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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Hey Michigan Dems: Here are four ways to score bipartisan wins this year

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is starting her second term with Democrats in control of the Michigan Legislature. (Bridge photo by Katy Kildee)
  • Democrats control the governor’s office and Legislature, but their slim majorities mean they may need Republican help to pass important bills  
  • Both sides say they seek bipartisanship, and one Democratic consultant says passing consensus bills will help the party in the next election 
  • Tax relief, economic development and ethics and transparency reform are likely to prove popular among both parties this term

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative Democrats finalize their agenda and policy priorities for Michigan’s first Democratic trifecta in decades, there are at least a few issues that, in theory, wouldn’t be a hard sell for Republicans to sign onto. 

Whitmer is expected to outline many of her policy priorities during her State of the State address at the Capitol on Jan. 25, and the Democratic-majority Legislature is scheduled to kick off the new session next week. 

Democrats only outnumber Republicans 56-54 in the House and 20-18 in the Senate, and lawmakers of both parties were elected in districts made more competitive during the redistricting process.  

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That means any tough votes could leave many lawmakers vulnerable to challengers during their re-election campaigns and Democrats will likely need Republican support to get certain agenda items through. Churning out bipartisan policies on issues popular with voters could be the answer.

“The incentive for bipartisanship is that Democrats need to do numbers here,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist and CEO of Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. “They need to deliver wins — a lot of them.” 

“The more that they can be bipartisan on the front end of this term and rack up wins, pass consequential legislation quickly, the better case they’re going to have to make to the voters two years from now,” he said. 

Some policy issues important to many Democrats, such as repealing the state’s Right to Work law and revamping gun policies in response to deadly shootings in Michigan and across the country, are likely to cause uproar among House and Senate Republicans, although there’s possibility for caucus crossover even on controversial issues. 

Other proposals currently being floated could be an easier lift for new Democratic leadership, based on precedent from previous terms and interest among a large class of newly-elected lawmakers keen on scoring bipartisan accomplishments. 

The new Senate Majority Leader, Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said she’d like to see an end to a “toxic time” in politics and hopes to work closely with “really good public servants on both sides of the aisle who would like to see us get back to focusing on things that put the people first, rather than on all of the political fights.” 

If Democrats are willing to work with Republicans on issues like making the state more economically competitive, prioritizing public safety and cutting taxes, “then we’re going to have a very productive two years,” House Republican Leader Matt Hall, R-Comstock Township told Bridge Michigan. But he warned that a focus on “extreme policies” could yield the opposite result and potentially cost Democrats the majority. 

Here’s a closer look at what Democrats and Republicans might be able to reach a consensus on early this year.

Trimming taxes

Going into her second term, Whitmer is pushing for tax relief plans tailored to seniors and low- and middle-income workers while the state is sitting on roughly $6 billion in surplus funds. 

She wants to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit for low-income families. Michigan families who qualify can now receive 6 percent of their federal credit from the state, adding about $130 to $150 atop the average federal credit of $2,500. Michigan’s credit had been 20 percent until 2012, and supporters are seeking a return to that threshold, or about $500 for the average family.

Many supporters of an Earned Income Tax Credit expansion — including former state Sen. Peter MacGregor, a West Michigan Republican — urged lawmakers to reach an agreement during the “lame duck” legislative session last term, which didn’t happen. 

Whitmer also supports eliminating the so-called “retirement tax” by exempting more senior income from the state’s 4.25 percent income tax. Pensions were not taxed by the state until 2011, when it was changed during the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Democrats argue the current policy is unfair to seniors who retired without realizing their fixed income would be taxed. 

Legislative Republicans will likely push for the administration to go further — last term, the House and Senate supported lowering the state income tax and broadening the reach of tax cuts to include more Michigan residents. But any major tax relief plan would likely garner at least some bipartisan support.

Combined, the plans Whitmer supports would benefit more than 1.2 Michigan families and cost the state about $757 million per year in revenue. About 700,000 households would be in line to save more than $300 annually under an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), while about 500,000 retirees would save about $1,000 per year in pension taxes, according to projections from Whitmer’s office.

