Political tensions have spiked in Michigan. (Steven_Kriemadis from Getty Images Signature via Canva)
Political tensions have spiked in Michigan. (Steven_Kriemadis from Getty Images Signature via Canva)

Amid some of the most divisive times in Michigan politics, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed more than 900 pieces of bipartisan legislation. But what does that mean for Michiganders?

MICHIGAN—In 2018, state Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) introduced a bill in the House to ban child marriage in Michigan. For her, it was common-sense legislation that would protect kids from potential sexual abuse, an increased likelihood of dropping out of school and other psychological trauma.

It was referred to the Committee on Families, Children and Seniors. And then—nothing.

About four years later, the bill still hasn’t seen the light of day in the Legislature, Anthony said.

“Something as simple as child marriage can’t be addressed in this environment,” she told The ‘Gander.

State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) speaks to lawmakers at the Capitol. (State Representative Sarah Anthony via Facebook)

Whichever political party controls the Legislature in Michigan also controls which bills get to go up for a vote, as well as which ones languish away in a committee. And over the last few years, a hyper-partisan political climate led by Republican lawmakers in Lansing has helped to transform even common-sense proposals (like the idea of outlawing child marriage) into a tightrope walk down a political minefield.

The same party standing in the way of the child marriage ban has now blocked other seemingly simple matters—like a resolution to recognize Pride Month. Sometimes, it’s more serious—like legislation for background checks and safe storage of guns in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting. 

In the meantime, some Republican lawmakers have kept busy formulating plans for more extreme solutions to non-existent problems—like banning drag queens from public schools.

Of course, some political headwinds are smoother than others. The last state budget passed with plenty of bipartisan comradery. But by and large, Republican lawmakers tend  to ignore ideas from Democrats, regardless of the topic—or whether they actually benefit Michigan families, Anthony said. 

The two-party system (where a majority is needed to move legislation forward) is almost designed to create legislative gridlock. Breaking through those logjams in Lansing isn’t always the easiest work.

And since the early 70s, the rift has widened. According to the Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans are farther apart ideologically today than any other time in the last five decades.

One way to sum it up: “There is more acrimony than there ever was,” said John Truscott, a longtime Republican political consultant in Lansing who served as communications director for Gov. John Engler for more than a decade, and now heads up the bipartisan public relations firm Truscott-Rossman.

And in some ways, that makes even more it noteworthy that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature has now appeared on more than 900 bipartisan bills during her first term behind the governor’s desk. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed her 900th piece of bipartisan legislation in July. (Courtesy/Gov. Gretchen Whitmer)

Let’s start with some legislative basics. 

Legislators can introduce bills in either the House or the Senate. From there, a bill goes through the committee process, where a smaller group of lawmakers can hear testimony about the idea and decide whether it makes it to the floor for a vote—exactly where Anthony’s child marriage ban got stuck.

Bills that make it past a floor vote head to the other chamber, and then to the governor to sign. 

While Whitmer doesn’t officially play a role in legislation until it hits her desk, she can signal to legislators whether she’ll sign something once it arrives, and what her terms for signing it are.

Knowing in advance whether or not a bill will be signed can impact amendments along the way—or prevent lawmakers from wasting their time by pitching an idea that’s destined for a governor’s veto.

900 Bills — So What? 

With every hundredth bill she signed, Whitmer’s team sent out a press release to news agencies, with a reminder that these are examples of bipartisan legislation happening during possibly the most politically divisive time in state history. When we reached the governor to ask about bipartisanship, she said that it’s “alive and well in our great state.”

But on paper, at least, dwindling bipartisanship seems to be an increasingly important roadblock. 

In his first term, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder had a Republican trifecta–that is, both chambers of the legislature were controlled by Republicans, in addition to his office. In the first four Snyder years, he passed 1,807 bills.

Looking back to Snyder’s predecessor may offer more context. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, took office with Republicans leading the state House and Senate. In her first term, Granholm signed 1,940 bills into law.

Source: Ballotpedia

But the numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story of what’s happening behind the walls of the Capitol.

Breakdown of Bipartisanship

Truscott said Whitmer’s first term carried a unique set of circumstances that played a role in legislative output—namely a pandemic that shut down the country and only served to inflame partisan tensions.

“The first two years were very, very rough,” Truscott said. “I think all of the basics got done really well, but in terms of big programs or difficult issues? It was a little more difficult.” 

Whitmer signed more bills into law in 2020 than any other year of her term—a total of 402, including many that were viewed as “technical fixes and cleanups,” Anthony said, rather than sweeping legislative changes. Some of those cleanups proved to be meaningful ones—like clearing the way for unemployment benefits. It’s worth noting that in the same year, Whitmer vetoed 54 bills—more than any of the other three years she’s been in office.

Rep. Sarah Anthony said she sees it as Whitmer drawing a line. About 25% of her vetoes, for example, were designed to keep precautionary measures in place during the pandemic while the Legislature was trying to strip away her gubernatorial authority. Legislators have also passed bills knowing that Whitmer will veto them, inflating her veto numbers, MLive reports.

“Even though we’ve gotten a lot done, there has been some extreme legislation that’s reached her desk that would probably make it impossible for her to sign.”

State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

Among them: A package of election laws that would have, among other things, prevented elections officials from providing absentee ballot applications unless they were specifically requested by voters.

Former state Rep. Sam Singh (D-Lansing) thinks extreme viewpoints among Republican lawmakers have surged since he left office in 2019. He said former President Donald Trump only exacerbated the political toxicity locally—including in the form of legislation fueled by conspiracy theories and bigotry.

