From guns in schools to COVID emergency powers: Key bills in the new Legislature so far

By: - February 7, 2021 7:52 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

During their first month in office, members of the 101st Michigan Legislature have introduced 275 bills, and several more resolutions, addressing topics ranging from gun control to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, in the House with a six-seat margin and the Senate with a four-seat margin. Two additional Senate seats that were previously held by Republicans are currently vacant.

During the 2019-20 session, 427 bills were signed into law and an additional 15 were vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

From allowing elected officials to carry guns in schools to providing $5.6 billion in COVID-19 relief, these are some of key bills introduced this term so far.

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COVID-19 legislation

Earlier this month, Whitmer announced her $5.6 billion Michigan COVID Recovery Plan proposal that would use federal funds and $300 million of state funds to increase vaccine distribution, provide support to small businesses, offer rental assistance and more.

That plan appears in the Legislature as House Bill 4039 and Senate Bill 52. The House version of the supplemental was introduced by state Rep. Joseph Tate (D-Detroit) and has 34 Democratic cosponsors, while the Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) and has nine cosponsors, all Democrats.

Also included in Whitmer’s plan is a call for the Legislature to make permanent an extension of Michigan’s unemployment benefits to 26 weeks, up from 20 weeks.

Senate Bill 2, introduced by Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren), would do just that.

More than $2.1 billion of support for Michigan schools would be allocated under HB 4048, introduced by Rep. Brad Parquette (R-Niles) and cosponsored by six other members.

But $363 million of the aid would only be distributed to districts that commit to reopen in-person instruction by Feb. 15.

Limiting Whitmer admin. powers

The $2.1 billion of school aid comes with another catch: it will only be distributed, under the GOP plan, if Whitmer agrees to strip the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services of its ability to close schools and stop high school athletics.

That’s because the aid package is tie-barred with HB 4049, meaning that either bill would only go into effect if both are signed into law; vetoing one would also strike down the other.

High schools have been allowed to return to in-person instruction since December, while colleges were allowed to reopen in January.

Under a bipartisan plan approved by the Republican Legislature and signed by Whitmer last year, local districts have the authority to determine whether they resume in-person instruction while the state maintains the ability to close school buildings.

Whitmer has encouraged schools to return to in-person instruction by March 1 and announced Thursday that athletics can resume starting Feb. 8. 

Let Them Play Michigan filed a lawsuit earlier this week asking the court to overturn the order. The group had previously held a large rally at the state Capitol on Saturday. 

The Senate passed a resolution Thursday to call on Whitmer and DHHS to allow high school athletics to resume. Senate Resolution 7 passed the Education and Career Readiness committee unanimously before being adopted by the full Senate.

The Senate GOP touted that bipartisan support last week, leading to Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) clarifying her support of the resolution.

“I voted yes on the resolution because the kids’ testimonies were moving — not because I actually agree with any of the bull @MISenate has been pedaling about what is/isn’t permitted during the common-sense COVID response,” Geiss tweeted. “I also felt super sorry for them that they were used for a farce of a committee hearing today on a non-binding resolution.”

The House introduced a similar resolution, House Resolution 23, but it has not yet passed.

The first bill introduced in the Senate of the term – usually signifying that issue as a priority and setting the tone for the two years ahead – would limit the DHHS emergency orders Whitmer has used to respond to the pandemic to 28 days unless the Legislature voted to extend them.

Senate Bill 1 was introduced by Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton).

Legislators have not introduced or passed their own plan to address the pandemic during this legislative term.

Whitmer began using the DHHS orders after a Michigan Supreme Court ruling struck down a separate 1945 law that she had previously used to issue executive orders herself.

Prior to the ruling, a group known as Unlock Michigan gathered signatures for a ballot initiative to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act.

If it is certified that the group gathered enough signatures, the Legislature would be able to pass the proposal themselves before it ever appears before voters on a ballot and circumventing Whitmer’s veto powers.

Those signatures have been submitted to the Bureau of Elections, but the Board of State Canvassers has not yet certified them.

Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo) introduced SR 9, which, if passed, would call on the Secretary of State and Bureau of Elections to complete its review of signatures.

As rules have changed throughout the pandemic, Whitmer has occasionally used the Emergency Alert System to notify residents of new orders.

House Bill 4061, introduced by Rep. Bradley Slagh (R-Zeeland) would restrict the use of that system to notifying people of threats that are “likely to lead to an immediate or nearly immediate loss of life or property,” adding that the system “must not be activated to transmit an announcement of a new law or executive order” except in that circumstance.

