It’s a Mad, Mad Michigan


Sure, lame-duck legislatures are bound to be a bit mad. But the session that just closed in Michigan was one for the ages. Aflush with the flurry of bills sent to the desk of Governor Rick Snyder—not so much speaking to his opinion on their quality—a politics-loving friend of mine in Detroit exclaimed, “It’s like Christmas in … well, in December.”

The swift passage of right-to-work in Michigan picked up national and international headlines last week. But that overhaul of labor law is only one piece of the expansive legislative plan for the state that now awaits Snyder’s go-ahead. The lame-duck session was the final and powerful display of influence by GOP and Tea Party lawmakers that had a total and triumphant win in the 2010 election. Even as Michigan’s reputation as a “swing state” is diminishing—it’s voted Democratic for president since 1992, and both its U.S. senators are Democrats—local politics remain fractious. Not only does the GOP dominate both chambers in the state legislature (they will continue do so in 2013, despite some liberal gains in November), they also have power in the state Supreme Court, and the offices of the attorney general, secretary of state, and, of course, governor.

There was some good news from the lame-duck session: for the first time, the legislature approved a transit authority for the Detroit-Ann Arbor region—a huge and hard-fought win for an area dominated by the “Motor City.” More than two-dozen previous efforts failed, leaving Detroit as the largest metro area in the country without a regional transit authority; now that Snyder’s signed the bill, that’s left to ignominious history Also, a new lighting authority was created that will help keep Detroit’s famously patchy streetlights on, and, with a sweep of Snyder’s pen, additional funds are being directed to support local food systems in Detroit’s thriving Eastern Market.

Less than a half-day before the awful school shooting in Connecticut, the Michigan legislature passed a bill that would permit the carrying of concealed guns in day cares, schools, nurseries, churches, and stadiums, as well as shifting the power to grant concealed-weapon permits to county sheriffs. (They are currently granted by county gun licensing boards.) Snyder, happily, vetoed it.

But by and large, the proposals for Michigan’s social, economic, and political future are grim indeed. Abby Rapoport suggests that Michigan looks an awful lot like Texas lately—and it’s not because those of us in the North Country have developed a fondness for cowboy boots and chiles. The brutal way most of these measures were pushed through the statehouse, without public input and with nothing like calm deliberation, has left Democratic lawmakers and many of Michigan’s citizens feeling raw and resentful.

Let’s take it piece by piece.

 

Health care and abortion

This may be the biggest coup for Michigan’s GOP, after right-to-work. Republicans in the legislature have taken a multi-pronged attack on abortion rights in Michigan (which were hardly robust anyway). The same omnibus bill that ignited national attention when Democratic Representative Lisa Brown was formally silenced after referencing her vagina in her protest of the House version last summer now has Senate approval.

If Snyder signs it, here’s what it would do:

  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Prevent abortion from being covered in the health insurance exchange being created under the Affordable Care Act.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Prevent abortion coverage from being covered by standard private insurance policies issued by employers. Women or employers would have to purchase (in advance!) a separate rider if they want coverage for abortion procedures. The only coverage exception is for situations where a woman dies if she doesn’t get an abortion. There are no exceptions for rape, incest, or pregnancy complications that threaten the health of the mother.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Compel abortion clinics to meet the standards of surgical clinics, including requirements on the buildings that specify doorway size and minimum square footage.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Prohibit the use of telemedicine, where doctors prescribe medical abortions that can be completed with a prescription, and instead require doctors to personally induce abortions.
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Permit doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and employers to refuse to cover or provide any health care treatment that they find morally objectionable, including abortion and birth control. (Conceivably, this could also include, say, treatment for HIV and AIDS.)

Democrats futilely attempted to add amendments that would create restrictions on vasectomies and Viagra to parallel the proposed restrictions on abortion and contraception.

