How we make the call
Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:
In a town hall debate Sunday with Democratic challenger Mark Schauer, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder aggressively defended his first-term record on education, his $1.6 billion business tax cut and the $1.4 billion income tax hike he signed that included new taxes on pensions. The event was expected to be the only time the two candidates will share a stage before the Nov. 4 election.
Truth Squad reviews some of Snyder’s more prominent statements below.
“Let's make this really simple. The year before I became governor the state budget for K-12 schools was $10.6 billion. The budget I just signed into law is $11.7 billion...Unfortunately our broken political system has people making up lies.”
You say potato, I say $1 billion increase.
Both candidates have selectively harvested education funding data that suits their campaigns. And both are correct, and less than fully transparent in their spin.
A document from the Senate Fiscal agency does indeed show that state K-12 spending the year before Snyder took office was $10.6 billion and that it was projected to be $11.9 billion in 2014-15. Analysis by the Senate Fiscal Agency in February 2011 showed that Snyder’s first school budget concluded that it reduced gross spending for Michigan K-12 education from $13.1 billion in fiscal 2011 to $12.2 billion in fiscal 2012. That's nearly $1 billion. Hence, Schauer’s most enduring campaign attack.
Snyder's first budget included a $470 cut in per pupil spending, a reduction of $452 million. The K-12 budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Snyder included about $930 million in cuts, according to analysis by the state Senate Fiscal Agency.
But that calculation did not account for “one-time” funding additions that totaled $455 million, including $100 per pupil for eligible districts and $288 million to fund teacher retirement costs. So that effectively reduces the spending cut to about $475 million.
A 2014 analysis by the House Fiscal Agency found that the minimum per pupil foundation allowance – that is, money that goes directly to school operations - fell from $7,146 in fiscal 2011 to $6,846 in fiscal 2012 – Snyder's first budget – before rising to $6,966 in fiscal 2013 and $7,251 in the current school year (a decline from 2011 when adjusted for inflation).
The HFA analysis notes there are several valid ways to measure a true investment in school funding. One is to exclude spending on teacher pensions, because it adds nothing to “general operations funding” that directly impacts classrooms. When measured that way, K-12 funding fell from $13.2 billion in fiscal 2011 to $12.9 billion in fiscal 2012, to $12.8 billion in fiscal 2013 and to $12.7 billion in fiscal 2014. But Snyder’s camp argues that investing money in teacher pensions relieves school districts from the requirement of doing so, and thus is a legitimate investment in education.
|The call:||No Foul|
Snyder accurately claims that spending for K-12 schools has increased since he submitted his first budget, and is now more than $1 billion higher than before he took office. But his boast ignores that gross spending on Michigan K-12 education in his first budget was down from the year before he took office. Per pupil spending in the classroom is also down from 2011, when adjusted for inflation. But the governor, like his challenger, avoids a foul for sticking with his own, narrow set of facts.
Pension tax hike
“We created a fairer system.”
In 2011, Snyder pushed for and the Legislature passed a bill that imposed a $1.4 billion increase in income tax that raised taxes on homeowners, low-income earners and those on pensions, and froze a scheduled drop in the income tax rate. Public pension income is not taxed for those born before 1946. Private pension income of up to $90,605 for joint filers also is exempt from the personal income tax. Those born between 1946 and 1952 receive exemptions of $40,000 for joint filers and $20,000 for single filers. All pensions income is taxed for those born after 1952. Snyder argued at the time that untaxed pensions were “shifting our tax burden on our kids.”
Schauer insisted the pension tax is an unfair burden on retirees as well as a jobs killer. Snyder portrays it as a more fair distribution of the tax burden.
|The call:||No Foul|
By increasing taxes on pensions, Snyder spread the overall tax burden more widely. But he also hiked taxes on low-income earners and homeowners. Whether or not that is “fairer” is too subjective to Truth Squad, and is for voters to judge.
“We've improved dramatically...We've come back hard.”
Michigan’s unemployment rate stood at 10.7 percent in January 2011, when Snyder took office. It was 7.4 percent in August, a considerable improvement. But that was tied for fifth-highest in the nation and well above the U.S. unemployment rate of 5.9 percent in September.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-farm payroll employment in Michigan was 3,907,000 in January 2011 when Snyder took office. It stood at 4,161,500 in July – an increase of 254,500. According to the state Department of Technology, Management, Technology and Budget, private employment in Michigan stood at 3,285,700 when Snyder took office in January 2011. It climbed to 3,544,500 in August – an increase of about 285,000.
