Senate GOP leader readies for divided government

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Sen. Mike Shirkey.

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have at least one thing in common: A desire to work together early on and show they can avoid partisan gridlock, said incoming Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

The Clarklake Republican is poised to preside over a new-look Senate radically reshaped by a combination of term-limit losses and Democratic gains. And for the first time in eight years, the slimmed-down GOP majority will have to work with a governor from the other side of the aisle.

“I’m the kind of guy who will start out by looking for ways in which to work together, and only if those become apparently not available will we take a different track,” Shirkey said in an interview with The Detroit News.

“But we both have reasonable reasons to try to find things we can agree on and try to get some early successes for the state of Michigan, and I’m looking forward to engaging.”

Shirkey sees no-fault auto insurance reform as one major opportunity for bipartisan and bicameral compromise. Reducing the state’s highest-in-the-nation rates was a key part of Whitmer’s plan to fight urban poverty, and Shirkey said many Republican legislators campaigned on a similar pledge.

“I think the pressure is on to get something done,” said Shirkey, suggesting legislative efforts should be “almost singularly focused” on auto insurance to start the year. “And I also think interest groups that have been involved up to this point recognize that the honeymoon is about over.”

Shirkey, 64, is the founder and owner of Orbitform, an engineering and manufacturing company that designs and builds forming, fastening and riveting machines for a variety of industries. He said he spends about half a day each week at the firm, which has grown to 110 employees since he founded it in 1997 and is now largely run by a management team.

“I’ve always been interested in politics,” said Shirkey, describing his decision to run for the state House in 2010, “and when you’re in business for yourself, that puts a fine exclamation point on why you need to be interested in politics because government affects just about every decision you make.”

Healthy Michigan

Shirkey has consistently ranked as one of the more conservative members of the state Legislature but acknowledged he’s “gone outside that rating a couple times when I thought it was the right thing to do,” including the 2013 decision to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act.

He was a key player in the creation of the Healthy Michigan program, which now insures more than 680,000 low- and middle-income residents.

Despite his opposition to the federal health care law, Shirkey “swallowed hard” so support enabling legislation while serving in the House and helped convince other reluctant Republicans to support the final version, which included a trigger that could end the program if state costs increase significantly.  

"That was one issue where he took a real leadership position as one of the few strong conservatives that supported that initiative," said former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, who argued the program would reduce reliance on emergency room visits and drive down uncompensated care. 

"Mike and I both saw the federal government taking billions of dollars from taxpayers in Michigan, and they said, 'We're going to give this to you, or we’re going to give it to someone else,'" Richardville recalled. "It only made sense for us to say 'yes, give us our money back.' Is that a conservative viewpoint? I think it is."

Whitmer was Senate minority leader at the time and helped secure Democratic votes in her chamber despite partisan acrimony over a recently passed right-to-work law. She regularly touted her role in the creation of the Healthy Michigan program while campaigning for governor.

“I always got a little chuckle in some of her campaign ads in the governor’s race when she claimed she was a key author of that,” Shirkey said. “I don’t frankly recall having any conversations with her when we were going through a very challenging process of getting it approved by those in my party. But I’m fine with her saying she was supportive.”

Five years after voting for the Healthy Michigan program, Shirkey recently led the legislative effort to add work requirements for able-bodied adults, a controversial push opposed by Whitmer, who argued it could have a "devastating" impact on residents who lose health insurance coverage. The federal government last week approved a waiver allowing the state to implement the work requirements, which could be challenged in court.

As he assumes leadership of the Senate, Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, sees no-fault auto insurance reform as one major opportunity for bipartisan and bicameral compromise.

Divided government

Shirkey and Whitmer also have stark differences on labor and business policy. The governor supports mandatory paid sick leave for workers, but Shirkey sponsored legislation to scale back a paid sick leave initiative advanced via petition drive. 

Whitmer campaigned on calls to repeal the state’s right-to-work law and reinstate prevailing wage and benefit rules for construction workers. Shirkey has vowed to fight those efforts, but he’s otherwise wary of drawing “hard lines in the sand” as Whitmer settles into her office.

“I’ll be on the alert — and we’ll all be on the alert — for things that could change the trajectory and have a negative effect on continuing to grow jobs and making Michigan attractive to capital investment,” he said.

Acknowledging their differences, Whitmer is expected to resume regular “quadrant” meetings with Shirkey, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Democratic House Minority Leader Christine Greig.

“I think communication and open dialogue is very important,” Shirkey said. “That’s the quickest pathway to finding the kind of things we can reach agreement on and move forward on, and also it’s the easiest way for us to disclose to each other where there are differences and being to work on them,” he said.

Ananich, a Flint Democrat who will return as Senate minority leader, knew Shirkey before they worked together in the Legislature and said they're "very close."

"I think Mike is very strong in his beliefs, but he's also someone who is willing to understand that he doesn't always have to get his way," Ananich said. "He understands that compromise and finding common ground is not a negative thing."

Pumping the brakes

Whitmer ran on a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” but Shirkey does not share her sense of urgency. He wants to re-examine the need once the state’s 2014 road funding law is fully implemented in 2020.

Raising taxes would likely meet “a fair amount of resistance” in the Senate Republican caucus, Shirkey said, suggesting bonding could also be a tough sell. “When voters recognize that they’re still paying off (old road funding bonds), I think they’ll be a little reluctant to jump on that bandwagon," he said.

Whitmer on Thursday named Paul Ajegba as her new director of the Michigan Department of Transportation who will push for new funding. "But it is going to take partnership, and that's why working with the Legislature is the first, most important thing that we're going to try to get done here," she said.

Shirkey is open to discussions on expanding the state’s Freedom of Information Act to make the Legislature and governor’s office open to public records requests, which Whitmer and Chatfield each support.

But he cautioned that expanding the law is complicated by new technologies lawmakers and staff use to discuss legislation and said he does not want to cast “a chill on the ability to communicate” during the deliberative process.

“I’m not suggesting it’s a non-starter, I’m just suggesting it’s not as simple as people think it is,” Shirkey said.

Ananich said he'll also push for more transparency in state government and is optimistic Democrats and Republicans can work together on workforce development initiatives and road funding.

Shirkey introduced legislation in 2016 that would have created a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act to guarantee religious liberty in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision toppling gay marriage bans in Michigan and other states.  

Democratic efforts to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include new anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents could be “heavily contested” in the GOP-led Legislature, Shirkey said.

“If we can include protections for religious freedom in the Constitution, fine, but otherwise it’s not something that’s going to be a high priority.”