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Brinks looks to 2024 for bipartisanship, punted legislation

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, awaits the start of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's State of the State address, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.
Al Goldis/AP
FR11125 AP
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, awaits the start of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's State of the State address, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

This week, the Michigan Legislature wrapped up its work and adjourned for the year. It’s the earliest lawmakers have gone home since 1968.

It’s also the first year Lansing has seen complete Democratic control of the governor’s office and Legislature since the 1980s.

In an interview with the Michigan Public Radio Network, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) discussed her thoughts on how the year went and her hopes for 2024.

Democrats started off the year passing a host of priorities like broadening civil rights legislation, expanding the state’s supplement to the federal earned income tax credit, and moving up the state’s presidential primary election.

None of those policies received enough Republican support in the Senate to take effect immediately after being signed by the governor. Under the state constitution, that means they can only take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

Brinks acknowledged that was part of the impetus for adjourning so early in the year.

“A large part of this decision came down to being able to get immediate effect that much sooner on really important bills that our constituents have been asking for. So all the gun violence prevention bills that were passed now will go into effect that much earlier. And if that can save the life of a child because guns are safely stored in a home, that is really important. We passed Reproductive Health Act legislation that will also make a difference and those are situations where days and weeks matter,” Brinks said when asked about the calculations made to adjourn earlier in the year.

Republicans have criticized Democratic leadership for ending session so early in the year. But Brinks argued this year saw a similar amount of voting days in the Legislature as those in the past, despite the early adjournment. She said early planning last session, before Democrats took over the majority, helped.

“We are not out of range here. And we were incredibly productive and efficient with how we got things done this year, in part because of all those pent up policies. Some of it was already a bit prepped because we did so much work in the minority to start talking about these conversations. But we were really intentional,” Brinks said.

Despite the dozens of policies that did pass, leaving early came at a cost to other pieces of legislation.

Some bills that passed last-minute were criticized as being rushed or incomplete. That includes new financial disclosure legislation for lawmakers and statewide offices like the governor or attorney general.

It was mandated by the Proposal 1 constitutional amendment that voters approved last year, but the Legislature didn’t pass it until last week.

Brinks said she understands concerns that the bills don’t go far enough and pointed to other bills to end Freedom of Information Act exemptions for the governor and lawmakers as coming in the new year.

“I know it’s tough to ask people to be patient when they feel like this has been a problem that’s been stewing for awhile but it is important for us to get it right and to be able to address these things. It doesn’t always happen in one bill or one bill package. So, ethics is another thing that I think will receive some continued attention. Ethics and transparency,” Brinks said.

In a December interview with the Michigan Public Radio Network, Brinks mentioned part of taking the majority would mean having to tell friends “no” or “not yet.”

This week, she was asked how that had gone in practice -- especially with bills she once sponsored, like legislation that would give undocumented residents access to driver’s licenses.

Supporters of the legislation say it’s a matter of bravery for lawmakers to support the package. Recently, they’ve tried several different tactics and demonstrations to nudge the bills loose from stagnation.

Brinks says she’s still behind the bills and hopes to see them pass next year. The package has seen no action in committee, despite Democratic control of the House, Senate, and governor's office.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of helping people understand that things just don’t happen overnight even if you have a trifecta. And so we have to continue to do that hard work behind the scenes and it is actually hard work,” Brinks said. “We are applying the wisdom and the experience that we have gained over many years in the Legislature to try and set up a policy issue for success.”

Beyond that, Brinks said there’s not as much time as it seems to pass policy, meaning lawmakers have to be deliberate about where they spend their time and energy.

“When we talk about all the big issues that we tackled, it’s a long and dense list of things that we were able to do and they’re incredibly important topics that deserve to go through the process in a thorough way, in a thoughtful way. So for us to be able to move another big, meaty issue, it sometimes means we just don’t have the bandwidth,” Brinks said.

Next year, Democrats will be coming in with a year of leadership under their belt. But their House majority will have evaporated, at least temporarily. That's because two Democratic representatives won mayoral elections.

That puts the House at an even 54-54 split with Republicans.

“Next year will look a little bit different. There will be a lot more opportunity for us to work in a bipartisan way. I’m anxious to continue our conversations around economic and community development. I’m hopeful again that we find bipartisan support for prescription drug affordability. I think that there’s a lot of things that we have in common that sometimes constituents don’t hear about because the rhetoric tends to be about the things that we don’t agree on. But there’s certainly so many things that we have in common that we need to work together on,” Brinks said of her plans for next year.

One of those things is the state’s next budget. The next major step in that process occurs in January, with the Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference.

January is also when lawmakers will be back in the Capitol to meet for the first time in 2024.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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