When the Michigan Legislature returns to work Wednesday after a holiday break, the November general election will be fewer than 10 months away.
That’s when all 148 legislative seats — 110 in the House, 38 in the Senate — will be up for grabs. History suggests that the more time elected officials spend campaigning for voters’ support, the less time they spend in Lansing doing the jobs voters send them there to do. That’s one reason major legislation can be elusive in an election year.
Lawmakers are expected to be gone from the Capitol for most of July and August, and much of October, as campaign season heats up. Yet the Republican-led chambers still have a number of policy goals before the legislative session ends in December, when dozens of termed-out legislators leave office.
What doesn’t get finished before the November election often is crammed into a few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, known as lame duck, before the two-year legislative session ends. Any bills left unfinished have to be reintroduced in January, and the process starts over.
Should Democrats ride a wave in November ‒ shrinking or even toppling Republicans’ large majorities in the House and Senate ‒ it’s possible the GOP could try to push through any remaining conservative priorities in lame duck while they still have the votes to pass.
Some Republican priorities ‒ dealing with healthcare and job creation ‒ correspond with issues that residents across Michigan have told The Center for Michigan are important. Other issues important to residents ‒ environmental protection and improving public education among them ‒ were not emphasized by GOP leaders.
Here are five top Republican legislative priorities this year:
Interactive map: Driver responsibility fees by ZIP Code
With updated data: Explore this map by hovering over each ZIP code to see stats on the number of affected drivers in that area and their average debt.
Dropping driver responsibility fees
Both the House and the Senate passed bipartisan plans to do away with Michigan’s harsh driver responsibility fees, created in 2003 to charge drivers for such things as driving with an expired license, without insurance or under the influence of alcohol.
But the House and Senate disagree on how best to fix the problem.
The fees sent roughly $100 million each year to a budget-crunched state, but critics say they created new employment barriers in cities like Detroit because drivers who failed to pay the fees had their driver’s licenses suspended — and then had to pay back the old fees along with another $125 fee to get their licenses back.
More than 317,000 people statewide owe hundreds of millions of dollars in these fees.
In 2014, the Legislature gradually phased out the fees, with the target for them to stop being assessed by October 2019. The House’s current legislation would require the state to stop collecting any outstanding fees as of Sept. 30 — immediate full forgiveness — while the Senate version would end collection of fees that have been on the books for at least six years by that date.
Both chambers would fully phase out the fees by 2018, rather than 2019.
“We haven’t come to an agreement on that yet,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a Republican from West Olive. “I think there’s a way for us to provide folks with driver responsibility fees a path to get a license.”
Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard, told Bridge in an email that Gov. Rick Snyder, a fellow Republican, has been an obstacle to getting rid of the fees on the House’s accelerated timeline.
“The state House has already voted to repeal this mistake and put these people back on the road and back into the workforce, but the governor is concerned about the budget, even though the state enjoys a budget surplus,” D’Assandro wrote. “The Speaker believes the time for excuses is over and that we need to get this done right away.”
Snyder’s spokeswoman, Anna Heaton, responded that the governor also opposes the fees and worked with lawmakers to phase them out a few years back. But, she said, the governor is concerned about how legislative efforts to offer full upfront forgiveness of the fees might impact the budget.
“That is a budgetary concern,” she said, “and he wants to discuss it with the Legislature as part of the upcoming budget cycle, rather than as standalone legislation.”
Heaton said total estimated costs to the state if the fees are repealed, without factoring in the accelerated forgiveness proposed in the legislation, would hit $40 million this year and $54 million by 2020.
Improving mental health services
Leonard has said improving Michigan’s mental health services is a top priority since he started as speaker last year. He formed a bipartisan task force over the summer focused on ways to improve access to consistent services, including care and rehabilitation, education and job training, veterans’ support, substance abuse, law enforcement training and improving mental health courts within the criminal justice system.
“That task force recently completed its work and will soon introduce legislation and begin hearings on wide-ranging reforms in the state House,” said D’Assandro, Leonard’s spokesman.
He declined to offer details.
Changes to state income taxes
A federal income tax cut President Trump signed into law last month is the impetus for legislation to offset any potential state income tax increases, Snyder's office said Monday.
Snyder on Monday proposed legislative changes to allow Michigan residents to continue to claim personal exemptions on state income tax returns, as well as boost the state’s personal exemption to $4,500 by 2021.
The problem for Michigan is that state taxpayers currently can claim a $4,000 exemption for every exemption they note on their federal income tax return, but the $4,050 federal personal exemption was eliminated in favor of a higher standard deduction.
Snyder’s office, citing a Michigan Department of Treasury analysis of federal tax changes, estimated Michiganders would pay $840 million in extra taxes in 2018 and more than $1.6 billion extra in 2019 if state personal exemptions aren’t allowed.
