Michigan Democrats shocked the nation in November when they won control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years. Now that the legislature is in session, they’re moving quickly and aggressively on everything from abortion to strengthening unions.
By doing so, they are laying the groundwork for preserving that slim majority in 2024, when Michigan will be a key national battleground. The GOP has long dominated state governments, controlling 57 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers across the United States. Democrats had some big state wins in 2022, including Pennsylvania and Michigan. If Michigan Democrats can repeat their success in 2024, they will make a strong case for more national Democratic investment in state legislative races.
For now, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers appear to be on the same page as they begin working to advance the agenda she laid out in her recent State of the State address. What binds Michigan Democrats together is their shared excitement at the prospect of enacting proposals that previously wouldn’t even entertain a committee hearing, let alone a vote.
“There’s a lot of pent-up Democratic energy to be able to get things done without a hitch,” said Democratic state Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivett, who won the tossup race last year.
While Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers have signaled a willingness to work with Republicans, they haven’t been too concerned about making overtures in the other direction so far. Some legislators who won hard-fought races last year said they felt working on a bipartisan basis where possible was essential to retaining their majority in 2024. But others say delivering results, with or without Republicans, and making sure they have a record so they can run. Next year is more important.
“I say it like a marginal swing seat: be bold, show up for people, take action, and I believe voters will respect and reward that,” said Democratic state Rep. Betsy Coffia.
Michigan Democrats have been bold out of the gate
In the first weeks since the legislative session began, Democrats have already made progress on some of their priorities. Over the next two years, they hope to reverse policies such as abortion rights, expanding LGBTQ rights, implementing stricter gun safety measures, adopting aggressive climate measures, free public preschools and “right-to-work” laws that hurt union membership and were previously pushed by the Michigan GOP. was implemented.
With a 20-18 majority in the state Senate and a 56-54 majority in the state House, they have the numbers to do so — as long as their caucus remains unified, and so far it has been. At this point, the biggest question seems to be when any new laws will go into effect. For the bills to take effect immediately, their approval requires at least a two-thirds majority in each chamber, which requires at least some Republican support. Otherwise, the bills will take effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session
There may be scope for bipartisan action. Whitmer signed nearly 1,000 bills in his first term while the GOP controlled the Legislature, although he vetoed more bills than any Michigan governor since 1953.
Economics may be one such area for compromise. So far, Democrats have reached an agreement with the governor on an economic package that includes a $180 “inflation relief check” for taxpayers, repeal of the state’s 4.25 percent tax on retirement income and an expansion of the state’s earned income tax credit. About 700,000 low-income workers will claim a state tax credit of 30 percent of the federal amount starting this year, up from 6 percent.
There is broad support for elements of the proposal given that the state is sitting on a $9 billion budget surplus. But while some Republicans have supported repealing the retirement income tax and expanding the earned income tax credit, they have expressed concern about issuing relief checks in lieu of possible cuts to state personal income taxes and came out against Democrats’ proposal on Wednesday.
But Democrats are preparing to go it alone on abortion access. They introduced a bill to repeal the state’s ultra-restrictive 1931 abortion ban, which makes no exceptions for rape or incest. Republicans sought to enforce the ban after the US Supreme Court struck it down Roe v. Wade Last year and went to court to defend it. But after Michiganders approved a ballot measure in November that codifies abortion rights in the state constitution, the law is already effectively dead. Democrats’ bill would provide the final blow to strike it from the books.
They also introduced a bill that would repeal the 1931 ban on contraceptives and abortion pills. While Republicans have not indicated they intend to enact that ban, Democrats are trying to preempt any such possibility.
Codifying a 2022 Michigan Supreme Court decision, Democrats introduced a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. At least 21 other states and Washington, DC have similar laws.
They are looking at legislation to protect poll workers and combat election misinformation, and to reinstate the requirement that state construction contractors pay union wages and benefits after the GOP repealed it in 2018.
Guns and unions could test Michigan Democrats’ unity
The coming battle over gun safety measures and the repeal of state “right to work” laws, which allow workers to cut union benefits without paying union dues, may be the toughest challenge for Democrats, said Bill Ballenger, a well-known political commentator. Michigan and former Republican state legislator.
Whitmer called on the Legislature to implement “common sense” gun reforms, including universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods, safe storage laws and red flag laws, aimed at temporarily deterring people who pose a danger to themselves or others. from having a firearm
Polls show Michiganders overwhelming support for many of these policies. Most Michiganders went further than Whitmer’s proposal, supporting a ban on assault weapons, a limit on gun magazine sizes and a ban on guns in schools. But some Democrats who won tight races last year seem reluctant to go too far in a state where about 40 percent of residents own guns.
“If Democrats try to do more on gun control and it seems draconian, some of these lawmakers may abandon the cause,” Ballenger said.
Michigan Republicans and business groups are already campaigning against Democrats’ stated goal of repealing the state’s “right-to-work” law, arguing with scant evidence that doing so would stifle economic development and make it harder for Michigan businesses to compete for investment.
Signed in 2012 by then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder amid protests at the state capital, the law exempts workers from union dues even when they are covered by a union contract, which Democrats argue has reduced union membership and reduced wages and benefits.
It’s unclear whether the GOP’s campaign against it has yet scared off any members of the Democratic caucus, but they may not have a single defector in the state House, and that could create internal divisions in the party, Ballenger said.
Overwhelmingly, however, the vibe at the caucus is hopeful for the first time in a long time. Coffia noted that Michigan hasn’t had the Democratic trifecta since age 5, and as a result “there was a lot of damage that we have to undo.” MacDonald Rivet said that since the session began, his Democratic colleagues have been constantly placing bill requests and passing them around the caucus room to get cosigners in an effort to move them quickly.
“I think the excitement really held us all together. We are all committed to making sure we all continue to work well together,” said Democratic state Sen. Veronica Klinefelt, who won the tossup race last year.
Will the Michigan Democrats hold on to their majority?
It’s still early days in the legislative session, but the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic Party’s fundraising arm dedicated to state legislative races, and other outside funders have already identified preserving a Democratic majority in the Michigan Legislature as a top priority heading into 2024. .
There are different philosophies on how to achieve this. Whitmer and many Democrats think this is a moment to be bold and waste no time in taking credit — and that means abandoning any illusions of bipartisanship so far.
During the State of the State address, Whitmer said he hoped to work with Republicans on his public preschool plan. But state Senate GOP Leader Eric Nesbitt dismissed those comments as lip service in a response video, and so far his assessment has been accurate. Virtually all of the legislative progress Democrats can boast of so far has fallen short of their majority.
“When we get down to it, Whitmer is not looking for bipartisan support,” Ballenger said. “Whether this backfire and these few Democrats who won very iffy swing marginal districts can withstand the blow in 2024 remains to be seen.”
Some Democrats, though comfortable with the progress made so far, are advising caution.
“We want to move thoughtfully and not just throw everything at the wall,” Klinefelt said. “I think we’re all on the same page that we’ve got a few years here to work on something. Let’s not try to rush everything. Let’s take our time and make sure we’re doing things right.”
Macdonald Rivet also urged his colleagues not to play political games and try to reach across the aisle if they want to stay in power. He acknowledged that they may not be able to do it in the state budget or right to work, but said he is already working with Republican colleagues to help flood-affected communities and bring grocery stores into food deserts.
“My voters don’t care who is in the majority. “They care about whether there are high-paying jobs, whether we’re dealing with childcare issues, whether the schools are strong,” he said.