Democratic state Sen. Winnie Brinks from Grand Rapids continues to make history. She was the first woman to represent Grand Rapids in the state Senate since Eva McCall Hamilton was elected in 1920, and she will be Michigan’s first woman Senate Majority Leader when the Democrats take control of the legislative branch on Jan. 1 for the first time in 40 years. The Senate Majority Leader is one of the most powerful positions in state government and will control the party in power’s policy agenda. With Democrats’ trifecta in this month’s election, that includes potentially repealing the state’s right-to-work law, enshrining civil rights for the LGBTQ community in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit while repealing the state senior pension tax. Brinks discussed these policy plans — and why she shares Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s view on abortion as an economic issue — in a recent interview with MiBiz.
What will be your immediate priorities when taking over as Senate Majority Leader on Jan. 1?
We’ve got an agenda that’s 40 years in the making, so we’ll plan together as a caucus and we’ll put together a thoughtful, strategic plan. You’ll hear me announce priorities as those are decided by the full caucus, but I think it’s safe to safe to say you’ll see us continue to work to make Michigan stronger, make sure that families and people here have great economic opportunities — opportunities for post-secondary education that leads to jobs that I know people can build lives on so they can make Michigan their home. And of course you’ll see us affirm the things that we heard from people in this election: Affirming reproductive freedom, affirming LGBTQ rights — those will be at the top of our list.
That would include amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act?
Since the election, there’s been discussions about how aggressive Democrats should be in their policymaking if they want to hold on to their majority. Where do you envision falling in that?
The key word here will be ‘thoughtful’ legislation that makes a difference in people’s lives. That’s going to be my focus. We’ve heard from folks about what’s important to them in this election, and so you’ll see an agenda that reflects that. We do represent, as a body, the entire state, and our state is almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans and our legislative majorities reflect that, so you’ll see me continue my long history of working across the aisle with Republicans. I think the governor has a priority on that as well, so we’ll put together an agenda that makes a difference and that has our Democratic philosophy and approach in it, but we’re going to be really thoughtful about it.
What’s your view specifically on repealing right to work or expanding requirements for prevailing wage?
I want to affirm that we are always concerned about workers and working families. We believe firmly that people should be acknowledged, paid, and appreciated for their contribution to the strength of our economy, and that includes workers. Approval of unions is at its highest point since 1965, and so especially now as we come out of a global pandemic and families are facing inflation, tightened budgets, we’re going to work with the caucus and the governor to strengthen worker protections, put more money in people’s pockets to attract businesses that want to invest in Michigan. So as we talk about all of those things, we’ll of course be evaluating past Republicans' efforts to ignore or diminish the voices of workers, and we will do what we can to do things like reinstate prevailing wage on state-funded projects and have solutions that pay workers fairly, ensure benefits and safe working conditions. All of that is incredibly important to us, so we’re going to bring all the voices to the table, we’ll come up with a thoughtful plan, and you’ll see specific agenda items as we roll them out.
The House just passed a housing bill package creating a series of incentives for developers. Do you expect this to be signed into law, and how soon do you expect this to translate into more projects?
I’m very hopeful that we'll be able to get those over the finish line. I think they have to come back to the Senate for one last action and then to the governor’s desk, so we do have some session days here to get that done. It’s a great bipartisan package, so I feel good about the progress we’ve made on it. In terms of timeline, those things could start early next year. It would be something that we could do to make a relatively quick impact on housing in some of our communities, and so I'm excited about that opportunity for places all over the state that have been asking for some help in this area. Housing has been an incredible need.
This is one bill package — I think there’s probably a lot more we could do on housing, so we’re putting our heads together on that beyond this package as a future agenda item as well.
What role do you see state funding playing, if any, for large economic development projects in Grand Rapids?
I think you’ve seen the state play a part in some of those really transformational, big projects in West Michigan, and we’re really pleased to have had some successes in getting some of those resources over to Grand Rapids and the West Michigan area. We’ll see what comes in the future, we do have a long list of things as most legislators do for their local communities, and we’ll just have to look at revenues and where priorities are and see if we can work with the House and governor’s office to get some of those things done.
We’ll see a lot more legislators now out of Kent County, particularly in the House there’s been a huge increase, so I’m very excited to have the Kent County caucus growing and you’ll see some pretty active advocacy for things that matter to us over in Kent County.
The Legislature and governor this year have gone back and forth on tax reforms with the influx of federal funding and budget surpluses. What reforms could we expect to see next year?
We’ve been incredibly clear that the Earned Income Tax Credit as well as the senior pension tax are things we think we can make a real difference for our constituents. Being able to reduce the tax burden for people who need it the most has always been a priority for us. I’m hopeful we’ll see action on those two things almost immediately. After that, we’ll see comprehensive conversations after we look at revenue estimates, after we look at the governor’s budget proposal looks like, and if there’s room for us to improve the situation for families and households we represent, we’ll take a look at all the options. But at this point, there is not enough detail with all of the new voices in the room to give you a specific answer on what that looks like.
In the context of Proposal 3, Gov. Whitmer has talked about reproductive freedom as an economic issue and Michigan’s ability to potentially lure talent from other states with abortion rights locked in place. Do you share that view?
I’ve been talking about that for many months since Roe was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States. I brought that up and a reporter asked me about that many months ago, and I said, ‘You need to talk to the business community.’ And I was very disappointed when I heard absolutely nothing from them. I affirm what (Whitmer) says. It’s a really important aspect. I think if or when any children a family has is a huge economic decision, and so the ability to have a support system around you when you have a family is key to economic success. So things like early childhood education, child care, quality schools, proximity to things like parks, recreation, arts — all of those things are important when you think about where you want to raise your family. The ability to make your choices for yourself that are best for you is a huge determiner of where you go in life, it’s a huge determiner of your economic security and your ability to build the life you really want for you and your loved ones. So I absolutely agree that it’s a huge economic issue.
Talent and labor availability appears to be the most pressing issue for business executives in West Michigan. How can the state do a better job on workforce development?
I think bolstering those child care spots and dollars is really helpful, especially for young talent who want to grow their careers or are looking at a second or third job in their career path. That’s key. I think the state can make a difference there, and we have been. Second thing would be helping to ensure there is adequate housing. If you are looking at a new job and you realize either there’s just not the housing available or it’s not available in your price range, that can have a huge impact on your ability to have the kind of lifestyle you want and to be close enough to your work and school, so I think those are two things we’ve seen where we have to invest in that kind of environment.
In addition, comprehensive health care that’s available so you can make the choices you want to make. The final thing would be amending Elliott Larsen. We know there are lots of folks here who have loved ones, family members, partners and they are not going to take a job here no matter how perfect if they are concerned that their loved ones will not be treated with respect. So as a state, Michigan can take a stand for equality and it’s not only something that’s very popular with our constituents, it’s also something that’s incredibly important to do from a moral perspective, to ensure people are treated well and respected here in the state of Michigan.