Commentary
10:54 am
Fri May 6, 2011

Social Agenda

Former Michigan Governor John Engler is widely regarded as having been more conservative than Rick Snyder. And certainly, Snyder won the support last year of many prominent independents and even moderate Democrats who never would have voted for Engler.

Yet perceptions and reality aren't always the same thing. You might have expected what some people call the “radical right” to have had a field day imposing their social agenda on the state during the dozen years that John Engler was governor.

However, that mostly didn’t happen. Engler kept those folks pretty effectively bottled up. When they grumbled, he or his people would ask, “would you like a liberal Democrat in this office instead?”

In other words, push too hard, and you risk backlash. Now, nobody ever accused Engler of being stupid. He knew that while Michiganders can be induced to vote Republican, this is anything but a deep red state. There were three presidential elections during the Engler years; Democrats easily carried Michigan each time.

In between, John Engler was re-elected by astonishing landslides. Rick Snyder doesn’t seem to have a social agenda either, except perhaps not to wear ties when he doesn't have to.

Though he has said he is anti-abortion, he is an enthusiastic supporter of embryonic stem cell research. Otherwise, he seems totally focused on the economy. But his fellow Republicans in the legislature have other ideas. They have taken a number of actions that could possibly hurt their party and their governor in the long run.

Yesterday, for example, the House approved both the higher education and the elementary and high school education budgets.

The vote was close, in part because the cuts were too much for even six Republican members to support. But at the last minute, they slapped on another amendment punishing universities that allow benefits for unmarried partners. They can lose up to five percent of their funding.

State Representative David Agema said these benefits are “an extremely bad example to our youth,” and violate the section of the Michigan Constitution that says “religion, morality and knowledge” are necessary to good government.  Ironically, Mr. Agema’s own morality was questioned some years ago, when he skipped a crucial budget debate to go goat hunting in Siberia. But he also apparently doesn’t realize that this doesn’t apply only to gay couples.

At Wayne State University where I teach, unmarried people can cover others with whom they own a home, provided they pay for their coverage. But it could easily be an elderly parent, or someone of the opposite sex. If Agema’s amendment becomes law it is more likely to anger people than make them more moral, whatever that means.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Michigan Senate, prodded by business interests, want to make it illegal for the governor to issue environmental standards tougher than the federal ones.

Ironically, it was exactly thirty-five years ago that then-Governor Bill Milliken, himself a Republican, helped save Lake Erie by banning detergents with phosphates after the legislature refused to act.

Now, if Michigan Republicans are determined to do these things, they probably can. They have large majorities in both houses of the legislature. But that could change after next year‘s election.

Rick Snyder just might be wondering - where‘s John Engler when you really need him?