Loads of New Fees Rammed Through House
Republicans voted against a series of bills that mostly extend sunsets for existing fees in various state agencies, though some of the bills increase fees, including a $4 increase for record look-up fees within the Department of State.
The fees maintained or increased through the bills passed on Wednesday are already built into the 2023-24 budget, which will go into effect at the start of the fiscal year on October 1. The current sunsets are set to expire at the end of September or in early October.
HB 4988 , HB 4989 , HB 4990 , HB 4991 , HB 4993 , HB 4994 , HB 4995 , HB 4996 , HB 4997 , HB 5003 , HB 5004 and HB 5007 passed the House 56-54 after clearing the House Appropriations Committee on party-line votes earlier in the morning.
HB 5000 passed 79-31. The bill extends the sunset for fees charged by the Department of State Police to conduct fingerprints and run background checks.
Republicans argued that with a record budget passed for the 2023-24 fiscal year, those paying the fees should get a break.
Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale) noted the budget is several billions more than the previous year’s budget and asked if fees have been increased or extended in a similar fashion during other times when the state had more revenue than expected. That question wasn’t answered directly, however many of the fees have been extended by the Legislature multiple times.
Rep. Donni Steele (R-Orion) during committee offered a substitute to HB 5004 to set the fees at their 1978 level, saying business owners bringing jobs and tax money to the state are paying too much.
"I’m worried about the government having an insatiable appetite to spend tax dollars," she said.
Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richmond) called the fees the result of "wasteful" budget spending in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
"After funding pointless and political projects over Michiganders’ biggest priorities, Democrats are hiking fees to pay for their lavish spending spree," he said. "They rammed through a wasteful budget that blew through our state’s $9 billion surplus for pork while underfunding local infrastructure, public safety, and other needs. They knew they didn’t have enough taxpayer money to pay their bill, so now they’re raising fees and planning to raise the income tax early next year. Michigan residents shouldn’t have to pay higher fees and taxes just because Democrats got too careless with the state credit card."
Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Okemos) noted many of the fees addressed in the bills haven’t increased over the years.
"Unfortunately, term limits has created an environment where people want to just kick the can down the road, and nobody wants to do the right thing," she said. "We are experiencing inflation, which means that things cost more for us as well as for everyone else. And it’s fiscally responsible to adjust our fees in accordance with inflation."
HB 4990 and HB 4991 would increase the record look up fee for the Department of State from $11 to $15. This would bring in $18.5 million in additional funding to the Transportation Administration Collection Fund.
A House Fiscal Agency analysis said the fund has been experiencing shortfalls in recent years. In the last three fiscal years, the state has provided additional dollars through the budget process to address the shortfall.
HB 5007 would increase the groundwater discharge permit fee from between $200 to $3,650 to between $240 to $7,500. This increase is projected to generate an additional $680,000 for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE said.
HB 5003 and HB 5004 would extend sunsets for the annual license and license renewal fee for psychiatric hospitals and units to October 1, 2027. The $500 per license and $10 per bed fee is maintained. It also updates the definition of a child with special health care needs to someone under 26 years old, which is an item already funded in the budget.
HB 5004 also increases eight radiation fees by 20 percent of the current amounts, which would generate an additional $500,000 for the Department of Labor and Economic Development.
Finally, the bill would implement an additional fee for homes for the aged. Currently, they are subject to an annual fee of $6.27 per bed. HB 5004 adds a $500 per facility fee in addition to the per-bed fee. This would generate $167,500 for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
The rest of the bills extend sunsets that are set to mature later this month or on October 1 until 2027 for fees collected under the Uniform Securities Act, the Michigan Limited Liability Company Act, the Nonprofit Corporation Act, the Business Corporation Act and the State License Fee Act. Fees collected under the state’s Food Law and for licensing of livestock dealers would also be extended.
Reproductive Health Act in Limbo with Whitsett Opposition
Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) shocked several of her colleagues Wednesday when she voted in opposition to the Reproductive Health Act bill package during the House Health Policy Committee .
Whitsett told Gongwer News Service she is "1,000 percent in support" of Proposal 3 and reproductive care, but there were still some provisions in the bills that she could not fully support.
"When we’re talking about Medicaid funding, if there’s any extra funds that are going to be spent somewhere, I think they should be spent towards seniors," Whitsett said. "We have people who are living, you know, from pillar to post, they are barely making ends meet. They have their prescription drugs … they’re still making choices between their prescription drugs and eating. Those choices are real and they’re still happening. So, if there’s extra funding that can be spent somewhere I would like for it to be spent with them."
