The Gongwer Blog

by Zachary Gorchow, Executive Editor and Publisher

Elections Bureau Recommends Major Changes To Petition Reviews

Posted: March 20, 2023 9:22 AM

Elections Director Jonathan Brater is recommending significant changes to how the Bureau of Elections canvasses initiative petitions and candidate petitions to access the ballot following an outside review.

In a memo dated Tuesday to the Board of State Canvassers, Mr. Brater said the bureau hired the Rehmann Group to review its petition canvassing procedures that have largely stood in place without notable change since 1980. Questions arose about the petition process, particularly on the candidate side, after the bureau recommended the disqualification of five of the 10 Republican candidates for governor who filed petitions in 2022.

The bureau found widespread fraud in the five candidates' petition signatures and recommended the board disqualify them on the basis of the pattern of fraud from certain circulators. It did not review every signature from these candidates for validity, saying there were too many to review and based on the pattern of fraud from certain circulators, it should disqualify them.

Unlike initiative petitions, where the bureau pulls a sample of 500 signatures to determine whether a group collected enough valid signatures from registered voters, the bureau reviews all candidate petition sheets and does not use sampling.

Mr. Brater recommended the board approve the changes recommended by Rehmann. That includes adopting the same sampling procedure for candidates as is used for initiative petitions. If approved, the bureau would pull a 750-signature sample of signatures for candidates required to file at least 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters to access the ballot for a statewide office.

For initiative petitions, the recommendations include eliminating the face review prior to sampling and the shuffling of the petition sheets. They also include pulling one, larger sample instead of the current 500/2,000 two-stage process sometimes needed and replacing the software program used to identify and pull signatures for a sample.

In his memo, Mr. Brater said in the past the bureau did not need to expend a great amount of time reviewing individual signatures on candidate nominating petitions but that changed in 2022 as a result of the fraud scandal.

"Staff spent hundreds of hours attempting to validate signatures," he wrote. "In reality, given the volume of filings, it was not possible to look up each and every signature submitted by the fraudulent petition circulators to individually verify that each and every signature was fraudulent, although all of the signatures reviewed were fraudulent."

Rehmann said to achieve the same plus or minus 2.3 percentage point error margin at a 90 percent confidence factor used in statewide initiative petitions, 750 signatures should be pulled as a sample from candidate petitions.

Mr. Brater said this system would enable staff to better assess signature accuracy and detect fraud.

"To whatever extent invalid signatures were submitted as part of candidate nominating petitions – whether through circulator fraud or invalid signatures that the circulators did not know were invalid – these signatures would be reflected in the representative sample and inform the bureau's recommendation to the board on whether or not to certify," he wrote. "This would, in turn, provide greater confidence as the valid number of signatures contained within the filing."

Another significant change would be scrapping the "face review" now done of initiative petitions prior to a sample being pulled.

Under current practice, bureau staff sort and review petition sheets and signatures prior to the pulling of a 500-signature sample. The review is designed to total the number of potentially valid signatures on all sheets and stamp a number on each one as well as confirm the mandatory elements of each sheet are present and correct. Invalid sheets are removed from the universe of signatures eligible for the sample.

Rehmann found the face review process to be time-consuming and to have no statistical effect on the results of sampling. A simulation Rehmann conducted found that the results of a hypothetical petition using face review and not using face review had statistically insignificant differences in valid signatures.

"This step of the process alone is extremely time-consuming and burdensome for staff; it accounts for nearly 66 percent of the 60-day process," Mr. Brater wrote. "For example, in two statewide petition filings in 2022, staff spent approximately 2,500 personnel hours over 14 business days to conduct face review of two statewide petitions."

Under current practice, the bureau starts out with a 500-signature sample. If the validity percentage falls into a gray area below automatic certification and above automatic rejection, the bureau then pulls a 2,000-siganture sample for a final review.

Rehmann recommended going to a single, larger sample instead of the two-stage process. It did not indicate a number.

"Rehmann found that eliminating the two-stage review process in favor of gathering a larger, initial sample would create an efficiency without negatively impacting the current 90 percent confidence factor," Mr. Brater wrote. "In the past, in instances where a second, larger sample had to be pulled, an extreme burden was placed onto staff, sponsors, and challengers because it left very little time in the calendar. Rehmann concluded that there were significant administrative time savings by drawing a larger sample immediately, and that coupled with the time savings of eliminating the face review and shuffling processes, the additional time to review the increased signatures would be offset."

On software, Rehmann said the current system cannot be upgraded because it was developed in the 1980s using a platform no longer supported by modern PCs. It did not offer a specific recommendation for a new software but said one possibility is Visual Basic for Applications in Microsoft Excel.

Rehmann's report said the state's current overall system of drawing random samples "remains fundamentally sound" but "opportunities exist to improve its efficiency without sacrificing accuracy."

Democrats Using All The Republican Tactics They Once Deplored

Posted: March 15, 2023 11:50 AM

There's a scene in "The Untouchables" where Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness laments what he has had to do to get Al Capone.

Mr. Ness, who had a goody goody reputation, committed a variety of crimes, including throwing Capone goon Frank Nitti off a roof to his death, in the totally fictionalized account of Mr. Ness and his team of officers eventually arresting Mr. Capone for income tax evasion.

