Region Has Less Political Punch In State

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County commissioners learned recently that the legislative road to Lansing will be a bit bumpier this year, as West Michigan doesn’t have the same political clout in the capital now that the area enjoyed for much of the past decade.

David Haynes, a partner in Public Affairs Associates Inc. of Lansing and a lobbyist for the county, told commissioners that seniority-killing term limits are responsible for much of the legislative power being transferred from this region to the six counties that comprise the Metro Detroit area.

“Over the years, we’ve had good representation here,” said Haynes of the state House. “But not now. The power has shifted to the southeast. This is where the power is.”

Haynes said the same is true in the state Senate.

“We don’t have anyone in a leadership position there now,” he remarked.

Haynes made his comments at the last commission meeting and backed up his statements with a breakdown of leadership posts and committee appointments in the House and Senate.

For instance, state representatives from Allegan, Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties have 25 seats on 16 House committees, which have a total of 202 seats. This means the West Michigan delegation holds 12.4 percent of all those seats. Only four of the committees are chaired by a representative from the region. Three area representatives sit on the 20-member House Appropriations Committee, giving the region a 15 percent representation.

As for the House leadership posts, only Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, the Speaker Pro Tem, is from West Michigan. The Speaker is from northern Michigan, but five other leadership positions belong to representatives from the east side of the state.

In the Senate, West Michigan has 15 seats on 15 committees. Those committees have 86 total seats, giving the region a 17 percent representation. Five of the committees are chaired by area senators. Leon Stille, R-Spring Lake, is the only area senator on the Senate’s seven-member Appropriations Committee for a 14 percent representation.

None of the top six leadership posts in the Senate are held by a member of the local delegation, but senators from Genesee and Wayne counties each hold one of those posts.

In addition, West Michigan has only one representative on the nine-member House Redistricting and Elections Committee, while Metro Detroit has seven. The region also only has one senator serving on that body’s nine-member Reapportionment Committee, while southeast Michigan has six. Those two committees are drawing up the state’s new political districts in light of the changing population figures.

Haynes said another effect term limits has had on the political process is that bills move through the Legislature faster than in the past. Today, he said, a bill can become law in 90 days. Before the limits went into effect, bills could take up to two years to pass.

“So we’ve got to move fast now,” said Haynes to commissioners.

The House has 110 members and they are limited to three two-year terms, while the Senate has 38 members who are limited to a pair of four-year terms.

After hearing Haynes’ analysis, Kent County Commission Chairman Steve Heacock admitted that the road to Lansing will be rougher this year than in the past. But, at the same time, he still seemed interested in making the trip.

“The key there is we’ve really lost influence from Kent County. We now have to go across the state to try to gain influence and they may have different interests,” said Heacock. “It’s now more difficult, but more exciting.”

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