“We are putting Michigan families first, by working to enact a simple and fair solution to fix the unintended consequences of the federal tax plan,” Snyder said in a statement.
House and Senate Republicans also are interested in tax reform. Some legislators have talked about rolling back Michigan’s 4.25 percent income tax rate.
The House already tried, without success, to cut Michigan’s 4.25 percent income tax last February. It’s uncertain whether it will try again.
Critics of an income tax rollback point to pressing budget needs that require more state investment, such as to repair Michigan’s crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Leonard “is happy to see the governor now join him at the table looking for ways to help Michigan families,” D’Assandro said via email. “Everyone is still looking into the issue and reviewing the new law, but the speaker and the governor will speak soon about potential solutions.”
Meekhof said Senate Republicans are interested in tax reform, though a plan is more conceptual than concrete: “Whatever we can do to get the most money back in people’s pockets, because it is their money to begin with.”
Meekhof said the idea of reducing the income tax is circulating, but so are other options, including potentially overriding Snyder’s veto on legislation that would accelerate a sales tax exemption when Michiganders trade in a vehicle.
“There’s no plans at this point,” said Meekhof of a potential override vote, but it’s “a card that we can play when we choose to, or if we choose to.”
Snyder will present his final proposed budget in early February, though a date hasn’t been set. The governor’s first six budgets were finalized by June and this current fiscal year budget was done in July, well before the fiscal year started Oct. 1.
Meekhof and D’Assandro say other fiscal priorities include paying down more long-term state debt. They pointed to 2017 reforms of public school teachers’ pensions ‒ intended to steer more new teachers to 401k-style retirement plans ‒ and passage of bills meant to produce more data about how much money municipalities have set aside for their own government retirees’ pensions and health insurance, as successes.
Speaking of the budget, Leonard— who is running for state Attorney General this year — has suggested that Michigan State University could face tougher budget scrutiny this spring for its handling of accusations surrounding former MSU physician and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Leonard has called for university president Lou Anna Simon to resign over the school’s handling of Nassar, who was sentenced to 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges. He awaits sentencing on state charges of criminal sexual conduct and is accused of molesting more than 100 girls and women.
D’Assandro said House Republicans don’t believe MSU has held itself accountable for its role in the Nassar case. It’s not yet clear whether that could mean the House might try to dock MSU’s state funding. D’Assandro said via email a House budget committee has oversight of state universities and could require MSU to be more transparent.
“It is apparent the school failed dozens of young victims, and it is now turning a deaf ear to their needs,” he wrote. “If the school continues to avoid accountability, the House will use its oversight capability in the budget process to compel it to do right by these young women.”
Repealing prevailing wage law
Meekhof said the Senate expects to spend time this year on prospective ballot issues that could go before voters in November — with repealing Michigan’s prevailing wage law a top priority.
Senate Republicans favor a ballot proposal that would repeal prevailing wage, which requires union-scale wages and benefits be paid on public building projects. Proponents of repeal tried to get the measure on the ballot in 2016, but failed to collect enough valid signatures from registered Michigan voters.
Should the ballot committee prevail with its petition, it first will go to the Legislature, which can vote to adopt it, reject it or take no action. If lawmakers reject or pass on citizen petitions, they go before voters in November; if they adopt them, proposals go into law and Snyder is unable to veto them.
Meekhof said the Senate is expected to adopt the prevailing wage repeal if it gets that far. Snyder has opposed repealing the law.
Critics, including labor unions and construction trades, say the repeal effort is an attack on unions that will harm the trades’ ability to recruit workers at a time when Michigan faces a talent shortage.
“I can’t imagine it’s going to have a negative impact,” Meekhof said of repeal. “When a local community or a school system or college builds a building, the taxpayers don’t have to pay more for the same qualified building. That’s the big plus.”
Studies are mixed on whether repealing prevailing wage actually saves money.
Meekhof said the Senate’s Republican majority also is expected to push back against ballot proposals to allow recreational marijuana use and create an independent committee to redraw legislative districts after the next census, should either petition be certified to appear on the ballot. Ballot committees behind both proposals have submitted signatures to the state.
Improve skilled trades education
D’Assandro said the House wants to see the Senate adopt a package of bills that recently cleared the House intended to improve career-technical education in K-12 schools.
The bills would allow for people with private-sector work experience to teach vocational courses without having a formal teaching credential. They also would require the state to develop a curriculum around career development for students and allow K-12 teachers to count internships, externships or other work experience with employers toward professional development requirements.
The Snyder administration has made skilled trades promotion a priority, including improving career counseling, providing schools with access to equipment and a renewed emphasis on vocational training.
“Michigan has hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs waiting for the right person with the right skills,” D’Assandro told Bridge. “Our school system needs to do a much better job preparing students for these open positions and encouraging and developing the skills that can provide them with a brighter future.”