Last week, the Michigan Senate voted to reject en bloc more than a dozen of Whitmer’s appointments to various boards and commissions. The decision was intended to send a message to Whitmer and was not based on the merits of any individual appointee.

Notably, the Senate didn’t reject Elizabeth Hertel’s appointment as DHHS director. The Senate still has time to do so and the Advice and Consent Committee has scheduled a hearing on her appointment on Feb. 25. She has the power to issue emergency orders to address the pandemic after Whitmer’s last director, Robert Gordon, abruptly resigned. He didn’t give a reason for the resignation.

The idea of rejecting Whitmer’s nominees in protest of her indoor dining ban was first floated by Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) and had the support of Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).

Ethics and transparency

Stamas is the owner of Midland restaurant Pizza Sam’s.

Under the first bill introduced in the House, legislators would be prohibited from voting on any bills that they have a personal or professional interest in.

House Bill 4001 was introduced by Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Township) and has the support of Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare).

Legislators trying to restrict Whitmer’s powers is not new.

Following her victory in the November 2018 general election, several bills popped up in lame duck session that would have limited the powers of Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. (All of the bills were either vetoed by former Gov. Rick Snyder or did not reach his desk.)

A proposed amendment to the state Constitution, House Joint Resolution A, would require a two-thirds majority of both the state House and Senate to pass any bills during a session held after the November election in an even-numbered year (known as Lame Duck).

The amendment was introduced by Wentworth and would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber before being presented to voters as a ballot proposal.

Democrats in the House have introduced HB 4062 to require executive branch officials and candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general to file annual financial disclosures as well as federal tax returns for the preceding three calendar years.

Legislators, if they resign, are currently prohibited from becoming lobbyists for the remainder of the term from which they resigned.

Under SB 21, introduced by Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), that legislator to lobbyist cool off period would be expanded to two years after leaving office for most legislators or three years after leaving office for those who chaired a committee.

Insurrection accountability

Following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol while Congress met to certify the electoral college results, resolutions have been introduced in the Senate and House to address the conduct of state legislators who promoted debunked conspiracy theories about the results of the 2020 election.

Senate Resolution 4 would censure 11 Republican senators who sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence asking the Joint Session of Congress to investigate the credibility of the election results.

“This legislative body must send a clear signal that efforts to undermine the democratic process and obstruct the will of the American people through baseless and disproven allegations of fraud are wholly unacceptable and should be met with the strongest possible condemnation,” the resolution reads in part.

House Resolution 11 would create a select committee to examine the conduct of Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) and recommend appropriate action.

Maddock and his wife, newly elected Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock, were in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and spoke at a rally the day before. Meshawn Maddock also helped organize buses to bring Trump supporters from Michigan to D.C., and she quote tweeted a video of Trump supporters marching to the Capitol on Jan. 6 with the comment “the most incredible crowd and sea of people I’ve ever walked with.”

Increase Capitol security

The House and Senate canceled their first full week of session following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol due to security concerns during the week of the presidential inauguration.

Attendees of armed rallies at the Michigan Capitol last year, some of whom were pictured carrying firearms in the Senate gallery, have since been linked to the Jan. 6 insurrection in D.C. and the foiled plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer.

Bills introduced by Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) and Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) – HB 4023 and SB 34 – would ban guns from the state Capitol.

“There is no room for compromise in the current, pressure-cooker political environment we are in, and a full ban on firearms from our state Capitol is the only way to keep everyone who visits and works in the building safe,” Bayer said in a statement.

Open carrying guns in the Capitol is no longer allowed after the Michigan Capitol Commission voted unanimously on Jan. 11 to have visible guns join protest signs on the list of items not allowed in the building. Individuals can still carry concealed firearms.

Wentworth said in a statement following the meeting that the commission “does not have the authority to set policy in the Capitol” and said he will be “looking at options for handling that moving forward.”

Nessel, who wrote in a legal opinion last year that the commission does have the authority to ban guns from the Capitol, said that the ban on open carrying doesn’t go far enough.

“Firearms – whether explicitly visible or concealed by clothing – possess the same capability to inflict injury and harm on others and only banning open carry does little to meaningfully improve the safety and security of our Capitol,” Nessel said.

Commissioners said they could not effectively ban the concealed carry of firearms from the building without an appropriation from the Legislature to install magnetometers and x-ray machines to screen individuals who enter the building.

