JACK SPENCER: Legislation just seems to disappear

This happens repeatedly. You read, hear or see news accounts of legislation involving this or that issue, but never find out whether it gets enacted.

Often the news media doesn’t follow through. What seemed like an interesting story one day is soon knocked off the radar screen by fresher “more important” stories later. It’s no secret that covering news is a very fickle business.

In some cases the news media is simply drawn away by other issues on the day the legislature finally passes the legislation. An even more common occurrence is that, after doing the initial stories about it, reporters are only reminded of the legislation if it moves.

Unless it pertains to a “high profile” issue, when legislation fails to get enough support for passage no one announces to the news media that it has stalled. To get that kind of story, a reporter has to pursue it and repeatedly ask: “what’s the status of that bill?”

However, something else can happen to legislation which has nothing to do with whether or not a majority of lawmakers would support it.

Amid all the other issues and activities of the legislature it is not unusual for some legislation to become conveniently forgotten. This isn’t the same as legislation becoming “stalled” in the legislature. What we’re speaking of here happens when legislation is deliberately killed while no one is paying attention to it.

Some readers might recall the term “nonpersons” from the Cold War era. We were told that people in the Soviet Union who fell out of favor with “the powers that be” could be declared “nonpersons.” They were officially treated as if they didn’t exist.

This is — sort of — what happens to some legislation. A powerful official or powerful entity that opposes it pulls strings and it becomes “non-legislation.” If one looks it up on the legislative website, it will still be there — but nothing is happening to it — no hearings, no votes taken — nothing. Ask about it and you’ll be told: “Oh, we’re still working on that.” Wait six months; ask again, and you’ll get the same answer.

Presumably, the general public thinks of the legislature as a place where issues are debated. Those backing a piece of legislation try to talk enough lawmakers into supporting it to get it passed. Meanwhile, those opposed to it work to get a majority of lawmakers to vote against it.

Sure, that happens all of the time.

But arguably those most skilled at the political game in the legislature are those who kill legislation quietly. No big debates, no dramatic vote-counting, the legislation becomes virtually invisible. It is pushed into the background; hidden behind everything else that’s going on. It dies of willful neglect and inertia.

In some cases the legislation might not ever get out of committee. However, in other situations the legislation actually gets passed — at times overwhelmingly — by one chamber, only to be quietly killed in the other.

This can happen in either chamber, but it happens more often with bills that start in the House than with those that start in the Senate.

Examples come to mind of current and pending legislation in the House that seem ripe for an eventual “quiet death.” These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many others.

One example is part of a legislative package to make changes to the Strategic Fund and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). Supposedly, this would include measures to improve MEDC transparency.

In essence, MEDC is the state’s promotional department. It hands out millions of dollars for projects that supposedly help boost the economy and create jobs. For years it has been accused of being less than transparent about whether the projects it has promoted are successful.

MEDC’s position is that it is open to possible changes to improve its transparency. Many, perhaps a majority, of House Republicans want to see MEDC become more transparent. And now, House Democrats are making an issue of the lack of transparency at MEDC.

Yet, do MEDC officials really want to be saddled with reforms that would force it to be truly transparent? That seems unlikely.

What will become of the transparency part of the current legislative package remains to be seen. But the legislative process provides multiple ways for it to suffer a “quiet death.”

Keep in mind that the deadline for moving current legislation is the end of 2014. In early 2015, a newly-elected legislature must start over again from scratch.

The legislature is only in session three more weeks this year. Realistically, that leaves February through June of 2014 for legislative action. Most of the focus during that period will be on the budget. After that, election-year campaigning begins. Few people, if any, will even remember the MEDC transparency issue while all of that is going on.

A second example could be the Land Bank bills, which are in the House Local Government Committee. This legislation would provide standing in court and a grievance process for those who argue that some land banks are circumventing the intent of current law.

Don’t be surprised if these bills seem to just disappear from view over the course of the next year.