"I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right!"

That feels a lot like something legislative Democrats, almost three months into their first majority since 1983, might say.

For all but the four years Democrats had control of the House from 2007-10, House and Senate Democrats between 1999-2022 excoriated Republicans for various procedural atrocities and making a mockery of a deliberative legislative process. A shortlist of Democratic grievances during their long years in the wilderness would include:

  • Eviscerating the committee process where members once worked bills more carefully and committee chairs had considerable authority based on their expertise and experience in favor of a top-down approach where the House speaker and the Senate majority leader drive the process.
  • Rushing bills through the Legislature. That could mean ignoring "regular order," which unofficially would mean a committee hearing, followed by a committee vote the next week, followed by the House or Senate advancing the bill to Third Reading, followed by a final passage vote the next day. Instead, a bill might skip the committee process entirely and be discharged to the floor. Or maybe the committee and full chamber would vote the same day. Or most hurried of all, using a shell vehicle bill one chamber has already passed to keep the final contents of the bill secret for a quick-strike passage through both houses on the same day, violating the spirit of the five-day rule in the Michigan Constitution designed to slow the process.
  • Ending the ability to seek a record roll call vote on immediate effect in the House via a written request signed by enough members to satisfy the one-fifth minimum to obtain a record roll call vote. Instead, requests must be made orally and even if the entire minority caucus is screaming in the affirmative when the presiding officer asks if the demand for a roll call vote is supported, they are ignored and ruled to lack sufficient support.
  • Blocking a voter referendum on bills through the addition of a token appropriation.

Of all of those, nothing produced the ire and pure rage than the move by the Republican majority in 2000, with the support of then-Governor John Engler, to add an appropriation to the bill moving Michigan from a "may issue" to "shall issue" state for concealed pistol licenses. The bill required counties to issue concealed pistol licenses to any applicant, provided they did not have a history of certain crimes and completed training. In the past, now-defunct county gun boards often refused permits to the frustration of some gun owners. The bill also implemented the gun-free zones still in place today that did not previously exist.

A well-funded coalition of groups opposed to the bill, led by the incoming Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan (you may have heard of him) was planning a petition drive to put the bill up for a voter referendum in the November 2002 election.

But a Republican looked at this language in Article II, Section 9 of the Michigan Constitution: "The power of referendum does not extend to acts making appropriations for state institutions." The suggestion was made that if some money was added, in this case $1 million for the Department of State Police, it would trigger the language blocking a referendum.

There was an explosion of opposition, including from delegates to the 1961-62 Constitutional Convention that wrote the language who said it was designed to prevent anti-government zealots from putting the appropriations bills whose main purpose is to fund state departments/agencies/other functions annually up for public vote and risk crippling the state. Democrats were absolutely irate.

In fact, the following no-vote explanation came from now Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren), then a member of the House.

"The reason that the proponents of this legislation added this appropriation in violation of our body's rules is inappropriate and insidious," he said. "The Michigan Constitution provides that the people of this state are supposed to have a right of recourse when the Legislature takes legislative action that is contrary to the will of the people of this state. That constitutional right is the right of 'referendum,' and this conference report attempts to take away that right through the disingenuous addition of a handful of appropriations into this bill. I support the constitutional right of Michigan citizens to keep and bear arms under Article I, Section 6 of the Michigan Constitution, but I also support the other constitutional rights of our citizens. As legislators we have taken an oath to uphold the entire Constitution, and not just bits and pieces as we find convenient."

Opponents of the law sued, contending it was nonsensical to interpret the Constitution as constructing the referendum language – clearly designed let the people have an up-or-down vote on a bill passed by the Legislature – to give the Legislature a tool to render the referendum totally meaningless.

They lost.

The Michigan Supreme Court, then with a conservative majority, on a 4-3 vote held that the constitutional language meant the new law could not be subject to referendum.

And for years thereafter, Republicans used the mechanism to thwart any possibility of a referendum on most controversial bills. Yes, there were some examples of policy bills with an appropriation that passed from 2007-10 during an era with a Democratic governor, Democratic-controlled House and Republican Senate. But anything signed into law during that period had to be bipartisan, so it was impossible for one party to use an appropriation to undermine the other one during that time.

And every time the appropriation tactic was used, Democrats fumed.

One of those instances was when the Republican majority and Governor Rick Snyder made Michigan a right to work state in 2012 where workers under a collective bargaining agreement cannot be compelled to join the union or to pay a non-member agency fee.

The usage of the tactic was so galling to Democrats that now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer, then a candidate for governor, pledged never to use it. During her first year as governor, the Legislature included an appropriation in a bill making changes to compensation for people wrongly imprisoned. It was an uncontroversial bill with no chance of being subjected to a referendum, but Ms. Whitmer was so committed to eschewing the tactic, she line-item vetoed the funding to preserve referendum rights. The Legislature had to place the money in a supplemental appropriations bill, and Ms. Whitmer signed it. She issued an executive directive saying she would veto any policy bills with an appropriation.

Which brings us to 2023, and the first all-Democratic state government in 40 years.

Democrats have used every procedural tactic listed above. None of that is terribly surprising.

