Outgoing House Speaker had big wins on auto insurance and criminal justice, but pandemic was a stumbling block

In his last speech on the House floor, Rep. Lee Chatfield frequently took an apologetic tone. From the get-go, the 32-year-old former teacher from Northern Michigan said his goal while serving as the Speaker of the House was to find bipartisan consensus wherever possible in a divided government. But although […]

In his last speech on the House floor, Rep. Lee Chatfield frequently took an apologetic tone.

From the get-go, the 32-year-old former teacher from Northern Michigan said his goal while serving as the Speaker of the House was to find bipartisan consensus wherever possible in a divided government.

But although the Republican-led House and Senate saw some bipartisan wins this term, including an overhaul of the state’s no-fault auto insurance laws and a host of policy changes aimed at improving the criminal justice system, Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, frequently sparred with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her administration.

In his first year as speaker, 2019 closed with a months-long stalemate over the state budget and no deal on long-term road funding. In 2020, disagreements over how best to address the COVID-19 pandemic — and cases of the virus among legislative ranks — often got in the way of making headway on bipartisan policy.

“It was not due to a lack of effort, but there were times where we could not reach a deal,” he told the chamber.

Chatfield’s political career began with a successful primary challenge against incumbent Rep. Frank Foster in 2014, running to the right of his opponent on issues like Medicaid expansion, Common Core education standards and Foster’s push to add protections for LGBT residents to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Chatfield never budged on Elliott-Larsen, which he has said he believes would infringe on religious freedom. He’s been a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, offering the Michigan House chambers as a possible alternate venue for the president’s 2019 State of the Union address and traveling to the White House for an in-person meeting this year amid Trump’s legal efforts to disrupt Michigan’s election certification process.

And during his farewell address, he listed the Supreme Court decision stripping Whitmer of emergency powers she used to issue COVID-19 executive orders through the spring and summer as one of the term’s biggest wins. The decision came down after House and Senate Republicans and other groups sued the governor for extending the coronavirus state of emergency without legislative approval.

“You see, the Constitution is still the Constitution, and separation of powers still exists, even during a pandemic,” he said. “Not everyone in this chamber might view that court case as a win, but I hope in due time that we will.”

Despite all that, Chatfield maintained close working relationships with Whitmer and other Democrats throughout his tenure as Speaker.

In a recent interview with MLive, Whitmer said Chatfield “has been easier to work with on a variety of fronts” than his Senate counterpart, and Attorney General Dana Nessel — who worked closely with Chatfield and other members of the legislature on criminal justice reform efforts — has previously complimented Chatfield for being respectful despite their significantly different political views.

“You know, I’m going to be really candid. Sometimes I try really hard not to like Lee Chatfield. But it’s difficult because… I like Lee Chatfield. I don’t know what to say. We couldn’t be more different,” Nessel told MLive during a September 2019 interview.

Auto insurance overhaul preempted tough budget battle

During his tenure as Speaker, Chatfield helped accomplish what many lawmakers before him had tried and failed to do — get changes to Michigan’s auto no-fault insurance policies signed into law.

Coming into the job, Chatfield identified lowering auto insurance costs as a top priority, calling it the “single largest issue that is facing our state.” Working with Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare — who is slated to be the next House Speaker — Shirkey and ultimately the Whitmer administration, Chatfield helped shepherd into law a policy giving drivers the option to choose their desired level of personal injury protection (PIP) coverage, among other reforms.

The deal was championed as an example of bipartisan achievement during an era of divided government, although that momentum was quickly derailed as lawmakers and the governor sought to reach a compromise on long-term road funding.

Whitmer’s initial proposal to “fix the damn roads” made raising the gas tax by 45 cents a key tenet of her proposed budget. That fell flat with Republicans — Chatfield almost immediately declared it a nonstarter.

Negotiations commenced, but eventually, road funding was what threw a wrench into budget talks. The legislature passed a budget with little input from the Whitmer administration. Whitmer signed the bills with 147 line-item vetoes and several administrative transfers, sparking a post-budget dispute that was partially resolved before the end of 2019. Long-term road funding was set aside for another time.

Until lawmakers have the political fortitude to do what needs to be done to fix the roads, “they’re always going to be in tough shape,” Chatfield said during his farewell speech.

“Until every penny that’s paid in taxes at the pump is a penny that goes towards roads, our infrastructure will always crumble,” he continued. “I wish the next legislative term the absolute best of luck.”

