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State House speaker talks marijuana, paid sick leave, and community mental health

grand hotel on mackinac island
David Ball
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Michigan lawmakers are rubbing elbows and talking politics at the annual Detroit Policy Conference on Mackinac this week.


Michigan’s decision-makers are gathered this week on Mackinac Island for the annual Detroit Policy Conference. 

State House Speaker Tom Leonard is among those attending. He spoke with Stateside about a number of upcoming ballot measures being discussed in the state legislature. Once a voter-driven initiative is certified to be on the ballot, the legislature has 40 days to do one of three things: They can amend and pass it, offer a competing proposal, or do nothing and let it go to the ballot. 

1. Marijuana legalization

The deadline for the legislature to act on the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana is next Tuesday. Leonard said little momentum has been building in the legislature, and he fully anticipates this initiative will go to the ballot. 

“For those saying there is momentum, this is like the equivalent of somebody buying five lottery tickets instead of one lottery ticket. I just do not see it happening. Barring some miracle for the folks who want to see this pass at least through the legislature, I do not see it happening.”

Some Michigan legislators think this proposal could increase Democratic turnout, but Leonard said that's not necessarily true. He's seen polls predicting that if the proposal is on the ballot, it would pass with 60 percent approval, and others that show once “individuals are educated on this issue,” there is less than 50 percent support. 

“I am personally opposed to this,” Leonard said.  “I am a former prosecutor. I have seen the damage that this can cause to individuals lives, and I think this is something the citizens need to decide, and I do believe this is something that can be defeated at the ballot.”    

2. Prevailing wage law  

An initiative to repeal the state's prevailing wage law which requires union wages be paid on all state projects has broad support in the Republican caucus. This week the Michigan Supreme Courtdenied an appeal filed by opponents to halt the initiative. 

“Assuming they do the right thing tomorrow and they follow this court order and they do certify this, it does go to the house and the Senate. I would fully anticipate we will take this up at some point next week,” Leonard said. 

He said he thinks this is something the legislature needs to pass in order to protect the taxpayers. 

3. Independent redistricting commission 

Certification of an initiative that would create an independent redistricting commission to handle issues of gerrymandering in the state has been put on hold pending the result of a lawsuit seeking to halt the measure.

“I believe this is a very unfortunate and misleading ballot initiative,” Leonard said. “This is not a bipartisan initiative. This is something that is being run and pushed by the Democrats because they have simply lost election after election over the past eight years.”

4. Minimum wage

There could be another upcoming ballot initiative certified that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022, and gradually increase the percentage of the minimum wage that tipped employees get. Leonard believes such an initiative would be destructive for the state.  

“Even the waitresses that I talked to, I believe there is a union that represents waitresses and waiters here at the island, they oppose this because they know how destructive this could be for their industry,” Leonard said. “I have spoken to restaurant owners. This would put many of them out of business.”  

5. Mandatory paid sick leave

Also potentially making its way to November's ballot is an initiative to require paid sick leave. Business organizations such as the Michigan Manufacturers Association oppose, it and worry it would be too burdensome.

“I don’t know what I could say about this that I didn’t say about the minimum wage increase,” Leonard said. “Same thing, this would be a huge burden on employers in the state of Michigan, and I think this would be a big hindrance to the progress we have made over the past eight years.”

The paid sick leave ballot initiative has not yet been certified. Leonard said he and the House would decide their course of action once that happens.

Mental Health

There are no upcoming ballot initiatives specifically regarding mental health, but fixing Michigan’s community mental health system has been one of Leonard’s main priorities since becoming a representative. 

A group consisting of state officials, providers, advocates, and health plan executives have been discussing how to better coordinate physical and mental health care. 

This would require some major changes in how Michigan delivers mental health care and who manages it. This group has been working on this for the past two years. 

Leonard said a lot of progress has been made. 

“I was very clear from day one about two things,” Leonard said. “One, I didn’t know where to begin.  I just knew that we had a major problem that we had identified, that we needed to fix, that we needed to resolve," Leonard said. "But secondly, I was very clear that I believe this system is so broken that even if we make substantial progress this term, it's going to be nothing more than a few raindrops in the ocean compared to what we need to do,” he added. 

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