Hundreds of opponents angered by bills that would give broad new powers to emergency financial managers crowded into Michigan's Capitol rotunda on Tuesday, chanting loud enough to be heard in the Senate where the bills were being considered.
"We are the union, the mighty, mighty union," chanted the protesters, which included many firefighters and other unionized workers. More than 1,000 rallied outside the Capitol to show their opposition to the bills.
The protesters are concerned the legislation could allow emergency financial managers appointed by the state to run struggling cities and schools to terminate union contracts held by school teachers and local government workers and also strip local elected officials of most powers.
Supporters of the legislation say it would lead to earlier intervention by the state in financially troubled communities and schools, perhaps avoiding the crisis situations that initially lead to the appointment of emergency managers.
The House passed the bills two weeks ago, and the Republican-controlled Senate held extensive debate on the bills Tuesday. The measures are expected to pass the Senate when they come up for a vote later this week. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder supports them and is expected to sign them once they get to his desk.
Senators debated a long list of amendments Tuesday morning, most of them offered by Democrats hoping to put some limits on the emergency financial managers' power.
Nearly all their amendments were defeated, except for one offered by Democratic Sen. Tupac Hunter of Detroit, which would limit emergency financial managers' annual pay to $176,000. It passed on a narrow 19-18 vote, with some Republicans joining about a dozen Democrats to vote yes.
Then, in a sudden change, Republicans who control the Senate brought the amendment up for reconsideration. The salary limit failed 16-21. Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing chided Republicans for saying they wanted to reopen the vote so more Republicans could support it when they instead intended to vote it down.
Told she was out of order, Whitmer shot back, "Go ahead and gavel me." Opponents in the gallery loudly cheered her comments.
The state's current law related to emergency financial managers is seldom used and currently affects about a half-dozen local communities and schools. Only four -- Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac and the Detroit Public Schools -- have emergency financial managers in place.
Many more communities and schools might fall under the jurisdiction of a revised law, particularly as more suffer financial stresses from a prolonged economic slump and worsening budget problems. Opponents of the legislation say it's a state power grab designed to increase meddling in local affairs.
"We're doing something that I consider so detrimental to our state," said Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland.
Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, gave an even more fiery speech, asking "Is this right, is this just? And the people say no." Opponents in the Senate gallery cheered as he spoke. During Tuesday's debate, Sen. Mark Jansen, the Grand Rapids Republican presiding over the Senate, repeatedly had to warn those in the gallery that no demonstrations were allowed.
Local officials warned the financial manager measures would take away voters' rights by removing the authority of elected school board members, mayors and council members.