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Michigan Democrats are getting their way for the first time in nearly 40 years

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a law to include the rights of LGBTQ people in Michigan's Civil Rights law on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Lansing, Mich.
Rick Pluta
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Michigan Public Radio Network
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a law to include the rights of LGBTQ people in Michigan's Civil Rights law on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Lansing, Mich.

LANSING, Mich. — In her State of the State address this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had something no other Democratic governor has had since the early 1980s – a legislature willing to pass her agenda, even if with only a two-seat majority in both chambers.

"We spoke with a clear voice in November," Whitmer said. "We want the ability to raise a family without breaking the bank, strong protections for our fundamental rights to vote and control our own bodies."

And Democrats have wasted no time getting their top priorities to the governor's desk. Within the first two months of the many-months long legislative session, Democrats passed their centerpiece tax plan, a bill to repeal the state's defunct 1931 abortion ban and legislation to create civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.

Passing their big priorities

Some items, like the civil rights expansion, came with a few Republican votes while the abortion ban repeal fell closer to party lines.

"I am grateful that we are finally, finally addressing it and repealing this archaic and punitive law once and for all," said Democratic Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, who sponsored the abortion repeal. Pohutsky physically tore a page containing the old law from a book of Michigan statutes as she spoke.

But it hasn't all been easy. Democratic leadership learned a tough lesson when votes over the big tax cut got messy.

The plan started as two separate proposals to roll back taxes on pension income and increase the earned income tax credit, but funding for business incentives and other spending got roped in.

When the House vote did come up, after hours of waiting, no one was allowed to speak. Republican anger was palpable as they shouted down leadership.

Full steam ahead, no regret

This moxy comes after years of Democrats feeling powerless in the minority, often being gaveled down. Now, they're finding themselves using some of the same tactics they once criticized Republicans for.

"Voters exercised their power in terms of what they wanted us to do," said Democratic House Speaker Joe Tate. "They want us to be effective and I think we've shown that."

Now, Democrats are rushing to pass the last of their early goals before going on spring break.

That means getting labor priorities, like repealing the state's 2012 right-to-work law and a requirement for construction contracts to pay prevailing wage to the governor. Also, a deadly mass shooting at Michigan State University pushed gun control bills up on the priority list.

A large crowd attends a rally to demand action on gun safety at the Michigan State Capitol on March 15, 2023, in Lansing, Mich. The rally comes as gun safety bills are making their way through the Michigan legislature.
Chris duMond / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A large crowd attends a rally to demand action on gun safety at the Michigan State Capitol on March 15, 2023, in Lansing, Mich. The rally comes as gun safety bills are making their way through the Michigan legislature.

Some warn Democrats may be moving too fast

Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping that speed backfires. While their colleagues are selling the labor proposals as pro-worker, Republicans argue they're unpopular and expensive.

"This is the beginning of the Democrat overreach that's going to lead to their demise and the Republicans taking back the House," Republican House Minority Leader Matt Hall told reporters ahead of his chamber passing right-to-work repeal legislation.

"They shouldn't gulp, they should sip," says Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan President and CEO Jimmy Greene who has been a longtime supporter of right-to-work.

He says he understands why Democrats are moving so fast this time around but warns against them overplaying their hand.

"They should show that they're responsible with power. Right now, it looks like they're power hungry," Greene says.

It's hard to tell how strong the Democratic majority truly is, Greene says. Arguably, Democrats won control of the legislature with the help of a massive turnout spurred on by an abortion rights ballot measure. Not to mention newly independently drawn voting districts that ended up competitive anyway.

One factor in Democrats' favor, though – infighting within the state Republican Party.

"I think the Republican party is the best gift Democrats have. The idea that they're doing all this right now with [an] absolutely dysfunctional, inoperative, broke party apparatus?" Greene says. "Let's be honest. They're not afraid of Republicans. I wouldn't be."

There could be a long road ahead. The legislature still has all year to meet.

Colin Jackson is the capitol reporter at the Michigan Public Radio Network.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Jackson (Michigan Public Radio Network)