State of the State speeches are geared to define the governor's agenda for the coming legislative year. If the speech is a good one, seen as reasonably addressing the challenges of the times, chances are some of the proposals are going to be embraced and enacted.
So it was in 2011 with Gov. Rick Snyder's first address to the Legislature and the unveiling weeks later of a boundary-testing budget that outlined tax and spending restructuring. After a decade of job loss, it proved to be an easy sell to fellow Republicans with expanded control of the House and Senate.
If GOP lawmakers fell in line behind Snyder's program in 2011, the reverse was true by the end of 2012. Note the words that weren't in last year's address: guns, abortion, freedom (to work) or freeloading (benefits secured by the union you no long have to support).
Whether or not he ever declared himself to be a moderate, Snyder's lack of denial that he was one, coupled with his embrace of Bill Milliken's endorsement, led moderately-inclined voters to conclude he was a different kind of Republican. That view was largely confirmed in an inaugural year in office in which tax cuts were paid for and health care for the poor was protected. The other stuff -- cuts to education, demands for public employee sacrifice or revenue sharing reductions -- were repeats of what was done early and often under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Now having lent his bill signing pen to the shopping list that conservatives have held in their pocket since the administration of John Engler, Snyder's lame duck shift in priorities puts him more in step with a party that grows more conservative with each new legislative class.
Snyder’s ‘fence’ decision
So, in delivering his third State of the State speech to the most bitterly divided Legislature in memory Wednesday, Snyder has to decide whether he wants to mend fences or build more of them.
That is, whether to pursue school finance stability, invest in higher education, expand Medicaid and begin long-delayed infrastructure fixes that all require the assistance of Democrats? Or to more vigorously embrace modern Republican conservatism and its income tax cuts, budget reduction, de facto school vouchers and still more political punishment for Democrats, which the American Legislative Exchange Council is no doubt dreaming up for their laboratories in democracy in GOP-controlled state capitals across America.
Win some big fights and you're in the mood to fight some more. The most instructive response to Republican lame duck victories last month was not the objections of centrist pundits and editorial pages, but the elation of a GOP base that knows it's firmly in control of the policy direction of a state that voted Democrat for president for a sixth straight time. It’s a base with members who view the term “Michissippi” as an aspiration, not a pejorative.
For Democrats, the response to their December humiliation from 49 of the 51 newly sworn-in House members could hardly be encouraging to their base. Their votes last Wednesday weren’t needed to re-elect Jase Bolger from Marshall to be speaker for another two years. But they cast them anyway because that’s what tradition and respect for the Michigan House of Representatives apparently demands. It's doubtful those who voted for them hold the place in the same high regard.
Bolger said after the vote last Wednesday that it was time “to put the past behind us.” Presumably the past included last Tuesday, when Snyder’s Michigan Economic Development Corporation rubbed salt in the wound with a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. Above the familiar “Pure Michigan” banner, the ad declared that Michigan had been “transformed” by its new status as a Right to Work state. Transformed from what into what, the ad didn’t specifically say.
Maybe Snyder will fill everyone in this Wednesday as to what Michigan been transformed into after a fight he said would only cement Michigan’s off-putting national reputation that the Pure Michigan campaign had been repairing. Most likely, he’ll say last year's bit of unpleasantness should be put behind us so everyone can move onto more happy, bipartisan pursuits.
Like raising taxes.
Relief for roads?
This year marks the 16th anniversary of the last time a governor and lawmakers mustered the courage to actually pay to fix crumbling roads that cause grief to Michigan motorists and must prompt visitors to wonder how a state could think so little of itself. All those incoming site selection execs who are going to be clogging Detroit Metro now that the labor unions have been dealt will also be able to experience Michigan's unique innovation in highway pavement technology - gravel.
Snyder says declining gas tax and registration receipts require another $1.5 billion or so in new transportation revenue. Actually, that's the minimum amount required just to keep the current road system in a condition the Michigan Department of Transportation characterizes as "good." Michigan just celebrated the fourth anniversary of the completion of the last major road funding recommendation that said the state would have to raise a lot more than that if were to resemble someday a prosperous state.
The Transportation Funding Task Force was co-chaired by Rich Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Dennis Gillow of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a business and labor collaboration that seems unthinkable right about now.
But it's also hard to believe Republicans are going to raise taxes on their own again. That means they need votes from Democrats who vow there will be little support for a package that sticks the tab for better roads on individual taxpayers. Remember that when the per-gallon gas tax was raised from 15 cents to 19 cents in 1997, the tax on diesel wasn't because business lobbyists objected.
Absent a significant increase in fuel taxes that business also pays, the brunt of any revenue plan will fall on the registration fees of motorists like Grandma, who drives her 2000 Buick Century to church and the grocery store once a week. No one's going to vote for that.
Transportation is just one piece of a Snyder narrative that has to persuade the public that midway into his term, the state can be in a better position than it was because of his policies no matter their popularity. That the budget is balanced, Detroit has a future and that 40 percent of the jobs that vanished in the last decade will be recovered in the first six years of the current one. It probably should be a speech without arrogance or apology.
He just has to hope there's still an audience for it.
Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.