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Why presidential politics could stall a deal in Lansing to fix our roads

With money to fix roads hanging in the balance, presidential politics could stand in the way of the new trend of bipartisan action on big, controversial issues.

But, really, any notion that there’s a new era of bipartisanship at the state Capitol should be shelved, despite the Democratic and Republican coalitions in the Legislature that pushed through deals on increasing the minimum wage and the Detroit rescue package. And that’s because each was an anomaly that brought Democrats to the bargaining table in Republican-controlled Lansing.

When you break down the Detroit votes, for example, you see two very different pictures in the House and in the Senate. In the House, almost all the Republicans voted for the rescue. A few Democrats were the holdouts. In the Senate, Democrats made up the difference as most Republicans-- 16 out of 26 -- voted “no” on the main bills in the Detroit package.

What this says is the parameters of each deal were different (even when we’re talking about the exact same legislation) depending on whether it’s the House or the Senate.  For example, a larger proportion of the Republicans in the Senate have serious primaries.

Now look back to the minimum wage. Republicans were willing to give up a lot to try and kill the petition drive to push the state minimum wage above 10 dollars an hour and apply it equally to tipped workers. Democrats, in the end, were able to force an increase in the minimum wage that will take effect no matter what happens with the petition drive.

So, separate, opposite interests, really,drove the Rs and the Ds to find a way to meet in the middle.

We still have one big issue hanging over the Legislature before it begins its summer break at the end of next week -- transportation funding, money for roads -- where the political math says Governor Rick Snyder and the Republicans can’t pass an increase without Democratic support.

That is, they can’t hit the numbers they need in both the House and the Senate, where a lot of Republicans don’t want to vote for new revenue (i.e. new taxes). And Democrats say, as part of a transportation deal, if they’re going to vote for raising the gas tax or putting a bigger sales tax on the ballot, they need some working class tax relief, maybe a change to the earned income tax credit, or some new exemptions or credits targeted at lower-income taxpayers.

But the discussions are also, shall we say, more global. Democrats are putting some big conditions on the table. The transportation package - more than a billion dollars a year in new revenue for roads-- is the Democrats’ last, best chance to negotiate for what’s going to happen through the rest of the session, especially after the 2014 elections -- “lame duck” -- when things could get ugly. Remember 2012 and Right to Work?

There are two big asks from Democrats in exchange for votes on road funding. Democrats want some solid guarantees in written and/or public statements from Governor Snyder that, first, he will not roll back prevailing wage laws here in Michigan.

And, the second ask: that the governor will make a commitment to not sign any changes to Michigan’s winner-take-all system for casting its 16 Electoral College votes for president. And, that promise will have to last through the balance of a second term (if, of course, he wins one).

Republicans, some Republicans at least, want to change the current system to, instead, make it winner-take-all by congressional districts, which would be a critical change to Michigan’s and the nation’s presidential electoral math.

Remember Republicans in Lansing drew those congressional district lines. So, in 2012, apportioning electoral votes by congressional district would have actually given more of them to Romney -- even though President Obama won the state by almost 10 points, the sixth straight Michigan presidential victory for Democrats.

That’s why the price for Democratic support for transportation revenue could be a promise by Republicans that they won’t touch the Electoral College.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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