Under Pressure

Governor Whitmer and the 100th Michigan Legislature have been in office for nine months, and together they don’t have many major legislative accomplishments to show for it. Divided government always provides challenges as well as opportunities, but it is remarkable how little has been done in the way of substantial legislation. Even the state budget, which was completed well ahead of the deadline prescribed in the Michigan Constitution for the last 8 years of unified partisan control, seems destined to be passed right before the deadline, if not a bit after. So, why have  so few bills of consequence been passed and signed into law thus far?

As mentioned, the most obvious reason is divided government. Every statewide official in Michigan is a Democrat, while Republicans enjoy majorities in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature. Branches of government with competing policy priorities create the opportunity for compromise and major policy change, but they also create the opportunity for gridlock. Michigan’s last experience of divided government (2007-2010) certainly produced its share of gridlock, and so far the 100th Legislature and Governor Whitmer seem to be caught in a similar rut. However, the problem goes deeper.

A careful look at the major piece of legislation that has actually been passed this legislative session helps explain why so few big accomplishments have been signed into law. Earlier this year the legislature passed and the Governor signed, changes to Michigan’s auto no-fault law, after more than a decade of lobbying and legislative wrangling. Understanding why this was enacted after several legislative sessions where it stagnated, especially under a legislature and Governor that have been unable to cooperate on other major issues, helps illuminate why compromise has not been forged in other significant policy areas.

Put simply, the changes to auto no fault were passed and signed because the outside pressure on the State Capitol reached an unbearable point for lawmakers, the executive branch, and the interest groups that seek to influence policy makers in Lansing every day. In addition to frantic lobbying efforts, and traditional public relations techniques (like OpEds, paid advertising, etc.), enormous pressure was brought to bear from the public (particularly in Southeast Michigan, where auto insurance rates are the highest), and by billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert.

How was this pressure so influential when previous attempts to pass similar legislation were stymied? First, supporters of changing auto no-fault increased the salience of the issue by recruiting new validators and coalition partners that raised the political price of inaction for members of the legislature and the Governor. Staff were flooded with calls and emails demanding rate relief, including by sizable numbers of individuals from key political constituencies (e.g. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan). These contacts demanding action did not go unnoticed, and made potentially skeptical lawmakers more willing to consider a vote for change.

Second, the engagement of Dan Gilbert, home mortgage billionaire and Detroit real estate investor, raised the political price of inaction even further by introducing a credible threat of alternative action. This involved both leveraging his sizeable business and personal network, but also putting on the table the threat of a voter initiated law. This step in particular created a new political calculation for Governor Whitmer. If she was unwilling to force the issue and forge a compromise that she was prepared to live with and sign, a credible threat existed that citizens (led by Mr. Gilbert) would take matters into their own hands.

As Lansing veterans can tell you, voter initiated laws cut the Governor out of the process completely. Once citizens have collected adequate signatures, the Legislature has an opportunity to enact a bill based on the petition language, without the need for a gubernatorial signature. This presented Governor Whitmer with a choice: hold the line on the current system and risk what she viewed as an unacceptable alternative, or forge the best compromise that she could, and take the issue off the table. She obviously chose the latter.

What lessons does the experience of auto no fault legislation hold for individuals and groups that seek major policy change from our gridlocked state government?

  1. Organize – modern communications technologies have made identifying and communicating with key constituencies and potential allies more possible that ever. Supporters of changing Michigan’s auto no fault law grew the size of their coalition by adding grasstops validators like Mayor Mike Duggan, but also by growing a grassroots army in key constituencies around Michigan that was demanding action for rate relief.
  2. Target – proponents of major change carefully targeted lawmakers that they could potentially win over, and focused their efforts on influencing as many of them as they could to support the effort.
  3. Change Incentives – lobbying, financial support, and leadership pressure are all important factors. However, effectively leveraging grassroots support in key legislative and political constituencies can change the incentive structure under which each of the aforementioned factors operates to influence policy makers. In the case of auto no fault, the immense targeted public pressure, coupled with the credible threat of cutting the Governor out of the process, produced a novel incentive structure that made action not only more possible, but more likely, than under prior legislative and gubernatorial regimes.

Grassroots Midwest can help you and your organization better understand the incentives under which policy makers operate, and develop plans for how you too can organize, target and change the incentives of policymakers to create the change you want to see. Contact us to learn more about how you can break through on the issues that matter most to YOU.