How Michigan Republicans nearly gutted discrimination investigations

Charles Wright Museum of African American History

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, shown here during last year’s funeral for singer Aretha Franklin, is one of three museums that would have received $1.5 million in state funds originally intended for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. (Shutterstock image)

LANSING –  Despite a rise in reported hate crimes, Michigan Republicans last month quietly maneuvered to gut funding for discrimination investigations by diverting $1.5 million to private museums.

The GOP’s $59 billion state budget would have forced significant layoffs in the Department of Civil Rights, but Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blocked the diversion using a rare transfer power.

In doing so, though, Whitmer stripped funding for three museums –  the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills –  and may have killed their collaboration of traveling exhibits intended to improve racial harmony.

“We shouldn’t have to pick either/or,” said Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “We should be figuring out how to do both.”

On its face, the civil rights budget developed by the GOP-led Legislature increased funding for the department by 1.2 percent, or $187,200. But after redirecting money to the nonprofit museums, the department’s budget actually amounted to a loss of $1.3 million, an 8 percent cut. 

As a result, the department may have had to lay off as many as 30 workers, according to spokeswoman Vicki Levengood. The budget earmarked $4.85 million for 40 full-time employees to investigate discrimination and enforce violations, down from the 70 staffers now employed in those roles.

“A loss of 40 percent of our staff would have greatly impeded our ability to perform our constitutionally-mandated functions of investigating complaints of discrimination and enforcing civil rights laws,” Levengood said.

The cut came after reported hate crimes in Michigan rose 14 percent in 2017 and followed GOP furor over a new legal interpretation –  similar to one being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court – that allowed the civil rights department to begin investigating allegations of discrimination against gay and transgender residents.

Republicans this spring also grilled the department's then-director over plans to develop a hate-crime database amid fears it could be used to target conservative speech or groups, a suspicion he denied. 

The $1.5 million budget shift wasn’t an attempt to punish the department, but provide “sustainable” support for the Southeast Michigan museums, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland. 

“I mean, I get that [the Department of Civil Rights] want[s] to do a lot of the investigations,” Stamas said, “but I think also [the museums] fall very much in line with the message that the civil rights has been assigned to help with. So I thought it was a good fit.”

Hoadley acknowledged the museums can play a "critical role “in figuring out how we continue to tell the story of why these [civil rights] investigations matter."

But "the facts are bearing out that we’re seeing a rise of bias-based incidents, and so we need to have the tools to respond to those," he said. "Cuts to this critical [department] send the wrong message.”

Michigan law enforcement agencies reported a combined 456 hate crimes in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  

While the number of agencies reporting to the FBI each year can vary, 2017 totals were up from the 399 hate crimes in 2016 and up 48 percent from the 309 incidents reported in 2015.

Most of the hate crimes — 311 out of 456 — were motivated by a bias against the victim’s race, ethnicity or ancestry, according to the FBI data. Another 78 were based on religion, 57 on sexual orientation, eight on gender and 2 on disabilities.

Competing but complementary priorities

Whitmer restored operational funding through the State Administrative Board, which she effectively controls. It was part of a $625 million shift within department budgets.

But the governor left a $100 placeholder for the museums, giving lawmakers the opportunity to try to restore the funding during ongoing negotiations over how to spend another $947 million she vetoed from what ended up as a nearly $59 billion budget.

Museum officials said they were unaware the GOP budget drew funding away from the Department of Civil Rights, but they fear Whitmer's transfer could end a new collaboration that is designed to promote diversity and cultural sensitivity.  

The Arab American National Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Holocaust Memorial Center each received $500,000 in one-time state "enhancement grants" in last year's state budget. 

They say they used the money to develop traveling exhibits for display at eight sites across the state. They've also partnered on a marketing campaign to boost attendance at the museums and used the state grants to provide curriculum training to hundreds of teachers. 

“It'll be very difficult to continue the programs for the coming year without the funding,” said Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Center. “The funding really was the catalyst that made these opportunities happen.”

The center's traveling exhibit told the stories of Holocaust survivors who later settled in Michigan. The Arab American and Wright museums highlighted contributions by minorities.

An estimated 20,000 visitors have seen the exhibits in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Alpena, Traverse City, Marquette, Midland, Port Huron and Jackson, according to museum officials. 

They've provided curriculum training to 862 teachers at 40 sessions around the state, including a Holocaust and genocide instruction program that recently won an Outreach Award from the Michigan Museums Association.  

All three museums are expected to push for funding restoration during supplemental spending negotiation. They're each represented in Lansing by the powerful Muchmore Harrington Smalley and Associates lobbying firm. 

"With the rise of hate crimes and anti-Semitic events, some of them here in Michigan, I feel like the lessons that each of our museums need to teach are more relevant than ever," Mayerfeld said. "And that's something I think the whole state should support."

