Michigan Democrats transform Lansing, using GOP ploys they once condemned
Three months in, Michigan’s Democratic majority has transformed Lansing, checking off one progressive priority after another at a dizzying pace.
Repealing Right-to-Work. Restoring prevailing wages. Removing an old abortion ban. Cutting taxes for low-income workers and seniors. Protecting LGBTQ rights. Passing gun reforms.
Since the legislative session started in January with Dems controlling the House, Senate and governor’s office — a so-called trifecta — 10 bills have been signed into law covering a panoply of liberal interests. Republicans have howled, but the measures haven’t yet seemed to stir an outcry from the general public.
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Up next: The expected signing by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of a trio of gun safety laws, most of which have already cleared the Legislature.
Considering the number of new lawmakers and that it’s been 40 years since Democrats had majority control, the speed and scope is noteworthy, said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.
“It's been impressive how quickly they've been able to organize the chambers and get moving,” he said. Going forward, the challenge will be to “figure out a way to pass budgets while minimizing the amount of unpopular stuff.”
Freshly vanquished Republicans have been unable so far to avoid being steamrolled, despite the fact that Democrats hold a tenuous majority: a two-seat lead in the House and Senate.
Adding injury, Democrats have passed legislation using some of the same questionable tactics mastered by Republicans when they were in power: moving bills without committee hearings, withholding legislative language until the last minute, attaching funding to bills to avoid voter referendums.
Their objections haven’t often made a difference. Notably, though, they were able to block a Whitmer effort to send tax filers $180 checks in April, and secure an income tax reduction in its place. (The GOP was aided by a rule that required a legislative two-thirds majority for the Whitmer plan.)
For Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, the all-out sprint from the starting line is just the beginning — but she predicts Democrats will “settle into a more regular cadence” as they tackle other priorities further down the list and start work on the state budget when they return from a two-week break in early April.
“We've been pretty disciplined about moving things forward quickly, but also making every effort to be pragmatic and deliberative and intentional about what we're moving,” she told Bridge Michigan. “We’re really excited about where we go from here.”
A breakneck pace
Before this year, legislative Democrats spent years in political irrelevance.
With Republicans firmly in the majority in both chambers, governors — both Republican and Democratic — negotiated with GOP leaders on major bills. But thanks to the redistricting of state legislative maps to reduce GOP gerrymandering and a voter initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution, Democrats swept to power in November.
When January arrived, they worked quickly to assemble committees and queue up major legislation for votes.
The Legislature got off to an early start. Whitmer’s signature on a spending bill in January was the first time since 1947 that legislation was signed the first month of a two-year session, according to an analysis by MIRS News. In the last 20 years, only three other Michigan legislatures have gotten more public acts signed in the first three months of session.
Democrats began with bipartisan bills providing tax relief, expanding the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers and reducing taxes on public and private pensions.
Whitmer’s effort to include the $180 check to tax filers in the package withered after Republicans declined to support giving the legislation immediate effect. They argued the plan was an attempt by Democrats to avoid an expected income tax cut triggered by a dramatic increase in state revenue.
Beyond that, an avalanche of Democratic priorities has been signed into law, including:
- Moving the state’s presidential primary date to earlier in the primary calendar
- Repealing Michigan’s long-dormant 1931 abortion ban
- Repealing Right-to-Work, a law allowing union-represented workers to opt out of paying union dues but still get benefits
- Restoring prevailing wage, a policy guaranteeing union-scale pay on government-funded construction projects that Republicans repealed in 2018
- Adding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people to the state’s civil rights law
- Repealing that part of the state’s third grade reading law that required struggling readers to repeat third grade if they were a year or more behind
- Two spending bills totaling $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion for economic development and business incentives
At a March 16 bill signing adding LGBTQ protections to the state’s civil rights law, Whitmer repeated a catch phrase she’s used frequently since Democrats won the majority: “It’s a new day in Michigan.”
“I’ve been saying that a lot this week, because this Legislature’s been cranking out a lot of good stuff,” she told the crowd.
Last week, lawmakers sent part of a gun reform package to the governor’s desk, taking final votes on safe storage and universal background check bills. They are the first major-gun related legislation to head to Whitmer since mass shootings at Oxford High School in November 2021 and, more recently, at Michigan State University in February.
Democrats are also working on “red flag” legislation, which would allow judges to authorize the temporary seizure of guns from those deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Final votes are expected on those bills in April.
Waiting for a hearing
To get to this point, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have kept a grueling schedule, often keeping lawmakers in session well into the evening and fast-tracking high-priority bills.
As Democrats discard labor and social policies long held dear by conservatives, House and Senate Republicans have criticized the new majority for amending bills shortly before votes, and forgoing the committee hearing process, where bills are typically debated, hashed out and changed before going to full House or Senate vote. There were no committee hearings, for instance, on moving the state’s presidential primary up to February.
But as Republicans well know, the hearing process can take weeks and clog up the lawmaking pipeline. Legislative leaders often choose to fast-track top-priority bills to save time.
In one instance, an amendment to the prevailing wage bill (that would open up contractors to the possibility of third-party lawsuits) was added shortly before the measure was up for vote. The last-minute change was described by one Republican lawmaker as “prevailing wage on steroids,” that went beyond a simple restoration of the previous law.
Last week, House Republicans also expressed frustration when bills negotiated with Democrats to clarify tax exemptions for industrial equipment didn’t get speedy treatment in the Senate.
House Republican Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, accused Brinks and Democrats of being “dishonest” and “going back on their word” that they would pass the bills before the break. Brinks told Bridge she was not opposed to considering the legislation, but said she never agreed to a specific timeline for doing so.
