to be overseen by the department. We've had 60 new companies enter the market since the reforms passed."

Last month, the Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault called into question the accuracy of the number of new insurance companies since the law changes (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 13, 2023).

Unclear is how the new Senate Democratic majority will handle the issue. Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Township), chair of the Senate Finance, Insurance and Consumer Protection Committee, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Both Ms. Carter and Ms. Cavanagh were co-sponsors of House Bill 4486 during the 2021-22 term, which would have restored payments to rehabilitation clinics to what they charged prior to the 2019 no-fault changes.

The Michigan Supreme Court is currently hearing a case related to the fee schedule. The case, Andary v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company (MSC Docket No. 164772), will decide whether the 2019 changes apply retroactively (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 2, 2023).

Mr. Judd said that the decision of the Supreme Court won't prevent the Legislature from addressing the reimbursement system.

"It's a very narrow, small part of the law that really needs to be fixed so that people can get the care that they deserve and that they paid for," he said. "That's a legislative caused problem, and the only solution has to come from the Legislature with an amendment to the law that makes sure that providers are getting paid a reasonable amount."

Ms. McDonough said any discussions about no-fault reforms were dependent on the court case.

"We need to understand what decision the Supreme Court is going to make," she said. "It will determine constitutionally what the Legislature can and can't do, and what's at the heart of this is the medical fee schedule."

Ms. Carter said she is in ongoing discussions with House Speaker Joe Tate's (D-Detroit) office about bringing the insurance industry and the provider industry to the table to develop solutions to auto no-fault insurance.

"I'm really optimistic, especially with the subject matter experts we have on the committee, that we will come to some kind of resolution where both sides of the industry wins," she said.

The biggest concerns to address are the fee schedule and the cut in fees paid to providers, Ms. Carter said.

"That's the 800-pound gorilla in the room for both sides," she said. "We've watched this law since 2019-20, and we see that there's been a reduction in claims and a reduction in price, however the provider industry is being disproportionately impacted."

Mr. Judd said that when the no-fault auto insurance laws were originally passed, stakeholders like the Michigan Brain Injury Provider Council would have liked an opportunity to discuss what the fee schedule looked like and different strategies to reasonably lower costs in the system.

"We did not get that opportunity," he said. "We need to see a change to the reimbursement level for post-acute services. Those services that have had their reimbursement rate slashed by 50 percent. That's not sustainable…We're not looking to touch any other aspect of the law except for this one very narrow solution that looks for justice and fairness in terms of making sure that people who are injured have care providers that are getting paid at reasonable rates."

Mr. Judd said he's cautiously optimistic about the chance of reform.

"We think that we have champions at key points in the Legislature, within leadership and within both parties who have been championing for a change, and the new legislators coming into this session have really shown some great insight into this issue, and they recognize the need," he said. "We know that over the past few years, Governor Whitmer has said she wants to see some solutions to her desk, and so we're very hopeful and optimistic now that she has her party with the majority that a solution will get to her desk."

Ms. McDonough said that the medical fee schedule is helping keep costs in check because it allowed providers to charge people with no-fault insurance more for procedures than they charged people without no-fault insurance.

"Loading costs into the system makes rates go up, and when you have choice, unchecked medical costs can prevent people from getting the value of their policy," she said. "Think about it: You could only afford a $50,000 policy. Why should you have to by a $5,000 MRI when it costs everybody else $500?"

Ms. Carter also said that the Legislature was not prevented from making adjustments going forward, regardless of the Supreme Court decision.

"We will still have to look at how the law impact pricing going forward," she said. "The obligations that the provider industry will have to meet going forward. And that, once again, is a discussion between the two sides."

Sen. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) was less confident about the ability of the Legislature to do anything prior to the Supreme Court's decision. Mr. Huizenga is the minority vice chair of the Senate Insurance and Finance Committee.

"In general, any time you have major policy change like that, it's never perfect, and it's not that uncommon to see technical fixes, legislative adjustments and modifications after the fact," he said. "But I think that's all on hold now, just because of litigation."

Mr. Huizenga said that his office still regularly is contacted by people with concerns about auto no-fault. Still, he said he couldn't speculate on whether the Senate committee would take it up as an issue or what kind of changes could be considered.

"I don't think it'd be fair for anyone to speculate as to what changes might or might not occur because of the litigation," he said.

The Republican caucus largely supports the 2019 law because many members feel that the changes made the state more competitive by lowering prices and made Michigan safer. The biggest priority is making sure that people are getting their medically necessary care.

There hasn't been much discussion at the committee level on no-fault auto reform, but Ms. Carter said she was confident that there would be a bipartisan effort.

"With the implementation of the law, there were a lot of eruptions around it," she said. "That doesn't mean that they may not occur once (auto no-fault) starts surfacing as an issue again, but as of right now, it seems like both sides are willing to come to some type of agreement."

Bill Introduced To Repeal School Letter Grading System

Posted: March 13, 2023 8:52 AM

The House has introduced a bill that would repeal Michigan's controversial letter grading system for schools.

The system was put in place during the 2018 lame-duck session. Under the legislation, schools receive letter grades, A-F, based on student proficiency in math and English, student growth in math and English, student growth among English language learners, graduation rates and school's academic performance of the state assessment compared to similar schools.

"This was something that was registered during lame duck and passed by quite literally one vote," said Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) the sponsor of the bill. "It was a 56-53 vote, and a 63-47 majority Republican legislature, so that shows you how divisive this was."

