The Michigan Legislature reconvened yesterday for the first day of the 2005-06 session with another budget deficit looming on the horizon. Thirty-nine new representatives were sworn in yesterday, comprising over one-third of the 110-member state House.
The high turnover rate is a result of term limits, which currently require representatives to leave the House at the expiration of three two-year terms. The state Senate was all familiar faces, as state Senate terms do not expire until 2006.
Term limits also affected the House leadership. Craig DeRoche (R-Novi) has replaced Rick Johnson as speaker of the Republican- controlled House, the representative who presides over the chamber and serves as his party’s highest-ranking official in the House.
DeRoche addressed the budget situation in his inaugural speech. He pointed to temporary solutions such as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s cigarette tax hike as inadequate.
“This Legislature was party to every fee increase, one-time fix and tax shift,” he said, in brief remarks to representatives and their families. “All this was done in an effort to put off hard decisions and with the hope that things would magically turn around on their own. It hasn’t worked.”
Michigan’s economy and the current outflow of jobs are the most important issues spokesmen for DeRoche and state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R-Wyoming) say legislators will tackle in the coming year.
DeRoche spokesman Matt Resch said, “The state continues to spend more money than we have. DeRoche is determined to make sure the Michigan state government spends within our means and reforms the state budget.”
Resch explained that past state budgets were determined by assuming everything paid for in the previous year would be paid for in the year ahead, without considering price increases. This system meant the state had to pay more for the same programs as costs increased through the years.
As a result, the budget deficit is estimated to be $370 million for the current fiscal year. He said it was time to take a different approach in determining the state’s budget.
“This year, we should figure out how much money we have and not spend more than what we have,” Resch said. “For example, if you are a college student with $100, you figure out what to do with it. You wouldn’t spend $200 if you didn’t have that money.”
For Sikkema, the budget deficit is not the source of the state’s woes, it is “a symptom” of a bigger problem facing Michigan — the lack of jobs. Sikkema spokesman Ari Adler said the most pressing issue for the senator is to promote job growth within the state.
Adler said, “We have budget problems because people are not working, so there is a lack of money.”
“We will continue to look at ways to promote business investment, identify onerous legislation we should reconsider and find out what to do to make Michigan more competitive,” Adler added.
Adler echoed Resch in emphasizing the urgency of balancing the state’s budget in the short run.
While he was unable to comment on specific areas that may receive cuts before the session begins, Adler acknowledged that Medicaid is one of the biggest sources of state expenditure. “There is a need to determine our priorities, as there are some things that people expect the government to take care of,” he said. “However, there are some programs that the community doesn’t even know exist and are paying for it.”
Adler and Resch both expressed their belief that their issues will face minimal opposition from the state’s executive branch and the Democrats. When asked if he anticipated potential problems, Resch replied, “When it comes to job creation and budget reform, it is pretty bipartisan. People out there want reform because it is an appealing proposition.”
House Minority Leader Diane Byrum (D-Onondaga) expressed her willingness to work with Republicans in the 2005-06 session. In the spirit of bipartisanship, she declined to take issue with DeRoche’s speech.
“The Republican majority is much more conservative than what it was two years ago so I think he was talking to his side of the aisle,” she said. “This was his day. … I think we should give him some deference in how he wanted to handle it.”
DeRoche’s party maintained its control of both state legislative bodies after the 2004 elections. But Republicans control five fewer seats in the House this time around than previously, reducing their lead to a slim but not insignificant six-seat lead over the Democrats.
The Republican majority has the power to set the agenda in the House and the 38-member Senate. Republican leadership in the House will have to enforce party discipline more strictly or court Democrats to obtain the 56-member majority required to pass legislation, especially if it intends to pursue its agenda aggressively and strike a contrast between the GOP and Granholm, who is up for re-election in 2006.
“I think the decreased margin probably turns up the temperature a little bit,” Rep. Andy Meisner (D-Ferndale) said. “It’s going to require a lot of discussion on both sides.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report