Enter COVID-19

Any hopes to meaningfully restart road funding talks were dashed by mid-March, when the first confirmed COVID-19 cases were detected in Michigan.

Whitmer immediately declared a state of emergency, one that was initially extended by the state legislature as it became clear the virus was spreading quickly.

But as restrictions on in-person business and activity continued under the stay-home order put in place by Whitmer to limit the spread, protests against the governor’s actions gained steam (and have continued since).

Chatfield and Shirkey supported the protests and ultimately sued the governor after she moved forward with state of emergency declarations without legislative approval. The Supreme Court ultimately sided with their cause, ruling in October that Whitmer didn’t have the authority to issue executive orders after April 30.

Some protesters threatened violence against Whitmer and other lawmakers — in October, state and federal law enforcement officials released details about an investigation that led to the arrest of several men involved in a kidnapping plot aimed at the governor.

Both Chatfield and Shirkey condemned the threats — but many were critical of what they perceived as an inadequate response both to the pandemic and threats of violence.

One of the legislature’s last acts before the end of session was to approve a $465 million supplemental budget measure to fund vaccine distribution, testing and aid for individuals and businesses hit hardest by the pandemic.

It was a last-minute deal that followed a string of canceled sessions after a key staffer contracted the coronavirus, and a House Oversight Committee hearing with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani prompted exposure fears after Giuliani was confirmed positive, as well as additional threats against lawmakers.

Many Democrats expressed frustration that even after armed protests and threats aimed at lawmakers, House and Senate leadership did not institute a policy banning firearms from the state Capitol. In her farewell speech, House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said it’s “imperative” that changes are made to protect school children and other visitors, as well as to protect lawmakers from armed intimidation.

Reflecting on the tumultuous year during his farewell speech, Chatfield said a number of challenges “brought a lot of confusion in our state and country” that led to anger, division and fear. He said he hoped the state and country could use the moment as a way to move forward.

“This year did bring us many unprecedented challenges, ones that we could not have predicted and ones that we could not have foreseen,” he said. “Our country needed real leaders to step up. Sometimes I rose to that challenge, and sometimes I did not. But rather than viewing what we’re facing in our country today as a problem, let us change that and view it as an opportunity where we can step up and show real solutions and real bipartisanship.”

Lawmakers and the Whitmer administration ultimately made some compromises on COVID-19 response, including codifying many of the governor’s executive orders and providing additional funding to respond to the ongoing effects of the virus.

One big win despite everything: Criminal justice reform

One of the House’s first priorities when Chatfield took office in 2019 was civil asset forfeiture reform, a concept supported by conservatives and progressives alike.

That plan, which prevented law enforcement from permanently seizing the property of people not convicted of a crime, earned bipartisan support and was signed into law in May 2019.

It led to more bipartisan policy changes to the criminal justice system throughout the session, including a major overhaul of the state’s criminal records expungement process and tweaks aimed at reducing jail time or finding alternatives for people convicted of low-level crimes.

“There will be effects that we don’t see right now… we will only see decades later,” Chatfield said, crediting his father’s work in jail ministry to his longstanding interest in making changes to the criminal justice system.

“We gave people a second chance,” he continued. “We gave people a fresh start, we gave people the opportunity to now be contributing members of society.”

Handing over the gavel

Term-limited out of office, Chatfield will be replaced as House Speaker by Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare.

Wentworth, an Army veteran and former law enforcement official, recently told MLive his top priorities include ensuring the legislature continues to have a voice in setting out COVID-19 policies moving forward, as well as improving access to quality health care and ethics reform.

Like his predecessor, Wentworth will preside over a chamber with a 58-52 Republican majority. Democrats had hoped to make inroads this cycle and flipped two open seats previously held by Republicans, but Republican candidates in two other districts defeated Democratic incumbents running for re-election.

Previously, Wentworth served as speaker pro-tempore and chaired the Select Committee on Reducing Car Insurance Rates, playing a key role in the changes to Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance system.

He has described his leadership style as “quiet” and “confident” and said he doesn’t plan “to be the one that’s out cheerleading and giving the rah rah speeches,” noting he’s confident in his leadership team’s ability to enact strong policy.

Related: Jason Wentworth set to serve as next Michigan House Speaker

MLive reporter Emily Lawler contributed to this report.

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