A spokesperson for the Arab American museum did not respond to a request for comment, while one for the Charles H. Wright museum declined to comment.

Civil Rights mandate

The Department of Civil Rights, now overseen by interim Director Mary Engelman, is constitutionally mandated to investigate alleged discrimination and ensure equal protection of civil rights in employment, housing, public accommodation, law enforcement and public services. 

The $1.5 million funding loss would have been the latest blow for the department, which was rocked this summer when Director Agustin V. Arbulu made offensive comments that prompted Whitmer and other leaders to call for his resignation. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission fired Arbulu in August and is now searching for a successor.

Whitmer transferred the museum funding back into the department in order to support its "core mission," said state budget spokesman Kurt Weiss. Investigations and enforcement are “obviously a core to what civil rights does,” he said.

Stamas declined to say if he will advocate for additional museum funding in future talks, noting he is keeping his “powder dry” amid high-level negotiations involving Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on factors including religion, race and sex. While the GOP-led Legislature has resisted calls to expand the law, the commission in May 2018 adopted a new interpretation that applied protections against sex discrimination to gay and transgender residents.

The nation’s highest court is scrutinizing that type of legal interpretation as it considers whether existing federal workplace protections apply to LGBT employees, including a Michigan woman who was fired by a funeral home after she revealed plans to transition from male to female. 

Conservatives last year blasted the state commission for a similar interpretation, which Republicans argued amounted to an unauthorized form of lawmaking. Former Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a legal opinion attempting to invalidate the interpretation, but his Democratic successor, Dana Nessel, said in June that civil rights officials are not bound by Schuette’s opinion and encouraged continued investigations.

The department typically fields about 2,000 civil rights complaints a year, according to Levengood. The state has so far investigated 44 allegations of discrimination based on sexual identity or gender expression. Of those, nine were dismissed because of insufficient evidence, two were withdrawn, one was modified and two resulted in settlements.

Ongoing power struggle

The uncertainty comes as Michigan’s budget remains in flux.

Whitmer signed the Republicans’ budget, but used a series of line-item vetoes and other actions to dramatically reshape it in hopes of kickstarting negotiations with lawmakers to amend the plan.

But the moves upset Republicans, especially since Whitmer became the first executive to use the administrative board for inner-department funding transfers since Republican former Gov. John Engler pioneered the move in 1991. 

The governor used other spending transfers to secure funding for implementation of new Medicaid work rules championed by GOP lawmakers and to  undo a Republican plan to withhold funding from the Department of Education until officials meet certain requirements, including publication of an A-F letter grade system for schools. 

As Bridge Magazine reported this month, Republicans want to rein in Whitmer’s administrative board transfer power as they negotiate a potential supplemental spending plan that could reverse several of the governor’s line-item vetoes. 

Shirkey, the Clarklake Republican who leads the Senate, “is concerned that any funding that might be sent to Gov. Whitmer, regardless of legislative intent, could be moved around and leveraged for other things,” spokeswoman Amber McCann said Tuesday after their latest meeting with the governor. 

“There is a process that exists right now where the Legislature has basically zero input in terms of ensuring budget dollars remain with budget programs as intended,” McCann said.

Whitmer said Thursday she would not use the transfer authority on any spending plan that is negotiated with the Legislature. But she made clear she is not willing to unilaterally disarm. 

"I'm not going to change the scope and powers of the executive office," she said. "Using ad board powers is one way to ensure that where we have crises, we're able to be nimble and address them. A budget that doesn't add up is one of those unfortunate situations."

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Mon, 10/21/2019 - 9:45am

This is the second time you've lied about the intent of Nessel's plan, but that's no shock, given that deceit is the only way people fall for your trash these days. After all, why the vanguard of hate, the modern Republican party, have to fear about their probable supporters being outed as hateful bigots? As for everyone else, I suggest you actually read the Detroit News article to see for yourself how the Republican penchant for self-victimization, projection, and paranoia have clouded Kevin's perspective.

And for what it's worth, the SPLC has its own problems, but the hate group list it maintains is not one of them.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 10:39am

Piling it on a bit thick this morning, eh Bones?

AG Nessel's philosophical leanings have already been cited by a federal judge in an unrelated federal court case. Her prejudice against certain religions are clearly documented. It stands to reason that people who don't kow tow to her worldview get automatically labeled as "bigots", which makes arguing your position much easier.

Or, so you would like to believe.

When you can form a cogent argument, be sure to come back.

