Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Recapping Capitol and East Lansing news from winter break

January 10, 2019
People listen to Gretchen Whitmer's speech during the 2019 Inaugural swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 1 at the Michigan State Capitol Lawn. Whitmer will be serving as Michigan's 49th governor.
People listen to Gretchen Whitmer's speech during the 2019 Inaugural swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 1 at the Michigan State Capitol Lawn. Whitmer will be serving as Michigan's 49th governor. —
Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

It’s hard to keep up with local news over the semester break. Here’s your Capitol and city recap to make things a little easier.

Capitol

Lame-duck session

Following the election of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democratic candidates in November, Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature spent its final weeks before the inauguration in a lame-duck session that saw outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder sign about 340 bills, according to Click On Detroit.

“It’s one of those, ‘I came in like a lion and went out like a lamb,’” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr., D-East Lansing. “While there were many, many bad ideas presented in the lame-duck, fewer of them hit the governor's desk than I think a lot would have believed at the very beginning.”

Many of these laws reflected Republican priorities, as the session marked the end of the party's control over all three branches of Michigan’s government. The executive branch became Democratic across the board, while the Supreme Court's makeup is more moderate.

Republicans lost seats in the Legislature as well, though they kept a solid majority.

The Legislature made headlines as outgoing lawmakers passed a flurry of laws attempting to limit the power of incoming Democrats, drawing heavy criticism from Democratic leadership.

“The number-one job we have as legislators is to be accountable to those that elect us,” Hertel said. “The idea that we’re the least accountable body that we ever are and are making hundreds of decisions for the Michigan people, I don’t think that’s a positive thing.” 

Some of the laws Snyder passed and signed were one to slow down a planned minimum wage increase by eight years and another to roll back sick leave requirements for employers. Both laws were modifications to ballot initiatives previously passed by the Legislature, an unprecedented move in state history.

Snyder also passed a law to create an authority overseeing the controversial Line 5 tunnel, which Attorney General Dana Nessel and Whitmer have already opposed.

For the next legislative session, “we still have to work in a bipartisan fashion, but hopefully we’ll go into this session with a commitment to working for the people and a better job of listening to the people and what their needs are in this new session,” Hertel said.

Snyder vetoes

In a move that surprised some legislators, including U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, Snyder vetoed several of the more controversial lame-duck bills that came across his desk.

“I think a lot of the more draconian things that were trying to be used to subvert the power of the executive office, the attorney general in respect to the Michigan constitution were vetoed,” Peters said.

Some vetoed laws included bills to permanently ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication, to allow online sports betting and to allow state government to intervene in court cases that would otherwise be under the purview of the attorney general. 

Swearing-in

Several major positions in Michigan government were sworn into office. 

Among them are Whitmer, Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Michigan, and state Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township. Hertel, who was re-elected, was also sworn in. 

Slotkin was sworn in Jan. 3 in Washington D.C. She will hold a ceremonial swearing-in at the Lansing Center Jan. 13.

“I am deeply grateful that the people of the 8th District have honored me with their confidence and their vote," Slotkin said at her D.C. ceremony. "Our mission is to get to work on the issues that matter to the people of this district: Giving every family access to healthcare they can afford, making sure every Michigan family has access to clean water and about returning a sense of integrity and decency to our politics.” 

Jan. 9 marked the first day of the new legislative session in Michigan.

East Lansing

New Park Place development project announced

Another building project has been proposed directly across the street from where construction has just begun on Park District, on the corner of Albert and Abbot.

The area includes a parking lot and Dublin Square. Should the plan go through as proposed, Dublin Square would be demolished to make way for the new construction, said Planning, Building and Development Director Tim Dempsey.

“The owners of (Dublin Square) are part of the development team, and it would be their intention to demolish that building in order to construct the new facility,” Dempsey said. “The plans have just been submitted a few weeks ago, and they’ll be at the planning commission two weeks from tomorrow for the initial public hearing.”

Park Place only recently came to the attention of the East Lansing City Council, council member Aaron Stephens said. Plans were originally proposed to the Downtown Development Authority, which owns the land where the project is being proposed.

“It’s their property to sell, but it’s our project to approve,” Stephens said.

Park Place developers, who have not yet submitted site plans, have proposed a 14-story building with state-of-the-art parking and a large cinema. The current plans directly violate East Lansing’s comprehensive plan for downtown, Stephens said.

While plans are still in their infancy, the prospect of another construction project that would likely overlap with Park District’s own construction left Stephens apprehensive, he said. 

“I told our city manager ... I’m probably going to be a little bit of a stickler on this stuff, just because we have so much going on right now,” Stephens said. “I’m sorry, but their proposal is 14 stories, and that’s higher than the other properties. That does not go with our comprehensive plan.”

Stephens said the council will discuss the project in-depth at a later meeting. 

Park District is underway

Meanwhile, Park District construction is moving forward. The construction crew submitted all building permits, and work will soon begin on pouring the foundation for the structure, Dempsey said.

Preliminary site clearing took place before the semester break, and construction workers can now be seen working on the site. Dempsey said he expected the crew to finish the project by the late summer or early fall of 2020.

Bailey Park

East Lansing received funding from a competitive grant to revitalize Bailey Park. 

The $219,000 from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund will go toward an updated fence, plaza and pathway around the park, as well as pollinator-friendly flowerbeds and a new play structure for young children, according to a press release.

The grant matches other funding the city has received through donations and other means. Work on the project will begin no later than the spring of 2020, pending approval of the grant from the Michigan Legislature.

Dempsey said the project likely won funding for being an urban park.

“I think the state is supportive of those types of improvements,” he said. 

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