Commentary
9:12 am
Fri December 23, 2011

Michigan's Governor makes a misstep on benefits to the unmarried domestic partners

Politically speaking, this has been the year of Rick Snyder. Since he first burst on the scene two years ago, he has had an astonishing run of success. The experts said a self-proclaimed “nerd” without any political experience couldn’t possibly win the nomination for governor, much less the general election.

 When he did both, they said the new kid would fall on his face in the rough-and-tumble world of Lansing. Instead, he got more significant legislation enacted in a few short months than his predecessor had in eight years.

 The legislature agreed to tax pensions, enact a revolution in the way business taxes are levied, pass a tough new emergency manager law and essentially drop all restrictions on charter schools. His only significant setback was over approval of a  new bridge to Canada -- and by year’s end, there were clear signals that he might go around the lawmakers to get that done.

 Democrats whined about much of this, and the governor?s  approval ratings fell, but the truth is that all this made him stronger. Democrats have neither an obvious leader, nor any alternative program, and Snyder shrewdly avoided either unnecessarily antagonizing unions, or divisive social issues.

 Until now. Yesterday, he signed a piece of legislation that is sure to lose him the support of not only gay voters, but the university community, and a lot of moderate Michiganders. 

 This was, of course, the bill banning the extension of health and other benefits to the unmarried domestic partners of state employees. The governor’s office said this was all about addressing ‘the spiraling costs of health care and other post-retirement benefits,
“ to state employees. But that’s really nonsense.

 This was essentially a gay-bashing measure. Not all those covered are gay, but the Christian right doesn’t much like sanctioning unmarried heterosexual relationships either. The real problem here is that this legislation is virtually guaranteed to cost the state more in legal fees than it saves. The ACLU is clearly preparing a lawsuit, for one thing.

 But the greater problem is the state’s universities, which are autonomous under the Michigan constitution. The law is ambiguous about whether it applies to university employees. Governor Snyder first said he wouldn’t sign it if it did. When he did sign it, he proclaimed that it did not apply to people employed by universities or the partners of state civil service workers.

  But there are plenty of other people who think it does, including many of the Republican legislators who voted for it, especially in the house. Within hours, anti-gay activists were demanding the attorney general render an opinion.

 University presidents began to proclaim they intend to continue offering benefits anyway. Court challenges are sure to follow next year, which the governor is likely to regard as a distraction from his main agenda. Now, he could have avoided all this by sending the law back and saying he needed it to specifically exempt university employees. But he didn’t, and so may have created a ‘relentless negative distraction.’ Here’s something John Engler and Brooks Patterson could have told him: When you make it about economics, the GOP often wins elections in Michigan. When you make it about social issues, they don’t. This story is unlikely to soon fade away.