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Michigan’s ‘tough nerd’ faces tougher test
Governor-elect faces ‘the worst’
LANSING, Mich. | The nation’s bumper crop of 10 Republican governors-elect, still basking in the afterglow of their victories, are already facing a reality check. And the reality facing incoming Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a one-time computer executive in his first elective office, may be as tricky as any in the country.
Mr. Snyder and the 2010 class of new Republican chief executives inherit a full slate of problems, with little help likely from a cash-strapped federal government. The game plan — make that new congressional war plan — of Washington’s energized Republicans begins with spending less, not more.
“In a good economy, being a governor is the best job in the world,” said analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “In a bad economy, it’s the worst.”
Few places are hurting more than the Midwest, where Democrats suffered major reverses in the midterm vote. But there is no time to gloat for the Republican victors. With high unemployment, upside-down state budgets and struggling state economies, these novice governors’ jubilant swearing-in ceremonies may quickly give way to sinking “now what?” moments.
In Michigan, where Mr. Snyder, a self-described “tough nerd” from Ann Arbor, handily defeated his labor-backed Democratic opponent, Virg Bernero, the incoming governor’s website admonishment — “We can’t just fix it, we have to reinvent Michigan” — may prove a titanic task.
The 13 percent jobless rate is second only to Nevada’s among the states, and Lansing is coping with a decadelong budget crisis. The auto industry is on the rebound, but cannot be relied upon to rebuild the battered tax base in the near term. Progress, even for one with the MBA moxie of a corporate executive like Mr. Snyder, may be glacial.
“Michigan has not just had a depression. Our wage and salary employment has declined for 10 consecutive years,” said Doug Roberts, a former state treasurer who now serves as the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“We’re being strangled here. Slowly. We’re about to lose consciousness.”
Yet Mr. Roberts also said he thought the governor-elect, who comes into office with no political baggage or debts to the powerful state unions, may enjoy a honeymoon because of the palpable desire for a new way ahead. People want their Michigan back, he said, a once-prosperous place where close-knit generations stayed close to home rather than fled the state for steady work and a stable future.
Giving the new governor a boost was the GOP sweep of the statehouse races, expanding their majority in the Michigan Senate and taking over as the majority in the state House. The sweep means easier sailing for Mr. Snyder’s signature campaign proposal - an overhaul of the state’s tax system, including a $1.5 billion cut in the state’s widely criticized business tax.
“I think he’s got a great chance at a successful first year,” Mr. Roberts said. “Even Democrats seems ready for change and willing to cede a joint way forward.”
Already, Mr. Snyder has opened the door to bipartisanship, appointing outgoing Democratic Speaker of the House Andy Dillon as the state’s treasurer. Mr. Dillon, a lawyer and moderate who lost his own primary bid for governor, once ran Detroit Steel Co. and earned a reputation as a corporate turnaround specialist.
Along with Mr. Dillon, Mr. Snyder recruited former Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus as senior adviser. Mr. Posthumus, who served in the administration of former GOP Gov. John Engler, knows the state legislature well and could bridge the gap for a new administration bent on bold change.
“It’s a wise choice, knowing that he needed someone who knew the legislature to get things done,” said Ms. Duffy. “I don’t believe [Mr. Snyder] fundamentally thinks he’s going to change government there, but he’s going to try to get things done.”
She added, “His road may be a little bit easier because Michigan has been hurting so long that voters really want to deal very seriously with it. I think they are going to give him room to try.”
Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, called the appointment of Mr. Dillon a “potential masterstroke” that shows the new governor is living up to his promise of inclusivity in Lansing. He said Mr. Snyder and Mr. Dillon offer bipartisan credibility to the wary private sector in the state.
Complicating Mr. Snyder’s way forward is the drying up of state aid that flowed under President Obama’s $814 billion economic stimulus package.
The state, Mr. Ballenger said, “has been lucky to have the Obama bucks the last couple of years, all of which they have squandered with nothing left over.” Mr. Snyder, as governor, will not seek another bailout to keep the state afloat.
“His whole theme is you don’t reinvent Michigan by saying we’ll need more money from Washington,” Mr. Ballenger said.
Added Ms. Duffy: “Frankly, I think these new governors are smart enough not to expect it.”
Finding the right fiscal equation to dig out of a financial hole, however, becomes harder. Many Republican governors pledged during the election not to raise new taxes and yet for many, their only other choice is to cut spending, which also creates a quandary.
Michigan, said Mr. Ballenger, has found itself in a “perpetual $1 to $2 billion hole every year because revenue has not kept pace with projected spending levels.”
The deficits leave Mr. Snyder, a former Gateway computer executive from Ann Arbor, with some hard choices, especially as he pushed his plan for billions of dollars in state tax cuts. His first budget will be due in March, and how it will be received is a major unknown.
“I think Snyder is well aware that people are expecting something new and exciting and different from him,” said Mr. Ballenger. “I think he’ll be probably his own severest critic in whether he’s measuring up.”
For now at least, worn-down Michiganders will likely be willing to give him a chance.
“Going in, he will have the most support in a bipartisan way that I have ever seen,” said Mr. Roberts.
Added Mr. Ballenger: “I think the electorate here is so disillusioned with state government and the kind of leadership we’ve had in the governor’s office and legislature in the past few years that they really want to try something new and different and dramatic. I think that’s how Snyder won the primary and the general election.
“Maybe it’s unrealistic to think that he can somehow accomplish the miracle that no one else has,” Mr. Ballenger cautioned. “Maybe it’s unfair. But you can hardly blame them.”
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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