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Michigan Republicans advance bills on campaign finance, voting, education

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Michigan Republican lawmakers advanced lame-duck legislation Thursday that would curtail the authority of an incoming Democratic Secretary of State and State Board of Education, and add a citizenship question to new voting laws.

The Senate gave final approval to controversial legislation that would shift oversight of Michigan campaign finance laws from the Secretary of State’s office to a new, bipartisan commission.

The Republican-led body also voted along party lines to pass legislation that attempts to set requirements on a voter-approved constitutional amendment to expand voting access in Michigan. Both that and the campaign finance bills now go to the House.

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck

Votes on both followed objections from Democrats, who criticized Republicans for what they say is an effort to grab power from an incoming Democratic administration before Republicans lose control of the executive office — and a number of legislative seats — at the end of the year.

In the House, the GOP narrowly passed a pair of bills that would create “public innovation districts,” which would give some latitude to school districts in following state regulations. More controversially, the measures would create a new education commission that some fear could leave Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer with limited oversight of reform for Michigan’s faltering public schools.

Here’s a roundup of Thursday’s significant action as the Michigan Legislature wrapped up the second week of what is expected to be a four-week lame-duck session, the period between Election Day and the end of the two-year legislative term.

Any legislation that isn’t adopted by the end of the year is considered dead and must be reintroduced in the new year.

Campaign finance commission

The Senate voted 25-11, along mostly party lines, to pass Senate Bills 1248-52. They would shift responsibility for campaign finance oversight away from the Secretary of State to a newly created, bipartisan commission appointed by the governor from lists of candidates provided by the two major political parties.

Republican state Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Ida, joined all Democrats in opposing the bills.

The bills, sponsored by state Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, would create the “Fair Political Practices Commission.” The commission would consist of three Republicans and three Democrats, a model similar to the Federal Election Commission.

The bill was amended to include more details about how the lists of candidates would be developed by the parties.

“We are attempting to put together a board here that would have to act in a bipartisan fashion,” Robertson told reporters earlier this week. “We have heard a lot from the other side over the years about the need for bipartisanship in all things. Here is an opportunity for them to embrace it.”

Currently, the Secretary of State’s office handles campaign finance oversight. Democrat Jocelyn Benson was elected in November to the post, which has been held by Republicans since the 1990s. Benson has vowed to bring more transparency to the state’s campaign finance system.

Democrats contend the commission is a blatant attempt to limit Benson’s authority before she takes office. And campaign finance watchdogs have pointed to the likelihood that the six-person commission, split evenly down the middle by partisan leaning, would deadlock.

“There is no reason to think that this will work well,” said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, on the floor before voting no on the bills.

An FEC-style panel, she said, “shows us that partisan-appointed campaign finance regulators are nearly always unable to agree on whether the law has been violated.”

On the floor, Robertson, the bills’ sponsor, noted that many other states use some type of commission to manage campaign finance issues, and Michigan would not be unique.

Robertson currently owes more than $1,500 in campaign finance fines; critics have questioned whether he should be introducing the bills, which now head to the Republican-led House for consideration.

Voting rights rules

The Senate voted 26-10, along party lines, to advance a package of bills that would set some guidelines around the enactment of Proposal 3, a statewide constitutional amendment voters approved in November to expand voting access in Michigan.

Notably, Senate Bills 1238 through 1242, sponsored by Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, would include a provision to require an applicant for a state driver license or personal ID card to also declare whether he or she is a U.S. citizen for purposes of automatic voter registration. The bills also sets some rules regarding absentee voting.

Before Proposal 3 passed, Michigan did not automatically register voters, and allowed absentee voting only to voters in select circumstances.

Republicans have said the bills simply codify voters’ intent in passing Proposal 3 into state law.

Democrats and volunteers who worked to circulate petitions for the Proposal 3 ballot committee, Promote the Vote, argue that the bills are too prescriptive in their language, and are moving through the Legislature to quickly for meaningful review.

The bills passed on the floor Thursday with no debate. They head to the House for consideration.

New education commission

The House on Thursday narrowly passed a pair of bills that would create “public innovation districts” that won’t have to follow some state regulations, such as minimum level of classroom hours for students. The bills also create a 13-member Education Accountability Policy Commission to oversee those districts.

The commission is the controversial part of the bills, because it would usurp power from the State Board of Education that will have a new Democratic majority in January. The proposed commission, which will be made up primarily of political appointees, does not answer to the state board, the Department of Education or to the governor, though the governor could remove a member for select reasons.

The governor gets to appoint seven of the 13 members on the commission; if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appoints those members, who will make up the majority of the commission, before he leaves office, Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer will in effect be frozen out of a panel that will have control over important education reform in Michigan.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters after Thursday’s vote that he is “agnostic” about which governor appoints the members. The bigger point, he said, is to have a body other than the State Board of Education review the policy.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with politics. These bills were written long before the election,” Kelly said. “It’s likely that Whitmer’s going to get these appointments, anyway. I can’t see this happening that fast, in the next three weeks, to get nominations, to vet and to appoint.”

But Ari Adler, Snyder’s spokesman, told Bridge on Tuesday that Snyder would fill the commission spots before he leaves.

There was no debate on either House Bill 6314, which passed 56-53, or House Bill 6315, which passed 57-52. Both head to the Senate for consideration.

House Bill 5526, which would create an A-to-F ranking system for public schools, would give even broader powers to the appointed commission. That bill is awaiting a vote in the House.

Kelly said that Republicans have not yet mustered enough votes to move the A-F bill, but “if we’re not there, we’re very close.”

Bridge senior writer Ron French contributed to this report.

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