The Legislative Choice

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    Sure, much of the news is bad these days. But here’s a story that holds glimmers of hope that things can get better.

    Forty-four seats in the Michigan House of Representatives were forced open by term limits for last November’s election. The folks at the Center for Michigan saw the 2008 election as a forerunner of the watershed one coming next November. That‘s when we’ll elect a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, 30 new state senators and nearly one-third of the House.

    So, last fall, the Center got involved.
 Working in partnership with Detroit Public TV (WTVS) they sponsored a program of “Great Debates” between House candidates in SE Michigan. Nearly 65,000 people watched, according to the station. More importantly, the debates focused exclusively on the “common ground agenda for Michigan’s transformation.”
 That was a report that emerged from 180 community conversations sponsored by the Michigan’s Defining Moment public engagement campaign, also run by the Center for Michigan.

    The detailed agenda was also handed to candidates – both Republicans and Democrats – in 50 one-on-one meetings during the primary season. Among the points stressed by Michigan citizens who participated: How important bipartisanship is in the legislature – and how miserably lacking it has been in recent years.
 Following those conversations, the voters spoke.

    Candidates were elected in November, and come January they were duly sworn into office. And then something remarkable happened. The newly elected freshmen representatives formed themselves into a bipartisan freshman caucus – something unprecedented in Michigan politics.

    All the freshmen pledged to work in a bipartisan way to help the state, not just to score partisan debating points off each other. Virtually every newly elected House member joined in.

    For a time, their announcement was greeted with the usual Lansing skepticism. Some said the effort would never get off the ground. Others predicted the freshman caucus would be nothing more than a social gathering. Last summer, Lansing pundit Tim Skubick criticized the caucus for lack of action. 
 But last week, following yet another clumsy failing effort by the legislature to pass a balanced budget, members of the bipartisan caucus introduced a bill to force legislators to finish work on the state spending plan by each July 1 or have their pay docked for each day they miss the deadline.

    The legislation would require the Legislature to present all general appropriations bills for the succeeding fiscal year to the governor on or before July 1 of each year.

    There are 27 co-sponsors of the bill, 14 Democrats and 13 Republicans. State Representative Bill Rogers (R-Brighton) is the official sponsor. The legislation needs to pass with two-thirds of the votes in both the House and Senate to place the measure on the August 2010 ballot.

    That may be a long shot, the sponsors know. Still, “I am outraged by what took place this week regarding the budget and, more importantly, by what did not take place,” Rogers told me. 
 “It’s ridiculous for the Legislature not to finish work on the budget in time for schools and local governments to get a clear idea of what they’ll have to work with rather than have to wait until the middle of the fall,” when spending plans are already in place.

    He wasn‘t alone: “After the ordeal we saw in the legislature, it’s crystal clear the budget process is broken and in need of major reform,” Rep. Tim Bledsoe (D-Grosse Pointe) told me. 
 True, Michigan‘s fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Still, “It’s unconscionable for the legislature to continue to delay their budget duties when local governments and school districts began their fiscal years on July 1,” said Bledsoe. A political scientist, Bledsoe teaches a course in the legislative process at Wayne State University.

    Bledsoe thinks there’s a good chance the bill will make it out of the House with the necessary two-thirds majority to get on the ballot. He’s not so sure about the Senate, although he points out that comment from other legislators and the media have been positive. I’d guess if the Senate feels backlash from the public about this year’s late budget, they’ll think seriously about moving the measure.

    Rep. Lesia Liss (D-Warren/Center Line) is quoted in the caucus’ press release as saying, “Any other Michigan worker would lose their paycheck if they failed to do their job. It’s time to hold the legislature to that standard.” Amen to that.

    And good luck to all members of the freshman bipartisan caucus. Their work could be the first sign that reform of Michigan’s dysfunctional political system really is possible.


    Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics and a former chairman of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.

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