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Michigan governor GOP hopefuls bash tax incentives, pork spending in debate

candidates around a table at a TV studio
Four of five Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidates debated July 15, 2022, on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record” (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

LANSING — A new $77 billion state budget deal is so full of “pork” that it’s “obese,” Michigan Republican gubenatorial hopeful Garrett Soldano argued Friday, criticizing a new spending plan negotiated by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature. 

“I want to put as much bacon back in Michiganders pockets as possible,” Soldano said during a debate on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record,” where he and three other GOP candidates bashed the budget agreement brokered two weeks ago that Whitmer is expected to sign next week.

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A $54.8 billion general government budget sitting on Whitmer’s desk includes more than $1 billion in earmarks for 149 special projects, including $15 million to aid a private development with ties to former state Republican Party Chair Bobby Schostak and $100 million for a Detroit Innovation Center backed by billionaire businessman Stephen Ross.

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Asked about the unusual number of earmarks last month, House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, told reporters that in a period of divided government, “we had to get the votes” and “get something to the governor's desk that she would sign."

But all four Republican gubernatorial candidates who participated in Friday’s debate said they would either veto the budget bill or use line-item veto power to strip funding for some of the projects. 

Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores, who led the field in a recent poll, did not attend on account of her father’s funeral. All five are on the Aug. 2 primary ballot.

“Just because you hear the word bipartisan doesn’t mean that it's a deal that's good for the people,” said candidate Ryan Kelley, a real estate broker from Allendale Township. 

“And yes, Republicans are signing off on this wasteful spending as well. We have a red Legislature, they should be more fiscally responsible.”

Kevin Rinke, a Bloomfield Township businessman, called the spending “disrespectful to the people of Michigan” who are dealing with inflation. He’s proposed eliminating the state’s personal income tax that generates $12 billion in annual revenue for government services.

Ralph Rebandt, who recently retired as pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church, said he would create an "anti-appropriations" committee of Michigan citizens who would help him identify ways the state could cut spending.

"I'm willing to take a knife and cut as much out of the budget as we can," he said.

Whitmer on Thursday signed a record $22.1 billion education budget that includes a $450 per-pupil funding increase for traditional public and charter schools. She’s expected to sign the general government budget next week but has indicated there could be some line-item vetoes.

“There are some things that we agree to disagree on, that people won't be surprised by the outcome,” Whitmer said of her deal with the GOP-led Legislature, noting she still wants to negotiate a separate tax relief plan with lawmakers. “The terms of this budget were negotiated, and I think it's a major step in the right direction for our state.”

‘Corporate welfare’ or business attraction?

Three of the Republican gubernatorial candidates on Friday also criticized a December deal between Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature that resulted in $666 million in state incentives for General Motors Corp. to build an electric vehicle battery factory near Lansing and expand operations in Orion Township.

GM, which will also receive $158 million in property taxes, is expected to invest $7 billion in the projects while creating up to 4,000 jobs and retain another 1,000 workers it already employs in Orion Township. 

Legislative Republicans celebrated the deal as an example of bipartisan cooperation, but Rinke argued that Whitmer “way overpaid” GM, suggesting she “needed a win because (of) other corporate decisions to leave the state of Michigan … and she was under pressure.”

“I think GM was going to be there no matter what,” Rinke said. “I would not have signed it the way that it went through.”

Officials at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation said incentives helped GM make up for “the cost disadvantage of locating the project in Michigan when compared to competing sites” outside of the state.

Both Rebandt and Kelley criticized the incentives as a form of “corporate welfare” that they would have opposed if they had been governor at the time. 

“It’s just another display of our government taking taxpayer money and giving it to big businesses,” Kelley said. “Creating jobs is a very good thing, but we can't just look at big automakers in order to create jobs.”

Soldano, however, said he would have supported the incentive program at the time and understood why Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature created it. 

“Until we change the culture of Michigan, we're gonna have to do everything that we can to get businesses back here,” Soldano said, noting he would work to attract businesses by reducing regulations, cutting corporate taxes and making sure that no governor can weaponize the health department again,” a reference to COVID-19 orders Whitmer issued early in the pandemic.

Death penalty

The Republican gubernatorial candidates also found common ground on another unepxected topic Friday: the death penalty, which is barred under the Michigan Constitution.

All four candidates who participated in the debate said they support capital punishment despite their self described “pro-life” opposition to abortion, which would be outlawed in Michigan under a 1931 law temporarily suspended amid a legal fight in state courts.

“I’m 100 percent unapologetically pro-life from the moment of conception, and the only other exception would for the life of mother,” Soldano told reporters after the debate. “However, I support capital punishment.” 

Rebandt, a pastor, said he knows capital punishment is currently outlawed in Michigan but believes it would be “one way to deter crime.”

“If someone takes someone else’s life unjustly, according to God’s word, they don’t deserve to live,” he told Bridge Michigan. 

Rinke declined to elaborate on his debate response: “I think my answer speaks for itself,” he told reporters. “I said ‘yes’ to capital punishment.”

That position separates the four candidates from Dixon, who has been endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan, the state’s leading anti-abortion advocacy group. 

“Tudor is a pro-life candidate and has publicly opposed the death penalty,” Dixon campaign spokesperson Kyle Olson told Bridge Michigan. 

Trump still looms large

With just 18 days left until the primary, which will decide which Republican candidate takes on Whitmer in the general election, Donald Trump continues to loom large in the race.

The former president has not yet endorsed in the race but has on two prior occasions praised Dixon, the former steel industry executive and conservative media personality. 

Soldano said Friday he has not personally spoken with Trump about a potential endorsement but acknowledged other people have had those discussions on his behalf. 

"I'm not going to say who is involved, but there is open conversation with the Trump administration," Soldano told reporters after the debate. Speculation over whether Trump will endorse “changes every 48 hours,” he said. 

Soldano said he "would love" the former president's endorsement but thinks he can even if Trump backs another candidate. 

"So many more people are active right now, and people are engaged," he said. "It's going to be a close race, there's no ifs and or buts about it, but I do believe that we have the momentum right now."

Rinke, who is running TV ads comparing himself to Trump as an “outsider” businessman, this week he launched a new attack ad against Dixon. It argues she "claims to be for Trump" but can’t be trusted, in part because she is backed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Devos recently acknowledged she and other cabinet members discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to block his election loss on Jan. 6, 2021. 

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“I think the president needed to know,” Rinke said Friday, defending the first negative television ad of the gubernatorial cycle. 

Dixon has touted loyalty to Trump and last month told Bridge that trying to remove him from office “wouldn’t (have been) my choice.The family knows “that Betsy DeVos and I differ on that, but they appreciate the fact that my plan is the right plan for them going forward,” she said. 

Ryan Kelley, who was arrested last month on charges related to pro-Trump riots on Jan. 6, did not speak to reporters after the debate but said his ongoing criminal case is evidence that outside forces are threatened by his candidacy. 

“I continue to tell the truth. I continue to expose the lies that we have in our government right now,” Kelley said in his closing remarks. 

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