House Speaker Joe Tate's (D-Detroit) mantra that there are no secrets or surprises with the Democratic agenda has echoes of House Speaker Chuck Perricone, a Republican, saying in 1999 that the Republican agenda was the priority, not making concessions on style/process/bill content to obtain a veneer of bipartisanship. When he was about to leave office, Mr. Perricone (the speaker when the appropriations/referendum tactic was first used) said he had no regrets about the tactics used – and while it seemed aggressive then it would be positively charitable by today's standards. He said had the House gone more toward the middle on style, it would have had less success in passing Republican priorities.

But I was flabbergasted to see Democrats use the appropriations/policy bill tactic in their legislation to repeal the right to work law in the past week to prevent a referendum. Ms. Whitmer, without any apparent hesitation, cast aside years of promises and said she would sign the bill with the appropriation. On Tuesday, Mr. Wojno – elected to the Senate in 2018 and reelected in 2022 after leaving the House in 2003 – voted for the right to work repeal with the appropriation.

Yes, Democrats will say they are merely returning the favor Republicans used in 2012 and many other times.

But the issue was less about the weeds of legislative process or any one proposed policy and more about the rights of the people under the Constitution.

After the Supreme Court ruling in 2001, then-Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer said he was disappointed as far as it preventing a referendum on the gun bill, but the real affront was the death knell of the referendum.

It is just the latest example showing that Democrats have concluded with their first legislative majority in 40 years, and a tenuous one at that given one-vote majorities in both chambers – they cannot miss this opportunity. And that means using every tool available to them, including the ones Republicans invented, even the ones they abhorred while in the minority. I don't know how many of them even know who Mr. Perricone is, but it appears they have adopted the same strategy.

The agenda is the priority.

A New Urgency Takes Hold On Legislation To Address Gun Violence

Posted: February 15, 2023 1:06 PM

The mass shooting at Michigan State University this week struck at the heart of the MSU campus, the Lansing region and the state of Michigan itself.

The heart of campus because among the 50,000 current students and half-million living MSU alumni (this reporter among them), everyone spent some time in the MSU Union (where the second attack occurred) and a large percentage (again, this reporter included) had classes in Berkey Hall, where the first attack occurred. That walk to Berkey twice a week from South Case Hall in the winter (about 17 minutes if I really hustled) is seared into my memory from 1994-95.

The heart of the region because MSU is the beating heart of the Lansing area. It's a huge employer, economic driver, fuels people residing in the area and, even more than Lansing serving as the state capital, is what people think of first when they hear Lansing or East Lansing.

The heart of the state, or perhaps one of them, because I doubt there is a single resident of Michigan who has more than three degrees of separation from someone who attends or works for MSU. And for everyone in the Lansing region, there are no degrees of separation.

Three students dead, five critically injured, eight families shattered, tens of thousands traumatized.

This is a gut punch.

But while of course shocking, it also is not shocking. Gun violence and mass shootings, particularly at educational institutions, are all too common in the United States. Michigan just got lucky for so long in avoiding them until the mass shooting at Oxford High School in late 2021.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature now face more urgency on what changes in law, if any, should be made.

The new Democratic-controlled Legislature, until Monday, seemed to have shunted firearms legislation to the backburner. In the month since officially taking majority in the House and Senate, lawmakers have gotten completely tangled up on their tax priorities that have not yet been sent to Ms. Whitmer.

Exactly zero bills have been introduced so far by Democratic lawmakers regarding firearms (editor's note: about 25 hours after this column posted, Senate Democrats introduced several firearm regulation bills). In fact, the only bill so far that contains a new firearm restriction is sponsored by a Republican, Sen. John Damoose of Harbor Springs, addressing a loophole in charging someone for bringing a firearm into an airport.

Now the focus is on three areas from Democrats: a red flag law allowing a judge to order a person's firearms seized if shown to be a danger to themselves or others (which possibly might have made a difference in Monday's attack) as well as mandatory background checks for all sales and a safe storage law (it's unclear if either would have helped based on the limited facts known about the shooter).

Democrats at some point will have to reckon with other firearms statutes they have lamented for years but could do nothing about so long as Republicans, who have long opposed new gun regulations, continued to oppose changes.

State law prohibits local governments from suing gun manufacturers, something now-Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan wanted to do more than 20 years ago as the Wayne County prosecutor but couldn't. There's the statute prohibiting local governments from regulating firearms, reserving that power to the state. What about codifying the 2018 Michigan Supreme Court ruling barring the open carry of firearms in schools, which otherwise are gun-free zones? Surely there is more.

Democratic lawmakers also will have to reckon with the move by some Democratic county prosecutors to ease up on the charging of nonviolent gun offenses and whether to remove some of that discretion.

The shooter was charged in 2019 for carrying a concealed pistol without a license, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He eventually pleaded guilty to a high-level misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to probation. This meant he was still eligible to legally purchase a firearm. The felony would have prevented that.

Now, two things.

Former Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, a Democrat who was leading the county prosecutor's office at the time, was notorious for astonishingly soft charging, even on violent criminals. Her declaration in 2020 that she does not believe in life without parole sentences, even in the case of man on parole for domestic assault who was accused of bludgeoning two women to death with plans to kill two others, brought a torrent of criticism. The judge on the case rejected her offer of a 30- to 50-year sentence for the man for second-degree murder (he eventually pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to 70 to 100 years, the Lansing State Journal reported).

