History Under the Capitol Dome
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
House Minority Leader Sam Singh (left) and Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (right).
The new session of the Michigan Legislature represents an historic first for the Greater Lansing region. Lawmakers in both parties have selected Lansing area Representatives to assume the most powerful positions in the State House of Representatives. Rep. Tom Leonard (R-Dewitt) was elected as Speaker of the House and Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) was chosen as House Minority Leader. Leonard is the first local lawmaker to be Speaker of the House since Henry Shaw from Eaton County in 1859.
Speaker Leonard was first elected to serve the 93rd District in the Michigan House of Representatives in November 2012. The 93rd District encompasses Clinton County and portions of Gratiot County including the City of Ithaca. Prior to being a State Representative, Leonard served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan and was a prosecutor for Genesee County, where he was assigned to the Special Crimes Division.
House Minority Leader Singh is serving his third term representing Michigan’s 69th House District, which includes East Lansing, Haslett, Okemos, Williamstown Township and Locke Township. He also served as the Democratic Floor Leader in his second term. Before serving in the legislature, Singh was elected to the East Lansing City Council at age 24. He served 10 years on council including one term as mayor.
Prior to the launch of the new State House session, Leonard and Singh sat down for an interview with FOCUS magazine. The two talked about a wide range of issues of interest to the business community and how their ascension to prominent legislative leadership positions could impact the region.
FOCUS: What does having the two of you in such prominent positions mean for the region?
Speaker Leonard: I think it’s a huge benefit for our region. Sam and I have worked very well together over the past few years. Though we love to work together, one of the things that make the Capitol Caucus a little bit more difficult sometimes than your Grand Rapids side or southeast Michigan is that we are such a big make-up of both Republicans and Democrats. So, we do have to come together and work things out. Now that we see the top two leaders in the House being from the Capitol Caucus, it will be that much easier to make that happen.
Leader Singh: I think we have had a number of real good victories as the Capitol Caucus. When you take a look at Michigan State University and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) project, those were significant priorities for the Caucus, and as we go forward, I look forward to working with Speaker Leonard and the rest of the Capitol Caucus to see what we can do to help the region grow and prosper.
FOCUS: How do you balance your commitment to serving the local region with your broader responsibilities to represent the whole state?
Leader Singh: When you create good policy for the state it will benefit our local communities. I am always focused on a statewide responsibility. At the same time, I came out of local government. I was always focused on a regional basis. To me, the City of East Lansing could only be successful if the townships around us and the City of Lansing were successful. Always coming from a regional perspective makes it easy when coming from a statewide perspective. If the rest of the state isn’t feeling economic success, our communities here won’t feel that success as well.
Speaker Leonard: I have already told many of the local elected officials in my district that it is a great honor for the local area to have the Speaker of the House. But, at the same time, there is going to be some sacrifice. I won’t always be able to attend some of the smaller events that I have always attended in my community because I will be so wrapped up in negotiations on big bills and policy discussions here in Lansing. The last four years, I have been able to be laser focused on issues that were of interest to my particular district. Now, I believe that I have a responsibility to help all of the other 109 members in their districts the best that I can. Sometimes they may have interests in their districts that may conflict with my district and that’s something I am going to have to take into account.
FOCUS: Obviously, there are many policy differences between the parties. What is the relationship like between the two of you and how do you feel you will be able to work together?
Leader Singh: We start off having a good relationship because we came in together during the same election cycle. I look forward to these next two years. I think we are going to have a number of common areas around policy, especially when we look at skilled trades training and how we look at criminal justice reform. There will be areas where we disagree, but I think both Tom and I have had the opportunity over the last session to disagree with each other but to do that in a civil way, so we could come back the next day and look at the next issue on which we could work together.
