A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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THE MOST DANGEROUS VOICE IN THE HOUSE?

Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, was singled out as a man to be silenced on Sept. 2. The freshman lawmaker rose to protest a bill granting a $100 million tax break for an advanced battery manufacturing facility that would go into the old Ford Wixom plant. McMillin wanted to use a recently released Mackinac Center study to tell the members of the House that the state was giving away far too much in exchange for the 300 jobs that the project would supposedly create, but Majority Floor Leader Kathy Angerer, D-Dundee, would not allow him to do so.

According to the MIRS Capitol Capsule newsletter, House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Kewadin, confronted Angerer about shutting down McMillin (www.mirsnews.com — subscription required). Eventually, the Democrats relented — but still wouldn't allow McMillin to address the chamber. Instead, Republicans were permitted to select another member to protest the matter for McMillin. The job fell to another freshman, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Kentwood, who "proceeded to dump on the tax credit, complaining that small businesses didn't want tax credits, they wanted across-the-board business tax cuts," according to MIRS.

"We've had an issue throughout the year," Elsenheimer told MIRS afterward. "We've had difficulty getting our voice heard ... every member is entitled to have his day on the floor."

This was not the first time McMillin had challenged tax breaks for a select few. On June 10, he had attempted to attach an amendment to a bill that would have given targeted tax breaks to businesses selected for special treatment by the state government economic planners at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. McMillin's amendment would have required the Office of the Auditor General to give a closer look at the data that the MEDC was giving to lawmakers.

This was McMillin's fourth attempt this year to force greater oversight of the MEDC, and this time he claimed to have collected the 22 signatures supposedly necessary under House rules to force a recorded roll-call vote on his amendment. But the signatures were ignored and the McMillin amendment was gaveled down on a "voice vote" — a parliamentary procedure that the party in power uses to avoid taking a real vote on a proposal. Often, as in this case, it is done when they don't want their members taking tough official stands on controversial matters.

The reluctance to give McMillin his votes is possibly a reaction to one vote that he did win earlier in the year. On March 12, he successfully persuaded a majority of his colleagues to approve an amendment to another special economic development tax break. McMillin's tactic on this day was to change the wording of the bill so that the tax break applied to all businesses, rather than just those approved by state government bureaucrats, very similar to the "across-the-board tax cuts" that Amash would speak of during the Sept. 2. dispute.

The victory was short-lived. According to MIRS, "even before the applause from the GOP side had died down, a motion to substitute a version of the bill without the McMillin amendment was adopted by a voice vote."

Frustration regarding this treatment boiled to the surface on June 26, right before the House adjourned for its summer break. That day, MIRS published a long story quoting "capitol observers" who were "grumbling" that the Republican minority in the Michigan House was being "shutdown during the legislative process" — perhaps being "steamrolled" more than any minority party in either chamber of the state Legislature had been in more than three or four decades.

"There is a persistent problem when it comes to recognizing members' rights to be heard on their amendments and at times record roll-call votes on their amendments," Elsenheimer told MIRS, in a statement that applied more to McMillin than any other lawmaker under the Capitol dome.


Taxed ENOUGH Already...

Genesee County voters went to the polls on Aug. 4 to decide the fate of a ballot proposal that would increase county property taxes by $100 million over 10 years to fund Hurley Medical Center, a nonprofit hospital owned and governed by the city of Flint. According to The Flint Journal, Friends of Hurley, a ballot committee organized in favor of the tax hike, raised nearly $500,000 to advocate for a "yes" vote. The Committee Against Tax Increases, a group created by activists from the Genesee Taxed Enough Already (TEA) Party, was the only organized opposition and reportedly raised less than $5,000. Despite the 100-1 funding disadvantage, the TEA Party celebrated a razor-thin 50.71 percent victory after 62,727 ballots were tabulated.

The Journal reported that more than half of the campaign cash spent by Friends of Hurley went to Byrum & Fisk Advocacy, an East Lansing public affairs firm used by many Lansing politicians. Friends of Hurley communicated their message through mass direct mailings and television advertising.

With no money for mass mailings, television spots or professional political operatives, the Genesee TEA Party focused its limited resources on personal voter contact through door-to-door canvassing. This may have been a key to its success because — according to Cathy Tyler, one of the anti-tax activists interviewed by the Journal — many residents were unaware that a tax vote would be taking place.

The Genesee County Board of Commissioners voted 7-2 on May 26 to place the tax hike on the ballot. The millage would have increased property taxes for all county residents to benefit a hospital owned and governed by the city of Flint. Although regularly scheduled municipal elections in Flint coincided with the Aug. 4 date, only one other community in Genesee County had anything else scheduled for the ballot that day. Additionally, because Flint owns the hospital, some residents not residing within that city were under the mistaken impression that the tax hike and vote did not apply to them.

A clerk from one township in Genesee County told The Journal that many voters there would likely miss the vote because of this confusion. Her prediction was borne out. In contrast to the 221,598 Genesee County residents who voted in the November 2008 general election — representing more than 63 percent of those eligible — less than 63,000 participated in the Hurley millage.

Having bested the tax-hike supporters by only 887 votes, knocking on the doors of those non-Flint voters and getting them to the polls appears to have made a big difference for the TEA Party. Though a "yes" vote prevailed in every single precinct within Flint, the "no" votes carried the overwhelming majority of precincts outside of it. Gwen Jensen of Fenton told The Journal that she spent every day of the final month of the campaign distributing anti-millage literature. Her work appears to have paid off: The proposal was rejected by 78 percent of Fenton and Fenton Township, giving the "no" side a 2,276 vote cushion from those two communities alone.

"We changed the votes of people, because we informed them," TEA Party head Mike Gardner told The Journal on election night.  

The Lowdown is written by Ken Braun, senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. He may be reached at author@mackinac.org

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