JACK SPENCER: Sometimes the corpse winks
As unlikely as it might seem, a corpse could wink in 2013.
At times, legislation that was considered to be dead due to lack of sufficient support, unexpectedly re-emerges with a real chance of being passed by the legislature. The phrase often used for this phenomenon at the Capitol is “the corpse just winked.”
Clearly, when a measure that had been decidedly “off the table” suddenly reappears “on the table,” some attitudes have undergone a change. Usually this is the result of a lot of behind the scenes maneuvering, deal-cutting, and lobbying.
Currently the legislature is in the midst of what might be called the annual crunch time for the state budget. Over the next few weeks lawmakers and reporters at the Capitol can expect long legislative sessions, often consisting of seemingly endless periods of boredom periodically interrupted by flourishes of voting, voting and more voting.
Michigan's budget process has changed since Rick Snyder moved into the executive office. One reason for this is that Snyder has had a Republican controlled legislature with which to work. During the two budgets passed under Snyder, there have been fewer long sessions and, in general, things have been run on a more businesslike timetable.
This business-like approach was one of the promises Snyder made as he entered office and it's a promise he has kept. It will be interesting to see if that practice continues this year; when the Governor's two top priorities are in jeopardy. Chances are good that it will continue, even if Snyder is tempted to do otherwise.
Under Snyder, some daily sessions have run a bit long at budget time, but in historical context, they've been few and far between. As for the larger picture, it has become obvious that Snyder prides himself with being able to say the budget (at least the bulk of it) gets finished by June or July.
It is noteworthy, however, that to pull this off, Snyder has had to remove troublesome issues from the budget. Perhaps the most visible example of this was the Detroit-Windsor bridge legislation in 2010.
To many, it may seem strange that previous governors and legislators didn't use this method. They'd have a budget that was, let's say, 92 percent ready, and yet they'd hold the major portions of it up for months while trying to negotiate the final 8 percent. Snyder has used a different strategy. He's been willing to take the unfinished issues out of the budget, pass the rest and call it “done.”
He then works on the remaining portions separately.
When he came to office, Snyder clearly wanted to create a contrast between himself and his predecessor, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Year after year, under Granholm, the state budget would be held up until the final week before the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. In some notable cases that deadline wasn't even met.
An extreme example of this was the memorable government shutdown of 2007. That situation was punctuated by about three weeks in September when Michigan's lawmakers literally camped (eating, sleeping, changing clothing, etc.) in the Capitol building.
This was an embarrassing chapter in the history of Michigan government. Snyder can hardly be blamed for going to great lengths to avoid anything close to a repeat of 2007.
But, with due respect for her many detractors, drawn out budget battles lasting through the summer were often the norm in Lansing before Granholm came along. What marred Granholm's performance was her repeated inability to cinch the necessary final deals a couple weeks before the deadline.
The reasons for this were too numerous to mention here. To some extent she did not deserve all of the blame.
To most observers, Snyder's technique of getting the lion's share of a budget passed by June or July is deserving of praise. Yet, there was an important method built into the old madness, which Granholm inherited and Snyder seems to have -— for the time being — put an end to.
When the entire budget remains in play, it provides a governor with an array of potential deals and trade-offs. After most of the budget has been passed, these deals are no longer as readily available. That is probably the reason the old method of delaying passage of budgets was practiced in previous decades. In fact, it is likely that this method of “working a legislature” dates back to the British Parliament and prior to the earliest days of the U.S. Congress.
In some cases this process would lead to legislation that had previously been considered dead, surprising coming back to life. Hence the description: “the corpse just winked.”
Former Gov. John Engler was a master when it came to “working the legislature. It is said that he knew the priorities of each of the 138 members of the legislature. That's powerful information to have when a governor wants to horse-trade for a handful of needed “yes” votes while there is still an “unfinished” budget that can be changed.
As mentioned in previous articles, Engler learned his trade by watching other masters (mostly Democrats) in his years as a legislator. He didn't invent the methods he used. He was just a great student.
Another aspect of “working a legislature” that Snyder has ended is the practice of holding long sessions, day after day. A veteran of the Engler years once described the psychological effect of these tedious sessions. He listed each stage a large group (such as the House or Senate) would go through in an all-night session. There would be the boredom stage, the angry stage, the silly tiredness stage and finally the “I don't give a damn anymore” stage. This final stage, according to the source, was when horse-trading proved most productive.
To the current crew of House members a session that lasts until 8 or 9 P.M. is considered a long one. Most of those who now sit in the Senate remember many all-night sessions from a few short years ago under Granholm. But only a couple of lawmakers remain who served when Engler was in charge.
It is important to note that, although Granholm could make the lawmakers stay up all night, she almost always failed in the horse-trading phase of her strategy.
With Snyder, this old approach is a thing of the past. What's more, it seems doubtful that even Engler's deal-cutting techniques would get the votes the Governor now needs on the two big measures he wants this year — road funding and Medicaid expansion.
As regards road funding, the picture now seems clear. The plan that involves asking voters to increase the sales tax is the only one still standing. But before moving ahead with that, state leaders will need to decide whether it is worth the effort and, if so, how to get the Democrats to cooperate.
Medicaid expansion has only a long shot chance of getting into the budget that passes in June or July. If it does, the legislation would almost surely be the House version of expansion that is highly unlikely to be accepted by the federal government.
Yet, regardless of what takes place in June or July, it would be a mistake to declare any version of Medicaid expansion that’s more to Snyder’s liking as definitely being dead. Even with the rest of the budget off the table, there are potential deals and trade-offs. In addition, powerful interests that want Medicaid expansion will keep trying to “work the legislature” throughout the summer.
Those who oppose Medicaid expansion had best stay alert. A corpse could wink as easily in September as it could any other time of the year.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.