GOP-led Senate committee to reconsider state dept. funding over ‘how to form a union’ webinar

By: - April 28, 2021 6:59 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

After the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity hosted a webinar on how to form a union, the GOP-led Senate Appropriations subcommittee held a meeting Tuesday to discuss the reconsideration of the department’s budget recommendation, saying the webinar was “strictly outside the mission of the department.”

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor and Economic Opportunity and Michigan Economic Development Corp. Chair Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) said the half-hour webinar Monday was the “last straw on the camel’s back” and added that he will be making additional recommendations to his colleagues on the budget. Notably, Horn was one of the few Republicans who voted against the landmark anti-union Right to Work law in 2012 while serving in the House.

Michigan COVID-19 Workplace Safety Director Sean Egan said the webinar was simply part of the department’s education and outreach efforts.

“It was an unbiased webinar focused solely on the Public Employment Relations Act. We didn’t lean one way or the other through the webinar,” Egan said. “And we just used information that’s been available through our public employee labor relations manual for the last 20-plus years.”

LEO isn’t the only department that Republicans who control the Legislature have put on the chopping block amid their battles with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. As the Advance reported last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee moved out legislation for Fiscal Year 2022 that would slash 75% of funding for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In the current Fiscal Year 2021 budget, $1.6 billion was appropriated to LEO, which helped to fund a number of programs, including the Going Pro program, workforce development programs and the Unemployment Insurance Agency.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer included $1.8 billion in ongoing and one-time funding in her FY 22 budget recommendation for LEO. 

Whitmer has launched a number of programs through LEO, including the Futures for Frontlines program, which provides free community college tuition to frontline health care workers, and the Michigan Reconnect program, a financial aid program that covers two years of community college tuition for Michigan residents 25 years or older. 

The Senate panel’s LEO budget, SB 85, released before Republicans’ threat to reconsider funding, would spend $1.6 billion and did not fund the Future for Frontliners or Michigan Reconnect programs.

“I know the focus of today’s hearing is one webinar covering a single topic, but I want the committee to appreciate that a significant cut to our budget wouldn’t just impact our ability to educate workers or enforce labor laws,” said LEO Director Susan Corbin. “The majority of the impact would fall on programs that are crucial for economic recovery and growth that are now the focus of our current budget proposal.”

On Monday, Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley called on LEO to immediately cancel its webinars. 

“The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) decision to use the state website and state employees to promote a how to ‘Form a Union’ webinars is a serious misuse of tax dollars and severely damages the credibility and trustworthiness of LEO with Michigan’s business community,” Studley said in a statement. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, Horn also mentioned that he was concerned about the extension of emergency rules aimed at protecting Michigan workers, businesses, customers and communities from the spread of COVID-19, saying that he “discovered through media sources that the department sought to make temporary mercy rules permanent.”

Earlier this month, Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) extended the emergency rules, originally issued Oct. 14, 2020, until Oct. 14, 2021. The rules can be modified or withdrawn at any time in response to the spread of COVID-19, but there isn’t a current plan to implement them permanently.

Horn said he is concerned that the Legislature isn’t included in the conversation about rule extensions. 

“It seems clear that the department has work to do to streamline and improve communications with the Legislature in working and developing state policies and procedures,” Horn said. “In the opinion of the chair, if we are partners in policymaking, then it makes it darn hard to be partners in the budget process.”


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.