The supplemental that houses Whitmer’s proposed MI COVID Recovery Plan in the House and Senate – HB 4039 and SB 52 – would also allocate $5 million to security improvements at the Capitol.

According to an Advance investigation, Michigan had some of the loosest rules in the country regarding guns in their state Capitol. Prior to the commission’s decision, Michigan was one of just three states with no security measures of any kind, like metal detectors or security screenings.

Loosen gun laws

Not all gun-related legislation is aimed at restricting firearms.

House Bill 4006, introduced by Rep. Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair Twp.), would allow elected officials to carry a concealed pistol in restricted areas, including schools, day care centers, sports arenas, bars, theaters, hospitals and more.

Eisen also introduced HB 4010 to lower the penalty for individuals caught carrying a concealed weapon in a restricted area.

For a first offense, the individual would currently face a civil infraction punishable by a fine of not more than $500 and a six month concealed pistol license suspension. Under Eisen’s plan, that would be lowered to a $250 fine with no suspension.

On a second offense, an individual would currently face a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 and would have their concealed pistol license revoked. Under Eisen’s plan, the fine would remain and the individual could also face up to 90 days in prison, but the second violation would have to occur within five years of the first and a judge would be able to decide whether to suspend their concealed pistol license for up to one year rather than being required to permanently revoke it.

On a third violation, an individual would currently face a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000. Under Eisen’s plan, the offense would again have to take place during a five-year period, and the maximum prison sentence would be lowered to two years.

Bills introduced by Eisen and Theis would focus on ensuring that individuals can get a concealed pistol license during an emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Bill 11 would require a county clerk to continue issuing concealed pistol licenses during executive orders issued under the 1976 Emergency Management Act or emergency orders issued by DHHS.

House Bill 4013 would require that clerks issue a temporary license, valid for 90 days, to individuals who have completed a training course, applied for a license and paid the application fee during a declared emergency or disaster that leads to applications not being processed.

Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) introduced HB 4003, which would reduce or eliminate the fine for carrying a concealed pistol without a valid license in some circumstances.

Currently, anyone carrying a concealed pistol without an active license faces a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to 5 years or a fine of not more than $2,500.

Under Hall’s plan, that would be reduced to a civil fine of $330 for individuals whose license expired not more than one year before the date of the violation and who is eligible to obtain a renewed license. If the individual receives a renewed license within 60 business days of the violation, the civil fine would be removed.

Perennial issues

Some issues come up during almost every legislative session, and the 101st Legislature is no exception.

Michigan residents would get an extra hour of sunlight under HB 4052, which would make Michigan observe daylight saving time year-round. Before the bill could take effect, Congress would have to pass a law allowing states to observe daylight saving time year-round and other Midwest states Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania would all have to adopt the change as well.

A constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) would allow for a graduated income tax in Michigan, in which individuals would be charged at different tax rates based on their level of income.

Senate Joint Resolution C would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature and would have to be approved by voters, who have previously rejected similar proposals.

Other bills of note

In other tax related policy, SB 22 would limit local millage proposals to appearing on the ballot during November elections.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) introduced SB 45, which would instruct Benson to create and make available two legacy license plate designs, one replicating the blue license plate used from 1983 to 2007 and the other replicating the black license plate used from 1979 to 1983.

House Bill 4041, introduced by Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), would require state campgrounds to make reservations available to Michigan residents exclusively for two weeks before offering the reservations to nonresidents.

Conservatives have a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court following the quick confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett following the death of former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She joins Trump’s two other nominees, Justices Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination was thrown into question following allegations of sexual assault, and Neil Gorsuch, who filled a seat held open by Senate Republicans after former President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat near the end of his second term.

The new majority has led to concerns among some reproductive rights activists that the Supreme Court could target abortion rights, possibly overturning the precedent set in Roe v. Wade.

Senate Resolution 8, which was adopted last week but is non-binding, notes Michigan still has anti-abortion laws from 1846 on the books and “exhorts the attorney general, all law enforcement officials, and state regulatory personnel to enforce all laws regulating or limiting the practice of abortion until such time that complete legal protection is restored to unborn children in Michigan.”

A similar resolution, HR 22, was introduced but has not passed.

Two bills – HB 4046 and SB 18, respectively – would enter Michigan into the Nurse Licensure Compact and Physical Therapy Licensure Compact.

The compacts allow licensed nurses and physical therapists to practice in other member states without obtaining a separate license.

There are currently 34 member states in the Nurse Licensure Compact and 30 member states in the Physical Therapy Licensure Compact.

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.