$14 million coming to Muskegon, lame-duck antics must end, and Dems take control in Lansing: state Rep. Terry Sabo reflects on Michigan politics

State Rep. Terry Sabo. Photo via the Michigan House Democrats

Just after Michigan lawmakers wrapped up a marathon lame-duck session that ended in legislators voting on a flurry of bills over 22 hoursincluding a $1.3 billion supplemental budget that is one of the largest in state history, state Rep. Terry Sabo (D-Muskegon) needs coffee. Well, he really needs sleep. But, for now, he gets coffee.

It’s the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 21, and Sabo has just returned from Lansing, where he and his colleagues ended a 13-day lame-duck legislative session by deliberating from 10am Thursday, Dec. 20 through 8am the next morning. A lame-duck session is the period between an election and the end of lawmakers’ terms. All told, lawmakers voted on more than 300 bills during this two-week frenzy, with legislation ranging from attempts to limit incoming Democrats’ powers (bills that were ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder) to weakening Michigan’s minimum wage and sick leave laws (which Snyder signed).

“This was my first experience in a lame-duck session; it was definitely an eye-opener,” Sabo says in a sit-down interview with the Muskegon Times. As of Jan. 1, Sabo began serving his second term representing Michigan’s 92nd House District. The district includes the cities of Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and North Muskegon, as well as the townships of Muskegon, Laketon, Fruitland, and Whitehall.

“It’s very disappointing for me,” the lawmaker continues. “This is not the way our government should operate. It’s just such a free-for-all; issues are not getting the proper time that they need to have. Everything is jammed through.”

It was a whirlwind of a session that landed Michigan in the national spotlight and capped Sabo’s first term in officewhich included working to secure $14 million for Muskegon in the supplemental budget and the passage of two of his own bills (read more about that below). During our conversation with the legislator, the lawmaker assesses the political roller coaster of the past month, as well as what the coming years hold in store for him and Michigan’s legislature at large.

Changing politics: What needs to happen with lame-duck sessions?

Michigan garnered quite a bit of attention during this recent lame-duck session, when the Republican-controlled state legislature attempted to strip powers from the incoming Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state, as well as pushed through hundreds of other bills affecting everything from education to the environment. While Michigan regularly has lame-duck sessions, particularly after lawmakers began to face term limits, there was a sense of urgency among Republicans this time around to enact legislation they supported before Democrats jointly took control of the top three positions in Michigan’s executive branch for the first time in 28 years. The Republicans maintain control of both the state House and state Senate.

Unlike in Michigan’s neighbor, Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation limiting the incoming Democratic governor’s powers, Snyder, a Republican, vetoed bills that would have seized control from the incoming Democrats. But the governor signed what seemed like a nearly endless stream of bills from lawmakers, including a string of measures criticized by Sabo, including: gutting two citizen-initiated laws to raise the state’s minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick leave, shifting income tax revenue away from the School Aid Fund toward road repairs and environmental cleanups, and mandating that Michigan schools be graded A to F on five measures, such as English and math proficiency and graduation rates.

Sabo holds particular ire for lawmakers’ decision to weaken the minimum wage and sick leave laws. Snyder’s decision to sign these bills comes after hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions to include raising the minimum wage and mandating paid sick leave on the November ballot. However, Republicans preemptively adopted both these laws this past fall in order to keep them off the ballot.

“The people of our state went out and followed the steps to get minimum wage and sick time on the ballot,” Sabo says. “What the state legislature did to our citizens is a disgrace…We’re really snubbing the citizens of our state.”

While the U.S. Congress routinely holds lame-duck sessions, most states do not have them because legislatures will not meet after an election is held. Michigan is one of eight states where legislatures regularly meet throughout the year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other seven states are: Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Lawmakers and citizens in Michigan, and other states that hold lame-duck sessions, have for years raised the question: how democratic is it to vote, particularly on major government changes and significant spending bills, just days before the new lawmakers are sworn in? For Sabo, the answer is: not very democratic.

“Here we are making decisions that affect 10 million people and voting on a $1.3 billion bill; that’s not the way government should work,” Sabo says. “In our state, we can’t buy a beer after 2am, but you can vote on a billion dollar budget.”

“I don’t like to do business like that when it comes to spending money,” he continues. “We’re already in session for 15 hours; it’s three o’clock in the morning, and we have presented to us a supplemental bill for [$1.3 billion]. An hour after we were presented with that information, we voted on it. It’s ridiculous.”

Sabo certainly isn’t alone in this opinion: policy groups to newspaper editorial boards throughout Michigan and beyond (including the Detroit Free Press, the Lansing State Journal, and the Chicago Tribune) have lambasted lawmakers for lame-duck sessions that they argue undermine democracy by permitting outgoing elected officials to make permanent and sweeping changes to a state they will no longer represent in a matter of weeks or days.

