Gilda Z. Jacobs: Reframing Lame Duck and seizing the moment

December 4, 2020 7:05 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 8:36 a.m. 12/4/20

As we continue to tick through the calendar of a most unusual year, this week marked the start of the Lame Duck legislative session.

While Lame Duck is most known for hyper-partisanship and contentious and controversial legislation, it also is a very important time for good policies, because anything not passed by the Legislature by the end of the session has to start all over. Lame Duck is often punctuated with long days, late nights and long waits, as most lawmakers — especially those in the minority party — wait to see what plans have been hatched or what deals have been struck between the governor and legislative leaders. 

It’s both a miserable and exciting time, depending on what’s happening. And believe me, I know. 

As a former state representative and senator myself, I have been through six Lame Ducks, including one as a true “lame duck” leaving public office for good. I have been in legislators’ shoes. I have literally sat at those same desks on the House and Senate floor. I have stayed up way too late, waiting around for something to happen, drinking stale coffee, eating chips and chocolate at all hours, and fighting to stay awake with all my might.

In those many Lame Duck sessions, I have seen political gamesmanship and majority rule at its worst, and compromise and cooperation at its finest. I have felt the responsibility bestowed on lawmakers by the people we serve, and I have weighed my role as a public servant and my legacy on my district and Michigan as a whole. I did my best to wring some final good out of my legislative career and leave with my head held high.

I know the current class of legislators is going to experience much of the same. But with our state still in the midst of an unprecedented health and economic crisis, things are very different than anything I ever had to deal with in my day. And this moment in our state’s history demands a more stately and responsible approach than any other Lame Duck in years past.

Due to COVID-19, it is more important than ever for our elected officials to put their political agendas and differences aside and instead find common ground to do what’s best for our state and its people. The election is behind us, a pandemic is still upon us and it is time for our public servants to focus on public service. 

What needs to be done for the good of our state? What do today’s lawmakers want to be remembered for? How will history look back on the next three weeks?

I certainly don’t miss Lame Ducks for all of the aforementioned reasons. But what an amazing time to have a seat in the Michigan Legislature. Despite the varied hometowns, backgrounds, personalities and platforms, all policymakers are drawn to Lansing at least in part by service. Service to their constituents and communities, for sure, but also service to the state. And there is no greater need or opportunity for compassionate leadership and good governance than the COVID-19 crisis.

The Legislature fought hard to establish a greater role in COVID-19 decision-making. And the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in their favor. But it’s not fair and it’s not right to seize that responsibility only to squander it. Our residents deserve better. Legislators have the power to make a huge difference and address a significant threat facing Michigan residents, but they must meet this pivotal moment with decisive and positive action.

Over the next few weeks, the League will be advocating for some important COVID-19 related proposals, including Senate Bill 241 to establish a moratorium on water shutoffs, House Bill 5725 to continue the state’s additional six weeks of unemployment benefits during the pandemic, a statewide mask mandate, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed COVID-19 relief package. 

We also will be pushing to ensure that the number of positive criminal justice reforms underway in the Legislature make it all the way to the governor’s desk before the bills expire at the end of the month. These include Senate Bill 1006 to eliminate the lifetime Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance ban for certain drug felons and Senate Bills 681 and 682 to keep juvenile records confidential and make them easier to get expunged, which have both already passed the Senate and were up for discussion in House committees this week.* A full list of the League’s Lame Duck Watch List can be found here.

As a grateful alumnae of the Michigan Legislature, I will always have faith in the body and the people who populate it to do good. This devastating health situation that we find ourselves in is exactly what government is here for, and I hope all legislators are able to put personal and political differences aside to tackle the pressing needs facing our state now and in the months and years ahead. 

And to my fellow legislators, as you make your votes over the next several days, please think about what you want your legacy to be when years from now you talk to your children and grandchildren about what you did during the pandemic.

The column has been updated with the current status of bills in the Legislature.

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Gilda Z. Jacobs
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Gilda Z. Jacobs has dedicated her life to helping others, working as an educator, helping provide housing for people with disabilities, serving in state and local government for 30 years, including 12 in the Michigan Legislature, and currently leading the Michigan League for Public Policy as President and CEO.