Government

Are you ready to rumble?

A stressful and contentious legislative session is expected this year.

January 11, 2013
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Although the state’s 97th legislative session began last week, little in the way of actual legislating will occur until Gov. Rick Snyder delivers his State-of-the-State address this week. Then it might be a Katie-bar-the-doors session such as hasn’t been seen in Lansing since John Engler lived in the governor’s mansion and introduced the concept of charter schools to Michigan’s public education system.

“This is going to be a very difficult legislative session. The Democratic caucus is still very angry,” said Becky Bechler, of Public Affairs Associates, which represents Kent County’s interests in Lansing.

Democrats, of course, are seething over how Republicans pushed the right-to-work legislation to the governor’s desk, by using a lame duck session and locking the Capitol Building doors after filling the available seats with supporters. “Democrats are unhappy with how that issue came up,” Bechler said.

But she pointed out that legislators might not be the only ones at each others’ throats this year. She said there may be some real tension between Snyder and GOP House members over a few issues. “I think this could be a very challenging year and very little might get done.”

What is likely to be first and foremost on the session’s agenda are the operating and school budgets. The Senate Fiscal Agency is projecting general and school-aid funds will fall nearly 2 percent, or $372 million, short of last May’s revenue projection.

On top of that, the state is set to make a $354 million payment to catch up on its funding of retirees’ health insurance coverage. Also, Lansing will have to come up with another $46 million that lawmakers appropriated to the wave of bills they passed in December, including the $1 million they attached to RTW.

“That’s always a big concern. We’re already in a difficult situation with the budget,” said Bechler to the county’s Legislative Committee. A revenue-estimating session was held last Friday and Snyder will release his budget recommendations Feb. 7.

There may be a good chance lawmakers will finally take up transportation funding in this session, something Snyder and the Grand Valley Metro Council, the region’s transportation planning agency, have been patiently waiting for them to do.

“It looks like this is going to be front and center,” said Bechler, who expects it will take seven or eight bills in a package to get there.

So far the plan is to raise the state’s gasoline tax and vehicle registration fee to the point where both will guarantee $1.6 billion in annual transportation revenue. Once that’s done, legislators will try to put a two-cent sales tax increase on the ballot, with the extra tax amount going into the transportation pot. If voters approve the sales-tax hike, then the gas tax would be repealed.

A lesser known but still important issue could also be dealt with this session. The Health Insurance Claims Assessment has pretty much been a bust as a way to meet the state’s Medicaid match. As of last month, Bechler said it fell $144 million short of meeting its projection. Not meeting it means the budget for the Department of Community Health, which oversees Medicaid, isn’t healthy.

“It’s something the business community reluctantly went along with,” said Bechler.

Bechler added that some lawmakers tried to raise the assessment in December but there wasn’t any traction for doing it.

Some sort of education reform, especially involving Detroit’s schools, could be on the agenda this year. The ongoing Blue Cross Blue Shield restructuring, a new energy policy, a reform of the no-fault auto insurance law and a tidy-up of the state’s new personal property tax phaseout could also make the session’s agenda.

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