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Republican majority in Lansing gears up for final days of lame duck

There’s one more week of “lame duck” in Lansing as the Michigan Legislature wraps up its 2015-2016 session.

Lame duck - the period between the November election and the end of the year - is when the going gets weird in Lansing.

Legislation that languished or went unseen can suddenly appear in lame duck. This year, we saw Governor Rick Snyder’s idea to tap the School Aid Fund for half of all state income tax refunds suddenly appear, and then quickly wither under the weight of the controversy.  (Wonder why we didn’t see that sooner. Possibly because going after money for schools could have been an issue in the elections?)

Lame duck is also a time when whichever party is in the majority - Republicans in this instance - engage in displays of raw political power.

We saw Michigan become a right-to-work state in lame duck 2012. And, in that same session, Governor Snyder and legislative Republicans responded to voters rejecting the emergency manager law in November by passing a new emergency manager law in December.

This year’s lame duck possibilities initially included an effort to go after the pension benefits of unionized teachers and municipal employees. That, however, was shut down by quick organization opposing the efforts.

But there are still-active issues that certainly appear to target unions and progressive activism. Republicans are trying to pass a law that would make it harder for people without a photo ID to cast an election ballot. They’re also teeing up legislation boosting the penalties for picketing outside a business, and barring leave time for union activities for public employees.

It deserves to be noted that none of these are time-sensitive issues that can’t wait for 2017 and the new Legislature.

Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter awkwardly acknowledged the reality of lame duck politics last week, “I don’t know what there is about it. I guess many people do see lame duck as an opportunity.”

That opportunity exists for several reasons. First of all, lame duck is the point in time that’s the furthest moment between the most recent election and the next one. That leaves more time for voters to forget an issue or simply move on.

Also, because the last election is over, a lot of people have just had their fill of politics, so they’re not paying as much attention to controversies at the Capitol.

And, of course, don’t forget term limits. There are 40-plus term-limited members of the state House of Representatives. That’s about a third of the House chamber’s members who can cast controversial votes without worrying about their re-election. They may also have some final things on their to-do lists. They’re in a frame of mind to bargain.

And the next generation of House Republican leaders can say it was the previous Legislature, not them, who moved on those controversies.

So, we will see what this week brings. It’s said that power doesn’t corrupt so much as it reveals. Lame duck is that moment when voters get the starkest look at what and who they voted for -- just as they’re headed out the door.

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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