LANSING - The state Legislature's flurry of lawmaking at the end of 2015 didn't have anything to do with addressing pressing needs that would make Michigan a better state, like seeing to the water system disaster in Flint or finding a way to get the roads fixed faster.
No, the GOP-led Legislature - like they did at the end of 2012 with the passage of the state's right-to-work law - again declared shenanigans, and adopted legislation that fixed problems that no one thought existed.
First they eliminated the casting of straight-ticket ballots, then they maddened the state's clerks and librarians (there's more on that below). But most galling to the state's unions is a new limitation on labor's ability to collect worker political contributions through a company's automatic payroll deduction system.
"Read the law - Senate Bill 571 - and the anti-union agenda is clear," said labor attorney John Tesija. "It's like right-to-work all over again." In the last hours of the last legislative session of 2015, the bill suddenly morphed from a non-controversial 12-page quick-read into a 53-page short story that included GOP-friendly amendments to 10 different sections of Michigan's Campaign Finance Act.
The only relief from the further political and monetary gagging of the labor movement in Michigan may come from taking its case to the courts. Senate Bill 571 prohibits a corporation from providing union payroll deductions earmarked for a political action committee, even if the company is reimbursed for the cost. However, the new law raises a legal issue in that it does not seem to apply equally to prohibiting other employee payroll deductions, such as those that are funneled to a nonprofit organization.
"And that nonprofit could be a chamber of commerce, go figure," said Tesija. "The basic problem with this law is that there isn't equal protection under the law. This is what you get when you pass 50 pages of legislation into law at 10 o'clock at night and lawmakers only have 10 minutes to review it."
Tesija, whose law firm is involved in the administration of numerous union benefit plans in Michigan, said another factor the law doesn't seem to address is the mingling of funds. Some unions, he said, make member-authorized political action committee (PAC) contributions indirectly through vacation funds or a special assessment. This creates another potential area for a legal challenge to the law, Tesija said, because the law was sloppily written - and without any public hearings on the matter, there is little information available about the Legislature's intent.
Another labor law firm distributed a confidential memo that said there "may be significant legal issues" with the new law.
Politically and publicly, there was no hue and cry to adopt the law, as was the case with right to work, making prevailing wage repeal the top legislative priority last year, and outlawing project labor agreements. “It’s just the latest example of Republicans doing everything they can to expand the influence of corporations at the expense of everyone else,” said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills.
Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative political organization tied to the wealthy DeVos family in Grand Rapids, told The Detroit News that the new anti-union PAC law "is one of those reforms that I think is positive for the state and allows employers to stay focused on their core business.” The law," he said, "ends a longstanding practice of labor unions getting companies to pay for the administration of collecting union PAC contributions." McNeilly added: “Why should unions force employers to collect their political dues?”
Electablog, a progressive commentary site, responded that "there’s so much wrong with these three sentences that it boggles the mind. First of all, nobody is 'forcing' employers into doing this. It’s usually part of the contract negotiations that both employers and workers agree to.
"Second, the idea that this is somehow a distraction for employers that prevents them from 'staying focused on their core business' is laughable to the point that I can’t believe McNeilly made it with a straight face."
As for the reference to “paying for the administration” of these payroll deductions, Electablog pointed out that payroll deductions are done by a computer. "They're automatic, electronic, and consume almost no resources whatsoever." Tesija agreed. "There's really no savings here for companies," he said. "To claim this his helping business is strange to say the least."
Senate Bill 571 also creates more cover for hiding political spending in Michigan. The legislation bans local governments from using taxpayer resources for TV, radio or mailers to spread any educational information about local proposals, like police or library millages, 60 days or less before an election.
The 60-day notification rule sent local city clerks and librarians into a tizzy because the law assumes that they are going to spread lies or put their own spin on why they need additional taxpayer dollars. At the same time, the law allows anyone else with money, and their own agenda, to buy air time and print space to do what community officials can't do, define millage elections.
The law also now allows spenders on political advertising to remain secret until after an election, so we won't know who is pumping money into a particular issue or candidate, information that may well impact your vote, until after you have actually voted.
And, within the 50-plus pages of that new law are provisions that raise the amount a political action committee can donate to pay for expenses incurred in any statewide campaign, effectively doubling the maximum donation from $68,000 to $136,000. What that means, according to The Detroit News, is that a political candidate who wanted to hide where her donations are coming from could now cash a $68,000 check from a PAC a few weeks before the 2016 election, then accept a second donation for the same amount a week after that election, and use both checks to pay off a $136,000 credit card bill. All in secret.
Snyder – as well as Republican lawmakers who voted for it – called for undefined fixes to the new law – but he signed the legislation anyway.
"Senate Bill 571 is designed to keep voters in the dark about important issues in their community, including school millages and bonds to fund police and fire departments," Sen. Greimel said. "Because of Gov. Snyder’s actions, local governments and school districts will not be allowed to pay for materials to educate voters on these issues. Meanwhile, corporations face few limits on their influence on elections. Gov. Snyder should remember he was elected to serve the people of Michigan, not the special interests who will benefit from this new law.”