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Tuesday, December 23,2008

My latest Capitol sleepover

by Kyle Melinn
I couldn’t buy a seat in Room 426 of the Capitol. Lobbyists, activists, journalists — everybody wanted to see what was going on with the no-smoking-in-restaurants bill. Nothing unusual in that.

The unusual was the clock. It read 12:30 a.m. Yes, a.m., like in the morning.

The rest of the world finds a way to operate from 9 to 5. But Lansing believes new laws are best put together by caffeine-saturated, glazy-eyed lawmakers who’d probably vote to give the Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin if it meant an end to it all.

Last year’s short-lived sales tax on services and four-hour government shutdown didn’t end Midnight Madness at the Capitol. It only proved state government runs more efficiently when everybody is too tired to care.

The early morning hours of Dec. 19, the last day of the 2007-2008 legislative session, was the latest episode of legislative Survivor. And even now, days later, my mind isn’t quite right. My wife drove me to bed yesterday when I addressed a Christmas present as, “Kyle: From.”

“What do you people DO all night?” I thought I heard her say. This is my best recollection.

1:12 a.m.: I scramble back upstairs to the smoking ban meeting. About four grumpy lobbyists are huddled outside the door. I’m told, “yes” the meeting is over. “No” they didn’t do anything. “Yes” if they come back to try to pass something again tonight, somebody may get hurt.

2:28 a.m.: Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano is asking some senators for a new authority to manage the Cobo Hall expansion in Detroit. If something isn’t done, the winter international auto show will leave for Chicago. Nobody wants that. A “deal” is struck. I begin writing a story.

3:15 a.m.: Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop is overheard saying “Detroit just blew up the Cobo deal . . . Blown up! Boom!” His eyes grow wide. His hands float apart, mimicking an explosion. I rewrite my story.

3:20 a.m.: Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel ducks into the governor’s office. Hold on! Maybe a deal isn’t dead, yet. I search for a new story.

3:24 a.m.: Special carve-outs to the 16-month-old Michigan Business Tax (MBT) are afoot. Nobody knows what they are or how much they will cost. Nobody seems too worried . . .  . What? We’re adding to next year’s $1.5 billion deficit? Let the next Legislature worry about it.

3:57 a.m.: Hunger pains setting in. The cookies, M&Ms and fruit are long gone from P.R. guru Kelly Rossman’s snack table. A Chamber of Commerce lobbyist is poking through the picked-overs for anything with sugar, too. We agree. Meat and cheese squares lost their appeal around 11:30 p.m.

4:12 a.m.: Cobo is back on, but the Legislative Service Bureau needs until 7 a.m. to print the bills. The snow has been falling since 3 a.m. Folks are getting nervous about the drive home. Could we really get 12 inches?

5:30 a.m. Dozens more bills pass. Tax breaks for communities that give full-ride scholarships. Tax breaks for border communities. Tax breaks for alternative car battery producers. Tax breaks for Canadian companies. Another tax giveaway for Michigan International Speedway.

New machines to stop people like Kramer and Newman from scoring 10 cents on their out-of-state bottles. A 3 1/2-mile train track for Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. More state tax money going out. Less tax money coming in. Am I missing something?

7:11 a.m.: Representatives are wandering about the House floor. They’re waiting on the Senate. Senators are wandering about the Senate floor. They’re waiting on the House. The House’s coffee machine is out of regular. There’s plenty of decaf.

7:16 a.m.: I begin counting sleeping representatives. Lose interest at five. Return to Senate. I ask Bishop about the “we’ll-be-finished-at-midnight” prediction he made 12 hours ago. “If this were Nebraska and we were unicameral, this would have been done a long time ago,” he says. I forget to ask him about the MBT.

8:45 a.m.: Desertion becomes an issue. Panicked lawmakers return from the parking lot looking like Frosty. Will their cars make it home? The 38-member Senate is down to 29 members. The 110-member House is at 88. Leaders beg people to stay. It’ll only be another hour, they claim.

11:20 a.m.: The Senate adjourns. The House left five minutes ago. I run down a staffer, who explains the MBT bill to me.

11:25 a.m.: I realized I asked about the wrong bill. Try to find the staffer again. The chamber is empty.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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