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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

The Tea Party’s tepid relations with Michigan business groups

As the Tea Party has gained political profile and headlines, it has crossed swords with business groups that would seem to be natural allies in the push for conservative policies.

“Long before the Tea Party, the business community was the voice of fiscal responsibility and limited, rational government, and the business community will still be that voice long after the Tea Party is gone,” said Rob Fowler, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Philosophically, business groups such as SBAM and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce often are aligned with Tea Party principles of limited government, but there’s a difference between limited government and no government.

SBAM, the state Chamber and others, such as Business Leaders for Michigan, have achieved major policy victories under Gov. Rick Snyder, none bigger than business tax reform. Yet many in the business community also favor several high-profile public sector investments, including increased road funding, Medicaid expansion, and funding for the Common Core Curriculum education standards. Tea Party groups have stood in the way of those initiatives, leading some business leaders to shake their heads at what they see as a lack of pragmatism.

SBAM opposed the federal health care legislation, but when it became the law of the land, the group switched its focus to assure a business-friendly implementation. SBAM concluded it was better to have a state-based health insurance exchange than to have the federal government run it, Fowler said, because “state government is the government closest to the people. It’s not a good strategy to deny the existence of Obamacare now that it’s here.”

SBAM’s interest is in “not missing the opportunity to make a real difference in the issue of cost shifting, where our members end up paying for those who access health care but can’t afford to pay for it,” Fowler said. “After all, Michigan businesses will be paying the taxes and other increased costs that are going to pay for the Medicaid expansion.”

Tensions between the Tea Party and business interests grew in recent months as Tea Party groups are plotting a Republican Party coup for next year – the nomination of their own candidate for lieutenant governor against the incumbent, Brian Calley.

Wes Nakagiri, the Tea Partier who hopes to unseat Calley, said members of the movement aren’t as naïve as some business leaders believe. “We understand how things work,” he said. “The light bulb went on for me brightly maybe three months ago. There’s a portion of the Republican Party that actually benefits from big government,” including the Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. If elected, he would bring a more-conservative voice to the Snyder administration, Nakagiri said.

“Seriously?” Fowler asked. “Brian Calley is not conservative enough? That’s almost unbelievable. Those are the tactics that get you beat.”

Beating the Tea Party may even become a business priority. Numerous mainstream, business-friendly Republicans told Bridge they are depending on traditional business advocates like the Michigan Chamber and Business Leaders for Michigan to beat back Tea Party extremists in future legislative primaries and to further Gov. Rick Snyder’s public investment priorities.

Michigan Chamber CEO Richard Studley and BLM CEO Doug Rothwell declined comment for this report. Fowler said it is SBAM’s intention to protect political leaders who have business-friendly voting records. So will the business community openly oppose Tea Party candidates?

“It depends on who they go after,” Fowler said.

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