So the MSU shooter getting off with a misdemeanor and probation has gotten a lot of attention given Ms. Siemon's history.

However, the notion of someone with no known prior convictions (as appears to be the case with the MSU shooter) getting a felony conviction and prison time for a nonviolent gun charge seems unlikely, regardless of the county or the prosecutor. How, if at all, the Legislature addresses this question will be closely watched.

Republicans have led the criticism of Democratic prosecutors' charging habits in the wake of the MSU shooting, but they also have some questions to answer.

In the last three terms, Republicans have introduced bills to end the requirement that someone wishing to carry a concealed firearm obtain a license to do so. Legislation passed the House in 2017 but died in the Senate. It moved from a House committee to the House floor in the 2019-20 term but died there. And in the 2021-22 term, legislation was introduced (now-Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt of Porter Township introduced one of the bills in the package), but it never left committee. Supporters have dubbed the legislation "constitutional carry," contending under the Second Amendment persons should have the right to carry a concealed pistol without having to go through the training and licensing required under Michigan law for more than 20 years.

Had these bills been law in 2019, when the MSU shooter was charged with carrying a concealed pistol without a license, he wouldn't have been charged at all because he would not have broken the law. So Republicans will have to reckon with that if they want to attack Democratic prosecutors for undercharging a gun offense.

How does the legislation produced by a school safety task force at the end of the previous term and reintroduced this week factor into any upcoming action is another question.

All this is happening after a week of partisan procedural battling and recriminations on the tax issues at the Legislature that exactly zero people outside of the two-block radius around the Capitol will want to see on whatever legislation results from the MSU and Oxford High School shootings.

I'm currently watching two students jogging west on East Michigan Avenue toward the Capitol for a sit-in to back gun legislation, carrying signs. I seriously doubt they want to hear about a bunch of partisan posturing in the wake of what happened Monday.

Budget Defined Speaker Johnson's Tenure

Posted: February 3, 2023 8:36 AM

Originally published November 23, 2004

House Speaker Rick Johnson's four-year run as House leader ends this year, and he will leave a legacy of guiding an inexperienced House through one of the state's most turbulent budget eras, but also one of frustrating several House Republican colleagues at his lack of emphasis on conservative policy and spending cuts.

Mr. Johnson's tenure – he is the first Republican to serve four consecutive years as speaker since Michigan switched to a full-time Legislature in 1963 – in many ways consists of two speakerships with a sharp contrast between his first two years and the second two. Term limits prevents him from returning to the House next year.

He wins considerable praise for the 2001-02 term when he moved then-Governor John Engler's agenda through the House while using his friendship with Mr. Engler to ease the governor's signature of House Republican bills. Along with then-House Democratic Leader Kwame Kilpatrick, he was instrumental in repairing the deeply distrustful and bitter relationship between the political parties in the House after a rancorous previous two years.

The speaker reversed the practice of his predecessor and gave chairs of House committees relatively free rein to pursue legislation. And then Mr. Johnson reached the height of his tenure when House Republicans crushed Democrats in the 2002 elections for a five-seat gain that gave them a 63-47 majority for the 2003-04 session – the party's strongest standing in the House in 50 years.

But even with a majority whose size no Republican speaker had enjoyed the beginning of a full-time Legislature, the next two years would prove difficult for Mr. Johnson. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm had taken office, and several Republicans now say Mr. Johnson and the House GOP failed to offer a conservative policy agenda of their own while too often agreeing to Ms. Granholm's proposals to raise taxes and fees to solve ongoing budget problems.

The two major bills for which he fought hardest – comprehensive charter school expansion and racinos – would not succeed.

An aggressive conservative freshmen class, itching to cut the budget, entered the House in 2002. He deeply worried that Ms. Granholm and the Republican-led Legislature could hit a budget stalemate leading to a government shutdown. He began putting a tighter leash on committee activity although not nearly to the extent that occurred before him.

A tough two years seemed to culminate on Election Day this year when Democrats surprised Republicans and most Capitol-watchers by gaining five House seats in elections to wipe out the GOP gains of 2002 – the biggest Democratic gain in the House since 1986.

Mr. Johnson, 51, leaves office with many Republicans and some analysts viewing him as having been a good leader for his first two years in office, with poorer reviews the second two when Republicans needed a strong foil to the Democrat in the governor's office.

Democrats bid him farewell with a mixture of warmth for how he improved relations between the parties in the House and made it possible for many of Ms. Granholm's budget proposals to become law, but also disappointment at his treatment of House Democratic Leader Dianne Byrum of Onondaga. Ms. Byrum was the third Democratic leader to serve opposite Mr. Johnson during his tenure.

"I'm looking forward to being done, moving on to something else," Mr. Johnson said in an interview this week with Gongwer News Service at his Capitol office. "It's a cool job, it's neat, have had some great experiences -and some not so great – but the great ones are far more than the not so great. I don't have any regrets. I've enjoyed it."

'Homespun' style eased relations between parties

Craig Ruff, president of the Lansing-based think tank Public Sector Consultants, called Mr. Johnson a "conciliatory coalition builder who rose to the occasion."

