The Governor and the Budget

Feb 10, 2012

Yesterday, while everyone was focusing on the details of  Governor Snyder’s budget proposal, I was struck instead by something Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley said about it.

The state needs to “resist the temptation to go back to the old way because the old way did not serve us well.” And it’s impossible to disagree with that, whatever your politics or ideology.

Cast your mind back to the dreadful budget wars of the Granholm administration, when nearly every year we saw bitterly partisan battles which occupied the legislature for months, threatened government with shutdown, and resulted in unthinking, last minute solutions harmful to everyone.

Governor Snyder has had the benefit of something his predecessor never did -- his party controls both houses of the legislature. But he also has a vision and an agenda, and is sticking to it. The proof lies in the fact that both his state of the state speech and his budget itself were, well, pretty boring compared to last year.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the old Chinese saying that the greatest curse was the wish that your enemy lived in “interesting times.“  Not that these times aren’t interesting enough.

Michigan lost more than eight hundred thousand jobs in the first decade of this century, and the mechanism that will replace them all is nowhere in sight. We have plenty of challenges, but we’re coming out of chaos, and whether you agree with it or not, the governor has a coherent vision and a plan for achieving it.

That plan includes a small increase in higher education funding, one strategically calibrated to reward those institutions that keep tuition increases low and emphasize those degrees this administration sees as most important, mainly, in science, technology and health. Schools that have high graduation rates are rewarded. Those that don’t, such as Wayne State, will be punished.

Democrats predictably criticized the governor’s budget, but without as much partisan venom as in some years. Indeed, State Board of Education President John Austin sounded more complimentary than critical. Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer was less so, especially when it comes to education funding. Democrats actually do have an intriguing proposal, what they call the Michigan 2020 plan, that consists of offering Michigan students free college tuition by eliminating billions in corporate tax cuts and loopholes.

This proposal doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in August of making it through the Republican-controlled legislature, but is worth considering. Governor Snyder doesn’t have to worry about Democrats during this budget cycle, however. He does have to worry about his fellow Republicans. His real challenge comes in two areas.

We desperately need to improve our roads, and the governor this year has a second proposal to find the money and get it done, mainly by increasing the gas tax. But Republican lawmakers in the house are all up for election this year, and they may not be willing to do it. And there’s the proposal for the new bridge across the Detroit River, which would, despite an avalanche of false advertising, would mean billions for the state. Snyder’s biggest challenger may be to get his fellow Republicans to enact key parts of his vision. With the national election as backdrop, this should be fascinating to watch.