 

Anti-sharia law

Dearborn, a city outside Detroit, is home to one of the largest population of Arabs in North America. It is 40 percent Arab American, and home to the wonderful Arab American National Museum and the largest mosque on the continent. Thriving communities of Muslims live there and throughout Michigan. But there appears to be a frightening lack of understanding about Muslim communities, given that the legislature passed a bill that attempts to defend the state against the supposed threat of Islamic law, or sharia law. Specifically, and redundantly, the bill would bar “foreign laws that would impair constitutional rights” in Michigan. It does not name sharia specifically, but its context is understood: Republican Representative David Agema, the bill’s term-limited House sponsor, has called for targeted investigation of Muslims in southeast Michigan and claimed that “they” don’t want to live under our laws. Even the Catholic Conference opposes the bill, because it believes the vague language would muddle the application of Catholic canon law in church governance.

 

“Voter fraud”

Despite Snyder’s veto of a similar bill just months ago, the legislature has sent him another measure that would require voters to sign a statement affirming their citizenship when they go to the polls to vote. The bill Snyder vetoed would have required voters to fill in a citizenship check-off box at the polls, and when the secretary of state used the check-off boxes anyway in the August primary, she faced a federal lawsuit. The new bill has voters sign their name to a prewritten statement, including their address and date of birth.

 

Recall

State lawmakers passed a bill to make it harder for citizens to recall state lawmakers. This includes legislators and the governor, as well as local officials. (Notably, November saw the successful recall of the mayor of Troy, Janice Daniels, following several anti-gay statements, her refusal of federal funds for a transit center, and her combative relationship with several city-council members.) The new recall guidelines would shorten the time for collecting petition signatures, down from 90 days to 60 days. “Officials subject to recalls would have opponents instead of the existing system under which recall elections are an up-or-down vote,” wrote David Eggert in MLive. That opponent would need to be elected in a primary, which of course delays the full recall process, and recall petitions could not be filed against officials with two-year terms in the first or last six months of their tenure. Recall elections could only happen in May or November, and only one recall could be filed against any one politician. County election boards would now decide if the reasons for recall are stated “factually and clearly” (compared to just determining if there’s “sufficient clarity” now).

 

Property tax

The personal property tax will be phased out over the next ten years, which, according to the Detroit Free Press, amounts to a “$590 million-a-year tax break.” It passed the House with only one vote to spare and Snyder signed it into law Thursday. The personal property tax was paid by manufacturers on their industrial equipment.

Initially, the Michigan Municipal League and Michigan Association of Counties opposed the bill because it doesn’t provide for full revenue replacement for local communities that depend on this tax income. But the organizations officially shifted to “neutral” on the tax elimination when lawmakers said the phase-out will only happen if voters approve a 2014 ballot question that is “related to replacement revenue,” according to the Free Press. The phase-out would then begin in 2016. The ballot initiative will ask voters to earmark a certain amount of sales tax paid by business toward reimbursing counties, municipalities, and schools—though it is not at all clear that this would not still amount for a net loss.

 

Prison privatization

Michigan lawmakers are looking to re-open a private prison near Baldwin, Michigan that would house up to 2,580 inmates. It has been vacant since 2005. Even as smaller numbers of prisoners and state budget cuts led to several prison closings in Michigan—including the only two in Detroit, where a disproportionate number of incarcerated people could be visited more easily by family members—the proposal is to open the North Lake Correctional Facility, currently owned by Geo Group, a Florida-based company, and open it up for private bids for operation. It very well could go back to the Geo Group, which, as the AP reported in May, had been the target of a federal investigation that found that the company permitted “cesspool” conditions in a youth prison in Mississippi. Geo Group also had to pay a $1.1 million fine for understaffing prisons in New Mexico. Minimum requirement for the company that would operate the new private prison in Michigan? It doesn’t have to do with the quality of care or low recidivism rates. Rather, the private operator must demonstrate an annual cost savings of at least five percent.

 

Stadium subsidies

Snyder signed into a law a measure that would help create a new arena and “entertainment district” for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. Currently, the Red Wings play downtown at the Joe Louis arena on the river—or they would be, if not for the NHL lockout. The plan allows Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch to access nearly $13 million of taxpayer money to help fund a $650 million development. This news came just as the fact that Ilitch—who also owns the Detroit Tigers—owes more than $1.53 million back taxes to the City of Detroit for the two parcels that make up Joe Louis Arena. Ilitch denies responsibility for back taxes. 

Whew.

It is a lot to take in. But, look: Michigan is worth your attention. And it’s worth the fight.

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