Bills you may have missed: Whistleblower protections, juvenile justice reform and expanded bottle deposit law

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

With post-budget supplemental negotiations finally hammered out in the Legislature, state lawmakers are wrapping up 2019 and will soon enjoy a holiday break from the Capitol.

But there will be no shortage of recently-introduced bills for them to take up when they come back next month. Here is this week’s Michigan Advance roundup of noteworthy recent legislation you may have missed.

Expanding whistleblower protections

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) has announced a bill to close a worrisome loophole that he says currently exists in Michigan’s whistleblower protection laws.

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State Sen. Jeff Irwin | Ken Coleman

“As the law stands, whistleblowers can be fired by their employers if they report a planned violation of the law or if they report a dangerous situation that has not yet caused actual harm,” Sen. Irwin said in a press release Wednesday. “I hope my colleagues see the importance of this legislation and I look forward to working with them to advance this through our legislative process.”

Senate Bill 703, which has yet been formally introduced in the Legislature, would amend Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) to include protection for whistleblowers who report a planned violation of the law or a suspected violation that has yet to occur.

Currently, the WPA only protects employees from retaliatory termination if a violation of the law is ongoing or has already occurred.

Irwin says this loophole was exposed by a Michigan Supreme Court case in 2016 – Pace v. Edel-Harrelson – in which the court unanimously ruled that firing an employee for reporting something that has yet to happen does not violate public policy. This ruling set a precedent that leaves whistleblowers vulnerable if they decide to do so.

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Irwin says that he discovered the issue while serving on the Special Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Emergency, when the Flint water treatment plant operator testified that he didn’t voice his concerns about the drinking water switch beforehand because he had no protections under the WPA to do so, and feared losing his job because of it.

SB 703 would add language to Michigan’s WPA to designate the reporting of a suspected violation of the law that has yet to occur as a “protected activity.”

“Whistleblowers are doing a public service and we need to close this loophole to protect whistleblowers who take courageous action to protect people from harm,” Sen. Irwin said. “We say, “see something, say something,’ but the law doesn’t protect whistleblowers until somebody has already been hurt.”

Juvenile justice reform

With a year of remarkable bipartisan progress on criminal justice reforms now under this state Legislature’s belt, why not fit in one more package before 2019 ends?

Senate Advice and Consent Chair Pete Lucido, Feb. 5, 2019
Senate Advice and Consent Chair Pete Lucido, Feb. 5, 2019 | Nick Manes

This month, state Sens. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township) and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) did just that. Senate Bills 681 and 682 to protect individuals in the juvenile justice system from being punished for their mistakes for the rest of their lives.

Senate Bill 681, introduced by Irwin, would expand the eligibility of record expungement for crimes that were committed when the individual was a minor. Irwin’s bill would accomplish this by removing the age limit that is currently required for setting aside a criminal record, and by allowing all traffic offenses to be set aside.

The existing law only allows individuals who are 18 or older to apply for expungement, or if a year has passed since their court supervision ended. 

SB 681, in addition to speeding up this process, would also create an automatic set-aside system that would make all adjudications – except those that require a life sentence or waive the juvenile to the adult court – eligible for expungement if the offender stays out of trouble. It would also add a layer of confidentiality to juvenile records.

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“Everybody deserves a second chance. When people make mistakes, especially when they are young, the criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation and getting people back on track,” Irwin said in a press release. “We’re making good progress on reforming the expungement system for adults and we ought to extend similar opportunities to people who committed their crimes as juveniles.”

Senate Bill 682, introduced by Lucido, would seal the court records of juvenile offenders – which are currently publicly available – and make them only available only to law enforcement.

“This is a historic milestone for juveniles,” Sen. Lucido added. “It is crucial we remove these barriers that keep our youth from moving forward.”

Senate Bills 681 and 682 were introduced and subsequently referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on Dec. 5.

Bottle bill upgrade

On Wednesday, state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) and state Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) announced new legislation that would reform the state’s recycling laws.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

With House Bill 5306 and Senate Bill 701, which have not yet been formally introduced in the Legislature, Hoadley and McCann hope to modernize the state’s recycling efforts and leave less of an environmental impact.

The bills expand Michigan’s “Bottle Bill,” also known as the Michigan Beverage Container Act. The law offers a 10-cent refundable deposit for certain beverages (e.g. beer, soft drinks, carbonated water and canned cocktails) and certain containers (e.g. airtight containers under one gallon that are made of metal, glass, paper and/or plastic).

The bottle deposit law championed by former Gov. William Milliken was implemented in 1978 for the purpose of preventing excess litter – but the Democratic lawmakers want a newer version of the law to go further to include other beverage containers.

Rep. Jon Hoadley, Oct. 7, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

“Michigan’s ‘Bottle Bill’ was an innovative, effective approach to pollution prevention when it was first approved four decades ago, but we’ve failed to make the changes needed to keep pace with our ever-evolving beverage containers, including the explosion of single-use plastics,” Hoadley said in a press release.

HB 5306 and SB 701 would expand the 10-cent deposit to all other non-carbonated beverages, with the exception of milk containers.

Other reforms included in the bill package include:

  • Permit “universal redemption” of recyclable bottle takebacks between large and small stores
  • Create a bottle handling fund to reimburse distributors and dealers on a per-bottle-basis
  • Make funding available for audits and fraud enforcement
  • Provide $25 million each year to address contaminated sites

“Michigan’s bottle deposit law is one of our great state’s most successful policies,” McCann said. “… This legislation would build on that success and lead to even greater participation.”