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Update: A great big fight over very little at the state Capitol

Update Monday, January 26th:

The ax has fallen.

This afternoon, Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) and the Republican caucus developed a response that was both ruthless and nuanced to the Democratic insurgency on the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Pam Faris (D-Clio) has been removed from the House Appropriations Committee and replaced by Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit), who has a history of playing to both sides of the aisle when it suits his purposes. 

Santana will also serve as the ranking Democratic member.

It’s an interesting political move as Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) remains on the budget committee, which creates a tension point for Democrats. Dillon was the Democrats’ first choice to serve as the minority vice chair. But Cotter named Faris to the position instead.

The other Democrats on the committee, including Faris, en masse refused the position and said Dillon would be their budget negotiator regardless of whom Cotter names to the position.

“No one wants to see this kind of manufactured drama in their state Capitol, so I am putting a stop to it,” Cotter said in a written statement.

Now, the question is will Democrats stick with their original position that Dillon will serve as their sole voice on budget issues? Or will they back down in the face of Cotter’s “big stick” response? The former essentially invites every Democrat to become a free agent on budget questions. The latter means the Ds lose the first big confrontation of the 2015-16 session of the Legislature.

Original post, Friday, January 23rd, 2015:

We saw this week in Lansing the first big partisan kerfuffle of the new session of the Michigan Legislature; a fiercely partisan dispute with very little at stake.  

The battle was over the prized position of Minority Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Now, we really shouldn’t diminish the position. It matters.  This is the Democrats’ point person when it comes to negotiating budget deals with the Republican majority and arguing for priorities and projects that will benefit the districts of the 47 Democrats serving in the state House.

But, there are no policy issues at stake here. Instead, this is all about the perquisites of power and who gets to decide what.

The Backstory

Weeks ago, Democratic Minority Leader Tim Greimel announced that state Representative Brandon Dillon would be the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. But, last week, when the committee assignments came down, the Ds were shocked to find the position had been assigned by the Republican majority to a different Democrat, state Representative Pam Faris of Genesee County.

“Foul!” Democrats cried.

It hadn’t even been a day since the new House Speaker, Republican Kevin Cotter, had said, “So much of the work that we do in this chamber is done on a bipartisan basis. I look forward to working with Minority Leader Greimel and his Democratic colleagues.”

Ds fight back

The Democratic response: If we don’t get to choose our vice chair, we just won’t have a vice chair. And they made it very loud, putting the response in a letter that was made public yesterday.

But, the Democrats are putting quite a bit at risk here. Without a vice chair, every Democrat on the appropriations committee becomes a free agent. The committee business will be slowed down.

But, really, the question: why is this a fight at all? Why can’t Democrats simply choose their own ranking member?

Well, in this case, Brandon Dillon, the Democrats’ choice, was also the campaign chair for the House Democrats in the last election cycle. That means that every Republican who had a close race has a reason to dislike Dillon.

One of those was Republican Kevin Cotter. Dillon was able to make what was supposed to be a comfortable reelection bid by Cotter a hard-fought battle.

Deja Vu

We should certainly note there is precedent for this. The Gongwer News Service reminds us of 2007 when then-House Speaker Andy Dillon, a Democrat with no relation to Brandon Dillon, said “no” to the Republican minority’s choice for the ranking minority member. Dillon instead chose a Republican with whom he thought it would be easier to work.

Now what?

Back to present day, one thing is certain: we have not seen the final act in this drama.

It’s very likely that Cotter and the Republicans won’t cave and give the position to Brandon Dillon as Democrats are demanding.

And, in fact, there could be retribution from the GOP in the form of, say, committee re-assignments.

So, that’s how things are shaping up in Lansing this year: the usual calls for bipartisanship at the beginning of the session only quickly to get bogged down in partisanship.

This has us thinking that maybe the real meaning of the phrase, “We need to be bipartisan” is actually, “You need to be bipartisan.”

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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