Can rescue bill rescue bipartisanship?

An engorged Grand River presented irresistible opportunities for thrill seekers this spring, some of whom required rescue by emergency personnel. Photo by Mike Nichols

LANSING — During a spring flood this year in West Michigan, some people took to kayaks and jet skis — despite clear emergency warnings — and some ended up needing to be rescued.

That sparked legislators to draft a bill calling for “grossly negligent” thrill seekers to repay their rescue costs.

“The general response from the public and lawmakers was very positive,” said Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, the chief sponsor. “A lot of people support the common sense of it, and we expect it to pass easily.”

But the bill may serve a higher purpose beyond punishing people who ignore safety warnings.

“Clearly, perception of elected officials is not in high regard,” Dillon said. “So when we can demonstrate to the public that we have the ability to work together — hopefully, it can get that bad taste out of the average voter’s mouth.”

Dillon says the bill’s 11-member list of bipartisan co-sponsors illustrates that Democrats and Republicans can work together. Other sponsors include Democrats Sam Singh of East Lansing and Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids, and Republicans Roger Victory of Hudsonville, Ken Yonker of Caledonia and Rob VerHeulen of Walker.

“There’s always going to be significant philosophical differences across party lines,” he said. “But we still can work together beyond labels, and the smaller things can forge useful relationships when it comes time to tackling tax policy or education.”

David Ryden, political science professor at Hope College said, “Within the last year, we’ve had a lame duck session where the parties were about as far apart as you can get, and that poisoned the well. Just think of right-to-work.

“This isn’t a rich era for bipartisanship,” he said.

Republican Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge disagreed. He recalled forming a valuable relationship with Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, when they worked on a paternity law last year.

“We had a lot of support to create this bipartisan package and we were in each other’s news releases,” he said. “We created a great working relationship across the aisle.”

Jones said that partisan clashes in the Legislature often leave the public and lawmakers alike feeling divided.

“There’s a poor view of what’s going on at the Capitol,” he said. “The public does need to see how much we really do get accomplished beyond labels, and sometimes we need to remember that too.”

Strategically, almost all lawmakers can reap rewards from supporting more popular, less controversial legislation, said Sam Artley, a political consultant at Mitchell Research and Communications in East Lansing.

“Some very serious liberals and serious conservatives may not throw their support behind anything with the other party’s label on it, but nine times out of 10, it is going to be a smart move,” she said.

Sometimes the bills are symbolic or as simple as calling for a new license plate offering, but the difference can be lasting.

“Bills that essentially everyone can get behind and are overwhelmingly supported, like human trafficking, they raise public image and they can form important relationships,” Artley said. “The more often that legislators are working together, the better chance of them compromising, regardless of the issue.”

But how far those relationships extend remains to be seen.

“Sitting down in a room together working on a bill might build a little goodwill, but we’ve still got so many issues looking forward — dealing with Detroit and education,” Ryden said.

“The real test remains to be seen.”

Dillon’s bill on rescue costs is in the House Local Government Committee.

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