Jurisprudence

Michigan Republicans Lost at the Ballot Box, so They Launched an All-Out Lame-Duck Assault

Rick Snyder, with an American flag in the background.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at a bill-signing event in Detroit on June 20, 2014.
Reuters/Rebecca Cook

In last month’s election, Democrats swept every one of Michigan’s elected state executive offices, and voters passed progressive ballot measures by wide margins. In typical fashion, Gretchen Whitmer won her race in a nearly 10-point landslide, and she is set to enter the governor’s mansion when the new year begins. All in all, Nov. 6 was a pretty good day for Michigan Democrats, who will enter office with a mandate for change after receiving the strong backing of the state’s voters. Michigan’s Republicans have other plans, though.

Just weeks after voters resoundingly rejected the GOP agenda in Michigan, the party is brazenly attempting to steal power from incoming Democrats and pass a stunning wave of right-wing legislation during the states’ lame-duck legislative sessions.

Among other moves, Republicans approved unpopular plans for an oil pipeline through the Great Lakes, voted to gut environmental protections in the face of a new water crisis, passed a bill that limits abortion access, and acted to protect their dark money donors’ identities. If the extent of the villainy seems downright cartoonish, it’s worth noting that the state GOP also took the Montgomery Burns–level step of loosening puppy mill regulations.

Perhaps most notably, the party isn’t just trying to snatch power from incoming Dems—it’s trying to strip it from every registered voter in the state with a bill that would effectively kill citizen-initiated ballot proposals. Republicans are doing so because voters in November approved by wide margins progressive initiatives to expand voting access, decriminalize marijuana, and set up an independent redistricting commission to address the state’s gerrymandered legislative map, which is the reason Republicans in the state legislature have been empowered to act with such impunity to begin with. Two other citizen-initiated proposals to increase the minimum wage and to mandate paid sick time likely would have passed, but Republicans killed the initiative by passing and then gutting those laws instead of letting voters have a say.

Here, then, is a further litany of the state party’s efforts. A GOP attempt to tamper with citizen-initiated legislation that decriminalizes marijuana has likely failed after it became clear that a supermajority of lawmakers wouldn’t support it, but significant changes to the citizen-initiated voting access and independent redistricting commission proposals are still bouncing through the legislature.

Republicans have also devised a constitutionally questionable way to maintain control over the state’s schools. Democrats in November won a 6–2 majority on the Michigan State Board of Education that sits next session after claiming the two seats that were up for election, but bills that passed in the House and are moving through the legislative process would create a shadow education commission. After a separate proposal for a shadow commission failed, many in the state thought the idea was dead, but state Rep. Yousef Rabhi confirmed to Slate that the legislation is still alive in the Senate.

Though the Flint water crisis—with its roots in the GOP’s austerity and deregulation policies—still haunts the state, the most intense lame-duck assault focused on Michigan’s already weak environmental regulations. Last week, Republicans rammed through and Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law that will allow Canadian oil giant Enbridge to build a controversial oil and gas pipeline through the Great Lakes bed. The $500 million line replaces a current pipe that was installed in 1953 and over the years has leaked 1.1 million gallons of oil into the lakes.

It comes with the risk of a devastating spill into the nation’s largest source of freshwater, and critics say there’s no need to replace the line because the infrastructure exists elsewhere to transport the oil. The plan is unpopular, and Gov.-elect Whitmer and Attorney General–elect Dana Nessel had promised to decommission the current line and scrap plans for a new one.

Still, Snyder signed the bill—and did so even though he very recently criticized Enbridge’s management of the pipeline. The company is also responsible for a 2010 oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that’s the costliest inland U.S. spill on record, partly because it took Enbridge 17 hours to realize oil was leaking from its line. Since then, the federal government has fined the company for regularly missing line inspections.

Michigan’s smaller bodies of water are perhaps facing even more danger. A Senate-approved bill would strip protected status from about 70,000 of the state’s protected wetlands, which is viewed as a big win for developers. As the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council’s Tom Zimnicki told the Detroit Free Press: “Think you have lakefront property? If this bill becomes law, your house could be facing a parking lot instead of a beautiful lake.”

Further, Michigan is facing a dangerous new public health threat from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—toxic industrial compounds that have been called the “most insidious pollutant since PCBs”—in its water supply, and the Senate just approved a new law that would require the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to use outdated science in its cleanups. The law would likely double the allowable level of PFAS in the state’s waters and nullify recently enacted anti-PFAS rules. A separate bill would prohibit state agencies from developing environmental regulations stricter than what’s in the federal guidelines (except in emergency situations) and is awaiting Snyder’s signature.

Beyond environmental issues, Michigan’s campaign finance laws are among the nation’s loosest, and some incoming Democrats campaigned on increasing transparency. However, the GOP is moving to ensure that its dark money donors’ identities are protected by a new law that would prohibit the state from requiring nonprofits to reveal donors’ identities.

During eight years of Republican rule in Michigan, meanwhile, the legislature and conservative governor regularly imposed new restrictions on abortion access. They’re attempting to do so one last time with a law that would make it illegal for doctors to OK abortion-inducing pills via webcam.

Finally, even Michigan’s puppies aren’t safe from the Michigan GOP. New legislation approved by both chambers prohibits local municipalities from enacting ordinances that bar pet shops from buying from puppy mills. The GOP claims it’s keeping puppies safe by requiring that stores purchase from USDA-approved breeders, but local Humane Society officials point out that USDA oversight is nearly nonexistent, and many USDA-approved breeders actually operate puppy mills. “I hate those bills,” Rep. Adam Zemke, D–Ann Arbor, told the local nonpartisan publication Bridge. “Who wants to make it easier to sell puppy mill puppies in a pet shop, without a local community being able to have a say in that? It’s ridiculous.”

For this group of outgoing GOP leaders, it’s just par for the course.