opinion

Sign of times: Gov. Whitmer signs fewest bills into law since 1960

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Here’s a piece of news that tells you a lot about the Democratic governor and the Republican leadership of the state House and Senate in Lansing.

By the time we celebrate 2022, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will have signed fewer bills into law for a single calendar year than any year since 1960, prior to the 1963 state Constitution that set up a full-time Legislature.

As of Friday (Dec. 17), the governor had signed 131 bills in law this year. She has signed a few more since then and will sign a few more after that, but not a lot.

We needed to go back to 1960 and the last year of G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams’ governorship to find the previous low of 167. Obviously, it’s possible we break that low.

The statistic speaks to where we are in government — the partisanship, the distrust, looking at short-term victories, going it alone.

We’ll start with the most obvious reason first. Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders spent most of 2021 not speaking much to one another. 

They weren’t on the same page on how to deal with COVID-19. They still aren’t, but they’ve recently learned how to get past that a little bit.

This past Monday in Detroit was the first public event with Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Rep. Jason Wentworth as the speaker of the Michigan House. It took nearly a year for them to make a joint appearance.

Republicans spent the better part of 2021 attempting to speed up the rollback of COVID-inspired government restrictions. Once the restrictions were over, the two sides fought about vaccines and masks and government fines on businesses.

In the background, former President Donald Trump was hollering that widespread fraud was the cause of the 2020 defeat in Michigan. To their credit, the Republican leadership didn’t bite on that, but they did roll out more than 50 election-related measures that made Democrats recoil.

The governor, not willing to cater to the Republicans’ pacification of their Trump base, signed very few of the bills if she signed any at all.

For much of 2021, the Legislature and the governor worked concurrent of one another, like two straight, parallel lines that don’t intersect.

All the while, Whitmer didn’t ask the Legislature for much. Typically, in their State of the State messages, governors lay out legislative agendas for the coming calendar year.

This year, the governor didn’t even give the State of the State in the state House chambers, as is customary, out of COVID concerns. She gave it to a TV camera. But even then, her requests were monetary. More money for workforce training programs, direct care workers or struggling school districts. She didn’t offer up a lot of policy changes.

The Republicans didn’t either.

Shirkey has been very public in saying that he believes that 50% of the Legislature’s work is oversight of the executive branch. He’s not interested in passing large number of public acts.

Likewise, Wentworth does not gauge success or failure by a high number of public acts. Instead, he’s gone his own way in looking for reforms.

In years past, lawmakers facilitated long discussions with lobbyists from both sides of an issue before hammering out something both sides were generally OK with. This year, Wentworth’s Republican House crafted a prescription drug package, for example, that came from his members. Not special interest groups, as is typically done.

Once it moved to the Senate, the traditional health care groups have basically smothered it for now.

In the Senate, Shirkey has an idea on how to reform the state’s Medicaid services for Michigan’s poor mental health patients. Rep. Mary Whiteford has one, too. Maybe at some point they’ll get together on something with the Governor’s Office. 

Based on what we’ve seen in 2021, it’s more likely they won’t.

(Email Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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