Doing the right thing for Michigan’s families, economy, environment and energy future

Earlier this month, I submitted this opinion column concerning the future of Line 5 and our economy:

I am committed to leading and supporting efforts that contribute to making Michigan the best place in the country for families, workers and job creators. Northeast Michigan’s economy took a beating from the pandemic and the business shutdowns that compromised our region’s many small businesses and family incomes.

As a recovery begins, we need to be sure the economic crisis is not worsened by an energy crisis the administration is on a path to create. The administration continues to pursue the reckless and irresponsible shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline that is an energy lifeline for northeast Michigan and our state.

If the governor is successful in shutting down Line 5, Michigan stands to lose more than $3 billion in economic activity, $56.8 million in state revenue and almost 6,700 jobs, according to a recent independent economic commissioned by Consumer Energy Alliance.

Line 5 pipeline is important to our state’s energy and economic security.

From Midland to Alpena, Gaylord to Tawas City, and the many towns, villages and rural stretches of Michigan’s Sunrise Coast that I am proud to represent, families and businesses depend on affordable energy to support daily activities and needs.

Our families, friends and neighbors rely on Line 5 to deliver the propane that heats homes throughout rural Michigan. According to the independent U.S. Energy Information Administration, Michigan has the largest residential propane use in the nation. That alone makes Line 5 essential. Read More

Line 5 delivers more than propane. The petroleum it delivers efficiently, safely and without imposing truck traffic on our roads to our regional refineries is processed into gasoline, jet fuel and many other fuels and products used through Michigan each day. Manufacturers, farmers, small businesses, hospitals, schools, utilities, and households throughout our area depend on these products to keep things moving and people safe.

We all agree that Line 5, which runs through the Straits of Mackinac, must be properly operated and maintained to prevent any kind of accident that could damage the waters of the Great Lakes and our Lake Huron shoreline. We also all agree that reasonable steps that can be taken to improve safety should be taken.

That’s why I support building the Great Lakes Tunnel, making the project a priority, and holding Enbridge and the state accountable to project agreements they signed.

Under the agreement, Enbridge is investing more than $500 million to build the Great Lakes Tunnel. When completed, the tunnel will encase the section of Line 5 that crosses the Straits of Mackinac deep below the lakebed, which will eliminate the risk of an oil spill in the straits. The tunnel is also planned to hold other public utilities, like broadband fiberoptic cables.

Between now and when the tunnel project is completed in a few years, extra precautionary measures are required by the agreements, and already are in place, to protect both the pipeline and the Great Lakes, while keeping the energy resources we need coming. Ships moving through the straits are prewarned of pipelines and other utilities that cross the area to make sure anchors are up and out of harm’s way. Weather conditions are carefully monitored, and other commonsense precautions are being taken.

While plans and permitting are well underway by Enbridge, legal challenges brought by the governor’s administration that could delay the project are moving through the court system. Meanwhile, Enbridge and the administration are working with a legal mediator; we need them to work together, resolve their differences and move the tunnel project forward.

The Great Lakes tunnel project will create good-paying jobs for Michigan workers and will boost business for northern Michigan’s small businesses. Construction of the tunnel will involve local suppliers, materials and employers, including those from Alpena County. It also will add to an important tax base for our local governments, schools and public services.

More than 30 county commissions throughout the region now have passed resolutions to urge safe Line 5 operations, and support moving the Great Lakes Tunnel project forward as quickly as possible. I encourage other counties to join the momentum.

I am proud of our communities and those with whom I share an unwavering commitment to protecting our shores while doing the right thing for Michigan’s families, economy, environment and energy future.

Meeting unprecedented challenges

Last year was one filled with unimaginable struggles. Still, I am confident about the future and proud of the way we have come together to meet these unprecedented challenges.

We started 2020 by addressing shoreline erosion due to historically high water levels in the Great Lakes and restoring more of the governor’s budget cuts, such as support for local hospitals, people with disabilities and job training.

