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Posted on 01.04.2018 Under Legislative
Judy Augenstein, Legislative Consultant
Top 10 Stories Of 2017
2017 will be remembered as a year when news outside of the Legislature dominated Michigan government and politics.
There were relatively few significant pieces of legislation signed into law that will have far-reaching impact, and external events led the headlines.
 Following are the top 10 stories of the year in Michigan government and politics as determined by political pundits.
10. BANKS RESIGNS, SEN. JOHNSON INDICTED: It was a tough year for two visible members of the Detroit delegation. Former Rep. Brian Banks, the Detroit Caucus chair, resigned 37 days into the year as part of a plea deal in which the Department of Attorney General dropped a felony charge involving a loan he obtained prior to serving in the Legislature. He was allowed to instead plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
The indictment of Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) on charges he hired a part-time aide to a no-show job as a way of paying her back for a personal loan was a major shock. Mr. Johnson is scheduled to stand trial next year.
9. ETUE’S FACEBOOK POST: Whatever the administration of Governor Rick Snyder hoped to emphasize in late September and October was overshadowed after the discovery that State Police Director Kriste Etue reposted to her personal Facebook page a meme circulating on the Internet calling National Football League players “anti-American degenerates” for kneeling during the national anthem prior to games. The department had been under scrutiny for the past month after one of its troopers, during a pursuit of a 15-year-old African-American boy on an ATV in Detroit, tased the boy, causing him to crash into a truck and die from blunt force trauma. So Ms. Etue’s tearing into kneeling players, when the kneeling began as a protest of police treatment of African-Americans, ignited a furor that led to calls from the Legislative Black Caucus and other prominent black leaders for her to resign.
The story dragged on for a nearly month until Mr. Snyder, who rejected the calls for her ouster, docked Ms. Etue five days’ pay.
8. BALLOT PROPOSALS: Ballot proposals played a huge role in the year’s politics, led by two surprise efforts. When the year began, talk of a ballot proposal to remove redistricting from the Legislature and put it in the hands of a commission was just talk. By the end of the year, a proposal to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot taking such action to submitted better than 100,000 more signatures than the minimum necessary to qualify, the first all-volunteer operation in 14 years to do so. The signature-collectors for Voters Not Politicians were ubiquitous throughout the state.
Also totally unexpected was the move by Lt. Governor Brian Calley to launch a ballot proposal to make the Legislature part time, prompting a furious response from major groups around the Capitol who said the combination of forcing the Legislature to wrap up its session by April 15 and the nation’s strictest term limits law would be disastrous. A series of mistakes – having to amend the language, a move costing them their first month of signatures collected; hiring the firm of a man convicted of election fraud to collect petition signatures; and angering their first hires who said they were duped into a de facto campaign to support Mr. Calley’s eventual bid for governor – set back the proposal’s efforts. Mr. Calley in November handed off his role of leading the effort to State Board of Education member Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills).
7. CAPITOL GRIEVES KIVELA’S DEATH: Few events have left those who work in and around the Capitol as stunned and grief struckas the suicide of Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette). Mr. Kivela, who was battling alcoholism, had been pulled over the night before he died on suspicion of driving drunk as he drove to Lansing, which if true would have meant his second such conviction as a legislator. He spent the night in the Clinton County Jail.
The next day, while at the home he owned near the Capitol, Mr. Kivela hung himself. Word of the tragedy began to spread while the House was in session. Members and staff were in tears. Governor Rick Snyder, at a news conference on a different topic that began shortly after the news of Mr. Kivela’s death broke, struggled to hold back his emotions in sharing the news. Social media served as a way for legislators, staff, lobbyists and others to share their grief and remember Mr. Kivela’s kindness, humor and nonpartisan approach to legislating.
6. CONYERS’ 53-YEAR CAREER IMPLODES IN SCANDAL: U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) saw his political career quickly extinguished after BuzzFeed reported that several of his former staffers alleged he had sexually harassed them. Subsequent stories brought forth more allegations. Accused of groping women and appearing before another in his underwear and asking her to touch his penis, pressure built in Washington for the 27-term member of Congress to resign, and he did so, though he retained strong support among most in the Michigan Democratic establishment.
