As Michigan’s 98th legislative session kicked off Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) and Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor) returned to Lansing with several priorities on their agendas.
In an interview Thursday, Zemke said he plans to emphasize education funding during the upcoming session. Zemke, who is in his second term representing Michigan’s 55th House District, said last session he focused on supporting educators and improving school districts, including those in high poverty communities.
He said a chief concern for the current legislative session is that education could take a hit following a House Fiscal Agency projection of a $454 million shortfall in the state’s general budget, released Wednesday.
“We really have to work to preserve funding at the current levels,” Zemke said. “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.”
He cited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s package to fund infrastructure repairs, which would cut 20 percent of state appropriations to higher education from the School Aid Fund, shifting much of the responsibility for funding public universities to the General Fund.
Zemke said that loss of money from the School Aid Fund, preserved for community college and K-12 education, has potentially negative implications for higher education funding.
“University funding would then have to come out of the General Fund solely,” he said. “With the projected shortfall of the budget, we’ve really got to be watching that university funding to make sure that the budget is not balanced the backs of students.”
In an interview Thursday, Irwin also identified higher education funding as an important area for the legislature, noting in particular how higher education funding has decreased in the last decade.
“Michigan used to be a real leader in the nation in terms of education policy,” Irwin said. “Over the course of the last decade, especially the last two years, we’ve really fallen off that pace.”
To return to the state’s former stature, Irwin said Michigan must engage the public and bring education to the forefront of the political agenda.
“Clearly, we need to get back to a place where Michigan is making higher ed a priority and the public is investing more in our institutions of higher learning so that we can control tuition and could try to control student debt,” he said.
Irwin, who is in his final term of representing Michigan’s 53rd District, also said he wants to renew state energy efficiency policy and push the development of more clean energy resources in the state.
Irwin cited Michigan’s Public Act 295 — which was signed into law in 2008, but expired this year — as a focus. The act was a state initiative to reduce the amount of non-renewable energy used by utilities owned by the state.
Irwin said Public Act 295 required that 10 percent of power be generated by renewables by 2015. Irwin also noted many citizens advocated against the act because of its costs.
“But, the reality is that in the last seven years, we’ve had tremendous success,” Irwin said. “Renewable power has come in cheaper than anybody expected.”
Along with pushing for continued clean energy, Irwin said he has already introduced a bill this session that calls for a graduated income tax in the state. Currently, Michigan has a flat-rate personal income tax. Under a graduated income tax, individuals with higher incomes would pay a larger percentage of their income toward the tax than those with lower incomes.
Irwin has introduced this proposal to session in his first term, second term and now third term.
Irwin also said he wants to change the adoption policy in the state. Currently, only heterosexual couples can adopt a child. Irwin said he wants to reform the policy to allow second-parent adoption, which is currently not legal in the state. Second-parent adoption refers to parents who cannot legally marry, such as same-sex couples.
“It is especially important because you’ve got children in the state of Michigan who are living in these homes,” he said. “They are living in the homes headed by either heterosexual or homosexual couples who did not wish to marry.”
Irwin said the children are at a severe disadvantage because they don’t receive certain legal benefits.
“Those kids deserve the same rights as kids who are adopted into married families,” Irwin said. “The way that our law are currently comprised, those children who are adopted into those families have less rights to inheritance, less rights to health care benefits, hospital visitation.”
Though not a policy proposal, Zemke also announced Wednesday that he is committed to tweeting every vote he casts and why he is casting that particular vote during this session.
Zemke said he hoped to do this last term, but the initiative didn’t materialize.
“When we got into this term, I said ‘You know what, we’re going to set a precedent. It’s a new term. We’re starting fresh,’ ” he said.
He added that citizens should know what the government is doing, which is why he wants to improve the transparency of his actions.
“There’s going to be a lot issues that are going to be posted that they probably will have not much interest in and we recognize that,” he said. “We’re going to try and be as concise as possible and make the information available.”
State Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) did not respond to a request for comment.