Michigan profits from Snyder's long view

Broad agreement has been reached on the last of the budget bills, and the Legislature will soon adjourn. The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mackinac Island policy conference has come and gone. Summer, in other words, is almost here, a blessed pause before the noisy chaos of the fall’s political campaigns.

So this may be a good moment to step back and reflect on Gov. Rick Snyder’s first 18 months in office.

Conventional wisdom says his first year was a terrific success: Balanced budgets, delivered on time. He changed the tax environment; got a tougher new emergency manager system approved, together with a raft of reforms in local government. The business climate improved. This year, however, the same “wisdom” holds that things were different, that the governor had lessened momentum and increased difficulties in dealing with the Legislature.

That perception is understandable. But the difficulty with conventional wisdom is that it’s very often focused on the news of the day. There often is a big difference between today’s headline and a long-term trend. This is aggravated by the remorseless short-term of two groups: politicians, whose planning horizons are typically about 18 minutes; and the media, which are generally preoccupied with the next edition, broadcast or, worst of all, this moment’s  “tweet.”

In my mind, what distinguishes Snyder’s time in office so far is his emphasis on putting long-term thinking over the daily hurly-burly.

Take just two examples:

First, the drive to build a new Detroit River bridge. The New International Trade Crossing is generally regarded as one of Snyder’s failures, with Ambassador Bridge monopoly owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun scattering millions in campaign donations far and wide, and, so far, preventing legislative approval.

But it now looks as though the governor will get his bridge through a device called an “interlocal agreement,” which will enable him to get around legislators unwilling to vote against Moroun’s hand that has been feeding them.

Snyder has never wavered in his focus on the bridge (and, more generally, Michigan’s infrastructure) as a long-term game changer for our state. A new bridge, coupled with ideas to make Southeast Michigan into a multimodal logistics powerhouse, will, over the years, generate thousands and thousands of jobs and help diversify our manufacturing-based economy.

If this all comes together, it will be hard to overstate how significant these developments will be to our state’s future.

The governor hasn’t prevailed yet. But he already deserves credit for understanding that fundamental changes don’t happen overnight and take careful, consistent effort.

The second example of our governor’s effectiveness: Wisconsin.

This issue is equally interesting, for it offers an example of Snyder knowing when NOT to do something. This week, cheese state residents decide whether to recall Scott Walker, the Republican governor who really took it to organized labor and polarized politics in a swing state that used to be regarded as a good example of sensible give-and-take between the parties. Whether Walker survives or not, this has been a paralyzing and expensive distraction.

The Republican tide of 2010 put both Snyder and Walker into office. Snyder could easily have decided on an extreme agenda,  pushing, for example, anti-union “Right to Work” legislation. But he didn’t. He repeatedly says war with organized labor isn’t in his plans.

That may have made GOP flame-throwers unhappy, but it has assured a modicum of civility in Michigan politics … and avoided what would look a lot like World War III in a state that can’t afford it. (For the record, it’s important to note that neither organized labor nor Democrats think of Snyder as a bipartisan moderate. But if recent polls are to be believed, many Michiganders have a generally positive impression of Snyder as a person.)

I could point to lots of other examples of Snyder’s long-term thinking. What sensible politician speaks favorably about immigration in these days of unemployment and immigrant-bashing? Well, Snyder has -- repeatedly. His support for the emergency financial manager law gives communities and school districts the ability to clean up financial messes before they result in catastrophe.

Snyder even mentioned at Mackinac Island that he is pondering budget and financial issues as far out as 2050!

Much has been made about Snyder not being a “conventional” politician. In my mind, his emphasis on the long run -- and his disinclination to fall prey to short-term thinking -- is what separates him from most politicians. That habit of mind may cause him trouble among the political class -- not to mention the media.

But if he keeps it up, it’s more likely than not to benefit our state.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Mike Ritenour
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:12am
I have shown by my comments in response to Phil's and others in this space that I disagree vehemently with Governor Snyder on many issues. But Phil is correct when he gives credit to Mr. Snyder for long-term thinking in those two areas. I agree we should applaud the Governor for standing up to the self-serving radical right in declining to start a completely unnecessary, ideologically motivated, scorched-earth war to crush unions once and for all. And I give him great credit for his persistence in seeking to thwart the monopoly the Morouns are bent on perpetuating to the detriment of everyone else. I think it is important, however, to emphasize the ironic fact that both examples are laudable precisely because they are NOT aligned with Republican or Neo-Con ideology. They stand out like beacons of light in the otherwise dark cloud of meanness, bigotry, and greed spewing from the current majority in the legislature. Whatever we may think of the rest of his agenda, we need to support Rick Snyder when he tries to do the right thing and stand against the worst elements of his own party.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:58am
I agree on the issues you've cited, but he's been indirectly taking credit for Obama's support to the states so it balances out. His near elimination of the earned income credit for the working poor while cutting taxes to businesses that publicly said they won't hire until demand, not tax incentives increase, shows how out-of-touch he is from those that are struggling.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 2:08pm
Mr. Power has given long-term planning its proper place of importance and I appreciate how he has been specific on what is long-term and how they Governor is applying that. I encourage the added detail and the breaking with the topic of the moment, and this type of article is a good prespective that should give each of us a pause to consider.