Budget Debate Contributes to Slow Start for State Legislature

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- State government's budget crisis may be contributing to a slow start for the new Michigan Legislature.
Because relatively few bills have passed both chambers of the Legislature, Gov. Jennifer Granholm had signed only nine new laws so far this year as of Friday. That would tie the lowest total of new public acts in the past five years through May 20.
Last year at this time, the Democratic governor had signed 138 new public acts sent her way by the Legislature. But that number was higher than normal, partly because it was the second year of a two-year legislative session and an election year to boot.
The number of bills signed into law is typically far lower during the first few months of a new Legislature. Twenty-two public acts had been signed by this point in 2005, for example, while nine were inked at this time in 2003. Very few bills were signed early in 2001, either, when Republicans controlled both chambers and the governor's administration.
"When you look at this from a historical perspective, there is nothing unusual about this year," Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.
The legislative session is less than five months old and both the House and Senate have new leaders.
A new factor this year is a power split between the Democratic House and Republican Senate. And many involved in the process insist the state's budget problems are a factor in the relatively few number of bills getting passed.
"Everyone is concentrating on the budget issues," said Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi, a Democrat from Farmington Hills. "The other bills have kind of been put aside for a while."
Vagnozzi expects that non-budget bills -- including more than a dozen that he has introduced in the House -- will be taken up once the state's financial concerns are handled.
But it's hard telling when that will be. Lawmakers are taking longer than usual to deal with budget problems, at least in part because they may be tougher to solve this time around.
State leaders have yet to agree on how they'll balance budgets for this fiscal year, let alone the one that begins next October. Democrats who favor tax increases and Republicans who oppose them are sharply divided on what role new revenues will play in the process, grinding negotiations to a halt at least a couple of times in the past few weeks.
The remaining deficit for this year is expected to be about $800 million. The hole could be much larger for the 2008 budget year.
Lansing insiders including lobbyists, legislators, judges and others gave state legislative leaders and Granholm relatively poor ratings in a recent survey conducted by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA for the Michigan Information & Research Service political newsletter.
"We've not produced results and that's what we should be judged on," said House Speaker Andy Dillon, a Democrat from Redford. "There's still time for us to repair the damage. But we've not done anything yet to give people a reason to give us a high mark."
Dillon said that would change within a few weeks because he expects a budget resolution will be reached.
House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, a Republican from Novi, appeared to be getting impatient last week. He noted that the House has managed to tackle bills related to growing tomatoes and dog bites this year but hasn't done much with the budget or some other key issues.
"You could take all the legislative activity in the House of Representatives this year -- more than six months past the election -- and accomplish it in 15 minutes," DeRoche said. "So the House of Representatives is not doing its job. It needs to get serious and start voting out plans that work to fix Michigan and move it forward."
Dillon and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop are just a few months into their new roles. And they've spent the bulk of their time on the budget crisis, which influences each chamber's agenda.
The House has passed some policy bills this year, including ones related to lawsuits against the prescription drug industry and the importation of Canadian trash. But those bills haven't been addressed in the Senate.
The Senate has passed bills related to child protection and consumer protection, and legislation aimed at boosting hunting, fishing and trapping. They haven't cleared the House.
Both chambers have passed their own versions of bills related to robocalls made during election season.
In some cases, bills likely won't advance in the other chamber because of the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats.
Both the House and Senate have passed some business tax and budget-related bills. For the most part, those bills have not passed the other chamber, but many of them could be part of the ongoing budget negotiations and may pass soon.
Of the eight bills that had become public acts as of the middle of last week, only a few them are unrelated to the budget. One bill dealt with loan repayments for sugar beet cooperatives. Others dealt with qualifications for certified public accountants and marine safety violations.
"There is no disputing that resolving the 2007 budget deficit has taken a great deal of time and energy and rightly so," Matt Marsden, a spokesman for Bishop, said in a statement. "When your house is ablaze you aren't going to be out shopping for new curtains."

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