Rep. Cox set to make history, puts Detroit on notice
Lansing — Metro Detroit native and state Rep. Laura Cox is set to become the first woman to lead the Michigan House Appropriations Committee, the chamber’s most powerful panel that makes most budget decisions.
Besides making history, the first-term Republican lawmaker from Livonia wants to create new budget priorities next year in divvying up the state’s $55 billion budget. One of them includes re-evaluating whether communities other than Detroit should receive more state aid known as revenue sharing.
Although Cox said she has a “soft spot” for Detroit after working on Wayne County’s budget for 10 years on the county commission, Detroiters shouldn’t necessarily expect an ally when the next state budget is crafted.
The $194.7 million that Detroit received from the state’s nearly $1 billion in local revenue sharing in 2015-16 was too much, Cox said. She would prefer to spread the state aid more evenly to other communities.
“It’s been no secret,” Cox said. “I was out front saying the revenue sharing was lopsided favoring the city of Detroit in the past. I might take another look at that.”
This budget outlook comes after Detroit received a $195 million lump-sum state payment in 2014 to help emerge from bankruptcy and another $617 million this year to retire the debt of the Detroit school district and create a new debt-free district. Republican lawmakers discussed “Detroit fatigue” before begrudgingly approving the Detroit school bailout.
Part of the state’s complicated revenue sharing funding is constitutionally required, and another portion is set by lawmakers. Cox can’t unilaterally decide how much money will go to Detroit, but she will have influence as the appropriations chairwoman.
This is creating concerns for Detroit Democrats such as Rep. Fred Durhal III, who says the city desperately needs the money to help pay for basic services like police and firefighters.
“The city would have to find a way to generate more revenue to fill that hole,” Durhal said. “And I just don’t know where we get it from, to be honest with you.”
House Minority Leader-elect Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said he was “disappointed” about Cox’s tentative plans. “It’s unfortunate that she’s already trying to pit urban communities vs. other parts of the state,” Singh said.
Reducing state aid could put Detroit “into a perilous situation” that could affect the state’s finances, he added.
Detroit’s revenue sharing problem is mirrored by a broader and dismal lack of money for local governments across the state, said Anthony Minghine, director and chief operating officer of the Michigan Municipal League.
“Detroit’s situation is still precarious,” Minghine said. “If anyone thinks that Detroit is ‘fixed,’ I think they’re mistaken on that. Our system’s just not built to allow growth.”
Former House Appropriations Chairman Chuck Moss, R-Birmingham, noted that politicians often feel revenue-sharing is “sacred” when they’re working in local elected offices, but such assumptions can be questioned when they come to Lansing and face new priorities.
Cox was one of the few Republicans on a Democrat-dominated Wayne County Commission before getting elected to the Legislature in 2014. Before that, she spent 13 years as a U.S. Customs special investigator who worked undercover on drug trafficking and money laundering cases.
Criticism from Democrats doesn’t “really fluster me as much because I’m kind of used to it,” she said.
Cox, 52, is married to former two-term Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican who also was a deputy chief prosecutor with Wayne County’s homicide unit. They have four children.
Cox started her own political journey on the Wayne County Commission in 2004, wanting to “leave my mark and influence on a Democratic body and budget” in a part of the state where she agrees that politics are “rough and tumble.”
She eventually became chairwoman of the county’s Ways and Means Committee, helping to oversee and question the county’s spending.
The experience helped her land a spot on the House Appropriations Committee after she was elected in 2014. She has spent her first two-year term chairing the panel’s subcommittee on general government and as vice chairwoman of the judiciary subcommittee.
Now she’ll become the first woman to lead the state House’s most powerful committee.
“I think it’s icing on the cake that I’m a woman and the first woman,” Cox said, noting that House Republicans are set to have a record number of women in their caucus when a new session begins in January.
Cox is set to succeed House Appropriations Chairman Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who had high praise for her.
“Well, I’m kind of biased because I’m a Laura Cox fan. I think Rep. Cox will do a great job,” Pscholka said. “… I think there’s a lot of similarities between us. We’re both kind of upfront, known as straight shooters.”
He acknowledged that concern over Detroit’s revenue-sharing allotment isn’t new.
“That’s been a topic in the Legislature for a long time,” Pscholka said. “So I guess the only thing I would say about that is it sounds like the conversation about that will continue.”
The legislative and Wayne County experiences have prepared her to take over where Pscholka will leave off, Cox said.
“I’m used to people calling me names, yelling at me, you know whatever. It doesn’t really phase me,” she said. “I’m also good at delivering bad news.”
Family: Married to former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. Four children and two grandchildren.
Political experience: Wayne County Commission, 2005-2014. State representative, 2015-present. Member of Michigan House Appropriations Committee. Chairwoman-elect, House Appropriations Committee.