Even with the GOP in charge of Michigan’s Legislature and governor's seat, the Lansing political scene these days resembles nothing so much as two ships passing in the night.
A pair of commissions named by Gov. Rick Snyder recommended $6 billion in added annual funds – suggesting an array of new taxes – to upgrade roads, sewer and water systems and public education. The Legislature has ignored both.
Republican leaders looked instead to budget and tax cuts, falling just short in February of passing a House measure to cut more than $1 billion a year in personal income taxes.
Snyder proposed tougher limits on lead in drinking water following the Flint water crisis. The GOP Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said no thanks, the current limits were a “pretty good standard.” The governor drafted an ambitious 2017-18 state budget ‒ the House and Senate whack hundreds of millions of dollars from it.
And so it has gone in the final two years of Snyder’s second term: A lame-duck governor looking to burnish his legacy, and a Legislature dominated by the same party steaming ahead on its own course.
Lansing GOP consultant Tom Shields said it's not as if Snyder and Republican leadership detest each other.
“I don't think they're close drinking buddies,” said Shields, president of Marketing Resource Group. “But they know they are going to have to work together to get something done.”
It remains to be seen if that will happen.
It can't help Snyder's political capital that he is still weighed down by Flint, where thousands of children were exposed to toxic levels of lead in the drinking water, a tragedy for which his administration has been assigned most of the blame. A recent poll found that Snyder ranked as the nation's fourth most unpopular governor.
“Flint is the albatross around his neck that he is going to have to live with,” Shields said. “The governor’s lack of popularity with the general voters is hampering his ability to use the bully pulpit on issues.”
Still, said Shields: “You always have leverage as a governor. You just have to use it.
“These legislators have their own agenda. If if it meshes with the governor, fine. If it doesn't mesh with the governor, too bad.”
A standoff at the top
There are hints of compromise, with Snyder signaling he would consider a GOP plan to make further changes to the state's public teacher pension system. Republican leaders in both chambers are calling it a top legislative priority, as they work on a plan that new teachers be required to join a 401(k) tax-deferred investment account.
But Republican leadership has clearly rebuffed any notion that big tax increases are the answer to needs outlined by the commissions on education and infrastructure. Indeed, reining in spending appears to remain foremost on the minds of House and Senate leadership.
Gideon D'Assandro, spokesperson for GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard, said Leonard believes “we can continue to make progress by asking more of state government and not putting the burden on our hard-working taxpayers.”
As for an income tax cut, which Snyder opposes, that’s still “on the table.”
Likewise, Amber McCann, spokesperson for Meekhof, wrote Bridge that the Majority Leader “is not hearing from constituents in favor of significant tax increases.”
Bill Rustem, Snyder’s former director of strategy, said it’s typical for the relationship between a governor and leadership to break down as the governor approaches the end of the term.
“At the beginning of a governor’s administration there is contact on a very regular basis. But as the term goes on, it gets to be less and less. It becomes a political game instead of a policy game,” said Rustem, who also served as environmental adviser in the administration of GOP Gov. William Milliken going back to the 1970s.
“It happens all the time, all the way back to Milliken.”
But Snyder chief of staff Richard Posthumus insisted that hasn’t happened.
“We have regular weekly meetings with the two (Republican) leaders,” Posthumus said. “That’s something the governor has done since the beginning and he continues to do so.
Posthumus said he also tries to meet privately with leadership every two or three weeks, especially with Leonard, who was just elected speaker by the Republican House caucus in November.
“The important thing is to get to know each other.”
Leonard spokesman D’Assandro likewise described relations with the governor as “very positive.”
Impact on public trust
But this political disconnect – within a single party that controls the state’s agenda – may continue to feed public mistrust that Lansing can get anything done, according to Peter Pratt, president of Public Sector Consultants, a policy research and management organization.
A March report by The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit organization focused on increased public involvement in state policy issues (and Bridge Magazine’s parent organization), found that 80 percent of state residents had “low” or “very low” trust in both state government's oversight of K-12 education and its ability to protect public health.
“I feel like we are a dog chasing our tail here,” Pratt said.
“You need significant investment to address major issues like schools and infrastructure. The money has to come from somewhere. But the distrust of government is so great that people think government is not going to make things better.”
At the same time, Snyder's business-driven political instincts are often at odds with the more populist-minded, conservative impulses of state Republican leaders.
Snyder – a former Gateway Computers president who had never before run for office – reportedly considered running as an independent as he weighed a 2010 gubernatorial bid. He bucked GOP leadership in 2012, vetoing bills that would restrict voter identification laws and that would have allowed concealed weapons in schools and bars.
Snyder also pushed hard to persuade enough Republicans to pass Medicaid expansion in 2013, putting him in the minority of states with GOP control to do so.
Of course, Snyder at other times tacked right to suit the aims of conservative state Republicans. In December 2012, he signed legislation making Michigan a right-to-work state after saying days earlier the issue “is not on my agenda.” The measure allows employees to opt out of union membership.
“Rick Snyder is a conservative, but he is on the moderate end of the conservative Republican Party,” said Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.
“When you look at it nationally, Rick Snyder stands out (as a relative liberal) among the Republican governors. He seems to be on the left part of a rightward-moving spectrum of the national party.
“It's obvious that the median member of the (Republican state legislative caucus) is well to the right of Rick Snyder.”
