Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Wednesday

January 9, 2013

Legislature to begin new session today

It's expected to be much more tame than last year's

LANSING (AP) — Republicans in charge of the new Michigan Legislature are unlikely to match the extraordinary breadth of action taken in the last two years.

A last-minute drive in December to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state could have stood alone as a monumental accomplishment for the GOP. But the majority also slashed business taxes and shifted more of the tax burden to individuals, overhauled public school teachers' pension and retiree health care system, lifted a requirement that motorcyclists wear helmets, created a long-sought regional transit authority in the Detroit area and gave the state more power over financially struggling cities and school districts.

The two-year session starting Wednesday is expected to be tamer.

"They set the standard so high that anything compared to it will look anemic," said Ken Sikkema, a former Republican Senate majority leader. "They should not have that expectation of themselves." Though the agenda could be lighter, some big, pressing items remain at the top.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last month vetoed his own plan to change the regulatory structure of health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan because he opposed including restrictions on insurance coverage of abortions. A law is needed so Blue Cross can participate on time in a new online marketplace required under the federal health care law.

Pressure also is mounting to boost spending to fix deteriorating roads and bridges.

"We need to answer the billion-dollar question: How do we dedicate more resources to roads in Michigan?" House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said Tuesday.

The need for additional funding has been established, he said. Now it's a matter of either cutting elsewhere in the budget to shift dollars to transportation or raising "user fees" — usually gasoline taxes or vehicle registration fees. The last time the 19-cent-per-gallon state gas tax was increased was 1997.

It's a politically unpopular vote to take, one likely to require backing from Democrats in the minority. They aren't exactly in a giving mood in the wake of the quick right-to-work defeat, which hit organized labor hard.

Snyder, who for more than two years said the law wasn't on his agenda only to sign it, has called on lawmakers to raise $1.4 billion more for transportation needs, suggesting higher vehicle registration fees as one option. He plans to make a more specific proposal in his State of the State address next week.

"It's very hard to trust the Republicans and work in a bipartisan way with them," said new House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills. "The governor has often paid lip service in his rhetoric on wanting to be bipartisan." Greimel said Democrats are committed to fixing roads but concerned about "yet again putting a financial burden on middle-class families." The 2014 election could also influence much of the initial strategy and decision-making in the Capitol.

An initial indicator of the potential for rancor could come Wednesday, when Republicans decide whether newly elected Detroit Democrat Brian Banks is seated. He was convicted of writing bad checks and credit card fraud between 1998 and 2004. Democrats will calculate if voting against Bolger's certain re-election as speaker is a proper message to send.

As for other legislative priorities, outnumbered Democrats want to spend more on education and reverse the state tax on pension income and halt changes to the homestead property tax. Bolger mentioned early childhood education and vocational and technical schooling along with passing a budget by June 1.

Craig Ruff, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, said he expects Republicans to consolidate their gains rather than undertake a major set of new policies — with a few exceptions.

Education changes — teacher accountability standards, a still developing proposal to change the school funding law, aid for universities, expansion of a statewide district for failing schools — are under a microscope, including some proposals that ran into resistance in late 2012.

"It's going to be learning and potholes in 2013," Ruff said.

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