Getting the Reproductive Health Act to the governor’s desk is a major fall priority for Democrats. Several of the bills in the package – HB 4949 , 4950, HB 4953 , HB 4955 , and HB 4956 – were reported out of the committee with all Republicans and Whitsett voting no.
Democrats have a slim majority in the House. They likely need every Democrat to vote yes on the bills to pass with the minimum 56 votes needed. Whitsett’s opposition could be a significant roadblock to legislation with strong support from House leadership.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement this was an important step forward for the "commonsense legislation." She did not directly address Whitsett’s opposition.
"Michiganders voted overwhelmingly to put abortion rights in our state constitution back in November. We must ensure that they can access the reproductive health care they need without delay, without paying high costs out of pocket, and without fear of prosecution for experiencing a miscarriage or a stillbirth," Whitmer said. "Michiganders support the Reproductive Health Act. I urge the Legislature to pass it."
After the committee hearing, Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo), chair of the committee, told reporters she was aware Whitsett had concerns with some of the bills but didn’t know she was planning to vote no on the entire package.
Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), told reporters that Whitsett was "known to change her mind," and it was a matter of working on issues with her.
"I would say it’s a false choice to assume that extending full health care to one group of people somehow then diminishes the ability to care for another group of people," McCann said. "There have been many issues that have come before the House that the speaker has been successful in getting 56 votes for, and I don’t doubt his ability to do that on any item that we bring on the board."
Whether or not Whitsett receives pressure from the governor and her Democratic colleagues to support the package does not seem to be a concern for the representative.
"The Democratic Party didn’t elect me, my district did and that’s who I represent. I am their voice in Lansing, first and foremost," Whitsett said. "As far as the pressure, I want this to be where we can work together and come to this agreement and to be able to get these issues resolved because we’re talking about women and we’re talking about safe abortions that are accessible. We’re working for the people and that’s what should be priority and first and foremost on everyone’s mind."
It’s not the first time Whitsett has been at odds with Democrats in her caucus or around the state. Whitsett came under criticism for praising President Donald Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, sued Whitmer (though quickly dropped that lawsuit), called former House Minority Leader Christine Greig a racist and often voted with Republicans on legislation mostly opposed by her party when the GOP controlled the House.
Whitsett told Gongwer that in a perfect world, she would like to see seniors on assistance receive more benefits, saying there are seniors receiving only $20-$40 on their EBT cards. She also said she would like to see extra funding for certain prescription drugs, especially for those who are diabetic.
As for abortion access and reproductive rights, Whitsett said she herself has had her own experience with needing reproductive health care. That said, she still had reservations around some of the changes outside of Medicaid funding.
"I know what it’s like, I’ve lived it," Whitsett said. "My issue with RHA is that I do not think that it is too much to ask for someone to take a 24-hour pause when you’re making a decision like that. I do not think 24-hours is too much to wait. I do not think that the facilities should not have safety measures in place. I think that’s extremely important, these things are things that are in place right now."
She emphasized that reproductive health is all about abortions that are accessible and safe.
"I don’t think that’s too much to ask," she said, adding that she is not the only person in the House who feels this way.
Under HB 4950 , the requirement to provide a patient with specific visual materials and information at least 24 hours before a scheduled abortion would be repealed. Currently, those seeking an abortion are required to print out a time stamped form found on the Department of Health and Human Services webpage to bring to their appointment or go visit the clinic to view the materials (See Gongwer Michigan Report, September 14, 2023).
Advocates say the information is not specific to patients, and even those who are getting an abortion because their fetus is not viable have to view information about adoption and see images of fetuses before having the procedure. Providers also said it is easy to print out the wrong form and then someone must delay the appointment, even if they have traveled hours.
During Health Policy, Rep. Jamie Thompson (R-Brownstown) introduced an amendment to HB 4950 that would remove the repeal of the 24-hour waiting period and required receipt of documentation, saying that women should be able to weigh the risks and benefits of a decision affecting them mentally and physically.
Whitsett voted in support of the amendment, joining the seven other Republicans on the committee. It ultimately failed 8-11.
When asked if she would have supported the bill if the 24-hour wait period remained intact, Whitsett said "absolutely," saying that she would have preferred a more realistic conversation about the bills and the amendments offered up.
She also said there are several other Democrats who feel the same way that she felt. They’re not okay with these provisions being removed and they’re not okay with Medicaid-funded abortions, Whitsett said.
Whitsett said that her vote in the committee "absolutely" reflected the will of her constituents. She said she has received calls and messages of support for her decision.
