Patricia Birkholz, whose 14 years in the Legislature left a legacy of major policy changes, especially on natural resources and the environment, died Thursday of cancer. She was 74.
Ms. Birkholz, a Saugatuck Republican who served in the House from 1997-2002 and the Senate from 2003-10, did not suffer fools and during an era where men mostly called the shots in the Legislature, especially in the Republican caucuses in which she served, she was a force with several major pieces of legislation to her name. She was the first woman elected speaker pro tem in the House.
Indeed, while some legislators merely get their name on the bill with staff and leadership doing the heavy lifting, Ms. Birkholz did her own heavy lifting and emerged as a major figure in the previous decade from her perch as chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The list of major bills signed into law that she sponsored or had a hand in sponsoring is long:
- The recreation passport bill of 2010 that enabled all motorists to purchase a passport to state parks when renewing their vehicle registration to create a steady funding stream for state parks;
- The Great Lakes Compact of 2008 that put Michigan into the compact on how water withdrawals from the Great Lakes were to be regulated;
- The requirement that utilities produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015;
- The income tax checkoff for breast cancer research;
- The tool to analyze proposed water withdrawals;
- The film production tax credit;
- A wetlands protection law;
- The law that allows a mother to surrender her newborn child safely instead of abandoning it; and
- Land use regulations.
She later said the law allowing the safe, legal surrender of newborns was her best memory of her time in the House.
“Patty cared deeply for the people she served and for the natural beauty of our Michigan land and water,” U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds said in a statement. “We are forever thankful for her stewardship and the friendship we shared. She will be greatly missed.”
Ms. Birkholz succeeded Mr. Hillegonds in the House in 1997 after a run as the Allegan County treasurer and a Saugatuck Township trustee.
She quickly became a go-to person for the House on natural resources and the environment. She served two terms as the speaker pro tem, presiding over the House. She briefly put her name in to run for speaker at one point.
Ms. Birkholz developed a reputation for smarts and kindness – and purple. She wore purple seemingly everywhere and every day and it was her calling card.
It was in the Senate that Ms. Birkholz hit her stride as chair of the natural resources committee.
The recreation passport legislation was one telling example. It had some setbacks and at one point appeared on life support, much to her fury after the House gutted it, but it eventually passed and provided a lift to a strapped state parks system.
As Ms. Birkholz walked past reporters on her way to a Senate Republican Caucus meeting, she pumped her fists in triumph.
And while praise poured in for her kindness and sense of humor in the wake of her death, Ms. Birkholz could throw a dagger too. She was so angry at then-House Speaker Andy Dillon after the House gutted the park passport bill that when she spoke to reporters she repeatedly called him “Andrew,” like an angry parent, practically spitting out the name in disgust.
In 2007, Ms. Birkholz was one of four Senate Republicans to vote for the income tax increase that helped end a budget showdown.
After term limits ended her run in the Senate, Governor Rick Snyder named her director of the Office of the Great Lakes, where she served for two years before going to work for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. She recently endorsed the redistricting ballot proposal.
“Patty was a tireless and highly regarded advocate for Michigan and our lakes,” Mr. Snyder said in a statement. “Under her leadership, we saw the formation of the Great Lakes Inter-Basin Compact and the passage of significant legislation regarding water withdrawal assessment, the Michigan state parks passport, ballast water standards, and renewable energy mandates. We all should remember Patty for her dedication to protecting Michigan’s environment and residents, which will benefit Michiganders for generations.”
In 2010, a 291-acre portion of the Saugatuck Dune State Park was renamed the “Patricia Birkholz Natural Area” by the state.
Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said among Ms. Birkholz’s strengths was being able to work both within her party and across the aisle. She noted Ms. Birkholz’s work with Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), then in the House, on the Great Lakes Compact. She said a picture of the bill signing, with Ms. Birkholz behind then-Governor Jennifer Granholm smiling with her arms raised, illustrated her passion for her work.
“Patty was a force to be reckoned with and it wasn’t the kind of force that was in your face,” she said. “She was a story teller.”
Ms. Birkholz had breast cancer about a year ago and had thought it was in remission, Ms. Wozniak said. After a recent fall, though, blood tests showed the cancer had returned and had spread, she said.
“The decline was, for everybody, very fast,” she said.
Ms. Birkholz seemed to relish the chance to obtain wide agreement on major legislation.
“The best takeaway that I have is the lesson my mother taught me as a very young child. We are all God’s children, and we should treat others as we would like to be treated,” she said in her 2010 farewell speech to the Senate. “If we work that way in the legislative process, we can accomplish good things for the people of our state. We can bring all parties together – both sides of the aisle and both sides of the dome – but we have to listen. We have to communicate honestly, we have to negotiate fairly, and with that and God’s help, you can reach reasonable and doable compromises and promote good public policy for our state.”
“Birkholz, Giant On Environmental Policy, Dead At 74“, Gongwer News Service, May 3, 2018
Susan J. Demas, “Meet the Republican who helped save Michigan’s parks”, MLive, June 23, 2015.