Speaker Leonard: When you look at what we have been able to accomplish just in the last term, something like 85 to 90 percent of the legislation that passed the State House was done in a bipartisan way. It is usually that 10 percent that gets caught up in the media and I understand that. As Sam said, we are going to have our battles and I am not going to shy away from that. One of the things that I have been really harping on is the idea of bringing more stability to our political process. This last election cycle was one of the most uncivil in our nation’s history. I don’t think it was just on the federal level, it went all the way down to the local level, and it was a bipartisan instability, if you will. We are going to have our battles, but I believe we need to do so in a respectful and dignified way that is going to bring civility to the process.
FOCUS: What are your top three legislative priorities?
- Addressing our teacher pension system. This is a situation that is costing our local school districts about 36 percent of the payroll. I believe that all current teacher pensions are constitutionally protected. When I talk about pension reform, I am talking about new hires going forward, so we can try to lower those costs and get more money into the classrooms, and hopefully give our hard-working teachers more raises.
- Mental health reform. Right now in our prison system, about 25 percent of the population suffers from some type of mental illness. That triples the cost of $38,000 that we pay for the average inmate. We need to look at earlier intervention. We need to help folks get on their medication before they commit that heinous crime. Once somebody has murdered somebody or harmed a family, it doesn’t matter whether they are mentally ill or not. At that point it is too late. If we can get folks the help they need before they commit the crime, I think it is not only the right thing to do but could also be a huge cost savings.
- Skilled trades. We have thousands of jobs that are not being filled: plumbers, pipefitters, electricians, very good paying jobs. We need to make certain that we are training our men and women so we have that talent to fill those positions.
- I start off with making sure we have balance in funding our key institutions. The Governor has a report on his desk that shows we have underfunded education. I want to see how we get additional resources back into those classrooms. One of the reasons why school districts are struggling with their legacy costs is because the dollars and resources haven’t come down to them. We have taken over $400 million every year and moved it out of the school aid fund towards higher education.
- Revenue sharing. You ask any municipal leader, Republican or Democrat, anywhere in the state, the fact that $6 billion have been taken away from local government to balance the state budget has really put them into a precarious situation. That’s why we have less police officers, less firefighters on the streets. That is why they are struggling with their legacy costs.
- The Michigan economy is not working for all Michigan citizens. To me we have to make sure that happens. Part of that is making sure there is training for skilled trades. Part of that is if you are working two jobs trying to make ends meet, we should be helping you out. We used to have a robust income tax credit that would go to those families working two jobs. We typically give out all these tax credits to a lot of companies, often times to companies that don’t always need those types of tax credits. Why would we not give those
to those citizens that are working trying to make ends meet?
Also, we are having a lot of bipartisan discussion about how we bring down the costs of higher education for families.
House Minority Leader Sam Singh (left) and Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (right).
FOCUS: The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce has been very involved in working with local municipalities to address unfunded liabilities, being involved with the Financial Health Teams in both Lansing and East Lansing. What steps should this legislature take to address what is a statewide issue?
Speaker Leonard: We certainly have to bring people to the table to discuss this. There was a package of bills that was introduced in the lame duck session. Obviously things were moving way too quickly and the timing wasn’t right. We met with the police and firefighters associations. Everyone acknowledged there is a problem. I don’t believe there is going to be one silver bullet to fix this problem. I look forward to everyone coming to the table to figure out how best to solve this.
Leader Singh: I was pleased to see us slow the process down during lame duck so we can take a look at a more comprehensive and inclusive approach. Legacy costs are an issue for local communities. I had to grapple with that as the Mayor of the City of East Lansing. At the same time, cities are doing things that are making their communities more efficient. East Lansing has 100 fewer city employees than they did when I was starting out on the City Council. When you have 100 less people, obviously your costs are coming down, but you also don’t have the same number of employees putting resources back into the pension or other long-term liabilities. I think you have to look at a balance where efficiencies can be rewarded.
FOCUS: There are many in the business community advocating to bring back larger incentives to encourage development, which the current administration has moved away from. What do you feel is the proper balance in the use of incentives to attract and retain investment and jobs in Michigan?
