By Nick Smith
Posted: June 5, 2023 9:40 AM
When Senate Democrats assumed their narrow majority this year many of its members were given large committee workloads before moving to aggressively push its policy agenda after decades without full control in Lansing.
In doing so, it has left officials with policy organizations around Lansing and individuals within the lobbying community around the Capitol at times scrambling for access.
With Democrats having not had full power in Lansing in 40 years, it was expected they would have an ambitious agenda. Members have this session stated it has been an adjustment having more stakeholders seeking their time now that they are in the majority.
Various individuals within the political community around the Capitol have described to Gongwer News Service speaking on background that it is difficult in some cases to schedule meetings with or catch lawmakers during the day to touch base on budgetary or policy matters.
An official with one policy organization said access to members of the majority is a battle each session given the added value of their time due to being in the position to control the movement of policy.
This year, the official said, has been nothing like their group and others likely have seen before.
"It is impossible to get enough attention," the official said. "This year it's at a whole new level."
The official theorized that with the new Democratic majority the desire to pursue their policy agenda and to serve on committees and be heard in a way their members have not in years may be a major factor. Also, Democrats they may not be used to some of the demands that come with being in the majority with larger numbers of stakeholders seeking an audience.
Democrats this session hold a 20-18 Senate majority. Of their 20 members, 12 of them have at least nine committee assignments. Out of those 12 members, two of them serve on 11 committees, another five serve on 10 committees and another five serve on nine committees.
Committee assignments among Democrats with such a narrow majority this session differ significantly from Republican majorities in the most recent four-year Senate terms.
During the 2021-22 session when the Republicans held a 22-16 majority, a single member served on 10 committees and five others held nine committee assignments apiece. Three GOP members held nine committee assignments apiece during the 2019-20 session.
When Republicans held a 27-11 majority from 2015-18, the workload was even further spread out. During the 2017-18 session, a single senator held 10 committee assignments and one member held nine, while only three others in the majority even had eight committees apiece. For the 2015-16 session, one Republican held 11 committee assignments and another member had 10. Three others had eight committees apiece.
Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) in a recent interview with Gongwer News Service defended the committee structure she set up for this session, saying there is an urge among members to be heavily involved.
"Lots of our members very excited to work in multiple areas of policy, so you've seen us set up a structure that provides them those opportunities to do that," Brinks said.
She acknowledged with the narrow majority it is likely challenging for individual members to find the right committee and non-committee work balance to best manage their time.
"It also requires us to really work well with other people and to focus on the things that we're really leading on as individuals and be able to share that knowledge with the rest of our caucus and the rest of the members of the chamber," Brinks said. "It is a bit of a new model, and it's going really well, I think, in terms of us being able to get a lot of really substantive things done."
When asked if there might be any interest in making changes to the committee structure or number of assignments for members, she said that is always an option down the road.
"As with any legislative session that I've been a part of there will be a periodic examination of how we set things up, and if adjustments need to be made, that's a consideration we'll make in the future," Brinks said.
She said she could not make a firm commitment as to when any changes, if any, might occur, reiterating that that is an ongoing topic of evaluation.
One concern by at least one official speaking to Gongwer News Service on background centered on whether the Legislature adjourns sine die before July 1 if a battle over granting budgets immediate effect takes place in the Senate. The concern was that it could then prompt a special session and continue the difficulty for access through the end of the year.
Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-Saint Clair Shores) said he has been able to juggle committee assignments, constituent work and meeting with stakeholder groups. He serves on nine committees.
"Has it been challenging at times? Yes. But we make time for the things that are important, and I've been able to find a way to do that and cover the committees that I have," Hertel said.
Hertel chalked up his ability to accomplish what he needs to do daily to time management. He said he has a more than 90-minute commute daily from home to the Capitol each way, where he can take calls. Also, he said in many cases a five to 10-minute conversation is more effective than a 30 or 60-minute block of time for a meeting. Having good staff who have strong time management skills is also key, he said.
"In the first few months, I mean, one of the most active sessions … in Michigan history, or at least in recent history," Hertel said. "We are in a lot of committees, yes, and some of us are chairing committees. My entire time in the House I never chaired a committee. I'm now chairing two, so that creates an added burden."
An official with another organization speaking on background said the sheer level of committee assignments likely is stretching members beyond a reasonable level. The official described their experience this session as learning members' calendars being booked out four weeks or more, making it challenging to sit down with lawmakers.
It was stated by this official that their understanding that their group's experience has been universal among lobbyists and organizations in the Capitol community. The experience in access to members of the Democratic House majority has been difficult as well, the official said.
Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) has nine committee assignments this session and said he loves having such a workload.
"I geek out on the details of statutes and budgets, so for me, it's exhilarating and interesting. I get to learn about new things all the time," Irwin said.
For him, he said having served for 10 years in the Legislature already gives him some institutional knowledge on many issues to work from in his daily work.
"That does allow me to, I guess, not be overwhelmed in an environment that is, I think, somewhat naturally overwhelming," Irwin said. "There's not enough time in the day, but I'm at peace with it. I do the best I can, and I work hard for my constituents and try to advance policy that promotes public interest, and then we do it again the next day."
He said he is sure there are some people who are frustrated given there is naturally a line that forms to meet with members.
Irwin compared the process of getting into the routine of working as a member of the majority to raising his children. Irwin said it can be chaotic and frustrating but over time things work out.
"You get caught up in the battle of the day, but when I look back at the last several months, I think we've gotten a tremendous amount done," Irwin said. "There are things that I'm very proud of and I think there are things that are going to serve our state well into the future."
Brinks said the pace is not a surprise and that everyone knew coming in this session was going to have a rapid pace.
"The results of the work that we've been able to do I think speak for themselves … despite any challenges that any of us might have with our own calendars," Brinks said.
She added with senators serving four-year terms, their work needs to be sustainable.
"But we do have a moment of opportunity and we are not going to waste it," Brinks said.