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With new Democratic leadership next year, what long-inert legislation will now pass?
Our roundup of proposals to address labor rights, education, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment, gun safety, abortion rights, health care, infrastructure and more
Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas graphic
It has been decades since Michigan Democrats have been able to fully enact their legislative priorities. That could change next month as the 102nd Legislature comes to order.
Following Democrats’ historic victories on Nov. 8 — which included winning both the House and Senate and a sweep of statewide offices — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and incoming leaders are now considering a laundry list of legislative actions, from labor rights and environmental protections to civil rights and abortion care, that could finally become law without GOP obstruction.
For years, Democrats have introduced thousands of progressive bills that had little chance of passage, as Republicans have controlled the House since 2011 and the Senate since 1984. But many of these bills are likely to be reintroduced next session.
Here are the issues the Advance is watching and legislation that may be passed in a Democratic-controlled Legislature:
A major spot of Michigan political contention over the years has been the partisan divide on labor and economic justice, with the 2012 Right to Work bills as the culmination of Republican attacks on unions.
That year, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the controversial laws that curtail the power of unions and allow workers to still get union benefits without paying dues. Whitmer was a key leader in the state Senate in opposing Right to Work at the time, but as governor, she has not been able to sign any bills into law repealing it due to the current GOP legislative majority.
Still, Democrats have continued to introduce bills over the years to repeal RTW that have been ignored by Republicans. With a new Democratic majority, those will likely be a priority to take up early in the next session.
House Bills 4033 and 4034, introduced in 2019 by former state Reps. John Chirkun (D-Roseville) and Brian Elder (D-Bay City), would restore collective bargaining rights to former provisions and once again require agency fees for nonunion members.
“Right to Work has been keeping workers down for the years it’s been passed here in Michigan, and we’re certainly excited to see it repealed and have some equity, some restoration of the balance of power between workers and their employer,” said Jennifer Root, executive director of SEIU Michigan.
Root said that she hopes other issues like prevailing wage, sick leave, minimum wage and more pro-labor measures will finally see their way to the governor’s desk.
House Bill 4594, introduced in 2021 by state Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac), would reenact prevailing wage for all publicly funded projects. Supporters say the laws guarantee higher wages for construction workers.
A 34-bill package Democrats introduced in February — House bills 5805 through 5836, plus House Resolution 237 and House Joint Resolution O — tackles everything from restoring bargaining rights to prohibiting the use of replacement workers (“scabs”) during labor disputes.
The new Legislature could pursue long-term solutions for infrastructure spending, as Whitmer’s 2018 campaign promise to “fix the damn roads” ran into roadblocks in the GOP Legislature, which rejected her proposed 45-cent gas tax increase. Although her administration was able to bond for road projects and has been aided by federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dollars, experts believe that Michigan’s system for funding infrastructure projects needs an overhaul so it’s more sustainable.
Democrats will likely reintroduce a climate resilience and water infrastructure investment plan, with a training and apprenticeship program to work on problems caused by climate change. This would help to steel Michigan’s aging water and sewer infrastructure against the increasingly consequential effects of climate change.
Changes may also be made to Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law. Whitmer signed a bipartisan 2019 law changing Michigan insurance policies that decreased average premiums, but critics say it has also hindered the ability of crash survivors not covered under Medicare to access quality health care.
While changing the law, which was championed by outgoing House Speaker Jason Wetworth (R-Farwell), hasn’t sparked interest from GOP leadership this term, Whitmer has signaled she is open to adjusting the law.
Democrats are also likely to reintroduce and pass bills to address health care and prescription costs. That includes bills in the Health Over Profits for Everyone (HOPE) package, introduced in the House by bill sponsors including state Rep. Kyra Bolden (D-Southfield) and former Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo).
Bills in the package allow companies to import FDA-approved drugs from Canada, cap insurance copays for insulin and more.
Whitmer, who spoke about her plan to cap insulin costs at her January State of the State address, signed an executive directive in October seeking to lower the cost of insulin for Michiganders with diabetes. If bipartisan efforts to pass legislation pertaining to insulin costs do not pass during the lame duck session, they will likely be brought up in the new Legislature.
Other Democratic asks over the years pertain to mental health support, nursing homes, paid sick leave, increased hazard pay and unemployment relief.
Education was a big issue during the election for candidates from both parties, especially among top officials like Whitmer and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon. However, their priorities couldn’t have been more different.
With Democratic control of the House and Senate, Whitmer has a stronger chance than in her first four years to see some of the priorities she campaigned on come to fruition, like tutoring, increased funding for public schools and students’ mental health.
