Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday outlined an ambitious agenda for his final year in office, including investment in roads, schools, the environment and workforce training.
But since he can’t run for re-election in November due to term limits, Snyder is also a lame duck ‒ a lame duck who finds himself at odds with fellow Republicans who want to cut taxes, not raise them, in an election year. And with many Democrats, who tie his legacy to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint’s drinking water and funding battles with universities and cities.
Bridge Magazine asked five political and business experts to weigh in on whether Snyder can accomplish his final year to-do list amid GOP tax-cut fever and the Legislature’s reluctance to tackle major legislation in an election year. Besides the governor’s office, all 148 seats in the House and Senate are up for grabs in November.
Snyder’s proposal: The largest increase in per-student school funding in 15 years.
Michigan’s base per-student funding level this year is slightly more than $7,600, though the amount school districts receive varies across the state. Two studies recommended the state increase its minimum funding.
Snyder on Tuesday noted that recent reforms to teacher pension systems have made more money available to spend on public school operations. He said the exact amount of his funding increase would be announced with his budget presentation in February.
Why it’s likely: “I would file that under promises made, promises kept, because when we were making some really tough decisions during the early part of [Snyder’s] administration, he always said that putting more money back into schools was a priority of his,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “He spent a lot of political capital kind of dealing with the teacher pension issue. I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for that. … But he meant what he said.”
Why it’s unlikely: “I hope he’s able to find the money to do this,” said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, an organization that advocates for policies helping Michigan’s vulnerable residents. “I hope the Legislature will look to experts and not be driven philosophically by what they think, as opposed to what (researchers) have proven.”
Expert consensus: Panelists agreed that school funding is more in the Legislature’s court than the governor’s, considering that lawmakers have to approve Snyder’s budget. A majority of the experts expect some increase in school funding.
Snyder’s proposal: More money in the 2019 budget for roads.
Snyder signed a $1.2 billion road-funding package in 2015 after a tax increase ballot proposal overwhelmingly failed among statewide voters. The legislation that passed gets half of its funding from new revenue in increases to the state’s gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees. The rest will be diverted to roads from the roughly $10 billion general fund by 2021.
Snyder said he will propose even more funding for roads in his 2019 budget proposal next month, though he did not disclose how much.
Why it’s likely: The stage has been set for an increase in state infrastructure spending across the country, said Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. A White House infrastructure proposal leaked earlier this week indicates heavier reliance on state and private-sector commitments, so an increase in spending in Michigan “is a move that interacts with what’s going on at the federal level,” Grossmann said.
Why it’s unlikely: “My gut tells me: A governor in his last year, transportation funding has been so controversial, everyone’s up for re-election this year — that’s a tough one,” said Baruah, whose chamber has said the 2015 road-funding package was inadequate.
Expert consensus: Mixed: This issue could get bipartisan support, but Michigan has had a difficult time in the past generating money for roads.
Snyder’s proposal: A major talent initiative that seeks to better prepare Michigan workers for higher-paying, 21st-Century careers.
Snyder said he plans to roll out his plan in February, which he says would “prepare Michigan students to invent the future” by making them more eligible for jobs in the tech industry.
Snyder’s office has included few details on the proposal. Crain’s Detroit Business first reported information released as part of Detroit’s unsuccessful bid for Amazon.com’s second headquarters project, which included student scholarships for computer science and information technology; teacher training; child care for children of information technology workers; and grants for high schools, colleges and universities to add more courses and develop curricula.
Why it’s likely: “Once the Republicans understand how important this is to our economic growth, I’m hoping that this will kind of get some traction,” Baruah said. “I’m hoping that our experience with Amazon is kind of a wake-up call for folks to take these issues seriously.”
Why it’s unlikely: The state’s ability to draw and keep college-educated millennials is a weak spot, said John Chamberlin, a professor emeritus of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan. Snyder didn’t even mention higher education funding during his speech, which could be a key factor to boosting Michigan’s talent pool.
“I think he’ll probably have a list of things we can do to improve and I don’t see where the money’s going to come from,” Chamberlin said. “I don’t see the Legislature being eager to jump into that.”
Expert consensus: Without knowing the specifics of the proposal, it’s hard to say what might come of it. Panelists agreed that talent remains one of the state’s biggest hurdles, and should be one of its biggest priorities.
Snyder’s proposal: Protecting the Great Lakes from invasive species, including Asian carp.
Snyder said his administration has been working on a partnership agreement with other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces on how to invest in barriers to the Asian carp at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet, Ill.
Details were scarce, though Snyder took Washington to task for dragging its feet: “Enough is enough. If the federal government isn’t going to do it … then let’s get together as Michiganders and invest where we need to, to protect the Great Lakes.”
Why it’s likely: “These are all issues nobody disagrees with,” said John Truscott, president of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman, which focuses on public policy. “If we’re discussing them, you can get to a solution.”
Why it’s unlikely: With any spending proposal, a decrease in spending somewhere else will come later, Grossmann said. “I thought the Asian carp moment was a little strange because I don’t consider it a threat to the federal government to say, ‘If the federal government doesn’t give us the money, we’ll spend it ourselves,’” he said. “But it will be interesting to see if there’s a multi-state initiative to make up for federal shortfalls there.”
Expert consensus: There’s statewide support for environmental initiatives, but Michigan can’t act in a vacuum. Whether other states or the federal government will join with Snyder this year remains to be seen.
Snyder’s proposal: Preserving his legacy of fiscal responsibility.
Snyder, an accountant, built his administration around the idea of fiscally responsible government. He has set aside more money for the state’s rainy-day fund and urged lawmakers to adopt balanced budgets in June, before many school districts and municipalities begin their fiscal years in July.
But tax-cut fever has gripped some GOP legislators, who say the state’s economy has grown enough and the state has enough of a surplus to be able to lower residents’ income tax burden. While Snyder is interested in adjusting Michigan’s taxes after December’s tax reforms in Washington, he has criticized fellow Republicans who control the state House and Senate for proposing deeper cuts that aren’t paid for.
Why it’s likely: Snyder has the track record to make changes in his last year, Truscott said. “Michigan was a financial disaster when [Snyder] took office and he got things headed back on the right path,” he said, but added the Legislature’s short-term goals will likely make financial responsibility a challenge.
Why it’s unlikely: “I don’t think there is the appetite in the Legislature to increase taxes, but the appetite to cut taxes continues to be there, and I think that is a a very unhealthy road for us to go down,” Jacobs said.
Grossmann suggested lawmakers will be hell bent on cutting taxes this year, rather than focusing on the future. “It’s always dangerous to count on politicians that are up for re-election this year to sacrifice immediate wins for longer-term budget stability,” Grossmann said.
Expert consensus: While Snyder wants lawmakers to take a long-term view of the state’s finances, interest in election-year tax cuts among GOP legislators will make it difficult to prioritize such things as infrastructure and education spending, which Baruah bemoans. “In order to succeed as a society, to succeed as a state, there are things that we need to do that, unfortunately, just cost money,” he said.