In Lansing, majority rules on number of bills passed

LANSING — There are many ways to determine the effectiveness of elected representatives in the state Legislature: leadership positions, constituent services and length of service.

But another way is how much influence a lawmaker has in actually making laws. So far this year, 202 bills passed by the Michigan Legislature have been signed into law — everything from a package of bills to fix the state’s roads to allowing religiously affiliated adoption agencies to decline services to clients based on religious or moral reasons.

The one thing in common with most of the bills: the vast majority were sponsored by Republicans, who have clear control of the House (61-46) and Senate (27-11). Of the 202 bills signed into law, 179 were sponsored by Republicans and 23 by Democrats. Meanwhile, 22 Republicans and 35 Democrats have had none of the bills they’ve sponsored passed this year. And only two Detroit members have gotten any bills passed and signed into law.

“Obviously, the party that’s in power passes the most bills,” said former Speaker of the House Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy. “But when I was there, I always tried to make sure that everybody had some type of legislation that got passed. I wanted to make sure that everyone was part of the process.”

How many bills legislators introduce, pass

In Johnson’s first year as Speaker, 49 of the 506 bills passed and signed into law in 2001 were sponsored by Democrats. By Johnson’s last year as Speaker in 2004, 89 of the 596 bills signed into law were sponsored by Democrats.

“It is frustrating, particularly when you’re working in good faith on issues and most of my bills are nonpartisan. I’ve had some bills pass the Senate, but nothing that’s gone through the House yet,” said state Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, who has sponsored 25 bills, but hasn’t seen one pass. “You don’t get a ton of bills in the minority, but you get some.

“It bites being in the minority.”

It’s not that Democrats aren’t trying to influence policy. Of the 1,081 bills introduced so far this year, 377, or 35 percent have been introduced by Democrats while 704 have been put in the legislative hopper by Republicans.

At the other end is state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who has the most sponsored bills, at 51, and the most that have passed, at 14. Most of that is a function of his role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with budget bills introduced with him as the lead sponsor. But he also has had bills that require school attendance for families with children to qualify for state assistance and that prohibit the Michigan Economic Development Corp. from participating in any more venture capital programs.

“I’ve always been known as an active legislator,” he said. “The other side has had some opportunities this year to get things done, but I think their leadership has failed them. They could be a more effective minority, but their unwillingness to meet us halfway has led them to be ineffective.”

State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, is the exception to that rule. He has the most bills passed of any Democrat, at five, but that’s because he has worked with Republicans on the Appropriations Committee and supported some controversial issues that, in part, have caused him to get kicked out of the Democratic caucus. Santana is often the only Democratic vote on controversial bills, and he doesn’t meet with Democrats during closed-door caucus meetings.

As a result, five of the 19 bills he has sponsored, including some of his pet issues like expanding the eligible age for young people convicted of a crime to be granted youthful trainee status and regulating mixed martial arts competitions, have been brought up for hearings and passed in the House and Senate.

“I’ve done a good job of trying to strengthen relationships on the other side, which makes it easier to approach leaders on the other side for support for my bills,” Santana said. “Democrats don’t allow me in the caucus room and by the time the issue comes down where they’ve taken a caucus position, I’m never part of that discussion. What that has left me with is, I’m the guy who is the Republican go-to when they need a critical vote.”

For others, like state Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, the lack of movement on Democratic bills is a disappointing reality of serving in the minority.

“I understand that for a variety of political reasons, our bills won’t be brought up,” said Singh, who has introduced 14 bills, but seen only one pass. “But many of our bills have bipartisan support, and those are the bills I’d like to see brought forward in committees for a hearing.”

The one he’d really like to see more action on is a bill that would provide limited amnesty for people who are suffering from an overdose from an illegal drug, like heroin, and who seek assistance for that health crisis. The House has passed legislation — sponsored by Pscholka — that would provide that amnesty for minors who are experiencing an overdose on prescription drugs or their friends who are trying to find emergency health care for them.

“Both prescription drugs and heroin are significant issues,” Singh said. “It was a great first step by Pscholka, but it didn’t go far enough.”

At the far end of the bill-passing spectrum are three legislators who have no bills under their belts, either introduced or passed, including Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, state Rep. Frank Liberati, D-Allen Park, and Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have little influence. Cotter, like Johnson before him, spends more time setting the agenda for the majority Republicans than sponsoring bills.

“Under the rules, the Speaker could get unlimited priorities on bills and a super priority is when the Speaker and the majority leader are asking for something together. I never did either,” Johnson said. “When I became Speaker, I never even cosigned on a bill. I always thought that was a good rule because it didn’t influence a bill one way or another.

“I always said it doesn’t matter who introduces the bills, it’s how people vote on them. Nobody remembers that so and so introduced the bill.”

Now that the roads improvement package has passed the Legislature, with little Democratic support (only Santana and Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit voted for the main bills in the package) state Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, said he hopes some other things come to the forefront. He’s sponsored 33 bills this year and gotten only four passed.

“Things got slowed down because of the roads debate, and this is going to free up quite a few items. We have several bills, perhaps a dozen dealing with old and outdated laws. I’ve also got the whole presumptive parole as well and criminal justice reform,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of bills out there. I think they’re very worthwhile, and it takes time to get them through the system. But I’m also very patient.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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