- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Kevin Cotter has four chief priorities as he prepares to lead a temporarily smaller but more unified Republican caucus into his second and final year as House speaker, and an overhaul and bailout of Detroit’s financially and academically failed school district is not among them.

Auto insurance changes, an update to energy laws, criminal justice spending and the broader state budget will top the agenda, at least for now. He said he is “greatly” concerned with a key component of GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s education plan - creating a commission of gubernatorial and mayoral appointees to hire a manager who could close or reconfigure poor-performing Detroit public schools, regardless of whether they are traditional ones, independent charters or those overseen by a turnaround entity.

“Charter schools that are performing well, I don’t see why they would need to be tangled up in that mess,” Cotter told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I would be happy to look at anything. If there are charters that are not performing well, if we were to look at some accountability measures, certainly. But I think charters offer a tremendous opportunity to families to choose to attend.”

Snyder outlined his Detroit Public Schools proposals in March and October, but no legislation was introduced before lawmakers adjourned for the year. Snyder has said the most urgent issue is providing $715 million in state funds over a decade to pay off the district’s debt and spin off a new district - a tough sell for legislators a year after they helped bail out the bankrupt city - but he also wants to hold schools accountable for students’ poor learning.

“That process could get very political. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that I have concerns about the current mayor. I don’t know who will follow the current mayor someday,” Cotter said.

He enters 2016 months after a turbulent period in which the House expelled one Republican and forced the resignation of another over their extramarital affair and a strange attempt to make it less believable if it was exposed, apparently by the husband of one of the legislators. Two former legislative aides to ex-Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat recently sued the House, alleging they were wrongfully fired and publicly humiliated after reporting the affair and other misconduct to Cotter’s office.

He said “true evidence did not exist” until the scandal broke in August when The Detroit News published secret audio recorded by one of the staffers.

“My office handled this correctly based on the information known at the time,” said Cotter, who is in his third and last House term.

He said the 61-member GOP caucus is much more effective than when it had 63 representatives, saying that the group is tighter and more willing to work together. Republican candidates are favored to fill the two vacant seats in March special elections.

In the fall session, House Republicans mustered enough votes to approve a road-funding plan, including increased fuel tax and vehicle registration fees, without Democrats’ support - a “huge accomplishment” in Cotter’s words. The majority also voted mostly along party lines for a bill to hold back third-graders lagging behind on state reading tests and most recently sent Snyder legislation to eliminate the straight-ticket option from ballots.

The House’s most immediate issue when it returns in January may be energy bills, which have not cleared either chamber despite pressure from major utilities to act in 2015. School districts and some big companies are fighting the legislation they fear would further limit competition in a partially deregulated power system.

State law guarantees DTE Electric, Consumers Energy and smaller utilities 90 percent of electricity sales in their regions. Alternate suppliers can sell the remaining 10 percent.

“Will we ultimately maintain 90-10 as it exists today? How will schools be affected, their ability to participate in that? I’d say that’s the single largest piece” of the debate, Cotter said. He said he is focused on “getting it done right” rather than moving too quickly.

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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