Bills you may have missed: Universal background checks, pet scams and plugging Nestlé water loophole

A potential buyer tries out a gun which is displayed on an exhibitor's table during the Nation's Gun Show on November 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

December is set to be a busy month in the Michigan Legislature, with a flurry of new bills being introduced and long-idle state budget negotiations finally gaining ground.

Here is the Michigan Advance roundup of noteworthy recent legislation you may have missed.

Expanding universal background checks

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

On Thursday, six Democrats from both chambers introduced legislation to expand universal background checks for guns in Michigan.

State Sens. Rosemary Bayer (D–Beverly Hills), Stephanie Chang (D–Detroit) and Jeremy Moss (D–Southfield), along with state Reps. Robert Wittenberg (D–Huntington Woods), Brenda Carter (D–Pontiac) and Jon Hoadley (D–Kalamazoo), introduced Senate Bills 678-680 and House Bills 5275-5277.

The six-bill package would expand Michigan’s laws to better regulate firearm sales, and bring state sentencing guidelines up to par with the new standards.

“These are common-sense bills that most Americans support to prevent the next tragedy from occurring. Our colleagues must join us to pass these reforms to keep everyone in each of our districts safe,” Moss said in an emailed statement.

‘Red flag’ gun safety legislation introduced in Michigan

Gun control measures haven’t had much luck in the GOP-controlled Legislature. A bill to require background checks at gun ranges has already been introduced, as have bills making unsafe gun storage a felony and legislation clamping down on domestic abusers using firearms. 

This winter, Democrats introduced “red flag” legislation that would allow judges to issue “extreme risk protection orders” to those deemed a risk to themselves or others, blocking them from owning or buying guns. 

Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, May 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

While Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said he’s open to a hearing on red flag legislation, that hasn’t yet happened. State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) who was fined almost $2,000 for trying to illegally bring a loaded, unregistered handgun on a plane last year, is a strong supporter of gun rights. This fall, he ordered state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) to remove a sign from her office telling visitors not to bring in firearms.

SB 679, introduced by Moss and HB 5276, introduced by Carter, would update the Michigan penal code by replacing the word “pistol” with “firearm” to ensure a broader scope. Currently, language in Michigan’s penal code only requires background checks to be conducted for pistol sales.

SB 678, introduced by Bayer and HB 5275, introduced by Wittenberg, would require a license or criminal background check for the purchase of all firearms, not just pistols.

Progressives find gun control support beyond traditional Dem areas

“Michigan residents understand the critical role background checks play in keeping our communities safe, which is why it is so important that we extend this provision to include all firearms,” Wittenberg said.

The legislation also tackles criminal procedure for forgery and false statements in the purchase and sale of firearms. This includes forging information on a firearm license application, providing a false statement on a firearms sales record, and knowingly selling a firearm without performing a background check. SB 680, introduced by Chang and HB 5277, introduced by Hoadley, would update those references to firearms in the state’s sentencing guidelines.

If passed, Michigan would be the 13th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to require universal background checks for all firearm sales.

The bills earned criticism from state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), who spoke at “Open Carry Day” at the Capitol and brought his gun on the House floor. Republicans this term have introduced a number of bills expanding gun rights, including allowing concealed carry without a permit, reducing the penalty for violating gun-free zone laws and lifetime concealed weapons permits.

GOP lawmaker appears to compare poll taxes to gun license fees

On Thursday, all three Senate background check bills were referred to the Senate Committee on Government Operations. All three House bills were referred to the House Committee on Military, Veterans and Homeland Security.

Banning ‘pet leasing’

State Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Twp.) has introduced legislation to fight the practice of “pet leasing,” in which pet stores use deceptive advertising and fine print to “lease” companion animals to customers who end up paying much more than the original cost. 

The stores retain ownership of the animal until the monthly payments are paid in full, and can seize the pet if that does not happen.

Sowerby announced House Bill 5273 at a press conference Wednesday alongside state Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming), who is one of more than 30 co-sponsors of the bill. Brann is the only Republican co-sponsor.

“It’s a rented animal until they complete this financial contract with unrealistic costs and conditions added to it,” Sowerby said in a phone interview. “Their family pet doesn’t become their own until they complete that contract … including a balloon payment at the end.” 

Sowerby said he has heard of some people who ended up paying $3,600 for an animal that originally cost $2,500.

Bill Sowerby | House Democrats photo

Sowerby says he learned about the issue through animal rights organizations, and knows of at least four pet stores in Michigan that practice pet leasing. He said the stores are in Granville, Flint, Troy and Novi.

“No family should have to go through the trauma of having a companion pet ripped from their arms because of some unforeseen economic circumstance that occurs and they can no longer afford to make the payment,” Sowerby said. 

Six states — Nevada, New York, Indiana, Washington, New Jersey and California — have already passed legislation banning the practice of pet leasing, which Sowerby says first started happening in 2013 and 2014.

House Bill 5273 was referred on Thursday to the House Committee on Agriculture.

Protecting water resources

A three-bill package announced Thursday by state Reps. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids) and Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) seek to protect Michigan’s waters from being privatized by corporations.

The “Water Protection Package,” which will be introduced as House Bills 5290, 5291 and 5292, would clarify that the waters of the state — including groundwater — are held in the public trust. They would also ban bottled water being shipped out of the Great Lakes watershed.

Court of Appeals rules against Nestle in bottled water suit

The legislation comes days after a Michigan Court of Appeals panel issued a ruling against bottled water company Nestlé Water North America, which had been trying to secure a zoning permit for another pump station in Osceola Township. Nestlé wanted to pump 576,000 gallons of groundwater per day for its Ice Mountain bottled water brand, but the COA agreed with the township that bottling and selling water is not an “essential public service.”

In strengthening protections for Michigan’s groundwater, the bills would also authorize the state Department of Natural Resources to protect water in its jurisdiction.

Michigan environmental groups supporting the legislation include Clean Water Action, FLOW (For the Love of Water), Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and the People’s Water Board Coalition.

Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan director of Clean Water Action, said the bills would “close the water-bottling loophole in the Great Lakes Compact, ensuring the people of Michigan, not companies like Nestlé, get to decide how our waters are used.”

Flint native named Michigan’s clean water chief, says she’ll ‘lift up voices in our community’

The Great Lakes Compact, passed more than a decade ago, prohibits water being shipped outside of the Great Lakes basin. However, a loophole in the law allows this practice as long as the water is in 5.7 gallon containers or smaller.

“Our lawmakers failed us when they allowed Nestlé to recklessly pump Michigan’s groundwater and ship it out of the Great Lakes basin,” said Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. “Today, we are one step closer to seeing that dangerous loophole closed and to protecting Michigan’s waters from corporations seeking to profit from our water resources.”

The Water Protection Package would also amend Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to enshrine in law that the state’s waters are a public good and not something to be commercialized.

Lake Huron | Susan J. Demas

“As Michiganders, we sit in the center of 20 percent of the world’s available, fresh surface water,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “It is our collective responsibility to protect this resource from companies like Nestlé who seek to profit from a resource that belongs to current and future generations. Ensuring that the waters of the state are held in public trust finally affords the waters of the state the protections they deserve.”

The bill package has yet to be formally introduced in the state Legislature, but is expected to be soon.

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.