It's Just Politics

Mondays at 8:50 AM

Politics can be messy. Politics can be confusing. But, that certainly doesn't mean politics can't be a joy-ride. Join It's Just Politics hosts Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta Monday mornings on Morning Edition as they drill down on what’s happening in Michigan politics.

Rick and Zoe tell us how the game of politics is not only fun and thrilling, but has a real impact on the policy-making that affects all of us.

Want to know what's really going on inside the state Capitol building? Or, why your lawmaker really voted the way they did? They've got the answers... and much more.

It's Just Politics – every Monday morning at 8:50 am on Michigan Radio.

Rick Pluta has covered Michigan government and politics since 1987. His first big Michigan political story was the brutal GOP presidential primary battle that pitted Vice President George H.W. Bush against former Congressman Jack Kemp and televangelist Pat Robertson. That battle spawned two competing state political conventions and the now-famous “I Survived the 1988 Michigan Republican Delegate Selection Process” t-shirt. He would pay money now that he did not pay then to get one. He collects political pins - a professional side hobby that’s hit the skids as cost-conscious campaigns have taken a tragic turn toward stickers. He is an excellent parallel parker. 

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s resident political junkie. She fell in love with all things political when she was eight years old and begged her parents to let her stay up late to follow the 1992 presidential election returns. No way, they said. But she did convince them to wake her up when the race was called. (Which they did.) It was her job to wake up early for four years as the producer of Morning Edition on Michigan Radio. Now, in addition to being Michigan Radio’s resident political junkie, Zoe is the executive producer of the daily news-magazine Stateside and oversees interviews on All Things Considered. She is a better parallel parker than Rick.

Follow Rick on Twitter at @rickpluta and Zoe at @ZoeMelina

This week on "It’s Just Politics," we’re talking scandals, or at least, perceived scandals. In D.C., at the White House, the Obama administration is dealing with the Benghazi emails, the IRS alleged targeting of certain Tea Party groups and the Department of Justice investigating the phone records of journalists.

Scandals: They have the ability to alter the political landscape. Watergate, a national scandal so profound that all subsequent national scandals of any note get “-gate” attached to them.

Back in 1993, here in Michigan, there was the House Fiscal Agency scandal. Some agency employees were caught using what was kind of a petty cash account for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with their jobs. The long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee lost his job and people went to prison. It gave Republicans a bump in the next election; winning control of the state House after two years of evenly shared power with the Democrats.

Sufficient to say, scandals can change elections. We are in an era where elections are nationalized. So here we are, going into a presidential mid-term race in 2014 and, as we've talked about before on "It’s Just Politics," mid-term elections are seldom kind to the party in the White House. Here in Michigan, that puts Democrats on defense as they’re hoping to notch some major victories come November 2014.

Democrats are being given the edge in keeping the U.S. Senate seat that Carl Levin is vacating. And in the gubernatorial race, former Democratic Congressmen Mark Schauer, who's hasn't officially announced he’s in the race yet, is running even with Governor Snyder, according to some very early polling from EPIC MRA.

This week’s It’s Just Politics deserves a little running music (we’re thinking the theme to Chariots of Fire would fit well) because we’re looking at who’s in, who’s out, who’s thinking of getting in and who’s thinking about who’s thinking about getting in when it comes to Election 2014.

This week Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced he’s out; won’t seek another term as Mayor. He delivered this lengthy apologia that seemed about as long as the entire Bing administration to the people who had to sit through it before he made the big announcement. In journalism, we call that burying the lead. There was some question as to whether Mayor Bing could actually win reelection, but clearly this breaks open that race. Twenty two people running, the biggest slate in almost two decades.

The candidates getting the most attention are Mike Duggan, former Detroit Medical Center CEO and Wayne County problem-solver, and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. The other candidates are in a race right now to make themselves the top alternative should one or both of them falter. Kind of like what we saw last year in the Republican presidential primary as it seemed like a different candidate every month became the alternative to Mitt Romney.

So, we have this big race for Detroit mayor, while the filing deadline for Michigan’s big statewide races – governor and U.S. senator – is still a year away. We’re at that weird stage of the gubernatorial race. Let’s start with Rick Snyder, who says he’s not ready to announce that he’s running but, really, he’s running. “I’m not formally announcing anything. I’m honored to be governor. And I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to do over the next few years,” Snyder said this week.

Welcome to our “Anatomy of a Kerfuffle” edition of "It’s Just Politics." This week: a throw-down between Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger and state House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel. It culminated in the speaker yanking eight Democrats off their legislative committees. This was a big deal, a really unprecedented move and a classic example of the principle: it is better to be feared than loved.

This week on It’s Just Politics, we delve into a secret project dubbed “skunk works.” The name means a project done in secret, usually to get something complex or controversial done quickly, without getting mucked up in organizational bureaucracy.