The House was filled with rookie lawmakers, but Mr. Johnson's "homespun geniality" resonated and helped maintain the relevance of the chamber, Mr. Ruff said.

And the collegial relationship Mr. Johnson had with House Democratic leaders – although the relationship between he and Ms. Byrum eventually soured – was a huge improvement from the rancor that marked the two years before he became speaker, Mr. Ruff said.

"We all remember Mike Hanley and Chuck Perricone," he said. "Who wanted to go through that again? It was so personal."

Mr. Johnson loved to play off his background as a dairy farmer from tiny LeRoy. He often would draw analogies between legislating and farming.

Mr. Johnson is at his best when "he's just Rick, farmer Rick," said Rep. Larry Julian (R-Lennon), perhaps Mr. Johnson's closest ally in the House.

Rep. Jack Minore (D-Flint) served in the House during the same six years as Mr. Johnson and said he grew to like Mr. Johnson personally. What was a "very divisive and lousy atmosphere" in 1999-2000 "improved greatly" under Mr. Johnson, Mr. Minore said. Concern did arise in the latter portion of Mr. Johnson's tenure that he was not relating as well to Ms. Byrum as he did to Mr. Kilpatrick, he said.

Indeed, Mr. Johnson and Ms. Byrum never seemed to get along in the way that Mr. Johnson did with her predecessors. Tensions were exacerbated when House Republicans took a surprising gamble in the 2004 campaign and tried to defeat Ms. Byrum for re-election with a heavily negative television and flier campaign that failed, much to her delight.

It is telling that Ms. Byrum declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Johnson said of the three Democratic leaders with whom he worked, he had the best relationship with Mr. Kilpatrick. He said he also had a strong relationship with then-Rep. Buzz Thomas.

"I don't have anything against Dianne. I don't know if she does against me," he said. "You don't see Dianne and I sitting on the floor talking as much as what Kwame and Buzz did, but in reality, we worked on a lot of issues and produced a lot of votes for some tough issues in some tough budget times."

One issue that the candidates to succeed Mr. Johnson as speaker emphasized was their plan to give more power to committee chairs, letting them set the agenda for the caucus and their panels. Complaints had popped up that Mr. Johnson was wielding too much control over what committees did or did not do.

But those lodging such complaints might be surprised to know that Mr. Johnson ran for the post on the same issue in 2000. Shortly after assuming the speakership in February 2001, he said: "Our agenda is going to be put together by the committee chairs working with their committees. My message has been to members that we're not going to manufacture anything. It's going to come from the bottom up."

Mr. Johnson did deviate from this bottom-up philosophy a little. He occasionally circumvented the Tax Policy Committee, sending tax legislation to other committees after he had problems moving bills that could be painted as tax increases through the panel. He took the extraordinary step of removing then-Rep. Bob Gosselin from his committee chairmanship after Mr. Gosselin went in a sharply different direction on an important unemployment benefits bill than Mr. Johnson wanted.

The speaker also upset allies of Rep. Stephen Ehardt (R-Lexington) when he junked a key bill his Health Policy Committee drafted on health insurance rates for small businesses for a version he, Democrats and other Republicans preferred.

But Mr. Ehardt said despite a couple of disagreements on where to take Health Policy bills, he always felt Mr. Johnson respected his role as chair.

"I ran my committee, and he respected that," he said. "As far as I was concerned, there were never times where Rick stopped me from doing my job."

Mr. Johnson said he thinks the perception of him micromanaging committees to an extent stems from term limits producing inexperienced committee chairs who have not yet learned how to rule their committees with authority.

Many times, committee chairs ask Mr. Johnson to be the heavy on an issue, the speaker said.

"Another member goes to a committee chair and wants his or her bill moved," he said, laying out what he said is a common scenario. "The committee chair knows, 'Oh that's not a good bill. I shouldn't move that.' But they don't want to tell the member no. So they say the speaker said, 'Can't move this bill.' Or they move the bill, and then they come to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, don't run that bill on the House floor.'"

Budget dominates tenure

When Mr. Johnson won the Republican leader race in November 2000, it was hard to imagine that budget deficits would define his time as speaker. At that point in time, surplus revenue was overflowing state government thanks to the stock market run-up and superheated economy.

But by spring 2001, it was apparent that the good times were over. No one realized that another three years would pass with revenues well below where they were then, forcing two increases in the cigarette tax, a delay in the income and business tax cuts that passed when Mr. Johnson was a freshman and sharp spending cuts to public universities, health care, the prison system and economic development.

"The budgets have been, in the last four years, just much tougher to do from the standpoint of how you piece it all together," he said. "Members have gotten to the point now where they realize that cuts have got to be made, and it's a little easier to get the cuts made where before it was harder to get consensus."

Mr. Ruff called Mr. Johnson's management of a strapped budget the highlight of his tenure. Mr. Johnson found the balance between cutting spending without crippling key services and raising taxes and fees without harming the state's economic climate, Mr. Ruff said.

"For all the doomsayers cackling about how the House was going to be irrelevant and chaotic, Rick Johnson pulled it through," he said. "Nobody came to Lansing to oversee this ongoing wretched financial mess in state government."

There is something of a debate occurring in Republican circles about whether Mr. Johnson was a deft deal-maker or whether he failed to stand up to the Senate and Ms. Granholm and capitulated in key budget talks.

