Lansing, Michigan, USA - September 24, 2016: View from the public "peanut gallery" of the house of representatives of the state of Michigan in Lansing.
Lansing, Michigan, USA - September 24, 2016: View from the public "peanut gallery" of the house of representatives of the state of Michigan in Lansing.

The next session for the Legislature has proposals from established Representatives, new faces, and from the people of Michigan themselves.

LANSING, Mich.—January offers the chance for a fresh slate, not just for everyday folks but for the state of Michigan as a whole, because a new legislative term begins. 

When the 2021 Legislature is sworn in, Michiganders can anticipate there will likely be a different set of priorities and approaches to addressing the current problems. Not much changed in the makeup of the state’s House or Senate during the 2021 election, but 2021 has the chance to be a fresh start nonetheless. 

Some bills are already in motion, while others nearly found success with the last legislative session. Here’s a look at the issues expected to be at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds in the new year. 

Addressing Internet Deserts

One thing the coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear is the crucial role technology plays in modern life. Working from home and remote learning for students all require reliable and reasonably fast internet connections. But for some communities in Michigan, those are far from guaranteed. 

Some parts of Michigan lack any internet service providers (ISPs) at all. And where ISPs exist, they aren’t universally affordable, nor is the technology to access them. Some areas, like Kalamazoo Public Schools, have taken it upon themselves to create WiFi hotspots for students to connect to and attend virtual classes, but these are far from standard offerings and limited in scope. 

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The deep digital divide is at the center of legislation that incoming state Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) is preparing ahead of the new term . 

“We’re working on a bill right now to guarantee broadband high-speed internet to all people, all students who have free or reduced lunch,” Aiyash told The ‘Gander. “If you have free or reduced lunch, you automatically should get access to high-speed internet at no charge so that you can learn from home.”

While that’s critically important right now, the issue also matters after the pandemic ends. It has become standard for educators to incorporate technology into their curricula. From physics to language to programming, the tools available online have become a backbone of a 21st-century education. 

While alone Aiyash’s first bill won’t tackle the digital divide, it’s a place to start. This, from a brand new legislator, is already ambitious.

“Haven’t been officially sworn in, but we are going to start that process,” Aiyash said.

Expanding Elliott-Larsen to Include LGBTQ Michiganders

This is kind of an oddity when it comes to new bills, because it won’t exactly be introduced by anyone in the Legislature. Instead, this comes from a petition campaign launched by the group Fair and Equal Michigan, aiming to be on the 2020 ballot. 

Fair and Equal’s proposal expanded the scope of the state’s anti-discrimination legislation, Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, to include prohibitions against LGBTQ discrimination. As Michigan voters know, that didn’t make the 2020 ballot thanks to disruptions to the petition drive resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. But it is on track to make the 2022 ballot. And that’s when a quirk of Michigan law kicks in.

After the State Board of Canvassers approves the proposal, rebranded The People’s Bill, the legislature will be given 40 days to adopt the bill as a law. If they do so, it will no longer need to be voted on in 2022 and will instead go into effect sooner. 

As illustrated in a Thursday ruling from the Michigan Court of Claims, this expansion of Elliott-Larsen is crucial to LGBTQ Michiganders. The Court of Claims found that thanks to a 1988 ruling it was unable to enforce any anti-discrimination protections against Michiganders based on sexual orientation. Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, cited that case in a call for the Legislature to adopt these reforms to Elliott-Larsen on Friday. 

“Equality Michigan continues to call upon the Legislature to pass a LGBTQ+ law that ensures all Michiganders, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression, are explicitly protected by the state’s civil rights law,” she told The ‘Gander.

Closing the Marital Rape Loophole

If someone drugs their spouse without that spouse’s consent and forcibly rapes them, they have not committed unlawful spousal rape in Michigan. This is because in Michigan it is not considered spousal rape if the victim is incapacitated, which includes, explicitly, being drugged without one’s consent. 

“That’s the law that is on the books,” state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) explained to The ‘Gander. “And that law is very, very cut and dry. It’s not a gray area … this is not an area where two consenting adults went out to the bar and they both may have had too much to drink, the law is very clear. This is in cases where you drug someone without their consent, and if you are married to that person, it is legal to rape them.”

Pohutsky almost passed an attempt to close this loophole in her first term. She had broad bipartisan support for the legislation—it was joined by 60 co-sponsors—but it never got a hearing. Being a new member of the Legislature from a swing seat, a massively popular piece of legislation like this would’ve been a political victory for someone the Republicans leading Michigan’s Legislature hoped to defeat in 2020. For that reason, Pohutsky believes they refused the hearings and votes on the bill she proposed to try and flip Livonia.

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But Pohutsky was re-elected, and is far more confident that a new term of the Legislature will allow her bill to be fairly considered and passed. As a survivor of rape, she is determined to see this legislation through. 

“Obviously removing laws that allow for that and says it’s okay are so, so crucial in making sure survivors have a voice,” she said.