At Times Legislation Just Disappears

This happens repeatedly. You read, hear or see news accounts of legislation involving an issue, but never find out whether it gets enacted.

Often the news media doesn't follow through. What seemed like an interesting story one day is knocked off the radar screen by fresher, “more important,” stories. It's no secret that covering news is a very fickle business.

In some cases, the news media simply is drawn away by other issues on the day the Legislature finally passes the legislation. An even more common occurrence is that after doing the initial story, reporters are only reminded of the legislation if further action is taken in the Legislature.

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Unless it pertains to a high-profile issue, when legislation fails to get enough support for passage no one announces to the media that it stalled. To get that story, a reporter has to pursue it and repeatedly ask: “What’s the status of that bill?”

However, something else happens to legislation that has nothing to do with whether a majority of lawmakers would support it.

In fact, it is not unusual for some legislation to become conveniently forgotten. This isn't the same as legislation becoming “stalled” in committee. Instead, it is when legislation is deliberately killed while no one is paying attention.

Some readers might recall the term “nonpersons” from the Cold War era. We were told that people in the Soviet Union who fell out of favor with the government could be declared “nonpersons.” They were officially treated as if they didn't exist.

This is — sort of — what happens to some legislation. A powerful official or powerful group that opposes the proposed legislation pulls strings and it becomes “non-legislation.” If you look it up on the legislative website, it still exists, but nothing is happening to it. No hearings, no votes, nothing. Ask about it and you'll be told: “Oh, we're still working on that.” Wait six months, ask again, and you'll get the same answer.

Presumably, the general public thinks of the Legislature as a place where issues are debated. And that happens.

But arguably the most skilled at the political game in Lansing are those who kill legislation quietly. No big debates, no dramatic vote counting. The legislation is pushed into the background. It dies of willful neglect and inertia.

In some cases, the legislation might not ever get out of committee. However, in other situations the legislation actually gets passed — at times overwhelmingly — by one chamber, only to be quietly killed in the other.

This can happen in either chamber, but it happens more often with bills that start in the House.

One example of a bill that is likely bound for a quiet death is part of a legislative package to make changes to the Strategic Fund and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. This supposedly would include measures to improve MEDC transparency.

The MEDC hands out millions of dollars for projects that supposedly help boost the economy and create jobs. For years it has been accused of being less than transparent about whether the projects it has promoted are successful.

The MEDC’s position is that it is open to possible changes to improve its transparency. Many, perhaps a majority, of House Republicans want to see the MEDC become more transparent. And now, House Democrats are joining them.

Yet, do MEDC officials really want to be saddled with reforms that would force it to be truly transparent? That seems unlikely.

Keep in mind that the deadline for moving current legislation is the end of 2014. In early 2015, a newly-elected Legislature must start over again from scratch.

The Legislature is only in session three more weeks this year. Realistically, that leaves February through June 2014 for legislative action. Most of the focus during that period will be on the budget. After that, election-year campaigning begins. Few people, if any, will even remember the MEDC transparency issue while all of that is going on.

A second example could be the land bank bills, which are in the House Local Government Committee. This legislation would provide standing in court and a grievance process for those who argue that some land banks are circumventing the intent of current law.

Don't be surprised if these bills seem to just disappear from view over the course of the next year.

(Editor’s Note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential. He is a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not represent viewpoints of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)