Before I get into the action of the week, please remember that this Thursday at 6 pm the House Democrats will bring our "Real State of the State" listening tour to the Lansing area. As part of an effort for my colleagues to hear from constituents about the issues that concern them the most, the Michigan House Democrats will be hosting a series of town halls across the state. The Real State of the State Listening Tour will be in mid-Michigan on March 7 at the Delta Township District Library at 6:00 p.m. The goal is to hear from Michiganders about their problems at the grassroots level so we can create more effective policy here in Lansing. I hope to see you there!
This week was a particularly exciting week for me. While reviewing the Blue Cross Blue Shield legislation (which I will discuss in depth below), I found an error that would have cost Lansing $600,000, Detroit $2.5 million, and cities throughout Michigan a total of $4 million in 2014. Once BCBSM becomes converts to a mutual, they will be paying property taxes. While they intend to pay in 2014, the language in the legislation would have had them paying state taxes starting in 2014 and local taxes starting in 2015. In local government, an entity has to be a taxpayer on December 31st in order to pay taxes in the next year. The legislation had indicated a January 1, 2014 date and needed to indicate that BCBSM is a taxpayer as of December 31, 2013 for purposes of local taxation. While this was an inadvertent mistake, it would have cost Lansing $600,000, Detroit $2.5 million, and other cities with Blue Cross properties a substantial amount. I was able to work with BCBSM and the Republican majority to pass an amendment that would fix this problem. You can read more about this in an excellent Mlive article here.
On the floor this week, we considered two major pieces of legislation. As mentioned above, we considered the conversion of Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBSM) from a special charitable designation to a mutual insurance company. This needed to be done because of provisions in the national Affordable Care Act. BCBSM was formerly the insurer of last resort and had to take anyone that wanted to be insured. Because this would create higher costs for them, they had a special tax exempt status. Under the Affordable Care Act, all insurance companies have to insure people in this manner so BCBSM no longer needs that designation. They wanted to be classified the same as other non-profit insurance companies and asked for this change. The change would also have them paying taxes to locals and the state ($600,000 to Lansing every year) which will be helpful to those budgets. The one major concern that was raised dealt with coverage for seniors and the disabled. Currently BCBSM covers something called Medigap, which is supplemental health insurance plans sold to Medicare beneficiaries in the United States that provide coverage for medical expenses not or only partially covered by Medicare. Medigap's name is derived from the notion that it exists to cover the difference or "gap" between the expenses reimbursed by Medicare and the total amount charged. BCBSM charges small businesses a certain percentage that is used for this Medigap program. That assessment will go away. BCBSM will create a fund to cover these Medigap subsidies, but there are concerns that not all seniors will receive dollars from this fund and that there will be a means test to decide which seniors receive dollars. Additionally, there were concerns that disabled people will not be covered. Rep. Kate Segal (D-Battle Creek) won a successful amendment to allow the fund to be used for disabled people. There were still concerns, though, that the fund is not enough to cover all seniors. Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) proposed an amendment to increase the dollars for seniors. This amendment was rejected by the Republican majority. I was supportive of that amendment. When the bill finally came up, I decided to vote for it because of the positive tax dollars for Lansing and because I am hopeful that it will create competition that will stabilize or reduce health care prices in the future. I am disappointed that we could not boost the amount for seniors, but I felt that voting for this is the best thing for my district and constituents. The final vote was 92-18. The bills are expected to be concurred in by the Senate next week and go to the Governor for his expected signature.
The second major piece of legislation will create a state-federal partnership that will create and run a Health Exchange in Michigan. The bill accepts $30.67 million in federal grant money to set up a federal-state partnership to create the federally mandated health insurance exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The dollars will be available until January 17, 2014, and will be used to create an online health care exchange by October 1, when enrollment would begin. The exchanges, which allow residents to compare different health insurance providers, become effective January 1, 2014. The bill still has to be considered and passed by the Senate to take effect. HB 4111 passed 78-31. I support the creation of the health exchanges which will provide health insurance subsidies to people making between 133% to 400% of the federal poverty rate, and voted for these bills because we should accept the federal dollars to do this. I would prefer to see a state-run exchange, but the Republicans in the Legislature rejected that last year. The next-best option is for a state-federal partnership. If that had been rejected, the federal government would have imposed something on Michigan.
I had all three of my committees meet this month. In Regulatory Reform, we passed legislation that will create regulation and licensing for amateur mixed martial arts (see previous blog). We made the changes that all agreed to and they passed unanimously. We also passed legislation dealing with redeeming soda pop cans. Under current law, people can be fined (and receive jail time in extreme circumstances) if they redeem cans from out of state. This will add to the law any "attempt" to redeem cans. The bills passed committee and will be heard on the House floor soon. I supported the bills as a reasonable addition to the law to protect our borders and prevent people from scamming the system. Two members of the committee raised objections to the possibility of jail time because of the extreme expenses that we have in our jails now. In Ethics and Elections, we passed HB 4307 which allows County Commissions to fill a vacancy. Under current law, if there is a vacancy in the odd year then an appointment is made and an election is held at the next possible election date (February, May, August, or November); if there is a vacancy in the even year, an appointment is made which stays until the end of the year. The odd year provision has proven costly. In Ingham County a few years ago, we had a situation like this where a person had to run four times in the even year (special primary in February, special general in May, regular primary in August, regular general in November). This proved costly for the City of East Lansing, and really was too many elections for one person in a year. This bill only had a hearing and will come up for a vote this Tuesday. I am planning to support it. Also up for a hearing was HB 4169-71, which eliminate city and township boards of canvassers and transfer the functions to county boards of canvassers. This would provide savings for local communities. Apparently, many municipalities have already done this but not all because their are charter limitations that are hard to remove. The municipal and county clerks supported this. They also said that counties and locals both have to canvas the same votes at the same precincts, and the current law is duplicitive. Rep. Heise (R-Northville) raised concerns that this should be optional for a community because some local boards work well. This will be voted on this Tuesday as well. In Competitiveness, we heard a presentation from the Enterprise Group of Jackson, which has a school to teach manufacturing to children. It seems to be very successful.
Finally, thanks to everyone that came or contributed to my fundraiser on Thursday! We had a tremendous turnout and it showed the incredible support that I have in my first few months as a State Representative. I will keep this momentum going, and appreciate the contributions and support that I have received! If you still want to contribute, you can do so at www.andyschor.com or by sending a check to Friends of Andy Schor, PO Box 13073, Lansing, MI 48901.
Next week could be a busy one, with the possibility of the House and Senate considering one of many proposals to increase funding for transportation and roads. Stay tuned...