With the 2015 legislative session coming to a close, Ann Arbor’s representatives in the State House and Senate discussed the year’s successes and challenges as they played out in a Republican-controlled legislature.
In January, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) and Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor) spoke to The Michigan Daily about what they hoped to accomplish during the year. Both emphasized goals related to higher education funding, which has been in flux over the past five years. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) cut state funding for higher education by almost 15 percent. Since then, he has proposed modest increases each year, though overall funding has not reached pre-2011 levels.
With this year’s budget, higher education funding for the University increased by 1.9 percent.
“We really have to work to preserve funding at the current levels,” Zemke said in January. “And really it should be increased, but especially given a budget deficit of $460 million, you’re talking about a lot of items that we have to watch.”
Irwin said in an interview Thursday that he deemed expanding financial aid a priority, but he was disappointed that this priority wasn’t largely reflected in the final budget.
“Michigan is currently 41st in the nation by most estimates in terms of providing financial aid,” Irwin said. “Efforts to move Michigan up the ladder, to try to get Michigan out of the basement in funding for financial aid were rebuffed.”
Irwin also identified several other priorities in January, including bolstering clean energy production and improving energy efficiency in the state, as well as several social justice measures.
Speaking about those priorities Thursday, Irwin said he believed one of the most important pieces of legislature passed this year was a bill relating to criminal justice, which he co-sponsored.
The bill, passed by the Michigan House, would prevent prisons from holding prisoners past their sentences. The bill is currently being considered in the Senate.
“Michigan is one of the toughest states for parole,” he said. “What we are basically saying to the parole board is if you want to keep somebody past their release date then you have to justify it, and in the future that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Irwin has also introduced several bills relating to the environment, including House Bill 4512, which imposes regulations on the construction of oil and natural gas pipelines, and House Bill 5116, which promotes home-based renewable energy production.
Zemke — who was unavailable for comment this week — identified several priorities in January along with higher education funding, including supporting students and educators.
He introduced legislation this year addressing the standards for the kinds of support services offered to students and parents by schools.
Zemke also introduced several other bills over the session, including proposals allowing same-sex couples married in another state to have their marriages recognized in Michigan, changing how veterans relief funds are distributed and making election days a state holiday.
Overall, Irwin said, many of his legislative priorities weren’t realized to the extent he would have hoped due to the current GOP majority in Lansing. The Michigan House is currently Republican-controlled by a margin of 16; the Michigan Senate stands at 27 Republicans, 11 Democrats.
“I don’t want to be too negative,” he said. “But the reality is with Republicans having overwhelming control of the legislature, and particularly very conservative Republicans, it is hard to imagine that we would actually do the things I spent a lot of my time advocating for.”
In the Senate, state Sen. Rebekah Warren’s (D–Ann Arbor) priorities had some similarities to her colleagues in the House — she identified the environment as a particular focus — but featured some unique policy areas as well, including mental health.
Warren said one of her biggest accomplishments in the legislature this year was aiding in the passage of the bipartisan Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which requests more funding from the federal government for proper preservation of the Great Lakes.
“It would work on the cleanup of pollution sites and do habitat reconstruction to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the Great Lakes, so I was really thrilled that we could pass that,” she said.
Warren also noted the success of a bill she sponsored that allows for citizens with family members with mental illnesses to set up savings accounts for them. Prior to the passage of this bill, many in that situation would lose access to federal support if they had any money in savings.
“What we know is for those folks to have as much independence as they can ever have, they need to have some funds saved up to help them with that, so I was really excited to see that get passed into law,” she said.
Despite the Republican control, she said, she was still able to find some successes during the year.
“I would say for myself, the fact that I am in a super-minority — I am the only woman Democrat in the Senate — and I can still say that I have bills that were signed into laws, that is to me a positive sign that I am still able to get things done in this climate,” she said.