It’s not surprising to see the minority party gripe about the legislative process, Hemond said. But it’s not likely to resonate with the public, which generally doesn’t pay attention to the day-to-day workings of the Legislature, and isn’t much different than what was happening when Republicans ruled Lansing.
“You make process arguments when you lose,” Hemond said. “Democrats got a lot of practice complaining about process, and now they’re in charge and it’s the Republicans’ turn to complain.”
Perhaps the most telling example of Democrats flexing their newfound power was Whitmer's decision to sign off on a controversial political ploy that she previously condemned when Republicans ran the Legislature.
In legislation repealing the state’s Right-to-Work law and restoring prevailing wage, lawmakers included a little over $2 million in appropriations — chump change in a multibillion-dollar state budget — ostensibly to inform public employers and workers about the policy change.
Under the Michigan Constitution, laws that include spending cannot be overturned via ballot initiative. As a lawmaker and later as a candidate for governor, Whitmer criticized Republicans who used the technique when they were in power and promised to veto legislation designed to circumvent the public’s right to hold a statewide referendum on unpopular laws.
Whitmer signed the bills anyway.
Rep. Regina Weiss, D-Oak Park, justified the tactic, telling reporters Democrats “don’t want … a lot of outside interests to come in and try to push something through” through a referendum. “If voters don’t agree, they can elect new representatives in the next election.”
Brinks said she’s open to having a conversation about ending the practice of attaching funding to policy bills to avoid referendums, but noted Democrats are simply working within the system they were handed and “do not intend to unilaterally just decide we’re going to play by different rules.”
Whitmer isn’t the first elected official to call something a bad idea until it works in their favor, said Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council.
“It was a little bit surprising that she was willing to accept the appropriation as part of the bill to keep that referendum-proof,” Lupher said. “But she is a politician, after all.”
There has been some room for bipartisan compromise. The business incentives and tax reduction laws popular among both parties are two examples.
And safe storage gun legislation — which would require gun owners to keep their firearms locked away or unloaded with a trigger lock if a minor is present — earned support from a handful of House Republicans, including Hall, after Democrats agreed to drop language that would open gun manufacturers and gun shops to legal liability.
Showing up sick
With a razor-thin majority, Democrats have often needed perfect attendance on days they’ve wanted to cast big-ticket votes.
That has resulted in Democratic lawmakers showing up at the Capitol even after being diagnosed with COVID-19, wearing masks and sitting in the public gallery above the House floor to cast votes. That’s a bit of a departure from the Democratic stance earlier in the pandemic, when they criticized Republican leaders for allowing lawmakers in the Capitol to forego masks and eschew CDC guidelines.
So far, three Democratic House members — Reps. Natalie Price, D-Berkley, Veronica Paiz, D-Harper Woods, and Jamie Hoskins, D-Southfield — have voted from the gallery with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Another lawmaker, Rep. Lori Stone, D-Warren, voted from the gallery while sick with a different illness.
Michigan House rules cite CDC guidance, recommending COVID-positive individuals isolate at home for five days and wear a mask for up to 10 days after. Technically, that guidance can only be enforced for House employees and not lawmakers, whose bosses are their constituents, House spokesperson Amber McCann recently told reporters.
When they were in charge, Republican leaders were often criticized for resisting calls to require mask use or allow remote voting, and several lawmakers serving at the time chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Republicans serving now say Democrats’ decision to let lawmakers attend in person with a COVID-19 diagnosis is hypocritical. Rep. Cam Cavitt, R-Cheboygan, tested positive for COVID-19 on the same day as Hoskins, and did not appear on the floor to vote.
Democrats are “blatantly ignoring” the CDC guidelines cited in House rules “just to rush through yet another partisan vote,” Cavitt said, adding that having COVID-19 positive lawmakers in the Capitol puts other lawmakers, staff and the public at risk.
At this stage, McCann said concerns remain about offering remote voting options outside of the Capitol building. A virtual voting method developed when some House lawmakers were voting in the gallery to social distance at the height of the pandemic only worked in the chamber itself, although McCann said the chamber is exploring alternatives.
“The evolution of how we’re responding to COVID has shifted significantly since the inception of it,” McCann said. “We have members who feel responsible to show up to do their job.”
Whitmer and legislative Democrats have tackled policy issues that enjoy broad and urgent support among members of their party. Now comes the harder stuff.
When lawmakers return from their two-week break, they’ve got a state budget to approve and other policy issues favored by Democratic caucus members. With a slim majority, fissures could start to emerge between progressives and moderates in swing districts, meaning Democrats will likely need to gin up Republican support on some legislation.
“There's a lot of bigger issues that are confronting the state than just Right-to-Work or the Earned Income Tax Credit,” said Lupher of the Citizens Research Council.
“What I'm watching for is serious discussions about the economic future of the state and setting a path for lifting our local governments, improving our schools and funding our universities and fixing a lot that's not going well in our state.”
Lawmakers must agree on how to best spend a record budget surplus, much of it one-time funding, meaning that lawmakers can’t rely upon it forever, and fiscal analysts recently predicted the state may be heading into a ‘mild’ recession.
Policy topics up next on the agenda include additional economic development policies aimed at benefiting workers and businesses, finding ways to keep or attract more young people to Michigan, climate change, improving health care access and taking a look at education policy, Brinks said.
Another area of focus for legislative Democrats is greater transparency in government, including making the Legislature and governor’s office subject to the state’s public records law — another area in which Whitmer and others have preached reform when running for office, but have done little to take action on once elected.
“On the whole,” Brinks said, “things that we intend to do as Democratic majorities emphasize making Michigan more equitable, more fair, regardless of race, income, gender.”
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