Republicans maintain edge in Lansing, but Democrats return edgy with eyes on 2014
Slightly larger bloc of Democrats in state House won't be enough to overcome majority Republicans, or GOP grip on Senate and governor's office
Early forecasts suggest that the political climate at the Michigan Capitol will be chilly when lawmakers return in January.
A slightly larger bloc of Democrats in the state House won't be enough to overcome majority Republicans or the GOP grip on the Senate and governor's office. But the party out of power remains bitter about a legislative landslide in the final working days of 2012 that included sending nearly 300 bills to Gov. Snyder and transforming labor bastion Michigan into the nation's 24th right-to-work state.
What Republicans see as promises kept — repealing a business tax, replacing an emergency manager law and revoking a requirement that employees must pay the equivalent of union dues in workplaces — Democrats consider promises broken. In their view, the measures to repeal the industrial personal property tax moved too quickly and didn't guarantee full replacement of revenue lost to local governments, and the emergency manager legislation championed by Snyder had too many similarities to the law rejected by voters in November.
Then, there was right-to-work, the union-limiting measure that raised the ire of thousands of pro-union people at the Capitol and is likely to create the most political ill-will over time. Lingering frustration remains for minority Democrats who felt the Legislature moved too quickly in the waning days of its lame-duck session. Right-to-work was introduced and passed in the same day with no public meetings and other measures were raised, debated and approved in the wee, small hours of the session.
"What happened over the last couple of weeks in Lansing is not something you can bandage over and forget what's happened," said Robert McCann, a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer. "It was offensive, not just to our members but the general public — not what they were doing, but how they were doing it."
GOP leaders argue they had an ambitious agenda and delivered results. House Speaker Jase Bolger said in a release this week that his party will continue in 2013 to pursue "the tax, spending and regulatory reforms that are driving our recovery and putting Michigan back on top in the nation."
"Michigan's economy is turning the corner, and people are beginning to see the results of our reforms as they are implemented," Bolger said. "Michigan's unemployment rate is down, employment opportunities are up, and for the first time in seven years Michigan's population is growing again."
Democrats recognize the reality. As McCann said, Republicans "still have the gavel and can still control the agenda." Nevertheless, he said the Democrats' strategy is to "show the people of Michigan" during the next two-year legislative session that there's an alternative to "bills being jammed through the Legislature." He said that strategy is punctuated by the 2014 election, when the governor's office and the entire Legislature is up for grabs.
McCann said a challenge for Snyder and fellow Republicans could come when bipartisanship is needed, such as on the issue of whether to raise the gasoline tax for increased transportation funding.
He said Democrats will be loath to trust Snyder, who they say did an about-face on right-to-work by initially distancing himself from it but ultimately helping to shape the legislation. Snyder has said he simply took leadership on the issue that bubbled up after labor leaders ignored his advice and pushed an unsuccessful ballot initiative seeking to make right-to-work laws unconstitutional.
"There's a trust issue now," McCann said. "How does he expect to come (to Democrats) and say, 'Here's what I need you to do'? That level of trust has been irrevocably broken in some ways, and that's not something that's easy to rebuild."
Some Republicans say objections to right-to-work will fade as Michigan's employment picture and overall economy improves because of the legislation. "As they say in sports, the atmosphere in the locker room gets a lot better when the team's winning," right-to-work supporter and St. Joseph Republican Sen. John Proos said earlier this month.
Democrats aren't so sure — about fading objections or improving economic fortunes. McCann, who said his boss, Gretchen Whitmer, is "weighing her options" about "whether to run for governor, attorney general or nothing at all in 2014," said Democrats will take the opportunity to remind voters about how the various bills were passed and what their consequences will be as they take effect in the coming months.
Voters should note, he said, that the GOP-led rush of legislation came "at the furthest possible point from the next election."
"That's the challenge," he said. "Making people remember about what's happening here.
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