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Capital Closeup: Michigan House has new committee to enhance bill deliberations

by Jon Davis ~ April 2019 ~ Stateline Midwest »
The state with the strictest term-limits law in the Midwest is experimenting this year with a new committee in its lower chamber that provides an additional layer of legislative review.
The committee goes by a familiar name — Ways and Means — but is not dealing strictly with taxation and financial matters.
Instead, the Michigan House Ways and Committee, instituted by Speaker Lee Chatfield for the current session, serves as a secondary review and approval authority for bills — after measures have emerged from most policy committees, but before they are sent to the full House for a floor vote. (The three exceptions to this new rule are for the Appropriations, Government Operations and Judiciary committees, all of which still can send bills directly to the House floor.)
“We operate like a rules committee in many other states,” says Rep. Brandt Iden, chair of the new Ways and Means Committee. But unlike rules committees that often set the terms of, and time for, debate on bills, the new committee in Michigan is focused on improving workflow, Iden says.
In previous sessions, backlogs of bill amendments and substitute bills often developed — sometimes amendments were added, or substitute bills offered while the sponsoring legislator was out ill and unable to respond or object on the floor — so bills would be sent back to committee, he says.
The new committee is designed to prevent this confusion by ensuring that a bill’s various stakeholders are all on the same page before the measure comes up for a floor vote. “The intent is to make the process smoother, ensure bills are ready for a vote, and to make the speaker’s job easier,” Iden says.
In Michigan, House members are limited to three, two-year terms in office. This year, about 40 percent of the state’s lower chamber is composed of legislators in their first year of service.
According to Iden, the committee will help impart institutional knowledge to newer legislators by having veteran lawmakers review their bills.
“This is really set up as a way to get an additional layer of support” for new members when they introduce legislation, he says.
Members of the Ways and Means Committee are in their second or third terms, and many are ex-policy committee chairs who are already familiar with the overall legislative process. Iden, for example, served as chair of the House Regulatory Reform Committee during the 2017-18 session.
Designed to be flexible, the committee can meet every day, and can vote bills out on the same day as they’re brought up for discussion or can schedule a day or two of testimony, Iden says.
The committee also provides as a second chance for stakeholders to offer testimony if, for whatever reason, they cannot do so when a bill is heard in its original policy committee — a situation that’s already happened a couple of times, Iden adds.
Iden adds that he hopes the new committee survives when he and Speaker Chatfield, both of whom are in their final terms, leave office.
This Ways and Means Committee is a sensible thing to do in a legislature as severely term-limited as Michigan’s, says Gary Moncrief, a distinguished professor emeritus in Boise State University’s Department of Political Science and an instructor for CSG Midwest’s Bowhay Institute for Legislative Leadership Development.
“On the surface, the logic is pretty compelling to me. Six years is not a lot of time [for legislative service],” Moncrief says. “It’ll be interesting to see how it works out over the session.”

Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles focusing on institutional issues in state governments and legislatures.