Lansing — The Michigan Legislature resumes session Wednesday after a two-month summer recess, staring at what Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard is calling a “big, bold agenda.”
No-fault auto insurance reform is a top priority for majority Republicans, who may also work with Democrats to override GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s veto on a bill to speed up planned tax breaks for trade-in vehicles.
But legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have other top agenda items they hope to accomplish before the calendar flips to 2018 and election-year politics muddy the water for meaningful policy debates.
“If history is any indicator, we have until the end of the year, maybe a little next year,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich. “But we have a lot of issues we need to resolve.”
The Detroit News sat down with House and Senate leaders from both parties to discuss their fall priorities.
■Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive: Local government retirement costs.
Republicans in the Senate and House have warned that local governments across the state are facing fiscal time bombs in the form of unfunded pension and retiree health care benefits. A task force appointed by Snyder sounded similar alarms but cautioned against a one-size-fits-all-approach to addressing challenges unique to each community.
Meekhof estimates that 10 percent of local governments may “really have some trouble” paying for promised retiree benefits, and he’s advocating an aggressive approach in those communities to avoid bankruptcies: Ask local residents to pay more in taxes or face potential dissolution.
“I don’t know exactly all the steps we’re going to take, but at some point I think local governments have to realize that if they’re in over their head, if they’re looking to the state for help, maybe it includes dissolving them as a public entity and redrawing some of the lines,” he said. “Because if they can’t handle their financial business, then the taxpayers need to be protected.”
■ Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint: Prevent another water crisis.
Ananich’s plan allowing Flint to become a “promise zone” for free college tuition got a shot in the arm this summer with a $2 million pledge from Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Consumers Energy. His bill passed the Senate in May, and Ananich said he may have reached a deal with House Republicans that would allow a handful of other communities to establish “promise zones” if they so desire.
Ananich is also hoping to “do a big push this fall” on policy reform recommendations made in late 2016 by the Flint Water Public Health Emergency Select Committee. He’s talked with Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, about the Lead and Copper Rule and additional protections for schools, early warnings and communication with the public.
“For me, obviously, my main concern is Flint, because that’s the community I represent, but I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else,” Ananich said.
■House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt: Fix the mental health system.
Leonard this summer appointed a bipartisan task force “to see how we can tackle one of the biggest issues facing our state, and that is trying to do all we can to fix our broken mental health system, and try to get those that suffer from mental illness the help that they need.”
The Community, Access, Resources, Education and Safety task force has held public meetings in Livingston, Kent and Oakland counties. Leonard hopes the panel will develop legislation to improve the mental health system.
“They’re listening to health providers, they’re listening to the law enforcement community, they’re listening to the community mental health (organizations), but most important, they’re listening to real families who have been affected directly by this issue,” he said.
■House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing: Create health care protections.
Legislative Democrats continue to push health care protections in Michigan amid a stalled push to dismantle the national health care law enacted under former President Barack Obama.
House Democrats this summer proposed a “health care bill of rights,” and joined with Senate Democrats this month in proposing a new “consumer protection board” designed to increase transparency in prescription drug prices and prevent sharp spikes.
“We should be doing something because ... Washington, D.C., nine months of one party leadership, you think they would get something done,” Singh said. “Nothing is happening out there.”