When it came to helping craft a complex, landmark package of bills to revamp the state’s energy policy and map out the future of electric power in Michigan, Sen. Mike Nofs tried to at least keep one part of the legislative work simple and unchanging — the measure’s overarching goals.
“We wanted to control our destiny, regardless of the policies being set at the federal level,” he says. “And that meant focusing on affordability, reliability and clean energy.”
And that, in turn, led him and other lawmakers to make efficiency — or “waste reduction,” as it is now referred to in Michigan statute — a big part of the state’s new energy law, which was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in late 2016 (SB 437 and SB 438). Only weeks before, another Midwestern state, Illinois, also took sweeping actions on energy policy, with a law that includes new incentives and standards for its utilities to achieve greater efficiency.
For 40 years, Mary Murphy has been introducing legislation and casting votes that shape public policy in her home state of Minnesota. But the longtime state representative always had her eye on being part of another vote, and this past year, she finally got the chance. In December, Rep. Murphy and nine other fellow Minnesotans met in St. Paul to make the state’s official votes in the U.S. Electoral College. A packed room of people — some of them high school teachers and students who had participated in a statewide mock election run by the secretary of state — watched the proceedings in the Senate Office Building.
“It was everything I expected, and more,” Murphy said a few days after casting her votes for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.
The event had special meaning for Murphy because of her many years as a high school history and civics teacher. But for most people, in most presidential elections, the Electoral College is little more than an afterthought. This time was different. First, for one of the few instances in the nation’s history, the winner of the nation’s popular vote (Clinton) lost the race for president. Second, between the Nov. 8 general election and the Dec. 19 Electoral College vote, some electors in states where Donald Trump won the popular vote were pressured to cast a vote for someone else.
After a tumultuous year in national politics, and in advance of a new U.S. Congress and presidential administration, advocates of Great Lakes protection and restoration won some important legislative victories at the tail end of 2016. Those accomplishments, perhaps most notably a formal authorization of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, provide the region with some much-needed certainty about federal Great Lakes policy during a period of change in Washington, D.C., said Chad Lord, policy director of the Healing Our Waters Coalition.
South Dakota was the fastest-growing Midwestern state between 2015 and 2016, and the only one that topped the national growth rate of 0.7 percent. The latest U.S. Census Bureau data, released in December, also show that South Dakota (overall growth rate of 0.9 percent) was the only state in this region with a net gain due to domestic migration.
In an effort to save young lives at risk due to drug overdoses, the state of Michigan is giving its schools the chance to stock naloxone, an “opioid antagonist” drug. SB 805 and 806, signed into law in December, set several parameters for school districts.
Two state legislatures in the Midwest took actions this past year to encourage private investments in affordable housing. In late 2016, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law (SB 2921) extending a tax-incentive program that has been in place since 2011. It provides a 50-cent tax credit for every dollar donated to a not-for-profit group that is working to create or preserve housing for low-income residents. Since its inception, Illinois officials say, the tax credit has leveraged more than $370 million in private investment and helped create or preserve over 18,000 affordable housing units.
Nebraska’s LB 884 was signed into law in April 2016.
A few months before residents in one of their state’s largest cities were scheduled to vote on a proposed increase in the minimum wage, Ohio lawmakers stepped in to block the ballot initiative. SB 331, signed into law in December, bans all Ohio political subdivisions from “establishing minimum wage rates different from the rate required by state law.”
In 1980, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to establish a statutory bill of rights for crime victims. Since then, state constitutions across the country have been amended to provide an even greater level of protections to this group of citizens.
Most recently, voters in North Dakota (62 percent to 38 percent) and South Dakota (60 percent to 40 percent) approved November ballot measures to amend their constitutions. These new provisions to protect crime victims are part of a national movement and are collectively known as “Marsy’s Law.”
Though it likely won’t change much of the work already under way to protect western Lake Erie from excessive algal blooms, Michigan’s recent designation of its part of the watershed as “impaired” signals the importance of reaching new binational goals to control phosphorus runoff.
Every two years, as part of compliance with the Clean Water Act, all states must determine which of their water bodies are polluted and/or don’t meet water quality standards. They then submit their impairment list to the U.S. Environmental Protection. The new designation for western Lake Erie is due to the presence of extensive algal blooms and their harmful impact on aquatic life and other wildlife, Michigan environmental officials say. The blooms are the result of excessive levels of phosphorus.
When the problem of tainted drinking water created a public health crisis in the Michigan city of Flint, the state’s legislators had two clear missions to fulfill. First, fix the problem, with strategies — both immediate and longer-term — that help affected residents, bring back some normalcy to their lives, and then assist in the entire community’s recovery. Second, find ways to prevent the problem from ever occurring in another Michigan city.
And that idea of prevention has spread well beyond the borders of Michigan, with legislators in nearby states taking notice of the crisis and beginning to think more about the safety of the water supply in their own districts.