There are also some education laws Whitmer has previously said she’d like to repeal, like the state’s Read by Grade 3 law.
In 2016, the Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Snyder, that requires districts to hold back third-grade students who do not meet the reading standards set by the M-STEP standardized test, something that Democrats vehemently opposed.
Whitmer called the law “punitive” during her 2020 State of the State address and said during a roundtable hosted by MLive in 2019 that she wants to “get rid of” the law.
It was supposed to go into effect in the 2019-20 school year, and students would be held back for the 2020-21 school year. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Schools closed for in-person learning for months, students fell behind and standardized testing was waived by the federal government until the 2021-22 school year.
In April, Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren) introduced a bill, House Bill 5991, to postpone the Read by Grade 3 law for this current school year, but that bill still lingers in the education committee.
Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) said this is definitely something that she would like to see readdressed next year, but said a timeline for priorities isn’t yet clear.
Polehanki and Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) introduced bills in March 2021, Senate Bill 199 and House Bill 4574, respectively, to amend the law to remove the portion of the law that would retain third graders who don’t meet the mark. But neither bills were given a hearing after being referred to committee.
Polehanki, a former teacher, said next legislative session she is looking to improve the “good pieces” of the law by including more educator insight in policymaking, something she said this legislation lacks.
“I want to improve what’s in it that actually helps kids to read. Like, I love the funding for the literacy coaches. It has good things in it,” Polehanki said. “However, the flunking of a third grade student based on one test they take in the spring isn’t one of them.”
The K-12 Alliance of Michigan said repealing the law would “allow for greater parental involvement in their child’s success and allow educators to develop an action plan alongside them that puts the focus back on student achievement rather than punishment.”
Whitmer signed the state’s largest K-12 budget in July, allocating $19.6 billion to invest in per-pupil funding, school safety, school infrastructure and students’ mental health. The state’s base per-pupil funding was increased by 5.2%, from $8,700 to $9,150.
The K-12 alliance said they want to see this upcoming Legislature get the per-pupil funding to $10,421 per pupil with additional funding for English language learners, special education, career and technical and at-risk students.
The upcoming Legislature may also vote on the Let MI Kids Learn petitions to create the Student Opportunity Scholarship Program to pay tuition and fees in K-12 public or private schools, homeschooling materials and online learning programs for students with financial need; and the other to make contributions to the program tax deductible.
Opponents refer to this as a voucher-style system, backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate and funder of school choice and charter schools, and say it would funnel tax dollars away from public schools.
The Let MI Kids Learn campaign submitted petition signatures past the June 1 deadline to get the proposals on the 2022 ballot. Instead, advocates hoped the GOP-led Legislature would approve them, which would circumvent Whitmer’s veto. However, the Bureau of Elections has yet to approve the signatures. If the Legislature does not OK the measures, voters will decide them in 2024.
The K-12 Alliance also listed charter reforms as one of their top priorities for next term, including capping the number of charter schools in the state and increasing oversight of charter school management.
Michigan has 296 charter schools, serving about 10% of the state’s student population.
Two bill packages in the House and Senate aim to require more financial transparency and tighter contract regulations with charter management companies — Senate Bills 929–932 and House Bills 5847, 5850, 5855 and 5856. Bill sponsors include state Sens. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), Polehanki, Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and state Reps. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park) and Stephanie Young (D-Detroit).
Another policy that may get some attention under new leadership is teacher tenure reform and educator performance evaluation changes, which were enacted last decade under Snyder.
Pohutsky said she hopes to still see those bills move through the next Legislature “to develop a more robust, accurate and helpful way of gauging student performance, growth and teacher performance and to be less punitive.”
While some environmental issues have seen spots of bipartisanship in recent years, like shoreline erosion, many others have not been prioritized by Republicans — particularly as it relates to cracking down on polluters and embracing renewable energy.
“We want to see the Legislature and governor focus on sustainable building and water infrastructure instead of giving handouts to polluters, and pass EGLE [Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy] reform so we can ensure they have the necessary tools and authority to enforce strong environmental protection,” said Tim Minotas, legislative and political coordinator for Sierra Club Michigan.
“We would love to see the Legislature revisit the bottle bill, pass legislation to remove the cap on distributed generation and enable community solar, and further legislation to support climate resiliency.”
So-called polluter pay laws have been top of mind for Democrats for years, with state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) and state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) largely leading the charge. Their efforts, which may now see the light of day, include identical bills in both chambers (HB 4314 and SB 58) to require polluters to restore land and waters to standards good enough for residential land use or drinking water.
