Michigan Legislature passes Court of Appeals reduction plan

The Michigan Legislature has passed SB 849, which would reduce the number of Court of Appeals judges from 28 to 24. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature.

Sounds good, right? I mean, the Judicial Crossroads Task Forceshowed that appeals filings are down so much that the state doesn’t need 28 judges and their staffs. But a review of the bill shows that the court might remain in its current bloated state for some time.

In its current state, there is no set timetable for the reduction to happen. The bill states that one judgeship in each of the state’s four districts will be eliminated if it becomes vacated. So really, it’s not even the next four judgeships to become vacated. Each district can only lose one, so if two are vacated, the seat with the shortest remaining term is the one that becomes eliminated.

If none are vacated via retirement, resignation, removal or death (unless there’s a fifth method to vacate a seat during a term), the seats can be eliminated if a sitting judge chooses not to run for re-election. Of course, if one runs and is defeated, under this bill, it wouldn’t trigger elimination of the seat (Not that it should, necessarily, as it would certainly stifle anyone’s aspirations to challenge a sitting judge. But it certainly could kick the proverbial can down the road even further.)There’s even a clause that protects the seat of Judge Amy Ronayne Krause, who was appointed by former Governor Jennifer Granholm last November and has yet to run for election. 

Michigan’s going to get a smaller judiciary eventually, just not as soon as you might have thought.

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Gutless Michigan Legislature kicks responsibility down the road

After a year of shoving “tough solutions” down the throats of Michigan’s teachers, unionized state workers, retired workers, homeowners, charities, firefighters, police officers, emergency responders, the unemployed, welfare recipients, people with jobs that don’t pay much … you know, everyone — the Michigan Legislature preached tough solutions. But when it came to getting tough with themselves, they punted.

Certainly the state had to do something about the budget shortfall.  It took several drastic measures that affected virtually everyone who lives in the state in some way. But when it came to dealing with themselves and their “lifetime” medical benefits, they ended them, but passed the burden on  to the next batch of legislators. [Detroit Free Press].

The bill would prohibit retiree health care benefits, which legislators have been getting since 1957, for all future state legislators and end benefits for current House and Senate members who don’t have six years of service before Jan. 1, 2013.

The House passed a bill that would have ended retiree health benefits for legislators who didn’t have six years of service as of Jan. 1, 2007, which would have ended benefits for all but a handful of lawmakers.

But the Senate passed a different version Wednesday that puts that date at Jan. 1, 2013. The bill protects benefits for all but two senators — Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, and Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield — and 14 House members.

The House passed the Senate version, which protects virtually all of them (Sorry, Colbeck and Gregory, but we have to draw the line somewhere!),  96-11. Of course it did. It was a much better deal for most of them.

This isn’t intended to be political, pro-union, anti-business or anything else. These votes were non-partisan, as all but one senator and 11 representatives voted in favor. They’re almost all complicit in this mockery of leadership. But let’s look at the scoreboard of how Legislators have dealt with issues of this state:

Teachers: forced to pay higher health insurance benefits, virtually ended teacher tenure, and are in the works of making teachers the state’s only right-to-work profession, i.e. people can take the fruits of unionization without paying for it;

Unionized state workers: Reduced health care benefits;

Retired workers: Pension income no longer exempt from taxes;

Homeowners: The homestead tax credit ends next year …

Charities: … as does the credit for charitable gifts.

Firefighters/Police/First responders: Higher health care costs, which was forced on local governments whether they wanted to give more benefits or not.

The unemployed: Reduced unemployment from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.

Welfare recipients: Capped benefits to four years and made it retroactive, kicking many recipients off the roles almost immediately. (And no “starting in 2013” language to be found here, either).

Working poor: Ended the earned income credit.

Municipalities: Already crushed by the effect falling home values have had on property tax revenue, the Legislature is seriously considering killing the personal property tax on businesses, which the Michigan Municipal League says would be a “death blow” to communities of all sizes.

Themselves: Protected their benefits, but just long enough so that they aren’t affected by their decision.

If Gov. Snyder had any guts he’d veto this bill and have it revert back to the version where the current batch loses their lifetime benefits as well. But he won’t, as the Freep story says. Instead, he “applauds” them for being hypocrites, according to a spokesperson.

Out of work and out of luck

The job market in Michigan has for some workers become like a game of musical chairs, and someone keeps swiping the seats from the game. The result has meant that some out-of-work Michiganders, and there are a lot of them – about 500,000, according to the State of Michigan – take longer to find work than they might have needed in a robust economy.

And though those workers have no control over the economy as a whole, they are certainly feeling penalized for being out of work, even if their jobless state is not of their own making.

According to a story in the New York Times this week, employers are openly admitting to excluding the unemployed from …. well, being considered for employment. Want ads in a sampling of papers around the country make it clear that the out-of-work need not apply.

In an economy that’s the worst for workers since the Great Depression, some Michigan lawmakers are saying that’s not fair, and earlier this year introducted House Bill 4675, which would prohibit employers seeking to hire workers from discriminating against the unemployed.

It’s a nice thought, but the bill probably has no chance of passing. And even if it did, what good would it do?

Bingham Farms-based employment lawyer Robert M. Vercruysse said that many employers find the unemployed to be attractive job candidates. He noted that they are able and eager to start work immediately, and “there are no non-compete issues and they will generally take the job offer at the pay range posted.”

