By Nick Smith
Posted: January 9, 2023 10:07 AM
Work to begin making a dent in a Democratic policy wish list that has built up for decades awaits the incoming Legislature with the new Senate majority leader saying her caucus will be ready to balance those priorities with finding areas of agreement with Republicans.
The groundwork for hitting the ground running is well underway, and Democrats will be ready to deliver for the public now that they control the Senate and hold unified control of the state for the first time in nearly 40 years, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids said in a recent interview with Gongwer News Service.
Her ascent to the majority leader role put her in the position of leading the first Senate Democratic majority in the state since 1983.
Ms. Brinks said there is still much work to be done to lay the groundwork for the session. She said Democrats are bringing in a diverse caucus not just when it comes to gender and ethnicity but in backgrounds and experience that will be valuable in crafting policy.
"There is 40 years of pent-up policy that we can pick from," Ms. Brinks said.
Democratic policies have languished under split control or Republican control of state government since losing their last majority.
"You'll see us continue to do a lot of the good work that Governor Whitmer has done," Ms. Brinks added.
Priorities will include strengthening the economy, making improvements to the public education system and codifying reproductive rights.
For education she said policy will focus on improving the system and providing opportunities for students to be prepared for the workforce. She added that there are plenty of good jobs available in the state, but more work is needed to continue to grow those job opportunities for residents and provide adequate programming to have a trained and highly skilled workforce to remain competitive.
"We've seen Republicans focus on corporations at the expense of regular families," Ms. Brinks said, adding under Democratic control there will be more of a focus on workers.
Updating the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for the LGBT community and repealing the state's 1931 abortion ban law language from statute are also priorities Democrats have touted.
"You'll see equality issues. You'll see issues of justice, criminal justice," Ms. Brinks said.
Repealing the state's right-to-work law is also on the table, which is expected to prompt a fight with business groups.
"We're going to be in a really good position," Ms. Brinks said of taking up issues such as right-to-work.
She repeated her hope that the majority stands ready to work with Republicans on bipartisan areas of agreement.
One key example, she said, is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. She said during the entire previous session there was bipartisan support for an expansion, but it ended up getting lost in the politics of that session.
"That's a really concrete way of helping people … make ends meet," Ms. Brinks said. "It's a tax break in the right spot."
She said there were also numerous bills that could or should have been easy votes during lame duck that can be taken up next session. A year-end book-closing supplemental will probably be dealt with early during the session, she said. Other smaller policy items and sunset legislation can also be dealt with over time.
As to what the first Senate bill introduced in January 2023 will be, Ms. Brinks declined to disclose what will make the cut.
"There are lots of ideas and a few finalists," Ms. Brinks said, telling Gongwer News Service to stay tuned.
The first Senate and House bill introduced each session is generally considered a statement of purpose, of a key priority for the majority party.
Getting to this point has been a long journey, she said.
"Reaching the majority has been a goal of mine for 10 years," Ms. Brinks said, calling reaching that goal very gratifying.
Ms. Brinks' political career began in 2012 when she ran for the House as a write-in after then-Rep. Roy Schmidt switched parties and filed minutes before the filing deadline that year to run as a Republican (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 19, 2012).
She won her first term in the House that November by defeating Mr. Schmidt and served three terms before flipping a Senate seat for the Democrats in 2018. The senator told reporters her journey had been a long one, with much time to observe how leaders in both the majority and minority have conducted themselves and saying she will bring that experience to the role in working for residents.
She said the new maps crafted by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission were a huge factor in putting the Legislature in play. Ultimately, she said realizing the goal of taking the gavel boiled down to recruiting great candidates, having a strong fundraising operation, and having candidates and supporters putting in the high level of work necessary to make it happen.
Ms. Brinks added there was a stark choice between the two parties for voters to weigh. The Democrats, she said, were promoting a party agenda that included kitchen table issues families are focused upon. The Republicans, she said, contrasted that with a focus on divisive cultural issues and conspiracy theories in some cases.
She admitted with Democrats taking the majority there is a bit of a cultural change to be expected in Lansing, including among the lobbyist groups and associations giving their caucus far more attention than in the past.
"I have lots of new friends," Ms. Brinks said with a laugh.
The senator said she acknowledges that there is some relief among some stakeholders in the lobbying world over the policy discussions shifting towards Democratic priorities. There is also concern among some stakeholders of what their policy choices might do to current policies, which is to be expected.
"I'm not naïve. … We are going to pursue a Democratic agenda," Ms. Brinks said. "I'm very excited about the opportunity."
She added that stakeholders, lobbyists and groups can rest assured that her caucus will be deliberative and thoughtful in crafting policy and go through a thorough process.
With that in mind, she said the caucus is aware that its policy choices will need to be pursued knowing the House could flip back to Republican control in two years. Policy choices have to be balanced not just in the short term but thinking long-term as well.
As to her personal priorities, she said to look at her past legislative record for an idea of where she would like to see movement.
"You'll see some more work on how we support families … and supporting children," Ms. Brinks said.
Prior to running for public office, she worked for nonprofit groups and was a former paraprofessional in a local public school district.
As to advice to Republicans who find themselves in the minority, she urged them to "remember why you're here."
"It's easy to get distracted by politics, it's easy to get distracted by specific policies," Ms. Brinks said.
She said it is important to remember that they are in office to work for their constituents.
Ms. Brinks said during the term she would also like to "take some of the toxicity out of the environment" in the Capitol. She acknowledged that often the minority party has few tools at its disposal other than floor speeches, adding her hope is that the temperature in the Legislature can be brought down after there being some divisiveness in recent years.