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What to expect from the Michigan Legislature this fall

Legilature swearing-in

After a summer hiatus, the members of the Michigan Senate are set to descend upon Lansing on Tuesday while their counterparts in the state House return next week.

When they reconvene, they’ll have a number of issues to dig into, including, most notably, the looming deadline to assemble a budget deal that includes possibly billions of dollars in new road funding before Oct. 1. If they fail to agree to a plan by then, the state government could face the prospect of a shutdown for the first time since 2009.

It will be the first time in more than a decade that politically divided government ‒ which features a governor’s office (helmed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) and a Legislature (led by Republicans Sen. Mike Shirkey and Rep. Lee Chatfield) ‒ will be forced to reach a consensus on how to spend the $60 billion state budget. It promises to test both sides’ pledge to find bipartisan solutions to Michigan’s most urgent challenges.

Political observers expect negotiations on roads funding to take priority over most other issues. There’s plenty to tackle: funding for major state departments and government priorities are on the line, along with individual issues less connected with the budget such as criminal justice reform and government transparency.

Here are six matters poised for action this fall: 

The state budget

The mother of all bill packages, the state budget will be the only meaty piece of legislation considered until October, multiple experts said. 

Budget negotiations are traditionally a time when legislators work to get funding for special projects in their districts. That works more easily when a single party controls all of Lansing. A former legislator close to the process said that’s likely to be somewhat curbed now that Whitmer, a Democrat, must sign off on the final bills. 

Shirkey and Chatfield will have to work out with Whitmer some Republican-proposed cuts to major state agencies, including to the offices of Attorney General and Secretary of State, which are now in the control of elected Democrats.   

The Senate budget proposal included a 10 percent cut to both the Attorney General’s office and the state Department of Civil Rights, as well as a more than 30 percent cut to the Secretary of State’s executive operations in order to fund the state’s new redistricting commission approved by statewide ballot in November. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called that move a violation of voters’ intent when they approved the commission.

The House passed a proposed budget that cut the Attorney General’s office by 15 percent. The House also proposed cuts to information technology of 25 percent in most executive branch agencies, including the offices of Attorney General, Civil Rights, Secretary of State, Treasury, and Talent and Economic Development. 

The House and Senate are also in conflict with the governor on proposed state K-12 education spending

Of course, Whitmer has focused much of her political capital on securing a $2.5 billion roads funding deal and insists she won’t sign the budget without a solution that actually meets her road repair goals. 

Roads funding 

The biggest political friction point since the year began has been how to fund repairs on  Michigan’s dismal roads. Experts agree the state will need about $2.5 billion annually above what it already spends to fix its worn roads and bridges. 

Whitmer has proposed a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase to fund the necessary repairs. Republicans balked at the dramatic increase but have yet to put forward their own proposal for how to gather the funding. 

Part of the hold up appears to be a divide between Shirkey, who has said he acknowledges the need for new state revenue (which would require higher taxes), and Chatfield, who has insisted the state do all it can to find existing funds from other areas of the budget. 

Chatfield “is pressing hard -‒ appropriately pressing hard -‒ to see if we can’t test ourselves to get there without [new revenue],” Shirkey said in an interview with WJR-AM in Detroit. “The kinds of cuts necessary to do that are painful across the board.”

Among options floated by Republicans are eliminating the state sales tax on gasoline purchases, which is constitutionally dedicated primarily to schools and local governments, to make sure money spent on fuel goes to roads. Whitmer has said she’d consider that as long as it’s clear how the state would make up that funding currently going to schools. Republicans have also considered issuing bonds to bolster the state’s teacher pension system, freeing up money for road repairs. Whitmer said the strategy would have a “long term cost” and that she wouldn’t endorse it. 

Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for Chatfield, told Bridge that while GOP leaders have been meeting privately with Whitmer, “but at this point there’s no firm timeline” as to when a Republican road plan will be revealed. 