5. NASSAR SCANDAL AFFECTS GOVERNOR’S RACE, LEGISLATURE: Michigan State University’s handling of its former employee, ex-physician Larry Nassar, became a major political story beyond the allegations he sexually assaulted at least 125 girls and women. Once Mr. Nassar pleaded guilty to seven charges brought against him by the Department of Attorney General, his victims called for law enforcement to investigate MSU officials. Attorney General Bill Schuette asked MSU for more information about what it had found in its internal inquiries, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer called for an independent investigation.
One of Ms. Whitmer’s rivals, Democrat Shri Thanedar, said Ms. Whitmer should drop out of the race for failing to open an investigation of MSU while she was the interim Ingham County prosecutor. House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) and Ms. Whitmer called for MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign. Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) and Rep. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Township), the chairs of the legislative Appropriations subcommittees on higher education, called for hearings on MSU’s actions.
4. LINE 5: When the year began, Line 5 still largely enjoyed the benefit of the doubt with the administration of Governor Rick Snyder. By the end of the year, Snyder administration officials had berated Enbridge Energy, the owner of the twin pipeline at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, multiple times for providing misleading information about the condition of the pipeline.
Activists who have called for the pipeline’s closure saw their warnings about a major leak into the straits gain clout as Enbridge at first denied, and then acknowledged, several gaps in the pipeline’s protective coating. The Snyder administration and the company reached an agreement late in the year for the company to take several actions and 2018 looms as a year of major decision – either closure of the line or possibly putting it into a tunnel beneath the straits.
3. HOUSE REJECTS INCOME TAX CUT, AUTO INSURANCE CHANGES: It is extremely rare for legislation backed by the leadership of the majority party to fail to pass that chamber. For it to happen twice in one year, and to significant bills, signaled a move away from a majority party using its majority to pass priorities and instead showing it had fought for priorities.
Early in the year, the House fell three votes short of passing legislation to cut the income tax to 3.9 percent. In the fall, the House fell 10 votes short of passing legislation to overhaul auto insurance. Long-time Capitol watchers scratched their heads. House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) said his members wanted a vote on the income tax cut, no matter the result. And he said voters needed to know where legislators stood on the auto insurance legislation. Mr. Leonard’s critics saw both moves as posturing for his attorney general campaign.
2. FLINT WATER PROSECUTIONS: The charging of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, divided many in the Capitol community among those who thought Attorney General Bill Schuette went too far in charging Mr. Lyon with involuntary manslaughter and those who considered it a logical move. The charges clearly infuriated Governor Rick Snyder. Four defendants have reached plea deals with prosecutors so far, and the initial hearings have proved a major headache for the governor. In one instance, one of Mr. Snyder’s top aides, Harvey Hollins, testified that he told Mr. Snyder about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak December 24 when the governor told a congressional committee under oath he learned of the problem in mid-January.
1. UNEMPLOYMENT AGENCY SCANDAL: When 2017 began, the Snyder administration still largely denied any major systemic problems in the unemployment insurance agency or the need for any major actions to fix it, even as for nearly 20 months complaints had mushroomed from those who said the agency falsely determined they committed fraud to obtain unemployment benefits.
But shortly after the first of the year, that position changed dramatically. The agency director, Sharon Moffett-Massey, was reassigned. The administration reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit that required the agency to make a series of major changes in its operations. After first defending its practice of issuing criminal warrants against some of those it said committed fraud, the agency rescinded them after complaints that those subject to the warrants had no idea they existed. It gave up its quixotic fight to keep $158 in benefits from one claimant after the Court of Appeals tore into the agency’s handling of denying her those funds. The agency completed a review of the fraud cases from October 2013 through August 2015, when a computer system was largely or entirely in charge of determining whether fraud occurred, and reversed 44,000 fraud findings affecting about 37,000 people.
A new director was brought in from Utah. And an exhaustive workgroup was convened by Rep. Joe Graves(R-Linden) with stakeholders from all sides to fix the agency, leading to major legislation that quickly sailed through the Legislature and was signed by Mr. Snyder. As 2017 closed, Mr. Snyder called for the establishment of a victim compensation fund to repay those wrongly accused, and while questions of its size will be debated into 2018, it marked a remarkable reversal from where this issue stood on January 1, 2017.
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