Michigan has made a comeback, but still trails most of the country. Its unemployment rate is still well above the national average. But Snyder stayed clear of a foul here by focusing on the decline in the unemployment rate. We give him a warning because he claimed, among other things, that Michigan now has a lower unemployment rate than Georgia and Alabama. He’s right on Georgia, wrong on Alabama.
Cousin's state furniture contract
“That contract? My cousin is a distributor, and I think it’s somewhat disgusting that he’s impinging on a good person’s name.”
The state Democratic Party obtained emails showing that George Snyder, a cousin of Snyder and owner of DBI Office Interiors in Lansing, expressed worries in April 2011 to a top aide to the governor about legislation that could have lowered revenues to his company, which sells new office furniture to government agencies and had held contracts with the state before Snyder took office. In one email to Snyder aide Richard Baird, George Snyder wrote that he was “very upset and nervous” about a Senate bill that would have capped new state office furniture purchases at $1 million. Any amount above that would have required purchase of used furniture. Baird sent an email to then-state budget director John Nixon, telling Nixon of George Snyder’s concern and that George Snyder is “Gov. Snyder’s cousin.”
“We are on it,” Nixon replied.
When the emails were made public, Nixon said he already knew that George Snyder was the governor’s cousin when Baird mentioned it in an email, according to the Detroit Free Press. While Democrats said the emails revealed how insiders received special attention from Snyder’s office that was not available to ordinary folks, Nixon said the emails showed that Baird was trying to ward off a potential conflict of interest and assure that George Snyder did not get preferential treatment. According to MLive, the governor’s office also said state spending on furniture with DBI fell since Snyder took office, from $18.5 million in the three years before he took office to $17 million in the three years since the start of 2011.
|The call:||No Foul|
Though the emails show Snyder’s top aides jumping into action when the governor’s cousin emailed, there has been no definitive documentation that said cousin received preferential treatment.
Treasury department salary raises
“I want to be fair about (state investment officials). He (Schauer) said I gave huge raises to my officials. They’re civil-service employees, folks.”
In 2013, Michigan's chief investment officer, Jon Braeutigam received a 90 percent annual pay bump from $175,000 to $333,000. Other investment officials in the Treasury Department got pay hikes of 80 percent or more, boosting them to $233,000 a year. Administration officials said the hikes were needed to keep qualified people, while noting they are tasked with managing $70 billion in public funds. It’s also worth noting, as Snyder did, that the officials were civil servants — not Snyder appointees — and the pay hikes had to be approved by the bipartisan Civil Service Commission.
|The call:||No Foul|
Snyder did push for large salary hikes for these specialized investment officials. Again, voters can judge whether they are prudent increases for management of a sizable public fund or wasteful spending.
“In Michigan, we do fracking right...10,000 wells and we never had a problem.”
Some environmentalists might dispute that. Fracking, a drilling process in which large amounts of water, sand and chemicals are injected deep into wells at high pressure to extract natural gas deposits, is the suspect culprit for an incident in 2011 in which the north branch of the Manistee River nearly dried up. In 2013, energy company Halliburton used water from the Kalkaska Village municipal supply to frack a well. According to a report published in Bridge and MLive, residents Phyllis and Bernard Senske suddenly experienced a significant drop in water pressure, which exhausted their pump. Local environmental consultant Chris Grobbel inspected the Senskes’ well and concluded that it had sunk by 11 feet.
“I’m inclined to believe they drew way too much water out of the aquifer,” Phyllis told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
More fundamentally, the governor’s reference to 10,000 wells conflates the older method for fracking which used approximately 50,000 gallons of water, with the modern, deep-well method that can consume tens of millions of gallons of water in a single operation, presenting greater challenges and risks to the environment.
Technical reports issued by the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, whose research was enthusiastically supported by the governor, noted that it “can takes months to years for groundwater aquifers to replenish after large extractions.” The report also noted that “streams whose headwaters are shallow are particularly at risk during drought and low flow periods.”
The technical reports also identified problems with Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, including that Michigan was “not maintaining a registry” of the amount of water being withdrawn in hydraulic fracturing operations “in order to track the available water balance.”
|The call:||Regular Foul|
Snyder went too far when he said Michigan has “never had a problem” with fracking. It would have been one thing for the governor to note that we have never had water contamination from a chemical spill during the fracking process. It’s quite another to declare that Michigan has not no problems with modern fracking operations. There are ongoing scientific and environmental questions, and debates, on the long-term impact of hydraulic fracturing, which will require monitoring and leadership by the state for years to come.