Lansing passes controversial laws in lame-duck session

Paul Sherman/Daily
Protesters rally at the State Capitol over right-to-work legislation that was passed by the state House during the lame duck session. Buy this photo

By Danielle Raykhinshteyn, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 8, 2013

Throughout the month of December, the Michigan House and Senate underwent a lame-duck session in which they rapidly passed controversial legislation.

Lame-duck sessions occur after elections, but before successors are initiated into House or Senate seats.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin said the session’s legislation, especially the emergency manager law, was passed because House Republicans had a 64-to-46 majority, but the advantage will decrease to 59-to-51 in 2013.

Rick Hall, professor of political science and public policy, said lame-duck sessions often result in more than ten new laws.

Hall said this phenomenon is mainly due to the decreased political pressure during the sessions because some politicians don’t have to worry about re-election while others have their seat secured until the next election.

The December session, one of the most controversial bills passed was right-to-work legislation. The bill makes it illegal for employees and employers to contractually agree that all employees who benefit from the labor contract have to pay the cost of negotiating the contract. The move garnered national headlines as a result of Michigan's historically strong union presence.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said the business community has been pushing this legislation for years because profits will increase if businesses are able to pay workers less.

“I’m certain there’s a lot of data out there that says right-to-work-for-less states typically have lower wages, lower employer provided benefits and higher unemployment,” Irwin said. “So, I don’t think that’s the kind of future that we’re striving for.”

Charles Brown, a professor of economics, said the legislation most likely passed because the influence of Michigan unions in public affairs has been weakened.

“It’s really hard to separate out the effects of right-to-work laws as a piece of legislation from the underlying conditions that make it possible to pass a right-to-work law or not pass a right-to-work law,” Brown said. “And then I think the consequences are probably being oversold by both sides.”

The legislature also passed a bill that put new restrictions on certain facets of clinics that provide abortion services, including operating room size, facility type and staff training.

Irwin said the move isn't geared toward protecting women utilizing the facilities. “They were really just geared toward blanketing so much onerous and costly regulation on these providers that they couldn’t afford to stay in business," he said.

The bill also makes it illegal for women to receive a prescription for emergency contraception over the phone, an issue Irwin also took issue with.

“If you’re in a rural area that doesn’t have a lot of access to clinics and providers and you need emergency contraception — they call it emergency for a reason — you should be able to call that in,” Irwin said.

The emergency manager law that was struck down by voters on a statewide ballot in November was also rehashed in this lame-duck session.

The original law allowed the state government to appoint an emergency manager to take over the mayoral and financial duties of cities deemed close to bankruptcy or in need of help.

The new bill adds options beyond the manager for the affected cities: a consent agreement, bankruptcy, mediation or the original choice of an emergency manager.

Irwin said he views these options as “nonsensical” because the point of the law was to stop communities from having to declare bankruptcy in the first place.

“I think they did it for political reasons … it’s a false choice,” Irwin said.

The Internet Privacy Protection Act, also passed during the session, makes it illegal for employers to demand access to or punish employees because of personal Internet accounts such as Twitter and Facebook.

Changes were also made to the medical marijuana legislation: permit expiration dates have been extended to two years and anyone who has committed a felony involving drugs cannot be a provider of medical marijuana.

Personal property tax legislation eliminated a tax levied on businesses that, according to Irwin, raised more than a billion dollars a year.

Although Irwin said that there was agreement in the House that personal property tax was “a really inelegant and undesirable” revenue generator, he added that there needs to be a strategy to replace this lost revenue.

“All this money — we’re taking about just over a billion dollars — goes to local governments, and the local governments use that money to provide police and firemen,” Irwin said.

Brown, the economics professor, said he found it surprising that so much legislation was passed in such a short amount of time. He said he is displeased with much of what was passed.

“I think rushing to pass things that you won’t be able to pass in the New Year doesn’t seem like a great idea,” Brown said. “On the other hand, not doing anything seems like a bad idea (too).”