By Paul Rozycki
In the past, the so-called “lame duck” session was a time when the state legislature met in the last weeks of the year, before the newly elected members took office. They took care of relatively modest issues, final adjustments to the budget and other end-of-the-year issues. However, in recent years the lame duck session has become a time when a large number of controversial bills are rushed through the lawmaking maze before the new lawmakers come on board in January.
In 2012, the bitterly divisive “Right to Work” law was passed in the lame duck session. In the same year, the lawmakers passed an emergency manager law, just weeks after the public had voted to repeal a similar measure. And just to make sure that the issue didn’t get repealed again, the lawmakers added an appropriation to it, preventing the voters from placing it on the ballot.
Lame duck has become a time for slipping through controversial bills, and often undoing the results of November’s public vote.
This year’s lame duck issues
This year’s lame duck session may have surpassed any in terms of both quantity and audacity. More than 300 bills were introduced and voted on in a span of 13 days. They finally ended early in the morning of Friday, Dec. 21 after a 21-hour session. The following are some of the most important bills introduced in the last weeks of 2018, aimed at undoing the wishes of those who cast votes in November.
Minimum wage and sick time
Earlier in the year voters presented petitions to raise the minimum wage in Michigan to $12 an hour by 2022. Most guesses were that if the issue appeared on the November ballot, it would pass. In response, to prevent the issue from going to the voters, the lawmakers passed their own minimum wage law. Then, in the lame duck session, they amended and gutted their own bill to make 2030 the deadline date for a $12 wage.
The lawmakers took a similar action with the proposed ballot initiative that would have required businesses to give their employees paid sick time. The law passed by the legislature kept the issue off the November ballot. Then in lame duck they reduced the impact of the law, by exempting a number of companies and limiting sick days.
Governor Snyder signed both bills shortly after they passed.
Limits on the newly elected officials
In a similar move to undo the will of the voters, the state legislature also considered bills to limit the power of the new governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. The major attempts to limit the governor and the secretary of state didn’t pass, but the lawmakers did pass a measure that would authorize the legislature to join in any court case that challenges the legislature’s action or constitutionality of a state law. If signed by the governor, the law would greatly limit the power of the newly elected attorney general, Dana Nessel, to set her own agenda.
Why is that significant? Well, the state legislature is Republican, and the newly elected governor, secretary of state and attorney general are all Democrats, and for the first time, all women. A similar set of actions took place in Wisconsin and North Carolina, where Republicans limited the power of incoming Democratic officials.
Many of these bills were generated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that presents state legislatures across the country with pre-written laws aimed at blocking their opponents.
Lame duck and ballot proposals
During the end-of-the-year session, the lawmakers also dealt with proposals that would have modified the proposals passed by voters in November. There were bills to deal with the legalization of marijuana, drawing non-gerrymandered election districts, and making the voting process more accessible and open. Each of those ballot proposals were supported by a large majority of the voters, yet the lawmakers (in the eyes of many) began modifying, and limiting their application, almost before the votes were officially counted.
There was also a bill that would make it more difficult to collect the required number of signatures for future ballot initiatives, by requiring that no more than 15 percent of signatures come from a single congressional district. The bill would also require gatherers to indicate if they were being paid.
Other lame duck issues
The list goes on of other significant issues outgoing legislators affected in the lame duck session. Among the more important were bills to:
-Authorize a tunnel for the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Mackinac Straits.
-Ease the application process for medical marijuana licenses.
-Legalize online gaming.
– Remove some wetlands from environmental protection.
– Prevent the governor from setting stricter environmental rules than federal law.
– Approve a $1.3 billion budget.
– Reform Michigan’s auto insurance laws (which failed to pass).
– Apply an A through F grading system to elements of public schools.
– Prevent non-profit groups from having to disclose their donors.
– Prevent local communities from banning the sale of puppies in pet stores.
– Allow for the placement of “baby boxes” at hospitals, police and fire stations, where newborns can be left.
These are just a few; as of this posting, there are more than 300 in the pipeline. Governor Snyder has until Dec. 31 to sign the bills and make them law.
Lame duck session and democracy
Above and beyond the merits, or lack of merit, of any of the proposals in the recent lame duck session, there are larger questions about the whole process. Should the final weeks of a legislative session be the time when the most significant and controversial bills are decided? What kind of voice should those who are in their last weeks as lawmakers have? What kind of deliberation should take place for the most important issues of the day? What opportunities should the public have to make their voices heard in the lawmaking process? Should the lame duck lawmakers be in a position to overturn the will of the voters, expressed just a few weeks earlier?
Lame duck and trust in democratic government
When citizens take the time to sign petitions, round up voters, and pass a proposal, what does it say about the trust lawmakers have in democracy, when they block the voters’ proposals from getting on the ballot, and then undo much of the intent of those proposals? That certainly was the case with the minimum wage and the sick time proposals.
Even the three proposals that were passed by the voters faced changes and modifications by the lawmakers in the weeks after the election.
The same could be said about the proposals to limit the powers of the governor, attorney general, and the secretary of state. What does it say about democracy when the lawmakers of one party attempt to undo the results of an election by limiting the powers of the newly elected officials?
It’s not surprising that so many citizens have lost their trust in democratic government, when they see actions like those that have taken place in our lame duck sessions.
Lame duck lawmakers
Does it make sense for lawmakers who either lost their election in November, or are moving on to other pursuits, to decide on controversial bills, many of which are of great importance, when they won’t be around to face the consequences of their actions?
Lame duck time frame
Does it makes sense to try to analyze and vote on 300 bills in less than three weeks, with no hearings, little public input, at a time when much of the public attention is diverted by holiday celebrations and football championships?
Good public policy is rarely made under such conditions. It’s time to consider eliminating or modifying our current lame duck session to reflect the will of the people, and protect good policymaking. A few other states have done it.
Maybe lame duck should be a dead duck.
What’s ahead for Gov. Whitmer?
As Governor Gretchen Whitmer takes office this month she will face a list of policies put in place by a Republican lame duck legislature. She will face a majority of Republicans in both the state House and Senate, though the Democrats gained five seats in each and she will need to work with her opposition to achieve most of her goals. In these divisive times that will be no small challenge.
Almost certainly one of those goals should be to rebuild the trust that has been lost by the misuse of the lame duck sessions in the past.
EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.