Lawmakers face gay rights, road tax, election issues

By Chad Livengood and Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State lawmakers return to the capital Tuesday for the start of a marathon three-week session where the outgoing GOP House and Senate leaders hope to cement their legacies by settling some contentious issues.

Gay rights, higher taxes for road fixes, sentencing reform and changing Michigan's century-old system for awarding presidential candidates' electoral votes are among the biggest — and most controversial — issues looming as the Legislature reconvenes.

But none have the magnitude that rocked Lansing two years ago when the Republican-controlled Legislature fast-tracked legislation to Gov. Rick Snyder's desk. Lawmakers made Michigan a right-to-work state where union dues are voluntary and refined an emergency manager law that Snyder used to take Detroit through bankruptcy.

This year could be different.

"A lot could get done and nothing could get done," said Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist who helped orchestrate the passage of right-to-work. "(But) there's not the order and momentum like there was in 2012."

The end-of-the-year period is dubbed the "lame duck" session because 40 House members and six senators will not be returning to the Legislature next year, freeing them to vote on controversial issues without the fear of ballot box retribution.

Thirty-three legislators were constitutionally barred from seeking re-election because of term limits, while the remaining lost re-election, ran for another public office and lost, or decided not to seek another term in office.

Another wrinkle this year is the two top legislative leaders — Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville and House Speaker Jase Bolger — are term-limited. Both men have signaled they want to add to their legacies before lawmakers go home for the holidays.

Here's a look at the top issues that could dominate the lame-duck session:

Road funding

Since January 2013, Michigan's bumpy roads have been the No. 1 topic among lawmakers.

But aside from some one-time extra spending for targeted road projects, lawmakers have not forged a consensus on how to finance an annual budget deficit for road repairs that most experts say ranges between $1.2 billion and $2.5 billion annually.

Snyder's transportation director, Kirk Steudle, has repeatedly warned that the road deficit increases with each freeze-and-thaw period that causes potholes.

Last month, the Senate approved replacing the 19-cent gasoline tax and 15-cent-per-gallon diesel tax with a percentage-based tax. It would start at 9.5 percent April 15 and increase over four years to 15.5 percent by Jan. 1, 2018, when it would generate $1.2 billion more annually for roads.

Bolger, R-Marshall, has floated an alternative plan that he says could eventually raise $1 billion more annually for roads while allowing lawmakers to walk away without raising taxes.

The Detroit News first reported Tuesday that Bolger wants to convert the 6 percent sales tax on gasoline into a new gas tax that's entirely dedicated to repairing state roadways. The sales tax on motor fuel is currently diverted mostly to schools and cities.

But Democrats have criticized Bolger's plan because it doesn't fully replace hundreds of millions in lost revenue for schools. Bolger's plan relies on continued economic growth to replenish the School Aid Fund as the sales tax is gradually weaned off gasoline.

"You can't just shuffle the deck chairs around and assume money will magically reappear from where you're taking it," said Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids.

Steudle said Bolger's six-year gradual increase in revenue to fund road construction projects is not fast enough to deal with deteriorating pavement conditions. The percentage of state trunk line roads in good or fair condition is expected to plummet from 79 percent this year to 55 percent in 2017 and 43 percent by 2020, according to MDOT.

"The need is now, the need is not six years from now," Steudle said in an interview Wednesday. "To ramp it up over a longer period of time ... we're going to have that many more springs of bent rims and fatalities."

Electoral college changes

Perhaps the most divisive issue looming is a proposed change to the way Michigan divvies up its 16 electoral votes to presidential contenders.

Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, proposes the popular vote winner receive a minimum of nine electoral votes and earn another vote for every 1.5 percent of the vote above 50 percent.

Democrats argue Lund's bill is a scheme to help rig the 2016 presidential election in the GOP's favor. But Lund says he wants to make Michigan more competitive and force presidential candidates to visit the state more frequently. Democratic presidential candidates have won the last six elections in Michigan.

Education reform

Several education issues remain in the balance, the least of which is a bill to allow Snyder's Education Achievement Authority to expand its footprint to operating 50 low-performing schools.

The House-approved bill has been languishing in the Senate since March. It has been mired in public education politics, particularly because of the rocky start the EAA has had operating 15 schools in Detroit with persistently low academic achievement.

One veteran Lansing political insider doubts there's much life left in the legislation.

"The EAA bill is dead," said Richard McLellan, a Republican attorney and school choice backer.

Other unfinished business includes legislation creating a system for evaluating teachers and requiring third graders to pass a reading test before being able to advance to the fourth grade.

Film incentives

Richardville, R-Monroe, wants lawmakers to revise the film incentives program to set the tax rebate rate at 25 percent for in-state production costs, as opposed to as much as 32 percent now, and assure that a growing portion of the rebates go to state residents and in-state businesses.

He also wants to end a 2017 expiration date built into the current film incentives law, making it permanent. This fiscal year, Michigan taxpayers are spending $50 million subsidizing the film industry, but the amount is decided year to year during the state budgeting process.

Gay rights

Efforts to include gays, lesbians and transgendered people under the umbrella of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act remain uncertain.

Rep. Frank Foster, a Petoskey Republican who lost his August primary, is sponsoring legislation that would include gays and lesbians in the law prohibiting discrimination over housing, employment and business services.

But the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community and their allies have threatened to torpedo the long-sought legislation if it doesn't include protections for transgendered people against discrimination based on gender identity and expression.

Bolger has proposed a bill creating a legal defense for individuals with deeply held religious beliefs against homosexuality. Critics say it would be a state-sanctioned license to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Prison sentencing reform

A package of bills being guided by Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, would reduce prison sentences for some crimes but focus primarily on reining in the $2-billion annual corrections budget through preventive measures to reduce the number of offenders re-entering the state prison, parole and probation system.

Inmates nine months from ending their maximum sentences would be released to an intensive supervision program transitioning them to life outside.