LANSING — Twenty days.
That’s all the work days left in the state Senate’s current term. The House will meet even fewer times — just 18 days are scheduled between now and December.
Somehow, lawmakers in that time will have to adopt a comprehensive — and complicated — update to energy policy, reform the state’s no-fault auto insurance laws, compromise on stricter third-grade reading standards and revisit exemptions to Michigan’s open records law.
Or they won’t.
Yet if they don’t act by Dec. 22 — Dec. 15 in the House — everything left unfinished in this two-year legislative session will die. That could mean starting over after two years of work on an overhaul to Michigan’s 2008 energy law, considered one of the biggest policy priorities this term because of what it will mean for renewables requirements.
“Whether or not it gets completed fully and to the governor by December, I don’t know that that is entirely possible. But it certainly is a goal to get it out of the Senate,” said Amber McCann, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. He is looking to see movement on energy yet this year.
“I think (Meekhof) would be very disappointed if we found ourselves introducing energy bills in January to have to reset everything again.”
Last week was the Legislature’s first week back after a lengthy summer recess. The Senate, in particular, was quick to get back to work, approving legislation that would regulate Michigan’s startup autonomous vehicle industry, create a new licensing framework for medical marijuana in Michigan after bills stalled in committee for nearly a year and allow certified registered nurse anesthetists to practice without the supervision of a physician.
In the House — which, like the Senate, is controlled by Republicans — the entire chamber is up for election in November. An election year, coupled with the volatile presidential race and its potential effects on down-ticket races, means lawmakers will head into the fall without knowing what the makeup of the House will be come January. A shift in party control could affect lame-duck voting; several political analysts have told Crain’s they think Democrats will be able to pick up seats, though likely not a majority.
Among the questions swirling at the end of this session, aside from whether remaining policy issues will be resolved, is: Can the Legislature work in a bipartisan way to avoid the kind of gridlock that hindered progress on road funding last year or Detroit Public Schools reform this year? Neither legislative solution is perfect, and opponents criticized both for not going far enough to fix the problem.
Energy policy might be the test, so let’s start with that.
Where legislation stands
The House and Senate are floating separate bills to update the state’s energy law. Proposed legislation would replace standards for the amount of renewable energy and energy efficiency that utilities must achieve, with goals and a long-term planning process called integrated resource planning. This process, in theory, is designed to consider all possible energy sources in a utility’s electric portfolio as part of making the plans.
The bills also would require Michigan’s alternative electric suppliers to demonstrate that they have the capacity to serve the state’s 10 percent of electric customers who buy power on the retail market. Supporters of electric choice believe the provision would force some suppliers out of business, but proponents of the bill, including state Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, say the measure is intended in part to ensure reliability.
Nofs worked this summer on several drafts of the Senate bills. He said he is still working to tweak language concerning how alternative energy suppliers could demonstrate to state regulators that they have enough electric capacity owned or under contract to meet demand, and meeting with Democrats and some Republicans on renewable energy standards.
He said he intends to brief Senate Republicans on new changes yet this month, with hopes of being able to move the legislation to the House. Nofs said he doesn’t think the House will take up the legislation until after the Nov. 8 election.
“The worst-case scenario is we don’t do anything,” Nofs said. “The impetus is there to get something done.”
The bills were voted out of committee in May.
“We’re hoping that we can reach an agreement yet this fall,” said Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter. He added that lawmakers who have led work on energy — including Nofs; Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph; and Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton — continue to discuss what a compromise version might look like.
Why it could pass
Hours of testimony and public hearings have occurred over the legislative term, so there is pressure to bring the bills in for a landing. Utilities have started to decommission old coal-fired power plants, and planning to build a new natural gas plant takes years. Utility executives have said the bills would ensure affordable electric rates and grid reliability. Plus, the Obama administration has released new rules to reduce carbon emissions. Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has said the state wants to develop its own plan to comply, though work is on hold while the Clean Power Plan is challenged in court. An updated energy law could bring more certainty to the state’s compliance effort.
Why it might not
Energy is a complex issue and the bills have lots of moving parts. Lawmakers are split on a number of key provisions, especially related to renewable and efficiency mandates. Republicans oppose standards, while Democrats and environmental groups argue that utilities won’t continue to pursue renewable power sources and efficiency programs for customers without a requirement to do so.
Nofs said he is trying to get the legislation to a place where interested groups could accept it, knowing it won’t satisfy everyone.
No-fault auto insurance reform
Where legislation stands
Reforming Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law remains on the to-do list, but reps for both Meekhof and Cotter say consensus hasn’t yet been found.
Two bills cleared the Senate in April 2015, but haven’t seen action since. At issue is a proposal to replace the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, which pays for crash victims’ care, with a new fund that would pay all claims above a new $545,000 benefits cap for auto insurers.
A separate plan backed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan would reduce Detroiters’ high insurance rates by limiting the amount of medical benefits allowed to be paid. The “D-Insurance” proposal hasn’t seen any action since it was reported out of committee in June 2015.
McCann, Meekhof’s spokesperson, said the issue was pushed aside in favor of more immediate priorities, such as the Flint water crisis and the Detroit schools restructuring. He would like to talk with Cotter “about the viability of auto no-fault getting done before the end of the year,” she said, “but he hasn’t had that conversation yet.”
Peter Kuhnmuench, executive director of the Insurance Institute of Michigan who is supportive of the bills, said progress also stalled in part because the insurance and healthcare industries have been on opposing sides of the legislation and unable to find a compromise.
“With lame duck, there is an opportunity to change some minds,” he said, adding that he thinks moving the bills this term will be “a difficult accomplishment.”
What’s not likely to pass
Prevailing wage repeal
Don’t expect to see a push to repeal Michigan’s 50-year-old prevailing wage law this term.
The GOP-led House and Senate both consider it a priority to repeal the law, which requires contractors to pay union-scale wages and benefits on public projects. Yet momentum largely diminished after a ballot drive fizzled due to a lack of valid signatures from registered Michigan voters.
The Senate in 2015 sent bills to repeal prevailing wage to the House, which opted to wait to see how the ballot drive would go. Snyder has said he does not support repealing the law at a time when he also is trying to drum up interest in skilled trades careers to deal with a looming labor shortage.
Proponents of repeal, mostly nonunion contractors, say the law artificially inflates wages and could save local governments money on development projects. Supporters of the existing law, including labor and some contractors, say they would have to cut budgets for training and apprenticeships if it were repealed.
“It’s a good thing. It would be worth doing,” D’Assandro said. “That said, the governor has made it clear what his position is on the issue, so getting those bills onto his desk is not necessarily something that we’re looking to do really quickly.”
What is likely to pass
Driverless car bills
A four-bill package that would allow driverless cars on Michigan roads for any reason, not just while being tested, cleared the Senate unanimously last week. The bills largely are championed as a way to position Michigan as a leading state for research and development of connected and autonomous vehicles.
The House’s communications and technology committee plans to take them up for the first time on Tuesday.
And now that the Senate passed legislation to require a license in order for medical marijuana growers, dispensaries and others in the industry to operate, the bills could be headed to Snyder’s desk after they return to the House for a final vote. Three of the five bills passed the House by wide margins in October 2015. Supporters say the legislation is necessary to clarify the 2008 voter-approved medical marijuana statute.