But for those who don’t see the practical upside of hiring unemployed workers, proving that an employer is refusing to consider the jobless candidate would be “very difficult to prove,” he said.

Granholm signs utility theft bills

Last time I checked, these two things were already illegal.

From the AP:

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A new state law aims at cracking down on energy theft from utilities in Michigan.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed bills Wednesday that make it a felony to illegally sell or transfer utility service. The penalty will be up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for a first offense.

The bills also create specific penalties for assaulting utility workers while on the job. The minimum penalty would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Penalties would stiffen if the assault resulted in injuries requiring medical attention.

Energy theft has become a larger safety and utility cost issue during Michigan’s economic downturn. Illegal hookups have caused fires and resulted in higher costs for those who have legal utility connections.

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State const. amendment would bar felons from public office for 20 years

[I can’t think of a single instance where this would apply…]

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan lawmakers are advancing a proposal that would bar politicians from holding public office for 20 years after certain felony convictions related to previous terms in office.

The state Senate passed a proposed amendment to the state constitution by a 35-0 vote Thursday. If approved by at least two-thirds of the members in the state House, the proposal would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

The measure comes as former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is in prison for violating probation stemming from his conviction for lying under oath about an affair with his chief of staff.

But the bill’s backers say the measure is not designed to single out any one person and is instead aimed at setting standards for public officeholders at all levels.

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A carrot and a stick for Michigan voters

Twelve years to the day after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Massey, et al. v Secretary of State that term limits for state legislators, approved by Michigan voters in 1992, are indeed constitutional, the state house judiciary committee discussed a possible tweak-and-massage of those limits.

It’s not the first time legislators have looked at the idea of tinkering with, but not eliminating, term limits. But yesterday was the first time they’d discussed sweetening the deal in hopes of gaining favor with Michigan voters.

The term-limit adjustment would go like this: it would allow legislators to serve up to 14 years, as they are now. Currently, elected members of the state legislatures can serve three two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the state Senate. But the joint resolution, HJR EEE, proposes that they could serve all 14 years in the House, or 12 years in the Senate and two years in the house, which would slow the turn-over in the state legislature. The upshot would be that more experienced legislators could stay in office, and ideally could gain the experience and build the relationships necessary to sort out Michigan’s numerous and deep challenges.

Here comes the sweetener. Also proposed in the resolution is a provision that if the legislature does not present a balanced budget to the governor by July 1 of every year, each and every representative and senator would pay the price, and would forfeit his or her salary for every day until it’s it’s done. If the governor does receive the budget on time, but refuses to sign it, the governor and lieutenant governor would forfeit their salary until the governor seals the deal.

The resolution, sponsored by Westland Democrat Richard LeBlanc, is a melding of two house bills, sponsored by Tim Bledsoe, D-Grosse Pointe, and Bill Rogers, R-Brighton. LeBlanc said that both ideas are appealing, but attaching the paycheck forfeiture to reforming term limits would provide an attractive selling point to get voters on board.

According to LeBlanc, voters like term limits. But Bledsoe noted that Michigan has the most “draconian” limits in the country. Only California and Arkansas have similar limits.

“At one point in our country, 21 states had term limits,” LeBlanc said. But they’ve had such devastating consequences that as of today, six of those states have repealed.

In 1992, he was in favor of them, he admits. And in fact, he wouldn’t have been elected without them.

People were “astounded” he said, when LeBlanc announced that he liked proposal B in 1992. But he’s had a change of heart, now that he’s seen what widespread inexperience does to the legislative process.

“They were right,” he said of term limit opponents. “I was wrong.”

Next year, if term limits are not tweaked, all of the most experienced representatives will be gone, at a time when Michigan is facing serious issues, said Rogers. He likened electing representatives to choosing a heart surgeon.

“I would rather have someone who’s been doing it for a few years than someone who is doing it for the first time,” Rogers said.

The proposal will come back to the committee, “very soon,” said Chairmain Mark Meadows, D-Lansing. Bill sponsors hope to get a ballot proposal in front of voters for the August primary elections.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Later this week, the Michigan House Judiciary Committee is taking testimony on HB 5371.

The bill exempts prosecuting attorneys from paying some fees in the Michigan Court of Appeals and the circuit courts.

The legislation is undoubtedly intended to ease the strain on county prosecutors’ budgets, which are being pinched along with the budgets of all other governmental agencies.

But, in at least as the COA is concerned, this may be akin to passing a (nonexistent) buck.

Last month, COA Chief Judge William B. Murphy appeared before the Judiciary Subcommittee of House Appropriations to plead for an honest budget from the Legislature. See, Michigan Lawyers Weekly, “Judges begging for budgets.”

The problem, Murphy told the lawmakers, is that for a number of years, part of the COA’s budget, nearly $2 million, has been based on anticipated fee revenue. But the court never collects what’s anticipated.

In fact, for 2009, there was a $500,000 shortfall. Murphy said budget assumptions based on fee revenue have not been adjusted to reflect what’s actually collected.

If HB 5371 becomes law, it will affect COA fee revenue.

And if the Legislature is to take Murphy’s complaint seriously, it will need to allocate even more real dollars to the COA to make up for the imaginary ones being collected in the clerk’s office.