State legislature returns from summer hiatus

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - 8:15pm

The Michigan State Legislature reconvenes today after months away on hiatus for summer break. After key proposals — such as Proposal 1 to fix Michigan’s roads — failed to pass in the last session, here is a recap of issues to watch as the year unfolds.  

The Michigan State Legislature reconvenes today after months away on hiatus for summer break. After key proposals — such as Proposal 1 to fix Michigan’s roads — failed to pass in the last session, here is a recap of issues to watch as the year unfolds.  

Roads

While many Michigan residents agree the state’s roads are in poor condition, legislators have yet to agree on how to fix them.

The last session ended with 78 percent of voters defeating Proposal 1.

The proposed bill would have increased the Earned Income Tax Credit, removed the fuel tax and increased the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent. 

Several road improvement proposals are already on the docket for introduction in both Michigan’s House of Representatives and Senate. Over the summer, legislators held several closed-door meetings to discuss potential plans to increase road funding.

House Bill 4440 aims to create a distinct transportation fund in the state treasury where money will be allocated for road repairs. The proposed bill provides $2.5 million to go specifically toward annual road improvement with the percentage of funds to be divided based on the area’s population — 40 percent would go to communities with 1,000,000 to 1,749,999 residents; 24 percent to areas of 400,000 to 650,000; 20 percent to communities of 650,001 to 999,999; and the remaining 16 percent would go toward areas with populations greater than 1,750,000 residents.

HB 4611 similarly creates a transportation fund within the state treasury, but in this version, would be funded through special vehicle and fuel taxes.

Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said while he would like to see a roads bill pass, he doesn’t currently see one he supports.

“I don't think a good bill to fix the roads will pass, but I hope it does,” Irwin said. “I would vote for a balanced plan to fix our roads, coupled with rolling back the Republican tax increases on the working poor. But, I don’t see such a bill coming forward.”

Higher Education

Despite receiving a 1.4 percent increase in state funding from 2014, tuition still increased at the University, with officials noting that the small increase could not make up for a nearly decade-long trend of declining state funds.

But the 2.7 percent tuition increase for in-state students and the 3.7 percent increase for out-of-state students is still smaller compared to the 8 percent tuition increase students at Oakland University, and the 7.8 percent increase students at Eastern University enacted this year in response to funding challenges.

Irwin said his fundamental higher education initiative this year is to increase state financial support.

“Mainly, the goal is to get more state support for our universities,” Irwin said.

Irwin, who has Ojibwe ancestors, also said he would like to restore funding for the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver Program this year.

Michigan residents who are at least a quarter Native American have been able to attend colleges and universities in the state for free for more than 80 years through the program.

This year the program was underfunded by nearly $5 million.

LGBTQ rights

Over the summer the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal in the United States. The historic decision featued the Michigan plaintiffs, who spoke at oral arguements for the case in April.

However, LGBTQ residents in Michigan are still facing other hurdles.

In June, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill that would allow adoption agencies to deny applications from same-sex couples on religious grounds. In Michigan, there is no provision outlawing discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Last year, amendments to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act — which would have granted these protections — failed to pass the legislature. 

“We need to get the bigoted language out of our law books,” Irwin said. “More importantly, we should amend our state civil rights law to include protections for LGBT citizens. Nobody should be fired from their job or denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

Marijuana

Irwin, who attended Hash Bash last year in April 2015, is a vocal proponent of marijuana legalization in the state of Michigan. During the last legislative session Irwin introduced a bill to decriminalize the drug, but this session he said he hopes to go a step further and introduce a bill to legalize it.

Irwin, calling it time “to end this long and failed experiment with prohibition,” said he intends to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that would be similar to Colorado’s, which allows adult use.

He asks voters to sign his www.milegalize.com petition to land marijuana legalization on the state ballot in 2016; however, the chances of it passing are slim. A recent Michigan Radio poll showed 40.2 percent of Michigan voters oppose legalization of marijuana for recreational use, 4.2 percent of voters are unsure, and the remaining 55.7 percent are in favor of legalization but divided on the logistics.

In the meantime, Michigan legislators are working on bills to crack down on the current law which allows medical use of marijuana. Two weeks ago, Mike Zimmer, director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, rejected a petition and review panel recommendation to allow individuals with autism to use medical marijuana.

Sen. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) introduced Senate Bill 72 on Wednesday, which prohibits individuals to perform any tasks or operate vehicles while under the influence of medical marijuana; possess it while on a school bus, in a school or at a correctional facility; nor allow insurance companies or government assistant programs to reimburse individuals for medical marijuana.