Then COVID-19 came to Michigan in March. Its effect on our state is hard to fully comprehend. The virus has infected over 460,000 people in Michigan and more than 11,000 deaths have been attributed to it. Beyond that, the governor’s unilateral actions unnecessarily compounded the situation — endangering lives, shutting down our economy and costing thousands of people their livelihoods.

We acted immediately to pass critical funding to help fight the virus. We also stood up for our students, teachers, nursing home residents, struggling small businesses, and the workers who lost their jobs due to the shutdowns.

We’ve now approved nearly $4 billion in funding for this fight and sent the governor a $465 million COVID-19 relief measure in December to help health care workers combating the virus, increase testing capacity, ensure safe distribution of the vaccine, help hospitals and nursing homes address nursing shortages, and support small businesses shuttered by the governor’s orders avoid permanent closure.

Unfortunately, the governor vetoed our $220 million in critical funding to extend unemployment benefits for Michigan workers until April.

Our previous funding efforts reduced the cost of child care for working families, supported local public health and safety efforts, invested in personal protective equipment, supported remote learning and fixed a broken unemployment system that failed to ensure that workers who lost their jobs due to the governor’s shutdowns received assistance to support their families.

We are in this together, and I was proud to stand up for our system of government and the voice of the people when the governor repeatedly chose unilateral action. Unfortunately, even after the Supreme Court ruled against her abuse of power, the governor continues to go it alone instead of working with us.

In the middle of the pandemic, the counties of Midland, Gladwin and Arenac were devastated by historic flooding that washed out two dams and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Although it was heartbreaking to see the aftermath, it was equally heartwarming to see the outpouring of support from the community. We were able to pass emergency funding to help support cleanup efforts, and I remain dedicated to helping affected families recover from this disaster.

As Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, I was proud to lead the effort to balance historic budget deficits in both the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years while increasing investments in important areas like K-12 education and public safety — without raising taxes.

We increased state aid payments for all schools by $65 per student and invested over $57 million for early childhood literacy programs and $25 million to help schools and families with distance learning connectivity.

We also fully funded the 2015 plan to help fix the state’s roads and increased revenue sharing funding to support local responders who have protected us during this difficult year.

As we look forward to better things in 2021, I remain committed to doing everything I can to help defeat this virus, help businesses and workers recover and improve the lives of all Michigan families.

Michigan deserves better from the governor

Here is a column I wrote that was printed earlier this month in local newspapers, including the Midland Daily News and the Alpena News: The COVID-19 outbreak has had an enormous impact on our state, but it was made even worse by several major mistakes by the governor.

Gov. Whitmer failed to anticipate the impact of her stay-at-home order on the livelihoods of Michigan families and then failed to ensure the people who lost their jobs due to her order received critical unemployment assistance. She also failed to protect our most vulnerable residents from the virus, with deadly consequences.

Due to the governor’s orders, over two million Michigan workers have lost their jobs and our unemployment rate spiked to 24% in April — the second-highest rate in the country.

Unbelievably, the Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) couldn’t handle the increase in claims and the governor failed to fix it.

I continue to hear from frustrated unemployed workers who have yet to receive any support payments and are worried about how they’re going to pay the bills and feed their families.

It was a failure of the governor to listen to others about the full impact of her actions, understand the size of the problem at the UIA, and make the quick and decisive action to fix it. As a result, thousands of families are still struggling to make ends meet.

Thankfully, the governor signed my legislation to immediately hire 500 temporary UIA employees to help our unemployed workers.

Unfortunately, the governor’s decision to put COVID-19 patients in our nursing homes was far more serious.

When COVID-19 first appeared in the U.S., one of the few things we knew about it was that it was much more dangerous for the elderly. As a result, the national Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued guidance in mid-March about how to control COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Nursing homes are not hospitals, and they’re certainly not an appropriate place to house patients with COVID-19 unless they have a confirmed plan to isolate those patients from the other residents. However, Gov. Whitmer on April 15 issued an executive order requiring certain nursing homes to care for COVID-19-affected patients — despite the risks.

