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Wednesday, June 12,2013

Freshmen Lansing area reps and their bills

by Walt Sorg
The state Legislature is a week or two from its summer recess, so it’s time for mid-term grades. I’d give Michigan’s “Mighty 148” a “D” grade based on 1) passing a budget that shortchanges virtually every vital public service; and 2) simply not getting much else done.

As of the end of May, our 148 lawmakers had managed to enact all of 40 laws, many of them inconsequential. Left undone so far are three of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s top priorities: overhauling transportation funding, expanding Medicaid at federal expense for 400,000 state residents (although there’s talk of a compromise coming soon), and joining most other states in adopting the national Common Core curriculum standards for K-12 schools. 

Lawmakers did, however, pass two laws to allow license-plate sales to raise money for duck hunting and another law allowing bear petting.

Thanks to term limits — plus one political upset last November — the Lansing area’s five state House members are all rookies. Between them so far: 

•  Only one non-controversial law was enacted, which gives judges more sentencing options for criminals who financially victimize seniors; 

•  A second non-controversial bill, which would provide an income-tax check-off for ALS research, awaits a final Senate vote before going to the governor; and

•  Some behind-the-scenes negotiating to save state funding for a major local economic development project.

With 11 bills introduced, Lansing Democrat Andy Schor has been the most active local House member. His proposals include adding public libraries to weapons-free zones, increasing funding for K-12 schools and cracking down on fraudulent mortgage practices. Another Schor bill, providing major tuition tax credits for college students who work in Michigan after graduation, has drawn major bipartisan interest. Committee hearings have been held in the House, and a clone bill was introduced last week in the state Senate.

Schor and Mason Democrat Tom Cochran share frustration over the Republican majority’s focus on tea party-backed ideology at the expense of their constituents.

“I don’t think that all Republicans support this tea party agenda,” Schor said. “In fact, only about half of them do. The other half, along with the Democrats, should form a working majority, but we don’t. The few ultra-conservatives govern.”

Cochran echoed Schor’s frustration, stating that Medicaid expansion should have bipartisan backing. “It’s not just Democrats that support the expansion. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan, and even Governor Snyder want to see Medicaid expanded.”

In contrast has been a bipartisan victory for East Lansing Democrat Sam Singh: restoring the state’s matching funds for the $500 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University. Over a period of two months, Singh and MSU officials worked with House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, to restore the state match. Most of the $500 million is coming from the federal government. Singh told East Lansing Rotary on Monday that Poleski went from skepticism over the spending to offering the floor amendment that restored full funding.

In those same remarks, Singh expressed some optimism that a compromise over Medicaid expansion could be passed before the summer recess, but said any progress on transportation funding would have to wait for the fall session.

Singh’s seven bills include reversing the Snyder administration’s cut in the earned income tax credit and accelerating Michigan’s adoption of energy conservation strategies. He also has proposed allowing “Dream Act” residents — undocumented residents brought to the U.S. as small children — to obtain a driver’s license. In the unlikely event the bill is debated, it would touch off heated rhetoric on immigration policy.

DeWitt Republican Tom Leonard is the only legislator to have a bill become law. His measure giving judges more sentencing options for criminals who financially victimize seniors passed the House 102-8 and received unanimous Senate support. Leonard called enactment of the law his “most satisfying moment” in the House. The former assistant Genesee County prosecutor has also introduced a bill allowing prosecuting attorneys to carry firearms into weapons-free zones.

Cochran’s bill to provide an income-tax check-off for ALS research is on the verge of going to Snyder’s desk. All that is needed is final Senate approval. Cochran’s four other bills include parts of a Democratic caucus package on campaign finance reform, bills considered D.O.A. in the Republican-controlled House.

Grand Ledge Democrat Theresa Abed, who ousted Republican Rep. Deb Shaughnessy in one of last year’s upsets, is chief sponsor of another Democratic-caucus bill that is D.O.A. but will play a role in next year’s election: repeal of the highly unpopular pension tax. Abed’s other bills include giving state purchasing preferences to Michigan-based companies, requiring extensive personal financial disclosures by public officials and expanding Michigan’s anti-bullying law to include cyber-bullying.

The biggest surprise for the newbie legislators? Both Cochran and Leonard, who were elected with no previous experience in state government, said they were surprised by the work demands of the job with multiple constituent meetings and events eating up nights and weekends.

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