"This is not something I did on a whim. I’ve had these conversations within my community since these first came up and they were brought to my attention," Whitsett said.
She emphasized again that she is doing this for women and their safety.
Paula Thornton Greear, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan president and CEO, said in a statement that Whitsett’s opposition felt like a betrayal to her constituents who supported abortion access and Proposal 3.
"If Rep. Whitsett votes in opposition, she will be solely responsible for the continued enforcement of dozens of anti-abortion restrictions that disproportionately harm women of color and people who are struggling to make ends meet," Thornton said. "Every time a patient is forced to drive 7 hours to access abortion, has to reschedule their appointment over a timestamp, or worries over how they will afford care, Rep. Whitsett will be responsible. We urge Rep. Whitsett to listen to her constituents and pass the Reproductive Health Act."
The Michigan Catholic Conference said in a statement that the bills were some of the "most extreme policies in the recent history of the Legislature due to their blatant prioritization of the abortion industry over women’s health and safety."
"The majority of Michiganders support and expect longstanding regulations and limitations on abortion to remain in place, limits that were legal under Roe v. Wade," said Rebecca Mastee, policy advocate for the Michigan Catholic Conference, in a statement. "All human life, including the life of a woman seeking an abortion, has inherent value and is worthy of legal protection. We call on members of the Michigan Legislature to turn to their consciences and oppose the Reproductive Health Act."
Loren Khogali, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, praised the passage of the bills out of the committee hearing. In a statement, Khogali said the ACLU would ensure the constitutional right to abortion is protected and will continue to advocate for measures like the removal of the Medicaid abortion ban.
"Failure to pass the Reproductive Health Act will have devastating consequences on the health of people already facing systemic barriers to health care, including Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, people on low incomes, people with disabilities and rural residents," Khogali wrote. "Abortion is health care, and everyone is entitled to access no matter where they live, who they are or how much money they earn."
Consumers Energy: Dems’ Clean Energy Plan is Off Balance
Last Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Environment Committee took more than three hours and 40 minutes of testimony on SB 271, SB 273 and SB 502. The legislation would mandate electricity providers develop a 100% carbon-free energy standard by 2040, and to file clean energy plans demonstrating progress toward building an 80% carbon-free energy portfolio starting in 2035.
Also, SB 502 would mandate the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) – the board supervising the state’s public utilities and probing their Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs) for future operations – to make renewable energy priorities and equity standards part of their regulatory duties.
Although SB 271, SB 273and SB 502 are being widely discussed around the Capitol, there are ongoing drafts being made for the legislation.
"We will continue working with policymakers on a solution that balances that framework," Brian Wheeler, Consumers Energy’s media relations manager told MIRS. "Our aggressive Clean Energy Plan would make us one of the first in the nation to go coal-free, with a significant buildout of solar, storage, and energy efficiency investment without sacrificing reliability or customer affordability."
On Thursday morning, Consumers Energy announced details of a proposed add-on to its Clean Energy Plan, already consisting of the planned closure of all of its coal-fired generating units by the end of 2025.
The new plan focuses on Consumers Energy’s "Solar Gardens" program, with current projects operating in Cadillac, at Western Michigan University and at Grand Valley State University. Households acquiring energy through the program, without needing to install their own rooftop solar panels, will see their $8 monthly subscription fee drop to $4 under the proposal.
"What we’re really doing is taking away any sort of limits in terms of how many customers can be part of these programs," Wheeler said. "Essentially, we’re going to be combining our residential (and) our business programs all together under one umbrella, and we’ll be able to reach thresholds faster. We’ll be able to reach the point faster where we can say: ‘now we’ve got enough demand, let’s go build the next project.’"
The proposal was officially submitted to the MPSC today, and the commission will have until later next year to approve it.
Wheeler summarized how the proposal will remove Consumers Energy from limitations on how much clean energy that customers can elect to receive, with ambitions of driving prices down through building demand.
Additionally, it calls for creation of a giving program, where a party can purchase a "Solar Gardens" subscription on someone else’s behalf, which Wheeler said could assist low-income customers and get nonprofits involved.
"More solar projects faster," Wheeler said. "As we have customers who show interest and subscribe to these programs, if they’re approved, that creates a pathway for us to develop more projects on a faster timetable."
Senate Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) told Michigan’s Big Show last week that the goal of Senate Democrats is to get carbon out of the environment in a responsible way that doesn’t impact the reliability of the grid.
“We want to make sure that cost is also a driving factor as we make some of these decisions,” he said. “We want to continue to push for more renewables in a quick fashion, but we also want to be cognizant that there are some parts of the state where that might not be always feasible,” Singh said.
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