A controversial bill to allow the Michigan Legislature to intervene in any lawsuit advanced with no public testimony Tuesday, as a House committee voted 3-2 along party lines to send it to the floor.
The bill has attracted accusations of a blatant power grab by Republicans during the lame duck session in the weeks before Democrats assume the state’s most powerful offices, including Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel.
Not so, said bill sponsor Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, who told the committee Tuesday the measure would simply allow legislators to have their voices heard in court.
“What we’re seeing today is many of the decisions historically made in legislative chambers are now being challenged or made in courtrooms,” VerHeulen said. “The Legislature has a distinct view, and when its actions or inactions are being evaluated in a courtroom, they should have the right to engage and have that view heard.”
The vote came during a raucous day in the Capitol, marked by protests and chants from liberal activists.
Three people were thrown out of the proceedings, with one protestor calling the bill an “un-American exercise” and another chanting “you were wrong, we were right, now you want more oversight,” while being escorted from the room.
Another drama played out downstairs, as the state Senate was briefly evacuated due to a bomb scare.
Protestors interrupts VerHeulen testimony on HB 6553, which would give the legislature the power to intervene in lawsuits. After this, another protestor stands up and says “this is an unamerican exercise” pic.twitter.com/SJ854LAG9S— Riley Beggin (@rbeggin) December 4, 2018
The vote came over objections from Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing, who noted the Legislature has the power to direct the attorney general to intervene in lawsuits.
VerHeulen didn’t disagree but said his measure would give the Legislature the power to intervene for itself. He predicted the power would be rarely used and the Legislature wouldn’t intervene on behalf of the people of Michigan.
“That is the role that is reserved for the attorney general,” VerHeulen said.
During the short hearing, state Rep. Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, questioned possible cost increases related to the bill.
A House Fiscal Agency analysis wrote that costs would “be directly related to the number and complexity of the cases in which the Legislature chose to intervene.”
“When we have roads to fix and schools to fund,” she asked, “how can you possibly justify setting up this parallel organization when we already have a process in place to take care of these issues?”
VerHeulen’s answer was inaudible, drowned out by the roar of applause from protestors. Before the noise died down, the committee approved the bill, and legislators walked out of the room.
Introduced just last week, the bill and debate about it is unusual for a lame duck session, said Arnold Weinfeld, the interim director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“My experience during lame ducks is that you have legislators who are leaving who are trying to get bills they’ve been working on for a number of years passed,” he said.
“I cannot recall in my time working in the legislature for 30-plus years an effort by the then-majority party to limit the powers of incoming constitutional officers such as a governor, secretary of state or attorney general.”