In a period of just 14 years, the environmental protection laws being enacted in Lansing have become sharply more partisan and less restrictive, according to a MIRS analysis.
It's a trend that's supported by data and it doesn't surprise many of those who monitor environmental policy closely at the Capitol.
Plus, there's a slew of theories for what's contributed to the shift.
Some say it has do with Gov. Rick SNYDER's efforts to overhaul the state's regulatory approach. Some say larger national trends are at play: an increase of money in politics; a move to the right by Republicans; or possibly, an overall increase in political partisanship. Still, others say the deep economic recession has altered how lawmakers weigh environmental protection versus economic impact.
All sides agree, however, that there's been a notable shift in approach for how the state handles environmental laws that impact its businesses and residents.
"Unfortunately, some people have taken our natural resources for granted," said former state lawmaker Patty BIRKHOLZ, a Republican from Saugatuck Twp., who once chaired the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
"They have not stepped up to the plate with their vote like they have in the past," she added.
MIRS looked at about 200 new environmental protection laws that the Legislature enacted from 2000 to 2014. More closely, MIRS examined the nature of the 47 environmental protection laws put in place from 2001 to 2004 and compared them to the 41 put in place from 2011 to 2014.
Seven years apart, those periods reveal major differences in the types of environmental laws that gained final approval.
From 2001 to 2004, 44 of the 47 new laws -- or about 93 percent -- increased regulations, exclusively sought to protect the environment or extended sunsets on fees levied against businesses. Only three of the 47 laws -- or about 6 percent -- had a specific impact of decreasing regulations or lifting governmental burden.
Then, there are 41 laws from 2011 to 2014. Of those, only 10 -- or about 24 percent -- increased regulations, exclusively sought to protect the environment or extended sunsets on fees levied against businesses.
Meanwhile, 31 of the environmental laws enacted from 2011 to 2014 -- or about 75 percent -- decreased regulations or lifted the governmental burden placed on businesses.
On top of the nature of the laws, the political divisiveness of those laws has also changed -- and changed drastically.
Of the 47 new laws from 2001-2004, only nine -- or about 19 percent -- passed the House with fewer than 75 "yes" votes.
In a much different fashion, of the 41 new laws from 2011 to 2014, a majority or 27 -- about 65 percent -- passed the House with fewer than 75 "yes" votes.
The 2001-to-2004 period covers four years where the Legislature was controlled by Republicans. For two of the years, the state had a Republican governor while for two others, the state had a Democratic governor.
During the period, the Legislature enacted laws to increase landfill standards, to boost recycling of scrap tires, to increase septic fees, to allow storm water discharge fees and to increase pollution prevention loans.
The 2011-to-2014 period also covers four years where the Legislature was controlled by Republicans. But Snyder, a Republican, was the governor for all four of those years.
The environmental laws enacted during the 2011-to-2014 period include measures to start a "Clean Corporate Citizen" program, to require the Department of Environmental Quality to meet new standards for denying permits or pursuing civil enforcement and to reform state law that deals with underground storage tanks.
The two periods MIRS examined point to a major change in approach over a decade.
Asked about it today, Sen. Tom CASPERSON (R-Escanaba), the chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said it's exactly his hope that the environmental laws that have been enacted in the last years are less restrictive and work better with businesses than past laws.
Previously, he said, environmental groups had gone too far, making policy "all or nothing" and "our way or the highway."
"The pendulum went so far," Casperson said. "We were out of balance."
Now, if Casperson and others have their way, the pendulum is going to swing the other way a bit.
Jason GEER, the director of energy and environmental policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said the economy and actions on the federal level have impacted the direction state lawmakers have chosen on the environment.
Plus, he said, whenever there is a change in administration, there is going to be a shift in approach.
Snyder, who became governor in 2011, still wants to protect the environment, Geer argued, but wants to do it in a smarter fashion and make things work better.
Geer used Snyder's Office of Regulatory Reinvention as an example.
"I think the goal is the same," he said. "I just think it's the path to get there (that's different)."
But Geer agreed that current Legislature is more pro-business than previous versions.
"They want business to be successful and they're working with the business community to make regulations that work for business and residents," Geer said.
Multiple sources said today that under Snyder, when businesses have issues with environmental regulations they can work with the administration to solve them. That wasn't the case, the sources said, under former Gov. Jennifer GRANHOLM.
But many in the environmental community believe the new policies have gone too far toward the pro-business side and that could be a reason for why the nature of the new laws have changed over the last 14 years.
Mike BERKOWITZ, the Michigan legislative director for the Sierra Club, said environmental policies have become more partisan and the number of lawmakers in the Republican Party who are pro-environment have decreased.
A report card the Sierra Club issued today showed that in the past four years, 85 percent of House Democrats voted the way the group preferred on 24 particular bills. House Republicans, on average, took the Sierra Club's stance 38 percent of the time.
"It's not just a trend we're seeing in Michigan," Berkowitz said. "It's really a trend we're seeing nationally across the country."
Berkowitz said redistricting has played a role in the change because there are fewer competitive districts, forcing candidates to run further to one side or the other.
Plus, he said, the amount of money in politics has skyrocketed. Campaign spending by energy companies and industries has jumped, he said, and that's helped those interests in the legislative arena.
Of lawmakers in the term-limited environment, Jack SCHMITT, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), said, "They are going to rely on the people who helped get them there for information."
Schmitt also acknowledged that there are fewer Republicans that take pro-environment stands and that the economic recession has impacted the policies coming out of the Legislature.
The recession, he said, could make it easier for lawmakers to justify weakening environmental policy.
In the last years, he said the state has seen a "pretty systemic attempt to dismantle actions" taken by the Department of Natural Resources and weaken wetlands protections.
But supporters of the policies that have been advanced in recent years don't agree that they've been bad for the environment.
"Overall, legislators are very interested in protecting human health and the environment," observed Andrew SUCH, director of regulatory and environmental policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association. "The ones I deal with want to know what it's costing and what's the environmental benefit."
Such has worked on environmental policy in Lansing for about 30 years.
He said in general, the state's approach to environmental laws sees shifts when administrations change.
On the other hand, Birkholz, who's now the director of LCV's West Michigan Office, believes larger factors could be at play.
There's more money involved in campaigns today, as she said, and businesses write checks to candidates and then want the candidates to help them when the candidate become officeholders.
And Birkholz agreed that the economic recession has played a role.
"People were just grasping at straws, whatever they thought could help them make a buck or get a job whatever it was," she said. "In the midst of all of that, we forgot our dedication to our natural resources."
Birkholz said her hope and prayer is that going forward, the state takes a wide-eyed look at what's happening with its natural resources.
"It's really easy to contaminate a river or part of a Great Lake," as she said. "It doesn't take long for that to happen. It takes many more years and millions of dollars more to clean it up."