Distinguished state lawmaker and longtime Friend of Agriculture Patty Birkholz passed away May 3 at age 74, ending a brief battle with cancer.
Representing Dist. 88 in the Michigan House (1997-2002) and Senate Dist. 24 (2003-10), Birkholz championed impactful, forward-thinking environmental policy with grace and skill. Throughout, she remained committed to working with Farm Bureau to reach consensus and find common-sense solutions.
Her leadership on water use, wetland protection and renewable energy standards resulted in policies that often struck a delicate balance between protecting natural resources and ensuring their responsible utilization.
“Patty was the right person at the right time,” said Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) Government Relations Manager Matt Smego, referring to Birkholz’s time chairing the Senate’s Natural Resources & Environmental Affairs Committee. “Given the dynamics of the legislature and the governor’s office, she could reach across the aisle and was exceptionally skilled at bringing multiple, opposing stakeholder groups to an agreement.”
Accordingly, Birkholz earned MFB’s Silver Plow award in 2003 and again in 2008, in recognition of her bipartisan efforts on water policy. This included her work to enact the Great Lakes Compact, a historic agreement prohibiting water diversion, as well as the then-new water withdrawal program.
Of Birkholz’s tenacity in seeing through inherently controversial environmental issues, Smego said she was unlike others who were more prone to stop in their tracks amid disagreement.
“Whether you liked her policy positions or not, she commanded the room,” he said. “I think she prided herself on getting diverse groups around the table and, in part, that’s why she was able to take on those issues.
“I think all of us had been locked into a room by Patty at some point. And we weren’t allowed out until we reached an agreement.”
Birkholz and Farm Bureau members may not have agreed on everything, but she earned farmers’ admiration thanks to her work ethic, family values and dedication to solving problems.
All those qualities were on show in her 2010 farewell speech to the Senate:
“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. “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.”
Other noteworthy bills Birkholz sponsored or supported that were signed into law, included:
- Legislation enabling motorists to purchase a passport to state parks when renewing their vehicle registration to provide consistent state park funding;
- An income tax checkoff for breast cancer research;
- A film production tax credit;
- A law that allows a mother to surrender her newborn child safely instead of abandoning it; and
- Land-use regulations.