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How Are 6 Major State Issues Looking For Fall ’17?

July 25, 2017

Courtesy MIRS News

Teacher retirement reform and two major job-creating packages are in the rear view mirror, so now what?

The 99th session of the Michigan Legislature didn’t address all of the state’s looming problems, but the numbers show they were more productive than average sessions in terms of passing bills. 

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) said he wants to see municipal retiree health care, corrections reform and career technical training in the fall of 2017. House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) wants a more streamlined mental health system and would love to vote on a prevailing wage repeal if the petition signatures come in. 

But what about the big, controversial stuff? Those hot-button subjects most likely to top polls as issues that need addressing? Flint? Roads? High car insurance rates? Underground infrastructure? 

MIRS checked in with the movers and shakers in Lansing to get updates on six major and controversial items still on the Legislature’s plate. Here’s what we found out. 

Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) 
With Gov. Rick Snyder’s task force having issued its report this week, the question of how government retirees in financially struggling municipalities receive their promised health care benefits falls squarely on the Legislature. 

Meekhof has it among his top priorities. The Senate lead on the issue, Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), sat on the Governor’s task force and said he was most pleased that “everybody stayed at the table,” offered ideas and gave some general direction. 

“It’s not going to be an easy fix and some issues are going to be taken up sooner than others,” said Stamas, adding that he doesn’t see a “one-size-fits-all solution.” 

It’s likely the Legislature can finish some aspects of OPEB reform this fall. But the rubber hits the road when the discussion turns to limitations on retiree health care benefits for either current or future local police officers and firefighters in, at least, those municipalities with huge unfunded liability gaps. 

It’s possible “massive reform” could happen this fall, but, politically, it’s looking more likely to be a lame duck 2018 project. 

Failing Schools 
Doesn’t state law require that K-12 schools be shut down if they can’t escape the dreaded list of Michigan’s 5 percent worst performing schools? 

That’s what we were told earlier this year, when 38 “failing schools” were set to close, which is why Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair) was trying to scrap the state’s failing school law in favor of something more clear and fair. 

But then the Governor handed the reins of the seemingly doomed 38 schools to state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who is using intense intervention to turn these schools around without shutting them down. 

That may be fine or it may not be, but the fact remains Michigan has a law on the books dealing with failing schools that, at worst, isn’t being followed and is, at best, so muddled and unclear few know what’s going on. 

Now that his prized teacher pension legislation is signed, Pavlov said “we need to get on it” this fall. Legislation is being drafted based on information gathered at committee hearings earlier this year. While there aren’t details, Pavlov would like to tie the system into consistent benchmarking grounded in a letter-grade system. 

Underground Pipes 
Whether it’s the industry’s report or the Governor’s report, there’s no shortage of information on how bad our underground pipes are looking. 

Lawmakers know it. They agreed to put $35 million into a new fund to begin addressing the problem. But Republican lawmakers aren’t doing the “water tax” Snyder suggested. They’re also not bringing in the cavalry to address what they see as ultimately a local issue. 

This is the way this legislative leadership team sees it: The state has a good bond rating. The state can be a willing partner in developing tools to address the issue. But the state is not paying to pull up and re-lay every crumbling underground pipe, as is happening in Flint. 

In the end, it’s a local issue, they feel. 

Thanks to the higher fuel tax passed in 2015, the Legislature put $231.7 million more (5.6 percent) into roads this budget. 

Democrats came a vote away in the Senate to steering $542 million more to roads in May . . . but did they really? 

Here’s the fact of the matter. No matter how badly state residents feel their roads are, the law reads $150 million more in General Fund money is going to roads in FY 2019, $325 million in FY 2020 and $600 million in FY 2021. 

At that point, the $1.2 billion road package of 2015 is complete and until a future Legislature wants to do something else, that’s all that’s happening. 

Outside of carving $48.8 million out of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget, public policy reforms in response to the Flint water crisis have not been hot-stove items of issue for the Legislature, just as they weren’t last year. 

The Legislature could look at other reform bills in the fall, but any substantial reforms to the state’s emergency manager law will likely wait for the next governor for logistical reasons, if nothing else. Why make changes now when this governor isn’t really using the emergency managers anymore? Also, if a Democrat is elected in 2018, she or he likely will re-change whatever would be changed today. 

So lawmakers could nibble around the edges of the legislative report done last year on Flint, but don’t stay up at night waiting for something groundbreaking. 

No-Fault Insurance 
House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are building a coalition designed to push through reforms that will cut auto insurance rates in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan through more flexible coverage options. 

But until they can get a handful of Democrats to support a reduction in insurance benefits to offset a solid Oakland County contingent who will vote no on notable reform, this issue, in the public’s eye, remains in a state of suspended animation. 

When the House is able to pass the comparatively benign assigned claims reforms, it’s time to pay attention. 

It’s possible this could happen in 2018 when Duggan doesn’t have re-election to worry about, but the 2019-2020 session may end up being more realistic.

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