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Michigan Legislature Brings Big Changes to Policy, Politics

Since Jan. 31, 10 bills have been signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and several more are awaiting her signature. Though the speed was breakneck, the process wasn’t always pretty and most new laws had little public vetting.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
In February 2023, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a $79 billion budget plan that accounts for the newly passed tax relief package and business incentives, increases for per pupil spending and taxpayer-funded preschool for all 4-year-olds.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)
(TNS) — The Democratic majorities in the Michigan state House and Senate in their first three months of session have ditched a right-to-work law, revived the prevailing wage for state construction projects, scrapped an abortion ban, boosted low-income tax credits and cut taxes on residents receiving pensions.

They've also extended civil rights protections to gay and transgender Michiganians, served up more than $1 billion in subsidies to large corporations, unsuccessfully tried to avert an income tax cut and have begun sending long-sought gun control measures to the governor's desk.

Since Jan. 31, 10 bills reflecting a sea change in Michigan's policy and politics were signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Several others await her signature.

"I don’t know that we’ve ever watched the Legislature go as quickly as they have," said Maggie Pallone, vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan public policy consulting business in Lansing. "Clearly, there are 40 years of pent-up demand to go after these issues.”

The speed was breakneck, legislatively speaking. But the process wasn't always pretty.

The slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate meant few bills received immediate effect — meaning they won't take effect until sometime in 2024 — and the shortage of votes for some economic priorities prompted Democrats to wheel-and-deal with Republicans in the minority for support. Because the House has a narrow 56-54 majority, they also had to lean on members with fresh COVID-19 infections to show up and vote in person to pass their priorities.

Most bills were approved with little public vetting in committee. Sessions lasted late into the night. Gavels and arguments over policy, procedure and politics echoed from the chamber floors.

When the Legislature returns from its two-week spring break on April 11, it will have another mountain to climb: the state's annual budget.

State law requires the budget to be passed by the Legislature by July 1, but it's not unusual for that deadline to be stretched and run up against the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, a Democrat, said none of the policies passed in the first few months of sessions should surprise those who understand the 40 years of pent-up policy demand among Democrats.

"I look forward to an equally productive remainder of the year, and I remind my colleagues of all political persuasions that there's room at the table for everyone who wants to work together in good faith to improve life for Michiganders," Brinks said in a statement.

House Speaker Joe Tate, a Democrat, said the policies are "putting Michiganders first."

"It's been an extraordinarily productive first few months because House Democrats followed through on keeping our promises to Michigan voters," Tate said in a statement.

Many of the policies tackled, while controversial, echoed promises Democrats made on the campaign trail. But many lawmakers — Republican and Democratic — also made pledges regarding road rebuilds, long-term educational improvements and water affordability in urban and rural areas, issues that have yet to be thoroughly addressed.

The shift from political priorities to long-lasting policy will require deliberation, consensus and bipartisanship, Pallone said.

"What we’ll really be watching is how or if they are able to now start creating some policies that might last through political changes," Pallone said.

House and Senate Democrats capped their first three months in office with the full passage of bills that would require background checks and registration for every gun owner and mandate the safe storage of firearms in homes where a minor is present. Those bills await Whitmer's signature.

The Senate also approved bills allowing for extreme risk protection orders, or red flag laws, for individuals whose family members believed they were a risk to themselves and others and should have their firearms temporarily taken away. But the House didn't push the bills from committee ahead of spring break, emphasizing their commitment to "deliberative" consideration of the laws.

Rep. Kelly Breen, the Democrat who leads the committee ushering the bills through, indicated Wednesday the House and Senate bills will see changes to ensure "all due process considerations are heard" and reflected.

"What we need to accompany that with is implementation that will ensure that is done in a fair and equitable means," said Breen, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. "And we are, I believe, well on our way to making sure that happens.”

The House and Senate repealed the 1931 abortion ban, following voters' decision in November to place the right to abortion in the state constitution, and added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories under Michigan's anti-discrimination law. While the changes to anti-discrimination law have been signed into law, the abortion ban repeal has not yet received the governor's signature.

In the space of two weeks, the Legislature advanced and passed legislation that would repeal the state's right-to-work law — requiring nonunion workers to pay fees or dues in a workplace covered by a union contract — and restore the prevailing wage for state construction projects, reversing a key Republican achievement amid warring arguments over workers' rights, freeloader non-paying union members and effects on the economic viability of the state. Whitmer unceremoniously signed the bills into law Friday.

While Democrats passed gun control policies, abortion bans and LGBTQ protections largely along party lines, they had to elicit help from Republican colleagues for some of their funding goals.

The Legislature appropriated roughly $2.3 billion between two supplemental spending plans over the first few months, each of the bills carrying controversial cash for business incentives that earned a no vote from one House Democrat, Rep. Dylan Wegela. Democrats hold a 56-54 majority in the House and 56 votes are needed to get any policy across the finish line.

A separate tax bill that paired a pension tax repeal and Earned Income Tax Credit increase with ongoing funding for the state's business incentive program again left Democrats a vote short of the 56-vote majority needed to carry the policy out of the House.

Democrats had to turn to Republicans who requested in return, among other things, the removal of the sales and use tax for delivery and installation and for industrial aggregate processing equipment.

The GOP-priority policies made it through the House, but stopped short of approval in the Senate Thursday, drawing the ire of House Republicans who said a tenant of the deal they made with Democrats was full passage before spring break.

"Joe Tate could not get it done," said GOP House Minority Leader Matt Hall. "Winnie Brinks couldn't get it done. Gov. Whitmer couldn't get it done. There was a commitment and now we know what their word means. It means nothing."

When Democratic lawmakers return in April, they'll face the daunting process of assembling, negotiating and passing their first annual budget.

They'll be wrangling with a process that, this session, has been largely perceived as top-down, with the Whitmer administration pushing spending priorities behind the scenes and the legislative chambers largely complying.

For lawmakers recently assigned to subcommittee chairs, the centralized approach to budgeting over the past couple of decades — one concentrating budget negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders — may lead to a rude awakening. In the past, the process has led to a "hold your nose and vote" approach for many members, said Craig Thiel, research director at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit public affairs research organization based in Livonia.

Even with all the players in those centralized negotiations being from the same party, it's likely varying priorities will clash, he said.

"The budget battles happen when there’s no money and when there’s a lot of money," Thiel said. "This go-around there’s a lot of money.”

In February, Whitmer proposed a $79 billion budget plan that accounts for the newly passed tax relief package and business incentives, increases for per pupil spending and taxpayer-funded preschool for all 4-year-olds. When the budget was proposed, Whitmer's administration estimated it would leave $250 million of the state's $9.2 billion surplus on the balance sheet — making a significant dent in a surplus that ballooned because of federal aid and higher-than-expected tax revenue during the pandemic.

But Citizens Research Council of Michigan earlier this month indicated that the cost of tax exemptions for delivery and installation fees, combined with the tax relief measures already signed into law and a potential income tax rollback, could make the budget process tighter. The group estimated Whitmer's recommendation would need to be pared back $400 million to accommodate the dent in revenue.

"Something’s going to have to give on the governor's budget," Thiel said, "either what she’s proposed for increased funding or pulling something out from existing spending."

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