A rightward drift
In the view of many, GOP leadership has shifted more toward a tea-party conservative agenda than in the recent past, as evidenced by the first House bill of the year ‒ a massive income tax cut that would have wiped out that tax and $9 billion in annual revenue over 40 years. A more modest ‒ by comparison ‒ measure that would have cut $1 billion a year lost by just three votes.
Leonard and Meekhof in 2015 earned approval ratings of 84 percent and 87 percent, respectively, from the American Conservative Union, a conservative advocacy organization. That’s high enough to earn its “Award for Conservative Achievement.”
GOP consultant Shields said Snyder is also hampered by the loss of clout common to just about lame duck governor. GOP Gov. John Engler, he said, struggled to accomplish much – even with GOP control of the Legislature - the last two years of his third term.
Snyder's January State of the State address – much of it warmed-over iterations of previous recommendations – got a tepid response from legislators. It had few new program proposals. Snyder talked of “billions of dollars of new investment” for infrastructure, without directly saying how it would be paid for.
“There didn't appear to be a whole lot of beef in that address. Right now it feels more like Snyder is managing the state instead of leading it in a specific direction,” Shields said.
Snyder conceded recently that advancements on education and infrastructure may have to come in baby steps.
In a brief interview in April, Snyder sidestepped where annual funding for $2 billion in recommended education reforms would come from: “Let’s figure out what our short-term, medium-term, longer-term priorities (are) and then sort of figure out what resources are required to get them done and then do them in some staged fashion.”
As for $4 billion in proposed additional annual infrastructure spending, Snyder punted on endorsing any of his own appointed commission’s tax hike recommendations.
He instead pointed to pilot programs rolled out in April in Southeast Michigan and the Grand Rapids area intended to greater collaboration between utility and construction companies on future infrastructure projects.
“Think now about the road in front of your house or your business,” Snyder said in his State of the State address. “How often have you seen that road get torn up to do road work and then it gets repaired and it gets torn up to do gas work or electric work or fiber beam laid…”
“That doesn’t require big dollar resources, but it can have huge impact,” he told Bridge in the April interview. “So let’s start taking these one step at a time.”
Meanwhile, Snyder and legislators find themselves haggling over a more modest investment in infrastructure than the “billions” Snyder mentioned in the State of the State. Snyder's proposed budget calls for a $20 million investment ‒ a mere 0.5 percent of what his infrastructure group recommended ‒ for future projects. The House budget cut that to $5 million.
Snyder's education commission proposed up to $900 million more a year for at-risk students in high-poverty schools. Snyder's budget calls for a fraction of that: $150 million in the year ahead. The House budget cut that to just under $130 million.
Lansing political analyst Susan Demas said she does not doubt the governor's sincerity in convening these commissions. And while Snyder must have known it's the longest of longshots this Legislature would approve any major tax increase, Demas said he may be playing a longer game – framing the task for future administrations. Demas is publisher of the Lansing political newsletter Inside Michigan politics.
“I think his crown jewel as governor is the business tax reform he passed right out of the gate,” Demas said, referring to a $1.7 billion business tax cut Snyder signed into law in 2011.
“Now that most of the business groups are satisfied with the tax climate, I think he felt had a chance to look at some of the issues that have plagued Michigan and dragged Michigan down for decades. Infrastructure and education are at the top of that list.
“At some point, the piper has to be paid and we have to deal with it.”
Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Detroit-based Business Leaders for Michigan and a member of the infrastructure commission, credits Snyder for advancing the debate – through his commission – on what he deems a critical issue.
“He was trying to lay out an agenda that hopefully could be followed for years to come,” Rothwell said.
BLM issued a report of its own in January that largely agreed with the findings of the infrastructure commission: Michigan needs to invest $4 billion more a year on infrastructure to align with the U.S. average.
The report identified $2.7 billion in needed additional annual road funding, suggesting a raise in the gas tax, a tax on vehicles for miles driven each year and unspecified “user fees.”
Rothwell knows that wouldn't be easy.
“It's going to be a process,” he said. “I think at least in infrastructure there are some very specific steps that can be taken toward moving to the finish line.”
Where commissions go to die
But Lansing political analyst Demas said that big change in politics is hard. That's why state commissions, task forces and advisory panels in Michigan have a less-than-stellar batting average for producing results.
In 2004, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Cherry chaired a commission to find ways to double the number of college graduates in Michigan over 10 years. But as the commission was dreaming of growth, the state had already begun to cut operating support for students at public universities, from $9,387 a year in 2000 (in 2017 dollars) to $5,217 today.
The doubling of college graduates hardly materialized. In 2005, just under 25 percent of Michigan residents over age 25 had college degrees. In 2015, it was about 27 percent.
In 2007, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm named a bipartisan panel to deal with the state's fiscal crisis. The panel suggested trimming pension benefits for state workers, sharing of administrative costs between government and schools and slowing the state's skyrocketing prison costs. The recommendations were also widely ignored. Later that year, Michigan had a brief government shutdown as legislators struggled to fill a $1.75 billion budget deficit.
A similar fate awaits the infrastructure and education recommendations of the Snyder commissions, said Shields, with the reports likely to “end up being paper at the bottom of a bird cage.”
Pratt, of Public Sector Consultants, doesn’t disagree, but warned that there will be a reckoning at some point.
“I don't know where the breaking point is,” he said. “I fear that things are going to get much worse before they get better in terms of investment. I can only hope there's a group of people who find their way into government who are able to calibrate what wise investment means.”