Criminal justice 

Criminal justice legislation is having a moment in Michigan, with Republicans and Democrats finding areas of alignment on policies they hope will responsibly reduce the state’s prison population. Already this year policymakers have passed legislation that will change the state’s asset forfeiture system and have begun an in-depth study of the state’s jail and pretrial incarceration system

That may well continue this fall, when lawmakers are likely to consider multiple bill packages. Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that may include: 

  • Legislation to raise the age of who is considered a juvenile in the criminal court system from age 17 to 18
  • Soon-to-be-introduced bills to expand the types and amount of misdemeanors eligible for expungement from an individual’s criminal record, including past convictions involving use and possession of marijuana. 
  • A series of bills designed to guard against crimes such as those committed by serial predator and former Michigan State sports doctor Larry Nassar, including bills to require expanded medical record retention and to require medical licenses to be permanently revoked for sexual assault under the guise of treatment.

Environmental protection 

Projects aimed at improving drinking water and environmental quality are likely to get traction this fall, experts told Bridge.

“We’re going into a campaign year and members on both sides want to claim some victories. [Environmental] infrastructure stuff is great for that,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant and CEO of Lansing-based firm Grassroots Midwest. “It leads to the state spending more money [and] you get environmental cleanups or big infrastructure projects that create jobs in the districts.”

Whitmer proposed a number of drinking water initiatives through funding requests in her budget proposal this year, including: 

  • $37.5 million to help water utilities swap out old service pipes, as mandated by lead and copper rules adopted by former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration following the water crisis in Flint
  • $60 million to install contaminant filters on drinking fountains in all public schools
  • $30 million to research PFAS chemicals
  • $40 million to offer local water suppliers low-interest loans for infrastructure projects

The Republican-led Legislature has not fully funded these proposals in their own budget proposals, but leaders have indicated they’re willing to negotiate on the final version. 

Skilled-trades training

In her State of the State address, Whitmer proposed two scholarship programs that would help broaden opportunities for higher education and skilled trades training for Michiganders. 

The Michigan Opportunity Scholarship would give high school graduates beginning in 2020 up to three free years of tuition at a community college or a two-year scholarship at a four-year college for high-achieving graduates from lower-income families. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint has introduced a bill to set up the program, but it hasn’t yet received a hearing. 

The other initiative, the Michigan Reconnect Scholarship, would give people older than 25 funding to receive training in the skilled trades or an associate’s degree. A bill to implement the program has been introduced by Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) in the Senate but also has not received a hearing. 

Both received praise from the state’s business community, including Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley who said the proposals have his “full, unequivocal” support. Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan and former Republican lieutenant governor, said Whitmer displayed “visionary leadership” with the initiatives. The bipartisan backing makes the programs likely to receive real consideration in the coming months. 

Government transparency

A package of 10 bills intended to increase transparency in state government passed the state House in March and is teed up for consideration in the Senate Oversight Committee. 

The legislation would open up the state Legislature and Governor’s office to public records requests, which is a type of government access that people in 48 other states already enjoy. Transparency advocates say the bills aren’t perfect ‒ in fact, they leave big loopholes that can continue to allow legislators to shield information from the public — but they provide the public far greater excess to the work of state elected officials.

There’s also a bipartisan bill package that would require certain financial disclosures of elected officials and candidates for state office, including disclosing the source of any income over $5,000, certain compensated positions held by the official or family members, stocks and bonds worth more than $10,000, property worth more than $50,000 and more. The package has received a hearing in House committee but has not yet been voted out. 

The catch: Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey isn’t a fan of either package. He’s said the financial disclosure bills may discourage potential candidates from running for office. And he argues the records bills risk exposing legislators’ personal communications. (Communications between legislators and their constituents would be exempted, as are communications “of an advisory nature” discussing “other than purely factual materials” that are “preliminary to a final determination of a policy or action.”) 

“When you start really looking at what it means and the chilling effect that it could cause, I don't see it going all the way,” said John Truscott, president of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman and a former press secretary for two Republican governors. He added, however, that there’s momentum for some kind of change. “I think for a year now we’ve had general agreement on some of these issues.”

Shirkey said as much when speaking to reporters in March: The records bills are likely to change, but he promises some kind of transparency legislation will emerge. “We’re not going to do nothing, we will do something,” he said.

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