Budget, economy top themes as Michigan lawmakers meet

By Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- A troubled economy and tough state budget problems await action from members of the 96th Michigan Legislature, sworn into office Wednesday at the state Capitol.

Republicans who hold the majority in both the Senate and the House say they will move quickly to try to re-energize the state, which has a 12.4 percent unemployment rate -- tied for second-highest in the nation -- and a projected state government shortfall of roughly $1.8 billion for the fiscal year that starts this October.

"I want to be real clear about this: There are no quick fixes and there are no easy answers," Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville of Monroe told colleagues on the Senate floor. "We'll have to work together and collaborate. The people of Michigan have also been clear in saying that they expect solutions. It will take hard work and it will take time."

In the House, Republican Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall said he wants to change the state's business tax structure and implement a strict, 48-month time limit for able-bodied adults to receive welfare. He also wants to speed up the time it takes for businesses to get air and water permits from the state and change how Michigan awards tax credits.

Bolger told reporters Wednesday that state leaders must be able to have "difficult conversations" and he's willing to discuss the pros and cons of right-to-work policies, which would be unpopular with the state's labor unions.

"Michigan is at a historic crossroads," Bolger told House members after he was unanimously elected speaker. "Those of us serving in this chamber over the next two years have more than a front-row seat to history. We also have a responsibility to drive the future of our beloved state."

Republicans say they don't want to raise taxes as they fight off a projected budget shortfall, which means deep spending cuts likely will be needed. Michigan's constitution requires a balanced state budget.

The first bill introduced in the House could be one to repeal a 22 percent surcharge on the state's main business tax, although details of overall business tax changes still need to be worked out.

Lawmakers will be working with new Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who gives his first State of the State address Jan. 19 and is expected to make his first state budget proposal in February. Republicans in the Legislature expect there will be common themes but they could differ with Snyder on some proposals.

Republicans hold a 26-12 edge over Democrats in the Senate and a 63-47 advantage in the House. Lawmakers from both parties say they will work together to improve the state's fortunes.

"We are eager and genuine in our desire to find the common ground that moves all of Michigan forward," said Sen. Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, the leader of the Senate Democrats.

Rep. Richard Hammel of Genesee County's Mount Morris Township is the leader of House Democrats.

Twenty-nine of the state's 38 senators are new to their jobs this year, although most have previous experience in the House. More than half of the House's 110 members are newcomers.

The turnover is caused in part by Michigan's term limits law, which restricts senators to two terms of four years each and House members to three terms of two years each. Republicans also defeated nine incumbent House Democrats in last year's election.

Published: Fri, Jan 14, 2011