LANSING – Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, appeared Wednesday to have broken a year-long partisan log jam between competing versions of Democratic and Republican legislation to strengthen protections for state employee whistleblowers who report misuse of state funds, violations of state law, or other official misconduct by the state agencies for whom they work.
The House Government Operations Committee – comprised of top legislative leaders of each party – unanimously approved Glenn’s House Bill 5981, which would create an official State Employee Ombudsman to receive and refer whistleblower complaints to appropriate administrative or law enforcement authorities while protecting the identity of state employees submitting the complaints.
“A couple instances I could imagine state employees coming forward to report mismanagement of funds or misconduct within a state department,” Glenn told committee members in testimony explaining her bill, “are the Flint water crisis and the Unemployment Insurance Agency fraud, which included money changing hands in order to move someone’s application up in line.”
“Unfortunately,” Glenn said, “state employees do still fear they will lose their jobs or be reprimanded if they come forward with information or allegations that could help improve the way departments operate, save state tax dollars, and potentially even save lives.”
After her testimony, Glenn – the sole sponsor of the bill – was questioned by House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, and House Democratic Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who last year had cosponsored a similar Democratic version of the legislation.
Greig noted in her questioning that the bill’s passage would fulfill a recommendation by an oversight panel appointed to investigate the Flint water crisis, but asked Glenn for an estimate of the new ombudsman’s impact on the state budget.
Glenn, who serves as chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military & Veterans Affairs, responded that the new state employee whistleblower ombudsman would cost an estimated $300,000 a year, pointing to the similar cost of a new veterans ombudsman office created by lawmakers.
“But honestly, if this had helped prevent the Flint water crisis, it would have saved us a lot more money than the $300,000,” Glenn said. “I look at this as one of those cases where it’s worth the money now to save money later and have more transparency in government. Solve issues when they’re small instead of waiting until they’re large.”
The total cost to state taxpayers of the Flint water crisis could exceed $1 billion for providing bottled water to city residents, replacing corroded water lines, and paying damages agreed to in settlement of a lawsuit by Flint residents.
Glenn also assured Rabhi that she was happy to discuss with him, before final passage by the House, possible changes to further strengthen the bill’s protections against disclosing a whistleblower’s identity.
After her response to their questions, both Democratic leaders voted in favor of Glenn’s legislation.
Glenn noted, as reported by the Midland Daily News on July 31st, that “Gov. Whitmer vetoed a bill that would’ve offered protection to state employees who report suspicious activity, which passed the House and Senate with unanimous bipartisan support.” https://www.ourmidland.com/news/article/Glenn-introduces-plan-to-nbsp-create-ombudsman-to-15448565.php
“My legislation is taking another run at reform from a different angle,” Glenn said at the time, “not only helping create greater transparency between state government and the taxpayers who fund it, but ensuring whistleblowers who report bureaucratic misconduct or incompetence to the new ombudsman in confidence are protected from reprisal.”