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Michigan lawmakers limp to slow start

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan legislators left the state Capitol two weeks ago without resolving a dispute over assistance to help fix a massive Fraser sinkhole, leaving Macomb County in the lurch as they returned to their districts for a spring break.

 

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, chalked up the Legislature’s sluggish start to the large number of freshmen representatives in the lower chamber, where 43 of 110 members are serving their first term after winning election in November.

Fellow Republican and Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller blasted Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, for balking at the Michigan House’s offer of a $3 million grant. State Rep. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, warned the delay could ultimately leave the state “bellowing more buckaroos” if a troublesome situation gets worse.

The disagreement between the House and Senate — over whether to provide a $3 million grant, which former U.S. Rep. Miller wants, or Meekhof’s offer of a $5 million loan — is an early sign of discord in Lansing. The legislative session is off to a slow start despite the continued Republican control over all branches of state government.

“If that turns out to get uglier and worse than it is right now, it could start to make it look like, ‘Hey, this Legislature isn’t getting it done,” said longtime Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger. “They haven’t done anything major yet.”

The Michigan Senate and House sent 24 bills to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk during the first three months of the year. But 20 of them were part of a single parole and probation reform package reintroduced from 2016, and Snyder vetoed two of them.

The biggest early initiative this term, a House Republican plan to cut personal income taxes, failed in a 52-55 vote at the end of a marathon one-day session. It set the stage for tense summer budget talks marked by continuing debate over income tax relief.

It’s not unusual for a two-year legislative session to start slowly as newly elected members get acclimated to Lansing, “but I do think the income tax cut fiasco has weighted on people’s minds,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

“It’s pretty unusual to see a major policy priority go down in flames, but that doesn’t mean that the legislative session is doomed to be one of obscurity.”

 

The Senate’s lack of action on 27 House-approved bills has frustrated House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, who took over the role in January.

Anatomy of slow start

While legislators conduct much of their work outside the Capitol, records reviewed by The Detroit News show both chambers have had multiple session days this year when they met without any significant action on the floor. The House did not vote on its first policy bill until its 18th meeting on Feb. 23.

The Senate took up one House-approved bill in three months — the Fraser sinkhole spending plan — but changed the funding from a grant to a loan over objections from House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, and Miller.

The Senate’s lack of action on 27 other House-approved bills has frustrated Leonard, who took over the role in January and insists he maintains a healthy relationship with Meekhof, R-West Olive.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” Leonard told reporters before the two-week break. “I didn’t come here to hold things up. I came here to get things done.”

Meekhof noted there is still plenty of time for the Senate to consider House bills over the next 21 months. He has chalked up the sluggish start to the large number of freshmen representatives in the lower chamber, where 43 of 110 members are serving their first term after winning election in November.

“They don’t know yet what they don’t know,” Meekhof said. “They’re still learning. So we have a lot of opportunity there to help coach them up and make sure they’re going to be good legislators, and we want to participate with our House friends and do that.”

The Michigan Legislature operates in two-year cycles, with House elections every two years and Senate elections every four.

Michigan’s 99th Legislature features a mix of veteran senators who tend toward the pragmatic and an increasingly conservative House that leans toward the dogmatic. The practical Snyder is effectively a lame-duck governor serving out the last two years of his second and final term.

Democrat scandals pile on

While the House is full of freshmen, the upper chamber has only one new member this session. State Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit filled a seat vacated when fellow Detroit Democrat Virgil Smith was sent to prison last year for firing a shotgun at his ex-wife’s car.

The scandals have continued this year for Democrats, weakening a party already outnumbered in both chambers.

State Rep. Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods, resigned in February to avoid possible prison time for filing false financial statements. A federal grand jury this past week indicted state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, charging him with conspiracy theft by hiring a “ghost employee” on his staff to repay a personal loan — an accusation his lawyer denied.

“Almost everything that’s happened this year has been negative,” Ballenger said.

The Republican drama has mostly been limited to policy disagreements between the two chambers and Snyder, most notably on taxes.

While the House has pursued personal income tax relief, the Senate has advanced bipartisan legislation that would provide tax incentives to large-scale job creators and developers willing to take on “transformational” projects at blighted or contaminated sites.

Snyder opposed the House tax-cut plan, arguing it would have far-reaching budget implications. House conservatives are skeptical of the Snyder-supported Senate tax incentive plans and wary of the image of using the tax code to boost business interests after failing to advance personal income tax cuts.

Another major House package approved by the House in mid-March — a bipartisan transparency proposal to expand public records requests to the governor and state Legislature — is blocked in the Senate. Meekhof opposes the bills and has made clear he does not plan to take them up.

A looming test

Republicans in both chambers continue to discuss tax cuts, and leaders are intentionally leaving wiggle room in budget bills in case a deal is reached by this summer. But similar approaches in the House and Senate do not necessarily reflect coordination.

“I don’t know what they’re doing” in the House, Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, said last month as budget talks heated up. “I haven’t been able to get a lot of information from them.”

Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature have completed budgets by June each of the last six years, a streak all sides hope to keep alive despite the tax debates.

Experts say the budget season presents Leonard, Meekhof and Snyder with an opportunity to prove they can work together for the remainder of the two-year session.

“It’s going to be a bigger test than anything,” said Ballenger. “It’s going to be where members of both chambers see the fault lines developing between their separate caucuses.”

Appropriations subcommittees began advancing budget bills earlier this month, and floor voters are likely later this month. The House, Senate and executive office will then work to negotiate a final budget in May and early June.

“If things go smoothly, and they get a budget done, that will go a long ways toward assuaging people’s fear that you’re going to see a fairly unproductive session, which frankly is always an issue when you have a governor in the last two years of his term,” Demas said.

joosting@detroitnews.com