Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Whitmer office photo

As the 2019-20 Michigan Legislative session came to an end last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed several bills into law. Similarly, the Michigan State Supreme Court carried out session-ending action. 

Flint water settlement bills 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday signed Senate Bill 1251 and Senate Bill 1252, which creates the Flint Settlement Trust Fund within the Michigan Department of Treasury, and amends the Michigan Strategic Fund Act, to address the funding of the $641.2 million settlement in the civil Flint Water cases. Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) sponsored Senate Bill 1251. Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) sponsored Senate Bill 1252.   

“What happened in Flint should never have happened,” said Whitmer in a statement. “From my first month in office, Attorney General [Dana] Nessel and I made it clear to our teams that even though we inherited this situation, it was our responsibility to achieve the best possible settlement for the children and families of Flint. While this settlement will never be enough to compensate for what happened, it is a major step toward helping the people of Flint heal.”

“There is no amount of money that can restore trust or erase the damage inflicted upon the people of Flint. While there are many who view today’s bill signing as the end of this story, for the people of Flint it is a chance at a new beginning,” said Ananich. “This settlement is a measure of justice for the victims of the water crisis, and specifically the children of Flint who may endure the impact of lead poisoning for years to come.” 

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In August, the state of Michigan announced a $600 million settlement of the civil lawsuits brought against the state by Flint residents after the water supply for the city of Flint was switched to the Flint River in April 2014.  Additional parties have since joined the settlement bringing the total to just over $641.2 million. The city of Flint is contributing $20 million to the settlement, with McLaren Regional Medical Center providing $20 million and Rowe Professional Services Co. providing $1.25 million.  

Whitmer highlighted other Flint initiatives:  

  • Working to help the city complete lead service-line replacement 
  • Providing a 2021 state budget that includes millions of dollars for Flint’s ongoing nutrition programs, child health care services, early childhood programs, lead prevention and abatement, school aid, services to seniors, and other programs supporting people in Flint who were previously exposed to lead and other contaminants.  
  • Offering a 2020 budget that included $120M of investments in water infrastructure  
  • Creating the Office of Clean Water Advocacy, and the appointment of a clean water public advocate and an environmental justice public advocate 
  • Issuing new lead and copper water quality standards that are the strictest in the nation  

College athletes to receive compensation 

Whitmer also signed Wednesday legislation to allow student athletes to use their own name, image, likeness, and reputation for financial compensation, a first in Michigan. 

“For years we have all enjoyed the incredible talent of young athletes across the state. This legislation will change the lives of young men and women for years to come,” said Whitmer. “As one of the first states in the nation to pass this historic legislation, I am proud to sign this bipartisan legislation today on behalf of our current and future student athletes. I am hopeful that the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] will set a national standard so that all players across the country are afforded the same opportunities.”

House Bill 5217 prohibits post-secondary educational institutions from enforcing rules that prohibit student athletes from profiting from promotional deals. Students may earn compensation for their name, image, or likeness, and could not be prevented from playing intercollegiate sports or receiving scholarships because of doing so. Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Kalamazoo) sponsored the legislation.   

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House Bill 5218 repeals a section of the Penal Code which prohibits athletic agents from inducing students into contracts before their eligibility for college athletics expires. The bill also repeals a section of the Revised Judicature Act which creates civil liability for interfering with the “prospective advantage” given by an institution of higher education by virtue of its relationship with the student athlete, by promising an improper gift or service to the athlete, if that gift results in injury to the school. 

State Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit) sponsored the measure. Tate played college football at Michigan State University and later in the National Football League for the Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons.

The bills allow players from any sport in all divisions to use agents to earn money from their own image, name, or likeness. However, students cannot enter into an apparel contract that conflicts with the apparel contracts of their school, and must disclose contracts to their school prior to signing. The bills do not establish the right for students to use trademarked names, symbols, intellectual property, and logos of schools, associations, or conferences. 

State Supreme Court rulings 

The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday vacated the ruling of a lower court centering on the constitutionality of requirements for ballot petition drives.

In a 4-3 ruling the court said a lawsuit challenging a 2018 ballot initiative law is moot because the plaintiff is no longer seeking a ballot initiative. 

Justice David Viviano, Chief Justice Bridget Mary Mc​Cormack, and Justices Richard Bernstein and Megan Cavanagh voted in the majority. Justices Stephen Markman, Brian Zahra and Elizabeth Clement dissented. The law would have capped signature on petitions from any one congressional district to 15%. The GOP-led Legislature passed the bill in the 2018 lame duck session and former Gov. Rick Snyder signed it.

The League of Women Voters, Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections (MFTE) and three voters challenged the law and argued that it disenfranchised voters. 

Court of Appeals gives OK to Benson mailing out 7.7M absentee ballot applications

In the ruling, Viviano wrote: “The Legislature has standing to appeal when it intervenes in a case in which the Attorney General fails to defend a statute against constitutional attack in court. However… the case was moot as to the lead plaintiff, MFTE, because it was no longer pursuing its ballot initiative, and no other plaintiff had standing to pursue the appeal.”

In a separate case, the court declined to hear a lawsuit challenging Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s power to mass mail absentee ballot applications. The state high court voted 6-1 Dec. 28 to dismiss the case. Viviano dissented.  

“I would grant leave to hear this case to review whether the Secretary of State had legal authority to mail millions of applications for absentee ballots to voters who did not request them,” Viviano wrote

President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained about Benson’s action and falsely said she sent out absentee ballots.

Robert Davis, a Wayne County activist, filed the complaint. Davis argued that Benson acted outside her legal authority by mailing absentee ballot requests to all registered voters. However, in a 2-1 ruling, the state Court of Appeals in September that Benson acted legally.

In 2014, Davis pleaded guilty to two federal charges in connection with embezzling about $200,000 in funds from the Highland Park school district when he served as a school board member. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.