Leelanau's State Rep Champions Childcare, Bipartisanship And Will Seek Re-Election
By Luke Haase | Sept. 22, 2021
Leelanau’s state representative says bipartisanship is alive and well in Lansing, he will run again despite huge redistricting unknowns, and he thinks he has a head start on beginning to fix the local child care crisis. Jack O’Malley, Republican, caught up with the Leelanau Ticker in a wide-ranging conversation as his package of child care bills hit an important milestone this week in the state capitol.
Ticker: First of all, let’s begin here: Are you vaccinated for COVID-19? And if so, was it mandated in the legislature, or a choice?
O’Malley: I am. It’s something I chose to do. There are no mandates. I always say my motto is "better living through chemistry!” But here’s what I tell my constituents. I urge you to talk to your doctor. I think you need to get the vaccine, but I’m not going to mandate it.
Ticker: What are some of the biggest issues facing Leelanau County?
O’Malley: Well, in no particular order, there’s workforce housing. Now that’s a problem everywhere, but in our county where there’s what, the highest median income homes, it’s a huge issue. And a lot of people are retiring or moving here and want the quality of life and the restaurants and everything, but where will the workers live? There are also some farmers being pushed out by people who want to build large homes. Another issue is tourism and what I’ll say is “versus I live here.” We have the National Lakeshore, and great trails. I drove through Glen Arbor the other day and it was so packed. People love our area, but it’s a bit of a crunch. But overall Leelanau County is doing well and the tax base is strong.
Ticker: Are there any issues — aside from child care, which we will talk about in a moment — that you’re sort of known for championing in Lansing?
O’Malley: I’ve been working hard on all things transportation as the chair of that committee. When I came in, it was all about “fix the roads.” And then COVID kind of pushed that aside. But now we’re coming out the other side, and we’re going to be getting $8-$10 billion from the feds in the next 4-5 years. So our state roads are swimming in money all of a sudden. But this won’t fix the roads forever, and I think 93 percent of our roads are local, and that money is all going to state roads. And then the governor has bonded for $3.5 billion, and that’s debt. So it’s a ridiculous mess right now, but nobody really wants to deal with it. But I have three years left if I’m re-elected, and I also agreed to be on a work group to focus on the future for electric vehicles. We need the state to setup infrastructure, the regulatory environment…what can the state do to be in a better position on that changing technology.
Ticker: And is that work group bipartisan?
O’Malley: It is. It’s three Democrats and three Republicans.
Ticker: Which brings me to the next point: A few friends who have been in Lansing a long time said they’ve never seen it so partisan, with most legislators on far ends of their parties. Do you see that?
O’Malley: Yes and no. I will say that two years ago when I was trying to fix the roads initially and the governor put a gag order on MDOT to not talk to me or us — I mean that happened to me — that has changed a little bit, partly because of election season. Listen, I have a very good rapport with many Democrats. There are extreme right folks and extreme left folks, but the vast majority are like society, willing to talk to anyone.
Ticker: But you’re not just a Republican, you’ve said you're a conservative Republican.
O’Malley: Yeah, let’s go with that. But I consider myself a reasonable man. I was knocking doors recently in Ludington, and at one door I said to a woman through her storm door, “Hi, I’m Jack O’Malley, your representative, and I’d like to give you this sheet.” And she said, “No, I support the governor.” I mean, that’s fine, but I’m still your representative. And that’s the other thing: I think people confuse the state legislature with Washington. Now Washington’s a snakepit. We have some issues similar, but we’re not Washington DC. I represent everybody.
Ticker: I know one of your biggest issues has been child care, and that might surprise some people.
