Skip to main content
Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

How Michigan Republicans nearly gutted discrimination investigations

Charles Wright Museum of African American History

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."

How impactful was this article for you?

Only donate if we've informed you about important Michigan issues

See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:

  • “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
  • “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
  • “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.

If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Pay with PayPal Donate Now