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Yes, Virginia, this is busiest lame duck ever

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If the bills churning out of the state Capitol this season were Christmas gifts, Santa would need a few more reindeer to get his sleigh off the ground.

The Michigan Legislature is entering new territory with its fourth week of lame duck. Research conducted by MIRS, Gongwer and The Ballenger Report can find no lame duck — that period of legislative session between the General Election and the new year — that has had as much activity.

National media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have roped Michigan into the same universe as Wisconsin in terms of a Republican-dominated state government passing legislation that arguably dilutes the powers of the incoming Democratic governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

Putting aside whether any of these types of bills get passed, consider this: 38 percent of the bills getting first passage in the Michigan House and Senate in lame duck were introduced after Election Day.

MIRS’ review of lawmaker productivity over the past six weeks found that of the 150 bills seeing first passage in the House, 31 were introduced after ballots were cast Nov. 6. That’s 21 percent.

More than half of the Senate’s output, 57.5 percent, were introduced in lame duck. Some 134 bills got first passage, 77 of which weren’t introduced until after Nov. 6. Given the current House and Senate calendar, last Thursday was the last day a “first-house” bill could be passed without it running into the Constitution’s mandatory fiveday waiting period.

What this means is that instead of lawmakers using lame duck to take care of some last-minute odds and ends, lame duck is becoming the primary part of the year to address contentious legislation. The point, clearly, is to avoid contentious issues before an election.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, explained this year’s particularly active lame duck by noting that many of those bills have been in the works for months. It can sometimes take months to get a bill out of the Legislative Service Bureau. He called the bill drafters “geniuses” but said it takes a lot of work to prepare a proposal for unveiling. And the bureau has a lot of turnover.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, is unconvinced. What counts is when the bill is introduced and the public can see it for the first time. Rather than delays for drafting, he contended Republicans waited because they wanted to see if they would win the election.

Ananich said lame duck is also an opportunity “for term-limited senators to pass bills they didn’t want the public to see ahead of the election.” That, he said, makes a very strong case for tightening the rules for a lame duck session. He suggested lame duck should require a two-thirds or three-fourths vote, or require the governor to call an emergency session.

Getting rid of lame duck altogether has been proposed. Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, introduced HJR I last year which would add an amendment to the state constitution forcing adjournment of the legislature on the Monday before the general election every two years. It hasn’t gotten a hearing.

When given the percentages of postelection bills passing in lame duck, Howell called it “outrageous.” He said, historically, bills often get passed “too hastily” in lame duck and then lawmakers in the next session have to come back to the issue and make corrections.

“Clearly, whatever party is in power, it serves their purpose to get things done in this interim period. So, I’m not surprised,” Howell said. “We sat there until 3:30 in the morning yesterday morning passing bill after bill after bill. The best legislator in the world can’t possibly know all the ramifications of every one of those bills on that kind of short notice,” he said.

Howell promised to reintroduce his joint resolution to end lame duck in the coming term.

“Wouldn’t hurt my feelings,” said Kowall.

He said the calls to his office from lawmakers and interest groups pushing for the consideration of their particular bill or issue goes up substantially in lame duck because time is short for wrapping up issues.

Moving up adjournment to the Monday before Election Day would, to some degree, just move up the crush of last-minute consideration.

Kowall said he prefers a “slower, more thoughtful” process for considering legislation.

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