In 2020, Democrats also introduced an eight-bill package to increase financial and criminal penalties for polluting companies while incentivizing responsibility from corporate leaders. Those include House Bills 4386, 5453, 5454, 5455, 5456
They were sponsored by Pohutsky and state Reps. Rep. Jim Ellison (D-Royal Oak), Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), Cynthia A. Johnson (D-Detroit), Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Twp.) and Kuppa.
Rabhi, who is term limited, has been a big legislative proponent of expanding access to solar power in Michigan. Bills of his that could now be taken up include House Bills 4465 and 4466 from the current session, which would prevent tax increases on property owners who install certain alternative energy systems .
Other bills, some with bipartisan support, include Senate Bills 596 through 598 and House Bills 5143 through 5145. The measures were introduced in fall 2019 by state Sens. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), Irwin, and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), and state Rep. Gregory Markkanen (R-Hancock) and Rabhi and included a bill to eliminate the current distributed generation caps on rooftop solar (also called the DG cap).
As for Michigan’s 40-year-old “bottle bill” law, Democrats have repeatedly put forth proposals to reform and expand the state’s recycling laws. Those include HB 5306 and SB 701, introduced by Hoadley and state Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) in 2019; and SB 167 and HB 4331 in 2021, introduced by McCann and state Rep. Christine Morse (D-Portage).
It is expected that Democratic leadership overall will also put more weight to prioritizing past and future legislation to fight climate change.
Finally, Democratic lawmakers — many of which generally do not support the aging, Canadian-owned Line 5 oil pipeline — could choose to throw their support behind Attorney General Dana Nessel’s lawsuit to decommission the lines under the Straits of Mackinac until a new pipeline is built.
Nessel v. Enbridge is currently in federal court. It is unclear whether Nessel will appeal a federal judge’s decision to keep it there; but if she does, the Michigan Legislature could bolster her case by submitting a brief in support as an amicus curiae.
Lawmakers could also introduce bills to legally hold Canadian owner Enbridge financially accountable in the event of a spill. The state has attempted to do this already, but Enbridge nixed the agreement in 2020.
Structural reforms/ethics/democracy initiatives
With Democrats in charge, pro-democracy efforts and structural reforms could see movement in the Legislature. For starters, legislation will likely be introduced to help clerk’s offices all over the state implement Proposal 2 which voters approved on Nov. 8.
Proposal 2, or Promote the Vote (PTV), amends the Michigan Constitution to expand voting rights in a variety of ways. In order to implement the new laws, clerks will need funding, which lawmakers can appropriate.
Funding is also needed to implement Proposal 1, another constitutional amendment adopted on Nov. 8 pertaining to legislative term limits and financial disclosures for some elected officials.
While Republicans introduced a flurry of voting restrictions after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, Whitmer vetoed many of them. They are unlikely to see movement in the Democratic-led chambers and many would be superseded by Proposal 2, regardless.
Unlike Republicans, new Democratic leadership can be expected not to threaten to withhold funding for the attorney general and secretary of state offices over policy differences on issues like abortion and voting rights. Whether bills will be passed to prevent this happening in future sessions is so far unclear.
Other voting and election related laws that are outdated or otherwise in need of updating could be addressed, including guidelines for affidavits, signature matching and more. Those changes will be made directly to Michigan election law by the Legislature, with input and guidance from the Department of State (MDOS).
More changes sought by the MDOS include making it illegal to threaten, harass or dox election workers and ensuring strong penalties for doing so; anti-deceptive practices in signature collecting; and more time for clerks to process absentee ballots.
MDOS spokesperson Jake Rollow also noted that lawmakers should adopt legislation that includes military spouses and dependents for electronic voting returns, not just the overseas military voters themselves.
In addition, Rollow said, the department “will be convening on a monthly basis clerks, legislators and other stakeholders to determine additional legislation needed to strengthen Michigan elections and support Michigan voters.”
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform has had bipartisan support, but has been stalled for years in the GOP-led Senate. Currently, Michigan’s executive office and state Legislature are both impervious to FOIA requests, making us one of only two states that have such restrictions. Whitmer has said she backs reforms.
Democrats could take up one of two proposed solutions. Moss has offered legislation that would establish a new open records act for the Legislature, while Progress Michigan proposes a version that would establish the same FOIA laws on the executive office and Legislature.
Senate bills 833-842 and concurrent House bills 4007-4016 would open Michigan’s executive office to FOIA, while the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) would be established to administer requests for the state Legislature with restrictions.
Democratic leadership may also open up investigations into certain members embroiled in scandal, including former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and state Rep. Daire Rendon (R-Lake City).
