Updated, 10:38 a.m. 11/13/19
The state budget remains somewhat paralyzed, as the main sticking point is Republicans demanding the Democratic governor surrender certain executive powers. That’s a familiar story — and not just in Michigan for the last year, but across the country in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina.
In the last couple of weeks, Wisconsin again made national headlines when its GOP-led legislature refused to confirm Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet pick after the agriculture head criticized Republicans. Evers can’t reappoint his nominee thanks to a Lame Duck law limiting his power.
These GOP power grabs aren’t just limited to executive authority — sometimes it’s trying to usurp the will of voters in elections like in Kentucky and Florida or fiddling with the judiciary, like in West Virginia and Arizona. In Oregon, things took a violent turn this summer.
In Kentucky, incumbent GOP governor Matt Bevin lost reelection last week by about 5,000 votes — close, but not razor-thin. But Kentucky’s GOP Senate president has even suggested his body should make the final call, not voters.
There are, of course, myriad examples of GOP power grabs at the federal level, from the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate refusing to even hold a hearing on Democratic former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, to numerous President Trump administration officials ignoring congressional subpoenas and Trump calling for a stop to impeachment proceedings.
While it’s natural for most Michigan coverage to focus on drama and hot-fire quotes, it’s important to place the attempt to curb Democrats’ power in a national context.
But first, just recap the last few months in Michigan over the budget:
- Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed her Fiscal Year 2020 budget in March, which included a 45-cent gas tax to raise $2.5 billion annually for roads, which experts agree is roughly the amount needed.
- Legislative Republicans promptly panned the roads plan and promised their own.
- Republicans passed their own budgets in the state House and Senate and mostly took the summer off.
- Republicans never came out with a comprehensive roads plan.
- In September, Whitmer agreed to table her top priority, road funding, in order to strike a deal on the budget.
- Talks between Whitmer, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) broke down when Republicans wanted to shift around $400 million for roads from other priorities and only for FY 2020. Whitmer refused.
- Republican chambers passed their own final budgets totaling about $60 billion in September, while striking a side deal with House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) on some education spending.
- Whitmer signed all budgets on Sept. 30, but issued 147 line-item vetoes worth $947 million.
- On Oct. 1, Whitmer used the State Administrative Board, as GOP former Gov. John Engler did, to shift money within departments for her own priorities. That totaled $625 million.
- Republicans then slammed the moves and declared the budget was done (and periodically have ever since).
- Whitmer said on Oct. 2 she wants to negotiate, outlining her priorities for a post-budget deal.
- On Oct. 8, Republicans introduced FY 2020 supplemental spending bills restoring some funding to their priorities.
- Democrats introduced their own supplementals worth $355 million with bipartisan line items.
- Republicans insist that Whitmer must sign over her executive power to use the Administrative Board in the budget process.
- Republicans introduce legislation yanking the power away from Whitmer and it passes a House panel last week.
- Whitmer agrees not to use the Ad Board during this supplemental process.
- On Thursday, Whitmer and GOP leaders were close to a deal on a supplemental, but Shirkey walked away, saying the governor’s powers must be relinquished in law.
It should be noted that GOP now-former Gov. Rick Snyder used the Administrative Board in controversial ways, as well. The panel approved millions to attorneys defending the governor during investigations of the Flint water crisis. The GOP-led Legislature did not curb Snyder’s power.
Michigan’s 2018 Lame Duck
Michigan Republicans’ attempts to claw back power from Democrats and voters since 2018 went into overdrive during the Lame Duck legislative session.
Why is that? Well, after eight years of the GOP controlling all three branches of government, Democrats swept all the statewide offices and three progressive ballot proposals passed.
You could also go back to Lame Duck 2012 when the GOP-Legislature overturned the will of voters who approved a ballot measure dumping the emergency manager law (which became a factor in the Flint water crisis) and rammed through Right to Work in a few days for good measure.
Here’s a look at recent GOP bills and court action:
- In December, Snyder signed GOP legislation allowing Canadian oil company Enbridge to build a tunnel around its aging Line 5 pipeline and legally tying the hands of Whitmer and incoming Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel. The Court of Claims recently upheld the law.
- Snyder signed a bill capping the number of signatures that could be collected for ballot measures by geographic area. More populated areas are easier to target and are more Democratic. This law is the subject of court action.
- Snyder signed legislation that state regulatory standards couldn’t exceed those of the federal government, which critics warned could prevent Whitmer from taking significant action to clean up lead and PFAS in Michigan’s water.
- Snyder signed last year GOP bills establishing environmental oversight boards that environmentalists decried as “polluter panels,” which he stacked with industry and business appointees. One panel just halted the Whitmer administration’s tougher PFAS drinking water limits.
- In February, the GOP-controlled Legislature overturned Whitmer’s executive order establishing a new environmental department, the first time it had done so in 40 years. Whitmer later struck a deal with Republicans for the department.
- Snyder signed a bill limiting Proposal 3, which expanded voting rights. The GOP bill establishes that same-day voter registration could only take place at county clerks’ main offices, not polling locations or satellite clerks’ offices.
- Snyder signed bills watering down minimum wage and paid family leave laws. Both were citizen-initiated petitions that the GOP-led Legislature adopted to keep them off the November ballot and lawmakers promptly passed new bills in Lame Duck gutting measures.*
- Bills passed the Senate stripping campaign oversight from the newly elected Democratic secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson. The House didn’t take action.