When the state finally released nursing facilities’ COVID-19 data on June 15, we learned what a disaster her policy had been.

At that point, over 1,900 deaths from COVID-19 had occurred in nursing homes — more than a third of all Michigan deaths from the virus. This figure could be even higher because Michigan’s data doesn’t include other long-term care facilities and assisted living centers.

To prevent this tragedy from happening again, I supported Senate Bill 956 to ban the admission and retention of COVID-19 patients in nursing home facilities, unless it has a state-approved designated area and program to isolate and care for the patient.

The governor has failed to preserve our economy, support unemployed workers, and protect our most vulnerable residents. We all deserve better.

Governor should quit using northern Michigan as a pawn for tax hike

Stealing funding meant for children, veterans and the less fortunate for political gain is shameful and represents the worst kind of politics. Sadly, that is exactly what our governor did.

With bipartisan support, the Michigan Legislature delivered a responsible and balanced budget plan to the governor before the Oct. 1 deadline. The plan increased K-12 education funding by nearly $400 million and invested $400 million more into our roads.

Unfortunately, the governor decided to gut much of it because the budget didn’t include her massive $2.5 billion tax hike on Michigan families. She made a historic 147 line-item vetoes to cut nearly $1 billion in funding, including $375 million in road funding; $128 million from schools; and funding for children with autism, job training and access to health care.

As if her reckless cuts weren’t bad enough, the governor then circumvented our co-equal system of government by taking the unprecedented action of using an administrative board to move $625 million around various departments without legislative or public input.

The governor needs to quit playing games with the lives of northern Michigan families.

She stole vital resources for northern Michigan through her administrative transfers, including $1 million for child advocacy centers, $7.5 million for private well water testing, and funding to study the impact of PFAS on Michigan wildlife and fisheries. She even eliminated $3.5 million in funding for the Centers for Independent Living, which provide support and training for people with disabilities and their families.

The worst part is the governor did it to try to gain political leverage for a 45-cent gas tax increase.

She has been so bold as to email families with autistic children and tell them that if they want the autism funding restored, they should pressure the Legislature to support her budget priorities.

The good news is the governor now claims she would like us to help fix her budget mistakes; the bad news is she remains unwilling to ensure she won’t do it again.

The governor’s infamous transfers imperiled critical services and broke the trust of the Michigan people and the Legislature elected to represent them.

Gov. Whitmer has the power to rescind her punitive funding transfers. Doing so would be an important first step to restoring balance to the budget process and restoring our trust and the trust of the people impacted by her actions.

I encourage residents to call the governor’s office at 517-335-7858 and ask her to reverse the administrative board transfers and commit to ensure that vital services, vulnerable children and people with disabilities are never again used as pawns in a political chess game.

Governing is not a game. The governor doesn’t seem to understand or care that her cuts will have real impacts on real people in northern Michigan.

I stand ready to work with the governor once she reverses her transfers and has agreed to ensure such undemocratic actions aren’t repeated in the future; we can begin to work to restore her cuts and fix the damage she did.

Senate passes balanced budget plan

The Senate recently approved a responsible fiscal year 2020 budget plan that uses existing resources to help improve Michigan for families, workers and job creators.

The plan increases funding for our roads and schools to record levels without depending on a massive $2.5 billion tax hike on Michigan families. In fact, under this plan, we will have increased our annual transportation spending by more than $1.75 billion in a decade and boosted annual state funding for schools by more than $2.6 billion over the past several years.

The K-12 School Aid budget would invest $15.2 billion in education, a total increase of nearly $400 million.

Schools would see a foundation allowance boost of between $135 and $270 per pupil — the largest per-pupil increase in 18 years and $107 million more of a foundation allowance increase than the governor’s plan.

We are also investing an additional $132 million entirely to local roads — fully implementing $1.2 billion from the 2015 roads plan a year ahead of schedule. Discussions can and will continue on additional funding for our roads, but we need to press forward and fulfill our other responsibilities with the resources that we currently have. It’s one of our top jobs to pass a balanced budget on time — and we owe that to all Michigan families.