Perhaps the House Republican frustration over Mr. Johnson's style in budget negotiations with the governor and Senate was most palpable in one private discussion among House Republicans during House session. Mr. Johnson was informing Republican representatives that certain actions they wanted to take were a "deal-breaker" for the Senate or for the governor.

Eventually, one member rose and asked Mr. Johnson, "What's our deal-breaker?" Those who were there said Mr. Johnson did not directly answer that question.

But Mr. Johnson said lawmakers have to realize that an idea only matters if it can clear the House and Senate and win the signature of the governor. He also said such criticism ignores the many items on which House Republicans did succeed in negotiations, like stopping most of Ms. Granholm's proposed closing of tax loopholes, which Republicans deemed tax increases. He also pointed to the defeat of Ms. Granholm's estate tax and liquor tax increase as GOP successes and the preservation of the Merit Award scholarship and Tuition Grant program.

"You trade and bargain off different things," he said. "It's just the way the system is put together and the way the process works. You're going to win some, and you're going to lose some. Frankly, as you look at the cuts we've made, we've won quite a few the last four years."

Mr. Julian hinted at a certain naivete pervading those legislators who think Mr. Johnson failed to deliver on House priorities in budget negotiations. He suggested that reporters should ask the 2002 class of lawmakers, including House Speaker-elect Craig DeRoche (R-Novi), when their terms are up in two to four years for another appraisal of Mr. Johnson.

But Rep. Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Township), perhaps the spiritual leader of the aggressive conservative faction of the House Republican caucus, said the decision to raise some taxes and numerous fees were mistakes.

Instead of allowing the House to pass an increase in the cigarette tax, raise scores of fees and move up the date of property tax collections (something Mr. Drolet and other conservatives label a tax increase), Mr. Johnson should have insisted on cutting spending, he said. The House priorities he successfully protected were "Republican pork" like the Merit Award scholarship and life sciences funding, not the spending cuts that many House Republicans wanted, he said.

"Those things eroded Republican confidence and certainly blended our brand identity with the Democrats," he said.

But Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R-Wyoming), one of two Senate Republican leaders during Mr. Johnson's tenure (former Sen. Dan DeGrow being the other), said Mr. Johnson was confronting a reality that many House Republicans would not support the cuts that conservatives wanted.

It was the December 2003 budget resolution that was particularly hard to take for many conservatives. Ms. Granholm had been urging a one-year delay in the income tax cut scheduled for the following January to balance a budget that was slipping deeply into deficit.

Mr. Sikkema proposed a compromise: a six-month delay in the tax cut offset by a reduction in the Single Business Tax. Mr. Johnson had to tread carefully after Ms. Granholm seized on Mr. Sikkema's proposal because House Republicans were furious at Mr. Sikkema and the governor for making their own deal.

But eventually it became clear that Mr. Johnson supported the plan. After it passed, Mr. Johnson explained that he felt he owed it to Mr. Sikkema to allow a vote and "stand side by side" with him.

"I appreciated very much what he did, knowing the dynamics of his caucus, knowing the criticism he would take," Mr. Sikkema said.

And to those House Republicans who think Mr. Johnson negotiated poorly and capitulated on obtaining spending reductions, Mr. Sikkema said they are simply wrong.

"I thought he stood up very well for the House Republican caucus in terms of spending cuts and other issues," he said. "I just disagree with some people who say he wasn't tough in these sessions. He was."

Mr. Minore said Mr. Johnson worked well with Democrats in passing controversial proposals that Ms. Granholm wanted, such as the cigarette tax, earlier property tax collection and fee increases despite considerable resistance from his fellow House Republicans.

"The hallmark may be that he cooperated with and got along better with the governor (and) sometimes he may have had more problems with his own caucus on the critical issues," he said.

On policy, racinos and education dominate; conservatives left disappointed

Mr. Johnson's signature policy achievement was his enthusiastic, urgent support for bringing wireless Internet access into the state's classrooms through his "Learning Without Limits" program (since renamed "Freedom to Learn").

The speaker, when announcing the proposal, left news reporters somewhat dumbfounded when he stated his goal of having every classroom in the state equipped with a computer laptop containing wireless Internet access. The program is far from that goal, but together with the Michigan Virtual University and Department of Education, Mr. Johnson has led some big strides in that direction.

The attraction of wireless access is that it saves schools the cost of installing wiring.

"He's – this is kind of hokey – kind of the Johnny Appleseed in terms of technology in education," said Iva Corbett, Assistant Superintendent of the Chelsea Public Schools, which receives a Freedom to Learn grant. "He planted seeds that are going to continue to grow."

While Mr. Johnson succeeded in winning funding for his Freedom to Learn program, the one piece of public policy that he wanted most – authorizing slot machines at the state's horse racetracks, or so-called racinos – fell just short of becoming law despite his tireless effort. Mr. Johnson, with his farming roots, wanted racinos so they would provide new funding streams to bolster the struggling horse racing industry and agriculture in general.

Despite the probable defeat – it is not expected to receive a final vote before the year ends – Mr. Johnson's efforts won him the tremendous respect of the Michigan Farm Bureau, which already was a big fan. Perhaps Mr. Johnson's best sales job was both in convincing Mr. Sikkema, who personally opposed the proposal, to allow a Senate vote and then winning the votes there to pass it in the upper chamber.

Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, the bill bogged down over differences between the House and Senate versions and then was crushed by voter approval of Proposal 1 in November, mandating a successful statewide vote for any new or expanded forms of gambling.

Wayne Wood, president of the Farm Bureau, said he marveled at Mr. Johnson's legislative skill. He recalled his surprise at Mr. Johnson engineering a quick, overwhelming victory in 2002 for a zero percent interest loan program to aid farmers who had been hurt by that year's drought.

Mr. Wood said he was anxious about taking a House vote on the issue when Mr. Johnson scheduled one, fearing it may be too soon. "But Rick's leadership had been able to make enough people aware," he said. "He obviously had done one heck of a job on it."

Mr. Drolet credits Mr. Johnson for a tireless work ethic and being well-suited to lead House Republicans when Mr. Engler was in office and setting the policy agenda. "He was able to very steadily guide the caucus when Engler was in power," he said.

But once Ms. Granholm took office in 2003, House Republicans resorted to tinkering when it came to policy and muddled through the next two years, Mr. Drolet said. Mr. Drolet qualified his criticism by suggesting that perhaps the enormity of leading a House with so little experience in a time of budget stress may have made an aggressive policy agenda impossible.

Mr. Johnson's primary legacy will be the legislative map that he shepherded to passage in 2001, Mr. Drolet said. The map put Republicans, who controlled the redrawing process, in the driver's seat to control the Legislature through 2012.

"The rest of his legacy is that you can't coast," he said. "Rick never coasted. He worked hard. But he and the rest of the caucus failed to deliver on substantial and relevant Republican policy."

But Mr. Julian said disappointment over the lack of a comprehensive conservative agenda is "kind of a facade" because many of the bills conservatives wanted to see passed in the House stood no chance in the Senate or with Ms. Granholm.

"What good does it do to send the helmet bill over to the Senate when they've said they're not going to take it up," he said, citing the House's recent passage of that doomed bill.

Tom Shields, president of Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group, which works with Republican candidates, said Mr. Johnson's principal focus was on the budget and on racinos, distracting from classic Republican themes (his firm opposed the racino package). He characterized Mr. Johnson as a "good leader," but one who did not always take Republicans in the right direction.

"They've gotten away from some basic elements of what a Republican caucus should stand for," he said, citing a need to emphasize cutting spending to eliminate deficits and cut taxes to address the business climate.

Mr. Johnson expressed disappointment at the fate of racinos and charter schools while encouraged that some charter school expansion outside of Detroit can continue because of Bay Mills Community College's ability to sponsor charter schools statewide, free from the 150-school limit imposed on how many universities can sponsor.

The speaker named land use legislation, greater authority for optometrists to conduct work that had previously been limited to ophthalmologists and – somewhat surprisingly – the legislation protecting Taubman Centers from a hostile takeover as major achievements during his tenure.

"From my background, you know, as agriculture and (a) farmer, we use to buy properties from a farmer whose father would die, pass on, and the kids, it was always, 'How many zeroes are on the check kind of thing?'" he said. "And Bobby Taubman was trying to save his father's business. And I thought that was really admirable."

While most of those interviewed for this story pointed to 2004's election losses as the low point in Mr. Johnson's tenure, Mr. Ruff of Public Sector Consultants cited the December 2002 House vote to ratify a new casino in Allegan County.

West Michigan Republicans were ardently against the casino, and aghast that their party leaders in the House, such as Mr. Johnson, would push hard to make it happen. The issue was clouded by allegations that the casino represented a favor to those wanting to open the casino - friends of Mr. Engler. Ethical questions on the casino eventually resulted in Mr. Engler declining to sign the casino compact.

"For many people, that just didn't pass the smell test," Mr. Ruff said. "That probably bruised him (Mr. Johnson) and his stature to some extent."

No issue inspired the type of deep anger within the ranks of Mr. Johnson's fellow Republicans as when he held a second House vote on ratifying the casino. West Michigan Republicans said Mr. Johnson pledged to hold only one vote on the issue (when the first one was held, the compact failed).

Longtime Republican uber-activist Peter Secchia of West Michigan ripped into Mr. Johnson on the issue afterward and remains unsparing in his criticism.

"We don't trust him," Mr. Secchia said of Mr. Johnson's standing in that part of the state. "We spent 30 years so that Speaker Johnson could have a majority. And then he comes along, new kid on the block, and runs over his caucus."

But Mr. Johnson said he had no regrets over scheduling a second vote on the casino resolution. "As a matter of fact, that's the only resolution that passed with more than 56 votes ever in this chamber," he said, speaking of casino compact resolutions.

Elections: A glorious night in 2002, but a disappointing one in 2004

It is telling that a number of those interviewed for this story cited Mr. Johnson's two election nights as speaker as the high and low points of his tenure.

Mr. Drolet said Mr. Johnson worked feverishly in the 2002 elections to boost the Republican majority, and it paid off with a five-seat gain to 63 seats. Republicans had used shrewd messaging, impressive fund-raising and a tireless work ethic to overcome several Democratic candidates who started out with a more impressive profile than their GOP counterparts.

