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Legislators have to legislate — even when they're running for office

Jan 5, 2018

Thirty years ago, both Detroit newspapers circulated statewide, had hundreds of thousands of readers, and had squads of reporters in Lansing, covering state government.

The Detroit News at one time had 13 reporters there, on the reasonable theory that state government was really the most important branch of government in the lives of people.

That was a long time ago. Most people don’t even subscribe to a daily newspaper these days, though they may glance at them online. Even if you read them, as I do, you will get an account that’s sketchy at best about how our state is being run.

Those well-connected and in the know are able to follow what’s happening in state government through a couple expensive, subscription-only news services, known as Gongwer and MIRS (Michigan Information and Research Service.)

Two days ago, a MIRS report led off with what I found a refreshingly touching piece on what legislative leaders’ actual policy priorities are this year.

Speaker of the House Tom Leonard is, of course, a Republican. But he named two issues that ought to have broad bipartisan support. One is getting rid of the so-called Driver Responsibility Fees, which have cost thousands of people their licenses, and meant more than 300,000 owe the state money they can’t afford to pay.

Leonard also has some very sensible ideas about mental health and prison reform, stemming from his years as a local prosecutor. Meanwhile, Gongwer had an interview with Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, who said his top priority is water.

That shouldn’t be surprising, given that he’s from Flint. Ananich is a reasonable and sensible man, a father and former teacher in his early 40s.

“We need to do a lot more to help people feel safe,” he said, adding “It’s not a Republican or Democratic glass of water.” Both men made a lot of sense.

But this is an election year, and you have to wonder how long that will last. It may be easier for Ananich to keep his eye on the ball. While he is running for reelection, he has an entirely safe seat and is unlikely to face any serious primary challenge.

Leonard, however, is term-limited from the House, and is attempting to get the GOP nomination for attorney general in a struggle with State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker. If the primary struggle turns into a war in which each has to try to prove they are more conservative than the other, you have to wonder if that will mean the sacrifice of sensible policy reform.

We will have to see what will happen. Some politicians are already plainly gearing up for the election. Gretchen Whitmer is entirely free to do that; she’s no longer in the legislature. But it is somewhat astounding to note that two days ago was the first anniversary of her officially launching her campaign for governor in an election now still ten months away.

Speaking of that, consider this: Somewhere in this state, babies will be conceived this weekend. Those babies will all be born well before we elect our next set of state officials.

Ten months is way too long for those who we pay to do the state’s business to do nothing except run for office. I hope we remind them of that throughout the year.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.