LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan’s new era of divided government began Wednesday, when the 100th Legislature opened a two-year session.
Republicans have smaller majorities in both chambers following the November election and will have to contend with a Democratic governor for the first time since 2009-10, when Michigan last had a split government.
Legislative work is unlikely to progress much until Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address on Feb. 5 and proposes her first budget in early March. There are also a lot of new lawmakers who need to learn the ropes.
What to watch for:
Three of the top four legislative leaders are new, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield - Republicans who will be key to Whitmer’s ability to enact her agenda. Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader, wants to hold regular meetings with the “quadrant” - the first is scheduled for next week - and hopes to find common ground on fixing infrastructure, addressing polluted water and job training. While welcoming the opportunity to work with Democrats, Shirkey said Wednesday that he will “be on the alert for policy initiatives which could alter our trajectory or compromise Michigan’s ability to compete and attract talent and capital.”
About a third of the 148 legislators are first-timers, with most of them in the 110-member House. Turnover is substantial in the 38-seat Senate, where just nine senators are back due to term limits. Many new senators are former House members. Republicans have 58-52 and 22-16 edges, which are narrower margins than at any point since the GOP assumed full control of the Legislature eight years ago. That dynamic could boost the chances for bipartisanship.
A record number of women, 53 - or 36 percent - are serving in the Legislature. The previous record of 37 - or 25 percent - was set during the 2009-10 term and matched in 2017-18, according to the Center For American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The lawmakers are part of a wave of women who ran and won this year for state and federal offices, most of them Democrats motivated by the election of President Donald Trump. House Minority Leader Christine Greig is only the third woman to head a legislative caucus in state history. Garlin Gilchrist II, who serves as president of the Senate and would break any tie votes, is Michigan’s first black lieutenant governor.
One of Whitmer’s campaign mantras was to “fix the damn roads.” She has called for spending $3 billion more on infrastructure by increasing “user fees” such as fuel taxes by an unspecified amount or by asking voters to approve a bond if the Legislature resists the fuel tax hike. GOP legislative leaders seem cool to the idea, however. Shirkey told The Associated Press this week that 2015 laws that will boost road funding by $1.2 billion a year by the 2020-21 fiscal year should “fully come to bloom” before the state considers additional permanent spending. He does favor continuing legislators’ recent practice of shifting extra general funds to roads each year.
One area where Whitmer and Republicans could find some common ground is in revisiting a 2011 GOP-backed law that eliminated or reduced exemptions from the taxation of pension and retirement income. Whitmer has called for ending the “retirement tax,” which was passed as part of a law that slashed business taxes. Former Gov. Rick Snyder said the change was needed to ensure that retirees pay their share rather than push the burden onto younger residents. Shirkey said he is open to making changes as long as the tax code remains “fair” for pensioners. Among the first bills introduced Wednesday was a measure to repeal the 2011 change. “Times have changed for the better since the pension tax was adopted,” said Republican Rep. Joe Bellino of Monroe, who sponsored the new legislation. “Back then, the economy was bottomed out and the state budget was a mess. That’s simply not the case anymore.”
For years, efforts to curtail Michigan’s high auto insurance premiums have resulted in legislative stalemates, with some of the state’s biggest political spenders and lobbyists - hospitals, business groups, plaintiffs’ attorneys, health providers, insurance companies and insurance agents - lining up on various sides. Republican leaders again pledged to tackle the problem, which is at least partly the result of mandatory unlimited medical benefits for severely injured drivers. “Our drivers deserve relief, and we will deliver it,” Chatfield said in an address to House members after he was formally made speaker on a unanimous vote. The solution cannot be “dictated” by the insurance industry or health care executives, he said.
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