Mich. Senate leader prioritizes Detroit schools, energy

Associated Press

Lansing

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s priorities for 2016 include salvaging Detroit’s financially and academically failed school district and updating energy laws, two thorny issues that lawmakers were unable to resolve in his first year leading the Republican-dominated chamber.

The district has been under state emergency financial management for nearly seven years, and Gov. Rick Snyder has called for the state to commit $715 million over a decade to address extraordinary debt now being repaid with operating funds and to relaunch Michigan’s largest district under a new name. But his legislation has not been introduced in the Senate, which is expected to first consider the plan.

“We just haven’t found the right language, wording, policy — things that get everybody there to get started. (It’s) a problem that’s eluded us for some period of time. I don’t think we need to rush it. We need to do this well,” Meekhof told the Associated Press in an interview last month.

Because of resistance to Snyder’s proposal from Republicans and Democrats, the long-awaited bills are expected to be different than what he outlined months ago.

Meekhof acknowledged GOP legislators’ concerns, for instance, with creating a commission to hire a manager who could close or reconfigure poor-performing schools, regardless of whether they are traditional ones or independent charters. He characterized it as a “sticking point” but also said authorizers’ oversight of low-performing charters “could be better.”

“To me, the most important part is the kids getting an education. The governance structure, the finances — we can figure it out. … There’s a lot in the mix,” said Meekhof, who is starting the second of four years as Senate leader.

Another major unresolved issue facing the Legislature is updating 2008 laws that govern competition in the electricity market and renewable power and energy-efficiency requirements. Major utilities dislike a law that gives competitors up to 10 percent of sales in their regions, but some major businesses and many school districts are saving money through the “choice” program — savings that utility officials say are being subsidized by millions of their customers.

Meekhof said his 27-member caucus also is debating whether to require competitive bidding for new electric generation, not relying solely on DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to build expensive new plants as coal-fired plants are retired.

“Some of the discussion around it is it can’t just be the big two. There may be other people who have smaller generating things that might be able to add on at a relatively inexpensive cost and then generate more energy and incrementally bring up the amount of energy we need as the demand is there — as opposed to building (a) 500-, 600-, 700-megawatt plant one time. There might be other ways to do it.”

Meekhof of West Olive spoke to the AP before Snyder decided to sign into law two controversial GOP-backed bills, one that eliminated straight-party voting and another that imposed a 60-day pre-election window in which municipalities and school districts cannot sent mass communications about local ballot issues. At Snyder’s request, Meekhof has committed to passing new legislation to clarify the campaign-finance measure, which has come under scrutiny not just for its content but also the sneaky 11th-hour manner in which majority Republicans in both chambers approved it.

Meekhof predicted a “very, very energetic” debate in the new year over corrections policy, including recidivism, cost containment and “presumptive parole” legislation passed by the House and supported by Snyder but which has hit resistance in the Senate. The Michigan Parole Board would have less leeway to keep certain prisoners locked up past their minimum sentence — those deemed to have a high probability of release, meaning they have a low risk of reoffending and do not pose a high risk to public safety.

Meekhof also is anticipating Michigan’s March 8 GOP presidential primary. He endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich in September.

“He’s not done as well as I would like, but I really think he’s the most pragmatic, practical one,” Meekhof said.

He said Donald Trump is “pretty gifted” but “engages his mouth before his mind.”

“We’ll see when actual primary voters start voting, what that means.”