Revisiting auto no-fault

Months of pleading by auto crash victims and their health care providers could result in bipartisan support for changes to the state’s no-fault insurance law.

The 2019 law, which was intended to lower the state’s highest-in-the-nation auto insurance costs, gave drivers the option to choose their preferred level of insurance. But the law also cut by 45 percent the amount health care providers could charge for reimbursements on services to crash survivors not covered under Medicare — a change advocates say hindered patients’ access to high-quality care.

A study by the Michigan Public Health Institute found 4,082 health care worker jobs have been eliminated, at least 10 businesses closed and 6,857 crash patients have been discharged from care since that piece of the policy took effect in 2021, with providers reporting a 42 percent reduction in capacity for serving auto accident patients. 

Republican legislative leaders last term resisted taking up proposals pitched by Democrats and Republicans alike aimed at addressing the issue, arguing that proposed changes to the law would compromise auto insurance savings for consumers. 

That dynamic could change in 2023. Whitmer recently said she is “interested in pursuing” ways to adjust the law so “people that are injured can have the supports they paid for,” and incoming lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they’re open to changes to make sure crash victims are getting appropriate care.

A recent Court of Appeals decision found patients who began receiving care for auto injuries prior to the 2019 law’s passage aren’t subject to the changes. Proponents of reform say that decision, which remains under appeal, eased some of the pressure, but they are still pushing for legislative changes so future accident victims don’t run into the same issues.

Insurers who supported the implementation of a medical fee schedule in the first place are asking lawmakers considering tweaks to make sure savings for Michigan drivers remain a factor in policy discussions.

Transparency and ethics

The Michigan House unanimously supported legislation bringing Michigan’s ethics and transparency laws in line with other states two sessions in a row. But the proposals never made it to the governor’s desk — indeed, former Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth said one of his biggest regrets was not getting those efforts to the governor’s desk last year.

The biggest roadblock to the bill package, which would have subjected the governor’s office to the Freedom of Information Act and created a new and separate transparency law for the Legislature, was the Senate, where then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey opposed making communications between constituents and lawmakers public.

Whitmer could have voluntarily opened her office to FOIA without waiting for lawmakers to act, but chose not to do so during her first term. 

She recently told reporters she’s committed to reforming the state’s public records laws and lobbying rules despite failing to address those issues during her first four years. 

Whitmer said she’d like to see the state’s Freedom of Information Act be “equally applied” to lawmakers and the executive branch, all of which are currently fully exempt from public records requests. Whitmer also said she wants to close loopholes in state lobbying laws, particularly in the aftermath of allegations that former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, favored certain special interests while in office. 

Michigan is one of only two states that prohibit the public from requesting records from both the Legislature and governor’s office.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, has long pushed for greater transparency in Lansing. He recently told Bridge he’s concerned an expanded public records law would not survive legal challenges if it allows for judicial review of a legislative decision to deny a request. But he said he is  encouraged by conversations with fellow Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, who believes a deal is possible.

Economic development

In late 2022, Whitmer and the Republican-majority Legislature reached a deal on adding hundreds of millions of dollars to a fund aimed at enticing big business development in Michigan. 

Supporters of the state’s Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund say the money will keep Michigan competitive with rival states, particularly as the state seeks a share of more than $500 billion in expected U.S. investments in the next decade as the auto industry transitions sharply toward electric vehicles.

Whitmer and legislative leaders in both parties have expressed interest in continuing those efforts, and recent economic development initiatives earned wide bipartisan support in the Legislature. 

The concept is not without critics. Some argue that offering millions of dollars in incentives without additional safeguards (like preventing companies that receive incentive funds from later authorizing layoffs of Michigan workers) is a recipe for disaster. Others say the money would be better spent on education, infrastructure and local investments.

If Democrats go ahead with plans to repeal the state’s Right-to-Work law, that could complicate bipartisan economic development discussions, as business groups and Republican leaders argue the policy is part of what attracts businesses to Michigan in the first place. 

Repealing Right-to-Work, which allows workers to opt out of paying dues to the unions that represent them while still getting benefits, is at the top of the to-do list for many Democrats, whose campaigns benefit from consistent financial support from union groups, who are in staunch opposition to the policy.

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