John Mathias Engler has once again infuriated his longtime political adversaries, and some new ones, as well as Lansing’s chattering class.
Engler, the interim president of Michigan State University and a three-term Michigan governor, has demonstrated why the school’s Board of Trustees hired him to pluck its charred chestnuts out of the fire fueled by litigation from the Larry Nassar sexual assault imbroglio.
Engler never backs down from a fight, and he won’t this time, either. He has always known the best defense is a strong offense. He demonstrated that last Thursday in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education. He flayed the 10-bill package of bills that had been approved by the Senate the day before, and he told the assembled solons why — he’ll oppose any attempt by Nassar victims and the trial bar to strip MSU of its ability to defend itself, giving those suing the university more power to resist negotiating an out-of-court settlement that would be “good for all parties.”
Engler told the stunned lawmakers that MSU doesn’t have the resources to pay for what massive settlements might be, because there are no ‘deep pockets’ that the University can access, such as its endowment.
The college’s endowment, Engler contended, is untouchable because of contracts with donors barring those funds from being used for purposes other than what they were given for.
“We will have to successfully negotiate settlements and then we’ll see (how to pay),” Engler stated. “As Penn State (University) found out, sometimes insurers won’t pay (in the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal a decade ago).” Then Engler dropped a bombshell: MSU will have nowhere else to turn other than tuition and state aid, meaning students and their parents and Michigan taxpayers.
Engler had already worked hard but unsuccessfully behind the scenes to emasculate the 10-bill package before Senate approval, although he and other opponents of the legislation won some amendments and concessions. Engler has a better chance to scuttle what he considers the most objectionable parts of the legislation in the House, where he has a strong relationship with House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-Dewitt). It shouldn’t be overlooked that Leonard’s chief of staff, Dan Pero, was Engler’s chief of staff when he was governor.
Leonard has referred the bills to the House Law & Justice Committee, chaired by state Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Walled Lake). Leonard says the bills won’t be taken up until Kesto’s panel has time to sift through some 1,500 pages of data from MSU that were requested and received last month, plus more material forthcoming from the university in response to further demands by the committee. Whatever the House eventually does, Engler warned that if lawmakers approve the same 10-bill package that cleared the Senate, the amount of money needed for payouts to victims and their lawyers will only grow.
Predictably, Engler’s statements drew sharp rebukes from Nassar survivors and their attorneys on social media. Even Senate Subcommittee Chairwoman Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) opined that settlement “should not be based on taxpayers and students.”
But major parts of the bills as they stand were also opposed not only by Engler and MSU but other Michigan universities and local government officials as well as the Michigan Catholic Conference. Even the American Civil Liberties Union expressed objections. In essence, the legislation would:
- Extend the statute of limitations (SOL) for claims of criminal sexual abuse to 30 years after a person’s 18th birthday. For civil lawsuits, the SOL also would be 30 years after the same birthday if they were minors when the assaults occurred, and 10 years if they were at least 18.
- Allow a person to file a civil lawsuit retroactively back to Jan. 1, 1997, if the person was a minor when the assault occurred.
- Allow a victim a year after the law takes effect to file a claim, if that victim is making a retroactive claim.
- Increase the penalties for possessing child pornography.
- Expand the the number of adults who are mandated to report complaints of sexual abuse to include coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, volunteers and bus drivers, and increase the penalties for failing to report such cases.
- Clarify the law to ensure that governmental entities, including universities and colleges, do not have immunity from civil and criminal cases of sexual assault if they knew or should have known of the alleged incidents and failed to report them to law enforcement.
Some of the bills, such as expanding the number of university employees who must report instances of sexual abuse, and increasing penalties if they don’t, may clear the House easily, probably with Engler’s support. But lobbying against the other, more controversial measures will continue, and the future of the legislation is by no means settled.
John Engler is well aware of what happened in Flint, where Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration dithered, denied, and delayed doing anything for two years about the burgeoning controversy over the city’s contaminated drinking water. Snyder’s job rating and personal approval ratings took a massive hit, according to numerous public opinion surveys. Snyder has never recovered his standing with the electorate and is unlikely to by Dec. 31, when his gubernatorial tenure ends.
Engler has never cared about polls, and he’s not running for anything. The lesson he learned from the Vehicle City debacle is that no amount of money from state government in Lansing will ever be enough for Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration has already received half a billion dollars from Michigan taxpayers, many of them living in municipalities with worse water than Flint’s. Despite testimony from health and medical experts that Flint’s water is now safer to drink and bathe in than most other communities, Weaver is doing what she does best — rattling the ‘tin cup,’ demanding that the state keep supplying all of her 100,000 constituents with bottled water “until all lead and galvanized service lines have been replaced” in the Genesee Co. town seat. That’s thousands of dollars a day for at least another two years under the mayor’s glacially slow, misnamed “fast start” pipe replacement program.
Should the hyperbolic international headlines and TV sound bites that shamed state government in Lansing into appropriating half a billion dollars to bail out Flint be repeated now in the case of MSU? Will lawmakers and matriculants allow themselves to be bullied into forking over billions of dollars more to pay off the army of Nassar litigants and their attorneys?
No way, Engler says. Don’t bet against him.