Want legislation to pass? Break up the bill

Karen Suhaka

Bills often get weighed down as legislators pile on extra parts as the recent failure of the Zika virus bill demonstrates. But, what happens if legislators approach problems looking at the parts first, not the whole?

Michigan’s HB 5366 did just that with the complex problem of fracking (a process which involves drilling down into the earth and injecting shale rock with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release the gas inside). By taking the whole idea of fracking and its various impacts on the environment, health and safety, and carving out different issues for maximum impact and understanding, a new way of “getting things done” might just be emerging.

MI HB 5366 puts a moratorium on new fracking permits for high volume fracking until several issues (the parts) are resolved. The parts — around water, the public’s right to know, setbacks, and other related issues — comprise the challenges of fracking. By segmenting these parts into separate bills, the individual issues can be resolved more easily than if they were lumped in together into one bill.

The piecemeal bills are, as a result, an entirely new approach to writing bills that could represent an effective new structure for legislation. Just ask the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sarah Roberts.

Roberts is serving her third term representing Michigan’s 18th House District, which encompasses the communities of St. Clair Shores, Eastpointe and a portion of Grosse Pointe Shores.

A longtime advocate for issues around water, Roberts has strong opinions about fracking. She says that Michigan, as the Great Lakes State, is “home to the world’s largest concentration of fresh water.

Companies fracking in Michigan pay for a permit for land but they don’t have to pay for the privilege of polluting our water. Some of the fracking operations have used 20 million gallons of fresh water, as well as using any combination of over 700 chemicals. The water becomes so polluted after use that it has to be taken out of the watershed and put it in a deep injection well somewhere.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she says.

Roberts explains that “We wanted to engage other people in the work. It could have been just one big mammoth bill, but we decided to set the parameters within the moratorium bill, and then break out each bill more specifically.

“For example, Representative Jeff Irwin was very passionate about the chemical disclosure. I was very passionate about the public hearing process.” Explaining why she believes public hearings are so important, Roberts says “with all other types of issues related to water or the environment, there’s a public hearing process before a permit is granted through the Department of Environmental Quality, I feel fracking shouldn’t be treated any differently.”

Roberts says her colleagues were very supportive of keeping the different topics in separate bills. “Relatively recent polling has shown that over 50 percent of the people in Michigan believe that we should have strong safeguards in place when it comes to fracking,” Roberts says.

Roberts also feels this breaking up of the whole into parts is a good strategy to consider, rather than the all-or-nothing approach which is so common today. Complex issues are rarely black and white; but the underlying individual challenges can often bring a yes or a no once the details are spelled out, leading us all to a better “whole.”

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Karen Suhaka is president and CEO of LegiNation, Inc.