Skunkworks: A History

The name is actually trademarked by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. Lockheed’s Skunk Works was created to handle aircraft projects that needed to be wrapped up quickly during World War II. Now, jump ahead almost 70 years, and it was revealed last week by The Detroit News that Michigan has recently had its own skunk works project. But this time: education rather than aircrafts.

Skunkworks Closer to Home

The group involved members of Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and was led by Richard McLellan, a well-known attorney in Lansing known as a Republican deal-maker and conjurer of political plots.

Governor Snyder had already asked McLellan to devise a plan to revamp Michigan’s school funding system. But Skunkworks was a separate operation. This plan was to create a string of low-cost charter schools authorized by a tribal community college with statewide reach. The group involved in the plan did not include the education lobby – teachers’ unions, administrators and school boards.

McLellan was the one who tagged the project “skunk works" (a name we’re pretty sure he has come to regret) and in an email that was leaked to The Detroit News, he details what the project was about. Education lobbyists saw this as a plot to undercut them and create a new pipeline of charters competing for school funding. These schools would be middle and high schools, something that would be ground-breaking as charter operators typically don’t run middle and high schools. That’s because they tend to be more expensive than elementary schools (they have to pay for things like chemistry labs and big gyms).

Education Lobby None Too Pleased

When the Lansing education lobby found about this – they cried foul at not being part of the discussions, especially ones involving people so close to the governor. One of Governor Snyder’s political brands has always been the ‘hands-on CEO” so, it’s interesting to note that the governor distanced himself from the group pretty quickly after it was made public.

This week's It's Just Politics is all about the politics of gas taxes; there’s a turbo-charged effort this week at the state Capitol to pull together a transportation funding package that will most likely include some kind of increase in the gas tax. Governor Snyder continues to say that he wants at least $1.2 billion dollars more in annual transportation funding. And, even though everyone seems to agree that Michigan’s roads are in dire condition… not everyone can agree on how to pay for the repairs.

It is a complicated state of affairs. Everybody hates the disease. But no one likes the cure: more money for infrastructure. That’s a good reason why the gas tax hasn’t been increased in Michigan since 1996, under then-Governor John Engler.

It’s not as simple as just raising the state gas tax (which is currently 19 cents per gallon). As we know, raising taxes is not typically part of the recipe for reelection, and every House member and state Senator who is not term-limited is up for reelection in November 2014, along with Governor Snyder.

Dealing with this road funding conundrum is complicated by the fact that we pay a lot of different taxes at the pump. There’s the state gas tax and the federal gas tax. We also pay the state sales tax, which goes to schools and local governments. It doesn’t pay for roads. That’s why a lot of people want to either exempt fuel sales from the sales tax or turn a portion of it over to road funding. But that’s a problem because then you’re taking a billion dollars from schools and local governments, both of which are not feeling a lot of love from Lansing lately. So, cut the sales tax from the cost of buying fuel and you’ve suddenly got yourself a new (billion-dollar) problem.

Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

We really hadn’t heard much about referendum-proofing since back in December and the Legislature’s now-infamous “lame duck” session. But the wait is over. We now have a new controversy and a new referendum-proofed bill before the state Senate which could be voted on as early as next week.

We’ve talked about referendum-proofing before on It’s Just Politics, it’s when the Legislature wants to make sure a controversial bit of business can’t be reversed by voters using the referendum, lawmakers put a little spending in it. That makes the legislation an appropriation, and to protect the full faith and credit of the state, the Michigan Constitution says that’s the only kind of law that can’t be challenged by a referendum.

Referendum-proofing has been going on for a long time but, it’s really picked up steam in the last three years. The Republican-majority ruled state Legislature now regularly makes its controversial work immune to referendums – the repeal of the item pricing law, the income tax on pensions, and the controversial right to work law, just to name a few.

Strangely, the Legislature did not referendum-proof the first emergency manager law it passed in the last session, and after voters rejected it last November, turned around and passed a new emergency manager law with a referendum-proofing appropriation in it.

We’re more than a year away from the next statewide election – November 2014 – but, we’re already seeing plenty of hand-wringing among Republicans and Democrats over who will run for statewide offices.

Success for Democrats will depend a lot on voters in an off-presidential year. They need to hit or come close to hitting the 62 percent turnout – about 7.5 million voters across the state - that was part of the Democrats’ winning formula last year.

Republicans meanwhile, want to – need to – alter their message to capture a bigger share of whoever turns out without adulterating their values on gay marriage, affirmative action.

So that’s the backdrop as both parties try to sort out who will run. There’s no shortage of Republicans interested in that Senate seat that’s open because Carl Levin is retiring. There’s a sense that Congressman Mike Rogers could clear the field if he decides to run. We're not totally convinced that’s the case. An open Senate seat in Michigan is pretty rare. There’s some early, somewhat conflicting polling on this.

Pages