Budget, Gas Tax, Mental Health Priorities In Senate Upon Return
Work to complete a new budget will be the top Senate priority as lawmakers return to Lansing this week, with a continued focus on a possible tax break for those experiencing pain at the gas pump still being in the cards.

These were the key priorities mentioned by the Senate’s majority and minority leaders this week in statements responding to submitted questions about where the chamber’s focus is expected to be upon the return of members.

While lawmakers were able to leave town last month by coming together on a multibillion-dollar supplemental appropriations package, they were unable to agree on a Republican bill to suspend the state’s 27.2 cents per gallon fuel tax for six months. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the bill earlier this month to the consternation of GOP lawmakers.

"Democrats and the governor squandered an opportunity to lower prices at the pump, but Senate Republicans won’t back down on providing relief to Michiganders struggling with record-high gas prices and inflation," Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said.

The question since the passage of HB 5570 – the Republican gas tax proposal – is where the Legislature goes next on the issue of providing relief at the pump. The issue came to the forefront when Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting gas prices to soar well above $4 per gallon in many parts of the state.

Prices have slowly been in decline in recent weeks following the Legislature’s departure for its yearly spring recess. AAA of Michigan put the average gas price in Michigan at $3.97 per gallon, down from $4.07 one week ago and $4.18 one month ago. Prices are lower than the statewide average in some areas but still above $4 per gallon in other regions.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said this week the budget and a temporary fuel tax suspension are his priorities heading back into session next week.

"We’re looking to provide relief any way we responsibly can, and you can bet that I’ll be encouraging others to get on board with my plan to suspend the gas sales tax," Mr. Ananich said.

Prior to the legislative break Mr. Ananich introduced his own tax proposal. It would suspend the 6 percent sales tax on motor fuel for up to one year. He has previously said with higher-than-expected revenues, it could be done temporarily without impacting collections for roads or schools.

Republicans have introduced their own sales tax on motor fuels package which is expected to get a hearing after lawmakers return. The GOP package would permanently eliminate the sales tax, a move that members within the party would prefer over a suspension of the tax.

The top priority, of course, will be the budget. Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairs are still working on their budgets, but are expected to begin moving them to the full Senate Appropriations Committee  in the next couple of weeks.

"Our budget will also reflect our commitment to help taxpayers being harmed by the inflationary policies of our governor and president," Mr. Shirkey said.

With it being an election year, Republicans have sought to tie Ms. Whitmer to President Joe Biden and his economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic, which they have said led to the highest level of inflation in decades. Most other countries are also combatting high inflation.

Mr. Ananich also pledged for members of his caucus to be sharply focused on the budget upon their return.

"This spring, we’ll be nose to the grindstone to complete another budget that works for Michigan families," Mr. Ananich said.

For Mr. Shirkey, another key area of focus is shepherding through the Senate legislation he introduced, SB 597 and SB 598 , which he says would integrate mental and physical health Medicaid services. Another bill, SB 714 , would provide the funding mechanism for implementing the proposal.

"I don’t consider fixing our state’s broken mental health system a priority, I consider it an urgent obligation," Mr. Shirkey said. "People deserve better and more consistent access to quality, coordinated mental and physical health care regardless of their means or their zip code."

Opponents of Mr. Shirkey’s proposal have said it would create more hurdles to obtaining care while also not providing enough accountability and oversight

Pollster: GOP Governor’s Race ‘A Mess,’ Rife With No Elected Experience
Republicans should be concerned about taking back the governor’s office in November due to what one pollster is categorizing as a complete lack of organization among the party over who is the clear frontrunner.

Richard Czuba, founder of the survey research firm Glengariff Group, appeared Friday on Michigan Public Television’s "Off the Record" to talk about a recent poll his group ran which indicated that former President Donald Trump is influencing Michigan politics – though perhaps to the detriment of Republicans.

"Last August I remember saying, if we didn’t go into (the Mackinac Policy Conference) understanding who the Republican frontrunners were with the nomination, the Republicans would be in trouble in that race," Mr. Czuba said. "And here we are, four months … before the August primary: I can’t tell you who’s the frontrunner in this race."

He said that due to potentially name recognition alone, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig could be considered the frontrunner in the contest though it was unclear if it would stay that way in a few months’ time.

That’s largely due to the fact it’s a multi-candidate field, he added, which could go on to produce "really wacky results" and that voters should "prepare ourselves for the unexpected."

