In January, Democrats secured full control of Michigan government for the first time in four decades. They have not wasted any time. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed bills into law strengthening gun control, restoring prevailing wages, increasing worker tax credits, protecting abortion rights, enhancing school security, supporting school breakfasts, prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, moving Michigan earlier in the presidential nomination process, and subsidizing factories. Democrats have overturned key accomplishments of the prior Republican trifecta, including right-to-work legislation, third-grade reading requirements and retirement taxes. It is an exhilarating time to be a Democrat in Lansing.
One sign that Republicans did not expect to lose control of the Legislature is that they left billions of dollars in unspent federal money on the table alongside a gushing post-COVID state revenue stream. Democrats have dutifully started spending, with large investments in business, housing, law enforcement, education and health.
Now they are mostly bypassing Republicans to proceed on their own budget plans. But this one-sided jubilation may be short-lived.
The Democratic success is founded on a slim majority of two seats each in the House and Senate. This was not a given. Studies suggest that the party in power typically manages to move policy only about 1% toward their own preferences during their average term of full government control. By primarily excluding Republicans, they risk delaying when initiatives take effect and potentially alienating voters.
Their mandate from Michigan’s swing state voters remains somewhat murky. In 2022, they profited from a historic independent redistricting process, a disproportionate state response to the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions due to Proposal 3, and an unappealing statewide ticket of Republican candidates. In that environment, they only scraped by. A minor shift to the right in a few districts in 2024 or 2026 could truncate this experiment in Democratic control.
Public opinion often swings in the opposite ideological direction of policymaking, with subsequent elections typically moving against the party in complete control of government.
There is an opportunity for Democrats to lay the groundwork for prolonged success. This session marks not only a historic change in partisan control but also a potential shift in incentives for cooperation. Over half of the House is newly elected, and with term limit reforms, many could serve in the House for 12 years (double the previously allowed tenure). If they remain together for over a decade, they are likely to experience stints in the majority and minority and in divided government.
In a politically competitive state like Michigan, sustained bipartisan attention and difficult trade-offs will be needed to address pressing issues. After promising to “fix the damn roads,” Democrats have not found a magic solution. A recent report highlighted an ongoing annual infrastructure spending deficit of almost $4 billion. Economic development without working-age population growth, another priority of the governor and Legislature, is also a tall order. Throwing money at companies for factory-placement ribbon cuttings is not a long-term solution. Moreover, Michigan students are lagging in reading and math due to pandemic school closures and stress, necessitating a long-term, proactive plan.
The timing of state revenues has proved fortuitous for Democrats. It is easy to reach agreement on what to fund when you can say yes to nearly everyone. But the federal money will run dry and state revenues will face downturns, requiring more difficult choices that depend on bipartisan agreements.
Democrats’ focus on top priorities is understandable after a long hiatus from power, but it does not guarantee voter-noticeable successes. A study of 27 indicators of government success — from crime rates to income growth to pollution — found that precisely none of them move consistently due to Democratic rather than Republican control of state government. Even when policy changes yield results, they may take longer than expected and produce unintended consequences as well.
Whitmer is now using Democrats’ policy progress to seek freedom-seeking transplants from conservative states. That seems ambitious, but Michigan’s current political vibrancy could appeal to idealistic young politicos. Lansing, as the capital city, has much at stake in the success of state government. The political transformation in progress can take some of the sting out of a less vibrant city center with fewer state workers since the pandemic. The continued allure of Lansing will depend on a sense that state government offers opportunities for those with dreams of making a difference.
As Michigan Democrats ride high on the wave of their influence and success, they should cherish their rapid progress but not count on long-term dominance. The political winds will change. Since successful state policy depends on durable, bipartisan relationships, now is an opportune moment to engage more Republicans in policymaking, paving the way for a more shared sense of accomplishment.
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