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Democrats are back in power in Lansing. Their wish list is slim

Michigan capitol building
Budget negotiations will take precedence in Lansing for the time being as Michigan lawmakers work to pass a state spending plan before summer – and fall campaigns. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Two newly-elected House Democrats will be seated in coming weeks, restoring the party’s slim legislative majority
  • Leaders say main priority is getting state budget done before lawmakers shift focus to fall campaigns
  • Economic development, ethics reforms among other policies Legislature could pursue

Democrats are regaining their full majority in the Michigan House, but after months of partisan gridlock that delayed action on substantive policy debates, legislative leaders say their main objective is simple: Get the budget done. 

Top Democrats are lowering expectations for the remainder of the year after they took Lansing by storm in 2023, passing sweeping changes to the state’s energy policies, election process, labor laws and gun safety rules while adding protections for reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ residents. 


Without a voting majority in the House to start 2024, Democrats have had few opportunities to make a similar splash — and they’ll soon be interrupted again by campaign season, leaving little time to do much beyond debate spending plans.


“The budget’s going to be the top priority for us,” House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, recently told Bridge Michigan. “This is what we need to get done.”

Democratic leaders are breathing a sigh of relief, however. Reps.-elect Mai Xiong, D-Warren, and Peter Herzberg, D-Westland, won special elections to fill two vacant seats and restore Democrats’ 56-54 advantage in the House. They will be seated in coming weeks once election results are officially certified.

A spending plan for schools, state agencies and other government priorities is due by Oct. 1, although officials in recent years have sought to finalize budgets in the summer to give schools and local governments more time to plan. 

Leadership in both chambers have left open the option to explore other policy issues if time allows. And Democratic lawmakers certainly have priorities of their own, including ethics reforms, film incentives, hate crime penalties and more.

Here’s a look at what’s percolating: 

Budget buildup

In February, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pitched an $80.7 billion budget to the Legislature, calling for a “Michigan Guarantee” of educational access and economic opportunities by providing free preschool and community college, rebates on new vehicle purchases and more. 

Whitmer’s proposal was smaller than the record $81.7 billion budget she signed in 2023, a reflection of COVID-19 federal funding surges and record-high revenues winding down.

Lawmakers this month began moving their own budget bills through House and Senate subcommittees, in some cases walking back or entirely removing key recommendations from Whitmer’s plan to save money or put it to other uses. 

“We don't have as much (money) at our disposal as we did during our last budget cycle, and so there's decisions that have to be made,” Rep. Felicia Brabec, an Ann Arbor Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, told Bridge Michigan Tuesday. 

But budget negotiations are still in the early stages, meaning Whitmer could still convince lawmakers to restore some of her proposals before the spending bills reach her desk. 

Once House and Senate appropriations committees sign off on their respective chambers’ budget priorities, leadership will head to the negotiating table to work towards consensus with the Whitmer administration. 

The duration of that process can vary widely from year to year.

Economic development overhaul

In March, the Senate approved an overhaul of Michigan’s business incentive program aiming to thread the needle between the Whitmer administration’s attempts to lure big businesses and growing discontent among lawmakers towards corporate subsidies. 

The package would change the state’s Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) program, amending the program to require half of all incentives go toward “transformative community investments,” such as local housing, childcare, education or transit. 

The efforts grew out of growing dissatisfaction with the SOAR fund among Republicans and Democrats alike, which since it was created in 2021 grew into a $2 billion dollar subsidy for the largest deals promising a combined thousands of jobs.

A recent Bridge investigation showed Michigan spent $335 million in job-growth subsidies in 2023, with 40% of the promised jobs paying less than $22 per hour. About 60% of Michigan jobs don’t pay middle class wages.

Tate said he’s interested in economic development issues and will have conversations on the package in the House. But he reiterated that the budget is the top priority. 

Public records

Last month, a state Senate panel moved a bipartisan bill package to open state legislators and the governor to public records requests, a major milestone in a chamber that has historically blocked such efforts.

The bills have yet to come up for a floor vote, however, but bill sponsors and transparency advocates in the Legislature remain optimistic. Similar legislation has made it through the House in past years but never received a vote from the full Senate due to disinterest from Republican leadership

Whitmer has also voiced concerns about past proposals, and the Democratic governor has backed off her 2018 campaign pledge to unilaterally open her office to public records requests even if lawmakers didn’t make her.

Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states to fully exempt the governor’s office and lawmakers from Freedom of Information laws, an omission that good-government groups have decried and legislators have long promised to fix.

Michigan earned a failing grade as part of a 2015 report card on government ethics from the Center for Public Integrity. A more recent report, in 2020 from the Coalition for Integrity, ranked Michigan 48th among 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Ethics reform

In the House, lawmakers have begun debating bills to reform the state’s campaign finance laws, which Attorney General Dana Nessel dubbed “utterly worthless” after former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield was charged with improperly using political nonprofits to fund his extravagant lifestyle. 

Legislation introduced by Democrats would require more disclosure, add stricter limits to gifts to politicians, require stricter registration of some political nonprofits and institute a one-year ban on state officials leaving office to become lobbyists.

A House committee last week debated two bills in the package, one requiring a lobbying cooling period and another giving the secretary of state the ability to seek a court order to stop alleged campaign finance violations once a complaint is filed.


Other bills would require the kind of political nonprofits that Chatfield used to disclose ties to public officials. But the Democratic legislation wouldn't prevent the kind of theft Chatfield is accused of and is "just a way of looking tough," said House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township.

Other lawmaker priorities

The Michigan Senate has in recent months shipped several policy proposals to the House that lawmakers there could consider, including a crackdown on payday lending, creation of a Whitmer-backed prescription drug affordability board and a partial reversal of Michigan’s 2019 auto no-fault reforms. 

Other proposals being debated at the committee level include a second take on in-state incentives for film and television projects and bills to ban hate crimes, the latter of which has divided Democrats in an earlier form but was revised and passed out of a House committee this week. 

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