“It is disappointing that the Republicans that I used to work with, that I grew up with—they were family friends. It just feels like that the Republican Party has moved in such a different direction,” Singh said. “It’s something that I don’t really recognize from what I used to be able to work with in the past.”

One example: In June, Republicans unveiled plans for a bill to ban drag queen performances from Michigan’s public schools—although lawmakers couldn’t offer any examples of this actually happening.

Anthony said the intensity of misinformation has only made it harder for Republicans and Democrats to compromise on legislation. Another example: Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson pleaded with lawmakers three months ago to allocate more resources to local election workers, but the two parties still haven’t been able to come together to create comprehensive election law that all can agree on. 

“It’s becoming less and less popular to govern in the center,” Anthony said. 

The result: Lawmakers know some issues exist, but are so divided that nothing has been done. Anthony pointed out rising health care costs, the housing crisis and addressing lingering inequities in public schools as just a few examples of untouched legislative pastures in Lansing.

“Oftentimes, because we are so divided, it’s really hard to address system changes,” she said.

While perhaps less popular among voters, Truscott said that there are still state legislators who govern from the middle, including a number of Republicans who work closely with Democrats behind closed doors. And he said those are the people who are actually getting things done in Lansing, albeit quietly.

“When you look at (Republican) Mike Shirkey and (Democrat) Jim Ananich, the two Senate leaders, I think they’re both pretty rational and know how to get things done,” Truscott said. “I know a lot of Republicans that work behind the scenes with Jim Ananich to bring votes and to work on other issues.” 

As for the MAGA crowd? Extremism may take the spotlight, but it gets shockingly little accomplished.

“They can criticize, but they’re just not productive in getting things done,” Truscott added.

So, what has been accomplished since Whitmer took office? 

Truscott pointed to the latest state budget as a negotiation process that “was pretty darn smooth.” And Whitmer was also quick to label it as a bipartisan success. 

“I worked with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle to negotiate and pass a balanced, bipartisan state budget that delivers on the kitchen-table issues that matter most to working families,” she told The ‘Gander.

The budget included the highest per-student investment the state has ever made—at $9,150 per student, as well as incentives to keep more educators in Michigan to teach after college. The budget totaled $76 billion—and even Republican lawmakers were applauding the final product after Whitmer vetoed over $20 billion in specific items in the budget that would have hurt abortion access in the state.

“We have achieved a transformational state budget focused on long-term results and economic growth. And it does it all while living within our means, setting aside resources to provide future tax relief to struggling Michigan families and saving for a rainy day,” said Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland).

Here are a few more bills that have been passed in Whitmer’s first term:

  • Michigan Reconnect (2020)

Michigan Reconnect, co-sponsored by Anthony and Rep. Ben Frederic (R-Owosso) gave Michiganders over the age of 25 access to tuition-free community college. More than 92,000 people have applied for the program, and Anthony gets teary-eyed when she thinks about its impact in Michigan.

“Reconnect has really been like a shining light,” she said. “We’ve heard from a lot of folks, but the ones that are near and dear to my heart are working parents who would not have seen college as an option.”

This includes Erica Mata—a mother of three who used Reconnect to start a nursing program. When she moved from Texas to Bay City, she wanted to continue her medical assistant training but had no way to pay for child care and tuition at the same time. Michigan Reconnect helped bridge that gap for Mata. 

“We’ve had a lot of challenges, especially because of remote learning,” Mata told the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. “For me, free tuition means free education, a free walk to your career. Free tuition is a big weight off my shoulders. After student loans, you have other debts.”

  • Social District Permits (2020) 

In the height of the pandemic, Whitmer signed a law to create Social District Permits—licenses that allow cities to create districts where alcohol can be consumed outdoors. In Sparta, 

Chelsea Vesley, General Manager of Brick Haus Brews, told WZZM13 that the ability to serve cocktails in a more socially distant fashion helped benefit both the business and the local community.

“From a business standpoint, the social district allows us not only to be more engaged in the community, but it helps us to increase our sales that have been a deficit because of  COVID,” she said.

According to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, 93 local governments chose to establish social districts in their communities. The bill itself also received almost unanimous support in the Legislature—with only one legislator opposed, Republican Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah Township).

  • Wyatt’s Law (2022) 

This summer, Whitmer signed a package of nine bipartisan bills that created a statewide child abuse registry. The package received unanimous support in the Legislature. The database will allow parents and guardians to access information about potential caregivers who have been convicted of child abuse in Michigan.

Dubbed “Wyatt’s Law,” it pays tribute to a mother who pushed for the bills after her son was abused by his father’s girlfriend. The package was co-sponsored by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Looking to November

Outgoing Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) said that redistricting in Michigan has created a good chance that at least one chamber—likely the Senate—will flip into Democratic control next year. 

And if that happens, he expects big-ticket legislation to resurface in Michigan, including the possibility of codifying abortion access into law, new regulations for guns, and more funding for public schools.

“The Democrats would have a much easier time pushing their agenda,” Truscott added. 

But of course, cohesion between the executive and legislative branches also depends on whether Whitmer can retain control of the governor’s desk while Democrats regain at least partial control of the Legislature. 

“I think having a Democratically controlled Senate will afford more negotiating power, because I think the governor will be able to hopefully partner more closely with at least one chamber,” Anthony said. “So there’ll be a little less gridlock and more productive legislation getting to her desk.”

‘Gander Editor Kyle Kaminski contributed to this report.