The state House passed two bills yesterday that would prohibit public employers from providing medical benefits to partners and dependents of their employees.
Though the state Senate added an amendment to the bills to clarify what constitutes the definition of a public employee, the clause has left some University officials and state lawmakers uncertain about how the prohibitions apply to the state’s 15 public universities.
The bills originally passed in the House on Sept. 15, and the revised version of the bills passed in the Senate Wednesday and the House yesterday. The final version includes an amendment defining public employees as workers in any level of state government, public school district, state board or commission or “any other branch of the public service.”
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) questioned the bills’ constitutionality in an interview from Lansing after the House vote. He said the bills would ultimately be pointless due to the legal battles he predicted would come from the dispute.
“We’re probably going to spend more money on lawyers fighting this on both sides than we’re going to save revoking benefits from public employees,” Irwin said. “And the really terrible thing about that is not only do we spend more money, but it doesn’t produce any productive results.”
Irwin added that the bills were a “black mark” on the state because they will dissuade potential employees from working in the state. He said the bills are “discriminatory” and would label the state as “unfriendly” toward gay and lesbian workers.
“Even if courts come down later and correct this law, it still sends a terrible message about what Michigan is about,” Irwin said. “We should be sending a message to the world that we want the best and brightest, that we want to open our doors to people from around the world.”
In an interview yesterday afternoon, state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) said the bills would put the state at an “economic disadvantage” by making it unattractive to some employees.
At the time of the interview, Warren had not heard of the bills’ passing in the House, but thought the clause meant that employees of public universities would be exempt from the prohibitions.
“It sends the message that Michigan does not have the doors wide open for every kind of family,” Warren said. “And … given the place that Michigan is in right now and our struggle to rebuild our economy, I think we need to have our arms and doors open for all kinds of talent, and we can’t afford to be shutting anybody out.”
Warren said she thought the bills would have the opposite effect of what its Republican proponents in the Legislature had hoped — reducing state expenditures.
“If you look at that situation and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to allow public employers to give benefits to people who have partners,’ those people are not going to come here, and they’re not going to stay here,” Warren said. “So it actually increases costs.”
University officials and professors have also criticized the bills for risking the school’s abilities to recruit and retain top talent. Several University professors said last month that they would consider leaving the University if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bills into law.
University President Mary Sue Coleman and University Provost Phil Hanlon sent a letter to state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R–Monroe) last month urging him not to pass the bills. Hanlon and Coleman wrote in the letter that the bills rely on little evidence that eliminating the benefits would reduce costs, and the legislation would impede the University’s ability to attract faculty.
“Fortune 500 companies nationwide and in the state of Michigan offer partner benefits: It is simply good business that produces an excellent return on investment,” Coleman and Hanlon wrote in the letter.
Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, wrote in an e-mail interview yesterday that while she was not sure whether the University would be exempt from the policy, she was still worried about the impact of the bills.
“There seems to be some difference of opinion about whether the approved legislation applies directly to state universities,” Wilbanks wrote. “That remains a serious concern.”
Like Coleman and Hanlon, Wilbanks added that the possibility worried her because the bills could threaten the University’s ability to attract and keep its employees.
“We continue to believe and will advocate that these benefits are a critical component — for all public and private employers — to retaining and attracting the very best talent that is so important to the continued economic recovery in the state of Michigan,” Wilbanks wrote.
Republicans in the state Senate and House have argued that the provision of costs for domestic partners constituted an unfair burden on state taxpayers. Ari Adler, press secretary for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R–Marshall) — a proponent of the bills — said Michigan taxpayers could not afford to fund the benefits for public employees’ partners.
Adler said Bolger voted for the bills in the House because state voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that banned the state from recognizing any union other than traditional marriage. He said public interests and curbing government spending are more important than the possible repercussions of passing the bills.
“We had to be primarily concerned about protecting taxpayers in terms of spending, and we had to protect voters in what they requested by changing the constitution,” Adler said. “Protecting taxpayers by reining in government spending and protecting the constitution trumps other concerns.”
Similarly, state Sen. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) said he voted for the two bills because he said limiting state spending and honoring voters’ wishes were paramount. Jones added that he did not think the passing of the bill would produce a significant effect on the state’s economy since other advantages, like the availability of affordable housing in the state, would outweigh them.
“If somebody’s going to leave simply because of this, there’s plenty of other people looking for work,” Jones said.
The bills passed by the House yesterday, like those it passed in September, still refer to employees of government at all levels as public employees, which means the prohibitions would apply to House representatives as well.
Members of Ann Arbor’s city government have protested the bills. Last month, City Council member Sandi Smith (D–Ward 1) passed a resolution opposing the bills.
Mayor John Hieftje said he opposes the bills, and the effect could ultimately lead to a “brain drain,” or the mass exodus of students from the state. In the past, he said, Ann Arbor’s offering of benefits to employees’ families has aided the city government in attracting top administrators and politicians.
However, Hieftje said the new bills would make it “difficult” for the city’s economy and government.
“Michigan needs people to come here,” Hieftje said. “We need entrepreneurs who choose to work here to help us turn our economy around. And by saying to a whole group of people, ‘We really don’t want you here,” which is what these laws say — that’s a problem. It’s going to work against economic recovery.”