But in 2004, cracks began to show in the vaunted House GOP operation that had produced an 11-seat gain over the 1998, 2000 and 2002 elections.

Mr. Shields said the shift away from conservative Republican themes cost the House GOP in the 2004 elections.

"He took a conciliatory approach the last two years in working with Granholm instead of setting a course that Republicans have traditionally taken in this state," he said. "If you go along with everything the governor wants, what makes you any different? Why vote Republican?"

Mr. Julian, who also cited the two elections as the high and low point for Mr. Johnson, said it would be unfair to blame him for the decline to the 58 seats that GOP had when he became speaker.

Democratic Party Executive Chair Mark Brewer said Mr. Johnson's exiting office with Republicans at a 58-52 majority despite a Republican-led remapping process speaks ill of the speaker's performance in elections. He also was critical of Mr. Johnson departing with the House Republican Campaign Committee having a substantial debt given the lack of gains in seats.

"That gerrymandered map that they operate under should be giving them 66-67 seats," he said. "They're underperforming now, and they're going to be underperforming even worse (next term)."

But Mr. Johnson continues to defend House Republicans' performance in the 2004 elections as sound. Republicans simply had a ton of seats to protect in a presidential election year that brought out more voters without any competitive races on the ballot besides the presidency and the House.

"We were in the same position in this election as what the Democrats were in '98," he said of the situation where term limits deprived the party of many popular incumbents in competitive seats. "They lost majority. We kept it. And we're set up to pick up seats in '06 and '08. Which was always my plan from the beginning.

The speaker looks to the future

Mr. Johnson plans to remain involved in Lansing after he leaves the House. He is waiting on making a final decision until after the Legislature adjourns for the year December 9 to avoid any conflict of interest questions.

At this point, Mr. Johnson said he would like to become a behind-the-scenes player in building Republican candidates in his part of the state while also spending more time at his farm.

"I've been involved since '78. Pretty hard to walk away entirely (from) the political world. I'm not planning for running on anything right now," he said. "Might be fun to work behind the scenes."

Mr. Johnson sees major challenges ahead for the next Legislature on the budget. The state has "nibbled on the edges of cutting government" over the past four years, but the next two years will be about "eliminating government," he said.

Basic questions like whether the state needs 148 legislators and as many local officials as it has will have to be examined, he said.

In thinking back on any mistakes he made, Mr. Johnson recalled a night in 2002 when the House was trying to pass a 50-cent cigarette tax increase to keep basic funding for K-12 schools intact. Mr. Drolet, an opponent of the tax increase, also decided to vote against the precursor to the tax vote - the school aid budget, which was premised on getting the tax increase.

The House fell short of votes, and Mr. Johnson angrily confronted Mr. Drolet on the House floor, leading to the usually amiable Mr. Drolet storming off the House floor.

"I got into an argument with Leon Drolet one night that I probably shouldn't have. Apologized to him later," he said. "But he was in this office after session that night, and we talked it through."

Of the great moments and not-so-great moments of which Mr. Johnson spoke earlier, he said the highlights have been meeting Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as they exited Air Force One. He also savored the opportunity to work with two different governors from different political parties. And he enjoyed the process of working the House floor to win tough votes.

The tough times have come in dealing with the personal situations confronted by representatives over a family member's health or in navigating the occasionally snippy relationships between lawmakers, Mr. Johnson said. The other difficulty of the speakership is the Capitol Building's isolation, being away from the wheeling and dealing and chitchat that occurs in committees and the House floor, he said.

"You get isolated in this office a lot from other members. I like to talk to people and meet with people. That's why I do the Beaner's coffee or go out to dinner more often with other members because (you) try to make yourself accessible to members all the time," he said. "That's really important. And you lose that in this office just because of the demands in the office and everything that goes on with it."

New Beginning For Legislature Under Term Limits Changes

Posted: January 3, 2023 10:21 AM

When the 102nd Legislature is sworn into office on January 11, the new House will have a climate unlike any in more than 30 years with nearly the entire body eligible to seek reelection in 2024 thanks to voters passing Proposal 22-1 to change term limits.

The new 12-year limit on legislative service means that only Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Onsted) will be ineligible to run.

Not since the 1990 election, the election prior to voters adopting term limits in 1992 that set a limit of three two-year terms in the House, have so many members had the ability to run again.

The House has 57 new members, one of the highest ever (the modern record was 64 in 1998 when the 1992 term limits law first took effect on that body). Most of them, other than Mr. Zorn, Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) and Rep. Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township), who all have prior legislative service in the Senate, the House or both, will be eligible to run for six two-year terms in the House if they wish.

Twenty-seven members who won in November what would have been their third and final term allowed under the old term limits law will instead be eligible to run for three more House terms if they wish.

Meanwhile in the Senate, 14 new members have joined the body. Under the language of the constitutional amendment, those winning their first term in November who had enough prior service in the House that would have prevented them from running in 2026 are eligible to seek a second term. That means Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township), Sen. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills), Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores), Sen. Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe), Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), Sen. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) and Sen. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) all can run in 2026.

All had served six years in the House.

Additionally, the following members who won reelection in November will be eligible to run for a third term in 2026 if they wish: Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Keego Harbor), Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) and Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia).

In 2026, 18 of the Senate's 38 members will be ineligible to seek reelection under the new limit.

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