“At its best, lame duck is an opportunity to do things that are at once necessary and politically difficult, like raising garbage fees to pay for environmental clean-ups or salting away reserves that could see the state through the next economic downturn,” writes Brian Dickerson, the Detroit Free Press’ editorial page editor. “But this is also the hour of cynical horse-trading, petulant acts of revenge, and legislation tailored to the specifications of the majority party’s most generous bankrollersthe twilight when a term-limited legislator’s concern for constituents’ goodwill gives way to greed, self-aggrandizement, and anxiety about post-legislative employment.”

So, what needs to be done? There’s will on both sides of the political aisle to change what happens during lame-duck sessions, Sabo says. After all, while it’s the Republican-controlled legislature that attempted to take power from incoming Democrats in Michigan, Democrats in other states have wrested power from incoming Republicans. In Alabama, for example, the Democratic-controlled legislature in 1999 removed powers from the lieutenant governor’s office because a Republican was entering the office for the first time in decades.

“I’ve had some conversations with people in my own caucus and across the aisle; many said this [lame-duck session] is one of the worst they’ve ever been through,” Sabo says. “There’s definitely interest in doing something about it.”

“There’s been talk about not having any voting happen after an election,” Sabo says. “Or maybe having it so you can’t introduce bills after an election. There’s talk about raising the voting threshold for passage during that time frame. That way, the business of government could operate, but some of the more controversial stuff couldn’t be dealt with in such a crazy manner.”

State lawmakers approved $3 million in funding for improvements to Sherman Boulevard in Muskegon Heights. Photo by Anna Gustafson

$14 million coming to Muskegon

While Sabo disagrees with the way the supplemental budget bill was voted on, the lawmaker emphasizes he’s pleased with the $14 million coming to the Muskegon area for four different projects.

Of the $115.5 million in Michigan Enhancement Grants contained in the supplemental bill, $5 million will go to Muskegon Lake cleanup projects; $4 million is slated for infrastructure upgrades at an expansion of Muskegon’s Port City Industrial Park; $3 million will go to upgrades for Muskegon Heights’ Sherman Boulevard corridor; and $2 million is headed to the Food Forward FARM (food, agriculture, research, and manufacturing) incubator, which is part of the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative.

“Muskegon and Muskegon Heights were big, big winners with the supplemental bill,” says Sabo, who notes that he and former state Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart) worked closely on the funding for Muskegon.

“Sen. Hansen was very instrumental in making sure those were in the bill to be voted on, and he should get credit; we definitely have Muskegon at the top of our priority list,” Sabo says. Hansen left office because of term limits; state Sen. Jon Bumstead is now representing the 34th state Senate District, which includes Muskegon.

Fighting for foster children’s ‘bill of rights’

Though it was frustrating to end his first term with a contentious lame-duck session, the legislator says it wasn’t all bad news: in addition to helping secure the $14 million for Muskegon, he was thrilled to see the legislature pass a three-bill bipartisan package that addresses the needs of Michigan’s foster children. Included in the package is House Bill 5121, which was sponsored by Sabo and which codifies protections for foster children. The package forms the Children’s Assurance of Quality Foster Care Policy, creating what is essentially a foster children’s “bill of rights.”

Some of the package’s provisions include: placing children with relatives and siblings when it’s appropriate, access to advocacy services for foster care children with disabilities, timely enrollment in school with consistent placement in the same school, access to medical and psychological treatment, and more.

“Foster children should have security and know they have laws protecting them,” says Sabo, who worked for two years to push through this legislation that was originally supported by his predecessor, former state Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright.

Changes to occupational licensing

Working with state Reps. Scott VanSingel (R-Grant) and Jim Lilly (R-Park Township), Sabo sponsored a bill in a bipartisan package that makes changes to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs’ (LARA) licensing process. Sabo’s bill requires LARA to implement a process that allows individuals to learn in advance whether any former court judgements against them would likely result in a denial of a license or registration for certain skilled trades jobs.

Previously, background checks for professional and occupational jobs often occurred after the applicant had already gone through training and paid necessary licensing fees.

“We have seen cases where an individual spends the time and money to go through training and pay required fees for a job, only to be denied a license in the end because of a conviction in their past,” Sabo says in a press release.

This will be especially important for those who have left the criminal justice system in Muskegon, Sabo notes.

“These people have paid their debt to society and now are working to get their lives back on track,” Sabo says. “Finding a job after a conviction is one of the most important parts of reintegrating into society, and helps reduce recidivism.”

A new day in Lansing and legislative goals

With Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in office, as well as with Republicans facing slimmer margins of power in the state House and Senate after Democrats picked up a net five seats this past election, Sabo says he’s looking forward to bipartisan cooperation stemming from shifting political tides in Lansing.

“This whole dynamic of having these new people in place, it will be really interesting,” he says. “We’re changing political party hands at the top three positions in the state. Even though the House and Senate remain under Republican control, the ratio will be much closer. It will make us work much closer together.”

“Now with a governor of a different party with veto power, it exemplifies the need for that bipartisanship and working together,” Sabo continues.

As for the Muskegon lawmaker’s goals for this new session, he says he’ll be fighting for local government control and making sure hisand the state’scommunities get their fair share of funding from Lansing.

“And I have a big interest in our transportation and infrastructure upgrades,” Sabo says. “We have to invest in ourselves.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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