Noisy protesters converged inside the state Capitol as Republican lawmakers sought to minimize the big gains scored by the Democrats in the November elections.
The state’s latest news website, Michigan Advance, is off to a running start as their coverage of the controversial lame duck session in Lansing demonstrates that naïve Democrats were caught flat-footed by a rebellious Republican agenda.
The most egregious example of this GOP aggression consists of a successful circumvention of two popular, voter-led petition drives that sought to boost wages and benefits for low-income workers.
Shady revisions were rushed through the Capitol in recent days regarding citizen-activated laws that would raise the minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave for workers, laws that were just passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in September.
Many Democratic lawmakers who favored these increased benefits for employees assumed that Republicans wanted to call a truce, given that each of the initiatives had collected nearly 400,000 signatures and polls showed both measures were highly popular with voters.
Instead, this was a bait-and-switch move by Republican lawmakers entering into unprecedented political territory, a successful bid to water down both laws in lame duck. According to Michigan Advance, more than two dozen House Democrats facilitated the GOP’s actions.
The Dems had no idea what was coming.
Under Michigan’s somewhat convoluted petition drive process, a citizen-created initiative, once it collects adequate signatures, can be detoured from the ballot if the Legislature steps in and adopts the proposal as law. Within the realm of 21st Century, hyper-partisan politics, this maneuver allows a majority in the Legislature to later revise the law to their liking. In contrast, a ballot proposal approved by voters can only be amended by legislators through a supermajority vote.
With increasing national attention focused on what’s happening in Lansing, Democrats argue the actions taken on minimum wage and sick leave are unconstitutional based on a 1964 legal opinion from former longtime Attorney General Frank Kelley, a Democrat, who said the Legislature couldn’t adopt and amend a citizen-backed initiative in the same 2-year session.
In fact, the Legislature had never done so, until now. And the prospect of a citizen-driven law facing major amendments just a few months later had never been contemplated. Until now.
Surely, some GOP-friendly lawyers in Lansing, or possibly Washington, urged lawmakers to smash the Legislature’s norms and engage in a bait-and-switch process. In essence, the strategy called for keeping the two popular measures off the ballot by enacting them into law, then watering them down in lame duck so that they adhere to the Republicans’ pro-business agenda.
The 24 House Democrats who supported or abstained on the GOP bills in September assumed the Republicans would adhere to the Kelley AG opinion, which has stood the test of time for 54 years. These outmaneuvered Dems didn’t have the votes to block the GOP plan, but it seems likely that many of those lawmakers are now embarrassed by their softball approach that embraced the September strategy.
Beyond the Capitol, Pete Vargas, spokesman for the minimum wage initiative, was quoted by Bridge Magazine in September saying, “We can declare victory now because there is no legal way to amend the legislation this year.”
Earlier this week, Attorney General Bill Schuette, who lost his GOP gubernatorial bid last month and is now looking for a job, weighed in by backing the Republicans’ actions. He offered an AG opinion that said the GOP approach, not the longstanding Kelley opinion, was constitutional.
Lawsuits will certainly follow, but the hardball tactics of the GOP stand a good chance of prevailing.
Photo: Robert Killips/Lansing State Journal