Lansing – Michigan House Republicans kicked off a new two-year session Wednesday in a decidedly conservative fashion, introducing a bill to reduce and gradually eliminate the state’s personal income tax.

The House proposal, sponsored by Rep. Lee Chatfield of Levering, would reduce the 4.25 percent tax to 3.9 percent in January 2018 and then roll back the rate by 0.1 percentage point each year until the income tax is zeroed out, a process that would take 40 years.

“This is simply the right thing to do for Michigan’s families,” House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said in a statement released almost simultaneously to his official election to the leadership post.

“The people of our state persevered through tough economic times, and several ugly tax hikes made their journey even more difficult. Now we can make things right.”

State Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, is expected to introduce his own bill that would eliminate the income tax over five years, setting the stage for a robust debate over the state tax that is the single largest source of revenue for state government’s operations.

The tax cut measure was the first House bill introduced in the new session, a symbolic statement of priorities for the GOP-led Legislature. The lower chamber’s first bill last session sought to eliminate the state’s prevailing wage law, an effort that stalled amid opposition from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder is “open to a constructive dialogue” about tax reform over the next two years but has expressed concern about the budgetary impact. The second-term Republican expressed similar concerns two years ago when Brandenburg and other GOP legislators wanted to cut the rate to 3.9 percent.

Democrats have raised red flags over outright elimination of the income tax, which last year generated more than $9 billion for the state.

“I think it’s very difficult for us to comprehend how you can take $9 billion out of the state budget,” said new House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing. “The bills they’ve introduced have not shown how you’d replace that income. Right now we’re underfunding our roads, our education system and our local communities.”

First day on the job

Republicans return a 63-47 majority to the state House after a strong showing in the Nov. 8 general election, besting pundit predictions they would lose at least a few seats. Republicans also enjoy a 27-11 supermajority in the state Senate.

More than 40 new House members were ceremonially sworn in Wednesday by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Markman, including state Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, the wife of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who joined her on the floor.

Legislators signed four copies of the state oath for public officers, vowing to support the Michigan and U.S. constitutions while performing their duties to the best of their abilities. One copy is for them to keep, while the others are saved in the State Office of the Great Seal, bound in an official booklet and kept by the House clerk.

“In the end, of course, it is not the oath that makes us believe the man or woman, but the man or woman that makes us believe the oath,” Markman told legislators. “The people of your district have each made clear they believe you are the kind of man or woman who causes us to have confidence in this oath.”

The new-look House includes returning Rep. Bettie Cook Scott, a Detroit Democrat who served in the lower chamber from 2007 through the end of 2010 before launching an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate.

Three other members finished partial terms last session, including Democratic Rep. Patrick Green of Warren, who filled a vacant seat and began serving in November.

Rep. Jewell Jones, D-Inkster, takes office as the youngest representative in Michigan history. The 21-year-old was first elected to the Inkster City Council in 2015.

“The first day has been a lot of running around, a lot of talking to people, a lot of meeting people,” Jones said. “I’m still learning out the landscape, where the bathroom is, but it was exciting just to get started.”

A call for civility

While the proposed tax cut legislation might ultimately divide members along party lines, the opening session largely served as an attempt to build relationships and heal old wounds.

In an early show of bipartisanship, Leonard and Singh co-hosted an opening day luncheon reception. The event was sponsored by the GCSI lobbying firm, the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Singh later seconded Leonard’s nomination for House speaker, a role for which Leonard’s GOP colleagues had already informally picked him.

“At a time when many have lost faith in the ability of our government to solve some of our state and nation’s most significant problems, let today stand as an example that we can come together for the greater good,” Singh said in a floor speech.

“There are many paths to this chamber can take over the next few years. My hope is that the path we take is bipartisanship.”

Leonard told his fellow legislators he is committed to working with all 109 of them to help solve the “most pressing problems” facing the state.

The third-term Republican reiterated his desire “improve the lives of those suffering from mental illness” and fix the “state’s broken teacher retirement system.” He also hinted at no-fault auto insurance reform, saying he wants to “reduce the highest auto insurance rates in the nation.”

Leonard used his floor speech to make an impassioned call for civil discourse in politics, pointing to the 2016 election cycle as “one of the most uncivil in our nation’s history, all the way from the federal level to the local level.”

“I believe over the next two years the citizens not only want to see more civility, I believe they’re going to demand it,” he said.

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