O’Malley: Right, like why is this 62-year-old guy who’s a Republican leading the charge on child care? The reason is that when I started running, people would ask, “What’s your agenda?” And I said, “I don’t have one. I want to serve the people. I wasn’t in the military, and this is my chance to serve. So I asked back in 2018 what are the biggest issues facing the people here? And I heard “fix the roads” or “auto insurance,” depending on the household. But the third most common answer surprised me: child care. So I did a lot of digging, met with providers, had roundtables, and discovered lo and behold this was a major issue. Rural Michigan especially is dependent on small, in-home child care, which the state had gotten away from by overregulating them. Centers are great, but in my district, most communities aren’t big enough for a center, and I also heard from some large employers who looked at starting their own day care, but didn’t want to touch it because of regulation. So It was obvious we had to do something.
Ticker: And your work has culminated in a set of bills that have come up for consideration in committee just this week…
O’Malley: Yes, there are eight bills total, and they came up (yesterday, Sept. 21). My own bill is the first one. If we don’t have the providers, we have no place to put the kids, so we have to help the providers first. Currently an in-home day care can have six kids per one adult, and a group home can have 12 kids and two adults. My bill says you can go up just one child to seven in a single home or 14 for two adults. And that would make a big difference. And keep in mind, 22 or 23 states have higher ratios than Michigan, so we wouldn’t at all be out of line. Rep. Roth has a bill that Traverse Connect has been involved with that would allow co-location of centers, like in a strip mall with empty spots. There had been strict rules about how close to a tavern a center could be, etc. But we think if it’s not right next door to the tavern, and it can be close to the people who need the child care, that makes sense. Another bill will fix the fact that if I operate a center and you filed a claim against me for something, it would stay on the state web site forever, even if I was proven innocent or there was no ruling. So we’re asking that it be the same rule as the federal rule, and have it up there for three years. Another bill says if you were closed down because you were a bad actor, you shouldn’t be able to go down the street and open again under a different name. So there’s some loosening and some tightening of regulations. There’s also some areas that are “daycare deserts,” so a bill says we will pay you to take care of infants and toddlers, and we’ll pay you for enrollment, not attendance, so the center knows they’re getting paid whether the kids show up or not. Another would create liaisons to help providers navigate LARA and DOE and DHHS and all the government bodies they have to work with.
Ticker: Sounds great, but some of that government getting involved doesn’t sound like your free market conservative agenda!
O’Malley: Well some of that is already covered by federal COVID dollars. And keep in mind, we’ve already had child care subsidies. They’ve been around. I don’t want more government, I just want smarter government! And this will really help the workforce. I do believe down the road you’ll see this become such a workforce issue that child care will become a benefit like dental or health insurance at many businesses.
Ticker: You also had a rare bipartisan feat in that you had Governor Whitmer attend your press conference announcing these bills.
O’Malley: In the last session I fought tooth and nail with the administration and LARA on these bills. But it’s a new term, and the governor now has a new person in charge of child care and a new child care person at LARA. I asked the governor to talk about child care in her State of the State address. She didn’t but she knew I was pushing. So we had some frank discussions and finally had these bipartisan bills. And I was asked if the governor could attend. I check with [Republican] leadership, and they said, “Of course, because that means she supports it.” I took some heat for standing next to her, but isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? We can disagree, but I was honored to introduce her at my press conference.
Ticker: And so now these should fly through committee and soon become law?
O’Malley: Fingers crossed. After two years. And some people said, let’s fix all the rules. Let’s fix the summer programs, and the fact that schools take care of kids until the bell rings, and then all the rules change. But I said, “If we try to eat the whole banana now, we’ll never get it. Let’s get these rules fixed and then come back.”
Ticker: Looks like you might be facing the most unknowns ever with the upcoming election, as you don’t know what your district will be and you don’t know who you’ll be facing.
O’Malley: Right. I personally hope they leave the 101st District alone. They talk about communities of interest, and I think with Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee and Mason you have the lakeshore, dunes, and agriculture. I think they need to stay together. But I have no say in it. There has been some talk of a new district with Leelanau and then northern Grand Traverse County. But regardless, the worst case is I won’t know until February, and the filing deadline is in April, so I might not even know what my own district is until Valentine’s Day.
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