by Martin Ackley, Consultant for Health Policy

This fall will see legislature action on many important issues. The priorities are being set be the Republicans, who have the majority in both the House and the senate. This Advisoroutlines the plans of both chambers and reports what lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are saying about making policy during the remainder of the year.

Barring any unsuspected showdowns with their governor, Republicans in the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives will set their legislative locomotive at full steam ahead this fall.

The GOP has control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in decades, and the chambers’ leaders have wasted no time in putting forth the Republican ideological agenda of less taxes, smaller government, and greater freedom for business and industry.

Republican Gov. John Engler continues to step out on state policy matters, ruffling a few legislative tail feathers in the process. For example, over the summer he reorganized the vast state Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), moving its environmental regulation functions into a Department of Environmental Quality. Some lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern.

In addition, he has executed a pair of moves that the legislature sees as sidestepping that branch’s perceived authority. First, without the approval of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, he amended rules concerning prison visitations. Now he has announced that $55 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund will be used to finance infrastructure improvements for a new Tiger Stadium that many Republican lawmakers oppose; because the fund is a financing pool administered by an autonomous board of directors, many of whom this governor has appointed, he was able to advance this deal without legislative appropriation or approval.

A public showdown between the Republican legislature and Republican governor is not likely—any problems probably will be resolved behind closed doors. Even though legislative skins have been chaffed, egos will be soothed and the GOP Express can be expected to barrel onward.

Democratic lawmakers will use this fall session to solidify their positions on key state issues and, to gain some legislative concessions from Republicans, employ public forums and the threat of withholding immediate effect on bills.

All four legislative caucuses have laid out their agendas for the fall session and will work hard to accomplish as many of their objectives as possible before the two chambers adjourn again in mid-December.

Senate Republicans

With a 22–16 vote majority, Senate Republicans can continue, with ease, to push through that caucus’s agenda. In this fall session they plan to build on the successes of the earlier six months, which Senate Majority Leader Dick Posthumus (R-Alto) calls “one of the busiest and most productive spring sessions in Michigan’s history.” But, he says, even though his caucus accomplished quite a lot in that time, there is still much to be done.

The major issues on the Senate Republican agenda for the remainder of the calendar year fall into three clusters.

“In one cluster, education reform, we will be taking a closer look at the Michigan SchoolCode and also working on revisions to our policies on charter schools,” Posthumus said. “In a second cluster, tort and litigation reform, we will be working on no-fault insurance, product liability, and some general tort reform.

“In our third cluster, courts and criminals, we expect to be doing some work on reorganizing our court system, reforming our juvenile justice system, and taking steps toward alleviating prison overcrowding.

“These are just some of the major issues that the Senate will be working on in the next few months,” Posthumus concludes. “It looks like another busy session. But if the first part of the year is any indication, we expect that it will be a very successful session.”

Since the GOP is in the majority in the Senate, it pretty much will set the agenda for the body’s fall deliberations. The GOP’s key items are the following:

  • Tort reform package
  • Telecommunications act rewrite
  • Renaissance zone package
  • Juvenile justice package
  • Mental health code rewrite
  • Underground storage tank cleanup funding
  • Court restructuring and funding
  • Friend of the Court reform
  • Single business tax reform
  • Workers’ compensation reform

Senate Democrats

In addition to floor and committee action, Senate Democrats this fall will focus on conducting research and obtaining public input on several issue areas they have identified as key.

“Our goal is to get away from business as usual around here,” says Sen. John Cherry (D-Clio), the Democratic floor leader. “We’re going to take some time, listen to ideas from outside the capital, and try to come up with new, practical, inventive ways to tackle some of the issues that face this state.”

Senator Dianne Byrum (D-Onondaga) will work on political reform and assessing government efficiency. Senator Ken DeBeaussaert (D-Chesterfield Twp.) will take on education reform, with an eye to preparing students for the work force. Senator Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Salem Twp.) will try to reconnect the public with the political process, and Senator Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) will examine Michigan’s “investment deficit.”

Senate Democrats plan to hold public hearings on the split of the Department of Natural Resources. The caucus is concerned that the governor is dividing, eliminating, and combining state bureaus and departments too hastily and without sufficient public input. The chamber’s Democrats say they are not necessarily opposed to the moves, but they want to know more about them and why they are being instituted.

The Senate minority also plans to be keenly involved in the debate and rewrites of the telecommunications act and the mental health and school codes as well as in the discussions about reconfiguring the state’s trial court system and the future of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

House Republicans

As his caucus closes out its first year of sole control of the House of Representatives in decades, Speaker of the House Paul Hillegonds (R-Holland) and his two-vote House majority intend to put their slight numerical advantage to good use in advancing the Republican agenda. There are many items on their legislative plate for this fall, but the major focus will be on reorganizing state courts. One Hillegonds staffer says court reorganization “will drive everything else; other [legislative priorities] will fit in around it.”

House Republicans also will study the recent MDNR reorganization. They will concentrate not on the split itself, but on the missions of the two resulting organizations. It will be a look forward, to see the benchmarks that the two departments will use to measure their success.

A major change in scope will be seen in the House’s debate on the school code. House Republicans once seemed to be advocating for a total repeal and rewrite of the code, but they now say their aim is to study the changing nature of education. Charter schools expansion, school choice, and a mandated core curriculum will be hot issues on the House’s education griddle this fall.

In the House, the GOP majority’s key items on the fall agenda are the following:

  • State court reorganization/reform
  • Tort reform
  • Telecommunications legislation
  • Mental health code revision
  • Usury reform (setting the cap on interest rates)
  • School code revisions
  • Welfare reform (pending Congressional action)
  • Workers’ compensation reform
  • Juvenile justice legislation
  • Single business tax restructuring
  • Renaissance zone legislation

House Democrats

The leader of the House minority, Curtis Hertel (D-Detroit), says he will have his caucus members active in all measures being addressed by the Republicans, fighting for working families, consumers, and the disenfranchised.

Two issues that arouse great passion in House Democrats—reinstating capital punishment and eliminating affirmative action—seem to have been taken off the Republicans’ legislative slate for this fall. With those two items out of the way, House Democrats can save their ammunition for other wars.

They will have plenty to say about a pair of Governor Engler’s executive orders, which House Democrats believe will push public input even further from the decision-making process. The first was issued in March and creates the Office of Regulator Reform, which practically has eliminated the need for the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Legislators, including some Republicans, have vowed to fight the governor on this issue. The other executive order in question, issued in August, is the one splitting the MDNR, and Rep. Lynne Martinez (D-Lansing) has introduced a resolution to rescind it. The House Democratic Task Force on Campaign Finance Reform and Ethics likely will issue its interim report this fall. Public hearings held across the state have identified two areas needing reform: (1) campaign spending and (2) campaign behavior and advertising.

And Away We Go…

Just one week into the fall session, the legislature has bolted out the box. The Senate Appropriations Committee has bucked the governor by reporting out a veto restoration bill (Senate Bill 334) that exceeds his spending request for the Wayne County Indigent Health Care Program by $5.6 million (general fund monies). The House Regulatory Affairs Committee has reported out House Bill 4484, allowing Michigan to join in a multi-state Powerball lottery game. And while keeping vigil over the fading gasoline tax increase proposal, legislators and special interest are trying to find ways to fund the repair and expansion of Michigan’s deteriorating road system.

Life has rekindled in the capital city and at the pace things are moving, Michiganians had better pay attention: It looks as if there are going to be some significant changes made.

Copyright © 1995

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