By Peter Luke/Bridge Magazine correspondent
In the 12 months since House Republicans passed the bulk of Gov. Rick Snyder’s economic agenda, they have:
* Spurned Snyder’s call to establish a state-run health insurance exchange, per the federal Affordable Care Act, in the hope that the U.S. Supreme Court might declare the whole thing unconstitutional. Close, but no cigar. But following the ruling to uphold, they’re still in no hurry to pass Senate Bill 693. They did agree to begin hearings … eight months after the measure crossed the Capitol rotunda.
* Approved last-minute legislation, effective immediately, so as to apply to the 2012 election, to require absentee voters and first-time registrants to produce a valid photo ID. Groups aiming to register voters would have to go through rather vague — and allegedly cumbersome — training requirements.
* Reiterated their opposition to the Next International Trade Crossing the day before Snyder’s June 15 announcement with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the project was going forward after years of legislative delay on this side of the border.
* Ignored the biggest unfinished piece of policy that Snyder has proposed: A gradual $1.5 billion increase in gas taxes and registration fees to rebuild state and local transportation budgets.
* Not content with accelerating a planned reduction in the personal income tax rate from 4.35 percent to 4.25 percent, approved further reductions back down to the 3.9-percent level, which seems to be the truest measure of Michigan GOP commitment to tax cuts. It’s the marker set down by John Engler and insisted upon by Senate Republicans when the rate was increased in 2007. And true to form, the ultimate cost of the tax cut will come when those who voted for it have long been forced from office.
Near the midpoint of Snyder’s first term, and with his approval rating on the rise, his party’s commanding majority in the Michigan House is eager to show voters its own agenda separate from Snyder’s.
And they don’t seem to mind that Snyder opposes much of the above, presumably including an income tax reduction that destroys the math of his 2011 overhaul and defies the welcome principle that tax cuts be paid for.
The governor completed the bridge deal without the Legislature’s help — and despite its obstruction. He continues to insist on the formation of a health insurance exchange as critical to Michigan controlling its health insurance destiny. And while other Republican governors have been busily constructing new rules critics say amount to cynical, though politically beneficial, barriers to voting, Snyder’s vetoes to voter ID rules here in Michigan were stunning.
House Republicans have constructed an agenda, or agendas, designed to appeal to two separate audiences.
In case a Snyder agenda that can depart from orthodoxy isn’t enough to motivate the GOP base, House Republicans now have a back-up that steers harder to the right. They say they were planning to trot out this more conservative agenda all along this term, once they completed the main tasks the governor set out: a business tax cut overhaul, budgets balanced on time, municipal fiscal triage and reducing the cost of public employee benefits.
As for Snyder’s plan, they intend to credit it for Michigan’s nascent economy.
“We’re seeing the first signs of a turnaround in the state, which is very important to us,” said Rep. Peter Lund, R-Shelby Township and chairman of the House GOP’s re-election effort. “The unemployment rate compared to the national rate has been very favorable. I’m not saying the unemployment rate is good, but ours is heading in the right direction … We’re seeing all the things that show that the actions we’ve taken are paying off.”
For the first time since 2003, Marketing Resource Group’s latest biannual survey found that more respondents found the state heading in the right direction, 46 percent, than headed in the wrong direction, 43 percent. In the fall of 2010, it was 20 percent right track and 80 percent wrong track. Just 14 percent expected the Michigan economy to get worse in the next 12 months and nearly 40 percent expected it to get better.
The spring survey by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research showed signs of growing voter optimism about their own financial situations, with 61 percent saying they expect to be better off a year from now.
Improving voter optimism “is a good sign for our members,” Lund said.
Will independent voters, in fact, connect the dots that Republican campaigns want them to; that the elimination of the Michigan Business Tax and the effort to structurally fix state and local budgets indeed are factors propelling the better economy they believe is coming?
Or will they give the credit to the incumbent who will top the ballot?
House Republicans lost their majority in 2006 and sustained deeper losses in 2008 when their top of the ticket received less than 43 percent of the vote in Michigan. But when the Democratic nominee for governor was routed in 2010, they regained the House.
Given term limits and the decline in recognition that voters have for their elected legislators, which was never great to begin with, could state House races be turning into generic partisan affairs where the fate of a party’s standard-bearer has greater influence than the asserted record of accomplishment in Lansing? Will House races become like State Board of Education and university trustee races have been in the past?
The Real Clear Politics average of Michigan polling through mid-July gave President Obama a slight 1.8-percent advantage over native Mitt Romney. If that narrow spread holds, regardless of the winner, Republicans believe that means their base will have turned out; independents who voted for Obama in 2008 will have changed their minds; and they’ll keep their majority. Maybe not a majority with 63 seats in the 110-seat House, but a majority nonetheless.
Republicans had 63 seats going into the 2004 election in which George W. Bush lost the state, but received nearly 48 percent of the vote. Republicans lost five seats in the House, yet retained control.
But what if the spread isn’t so narrow?
If national surveys are any guide, the worry is that base GOP enthusiasm is soft. A recent Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of Democrats are “very enthusiastic” about voting for Obama. Just 38 percent of Republicans felt the same about Romney.
Just in case there’s any doubt out there among conservative voters about a Snyder agenda that promotes higher transportation fees, big new bridge projects and the implementation of federal health care reform, House Republicans are seeking to cover their bases.
Or base, as it were.
Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.