That unexpected, he later added, could come in the form of potential changes made to Roe v. Wade, which Mr. Czuba said could have "an enormous, enormous effect on what happens in November."

Polling done by his group indicated that two-thirds of Michiganders believe that protections for abortions enshrined in Roe should be left in place, with that same amount believing Michigan’s 1931 law banning abortions should be overturned.

When asked directly if that meant abortion could be a deciding factor in Michigan’s gubernatorial race, Mr. Czuba minced no words in saying: "Absolutely it could be, and I think it could be a shock to the political races."

Mr. Czuba also said he was startled when he’d read Mr. Craig speak of how he was almost to the necessary number of signatures to qualify for the ballot, remarking that "good campaigns always know that you get your petitions first."

"And even if you don’t have them, you simply say you do for gosh sakes," he said. "That’s just Politics 101. … Campaigns are first and foremost about good organization."

Candidates for governor must submit at least 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters by 4 p.m. April 19 to qualify for the August ballot.

The lack of organization among the Republican gubernatorial candidates is possibly reflective of the fact that, among the field, very few of them have had any experience with running campaigns or managed campaigns.

Only one candidate running has any experience with government, Mr. Czuba said: Mike Brown, a captain with the Department of State Police. He’s twice served as a Berrien County commissioner on top of his time with MSP.

"That’s a far cry from even a decade ago, where government experience was really important," he said. "Even Rick Snyder, even though he hadn’t been an elected official, had a lot of experience in working with government, serving in roles on commissions. That doesn’t exist anymore."

Repeatedly, Mr. Czuba emphasized that Michigan’s elections would be decided by independent voters who are currently more interested in traditional kitchen table issues such as inflation and the economy than they are with attempting to relitigate the 2020 presidential election.

But with the way the grassroots wing of the GOP is trending, it appears that faction of the party wants to continue pushing down the path of election fraud. It’s because of this that more moderate Republicans – folks like U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Saint Joseph), who earlier this week announced his retirement after nearly four decades in Congress – are being pushed out and away from the party at large.

As, historically, the party in power at the federal level performs poorly during the midterms, Mr. Czuba said this should be a year where Republicans make gains at the state and national level. But unless they "get out of their own way" and stop attempting to look backward, there’s a real chance that Democratic candidates could perform better than they ought to as a result.

That said, Mr. Czuba also noted polling has indicated some "softness" in center-left voters, meaning that they could be less likely to turn out for Democratic candidates.

"Michigan elections are, first and foremost, decided by independents. I don’t think we pay enough attention to independents. … It’s the middle that makes these decisions, and so we need to look at what they say. And frankly? They’re worried about the economy," he said. "If I were running as a Democrat, I would be very worried right now because it’s a midterm and their party’s in power. … The question is, do Republicans get out of their own way and focus on the economy? Because that’s where voters are."

UIA To Wait On Collections Until May 7 To Review UI Claimants Accounts
The Unemployment Insurance Agency announced Friday it would stop collecting new wage garnishments and intercepts of state of Michigan tax refunds while the agency completes its review of claimant accounts that may qualify for overpayment waivers.

The U.S. Department of Labor is allowing the agency to pause on collections. The UIA will review cases where claimants were told to pay back the Unemployment Insurance benefits they received. Roughly 385,000 of the cases involve overpayments during the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Even though the UIA will not issue new wage garnishments and intercept state tax refunds, collections of existing wage garnishments, intercepting federal tax returns, deducting a percentage from current unemployment benefit payments and recovering overpayments will continue.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer previously sought legal authority from the Department of Labor and Congress to hold state collections while the claimants’ accounts were reviewed and any eligible waivers were issued. In a statement, UIA Director Julia Dale said this pause was one of several steps to provide relief to Michigan workers.

"There will be more good news in the weeks to come for those waiting to hear about overpayment waivers," Ms. Dale said in the statement. "This is part of my commitment to restore public confidence in the UIA’s ability to efficiently and effectively serve Michigan’s workers and our business community."

During this review time, the UIA will look at overpayments of federal benefits received before September 4, examining benefit programs including the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Mixed Earnings Unemployment Compensation and the federal reimbursement for the first week of benefits.

This review period will not apply to claims where fraud was involved.

Those who qualify for an overpayment waiver is still to be decided during the next few weeks, but claimants can expect a notification letter and a notice through their Michigan Web Account Manager if they are given an overpayment waiver.



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