GOP power play ramps up in Se­nate

The Detroit News - - News - BY JONATHAN OOSTING Detroit News Lans­ing Bureau

Lans­ing — The Repub­li­can­led Se­nate on Thurs­day ap­proved sweep­ing leg­is­la­tion that would shift cam­paign fi­nance elec­tion law en­force­ment from Demo­cratic Sec­re­tary of Sta­te­elect Jo­ce­lyn Ben­son to a new panel of po­lit­i­cal party ap­pointees.

The 25-11 vote capped an ex­tra­or­di­nary week in the lame­duck Leg­is­la­ture as Repub­li­cans sent Gov. Rick Sny­der bills to weaken min­i­mum wage and paid sick leave ini­tia­tives while ad­vanc­ing sev­eral mea­sures to by­pass or hand­cuff Democrats set to take over top statewide of­fices Jan. 1.

The power plays House-ap­proved bill in­clude a

al­low­ing the GOP-led Leg­is­la­ture to in­ter­vene in any state le­gal case sep­a­rately from At­tor­ney Gen­eral­elect Dana Nes­sel, a Se­nate-ap­proved mea­sure that could bind Nes­sel and Gov.elect Gretchen Whit­mer to a planned oil pipe­line tun­nel in the Straits of Mack­inac and new rules for Ben­son to im­ple­ment voter­ap­proved bal­lot mea­sures.

“We’ve got to see whether these bills ac­tu­ally pass and how many are signed into law — there’s a lot of sound and fury that may sig­nify noth­ing in the end — but I would say this is prob­a­bly the most ag­gres­sive lame-duck (ses­sion) I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Bal­lenger, a long­time Capi­tol pun­dit and for­mer GOP law­maker who served from 1969 to 1974.

The most com­pa­ra­ble lame­duck flurry, he re­called, was 2012 when Repub­li­cans re­tained com­plete control of state gov­ern­ment but used the fi­nal months of the year to en­act a right-towork law and cre­ate a new emer­gency man­ager statute.

The re­cent GOP moves have prompted law­suit threats and drawn com­par­isons to Wis­con­sin, where Repub­li­can law­mak­ers this week sent out­go­ing Gov. Scott Walker an ex­pan­sive pack­age that would strip some pow­ers from the Demo­crat who de­feated him Nov. 6. Some sim­i­lar moves two years ago in North Carolina re­main tied up in court.

The Michi­gan pro­pos­als fo­cus more on at­tor­ney gen­eral and sec­re­tary of state pow­ers, Bal­lenger said, “but the num­ber of bills and the va­ri­ety of their fo­cus is re­ally un­usual.” Com­bined, the Leg­is­la­ture is test­ing “as an in­sti­tu­tion how it can as­sert it­self and do what it can to im­pair or ham­per the in­com­ing ex­ec­u­tive branch.”

While Gov. Rick Sny­der could use a veto threat to com­pel ac­tion on his own agenda, the term-lim­ited Repub­li­can has not taken any pub­lic po­si­tion on the bills. “He will re­view all the leg­is­la­tion sent to him and de­ter­mine at that time whether to sign it or

not,” a spokesman said Thurs­day.

The leg­isla­tive ma­neu­vers have gar­nered na­tional at­ten­tion and crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing from 2016 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton, who noted that Repub­li­cans in Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin lost ma­jor elec­tions last month.

“Rather than re­spect the will of vot­ers, they’re us­ing their last few weeks in of­fice to pass laws lim­it­ing the power of new gover­nors and put road­blocks on vot­ing,” Clin­ton said Thurs­day on Twit­ter. “It’s not just anti-Demo­cratic. It’s anti-demo­cratic.”

Se­nate Repub­li­can spokes­woman Am­ber McCann de­nied that the late-year leg­is­la­tion is de­signed to take power away from in­com­ing Democrats.

“A leg­is­la­tor can come up with

an idea and present it at any time within the reg­u­lar ses­sion,” she said. “So I don’t know that it’s a power grab, and I don’t think I would char­ac­ter­ize it that way at all.”

The five-bill Se­nate pack­age ap­proved Thurs­day would shift cam­paign fi­nance over­sight and en­force­ment from the sec­re­tary of state to a new, bi­par­ti­san “fair po­lit­i­cal prac­tices com­mis­sion” that would in­clude three Repub­li­cans and three Democrats cho­sen by the gover­nor from a list of names sub­mit­ted by each ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party.

