By David Eggert, Associated Press
LANSING (AP) – Republicans’ lock on control of state government is intact for two more years, enabling Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature to continue enacting their agenda and leaving Democrats to regroup after another election setback.READ MORE: Ford To Send $500 To Households Affected By Flat Rock Assembly Plant Gas Leak
The GOP’s first order of business is the “lame-duck” legislative session that is already underway. Fights potentially are looming over public employees’ retirement benefits.
Republican lawmakers want to switch newly hired teachers into 401(k) accounts, despite Snyder’s past resistance due to the large upfront costs of closing the pension system to new hires. New school employees now are provided a combination of a traditional pension and a 401(k) plan.
Snyder in turn wants to target unfunded liabilities in municipalities that provide health care to their retired workers. The retirees could instead be given stipends to buy their own insurance — similarly to what happened with Detroit retirees when the city filed for bankruptcy protection, though the fate of exchanges established under President Barack Obama’s health care law is uncertain.
It is possible legislators will shelve the issues because there are only nine session days left this year. But Republicans next term will enjoy the same large majorities thanks to president-elect Donald Trump’s strong showing in Michigan — 63-47 in the House, despite expectations that Democrats would gain some seats, and 27-11 in the Senate, where senators were not up for election.
When Snyder leaves office after 2018, the GOP will have held both chambers and the governorship for eight consecutive years — the longest run for either party since 1932, when Republicans’ 16-year reign came to a close.
Speaker-elect Tom Leonard, a DeWitt Republican who was chosen on Thursday to lead the House in the next two years, said one of his three top priorities is reforming the “broken” Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.
In 2012, Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature passed a law requiring many public school employees to pay more toward their pension to avoid receiving less in retirement. Leonard said all the schools in his Lansing-area district are on the low end of state per-student funding, and schools are still spending too much on retirement benefits even after the state began covering more costs directly.
“It is certainly something we’ve got to attack because by doing so, it’s not only going to save money in the budget but it’s going to allow us to put more money in their classrooms,” he said.
But Doug Pratt, public affairs director for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the changes made four years ago are working.READ MORE: CAIR Alleges Ferndale Police Officers Forced Woman To Remove Hijab Following Arrest
“The liabilities are going down,” he said. “Just like any investment, the market and the pension fund need time to recover from the 2008 downturn. We need time for the changes made in 2012 to work.”
Legislation that could be finalized in December includes a long-debated update to energy laws; regulations on ride-hailing companies such as Uber and their drivers; and possibly the allowance of a 75 mph speed limit on some freeways where it now is 70 and a 60 mph limit on some highways with a 55 limit today. Major policy reforms recommended in the wake of the Flint water crisis are unlikely to be considered until next year.
Snyder’s municipal retiree health care proposal is in flux and has not been introduced yet.
“Necessary changes to keep municipal governments financially sound are always being discussed,” spokesman Ari Adler said. “The timing on this issue will need to still be worked out between the governor and his legislative partners.”
The second-term governor has two more years in office before he will leave under term limits.
Rep. Sam Singh of East Lansing, who was elected the House’s new Democratic leader on Thursday, said Democrats will talk about their message and ensure it is “clear over the next two years. Obviously we were disappointed with the national election results and the wave that happened nationally, but at the same point in time we know the values that we’re fighting for are the values of the majority of the state of Michigan.”
Bill Ballenger, a longtime political analyst in Lansing, said the agenda in Lansing could be swayed heavily by Trump and a GOP-led Congress. One of Snyder’s most significant achievements, expanding Medicaid to 600,000 low-income adults under the federal health overhaul, may be at risk. Trump could seek to weaken or kill the Clean Power Plan, a cornerstone Obama policy meant to reduce pollution from power plants as part of an effort to combat climate change.
“What Washington does in the next two years while Snyder is winding down and the Republicans still control both chambers of the Legislature, I think that’s going to have more of an impact on Michigan politics and government than what the state itself actually initiates,” Ballenger said.
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