Speaker Leonard: I am not a big fan or proponent incentives. Some people like to call it corporate welfare. I don’t know that I would go that far, but it is certainly not something I like to get in the middle of. However, I know there are always exceptions to the rule and I certainly want to take a look at these bills (brought up in the lame duck session). When you start talking about a developer or an investor being 100 percent on the hook and you start talking about absolutely no incentives unless it is a net increase in the budget, I think those are discussions we need to have.
Leader Singh: As Mayor in East Lansing, I used incentives in a targeted way in dealing with development. I think in communities where you have existing infrastructure and you want to change that infrastructure, you sometimes need an incentive. The Governor made a decision in 2011 that he wasn’t going to have an incentive-based economic plan and because of that he made significant tax cuts to businesses. That was supposed to be an offset, so you wouldn’t need incentives because tax rates would be at a certain level. Now it becomes very difficult to reconfigure an incentive program, because now we see fairly limited business taxes going into the overall general fund. How do we create incentive plans that will work and at the same time doesn’t harm other parts of the state budget?
FOCUS: Efforts to change no-fault automobile insurance legislation have failed to make it through the legislature despite many efforts in recent years. What can the two caucuses agree on in an effort to curb auto insurance rates in Michigan, which remain some of the highest in the nation?
Speaker Leonard: This is not necessarily the most important, but it is the toughest issue to solve in the legislature. The one issue I would hope we can all come together on is if somebody is injured in an auto accident the payment to the provider, particularly to the hospital is typically four to five and sometimes one hundred times higher than what a commercial health insurance company pays. If we are ever going to see true cost savings for our citizens we have to find a way to rein in these costs.
Leader Singh: One of the biggest obstacles for Democrats has been the unwillingness of the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association and the insurance companies that support that to really understand what the financial underpinnings are. The legislature created that instrument to help the insurance companies. We have asked for that to be open and the books to be inspected so we understand what the true cost mechanisms are for the insurance companies. We don’t need to do it in a public fashion so it is in the media, but in a way that we can understand what those dynamics are. That would be helpful for us in determining what types of reforms you make based on the information.
FOCUS: The legislature passed an infrastructure bill a couple of years ago. Increases in registration fees and gas taxes are just now being felt. However, some suggest we need to do more to effectively address infrastructure needs. What, if any, legislation do you expect to further upgrade Michigan’s infrastructure?
Speaker Leonard: Like the plan or not, it will be a $1.2 billion investment in our infrastructure once it is phased in. One thing I talk to constituents about and they certainly agree, this last construction cycle we saw more yellow cones and orange barrels than you have in years. We are going to see at least that in the next construction cycle and it is only going to ramp up. I want to see what is going to happen on the federal level. President Trump has said several times that he wants to invest a trillion dollars in our national infrastructure. The last thing I want to do is start getting out ahead of them if they are actually going to invest more money in the infrastructure in our state.
Leader Singh: My biggest critique of the plan that passed a year and a half ago was it didn’t reach that $1.2 billion level quick enough. I’ve seen reports that say we probably needed two billion. When you have to wait until 2021 to get to that $1.2 billion, even though there might be new revenue coming into the system, it is not the level that is needed. So every year we don’t hit that $1.2 billion we are actually taking a few steps back. At the same time, there is a larger concern facing the state. The Governor had a report that came out in December that addressed underground infrastructure - our water and swear systems. We have to figure out how to solve that.
FOCUS: When you finish in your current positions in two years, what will success look like?
Speaker Leonard: An economy that has continued to grow. Over the last six years, nearly 500,000 private sector jobs have been created. I want to see that continue to increase. If we can walk out of here in two years and we can say the Michigan economy is healthier today than it was two years ago when we became leaders, I personally feel we will be successful.
Leader Singh: I want to make sure that this economy is working for all people. For those people that have not felt this economy meet their needs, I want us to be able to say that we moved the needle on that. When we take a look at our local communities, whether it is a school district, city or a township, how have we adequately funded them? Those are going to be key metrics for me to see if we’ve had success.
Click here to download the February issue of FOCUS.