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AP Interview: New Senate leader has tackled big legislation

January 27, 2019
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2019 file photo, Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, is surrounded by his family on the floor of the Senate and sworn in by Chief Justice Stephen Markman during opening swearing in ceremonies for the State of Michigan 100th Legislature in Lansing, Mich. Shirkey will lead Republicans in an era of divided government. (Rod Sanford/Detroit News via AP)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Republicans who have kept control of the Michigan Senate for 35 years are putting at the helm an engineer whose legislative career has been defined by two of the most consequential laws of the past decade.

Mike Shirkey, whose father was a union steward, pushed early to make Michigan — the mainstay of organized labor — a right-to-work state where union fees are optional. A year later, as a key committee chairman, he embraced an expansion of Medicaid to more adults after initially opposing the key component of former President Barack Obama’s health care law on philosophical grounds.

Shirkey, who founded and owns a Jackson company that builds assembly machines for manufacturers, will be the highest-ranking GOP state official during Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s four-year term. He is the eighth consecutive Republican Senate majority leader dating to 1984, a list that includes former Gov. John Engler.

Shirkey’s top priority is cutting Michigan’s highest-in-the-country auto insurance premiums. But he also is keenly aware of the Senate’s power in a new period of split government after a lengthy run in which the GOP held both the Legislature and governor’s office.

“My job now is to be on the alert for things that might be proposed that would take us off the trajectory we’ve been on,” he told The Associated Press in an interview this month. “Anything that is going to interfere with making Michigan attractive to capital investment, I’m going to be on the alert for that.”

Shirkey, 64, of Clarklake, said he has “a few scars that are pretty much healed over” from engaging in major political fights in 2012 and 2013. He said he was the only lawmaker who went to union halls to push for the right-to-work, or “labor freedom,” legislation in the months before it was introduced and enacted into law in a lame-duck session.

Unions are stronger now after being forced to make their case to members who have a choice, he said, contending that the past requirement that union members pay fees if they did not join “was the last remaining obstacle prohibiting people from putting Michigan at the top of the list of places to deploy capital.”

Shirkey said he is “proud” to have taken an “easy vote” to pass the right-to-work bills. He also is proud of two other key votes that he characterized as “very hard” — expanding Medicaid and providing a state bailout to help Detroit emerge from bankruptcy.

“I believe in my heart that as Detroit goes, Michigan goes,” he said.

Changing his stance on the Medicaid expansion, he said, resulted in him being criticized as a “traitor” by activists who questioned his conservative bona fides and accused him of going “soft.”

The move, however, was the “clear, right decision,” he said — particularly because Michigan has a unique clause under which it will end if the state’s costs outweigh the savings from a program largely funded by the federal government. Last year, he led the contentious effort to add work or education requirements for able-bodied adults.

Shirkey, perhaps the first engineer to lead a legislative chamber, expressed frustration that there has not been enough focus on “process” when legislation is considered. He said he wants more time devoted to addressing the “root” of issues rather than the symptoms.

He joined the House in 2010 after winning a special election and jumped to the Senate in 2015. He had long thought about running but waited until his wife became open to it. A factor in his desire to go to Lansing, he said, was his experience as a business owner who was upset about government regulations and the state’s economic slide.

Shirkey, the eldest of five who grew up near Jackson, was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) — where he rotated between classes and a paid co-op job. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His Republican dad was a machine operator. His Republican mom worked for the township.

“We didn’t have any money. So to go to school, I had to figure out a way to get it paid for,” he said.

Shirkey worked 13 years at GM in Flint, where he learned about orbital forming — knowledge he would use to move home and start Orbitform, an engineering and manufacturing company that designs and builds a niche of forming, fastening and riveting machines. It has 110 employees.

He owns the business but largely leaves its operation to others in management so he can focus on being a legislator.

With Whitmer preparing to deliver her first State of the State address and budget proposal, Shirkey said he is “absolutely skeptical” of tax increases but is open to reducing the taxation of pension and retirement income if it were done in a fair way.

He said 2015 laws that will boost road funding by $1.2 billion a year by the 2020-21 fiscal year should “fully come to bloom” before the state considers more permanent spending, even though an infrastructure commission has called for much more to be allocated each year. He favors continuing lawmakers’ recent practice of shifting extra general funds to roads each year.

The priority for Senate Republicans, he said, is making car insurance more affordable. The issue has long divided insurers and health providers, resulting in legislative stalemates.

“I believe we need to go right down the middle,” Shirkey said. “I think we have not just a responsibility but an obligation to get it done now.”

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