“We have been demanding an investigation into the former speaker for months, and current Speaker Jason Wentworth [R-Clare] has repeatedly and completely shut down any efforts within the House to scrutinize the criminal operation Lee Chatfield allegedly orchestrated from the Speaker’s Office,” House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) said in October.
House Resolution 260 would create a select committee to examine Chatfield’s actions.
Rendon, who was allegedly part of a plot to illegally obtain election equipment in support of election conspiracies, faced calls from Democrats to censure her while in office. She is term-limited and will not be in the new Legislature, but Democrats may still choose to investigate her actions.
As for Democrats’ long-standing complaint that signs are prohibited from the state Capitol (while concealed carry weapons are not), leadership could adjust the Legislature rules to allow them.
More legislation that could be taken up in the new Legislature include: Moss’ efforts to prevent signature-gatherers from lying while collecting signatures for ballot measures; closing a loophole that prevents voters from filing a petition to reverse a law if an appropriation is included with it; and changing language in the Michigan Constitution that allows Legislatures to circumvent voters and a governor’s veto by adopting petitions before they go to the ballot box.
Under Republican leadership, Michigan’s tax structure has become more regressive in the last decade, as the tax burden has shifted from businesses to individuals. Taking steps to reverse the trend is expected to be a top Democratic priority in the new session.
Implementing a graduated income tax is perhaps the top-tier priority on the to-do list, but to achieve this fully will take the passage of a constitutional amendment. This has been strongly opposed by Republicans and allies like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
As that process will take time, Democratic lawmakers in the meantime may take steps to alleviate the regressive nature of the structure via legislation.
In September, House Democrats unveiled a six-bill “MI Pocketbook Plan” to repeal the state’s controversial “retirement tax,” expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for working-class families and more. Those include:
- House Bill 4490, sponsored by state Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.), repeals the retirement tax.
- House Bill 4986, introduced by state Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), expands the EITC from 6% back to 20%.
- House Bill 6024, sponsored by state Rep. Alex Garza (D-Taylor), increases the civil penalties for employers who steal wages and benefits from their employees.
- House Bill 6034, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek), prevents employers from stealing benefits by ensuring employees are not misclassified as independent contractors.
- House Bill 6097, sponsored by state Rep. Shannon, eliminates corporate deductions for expenses related to outsourcing to protect and maintain Michigan’s economy.
- House Bill 6346, also sponsored by Shannon, grants a $500 tax rebate for those filing taxes individually if their income is less than $125,000 or to those filing jointly if their income is less than $250,000.
The EITC has been a longtime priority of Democrats in Michigan after it was cut from 20% to 6% in 2011 by Snyder, which helped pay for a $2 billion business tax cut.
The EITC has a chance of making it through the current lame duck session, as it has garnered bipartisan support. But it may get lost in the politics of lame duck as both sides negotiate on end-of-session deals.
Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) spokesperson Alex Rossman said the EITC bill may end up with some compromises if passed during lame duck, but nearly 750,000 Michigan families will not get a tax cut until 2024 if a vote on the bill is punted to next year.
Since the Advance Child Tax Credit (CTC) monthly payments from the federal government ended in January, leading to increased food insecurity since then, Democratic lawmakers may follow in other states’ footsteps and implement a statewide child tax credit.
The GOP-controlled state Senate last spring introduced a small, nonrefundable version of the program as part of a larger tax cut package that Whitmer vetoed, but supporters of the credit say that only a refundable credit would deliver real help for vulnerable Michiganders. No legislation on this front has been introduced yet.
Anne Kuhnen, an MLPP tax policy analyst, urged that lawmakers consider tax policies that “prioritize vulnerable populations.”
“We want to see tax solutions that are supporting the people in our state who need it most. Right now our tax system is upside down,” Kuhnen said.
Republicans will have left the current term with billions of dollars in still-unappropriated funds. Going forward with the new Dem majority, it is likely that Democrats will take advantage of these dollars by making a number of one-time investments in priority areas, and generally making way for a vastly different approach to tax cuts and investments.
LGBTQ+ rights and civil rights
Michiganders turned up to vote in record numbers and across party lines Nov. 8 to codify abortion rights through Proposal 3 — which passed by a 13-point margin.
While Democrats recognize that as a victory, they say there is still more work to be done to expand access to abortion care in the state.
Proposal 3 codified abortion access in the state Constitution, but it doesn’t repeal the state’s 1931 abortion ban which is currently the subject of two lawsuits. That’s something Pohutsky said is “a high priority.”
