LANSING — The Michigan Legislature won’t get new authority to intervene in state lawsuits, and the state won’t add new restrictions to keep “dark money” donors secret.
That’s after term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a pair of controversial Republican bills Friday that would have limited the powers of Democrats set to take statewide office in the new year.
They were among 41 Snyder vetoes on Friday of nearly 400 bills sent to his desk during the Republican-controlled Legislature’s lame-duck session.
The vetoes came as Snyder signed into law a measure that would restrict Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer’s rulemaking authority: House Bill 4205 which bans state agencies from creating new regulations stricter than Washington’s.
In vetoing some of the legislation, Snyder drew a contrast to his fellow Republican executive in Wisconsin — outgoing Gov. Scott Walker, who made national headlines this month after signing legislation to shrink the power of the Democrat who will replace him.
In a statement late Friday, Whitmer said she was pleased by Snyder's vetoes, but troubled by his decision to sign the no-stricter-than-federal bill into law.
The measure "takes away the ability of the executive branch to consider assets and challenges unique to Michigan when determining rules meant to protect our citizens," she said.
Lawsuit intervention veto
House Bill 6553 would have allowed the Legislature the intervene in certain lawsuits, which opponents saw as an effort to diminish the authority of incoming Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat. Originally much broader, the bill was narrowed during a frantic lame duck session to allow lawmakers to intervene in litigation “to protect any right or interest of that body" when someone challenges the constitutionality or validity of a law.
Defenders said the bill was necessary to give lawmakers a voice in legal proceedings, but Democrats saw it as a power grab — an effort to obstruct Whitmer and Nessel following years of Republican control of those offices. Nessel has been particularly outspoken about aggressively using the courts to, for instance, contest Trump administration directives and has said she probably wouldn’t defend a state law that allows faith-based groups to reject gay couples who want to adopt children.
Snyder called the lawsuit bill “well-intentioned” in his veto message, but said it “would only complicate” the way the state manages litigation.
“I believe the current process has worked well to ensure the legislature’s position is considered,” he wrote. “Furthermore, were this legislation in place during my term as governor, I believe it would have limited my office’s ability to coordinate and manage the defense of the state in lawsuits.”
Dark money protection veto
In another high-profile veto, Snyder rejected Senate Bill 1176, which would have made it harder for the state to monitor millions of dollars in campaign contributions from nonprofit political advocacy groups.
Pitched by Republican lawmakers as an effort to protect political speech that may be unpopular, the bill would have barred state agencies from requiring nonprofits to disclose the identities of their donors or members to the agency.
Michigan’s nonprofits are not currently required to publicly disclose donors, but the Attorney General can inspect nonprofit donations to police fraudulent charities. Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, another Democrat, pledged to increase campaign finance transparency, and Nessel, the incoming AG, was backed by the End Citizens United PAC
The Legislature passed the bill during an unprecedented influx of cash from so-called dark money groups in politics. In Michigan alone this year, such nonprofits – often from out of state – spent $7 million on the governor’s race, $3 million on state Senate campaigns and more than $7 million on ballot measures.
In his veto message, Snyder wrote the bill would “impair the executive branch’s ability to effectively protect the donors of organizations,” and called it a solution to a non-existent problem.
“While other state attorneys general have probed for information relative to nonprofit donors, that has not been the case here in Michigan,” he wrote.
Snyder also signed several closely watched bills on Friday including:
Letter grades for schools
House Bill 5526 mandates Michigan schools be graded from A to F on key metrics.
The grades cover five areas: proficiency in math and English; growth in those subjects; growth in English proficiency among second-language students; graduation rates and academic performance compared to similar schools.
Supporters say the system will make it easier for parents to gauge how schools are performing. Foes said the change is unlikely to help student learning in the state’s troubled public schools.
Senate Bill 1238 and four other bills will change voting regulations in the state, requiring voters to register at clerk’s home or satellite offices.
Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 3 in November that made both registering and voting easier, including same-day registration. The law signed by Snyder will, among other things, require election clerks to be in their offices on election day. Registration would not be allowed at polling places.
Proponents said the bills clarify voting rules and do not conflict with the outcome of Prop 3. Critics said the rules violate the intentional vagueness of Prop 3, which amended the state constitution to expand voting rights.
Restricting ballot initiatives
House Bill 6595 will make it harder for groups to get statewide initiatives on the ballot, requiring voter signatures come from at least half of the state’s 14 congressional districts.
The measure requires that no more than 15 percent of all signatures come from any single congressional district and require signature gatherers to indicate if they are paid.
Proponents say the measure is a common-sense reform to ensure initiatives have support from a cross-section of the state. Critics on both sides of the aisle say the reforms would make it far harder to get issues on the ballot.
But Whitmer panned Snyder's decision to sign the bill into law, saying it "will make it more challenging for people to participate in the electoral process when we should be making it easier."