2015: A list of state legislative achievements, inaction

LANSING — Michigan’s Legislature was dominated in 2015 with trying to find a solution for Michigan’s crumbling roads and bridges.

After a stinging defeat of a ballot proposal to raise the sales tax, in part, to get the state’s roads into good shape, the Legislature spent the next six months in a pingpong match of competing road proposals, finally settling on a plan to phase in a hike in fuel taxes and registration fees and shifting $600 million from the state’s general fund into roads.

The plan passed with almost no support from Democrats, who said they felt the shift of general fund dollars will hurt schools and local services. The Democrats also opposed the phase in, which won’t bring the full amount of road funding into place until 2021, long after most of them are no longer in office.

Both Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, count the roads’ package as one of the top accomplishments of the 2015 legislative year.

“Between the House and Senate and the governor, it’s the road package. It’s something that has eluded us for almost two decades,” Meekhof said in ranking the top achievement of the year. “It’s a good start.”

But both Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said the roads’ deal was the worst thing that happened during 2015.

“The so-called roads package has really been a sham,” Greimel said. “It’s really the worst of all worlds: It increases taxes and jeopardizes funding for schools and locals, and, worst of all, it’s not going to fix the roads.”

Another, even more controversial issue took up a month of very public time for the Legislature: the expulsion of Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, and resignation of Rep. Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, just moments before the House got ready to vote to expel him. The tea party pair were caught up in a sex scandal and bizarre cover-up over their extramarital affair. The sordid tale was full of intrigue with staffers covertly audio recording their bosses, a jealous husband anonymously sending threatening texts to the lawmakers, and the two politicians unsuccessfully trying to regain their seats by asking voters to forgive their indiscretions.

The matter is sure to seep into 2016 with the ongoing lawsuits filed by two staffers fired by Courser and Gamrat against the lawmakers and the House of Representatives.

While the roads and scandal issues seemed to suck up most of the attention this year, there were plenty of other bills that passed the House and Senate, many with mostly Republican support, including:

n Allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline service to some potential parents, such as same-sex or unmarried couples, because working with those clients would go against their religious beliefs.

n Eliminating straight-party ticket voting in elections, changing campaign finance laws to make it harder for schools and local governments to educate the public about ballot issues, and for unions to collect union dues through payroll deduction. Those bills are still waiting for Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature.

n Prohibiting local communities from enacting ordinances that would affect wages and benefits paid by employers in their communities, such as requiring a higher minimum wage than what is called for in state law.

n Allowing cash assistance payments to be withheld from low-earning Michiganders if children in the home are chronically absent from school.

n Eliminating county gun boards and transferring the authority to issue concealed weapons permits to county clerks and the Michigan State Police.

n Ending incentives for the film industry in Michigan, which began in 2008 under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm as an effort to build the industry in the state.

Other bills weren’t as controversial, passing with overwhelming, bipartisan support, including:

n Combining the Departments of Community Health and Human Services to create the biggest department in state government.

n Revamping how teachers are evaluated, requiring that 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student test score data and giving schools the ability to choose how they’re going to evaluate staff. The bill also limits the number of consecutive years a student is assigned to an ineffective teacher.

n Approving $9.35 million for Flint to help the city reconnect to the Detroit Water and Sewerage System after high lead levels were discovered in the water flowing into city homes from the Flint River. Another bill affecting Flint changed the filing deadline for candidates for city offices after the Flint clerk gave faulty information to candidates and several of them failed to meet the initial filing deadline.

n Curbing abuses in the use of civil forfeiture laws, which police sometimes use to seize property from people who were never charged — let alone convicted — of a crime.

n Some bills are less consequential, but gained plenty of support in the Legislature this year, including allowing up to three bake sales a year at public schools, quadricycles — a popular tourist town attraction  — to sell alcohol, and banning the sale or use of powdered alcohol, even though it hasn’t been introduced in the Michigan market yet.

n And, finally, fear not potty mouths, swearing in front of women and children is no longer illegal as the Legislature eliminated a slew of antiquated laws from the books, including the crime of trampling through a blackberry marsh and singing a nontraditional version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

There was plenty of work and some hearings on a number of other big issues during the year, but no final action. Issues left on the table for 2016 include:

n A rewrite of Michigan’s energy law, which expires at the end of 2015, which has stalled after months of hearings. The issues stopping final passage include whether to keep a 10 percent portion of electricity sales open to alternative energy suppliers, instead of the big utilities; how much renewable energy should be produced in the state; and how efficiency programs fit into the state’s energy profile. Bills have passed out of the House Energy and Technology Committee but are awaiting action in both the House and the Senate.

n Dealing with the crippling $515-million debt in Detroit Public Schools. Gov. Snyder has put forth a plan and the Senate has been trying to reach a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. But so far that plan hasn’t gelled.

n Fixing an obscure tax called the Health Insurance Claims Assessment, or HICA, which is paid on certain health care claims. The tax needs to be tweaked to ensure that Michigan gets its maximum share of federal Medicaid dollars. The House approved a plan that raised the HICA assessment from 0.75 percent to 1 percent, but the Senate isn’t on board with the plan yet.

n Changes to the criminal justice system to implement a presumptive parole program, which would allow inmates to get released on parole after serving their minimum sentences if they are rated as low-risk offenders, have passed the House, but have run into a buzz saw of opposition from Attorney General Bill Schuette and some in the law enforcement community. The prospects in the Senate are much less clear.

n For the second legislative session in a row, the House has passed bills to allow for medical marijuana dispensaries in communities and approved the sale of non-smokable forms of medical marijuana. But law enforcement killed the bills in the Senate last year and revamped versions of the legislation is stuck in the Senate again this year.

n A bill that would require students to repeat the third grade if they haven’t reached a certain level of proficiency in reading narrowly passed in the House but remains stuck in the Senate.

And some issues just aren’t going to go anywhere, sometimes because Gov. Rick Snyder has said he won’t sign the bills, and other times when the Legislature hasn’t been able to reach a consensus:

n No-fault auto insurance reform and a plan to create a special auto insurance package for Detroiters have been introduced repeatedly but never seem to find the support in either the House or the Senate.

n Repealing prevailing-wage laws, which call for union-scale wages on public construction projects has passed in the Senate and could probably pass in the House, but Snyder has said he does not support the legislation because it would interfere with his goals of increasing the number of skilled trade workers in the state. A group supporting the repeal is on its second effort to gather enough signatures to put the issue before the Legislature for approval, where the repeal would become law without having to worry about a Snyder veto.

n In light of mass shootings around the country, legislators have introduced bills that would prohibit people from openly carrying weapons in places like schools, churches, stadiums and bars. But they would allow people to carry concealed weapons. Snyder has promised a veto.

n Some lawmakers would like to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would give businesses a religious objection defense if the state or an agency of the state came after them for asserting their religious belief in refusing service to customers who violate those beliefs. Snyder has said he would veto such legislation, unless it was coupled with a bill to expand the state’s civil rights act to include the LGBT community.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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