Sometimes messy, legislative process still worth effort
Published 9:49 am Thursday, March 3, 2016
An analogy that is often used about the legislative process compares it to the making of sausage. While sausage can be a wonderful product, the process of actually making it is one that might cause you to lose your appetite. (As I write this, I realize that this analogy will not mean much to my many vegetarian friends!) The making of legislation can also be a messy process. It is often filled with frustration, argumentation, pushing and pulling, political maneuvering, truth-stretching, and deal-making. And yet, in the end, the product hopefully serves society, improves justice, promotes health and well-being, or in some other way helps us all to live together better in our communities.
Recently that process was short-circuited in Lansing with Public Act 269/Senate Bill 571. The legislature did not take enough time to go through the full, messy legislative process on that bill, and we ended up with what some folks believed was a poor product. I was one of the folks with that belief, and so became heavily involved in the process of fixing the too-hurried legislation. In this process, I learned some lessons along the way.
Senate Bill 571 was rushed because we were in the last session day of 2015, and it was felt that the legislation needed to pass in order to go into effect for the 2016 election season. As it turned out, new language added at the 11th hour to the bill significantly changed the rules in how local public bodies, such as a township board or a school board, could legally communicate with the public when they propose a ballot initiative. An example of a ballot initiative could be when the public is being asked to fund a new fire truck or a new school building. SB571 banned public bodies from spending on certain types of mass communications about these ballot proposals in the 60 days prior to the vote.
My experience on local boards taught me just how important it is to properly inform the public about these types of ballot proposals. For the public to vote in an informed manner, they need to know why the ballot proposal is being presented. They need to know the facts about how much money is being asked for and how it will be spent. It has always been deemed appropriate for public money to be used in this manner to explain the proposal.
The problem SB 571 was trying to fix are instances when public bodies do not merely inform citizens with mass communications, but actually (and improperly) advocate for the public to vote “yes” or “no.” Public bodies are supposed to give out factual information but not to push for a “yes” or “no”, in order to be fair to people on both sides of the issue. SB571 went way too far, in my opinion, and needed a fix. Indeed, Governor Snyder asked for such a fix to be forthcoming when he signed the bill into law.
When I learned I had voted in favor of a bill containing language I disagreed with, I was in an awkward situation. Immediately, I honestly admitted that I rushed my vote and promised to work hard towards a fix. This did not go over too well with some of my colleagues because some supported the bill as is, and others were not supportive of talk involving the Legislature voting without knowing the full contents of a bill. I should have been more sensitive to my colleagues, and about our image in the eyes of the public.
When I returned to Lansing in January, I began seeking an agreement on language that would remove the 60-day rule, and replace it with language that clarified the law banning public bodies from advocating for or against their ballot proposals. For six weeks, I negotiated at length with various people who represented the interests of public bodies, and with other people who were interested in clamping down against the wrongful use of public dollars. I worked with representatives from both sides of the aisle who offered several reasonable solutions. I made a promise to fix Senate Bill 571, and I was determined to do so. We debated over individual words and how the legal system might interpret them, in efforts to avoid making unintended future problems. Eventually we came up with what I believe is clear language that addresses the problem.
I was pleasantly surprised by the unified support I received from my colleagues when the House voted on my fix, which is now before the Senate for its approval.
As I said, the last few months have been a real learning experience for me. I learned about how difficult the legislative process can be, even getting agreement on just a few words or phrases. I learned how helpful legislative allies can be in a tough situation, from all political backgrounds. And in the end, I also learned that going through the entire, messy, time-consuming legislative process is well worth the effort.
As always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. My office staff, Ben Eikey and Tori Kletke, are happy to assist. I can be reached at (517) 373-1796, or DavePagel@house.mi.gov.