- GOP legislation establishing an A-F grading system for schools initially included a new education oversight panel that would have curtailed Whitmer’s power. That was jettisoned to win votes and Snyder signed legislation.
- The Legislature passed a bill curbing the attorney general’s power that allowed the Republican Legislature to intervene, without a judge’s approval, in court cases that are the purview of the AG. Snyder vetoed the bill.
- A Senate bill would have tinkered with who could serve on the independent redistricting panel established under Proposal 2. While the bill was dropped, Republicans this year have filed two suits to block the commission.
- GOP attempts failed to scale back Proposal 1, which legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Here’s a look at some recent GOP power grabs (or attempts) across the country:
North Carolina Republicans “wrote the playbook,” according to Vox, when the Legislature in dramatic fashion stripped powers from incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. In 2016, the man Cooper ousted, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, called a special legislative session, supposedly for disaster relief. Per Vox, the changes signed included:
- Axed the governor’s ability to make key cabinet appointments without legislative approval
- Drastically cut the size of Cooper’s administration
- Ensured that Republicans would control the Board of Elections in election years
- Mandated lawsuits to first go through the Republican-controlled appeals court before the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court
The power struggles continue. During the 2019 legislative session, for instance, the GOP majority held a “surprise vote” on 9/11 and overrode Cooper’s budget veto when many Democrats were absent, the Washington Post reports. Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson decried Republicans’ decision as “plainly unethical.”
The Badger State managed to overshadow some of Michigan’s 2018 Lame Duck action after Democrat Tony Evers defeated incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker, a former presidential candidate and ally of President Trump. According to Slate, Wisconsin Republicans:
- Stripped the governor’s ability to make dozens of appointments throughout the executive branch
- Cut his authority over state commissions
- Curtailed incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul’s power to represent the state in litigation
- Cut early voting across the state in violation of a federal court order
The GOP Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the moves. Now the Lame Duck session’s legacy is felt today, as with the GOP-led legislature voting down Brad Pfaff, who had served as state Agriculture department head under Evers since January. After Pfaff criticized Republicans for not funding a program to help farmers suffering from mental illness, the GOP-led Senate held a vote rejecting his nomination, which hasn’t happened since 1987. Evers can’t reappoint Pfaff thanks to a Lame Duck law limiting his power.
Oregon’s power grab included the threat of violence. This summer, Republican senators fled to Idaho in order to kill a Democratic climate change bill while militia members stepped in to support them.
“Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” said Oregon state Sen. Brian Boquist. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.” Members of the Oregon 3 Percenters militia group responded and the state Capitol was closed due to a “possible militia threat.”
As a result, Democrats eventually gave in on the cap-and-trade bill.
Republicans in the Bluegrass State didn’t like the election results on Nov. 5, when Democrat Andy Beshear won a stunner in the Kentucky governor’s race against GOP incumbent Matt Bevin. Now nobody likes to lose, but Bevin has alleged voter fraud without evidence and called for a canvass, which is corrosive to the democratic process.
The most troubling twist is that Kentucky GOP Senate President Robert Stivers even said the legislature could step in to decide the race. Stivers said that Bevin’s decision not to concede was “appropriate,” per the Louisville Courier-Journal, and he believes that some of Bevin’s votes went to the Libertarian candidate. After floating the anti-democratic fix, Stivers then said Bevin should concede if the canvass doesn’t show him ahead.
Arizona and West Virginia
The judicial branch hasn’t been immune to shenanigans.
In 2018, the West Virginia GOP legislature impeached the entire state Supreme Court. “The fact that this impeachment has been carried out will inevitably have an effect on other states in which legislators or prominent political officials may be considering such threats,” Douglas Keith, counsel at the Brennan Center told the Atlantic.
This year, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law packing his state Supreme Court, expanding the number of justices from five to seven. One of the court’s first rulings was against LGBTQ rights in a 4-3 opinion.
Progressive ballot proposal results have been under attack in Michigan and across the country.
In 2018, Florida voters passed a ballot measure allowing ex-felons to vote under Amendment 4. In 2019, the GOP-controlled legislature quickly passed a measure that allows former felons to vote only if they’ve paid off all court-imposed fees, which the Los Angeles Times notes can be tens of thousands of dollars.
Media, including the Root, have called this a poll tax. Voting rights say it harkens “back to the Jim Crow-era laws that used voting fees as a way to suppress blacks from casting ballots,” the Times reports. The matter is before the courts and a preliminary injunction has been granted.
Utah and Maine
In the last couple of years, Republicans in two other states believed the voters were wrong in approving ballot measures and sought to correct their mistake. This time, it involved the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature achievement.
In 2017, voters in Maine OK’d expanding Medicaid, something permitted under the ACA. This came after the legislature passed several expansions that were vetoed by then-GOP Gov. Paul LePage. Even after the ballot measure, LePage blocked the policy. It took a new Democratic governor, Janet Mills, who was elected last year, to sign an executive order moving forward with the expansion.
Over in deep-red Utah, voters last year still chose to expand the program. But the GOP-led legislature shrunk the expansion anyway so that roughly 60,000 fewer people would have access. An October survey shows Utah voters still back the full expansion.
* This story was updated to add GOP Lame Duck efforts gutting minimum wage and paid sick time ballot initiatives.