Gov. Rick Snyder’s quest to reinvent Michigan apparently won’t be extended to his own Republican Party.
Given the chance to confirm the suspicions of cultural conservatives that he’s a different kind of Republican far more concerned with rebuilding the economy than deploying government force to advance a social agenda, Snyder punted at the end of 2011.
But signing into law House Bill 4770’s ban on providing health insurance and other fringe benefits to the domestic partners of public employees will invite only more litmus tests in 2012, whether the governor wants them on his desk or not.
As he did with the 2012 budget, Snyder sought to protect universities from legislative intrusion by asserting, in a signing statement, that the law didn’t apply to the University of Michigan, which lobbied against the bill, and the other 14 constitutionally autonomous campuses.
So, Snyder managed to mollify House and Senate Republicans who unanimously voted for the measure. And he limits the damage to his standing among a shrinking base of moderates in the Michigan GOP who have been in retreat on social issues for decades.
He may soon find himself in similar situations in 2012.
Last week, a row of well-known GOP social conservatives filed House Bill 5240, which requires school districts to include "civic heritage" principles of limited government, low taxes and gun rights in their curricula. School districts would have the option of posting the Ten Commandments or other religious documents, in the context of other historical documents.
HB 5240 also would order school boards to ensure "each pupil in each public school ... is required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance." The legislative sponsors so concerned with historical documents seem to have forgotten, however, a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that stated students had the right under the First Amendment's free speech clause not to recite the pledge or salute the flag.
History also was in play on partner benefits. HB 4770 of 2011, of course, is a defense of the successful 2004 ballot issue that defined marriage, or an “other similar union,” as an agreement strictly limited to one man and one woman.
Gay marriage was the stated target of that 2004 measure. When asked at the time whether the amendment could be subject to a broader legal interpretation, backers either expressed public doubts or said the courts would ultimately decide.
Helpfully for them, opponents of gay marriage had both an attorney general and a Michigan Supreme Court majority that took an expansive view of the amendment’s meaning. So, today in Michigan, until voters are given an opportunity to decide otherwise, gay marriage is out -- and so are civil unions that provide the legal benefits of marriage. The 5-2 decision in 2005 by the Supreme Court made that clear in a demonstration of how deceptively simple constitutional language can achieve the political aims of its authors with the aid of like-minded courts.
In response, universities, school districts, municipalities and the Michigan Civil Service Commission enacted policies that extended benefits to partners whether they were of the same sex or not. But this, too, Republican lawmakers said, was a violation of the state constitution and an affront to what they say -- without evidence -- voters intended in 2004. Their response: HB 4770, and Snyder's signature.
But protecting voter intent apparently doesn’t extend to embryonic stem cell research, which voters authorized by an even bigger margin than the gay marriage ban.
In 2012, conservatives will once again seek to impose reporting requirements on university research in the higher education appropriations bill. Snyder said those requirements were unenforceable during the negotiations to form this year's budget; presumably he will say so again.
Note that in both the stem-cell and partner benefit debates, Snyder has couched his position not on whether the Legislature was making the right policy for the state, but only on whether lawmakers have the right to tell university administrators how to run their schools.
So in endorsing the tactics of social conservatives, while attempting to limit their impact on economic assets such as a University of Michigan that competes with Columbia University for talent, Snyder is able to avoid taking sides in the culture war.
We know what side the Republican Party is nationally on this conflict. Every candidate for president this cycle, including Mitt Romney, endorses a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage that would override the laws in states where it’s now legal, New York among them.
According to data compiled by Nate Silver at the New York Times, 67 percent of those who cast votes for Republican congressional candidates in 2010 identified themselves as conservative, 33 percent viewed themselves as moderate or liberal. In 1998 it was 51 percent conservative, 49 percent moderate or liberal.
The numbers are likely the same in Michigan, so however moderate Snyder may or may not be -- or however moderate moderates want him to be -- the Republicans who voted for him were a lot more conservative than those who gave John Engler a third term in 1998.
That’s the political reality. Too bad it appears to have won out over policy.
The disappointment is Snyder booted an opportunity to say that -- short-term or in the long run -- political efforts that signal a class of individuals is unwanted is not only wrong on its face, but terrible 21st century economics.
Detroit is never going to be Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. Its competition is Seattle, a proud industrial city that transformed itself into a global center of technology. It’s one of the places Michigan university graduates head for the day after they get their diplomas.
Two weeks after Snyder signed HB 4770, the governor in Washington state, Democrat Gov. Christine Gregoire, announced legislation to legalize gay marriage.
“We need to ask ourselves, how would it feel, how would it feel to be a child of a gay couple? How can we tell those children that their parents’ love is seen as unequal under Washington law and that their families are different?” she said. “We must tell these children and their families that they’re every bit as equal and important as any other family in Washington state.”
Is Snyder in agreement with that statement? The bill he just signed -- the bill that frames the context for more social issue battles in 20112 -- certainly isn’t.