Michigan also has a school index system that provides feedback on how schools are performing in different areas, but the letter grade system was introduced because some people felt it wasn't sufficiently clear for parents.

"As of right now, it's not even being used because it doesn't meet federal standards." Mr. Koleszar said. "So, because it doesn't meet federal standards, and we already use the index system for the state of Michigan, which is federally approved … there's a lot of questions why we would keep it at statute."

Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, called the legislation (HB 4166) to repeal the grading system "long overdue."

"Michigan's dual accountability systems lead to confusion and fail to improve outcomes for students," Mr. Spadafore said. "The current system fails to measure student growth, doesn't inform parents, and doesn't help student learning. Michigan's letter grading system was ill-informed when it was signed into law and has not led to improved student performance since."

Mr. Koleszar said that there are some people, especially within the charter school community, who are concerned that repealing the A-F grading system might hurt accountability measures at schools. He said that was important for people to remember that even if the letter grade system was repealed, the state index system would still provide that accountability.

"This is why we have bills that go through a hearings process at a testimony process. We can make sure that we're weighing all concerns and making sure we can come up with the best possible law that can hopefully get as many people as possible on board," he said.

Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, was critical of repealing the grading system.

"Parents expect more from the House than legislation designed to hide school performance data from families and taxpayers. Let's be very clear about this – House Bill 4166 is disdainful anti-transparency legislation. It's a push to sweep learning loss under the rug, and kids along with it," Ms. DeShone said.

She went on to say that the legislation would strip transparency requirements for schools, which serve to inform parents and policymakers.

"It's a bill that will exacerbate inequalities, widen the learning gap, and disproportionately punish students in schools that struggle the most," Ms. DeShone said.

Repealing the current system would remove ratings the state isn't currently using, but the state's index system would still be in place, Mr. Koleszar said.

"If there are ways to improve the index system, I'm all for it," he said, "But it's always important to remember that anything we do with the state index system, if we change it, it has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education to make sure it meets the standards."

Mr. Koleszar could not say how quickly the bill might move through the committee process, but he said he hoped it would be soon.

"The sooner the better," he said. "This is something that I think is overdue, especially because it was pass(ed) in 2018 and we're still not using it now. But again, I want to make sure everybody that would like to have a conversation with me has the opportunity to do so."

If Reps. Win Local Elections, How Fast Could A Special Election Be Called?

Posted: February 5, 2023 5:18 PM

Two members of the House of Representatives plan to run for mayor in their respective cities this year. If both win, the timing of when they resign from the House could affect Democrats' thin 56-54 majority.

Rep. Kevin Coleman (D-Westland) announced he is running for mayor in his home city of Westland in December.

The current mayor is resigning before the end of his term, so it's still unclear if the winner of the election would take office immediately following canvassing of the November election results or if the new mayor would take office in January, when a new term for mayor normally begins in Westland.

"A determination has not yet been made regarding when the winner of that election would be permanently seated to complete the balance of the unexpired term," Westland City Clerk Richard LeBlanc said in an email.

The city attorney has been consulted, and the Clerk's Office is waiting for a response, Mr. LeBlanc said.

Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren) also is gearing up for a run for mayor in Warren. Earlier this month, she formed a candidate committee to seek the office of mayor. Ms. Stone is also hosting a kickoff fundraiser on Saturday, according to an event posting on Facebook.

Ms. Stone declined to comment on her plans on January 26 when a Gongwer News Service reporter inquired with her at the Capitol.

They mayoral term for the city of Warren will begin in November following the completion of canvassing, according to City Clerk Sonja Buffa.

The timing of the Westland term beginning is key, assuming Mr. Coleman wins.

If it's November – and Ms. Stone wins – he and Ms. Stone would exit the House at about the same time and cause House Democrats to see their 56-54 majority become a 54-54 tie. House Rules would keep Democrats in charge of the gavel and thus in control of committees and the floor agenda but Republicans could prevent any bill from passing should they all vote no for perhaps as much as two to three months.

However, if Mr. Coleman and Ms. Stone win and Ms. Stone exits in November/December and Mr. Coleman in January, there would likely be a much shorter window of time with the House at 54-54. Democrats with a 55-54 majority could still pass bills the same as now, needing all of their members to vote yes.

This is all academic, of course, unless both Mr. Coleman and Ms. Stone win.

If either Mr. Coleman or Ms. Stone win their local elections, the results likely wouldn't be official until mid-December, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said.

That means a special election to fill a seat in the House wouldn't be able to be called until late December or early January.

"Looking back to December 14 of 2021, the governor called a special election for March 1 and then the general election for May 3," Ms. Byrum said. These special elections were to fill three House seats triggered by November elections that saw two House vacate their seats to move to the Senate and one vacancy caused by a death.

The turnaround for a special election will be even tighter this year with the new election laws that require military members and overseas voters to have absentee ballots 45 days prior to the election.

If the Legislature moves the presidential primary up to February, that could further shrink the timeline, as it's likely that the special election would be called to be on the same ballot to avoid costs for the local communities. The governor, however, has substantial discretion on when to schedule a special election.

"That doesn't get much time for the county clerk to do election programming and ballot printing," Ms. Byrum said. "That's why it's important that the legislature enact legislation for Proposal 2 so that some clerks, if desired, can start doing pilots for early voting and Proposal 2 implementation this coming August and November elections."

– By Elena Durnbaugh

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