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Mich. lawmakers start with tax cuts, civil rights expansion, right-to-work repeal

The Michigan Legislature gaveled in its new session Wednesday with new Democratic majorities in charge. It’s the first time in decades that Republicans haven’t had control over at least one chamber of the Legislature. And it leaves Democrats who are now in control facing the question of what to change and how quickly to do it.

The session opened with talk of cooperation and goodwill. But the gavel hadn’t even come down on the first House session day before there was a standoff.

Republican Representative Andrew Beeler slept overnight in the Capitol so he could be first in line to turn in bills. He was about to be handed a lesson about life in the minority caucus.

There was a brief impasse as the new House Speaker, Democrat Joe Tate, arrived. And the speaker gets to decide who turns in the first bills.

“There’s a speaker’s prerogative there for that,” Tate said, and the new House leader asserted that prerogative. The bills he dropped off were placed on the queue ahead of the Republican lawmakers.

Beeler was outraged.

“I think we could all look at this situation and realize that this is not how rules operate, this is not how the House should operate,” he said. “This is pretty basic here. This is pretty cut and dry. When Speaker Tate wants something, he’s going to do whatever he has to do, stomp over the minority to do it.”

For his part, Tate laid out some of his party’s themes to reporters Wednesday after the session.

“Supporting working families, making sure that we’re growing our economy, ensuring that the areas that we have, they’re safe and strong communities and ensuring that the state is supportive,” Tate said.

With control of the Michigan House, Senate, and Governor’s office, Democrats are seizing the chance to advance many of their own priorities.

Democrats went after the state’s “right to work” law in one of their first bills of the legislative session.

The law bans union shops from requiring workers to pay full dues. It had been a major Republican victory when it passed in 2012.

Each bill Democrats filed Wednesday was a joint effort between the House and the Senate.

They included repealing the state’s pension tax and defunct 1931 abortion ban, growing the earned income tax credit, expanding civil rights protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and requiring prevailing wages in government-sponsored construction projects.

The state's earned income tax credit is based on a federal credit and offers tax breaks to low- and middle- income workers.

“Our first and only order of business is to tackle the real challenges that folks are facing by implementing an agenda that makes Michigan an even better place to call home,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said in a press release.

It’s uncertain how long it would take for Democrats to pass any of these bills.

Amber McCann, a spokesperson for Speaker Tate, said they’re not laying out a timeline for any votes on bills.

“Committee chairs will be announced soon, and the speaker is going to respect the chairs to do the work in committees,” she said.

When asked if assignments could come as early as Thursday — the second day of the legislative session — she said “anything’s possible.”

On the Republican side of the aisle, the first bills filed deal with tax policy.

Like the Democratic-sponsored bills, the GOP proposals would also cut taxes for retired workers and raise the earned income tax credit from 6% to 20% of the federal credit.

Both parties had supported legislation to raise it last session, but time ran out before the bills could get voted out of the Legislature. Some worried that meant residents would have to wait another year before they could apply it to their taxes.

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp) said his caucus’s version would retroactively allow residents to claim the credit on this year’s tax forms.

“We’re calling on Governor Whitmer and the legislative Democrats to get this done now. Because if we get this done now, when people file their tax returns this year, they can get that relief. If we drag this thing out, then they’d have to file an amended return to do it,” Hall said Wednesday.

A Democratic source said their party's version of the tax credit bill isn’t retroactive. But lawmakers are expecting to further negotiate it during the committee process.

Meanwhile, Republicans said their plan for retired workers involves allowing single filers 67 years old and older to deduct $40,000 in income, or $80,000 for joint filers. Those between the ages of 62 and 66 could deduct $20,000 in retirement individually, or $40,000 jointly.

The Democrats’ majorities are slim – very slim. Two votes in the House and two votes in the Senate.

Hall said Tate should remember that means Republicans will play a decisive role.

“And so he has a choice to make,” said Hall. “Is he going to govern in the middle and work together with us, or is he going to pander to this far left fringe of his caucus?”

Hall says Democrats will have to carefully pick their fights.

Dan Loepp has some experience in that field. He’s currently the president and CEO and president of Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan. But he served as the Democrats’ chief of staff during the historic 1992-93 shared-power House session.

Loepp says here, Democrats face a balancing act to do what they can while they can while protecting their vulnerable members.

“You’ve got be reasonable enough to survive,” Loepp told Michigan Public Radio. “And that’s hard to because both parties have hard-line views what they need and what they want to do.”

Also, things can and will change over the course of two years. Deaths, for example, can leave seats vacant. People get new jobs. Two House Democrats are already eyeing runs for different offices. All contingencies that could complicate things even more.

So, how far to move and how fast to move? That’s a political equation without a simple mathematic solution.

Copyright 2023 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.