Michigan lame duck looks lamer by the day. Here’s what’s left on the table.
Control of the Michigan Legislature changes hands come January, but there’s unlikely to be much sound and fury in the Capitol before then as Republicans prepare to cede the majority to Democrats.
The “lame duck” legislative session in the weeks between an election and a new term is historically characterized by late nights and last-minute action on major outstanding policy priorities before the deck is cleared in January.
So far, the ducks aren’t quacking much this year. And time is running out, with current session schedules indicating the House and Senate could be done for the year as early as Dec. 7.
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Both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative Republicans have indicated they’re not closing the door on negotiating possible last-minute legislation, but none has given much indication that major policy moves are in the works.
Whitmer is shifting gears to prepare for Democrats to control both the House and Senate for the first time in decades, and Republicans say they don’t see the point in sticking around much longer if the governor’s office won’t play ball.
“Anything that has any little bit of controversy, I can’t imagine gets anywhere near success,” outgoing House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, told a group of reporters Tuesday, adding that he’s open to scheduling more session dates if they get the sense Whitmer wants to work with them.
The attitude has put a damper on the hopes of many outgoing lawmakers and interest groups eager for see action on their pet projects, although some are still optimistic.
"As long as they haven't hit the gavel for the last time, there's a chance,” former state Sen. Peter MacGregor said Wednesday during a press conference supporting expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit before the end of the year.
Any outstanding legislation not passed by both the House and Senate will be dead upon the close of the current legislative session, although lawmakers returning for another term can reintroduce bills once the new session begins.
Here’s a look at some of the issues lawmakers still have a chance to take up or could leave on the table as the 2021-22 session winds down.
Moving the presidential primary
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 34-1 on legislation to move the state’s presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February.
In 2020, Michigan held its presidential primaries on March 10, five weeks after Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus and a week after Super Tuesday, when one-third of all presidential nominating delegates were up for grabs.
Supporters of the switch have argued Michigan’s swing state status warrants more national prominence during the primary process, and early primary states have traditionally wielded significant influence over the trajectory of the race.
Michigan Democrats pitched the Democratic National Committee on a plan to tweak the primary calendar in June — but because Michigan election law currently holds the March date open for presidential primaries, a date change would need to be approved by the Legislature.
The plan is now before the House.
Earned Income Tax Credit expansion
The governor and Republicans have spent much of the year discussing broader tax relief proposals to capitalize on a multi-billion dollar budget surplus, but have yet to find common ground.
Whitmer vetoed GOP income tax cuts but proposed eliminating the so-called “retirement tax” by exempting more senior income and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers.
If Republicans don’t send Whitmer tax relief bills she’s willing to sign, the governor previously told Bridge she anticipates Democrats will take the lead in 2023 to expand the Earned Income Credit and give “people the retirement tax relief that we’ve been trying to get done for four years now.”
The Earned Income Tax Credit is a refundable credit for low-income families. Michigan families who qualify can now receive 6 percent of their federal credit back from the state, adding about $450 atop the average federal credit of $2,500. Michigan’s credit had been 20 percent until 2012, and Democrats are seeking a return to that threshold.
Supporters of an Earned Income Tax Credit expansion argue the change should happen sooner rather than later, noting a change prior to the end of the year would mean eligible families could benefit during the current tax year.
"Democrats, start thinking about your constituents today. Republicans, go out with some grace and make a huge improvement to our state," MacGregor, the former Republican senator, said Wednesday.
Early in the term, Michigan House lawmakers passed ethics reforms that would subject the Legislature and governor’s office to the Freedom of Information Act and bar lawmakers from voting on conflicts of interest, among other changes.
The holdup on such policies has long been the Michigan Senate, where leadership has declined to bring up the measures for floor votes.
Although some transparency efforts, namely a push to require financial disclosures for lawmakers, made it into a ballot proposal that passed in November, most of the measures proposed were passed by the House and continue to linger in the Senate.
During a Nov. 17 roundtable discussion with reporters, Wentworth said the failure to get meaningful transparency and ethics legislation signed into law is one of his biggest regrets.
Slowdown for minimum wage hike
The state’s minimum wage is set to increase to $12 an hour from $9.87 an hour on Feb. 20, and business groups are pressuring lawmakers to reel in the increase.
The increase stems from a July ruling by Court of Claims Judge Douglas Shapiro that the state’s GOP-led Legislature violated the state constitution by quickly adopting and weakening two ballot initiatives on minimum wage and paid sick leave in 2018.
The minimum wage was initially supposed to increase gradually every year, and Shapiro ordered the lawmakers to restore both laws to their original form. A hearing on an appeal is Dec. 13, but legislators can change the law before then.
Groups representing the hospitality industry argue a dramatic minimum wage increase could decimate small restaurants still recovering from the pandemic.
Whitmer told Bridge recently that she supports the minimum wage increase, but said “there are small businesses that are going to struggle with this,” adding that she would consider legislation from outgoing lawmakers, but if “this Republican Legislature decides they’re just going to go home and not come back and have meaningful negotiations, then that’s on them.”
Sexual assault prevention
On Tuesday, a package of bipartisan bills aimed at addressing issues brought to light by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University cleared the Senate and could come up in lame duck.
Taken together, the bills would require school districts to provide additional information about sexual assault and harassment resources, prohibit sexual contact under the pretext of medical treatment and create additional guidelines for when a doctor could perform medical treatments on minors that involve anal or vaginal penetration.
The legislation was reintroduced this term after failing to pass in the previous session, and was put forward following consultations with survivors, advocacy groups and investigations conducted in the aftermath of the Nassar case.
Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, expressed hope the bills could pass to potentially prevent future sexual misconduct from happening.
“When we first introduced these bills, several people reached out to me to let me know that if our bills had become law years ago, maybe they could have been able to stop the sexual abuse that they or their family member had experienced as a child,” Chang said. “Change on this issue is long overdue and there is more work yet to be done.”
The bills are now headed to the House.
Close of books on funding
It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to close out a term with a budget supplemental funding pet projects, odds and ends and old-fashioned “pork” spending to benefit their hometowns.
There’s still a possibility that happens before the end of the current session.
One outstanding money matter involves the state’s independent redistricting commission — the commission was left out of the state’s budget process, and commission representatives have been working on getting money from their state to fund ongoing legal challenges.
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