Democrats have tried to repeal the 1931 abortion ban for years through the Reproductive Health Act, but it hasn’t been able to gain traction among Republicans.
Pohutsky said she is hopeful that may change after the results of the election.
“I think that, frankly, some folks over on the other side of the aisle have learned a difficult lesson about the public will as it relates to abortion access,” Pohutsky said. “But in the event that it is something that they are still refusing to budge on, despite Proposal 3 and despite the fact that it cost them some seats, that is a case where the Democratic trifecta will come in handy.”
The Reproductive Health Act, Senate Bills 732–738, introduced by Sens. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Betty Jean Alexander (D-Detroit) and Bayer in November 2021, which aims to strengthen abortion access in Michigan and repeal some of the restrictions currently in place.
Progress Michigan and the Michigan League for Public Policy are also hoping to see the Drive SAFE bills, which would restore driver’s licenses for undocumented Michiganders.
Following the Nov. 8 election, Michigan will have more LGBTQ+ representation than ever before, and advocates are hoping to see that impact policy decisions.
The Legislature’s LGBTQ+ caucus increased from three members to seven, including current members Moss and Pohutsky, and Reps.-elect Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield), Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing), Mike McFall (D-Hazel Park), Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield) and Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor). Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) was term-limited.
A top priority for the caucus is codifying protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in state law. A historic ruling from the state Supreme Court in July on the the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) confirmed there are protections against discrimination of that nature, but lawmakers want to see it codified in state law.
In March 2021, Moss introduced Senate Bill 208 and Pohutsky sponsored House Bill 4297 to include LGBTQ+ protections in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Both bills had Republican sponsors, but failed to get a hearing after being sent to committees.
Michigan also has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage that has been moot since 2015 when SCOTUS in Obergefell vs. Hodges. Democrats also want to see that right, as well as the right to interracial marriage, written into state law.
However, that would have to be addressed through a constitutional amendment because Michigan has a 2004 amendment on the books that prohibits same-sex marriage, although it is currently unenforceable under the 2015 SCOTUS ruling.
Despite there being current federal protections, Democrats in Michigan aren’t sure how sturdy those protections are. When SCOTUS released the opinion this summer overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion stated that the court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents,” including the rulings that protect same-sex and interracial marriages.
Other bills that weren’t taken up this session that Democrats hope to see passed next term include strengthening the state’s Ethnic Intimidation Act to protect against discrimination and hate crimes, banning conversation therapy and eliminating the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense in the state of Michigan. The LGBTQ+ “panic” defense is a legal strategy that attempts to sway a jury to believe a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is responsible for a defendant’s violent or deadly crime
Other bills that likely won’t get support from Democratic leadership next term include Senate Bill 218, a bill sponsored by Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) to prevent transgender athletes in schools from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity; bills to ban books in schools that Dixon supported on the campaign trail; House Bill 6306, introduced by Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Union Lake), to ban drag performances in schools; or House Bill 6454, introduced by Berman, that would make it a crime for parents who help their children get gender confirming surgery.
Criminal justice/school safety
Criminal justice has been an area in the past where Republicans and Democrats in Michigan have been able to pass bipartisan legislation. But Democratic-sponsored bills on gun control, criminal justice reform and school safety haven’t moved this session.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan said in 2023 it will be “pushing the Legislature to act” on these issues, including universal background checks and Extreme Risk Protection Orders, known as “red-flag” laws.
Since 2021, dozens of bills have been introduced between the state House and Senate to address gun violence, but none of them have passed.
The Safe Storage Package, House Bills 5066–5069, introduced by Reps. Felicia Brabec (D-Ann Arbor) and Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham), and Senate Bills 550–553, introduced by Sens. Bayer, Irwin, Chang and McMorrow, would give resources for safe gun storage and tougher laws against unsafe storage.
House Bills 5627–5628, introduced by Johnson and Carter, and Senate Bills 785–786, introduced by Bayer and Moss, would prohibit selling or possessing a magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
These bills are all supported by the Michigan Education Association.
Days after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Bayer and Polehanki introduced Senate Bills 34–35 to ban firearms from the Capitol building, with exemptions for Michigan State Police officers and Sergeant-at-Arms to carry their firearms. The Michigan State Capitol Commission voted early last year to ban only the open carry of guns.
The two Democratic senators initially introduced these two bills in September 2020 as Senate Bills 1158 and 1159, but they were referred to the Senate Government Operations Committee and not acted upon.
Polehanki said the bills “just make sense” after heavily-armed protesters stormed the state Capitol in April 2020 over COVID-19 restrictions and stood in the gallery over the lawmakers during session.
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