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Bipartisan bills: Will latest measure put an end to lame duck in Michigan?

A Republican state representative wants to change the Michigan Constitution to do away with the Legislature’s contentious year-end session known as lame duck.

Whether the effort succeeds is up in the air. If past attempts are any indication, it has an uphill road. On the other hand, the lame-duck session that ended just before Christmas attracted national attention and accusations of partisan power grabs, prompting some legislators to take up the cause while memories are fresh.

Bipartisan breakthrough bills

With Michiganders clamoring for Lansing to set aside partisan differences, state lawmakers are speaking optimistically about finding bipartisan solutions in the new legislative session. Bridge Magazine is watchdogging those efforts by highlighting bills that died in past years but appear to have broader support in 2019. Please send Bridge reporters other suggestions for legislation we should be following. Related stories:

Rep. Gary Howell, who introduced House Joint Resolution C on Jan. 24, said he is determined to advance the measure, calling lame duck “a dysfunctional way to operate government.” He said his goal is to get a public hearing on his resolution in front of the House government operations committee, where it has been referred for consideration.

This year, he had more than a dozen Republicans and Democrats sign on as co-sponsors, something he said was intentional.

“There is no way in a matter of four weeks even the most diligent legislator can read, analyze and understand the bills — and all the last-minute amendments — and not have a lot unintended consequences slip by,” said Howell, a Republican from North Branch in Lapeer County, who introduced a similar resolution last term that failed to advance. That past effort had five co-sponsors from both parties.

“You’re voting blind to a large degree.”

The Legislature typically ends its two-year terms in December of even-numbered years. The period between Election Day in November and the end of the term in December is referred to as lame duck, when lawmakers — including dozens of legislators leaving office every two or four years due to term limits or losing re-election — attempt to pass any remaining priority bills before the legislation dies at the end of the year.

Last year’s lame-duck session, which spanned four weeks in November through Dec. 21, was one of the most controversial in recent years. With both legislative chambers, as well as the governor’s office, in Republican hands, critics accused the GOP of passing bills that would limit the authority of incoming Democrats to the offices of governor, Secretary of State and attorney general, and diluting citizen-backed laws to increase the minimum wage and require employers to offer paid sick leave that legislators adopted in September, rather than allowing them to go on the November ballot.

The GOP-majority, lame-duck Legislature also voted to move bills that critics said would allow more dark money in state politics and seize power from a newly elected Democratic administration. (Not all of them were signed into law.)

“Lame duck is really a broken piece of our democracy. We’ve seen that year after year, how a controversial agenda gets rammed through at the last minute,” said Sam Inglot, a spokesman for Progress Michigan, a progressive advocacy group that protested lame-duck session at the Capitol last month.

“It’s not about who’s in charge,” Inglot added of the political parties. “It’s about the process. It’s about transparency. It’s about having real dialogue and public discourse about these issues. And that just doesn’t happen in lame duck.”

A recent rival in terms of lame-duck chaos came six years ago, during Gov. Rick Snyder’s first term. In December 2012, thousands of union members and supporters protested at the Capitol as the GOP-majority Legislature enacted right-to-work laws that prevented unions from collecting dues as a condition of employment.

Howell, the sponsor of this year’s resolution, said the current process “gives the lobbyists way too much power” in drafting bills during a compressed window of time.

Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said “there is a role for the lobbying corps in all areas of legislation, and I don’t know that we feel that’s necessarily a bad thing.” But, she added, lame-duck policy priorities are driven by lawmakers with input from the governor.

The chamber, which supported the Republican-sponsored minimum wage and sick leave bills, has not taken a position on Howell’s resolution, Block said. She added that changes to lame duck could be worthy of discussion along with other government reforms, including making changes to legislative term limits.

Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, co-sponsored Howell’s legislation twice, this term and last. He said he believes it’s a good government reform, regardless of which party is in control of Lansing.

“I hope that we’re doing the thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the right thing for a political party,” Hoadley said.

“I think people are hungry to see government work well,” he added, saying that there are examples from past lame-duck sessions in which it didn’t work well. “Now that we have a moment in divided government, perhaps we could take a breath and figure (it) out.”

Howell’s resolution, if passed, would ask statewide voters to approve amending the state constitution to end the Legislature’s two-year terms on the Friday before the first Monday in November. That also would mean lawmakers would stop voting on bills for the year before Election Day, before it’s known which candidates are elected to office and how the party makeup of the Legislature changes.

Joint resolutions are used for lawmakers to propose amendments to Michigan’s constitution, and need two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate for passage. The governor does not weigh in on joint resolutions.

If adopted, Howell’s resolution would be sent to statewide voters as a constitutional amendment at the next statewide general election in November 2020.

Howell told Bridge lame-duck voting moves too quickly for lawmakers to read hundreds of bills and amendments — sometimes literally in the dead of night — and for Michigan residents to vet legislation and provide input. As Bridge has reported, one bill from late December granted $10 million to install water and sewer lines on Washtenaw County land owned by a company connected to a past Michigan Republican Party chairman; to date, no legislators have come forward to say they sponsored it.

“I sensed that I was sort of Don Quixote tilting at windmills last time around,” said Howell, of his resolution last term.

“This time, I’m getting a lot more positive feedback,” he said, adding that lawmakers have plenty of time in the two-year regular session to achieve its policy goals. “I think, having lived through this last lame-duck session, more people would realize how bad this approach to governing is.”

The next lame-duck legislative session, in 2020, is likely to be different than those of the past eight years, when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and the governor’s office. In November, Michigan voters elected a Democratic governor in Gretchen Whitmer, and more Democrats won seats in the state House and Senate — shrinking the GOP’s majority. Whitmer was a critic of several of the most controversial Republican-backed bills in lame duck last year.

House resolutions to eliminate lame duck failed to advance in the past two terms.

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in an email that he will review Howell’s resolution should the House send it to the Senate. She did not elaborate on whether Shirkey supports ending lame duck.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday. Chatfield, however, was a co-sponsor of a similar resolution in 2015, when he was a freshman lawmaker.

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