Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder started his term in Lansing in 2011 on a hot streak. For six months, he consistently won quick legislative approval of his prime agenda items, capped by a $1.7 billion business tax cut and a balanced state budget months ahead of expectations.
In the nine months since, however, Snyder's rocket has slowed. Lawmakers at the State Capitol, where Republican control is entrenched, are even balking at some of the governor's proposals.
Veteran Capitol observers interviewed by Bridge say the slowdown is not unusual in the life cycles of gubernatorial administrations. Further, they pointed to an often-overlooked factor in Snyder's initial burst of success: the Republican Party's massive majority in the Michigan Senate.
The start of 2011 saw an avalanche of major new laws, from the one enhancing powers for state-appointed emergency managers overseeing troubled local governments and school districts to the most sweeping overhaul of taxes in a generation. New laws making it easier to fire teachers and increasing the number of charter schools, both sought for years by Republicans without success, finally came to fruition.
But more recent major proposals to raise revenue to fund road repairs and create an exchange where residents can comparison shop for health insurance are going nowhere. Overall, Snyder is enjoying a strong rate of success with the Legislature.
“I think he’s done remarkably well,” said Dennis Cawthorne, a founder of the Kelley Cawthorne lobbying firm in Lansing who has been a fixture in the capital city since serving in the state House from 1967-78. “He’s had a substantial agenda that he’s managed to move with surprising speed. His track record so far in the Legislature I think is very good.”
Snyder of course has the considerable advantage of Republicans holding not only the majority in the House and Senate, but by overwhelming margins: 26-12 in the Senate and 64-46 in the House. Unified control is a rare opportunity in modern times. Since the Senate and governor switched to four-year terms starting with the 1966 elections, it has happened only in the 1967-68 term (Republicans), 1983 and part of 1984 (Democrats), 1995-96 (Republicans) and 1999-2002 (Republicans).
Doug Roberts, who worked in the administrations of Democrat Jim Blanchard and Republican John Engler, credits Snyder's focus -- and the GOP Senate -- for much of the administration's legislative success.
"The Senate has 26 Republicans. Even during the Watergate debacle (for Republicans in the 1970s), the Democrats only had 24. So this is a huge number," said Roberts, who now directs the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
"Also, (the governor) didn't say 'Let's wait (on big items).' He said, 'Let's do it now.' There's an enormous amount being accomplished," Roberts added. (Editor's note: Bridge contacted members of the Granholm administration, but all declined to comment for this story.)
“If you can get two-thirds of your program through even a friendly Legislature, I think that’s pretty remarkable,” Cawthorne said. “I think his record is probably as good as John Engler’s (1991-2003) and that’s saying a lot because Engler was a very astute political operative.”
Roberts noted that Engler and Snyder, whose governorship is his first elective office, have faced starkly different political cultures in Lansing, thanks to legislative term limits.
"Engler was a (Lansing) veteran, but there were plenty of people in the Legislature who were veterans, too," Roberts explained. "(With term limits), Snyder and the Legislature are sort of on an equal footing (on experience)."
The power of the special message
Key to the Snyder agenda has been the use of a mechanism afforded to the governor in the Constitution: the ability to submit to the Legislature “special messages” on any given topic that he seeks legislative action. Former Gov. William Milliken (1969-1983) frequently delivered special messages, but until Snyder took office in 2011, subsequent governors largely ignored the tool.
Snyder already has issued six such special messages – on local government, education, health and wellness, infrastructure, talent development and public safety – with a seventh planned for the fall on the environment and energy. They have carried the bulk of the Snyder agenda, although some major issues -- notably Snyder’s proposed major overhaul of taxes and construction of a new bridge to Canada -- were made without the use of a special message.
Republican majorities in the Legislature quickly lined up behind most of the proposals outlined in the first two messages, local government in March 2011 and education in April.
On local government, the Legislature overhauled allocation of revenue sharing aid to local governments and required negotiation of new collective bargaining agreements with public employees when local governments enter into a service sharing agreement, among other significant changes.
Snyder then mostly cleaned up on his education special message. The Legislature supported tying school funding to meeting a series of best practices, such as how much school employees must pay for health care, mandating school districts adopt anti-bullying policies and substantially changing teacher tenure to make it easier to fire bad teachers. Snyder proposed charter school expansion in certain areas with failing schools, but the Legislature went further and completely removed the cap on the number of charter schools public universities can authorize.
Bill Rustem, a top Snyder aide who has been on the scene inLansing going back to his days as a staffer for Milliken, said the climate was perfect for moving on the local government and education reforms.
“These are issues that have been teed up among particular Republicans for a long time,” said Rustem, Snyder’s director of strategy. “There was kind of a pent-up demand for dealing with the issues.”
And it was long before the 2012 Michigan House elections began factoring into the Legislature’s thinking.
The one major setback on these two issues was Snyder’s call to essentially end school district borders so that any student could attend any school, regardless of where he or she lives. Opposition swelled quickly in suburban school districts, especially in the Detroit area. By the time legislators pared the idea back to allow school districts to determine whether they had the capacity to allow schools of choice, the idea had become politically toxic.
“A lot of local, parochial politics got in the way,” Rustem said.
The fall of 2011 saw more setbacks for Snyder. Besides the Senate dropping his proposal to authorize a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor,Ontario, the legislative response to his special messages on health and wellness, transportation and recruiting and retaining talented workers to the state was tepid, at best.
The Senate passed Snyder’s proposed online exchange where consumers could comparison shop for health insurance, but the House, whose Republicans see the proposal as part of the controversial federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, have said they will not act on it until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the statute in June.
Snyder’s proposal to ban smoking on state-owned beaches has gone nowhere, too. The same is true of Snyder’s proposals to change how the state taxes gasoline sales and hike vehicle registration fees to raise $1.4 billion for roads.
“These are not easy things to get done,” Rustem said.
Snyder enjoyed a resurgence of legislative action this spring. The Legislature backed most of his proposals on public safety and, after a year of work, also passed legislation expanding the number of online charter schools. Lawmakers also passed a mandate on some insurers that they cover treatment for autism.
And while the summer break and House elections in the fall are expected to slow the pace of activity in Lansing, Roberts says Michiganians shouldn't be surprised to see another burst of activity in early 2013, depending on the election results.
"If the Republicans retain control of the House, look for things to pick up again," Roberts said. "The first six months of next year will be very important."
Zach Gorchow is editor of the Gongwer News Service in Lansing. Gorchow previously worked as a reporter for Gongwer and at the Detroit Free Press before becoming the news service's editor. He is a graduate of Michigan State University.
Senior Editor Derek Melot contributed to this story.