The Senate-passed budget includes an additional $51.2 million for constitutional revenue sharing for local governments, graduates 85 new state police troopers and invests $120 million for drinking water protections.

It would also restore the governor’s planned funding cuts to programs that improve access to OB-GYN services in rural areas, strengthen rural hospitals, boost the number of medical residents in underserved areas, and support skilled trades training.

I am proud of the smart investments made in this budget, and I look forward to working with my House colleagues and the governor to finalize a state budget on time that addresses the priorities and pocketbooks of the people of Michigan.

Pettalia memorial highway dedicated

Rep. Peter Pettaliawas a personal friend and a commonsense public servant who did his best to improve our state and serve the people in Northern Michigan.

In June, the governor signed my legislation designating the portion of U.S. 23 in Presque Isle County between Maple Drive and Misiak Highway as the “Peter A. Pettalia Memorial Highway.” Rep. Sue Allor and I recently joined Pete’s friends and family at a ceremony dedicating a memorial highwayin his honor.

Pete loved his family, his friends and the community. Dedicating a part of Heritage Route 23 through his home county is a fitting tribute to his life and the tremendous impact he had on so many people. While he is missed by everyone who knew him, this memorial highway will ensure that he is never forgotten.

Pete’s wife Karen spoke at the dedication, which was attended by many of his family, friends and former colleagues. Pettalia served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2011 until his death in September 2016 in an accident on his way down to the Capitol for session.

Prior to serving in the Legislature, Pete served as Presque Isle Township supervisor for 16 years and as a volunteer firefighter for the East Grand Lake Fire Department for 15 years. He was a member of several Presque Isle and Alpena area organizations and enjoyed spending time with his wife, children and granddaughters.

The memorial will have no fiscal impact on the state or local government. State law requires that private contributions must cover all the costs of erecting and maintaining memorial highway signs.

Supporting reform to reduce cost of auto insurance

Michigan drivers are paying the nation’s highest car insurance rates — costs that are increasingly putting a strain on family budgets and our economy.

In a July 2017 report by insure.com, Michigan was named the most expensive state for car insurance for the fourth consecutive year. Michigan’s average premium is $2,394, which is over 80 percent more than the national average of $1,318.

The high cost of auto insurance is one of the top issues I hear about from area residents. I supported a first step in making long-overdue reforms to our no-fault auto insurance system in a continuing effort to provide much-needed relief to Michigan drivers.

My goal is to achieve positive reform that recognizes the burdensome car insurance costs facing Michigan families, and I look forward to talking with the people of the 36th District about how to finally address this growing issue.

Senate Bill 1014 would make reforms to Michigan’s auto no-fault insurance law to help reduce costs and better protect customers in the state. It would create a new authority within the attorney general’s office to help investigate and reduce auto insurance fraud and cap benefits for people who have never paid into the no-fault system. Insert “Read More” tab here

SB 787 would allow Michigan residents age 65 or older the option to choose a capped auto-insurance policy. Seniors who opt for the limited coverage would see their catastrophic claims assessment drastically reduced. Medicare would cover remaining medical expenses after the $50,000 limit is reached.

This reform would help provide lower-cost options for our seniors. Many seniors worked hard to build our state and now struggle with unaffordable car insurance rates. This plan would allow them to choose a policy that works best for them — while still ensuring they have medical coverage if they have an accident.

Pettalia memorial highway bill signed

Rep. Peter Pettalia was a good friend and devoted husband, father and grandfather whose life was tragically cut short as he traveled down to serve the people of Northern Michigan as their representative.

The governor recently signed my legislation to name a part of U.S. 23 in honor of Pettalia, who died in 2016 in an accident on his way to the Capitol for session.

Pete was a commonsense public servant who loved life, the Sunrise Side, and the entire state — serving in many roles to improve people’s lives.

Senate Bill 622, now Public Act 215 of 2018, designates the portion of U.S. 23 in Presque Isle County between Maple Drive and Misiak Highway as the “Peter A. Pettalia Memorial Highway.”

