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LANSING, Mich. — Republicans who control Michigan's Legislature voted Wednesday to advance a measure that strips campaign-finance oversight power from the Democratic secretary of state-elect, and they were poised to give lawmakers authority to stand up for GOP-backed laws if they think the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general are not adequately defending the state's interests.
The lame-duck moves followed within hours of similar efforts in Wisconsin, where lawmakers voted earlier Wednesday to shift clout to the Republican-controlled Legislature and weaken the Democrat replacing the GOP governor.
Michigan Democrats in January will jointly hold the governor, attorney general and secretary offices for the first time in 28 years, but the Legislature will continue to be controlled by Republicans.
A day after GOP lawmakers finalized an unprecedented maneuver to gut minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, a Senate panel passed legislation that would create the Fair Political Practices Commission to enforce the campaign-finance law rather than Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, who ran in part on a pledge to advocate for election transparency.
Democrats called the bill a blatant power grab that would fly in the face of voters.
"At no point did voters say they wanted the rules manipulated. At no point did they say they wanted bills rushed through a hasty lame-duck session," said Patrick Schuh, state director for the liberal group America Votes. He questioned the timing, saying such a commission was not proposed until a Democrat is on the verge of leading the secretary of state office for the first time in two-dozen years.
Republicans defended the legislation, saying the six-member panel of three Democrats and three Republicans would initially be appointed by Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer. Eric Doster, a former long-time lawyer for the state GOP, testified that the commission would operate similarly to those in other states and said "now the time is right."
Other critics of the bill, however, contended that the commission would be ineffectual, saying its members would deadlock and be accountable to political parties that would submit a list of possible appointees to the governor.
Also Wednesday, the House planned to approve legislation that would empower the Legislature, House or Senate to intervene in any suit at any stage, a right already granted to the attorney general. It is seen as a maneuver to ensure that Republicans could support laws if Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Nessel are lukewarm about GOP-passed measures and drop appeals in cases the state loses.
Nessel, for example, has said she probably will not defend a law allowing faith-based groups to refuse to serve same-sex couples who want to adopt children.
Republicans disputed criticism that the legislation would undermine the role of the attorney general. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the bill is needed because "we've been shut out" in recent cases.
"We believe we have standing, and we want to make sure by law that we do because if somebody wants to ignore a law, we need to intervene because we made the law. It's passed and signed by the governor and it needs to be enforced," Meekhof said.
Democrats said the legislation would lead to increased legislative spending on lawyers.
"When we have roads to fix and schools to fund and health care plans to fund, how can you possibly justify setting up this parallel organization when we already have an attorney general and a process in place to take care of these issues?" said Rep. Christine Greig of Farmington Hills.