John Chastain
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 1:33pm

Kevin, your comments here have shown a clear and consistent level of animosity based on political views, religion, sexual orientation and race. The definition of that world view is clear, like Trump its what you say (or tweet etc) that represents who you are. That's about as cogent (appealing forcibly to the mind or reason) an argument as it gets. Besides within the reactionary conservatism movement that men like Bannon and Trump embrace "bigotry" is now a positive, they suggest others of like mind should own the word, just a thought.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 10/22/2019 - 7:22am

If you consider opposing elevating equal outcomes, over equal opportunity for specific self-identified groups as animosity, than I most certainly plead guilty to that charge.

The only way to promote a system "equal" outcomes, is to discriminate against the perceived oppressor, regardless of the actions taken by them.

And there is no way that you can argue that is NOT bigotry, Mr. Chastain.

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 8:05am

How many of those Reported Hate Crimes were deemed Bogus after the investigation?

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 9:47am

Is the implication here that because some alleged hate crimes have been hoaxes, we shouldn't bother to investigate any of them?

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 11:58am

Seems that way, although the logic is kind of warped. How do we learn that they're hoaxes if we don't fund a department to investigate them in the first place?

Mike C
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 9:23am

Department of Civil Rights?? $59 Billion??? Governments can't even get the management of drinking water right, let alone bogus departments. Take that $59M and put it into our roads

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 11:57am

I think you need to work on your reading comprehension. $59 billion is the amount of the entire state budget, not just the Department of Civil Rights. We're talking about a tiny fraction of that total being used to fund the department, and the thousands of investigations its required to do per the state constitution. Hard to see how constitutionally mandated = bogus.

Tue, 10/22/2019 - 3:37pm

Excepting your lack of reading comprehension, I do find it frustrating at how easily white straight men are willing to dismiss the enforcement of civil rights...

Thomas elliott
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 9:38am

1.5 million to help people complain about discrimination. Its better spent elsewhere.

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 10:02am

What, exactly, is a hate crime; and what is the justification for imposing a more severe penalty for commission of such a "crime?"

John Chastain
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 1:49pm

marco, When a crime victim is targeted because of their race, religion, gender or ethnicity, that rises to the level of a hate crime that becomes subject to additional charges and enhanced penalties upon conviction. There are numerous Michigan examples ranging from assault & harassment to vandalism. In addition to those types of crimes nationwide there are terrorist attacks on Synagogues, places that minorities congregate like stores and theaters & random opportunistic attacks, all of which fit the criteria sited above. But I imagine that you already know that & object to the motivation being a criteria for a more severe penalty. If not then do further research & become better informed.

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 5:54pm

Problem with your "hate" crime is that you assume you know what's going on in the head of the actor. Maybe they don't like that the victim hangs in groups blocking the sidewalk, plays their music excessively loud, stays out at all hours of the night, smells up the apartment with their cooking or just their sense of fashion? You could construe this as a racist or culturalist attack on a protected group and their lifestyle or is this just a case of someone over-reacting to rude and obnoxious neighbors? You don't know. Are all these now evidence of a hate crime or something new … a fashion or culinary crime? This ever-moving line sounds very Orwellian.

middle of the mit
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 11:48pm

Do you know what really sounds Orwellian? Your whole comment. Well, not all of it. At least you acknowledged they were victims. The rest of it sounds as though you are excusing the perpetrator for beating people up for hanging out on sidewalks, playing music extra loud, staying out all hours of the night, cooking things in their own apartment and just their sense of fashion. And for any of those to construed as hate crime the victims would have to be minorities. And the perpetrator? They would have to be white or straight. And that is what this is really all about.

Are these excusable things to assault someone over? Because most of it sounds like it should be able to be handled by having a conversation, then if that doesn't work, law enforcement. And if you don't like something someone is cooking or wearing, that is your personal problem and you have to deal with it, not the person cooking or the person wearing clothes you don't like. Last time I checked those were individual choices and I thought conservatives lived for that.

What if someone wanted to beat you up because you are conservative? Would you allow that as a hate crime? What is the difference between being a conservative and getting beat for it and getting beat up because you are gay, or Muslim?

And what is the deal with wanting to beat people up anyway? Can't we accept people for who they are as long as they don't beat us first? Maybe there is a "perception" problem. Maybe that "perception" is why we need hate crime laws.

Diana Menhennick
Tue, 10/22/2019 - 12:36pm

The article speaks loudly about the impact of trade off's when implementing cutback management strategies within a environment of identity politics. The museums that lost funding provide a great service to society as they teach cultural awareness and educate about equality while civil rights funding is also important for creating an environment which promotes equality.

Tue, 10/22/2019 - 3:56pm

I can see the advertisements at DTW and on city buses now: "Assaulted based on your race/ethnicity and/or religious beliefs? That's too bad. Check out these three really neat museums!"

Assault. Hate crimes. Museums. That's Pure Michigan.