By Peter Luke/Bridge Magazine correspondent
In 1983, Michigan Republicans secured a two-seat majority in the state Senate thanks to the recall of two Democratic senators from southeastern Michigan. They’ve been running the Michigan Senate ever since.
After the 2008 elections, Michigan Democrats had assembled a 20-seat margin in the Michigan House, thanks to the second of two successive national wave elections favorable to their party.
And, in 2010, they promptly gave it all back — falling into the minority and giving new Republican Gov. Rick Snyder a Republican Legislature.
That’s been the essential difference between the two political parties in Michigan for a generation now. Because Republicans have demonstrated a single-minded focus of tenaciously holding onto power, nothing has happened legislatively in Lansing that hasn’t had a Republican stamp on it.
Senate Republicans have either frustrated, blocked or influenced the aims of Democrats in the House or Governor’s Office for 15 years. The GOP majority, for the most part, has reliably backed the agendas laid out when one of its own led the executive branch.
And in the eight years that Republicans have controlled all three legs of the stool, they’ve pressed the pedal to the metal. Such is the case again this year with another on-time budget and another big tax cut — on personal property taxes — for business.
Though priorities may differ at times, the cooperative relationship between Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative Republicans holds that both will support the ambitions of the other.
So, in good times or less good times, nothing really bad has happened to Republican constituencies and interests since 1983 because Senate Republicans always have been in position to protect both. However reviled the now-extinct Michigan Business Tax became, the business community fully backed its passage in 2007.
Democrats, though, toss away their legislative majorities, their hold on power, their ability to force change in what governing Republicans want to do like a hamburger wrapper. Then, they act aggrieved when the GOP is mean to them.
Immediate effect votes on the floor of the House never mattered much before. State government was either divided along partisan lines or minority Democrats in the Senate, which requires a formal vote on such things, could still deny the 26 votes required by the Michigan Constitution to have a law take effect immediately.
Absent two-thirds authorization, legislation doesn’t kick in until 90 days after the end of the legislative session in the last week of December.
Now that Republicans have 26 Senate seats all by themselves, House Democrats would seem to be in a position to wield what little leverage their 47 seats bring in the 110-seat House. Problem is, there is no tradition in the more raucous House for a formal vote on I.E. The presiding officer, no matter the partisan identity, conducts a voice vote and there are always enough “ayes” — whether the chamber’s minority objects or not.
The decision by Democrats to take House Speaker Jase Bolger and his Republican caucus to court over the matter is instructive — not because they have any chance of persuading a Republican Supreme Court to upbraid a Republican speaker. But because they’re spending any time on it at all given what they now know.
Had immediate effect been denied to Public Act 4, the revamped emergency manager law, the law would just now be coming into play. As such, it would not have loomed so large in forcing a consent agreement for the city of Detroit to take radical budget action. And Detroit would be on the verge of running out of cash.
Now Democrats have their argument about the treatment they’re receiving in the House. Whether it’s an abuse of power depends, of course, on who is on the receiving end. Democrats wielded a pretty fast gavel themselves in the four recent years they ran the House. Which is the whole point of having it in your hand. And to do that, you have to elect a majority.
Republicans view election years as opportunities to gain or retain power. Democrats view them as opportunities to air grievances.
They nominate protest gubernatorial candidates like Geoffrey Fieger (1998) and Virg Bernero (2010), who doom legislative candidates down the ballot. Even when a strong year like 2006 should have produced a Senate majority to complement Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s second term and a new House majority, Democrats blew it.
In 2010, only 34,000 more votes were cast for the two Republican nominees for State Board of Education than were tallied in 2006. So much for the electoral bang of the Tea Party. Democrats lost the Michigan House, and their ability to check Republican aims, because there were 867,000 fewer votes cast for their Ed Board candidates. Democrats stayed home.
That’s why they lost 20 seats. If they had lost only 10, organized labor wouldn’t have to worry about Right to Work legislation. The working poor would have retained the full value of their Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit. And Democrats could have built in some protection in the political redistricting after the 2010 Census.
Meanwhile, Republican constituents at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce can lose everything else but the Senate, and still sleep well at night.
This year, Democrats have launched costly petition drives that, instead of attracting voters to their side, might actually repel voters given the focus on protecting public employee benefits.
If you’re going to spend millions on petition drives, at least pick a cause that a cross-section of voters would be inclined to support — then lash it to the broader theme of the unchecked ambition of your opponents. And above all, get your candidates to unite behind it.
What should, for example, the Michigan Constitution say about restricting Proposal A-authorized tax dollars to K-12 education, which voters logically assumed in 1994 would be the case? Voters might appreciate another say in the matter. If anybody would bother to ask them.
Instead, assuming the ballot measure survives a technical challenge, they’ll be asked by organized labor to toss out an emergency manager law that protects Michigan’s broad interest in keeping its major municipalities out of bankruptcy.
Given the law’s positive impact on forcing local political cooperation in Detroit, as triage anyway, good luck with that.
Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.