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Sunday, 20 December 2015 23:54

The year ahead in state policy: Energy, marijuana, taxes and ballot initiatives

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If any meaningful policy changes at the state level are to happen in 2016, they will likely come at the bookends of the Legislature’s session, observers say.

Being an election year in the state House means lawmakers will likely play it safe leading up to a May filing deadline to run and the November general elections, leaving a four-month window at the beginning of the year and — as is historically the case — a hurried lame-duck session in December to pass significant policy changes. The more contentious the issue, the less likely House members will risk political capital among voters.

“The rule in an election year is to first, do no harm,” said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. “Usually an election year is a great time for doing legislation that are a priority for members so they can go home and campaign on it.”

Ultimately, House Republicans will be looking to maintain their majority at the end of the year, Demas added. She gave Democrats a 10-percent chance of taking over the House after a March special election gives them a 63-47 deficit. Demas said Democrats would likely pick up five of 12 contested “tossup” seats that are currently held by Republicans.

“But it might only be a couple,” she said.

In that context, the Legislature still has several pressing issues before it in 2016. Additionally, several ballot initiatives underway also have the potential to change state law.

Here are several statewide policy issues affecting the business community that will likely get attention next year.


ENERGY

With a road-funding deal out of the way, the Legislature’s next big issue affecting the business community — and virtually all Michigan residents — is crafting a new comprehensive energy policy.

Lawmakers in both chambers spent all of 2015 wading through the complex issue as the state’s last major energy policy from 2008 is scheduled to level off at the end of the year. Supporters of that law, which mandated 10 percent of energy to come from renewable sources, say the state should continue on that path, ramping up to a higher target over the next 10 years.

But Republican lawmakers are set against the continuation of any standards and are pursuing a plan that would require utilities to file detailed outlook strategies with the Michigan Public Service Commission to ensure the most cost-effective generation portfolio.

Gov. Rick Snyder is supportive of that route and has said publicly that Michigan could reach a 40-percent goal of renewables and energy efficiency by 2025.

Meanwhile, the administration also has said that it will move swiftly next year to pull in a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a state strategy to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan, despite legal challenges by 24 states and multiple national business groups.

Included in that group of opponents is Attorney General Bill Schuette and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, who have been calling it federal overreach.


MARIJUANA

State cannabis policy could undergo major changes next year, both for medical and recreational users.

Lawmakers came close this year to creating a system to tax and regulate the commercial growing, distribution and retail selling of medical marijuana at dispensaries. After clearing the House with strong bipartisan support in October, the dispensary bill is now (as of press time) hung up in the Senate Judiciary Committee. One key advocacy group, the National Patients Rights Association, withdrew its support for the plan after an amendment was added to create a tiered system similar to alcohol that would block licensees from engaging in multiple levels of the system.

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said work on the bill will continue into 2016.

Outside of the medical realm, two groups continue collecting petition signatures as they look to ask voters to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults. Both groups — the Michigan Cannabis Coalition and the Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative, or MILegalize — are hopeful they will gather enough signatures for a November 2016 vote.

State Rep. Winnie Brinks, a Kent County Democrat, told MiBiz that she supports a regulatory system for dispensaries and is “generally supportive” of legalization, but she wants to ensure it is done right.

“I want to make sure we watch what’s going on in other states to learn from their experiences so we do it thoughtfully,” Brinks said.
Should both happen, the legal marijuana industry could thrive in Michigan as it has in other states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon.


TAX POLICY

As this edition of MiBiz went to press, lawmakers were still debating legislation that would grant tax incentives to Las Vegas-based Switch Communications Group LLC in hopes of luring the company to Gaines Township to use the former Steelcase pyramid building for a major cloud-based data center.

However, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has taken a firm stance against the incentives, saying it creates an uneven playing field for one company over existing data centers already operating in the state.

Michigan Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley said the issue will carry into the future regardless of how lawmakers come down on the plan. He is also concerned that the state will attempt to expand the state sales tax to cover cloud computing services.

“It’s clear there are some lawmakers who want to engage in this bait-and-switch tax policy,” Studley said. “The legislation was introduced with the best of intentions, but it has created serious questions about cost-shifting and subsidies and putting state government back in the game of picking winners and losers.”

Separately, the Michigan Chamber is also fighting a plan by state Rep. Al Pscholka, a Republican from Berrien County, on what it calls a nearly $2 billion health insurance tax increase on individuals and businesses.

The bill would extend the Health Insurance Claims Assessment, which is a fee levied on health insurers and businesses to help the state match federal Medicaid dollars. Studley said while it may reach Snyder’s desk this year, the Michigan Chamber will continue advocating to stop it or reduce the length of it.

“Our members feel very strongly that it’s completely irresponsible to put the Health Insurance Claims Assessment on autopilot for the next eight years,” Studley said.


BALLOT INITIATIVES

The Michigan Chamber is also opposing two ongoing ballot initiatives to raise the corporate income tax and mandate paid sick time in the state.

Supporters of those efforts, however, say they are meant to ease the burden on residents who have had to pay for tax cuts for corporations approved by Snyder in 2011, as well as to provide assurances that they don’t have to give up income to care for a sick child.

Finally, efforts continue by advocates to eliminate Michigan’s prevailing wage law since the Legislature and Snyder have been unwilling to do so.

After alleged dishonesty among paid circulators came to light earlier this year, the Associated Builders and Contractors, a statewide contractor group pushing the amendment, has restarted efforts to get on November 2016 ballots. The group is publicly outspoken about using the initiative to work around the governor’s veto.

Read 2795 times Last modified on Monday, 28 December 2015 10:28

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