The debate over social issues during a budget crunch

Mar 31, 2011

Governor Rick Snyder says he wants controversial social questions to take a back seat to taxes and job-creation. He says to do otherwise could create intense debates that enflame passions and sideline his efforts to fix Michigan’s economy.

But that has not stopped some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. They say GOP control of state government makes this the moment to tackle controversies surrounding abortion, gun control, illegal immigration, and medical marijuana.

Governor Rick Snyder meets up with his inner nerd every morning as he checks an electronic application that reminds him how much time is left before the budget deadline he set for the Legislature—May 31st.:

 “All I have to do is turn on my iPad and it shows me how many days and hours are left, and how many seconds…”

Snyder says he is singularly focused on completing the budget before that time on his iPad runs out. He has proposed massive cuts and tax reforms that would affect the budget. He says right now that should be the focus of everyone’s energy at the state Capitol. He’s finding some people – including Republicans – disagree. State Senator Rick Jones is one of those Republicans:

 “My job is looking at other issues that concern Michiganders."

Jones says the Legislature is working very hard on Snyder’s budget proposals and goals. But he says that does not mean lawmakers cannot and should not also work on social issues. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he recently took up and voted on a controversial abortion bill that is already covered by federal law. And he sponsored a measure that would add rules to the use of medical marijuana. Jones:

“The issues we take up, are issues where I could walk into any coffee shop in my district and the vast majority agree that it’s something we need to address."

Rick Thomas of Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine testified against Jones’ medical marijuana bill. He says lawmakers need to stop meddling in controversial social issues and focus on the budget:

“This is a distraction from real problems. This does not address real problems. And this bill offers no solutions. Where is the danger to society? There is none. Why is this issue being addressed at this time? It is inappropriate.”

Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, says:

“Contrary to public perception, legislators are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time… But I would say the danger in taking up a lot of social legislation is not so much whether you can do both, technically, at the same time, it’s whether some of these social, cultural issues will enflame passions of various politicians in the legislature in such a way that it can complicate and compromise an effort to reach a consensus on the budget. The budget is going to be hard enough to put together by itself.”

Ballenger is a former state lawmaker. He says if he were still in the Legislature, his recommendation would be to wait on social issues until the budget is complete.

State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says that is what he would like to do:

 “If we really want to get into social spending and how we help people here in Michigan with those programs, we have to make sure the economy is set first.”

Richardville says there’s a lot to get done – a budget with a $1.5 billion dollar deficit, tax reform and unfunded pension liabilities. Many lawmakers say that list alone makes it doubtful they can meet the May 31st deadline. Richardville:

 “Whatever we do, if we get done in the month of June, I consider that an over performance. So if there’s time, in the end of June, we may take them up then. But we have to be ready to take them up if we do.”

As part of his budget-balancing proposal, Governor Snyder wants the Legislature to reverse an employment panel’s decision to allow unmarried state workers to claim their live-in partners on their benefit plans. The governor says it’s all about the numbers – the state can’t afford it right now. But the Civil Service Commission adopted the policy because it’s the only way the state can cover same-sex couples who cannot legally get married in Michigan. So no matter what, it appears Snyder cannot elude social controversies.