I’m Maggie George, the political correspondent at the Michigan Information and Research Service and a contributor to City Pulse. I’m pleased to bring you Letter from the Capitol, which will appear regularly in the third issue of the month. I’ll be keeping you up to speed on the work that mid-Michigan legislators are doing: their politics, policy-making and personal connections.
To start 2024, I asked Capital Caucus Co-Chairs Reps. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, and Emily Dievendorf, D-Lansing, their priorities for this year, which is shaping up to be tumultuous due to Republicans strategizing on how to win the majority back in the state House of Representatives, the state Republican party fighting about leadership and partisan tensions growing over which presidential candidate will take Michigan, a notable swing state, in 2024.
One issue they have in common is expanded protections for LGBTQ+ individuals.
Dievendorf, the only openly non-binary member of the Legislature and who prefers the pronoun they, said their priorities are making it easier for people to change their names and repealing Michigan’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act as it applies to adoption. The law has been deemed inapplicable because of court decisions, but it’s still on the books.
Brixie also wants to reform the state statute on changing your name. When a woman marries a man, it costs her $10 at the Secretary of State’s Office to take her husband’s last name. But in a case like Brixie’s daughter who married another woman, it cost them $150 each to change their names to a new last name. Not only that, but they had to go through a background check and get fingerprinted. That process “assumes there’s something nefarious going on,” Brixie said.
The Secretary of State’s Office pointed out the fee schedule to Brixie and recommended it be changed. Brixie said there will be provisions in the bill to make sure people can’t change their names to avoid debt collectors.
Another of Brixie’s priorities is expanding access to birth control by requiring hospitals to offer emergency contraceptives if a victim of sexual assault is receiving treatment, and it’s been suggested to carry that requirement to law enforcement as well.
“Some people have contact with law enforcement after they’ve been assaulted but refuse to go to the hospital, so we want to make sure that anyone who has been assaulted is aware that there is emergency contraception that is available to them,” Brixie said.
Brixie added that name changes and birth control would not be available to minors without parental consent.
One piece of legislation that didn’t make it to passage in 2023 was Brixie’s package that extends the statute of limitations on reporting criminal sexual conduct. It’s a hard topic to cover, and Brixie said it’s a personal priority for her. She said educating other representatives on the reasons an individual wouldn’t report their assault or abuse will be important for seeing it pass in 2024.
Parts of the package passed through a super-majority-controlled Republican Senate in 2018, and the remaining bills were passed individually by Republicans in earlier sessions.
“It doesn’t appear that the Republicans want to work with the Democrats on anything,” Brixie said. “If they’re unwilling to show up and work and vote for things, that’s of course their choice, but they’ll probably suffer the consequences of it later.”
When Brixie said “later,” she meant during elections. Two state representatives left office this year because they won mayoral elections in their districts, leaving the House of Representatives with a 54-54 split between the two parties. The two districts, Westland and Warren, are not swing districts, but it will take until April or May for the seats to be filled, presumably by Democrats, meaning only bills that get bipartisan support will pass.
One of those vacancies was left by Kevin Coleman, the new Westland mayor who chaired the housing subcommittee. Dievendorf serves as the majority vice chair of the committee and is “doubling down” on addressing homelessness with their Homeless Bill of Rights, which City Pulse wrote about in November.
When the nights get cold enough for Lansing to issue a Code Blue warning like it did this weekend, Dievendorf does what they call their “walkabouts,” during which they go out around 9 p.m. and talk to the unhoused people that reside within walking distance of their home. Dievendorf hands out hand warmers, food and even sleeping bags and tents.
“I give them my card, they know my name at this point, I know which cars to find them in and which bridges they’re at. Honestly, I’m surprised the city isn’t mad at me because they’re cleaning up things I’ve bought,” Dievendorf said.
“I don’t know when to stop walking because I know if I go another two blocks, there’s gonna be another person that might need the hand warmers,”
The package has been up for testimony in the subcommittee a few times and hasn’t been scheduled for a vote, but Dievendorf said they will not give up.
Two other bills that Dievendorf has introduced prohibit non-disclosure agreements for violations of the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (HB4972) and confidentiality agreements for criminal sexual conduct (HB4973). Dievendorf said there is no piece of legislation they work on that they don’t have a passion for.
Lastly, House Appropriations Chair Rep. Angela Witwer, D-Lansing, told MIRS last week that she’s focused on creating a balanced budget this year.
Readers, I’m interested in knowing what you’re most excited or un-excited about from what you read here, and your legislators are too. I’ll remind you again next month, but don’t forget that the presidential primary is on Feb. 27. Feel free to reach out to me and let me know your thoughts at email@example.com.
— Maggie George
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