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From Adversaries to Allies: Lessons and Warnings from Michigan’s Brief Era of Bipartisan House Control 

By Rick Pluta

Sharp words and stark differences are nothing new in American politics, but in recent years it seems like the anger’s amped up.

There was a period when Michigan politicians were forced to adopt a cooperative spirit. Republicans and Democrats in the state House of Representatives had to give up their quest for dominance and work together on an equal footing.

Voters statewide in 1992 surprised the nation by voting for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years, and by sending an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — 55 and 55 — to the state House.

“We were forced to come together,” said Paul Hillegonds, CEO of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, who served as the Republican co-speaker during the session.

The 1993-94 “shared power” session was very productive, including a landmark overhaul of the state’s school funding system. That period is looked back upon as an idyllic moment in Michigan political history, but it would not last. Still, there are lessons from that time that may be applicable to resolving some of today’s conflicts.

Participants in the “shared power” session say relationships were key to making the arrangement work. The state’s term limits amendment still had not kicked in, so House members typically had long histories of working together in the prior years of Democratic control.

“I think the culture was created because there were relationships,” said Kirk Profit, a Democrat who served as the co-chair of the House tax committee and has remained in Lansing as a lobbyist. “Each committee chair had been there a while and had to become an expert on their issue. The same is true for the minority vice chair, even if they didn’t have the same juice,” Profit added.

Profit said committee chairs and ranking members typically served eight to 10 years before getting a gavel. House members are now limited to six years, so that authority is wielded by a greener generation that does not have the advantage of building that expertise.

The arrangement also occurred before smartphones, text messaging, email and social media.

“I don’t know if shared power would work today given how we communicate,” Hillegonds said.

Daniel Loepp, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, served as chief of staff to the late Curtis Hertel Sr., who was the Democratic co-speaker during the 1993-94 session. Loepp wrote a book about his experience, “Sharing the Balance of Power.” He agrees with Hillegonds.

“It’s a 24/7 news cycle. People are responding in nanoseconds,” he said. “The world has changed so much.”

Loepp said those dynamics do not lend themselves well to solving knotty issues the “shared power” Legislature tackled, such as school funding.

At the time, schools relied on local property taxes for their operating funds. The result was spiraling millage rates, growing disparities between wealthy and poor districts, and widespread voter dissatisfaction.

A political maneuver gone awry resulted in the Legislature and then-Gov. John Engler scrapping the school funding system without a replacement plan in place. A shifting, bipartisan group of state lawmakers took up the task for crafting a replacement. They worked all the way to Christmas Eve of 1993 and the result was Proposal A, adopted the following March by voters. It stabilized property taxes, partially dealt with the funding disparities, and remains a popular example of bipartisan cooperation.

Hillegonds said that effort would have failed if both sides were locked into caucus positions.

“Curtis and I had to let go, and give our caucus members room to problem-solve,” he said.

“If you think about it, it’s amazing that it happened, but everybody was in the mindset of ‘you have to come up with something,’” Loepp said. “I think people back then who were serving had a sense of what a special situation it was. I think human nature puts you on your best behavior.”

It would be difficult to recreate all the conditions that made “shared power” a success. Not only has technology changed, so has Michigan politics. Before “shared power,” it was presumed the state House would be run by a Democratic majority. Since the 1993-94 session, the House majority has shifted five times, with every election now a fierce battle for control.

“Bipartisan compromise becomes problematic for a party that’s seeking to win back power,” said Frances Lee, a University of Maryland political science professor.

Lee studies partisan conflict in Congress and state legislatures, including Michigan. She said Michigan is currently among the most partisan in the country, and the constant battle for control is a contributing factor.

“If a party that’s not controlling Congress, or any legislature, wants to win back power, it needs to make an argument to do so,” she said. “It needs to say that the people in power are not doing a good job. Well, if you work productively with the opposing party … that’s very problematic for making the argument that they’re doing a bad job.”

But Loepp and Hillegonds say there are lessons from the “shared power” session that can be applied today, both inside and outside the House Chamber.

“Quit sending emails and texts and go talk to somebody,” Loepp said. “Not that emails and texts aren’t useful. They are. But, especially on sophisticated, complicated things, it helps to cut through the clouds.”

Hillegonds said in the era of term limits, leaders need to include relationship-building that crosses party lines into their planning.

“Any reform idea should be coupled with the question, ‘Does it build relationships or not?’” he said.

And he adds that lawmakers should slow down and get to know one another before they start making policy.

“I would tell committee chairs, ‘Don’t move any bills for three months. Go on the road with your committee. Build relationships and and learn,'” Hillegonds said.

Rick Pluta is the state capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network.