Pete truly enjoyed traveling along Heritage Route 23, and naming part of that route through his home county is a fitting tribute to his life and will ensure that he is never forgotten.

Rep. Sue Allor and I welcomed Pettalia’s wife Karen to the Capitol in May for a House committee hearing on the legislation.

Pettalia served three terms in the Michigan House from 2011 until his death in September 2016. He previously served as Presque Isle Township supervisor for 16 years and as a volunteer firefighter for the East Grand Lake Fire Department for 15 years. Pettalia was a member of several Presque Isle and Alpena area organizations and enjoyed spending time with his wife, two children and two granddaughters.

The act will have no fiscal impact on the state or local government. State law requires sufficient private contributions to completely cover the cost of erecting and maintaining markers indicating the name of a memorial highway.

Supporting school safety initiatives

We owe it to every Michigan child to help provide them with a safe and secure environment to learn and succeed.

The Michigan Senate recently approved comprehensive legislation designed to help keep students safe. These measures would ensure that our schools and communities have the necessary resources, effective technology and proper training to best protect our students and teachers.

Senate Bill 982 would create the Office of School Safety within the state police to update school safety practices, offer staff training and oversee use of school safety grants. SB 983 would require schools to conduct a safety assessment with local law enforcement by the 2019-20 school year — and at least every two years thereafter.

We need to make sure that all of our schools have the enhanced security in place to protect students and teachers. Security improvements, training and preparation are all critical to protecting our schools. This package would ensure our schools have updated safety plans and that both school staff and law enforcement know what to do in an emergency.

Additional measures in the Senate-passed school safety plan include:

  • Requiring schools to anonymously report thwarted incidents of attempted acts of violence on school grounds or threats of violence made on or off school grounds;
  • Developing statewide training standards for active-violence situations in schools;
  • Ensuring schools work with local law enforcement on new construction or upgrades to school buildings;
  • Permanently extending the OK2SAY program; and
  • Requiring a school’s governing body, at least twice a year, to provide the state police with the emergency contact information of a school official who would receive information submitted through the OK2SAY hotline — and any accompanying state police analysis of a potential threat — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In addition to these long-term solutions to protect Michigan students and teachers, the recent budget agreement invests $58 million into school safety initiatives, such as improving access to mental health programs, enhancing OK2SAY awareness and securing our schools.

OK2SAY enables students to report tips by phone, text message, and email, and through a website or an app. In 2017, the program received 4,605 tips, an increase of 37 percent from 2016.

SBs 957-959, 982-983 and 990-991 were sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Signed 2019 budget focuses on education, safety and roads

The governor has signed a fiscal year 2019 state budget that increases investments in key priorities, including educating Michigan students and improving the roads.

This budget will help us continue to boost the economy, create jobs, protect our communities and provide every student with an education that prepares them for success. I am proud that we once again have a balanced state budget that increases funding for our schools to record levels and helps create a positive climate for innovation and job creation.

Every school will see a significant increase in per-pupil funding in this budget, and the state will continue to invest more than $1 billion to reduce schools’ retirement costs and enable schools to direct more dollars into the classroom.

The education budget invests nearly $14.8 billion in K-12 education, which includes a foundation allowance increase of between $120 and $240 per pupil and a $1.3 billion contribution into the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.

It also features investments in school safety initiatives, including more funding for the OK2SAY confidential tip-line program, $30 million for mental health support services in schools, and $25 million for school security improvements. Insert “Read More” tab here

Our schools should be safe and productive places for learning. We are investing $58 million to ensure that our schools and communities can make the critical school safety improvements necessary to keep our students and teachers safe.

The budget also increases local revenue sharing by $22.5 million, fully funds the $100 million Marshall Plan for Talent and invests $40.9 million in skilled trades training.

We are putting $330 million more into fixing our roads, which will bring our total new investment in our roads to $2.4 billion since 2017.

With this budget, we will continue to focus on a more vibrant Michigan, provide vital services and live within our means.