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Michigan Legislative Update

Week of December 19, 2015

by Judy Augenstein

The Legislature recessed this week after passionate debate on an array of issues. The debate on medicinal marijuana was active, but the bill did not complete legislative action.  The Senate did not take up the energy bills passed by the House. The Flint water issue, fracking, the Health Insurance Reform Claims Tax (Obamacare) and campaign finance reform were all laid over to 2016.
Senate Democrats accused majority Republicans on Wednesday of trampling over Senate protocols in an effort to limit debate on controversial legislation to end the straight ticket voting.  Senate Democrats were especially heated with their colleagues across the aisle on when, after hours of recessing and no voting, Republicans decided to vote on a bill eliminating straight-ticket voting at the eleventh hour.

The day in the Senate began as running through its tentative agenda that had been sent out on Tuesday night after another 12-hour-plus session. By noon on Wednesday, the chamber had whizzed through that agenda and recessed until 2 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) after session on Tuesday had already indicated his caucus would follow the lead of Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee Chair Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc), who was adamantly opposed to the tie bar included by the House of the elimination bill, SB 13*, with HB 4724*, providing for "secure" no-reason absentee voting. The tie-bar was allegedly critical for the House GOP - it eventually reversed course and assented to dropping it - but never settled well in the Senate.

Several hours passed when the Senate returned from recess in mid-afternoon, and by roughly 5:30 p.m., Senator Meekhof's spokesperson indicated that the caucus would be waiting on another bill, SB 571*, to come from the House, but would not do straight-ticket voting elimination that day. She also said the Senate would adjourn for the year, meaning the issue would not be taken up again for about a month while the Legislature was on break for the holiday.

And all seemed to continue heading in that direction too, as Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall (R-White Lake Township) made a motion for statements shortly thereafter. The statements from both sides of the aisle were generally jolly in nature, wishing best wishes to colleagues and complimenting one another on the professional tone of the Senate for its first year of most of the senators' second terms.

Senator Meekhof, in his speech, even noted how the Senate had passed more than 400 bills together in 2015, many in a bipartisan fashion. Then just as it seemed the Senate would adjourn, Mr. Kowall asked for a "very brief recess."

The tone changed dramatically over the next three hours, and with it came creeping insecurities from straight-ticket voting elimination opponents that the bill would still come up.  First, Senator Robertson called for a Senate Republican caucus. Upon emerging from it, Senator Kowall then made a motion to concur in the House substitute on SB 13, and proposed amendments lit up the list of actions that would need to be fulfilled before taking a concurrence vote. Among those amendments was one by Senator Robertson that, as Senator Meekhof suggested the night before, broke the tie-bar with HB 4724.

Two democratic amendments were defeated, and for at least an hour after that, Senate Republicans and Democrats dusted off their procedural rules books. Mr. Kowall had earlier excused Sen. Mike Green (R-Mayville) from the balance of session, which opened a can of worms when he then decided after Mr. Knezek's amendment to make a motion for a call of the Senate - which locks the doors of the chamber and forbids senators from leaving the chamber - and ordered that all Senate staff "except for the Senate majority" be removed from the floor.

That was a rarely, if ever, seen move that deprived minority Democrats of any staff on the floor. And that, as much as anything, triggered the furious Democratic response that ensued.

Under that call of the Senate, the sergeants "may arrest any or all of the senators absent without leave," which would seem to have included Mr. Green, and Senate Minority Floor Leader Morris Hood III (D-Detroit) fought for his inclusion in the call of the Senate and to be present on the Senate floor. But the rule does note that those senators allowed leave do not have to attend, and ultimately, Mr. Green was granted an excuse despite Mr. Hood's objections.

But Senator Hood continued objections and "point of order" calls for removing staff from the floor and the eventual decision by Lt. Governor Brian Calley, presiding as the president of the Senate, to cease all further debate on SB 13. Democrats had about seven more amendments after the chamber adopted Robertson's amendment breaking the tie-bar that Kowall moved to be considered en bloc, forcing one single vote to wipe out all the amendments and prevent further debate on them, for or against.

"This episode today is so embarrassing on how the Senate is handling itself and how the majority party is handling itself that you really truly should be ashamed," the normally mild-mannered Senator Steve Beida, D-Warren in his no vote explanation. "This is really disgusting. You restrict the ability of people to speak on amendments, it wouldn't have cost you much to stay another half hour or so to at least listen to some debate!

"But no, you decided to cut it off, and it's a big disregard to each of the voters that sent each one of us up here. And they'd be ashamed to see this tonight. I'm sure they would be, because you have to be honest when you're dealing in this Legislature. You have to be transparent.   Senator Bieda said he had never seen such an infringement on the right of elected officials to speak to an issue.

"Well, I guess my colleagues on the other side of the aisle really enjoy irony, because the reason we were told this bill was important was so people wouldn't make strong, partisan decisions, and that's what everybody in this room just did,"  Hertel said. "We were told people should take the time to go line by line and consider each vote. And then you, in the idea of expediency, threw all of our amendments to one vote for yourselves. So I guess you guys get a straight ticket. So that's fun. Merry Christmas to the rest of us in this state."

Senator Hertel ripped Republicans for talking just hours before about bipartisanship, the Christmas spirit, "and the strong work we've done together" that was "ripped apart in one night."

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) spoke to reporters after session about the ordeal, saying "it's extremely egregious when they rig the rules in order to rig the system," and that "that's really telling and unfortunate," he said.

Speaking with reporters after session,Senator Meekhof defended the tactics his caucus took in discussion of SB 13.

Merry Christmas!

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