The leg­is­la­tion was in­tro­duced last week, less than a month be­fore Ben­son will be sworn in as the first Demo­crat in 24 years to serve as sec­re­tary of state. The post has tra­di­tion­ally over­seen elec­tions, cam­paign fi­nance and the mo­tor ve­hi­cle depart­ment.

Sup­port­ers say the pro­posed com­mis­sion is mod­eled on the bi­par­ti­san Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, but crit­ics say that fed­eral panel has proven in­ef­fec­tive be­cause of rou­tine dead­locks and party-line votes.

Ben­son blasted the leg­is­la­tion in a state­ment, say­ing it would “gut en­force­ment of Michi­gan’s cam­paign fi­nance law.”

“Their hy­per-par­ti­san ap­proach is in sharp con­trast to my goal of col­lab­o­rat­ing across the aisle to take Michi­gan from worst to first in ethics and trans­parency,” Ben­son said. “Their ac­tion is an af­front to ev­ery tax­payer who wants and de­serves a gov­ern­ment that is trans­par­ent and ac­count­able.”

Spon­sor­ing Sen. Dave Robert­son, R-Grand Blanc, cham­pi­oned the leg­is­la­tion in a floor speech. Be­cause the four votes would be re­quired for the 3-3 panel to take any ac­tion, he said it would “re­quire bi­par­ti­san co­op­er­a­tion.”

“Twenty-three other states have some form of com­mis­sion

that en­forces their cam­paign fi­nance laws,” said Robert­son.

Robert­son has faced crit­i­cism be­cause he per­son­ally owes $1,681 in cam­paign fi­nance fees, but he de­nied any per­sonal mo­ti­va­tion this week.

Sen. Re­bekah War­ren, D-Ann Ar­bor, said vot­ers sent a clear mes­sage last month they want a “new di­rec­tion in the state” and ar­gued that the pro­posal would do the op­po­site.

“This leg­is­la­tion would quite lit­er­ally give the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties in our state the abil­ity to name the folks who will be over­see­ing cam­paign fi­nance in our state,” War­ren said. “There is no rea­son to think this will work well.”

Sen. Dale Zorn of Ida was the only Repub­li­can to vote against the main bill, join­ing all 10 Democrats who were present. The pack­age now heads to the House.

For­mer Michi­gan Elec­tions Di­rec­tor Chris Thomas, who

served 36 years un­der both Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic sec­re­taries of state, said ear­lier Thurs­day the pro­posal would be a “huge step back­ward” for cam­paign fi­nance com­pli­ance in the state.

“To me, it is just a naked at­tempt to grab power and keep their party in­volved for no good rea­son,” Thomas told The Detroit News.

Thomas, who en­dorsed Ben­son in the gen­eral elec­tion, said he is con­cerned be­cause the pro­posal “re­ally puts the two po­lit­i­cal par­ties in control of cam­paign fi­nance com­pli­ance cases.” While the sec­re­tary of state is a par­ti­san of­fice, Thomas said the elected of­fi­cials he worked un­der never told staff how to han­dle cam­paign fi­nance com­pli­ance re­views.

“That doesn’t hap­pen,” he said. “You’ve got staff and lawyers who de­cide whether they find enough to move for­ward based on the sub­stance of the com­plaint, and not pol­i­tics. That’s what you’ll lose.”

He noted stale­mates at the FEC and the sim­i­larly or­ga­nized Michi­gan Board of State Can­vassers, whose mem­bers are of­ten split 2-2 along party lines on ma­jor bal­lot pro­posal de­ci­sions.

The GOP-led Se­nate on Thurs­day also ap­proved leg­is­la­tion to build rules around — but not di­rectly amend — bal­lot Pro­posal 3, the vot­ing rights and reg­is­tra­tion mea­sure ap­proved by 67 per­cent of vot­ers on Nov. 6.

The con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment guar­an­tees same-day voter reg­is­tra­tion, no-rea­son ab­sen­tee vot­ing, post-elec­tion au­dits and other elec­tion ac­cess rules for Michi­gan res­i­dents.

Among other things, the leg­is­la­tion would de­fine rules for same-day voter reg­is­tra­tion, gen­er­ally lim­it­ing the ac­tion to a lo­cal clerk’s of­fice.

Ben­son

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