2011: The most anti-gay legislature in Michigan history

by Todd A. Heywood

LANSING -

When the new GOP majorities took office on Jan. 1, it didn't take long for the red wave to begin introducing and pushing measures targeting the LGBT community and other progressive causes.

And once the proposals began coming, there was a tidal wave assailing gay and lesbian equality - from a proposal to eliminate local anti-discrimination ordinances, to an assault on partner benefits for unmarried partners to proposals to strike specific funding mechanisms for Michigan's HIV/AIDS programming. The red wave has turned Michigan's 2011 legislative session, one supposedly focused on jobs and deregulation, into the most hostile legislature in Michigan's history.

The proposals were not limited to the gay community either. The state has passed a restrictive so-called "partial birth abortion ban," which echoes the federal law already in place, as well as legislation that requires remains of aborted fetuses to be cremated or buried. Lawmakers have unleashed legislation aimed at immigrants - from forcing local businesses to use the questionable federal documentation-checking program to forcing applicants for voting cards to prove their citizenship.

The GOP has also unleashed its legislative assault on collective bargaining rights, state and public employee pay, and slashed public education funding.

"Making Michigan less welcoming - that's the Republican majority's slogan for our state - and it's a message that will not be lost on anyone thinking about staying in Michigan or coming here. At least the skilled, educated, talented people we need the most," says David Holtz, executive director of Progress Michigan.

And Holtz is not alone in his belief about the impact of the GOP policies.

"These bills absolutely go against trying to attract new businesses and entrepreneurs to our state. By this legislation, our elected leaders seem to be saying that all people are not welcome in Michigan - that we are neither a place of fairness nor a place that is supportive of diversity. This will do nothing to attract and retain talented people in our State," said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT project. "If you look at what the most successful businesses in the country are doing - it's recognizing and supporting the diversity of its workforce. The legislators who have come up with bills to discriminate against LGBT people will not create a single job in our State and will only accelerate the exodus of young college grads from Michigan."

Emily Dievendorf, policy director at Equality Michigan echoed Kaplan and Holtz.

Anti-equality policies repel the best and brightest from our state and disable our attempts to attract new industry to Michigan. Over half of all Fortune 500 companies already offer non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits. The nation's most successful businesses invest in fairness because the stability it creates for their workforce and the climate it helps to cultivate in their communities are good for a company's bottom line," she said. "While Equality Michigan is grateful that most large businesses prioritize for the good of all employees, it should not be left on the shoulders of our largest employers to build a state where business and a creative workforce will thrive and put down roots. Convincing workers to move to and stay in Michigan despite Michigan conservatives' apparent disregard for tens of thousands of our residents, is a large, costly, and increasingly impossible burden to place on corporations."

Term Limits and Constituency Core of Problem

But Senate Judiciary Chair Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) says there is no anti-gay agenda in the legislature, and that the proposals being pushed do not have an impact on young people staying in the state or businesses moving here.

"Young people go wherever there are jobs. Hopefully with the change of policy we will have a better business climate and thus more jobs," Jones told BTL.

"The Michigan GOP has been taking its cues from far-right hate groups, and in trying to satisfy the extremists the party has encouraged Michigan's Republican legislators to only represent the outliers and not the interests of the majority of their constituents," says Dievendorf. "Over 65 percent of polled Michigan voters are in favor of non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits. The majority of Michiganders are pro-equality. A legislative agenda that is crafted and dictated to state leadership by wealthy extremists makes our state laughable in the saddest way to the rest of the country."

Kaplan said the issue is that elections have consequences - and the November 2010 elections opened the door to the onslaught against the LGBT community and progressives. That election allowed the GOP to take control of the State House, increase it majority in the Senate to a super majority, and capture the governor's office, the secretary of state's office and the attorney general's office.

"I believe that as a result of the 2010 elections, Michigan voters voted in a number of legislators who were on the extreme end of the ideological perspective, probably not being informed about their stands on many issues, such as LGBT civil rights. In addition, having both the House and Senate in one party majority control, gave incumbents who were re-elected, like Dave Agema and Tom McMillin positions of power, serving as chairpersons of several committees where they could shepherd their legislative pet projects," Kaplan says. "Both Agema and McMillin have a history of anti-LGBT bias. I think the lesson to be learned here is the importance of being an informed voter and understanding that the way we vote has consequences for our state. Every branch of our government is in one party control as a result of the November 2010 election, which makes it difficult for disenfranchised communities, including the voice of the LGBT community to be heard."

There is also the consideration of the impact of term limits on the legislative process in Michigan. Lawmakers are forced to adhere to ideologically rigid concepts in order to curry favor with the funding bases of either party or risk losing out on moving to the next rung of elected office.

"Term limits are, at the very least, partially responsible for legislators being petrified of voting for any weighty issue. Legislators don't want to offend large donors and feel they need to appeal to their established base in order to hold onto their seat," said Dievendorf. "Unfortunately, Michigan legislators are underestimating the value of fairness held by their base. It is especially important, under restrictive term limits, that we are voting into office pro-equality legislators and that we continue to tell elected leaders, to their face and while they are in office, what we expect from them."

"Term limits have produced a legislature with short-term institutional memory and in my opinion lawmakers who are more interested in immediate results than the long-term effects and consequences. I doubt that many legislators in support of this (anti-gay) legislation are looking at the long term effects of treating LGBT people like second class citizens, and are more focused on scoring political points with their base," said Kaplan.

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