Michigan Dems move fast to roll back decade of GOP control

Michigan Democrats are using their rare grip on power in the governor’s mansion and the legislature to roll back a decade of Republican accomplishments.
Michigan state Sen. Winnie Brinks (D) stands before reporters in the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, minutes after Senate Democrats voted to make her the chamber’s first female leader. (Joey Cappelletti/Report for America via AP)

Michigan Democrats are using their rare grip on power in the governor’s mansion and the legislature to roll back a decade of Republican accomplishments, from labor reforms and gun safety to tax cuts and abortion rights.

This week, the narrowly Democratic House approved a package of bills that rescinded so-called right-to-work legislation, laws that prevent workplaces from requiring employees to join a union. Michigan is on track to become the first state in 60 years to repeal right-to-work laws.

The state House also advanced a measure rolling back a 2016 law prohibiting third graders from advancing to fourth grade if their reading assessment scores are too low.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation this week repealing a 2011 law that removed tax exemptions for public and private pensions and cut the Working Families Tax Credit, also known as the Earned Income Tax Credit. The measure Whitmer signed would restore tax breaks for pensions and raise the state’s EITC to 30% from 6%, estimated to provide an average of $750 to eligible taxpayers. 

“The Democrats are feeling emboldened,” said Ken Kollman, who teaches political science at the University of Michigan. “It’s not uncommon for a party that’s been out of power for a long time to try to pass a lot of legislation quickly as soon as they gain power. These are pent-up ideas that they get to implement for a change. And they don’t know how long they will hold their majorities in both chambers.”

Michigan isn’t the only state where Democrats are clearing the decks of their priority legislation after unexpectedly strong showings in November’s midterm elections.

In Minnesota, another state where Democrats gained total control of the legislature, the new majority has already enacted legislation requiring the state to move to 100% carbon-free energy by 2040; a measure that will give undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a driver’s license; and a bill restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.

But in Michigan, where Democrats hold a two-seat majority in both chambers, there is an acute sense that their power might not last. 

“Their margins are very small,” said Ed Sarpolus, a pollster at the Lansing-based firm Target Insyght. “If somebody gets sick, they’re done. Number two, a couple are looking to run for mayor this year, or local office, which means if they lose two seats from people running for local offices, they can lose the ability to get past anything.” 

Sarpolus pointed to Rep. Kevin Coleman (D), who is running for mayor of Westland. He noted that while the state House has an election in 2024, state senators serve four-year terms and won’t be up for election again until 2026.

“It comes down to the State House next fall,” he said of Michigan Democrats holding on to their trifecta.

The November elections gave Michigan Democrats control of the Michigan Senate for the first time since 1984 and the House for the first time since 2008. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) was also re-elected, giving the party a state government trifecta for the first time in four decades.

But the risk is that Democrats overreach, causing a backlash in the 2024 elections, and no one doubts that Michigan remains a swing state.

“The danger for them, of course, is that they overplay their hand, and in acting as though they have a broad mandate, become vulnerable to voter dissatisfaction, a sense among swing voters that the Democrats went too far,” Kollman said. “We won’t know their full vulnerabilities until the next election cycle, but Michigan is still a very competitive state between the two parties, and the Democrats should be careful in not appearing extreme to moderate voters who sided with them recently but cannot be counted on to be loyal Democratic voters.”  

Sarpolus said that one possible problem could come from repealing the right-to-work law.

The Michigan pollster said Republicans and business groups are interested in putting a right-to-work measure on the ballot in 2024. That could drive Republicans to the polls and possibly make a difference in tight state legislature races.

“This issue might bring them back to the table so some races that the Democrats could pick up might be a little bit tighter for them to pick up,” Sarpolus said.

According to Bridge Michigan, talks among GOP backers and fundraisers picked up after Democrats targeted the right-to-work law for repeal.  

In an op-ed Thursday, former Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who signed the right-to-work legislation when he was in office, said that repealing the right-to-work law would hurt Michigan’s ability to compete for jobs. It would return  the state to a time before the law when companies would screen Michigan out and not allow the state to make its pitch, he said.

“We have had the ‘Open for Business’ sign out since 2012,” Snyder wrote. “The repeal is likely to be viewed by the larger business world as Michigan turning the sign back to ‘Closed.’”