LANSING (AP) — The Michigan Legislature formally kicked off 2014 with no heavy lifting in week one. But voting could occur as soon as this week, when lawmakers also gather to hear Gov. Rick Snyder’s annual State of the State pep talk.
Five things to know about the session:
1. BUDGET, BUDGET, BUDGET
Thanks in part to an improved auto industry, legislators will have nearly $1 billion more to work with than expected when approving the state budget. They’re eager to finalize the spending plan around Memorial Day for the fourth straight year, a point of pride for majority Republicans after past financial crises. Priorities include setting aside more money for early childhood education and for road upkeep without permanently raising gasoline taxes or vehicle registration fees. One atypical budget topic: choosing a new state standardized test to align with national education standards being adopted in Michigan.
2. TAX-CUT TALK
Many in the GOP are talking up an election-year tax cut, though Snyder, a Republican seeking re-election, is being cautious. Gradually reducing the 4.25 percent state income tax to 3.9 percent, the level in 2007, would compound to a significant annual loss in revenue within five years. Yet lawmakers are confident they can cut taxes responsibly. A one-time rebate could be an option, too.
“The last thing I want to do is leave for my successors and their successors a problem like we walked into,” said Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.
The tax talk could help Democrats’ efforts to remind voters of the move by Snyder and Republicans to slash business taxes and offset most of the cut with higher taxes on retirees, homeowners, low-wage earners and taxpayers with children. Republicans oppose Democratic calls to reinstate an exemption for pension income and to fully restore a credit for the working poor.
3. UNFINISHED BUSINESS
When they adjourned in December, lawmakers had run out of time or hit roadblocks on various bills. With some, such as Snyder-backed legislation to expand a state district for failing schools, the House and Senate remain far apart. Others likely to see bipartisan, bicameral support early on include anti-human trafficking bills. A measure that would ease phone companies’ transition away from traditional land line service awaits passage after clearing the Senate easily last month. It’s unclear, though, how a funding problem caused by Senate Republicans’ three-month delay of Medicaid expansion will be resolved.
One area getting attention is education. Legislation to rank schools with A-F grades, change how the scores are determined and hold back third-graders not proficient in reading were held up in the House before the break. Legislators also hope to put in place a statewide teacher performance evaluation system based in part on student test scores.
All 148 members of the Legislature are up for re-election this year, can’t run again because of term limits or hope to move to the other chamber. Voters also will decide the fate of some laws passed in Lansing. A statewide vote is planned in August on replacing lost revenue from a planned phase-out of tax collections on industrial machinery and business equipment. If the vote fails, the business tax cuts approved a year ago will be halted. Talks continue over making changes to soften potential opposition to the proposal from local government officials.
Michigan’s first wolf hunt in decades just ended. A November referendum is planned on a law designating wolves as a game species, and anti-wolf hunting groups and pro-hunting forces are working to bring more measures to voters or lawmakers. A ballot measure also is possible on a contentious Right to Life-initiated law, which takes effect in March, requiring residents or businesses that want health insurance coverage for abortions to buy an extra policy. There are no exceptions for rape and incest. Democrats’ push to raise the state’s minimum wage, unlikely to gain traction with Republicans, also could get a statewide vote.
5. LAME-DUCK SESSION
When in doubt, it’s easier for legislators to focus on campaigning and to put off less pressing or more politically charged bills until December’s lame-duck session. In 2012, Republicans made Michigan a right-to-work state. They could decide late this year is the time to repeal a law setting better wages for construction workers on public projects.
Other major issues at year’s end could include a permanent road funding fix, rewriting a law that guarantees unlimited medical benefits for people seriously injured in car crashes and sending voters changes in term limits for future state officeholders.
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