The cash advantage
Democrats are coming in with an advantage unprecedented in Michigan history: billions of dollars in surplus cash in state coffers at their disposal.
The expected $9.2 billion in revenue surplus is a combination of federal aid and unique pandemic circumstances. It’s also one-time funding, meaning that lawmakers can’t rely upon it forever, and fiscal analysts recently predicted the state is heading into a ‘mild’ recession.
In the interim, though, it frees Democrats from needing to make painful budget cuts or ask for tax hikes, leaving more room to push forward other policies they haven’t had the last word for years, said John Lindstrom, a former publisher of Gongwer News Service who has followed Michigan politics for nearly 50 years.
The last time Democrats took control in 1982, Michigan was in an economic crisis, and then-Gov. Jim Blanchard spent most of his political capital the following session ginning up support for an income tax hike, Lindstrom said.
“If you had told anybody at that time, ‘One day, 40 years from now, you’re going to have a $9 billion surplus, somebody would have slugged you,” Lindstrom said. “That money gives you a huge advantage and an even bigger responsibility that you need to consider, and there is no comparable situation ever — ever — in the state.”
The Democrats’ $1.1 billion spending plan included more than $700 million of general fund dollars as well as unspent federal funds, and included $200 million for a Swedish-owned company to upgrade an Upper Peninsula paper mill, $150 million for affordable housing and $25 million for water prevention shutoffs, among other things.
It’s far more than the initial Senate-passed “books closing” bill of funding carryover from last term, including money for the state’s independent redistricting commission.
House Republicans opposed a version of that bill stripped of all funds except for placeholders, citing concerns with the strategy of sending the bill to a special conference committee instead of putting it through the regular committee process or up to floor debate.
Tate, who served as minority vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee before becoming speaker, countered that conference committees were a common legislative practice.
“We want to move in an efficient manner and actually get things done that we didn’t get done in the last legislative session,” he said.
Same as the old boss?
Amidst all the upheaval, the legislative process itself hasn’t yet changed much, procedurally or politically.
While in the minority, Democrats frequently voted Republicans for playing political games, claiming they were unfairly excluded from negotiations and that the majority lacked transparency when pushing through major policy changes.
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Republicans are airing similar grievances.
“I think this is what you guys are going to be seeing a lot these two years,” Hall told reporters last week. “All we’re asking for is, show us what your plans are and we’ll vote on it, but until they do, they’re not going to get Republican votes.”
House and Senate schedules have stuck to the typical Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday pattern. Legislative committees still have more members of the majority party than the minority, although some Republicans accused Democrats of rejecting House Republicans’ committee recommendations and stacking committees with more of their own members. .
The House also plans to continue using voice votes to give immediate effect to bills once they’re signed into law, Tate recently confirmed, a procedural move Democrats have previously criticized.
“There are things they will deal with at times where people will say, ‘Wait a minute, you used to (complain) when the Republicans did that, and now you’re doing the same thing,’” Lindstrom said of the Democrats, noting that party leaders might find it “a little trickier” to keep the ground high when they see the political advantages of certain procedural decisions.
“The Democrats have had no real influence for a long time. You want progress and you want progress, but you also have to be careful as you do so,” he continued. “If you need to drive near the cliff, drive near the cliff, don’t go over it.”
Pohutsky, who serves as the House’s speaker pro tempore and often presidents over session, said Democrats don’t plan on cutting off the floor debate as frequently as Republicans did. She said she noticed at one point last week a Republican lawmaker seemed to expect he’d be getting “gaveled down,” or cut off from finishing his speech, during a floor debate. She let him continue.
Despite some concerns about what’s happened so far, many Republicans expressed confidence they’ll be able to find common ground with their Democratic counterparts.
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