Gridlock grips the Michigan House amid partisan split
- Michigan House approved just one bill in January amid a temporary 54-54 split between Democrats and Republicans
- House GOP Leader Matt Hall has urged a “shared power” agreement, but Democratic leaders have rebuffed those calls
- Democrats are expected to regain their House majority through special elections set for April 16
LANSING – The Michigan House this month approved honorific legislation to rename a portion of a state highway for a firefighter who died from a stroke.
One month into a House session that began with a temporary 54-54 split between Democrats and Republicans, partisan gridlock has effectively killed any legislative momentum amid recurring GOP calls for shared power.
“The question becomes: What happens next? And I honestly don’t know,” House Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, told Bridge Michigan.
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House Democrats, who have scheduled only a handful of votes but blame the standstill on Republicans, lost their two-seat majority in November when Reps. Kevin Coleman and Lori Stone won mayoral races in Westland and Warren.
While Democrats are heavily favored to win back those seats, the special elections aren’t until April 16. So for the next two and a half months, they’ll need at least some Republican support to pass any meaningful legislation.
That hasn’t happened yet, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle told Bridge they are skeptical there will be a breakthrough anytime soon.
House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, has used the temporary split to push for some form of power sharing arrangement, which last happened in the early 1990s, when Republican and Democratic co-speakers presided over a fully seated state House that was evenly split 55-55.
"What we'd like to do is get together with Democrats in the Legislature — with the governor and the Senate — to use this shared power in the House as an opportunity to tackle the big issues” like roads, education and economic development, said Jerry Ward, a spokesperson for Hall and House Republicans.
“Unfortunately … Democrats haven't particularly been interested in that.”
House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, met with Hall last week before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State Address, in which she urged legislators to help her provide free community college for all, among other things.
But Tate’s spokesperson called the meeting “unproductive” and he told reporters that ending the standstill will be “up to Leader Hall and if he wants to govern.”
Whitmer, who served as a legislative aide in the 1993-94 session when Republicans and Democrats last split power in the state House, has joined Tate in effectively ruling out that possibility for this year.
“This is not shared power,” the governor told reporters earlier this month, noting that a longstanding House rule adopted again last year allows Democrats to retain control of the lower chamber unless there is an even 55-member split.
“This is a situation where the people of Michigan elected Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, two legislators ran and now they are serving as mayors of their hometowns,” Whitmer said.
“We got to stay focused on finding some common ground.”
But that common ground has so far proven elusive, and even low-hanging fruit has started to rot on the vine.
The House was expected to vote on bipartisan and seemingly uncontroversial probate trust legislation on Jan. 18, but Democrats adjourned amid fears the bills would fail and have not yet rescheduled the votes.
A day earlier, House Republicans had blocked passage of a Senate GOP bill allowing emergency safety interventions in certain child care homes, citing new Democratic amendments they'd had “only hours” to review.
“Mr. Speaker, it takes 55 votes to pass a bill,” Hall said in a statement after the legislation failed in a 52-52 vote, with four legislators absent.
Hall is not pushing to be co-speaker but has proposed several changes to "promote bipartisanship in the House," such as evenly splitting committee assignments between Republicans and Democrats, his spokesperson said.
‘Politics as usual’
While slow starts to the year are not unheard of in the Michigan House, this month’s glacial pace stands out.
By the end of January last year, a slim Democratic majority had already voted to approve two targeted tax breaks sought by Whitmer, including repeal of the state’s so-called “retirement tax.”
Both chambers of the Legislature had approved a $1.1 billion supplemental spending plan, which included $350 million in business incentives, along with new money for affordable housing projects and other Democratic priorities.
Despite the slow January this year, Tate said last week he remains optimistic Democrats will still find ways to tackle significant legislation.
Even if they don’t have the floor votes right now, “we’ll still have committee work,” he said, noting Democrats will be able to line up floor votes for later April, when they are likely to regain their voting majority.
House Republicans appear equally skeptical about the chances for bipartisan cooperation in the near-term.
"I have a feeling the agenda is going to be relatively light for the foreseeable future," said state Rep. Bryan Posthumus, R-Cannon Township, telling Bridge he is "not holding super high hopes" that Democrats will reach across the aisle.
"It may just be politics as usual," he said.
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