The Gongwer Blog

Brinks: Gratifying '23 Will Be Followed By No Shortage Of Work In '24

By Nick Smith
Staff Writer
Posted: December 5, 2023 9:31 AM

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks said this week she was proud of the huge amount of major policy work her slim Democratic majority sent to the governor this year, adding there will be much more to accomplish in the coming year.

The first year of Democrats fully controlling state government in 40 years was spent tackling a long-time party wish-list, including the repeal of right to work and abortion restrictions, reinstating the prevailing wage, expanding LGBT protections in law, passing firearms restrictions and making sweeping changes to state energy policy.

"It was an incredible time of opportunity and enthusiasm and renewed energy for the good things that can happen when people work together in a concerted way at the state government level," Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) told Gongwer News Service Monday during a year-end interview. "One of the most gratifying things was being able to get through so many really key significant topics for us, not just as Democrats but for the people of our state."

Brinks said working to keep her caucus on the same page and having the votes to move legislation was a daily challenge. Democrats have a 20-18 majority.

"I've been very pleased with how we were able to hold our caucuses together," Brinks said of herself and House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit). "We feel really positive about our ability to get these really difficult policy matters over the finish line and to the governor's desk, even with the varied opinions that invariably come with any caucus."

New challenges will present themselves in 2024 after two House Democrats won mayoral races in November. The chamber will be at a 54-54 tie through at least mid-April until both seats are filled via special elections.

"We'll be business as usual in the Senate," Brinks said. "We've got a lot of things we'd still like to get done. … Next year, the House will be down a couple of members for a few months, but that doesn't mean we can't move things through the Senate … at a regular schedule."

Brinks expects Senate committees to begin meeting as normal in January, with the House likely to begin committee work as well.

"They might have a difficult time with certain things on the floor, but we know that those … in some cases can just wait until April," Brinks said. "In other cases, they'll be working on things that are bipartisan in nature, and they can move those as well if they have the members present and the willingness of both parties to cooperate."

The majority leader anticipates some ability to cooperate and move bipartisan items.

Work on the next budget will be a significant area of focus in early 2024, as is traditionally the case.

Areas Brinks would like to see further progress in 2024 include addressing prescription drug affordability, auto no-fault and policy dealing with the new Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential, or MiLEAP (See Gongwer Michigan Report, December 1, 2023).

Legislation to create a regulatory panel to review and cap prices on common prescription drugs passed the Senate in the fall but is still sitting in the House (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 6, 2023). Proposed changes to the state's no-fault auto insurance law were similarly left for 2024 when lawmakers left town for the year, with advocates urging action quickly (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 14, 2023).

Brinks said she is looking forward to seeing the final report from the Growing Michigan Together Council outlining its population growth strategy recommendations by December 15, especially on the workforce and community development fronts.

Economic and community development is another area where conversations are still ongoing, she said, including with legislation that would rename the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund the Make It In Michigan Fund and set up new requirements for setting up some incentives to be directed for community benefits in project areas.

"We will have plenty to do," Brinks said. "We'll have to prioritize and see what we can get done, see where there's alignment with the House and with the governor's office and where we've got the votes."

As to how well she works with Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Township), Senate, Brinks said she and Nesbitt are operating in a very polarized political climate in a narrowly divided Senate, but they have been able to work well together.

"He's been around a while, he's seen the ebb and flow of politics over the years, as have I, and I think that we are both in a position where we have the ability to carve out a space even within this environment to have productive conversations," Brinks said.

The majority leader was not apologetic about the budgeting priorities Democrats pursued during the most recent budget cycle, despite Republican pushback on spending levels and the spending down of much of the state's multibillion dollar surplus.

"We knew that it was high time that we invest in education and add more dollars and do it in a sustainable and meaningful way for K-12 schools, for higher education, and so we were really pleased to do that," Brinks said. "It's no surprise there that there may be a difference between us and the Republicans when it comes to supporting education and public education in particular, so we make no apologies for that."

For the budget surplus, she said some of the monies used in the most recent budget were the remaining federal pandemic funds that needed to be spent or lost.

"We wanted to make sure that Michigan didn't get the short end of the stick there," Brinks said. "We took that opportunity to really invest those dollars in places that had often been ignored by the Republicans in charge for the last few decades."

During 2023, the list of what she often called "pent-up Democratic priorities" was significant.

The repeal of several abortion restrictions was hugely important, she said, pointing to residents stressing the issue of reproductive rights to candidates and elected officials for years.

"For us to be able to get some bills over the line that really reflect those values, both in the spring and in the fall, was a huge achievement," Brinks said.

Two items that have not yet moved through the Legislature due to some resistance from at least one House Democrat are a repeal of the ban on Medicaid-funded abortions and the 24-hour waiting period.

Enacting firearms restrictions in the wake of the Michigan State University mass shooting also was a major achievement for the majority leader.

"Gun violence prevention is similarly one of those things that we had been hearing from people, we saw polling, that showed that people really thought that was important," Brinks said.

Bills to expand background checks for firearm purchases passed the Legislature earlier this year, along with bills to put safe storage requirements in place for guns and enact a process for allowing the temporary confiscation of an individual's firearms if they could be a danger to themselves or others (See Gongwer Michigan Report, April 13, 2023).

Legislation meant to prohibit those convicted of domestic violence related misdemeanors from possessing or purchasing firearms for a certain period was also signed this fall (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 20, 2023).

With her pre-legislative background working in nonprofits, Brinks said tax policy was a priority for her. The Earned Income Tax Credit expansion and undoing the added taxation on retirement income passed earlier this year was a reversal of 2011 tax changes led by then-Governor Rick Snyder.

"For us to be able to restore some of that was huge," Brinks said.

In the fall, passage of energy legislation that sets a clean energy mandate by 2040 and moves siting of large-scale renewable energy projects to the Public Service Commission was also a significant change in policy (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 28, 2023).

"That took up a lot of time, but a key thing is so many of our constituents were asking us to address," Brinks said. "With global warming becoming a huge … issue in the minds of young voters, but also those of us who aren't as young as we used to be, who are just really concerned about what's next for our children, for our grandchildren and making sure that we are doing everything we can to mitigate any negative impact for them."

Opponents said the changes would lead to more expensive bills for ratepayers, threaten the reliability of the electric grid and eliminate local control for siting. Brinks defended the policy changes by pointing to the months of work with stakeholder groups.

"We had really good analysis from people who know far more than most legislators about the impact of the policies that we are talking about," Brinks said. "At the end of the day, we did our due diligence to ensure that we were not only making a difference when it comes to climate change, but that we did so with people in mind."

The bills signed into law will make Michigan among the nation's leaders in combatting change, the majority leader said.

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