GOP power play ramps up in Michigan Senate; Clinton calls it 'anti-democratic'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Jocelyn Benson, dean of Wayne State University's Law School, is the Democratic candidate for secretary of state.

Lansing — Michigan's Republican-led Senate on Thursday approved sweeping legislation that would shift campaign finance election law enforcement from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson to a new panel of political party appointees.

The 25-11 vote capped an extraordinary week in the lame-duck Legislature as Republicans sent Gov. Rick Snyder bills to weaken minimum wage and paid sick leave initiatives while advancing several measures to bypass or handcuff Democrats set to take over top statewide offices Jan. 1.

The power plays include a House-approved bill allowing the GOP-led Legislature to intervene in any state legal case separately from Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, a Senate-approved measure that could bind Nessel and Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer to a planned oil pipeline tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac and new rules for Benson to implement voter-approved ballot measures.

“We’ve got to see whether these bills actually pass and how many are signed into law — there’s a lot of sound and fury that may signify nothing in the end — but I would say this is probably the most aggressive lame-duck (session) I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Ballenger, a longtime Capitol pundit and former GOP lawmaker who served from 1969 to 1974.

The most comparable lame-duck flurry, he recalled, was 2012 when Republicans retained complete control of state government but used the final months of the year to enact a right-to-work law and create a new emergency manager statute.

The recent GOP moves have prompted lawsuit threats and drawn comparisons to Wisconsin, where Republican lawmakers this week sent outgoing Gov. Scott Walker an expansive package that would strip some powers from the Democrat who defeated him Nov. 6. Some similar moves two years ago in North Carolina remain tied up in court. 

The Michigan proposals focus more on attorney general and secretary of state powers, Ballenger said, “but the number of bills and the variety of their focus is really unusual.” Combined, the Legislature is testing “as an institution how it can assert itself and do what it can to impair or hamper the incoming executive branch.”

While Gov. Rick Snyder could use a veto threat to compel action on his own agenda, the term-limited Republican has not taken any public position on the bills. “He will review all the legislation sent to him and determine at that time whether to sign it or not,” a spokesman said Thursday.

The legislative maneuvers have garnered national attention and criticism, including from 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who noted that Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin lost major elections last month.

"Rather than respect the will of voters, they're using their last few weeks in office to pass laws limiting the power of new governors and put roadblocks on voting," Clinton said Thursday on Twitter. "It's not just anti-Democratic. It's anti-democratic."

Senate Republican spokeswoman Amber McCann denied that the late-year legislation is designed to take power away from incoming Democrats.

"A legislator can come up with an idea and present it at any time within the regular session," she said. "So I don't know that it's a power grab, and I don't think I would characterize it that way at all."

Campaign finance overhaul 

The five-bill Senate package approved Thursday would shift campaign finance oversight and enforcement from the secretary of state to a new, bipartisan "fair political practices commission" that would include three Republicans and three Democrats chosen by the governor from a list of names submitted by each major political party. 

The legislation was introduced last week, less than a month before Benson will be sworn in as the first Democrat in 24 years to serve as secretary of state. The post has traditionally overseen elections, campaign finance and the motor vehicle department. 

Supporters say the proposed commission is modeled on the bipartisan Federal Election Commission, but critics say that federal panel has proven ineffective because of routine deadlocks and party-line votes.

Benson blasted the legislation in a statement, saying it would "gut enforcement of Michigan's campaign finance law" and urging House Republicans to reject the proposal.  

"Their hyper-partisan approach is in sharp contrast to my goal of collaborating across the aisle to take Michigan from worst to first in ethics and transparency," Benson said. "Their action is an affront to every taxpayer who wants and deserves a government that is transparent and accountable."

Sponsoring Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, championed the legislation in a floor speech. Because the four votes would be required for the 3-3 panel to take any action, he said it would “require bipartisan cooperation."

“Twenty-three other states have some form of commission that enforces their campaign finance laws,” said Robertson. “This idea is not unique.”

Robertson has faced criticism because he personally owes $1,681 in campaign finance fees, but he denied any personal motivation this week and laughed when asked if he was attempting to diminish the power of the incoming secretary of state.

Democrats argued the bill is unnecessary and goes against the will of voters who backed Benson on Nov. 6 with the assumption she would oversee campaign finance, in addition to her other job responsibilities.

“I would hope you follow their lead and allow her to do her job,” said Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit.

Deadlocks feared

Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, said voters sent a clear message last month they want a “new direction in the state” and argued that the proposal would do the opposite.

“This legislation would quite literally give the two major political parties in our state the ability to name the folks who will be overseeing campaign finance in our state,” Warren said. “There is no reason to think this will work well.”

Sen. Dale Zorn of Ida was the only Republican to vote against the main bill, joining all 10 Democrats who were present. The package now heads to the  House for further consideration. 

Former Michigan Elections Director Chris Thomas, who served 36 years under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, said earlier Thursday the proposal would be a “huge step backward” for campaign finance compliance in the state.

“To me, it is just a naked attempt to grab power and keep their party involved for no good reason,” Thomas told The Detroit News.

Thomas, who endorsed Benson in the general election, said he is concerned because the proposal “really puts the two political parties in control of campaign finance compliance cases.”  While the secretary of state is a partisan office, Thomas said the elected officials he worked under never told staff how to handle campaign finance compliance reviews.

“That doesn’t happen,” he said. “You’ve got staff and lawyers who decide whether they find enough to move forward based on the substance of the complaint, and not politics. That’s what you’ll lose.”

The bipartisan board could often vote 3-3 on campaign finance complaints, creating an effective roadblock for compliance efforts, Thomas said.  He noted stalemates at the FEC and the similarly organized Michigan Board of State Canvassers, whose members are often split 2-2 along party lines on major ballot proposal decisions.

Strict compliance with state campaign finance rules may not be possible if commissioners dig their heels in to defend candidates from their own party or try to target partisan opponents, Thomas said.

 “There’s no reason to believe Jocelyn Benson is not going to carry on with compliance in the same fashion as Richard Austin, Candice Miller, Terri Land and Ruth Johnson," Thomas added, referencing the four secretaries of state he worked under.

Ballot proposal rules

The GOP-led Senate on Thursday also approved legislation to build rules around — but not directly amend — ballot Proposal 3, the voting rights and registration measure approved by 67 percent of voters on Nov. 6.

The constitutional amendment guarantees same-day voter registration, no-reason absentee voting, post-election audits and other election access rules for Michigan residents.

Activists who supported the measure this week urged legislators to delay action on implementation of the bills, arguing the rushed lame-duck process could lead to errors and carve away rights spelled out in the measure.

Among other things, the legislation would define rules for same-day voter registration, generally limiting the action to a local clerk’s office, a provision critics say would prohibit more convenient registration at a polling place.

But Republicans say they developed the proposal in consultation with the Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office and local clerks, who worried that same-day registration at polling places could cause longer lines or confusion.

Under constitutional amendment, a resident can register to vote by mail until 15 days before an election. After that, and up through Election Day, voters can register in person by filling out an application and showing “proof of residency” to an election official.

The bill would allow people who register at a clerk’s office on Election Day to also vote there via absentee ballot. A city or township could require its clerk to be at her or his office or anther designated place during the registration period.

The legislation defines “proof of residency” as a driver’s license, state identification card. If they don’t have identification, a resident could sign an affidavit and show a recent utility bill, bank statement or paycheck with a current name and address.

The Senate on Wednesday approved separate legislation that would create rules to govern how Benson will select members to a new independent redistricting commission that voters approved last month as Proposal 2. Both proposals await action in the House.

Twitter: @jonathanoosting