Governor Snyder And The Legacy Thing
During the fraught lame-duck legislative session underway critics of many of the bills in process have called on Governor Rick Snyder in his final days in office to preserve his legacy by vetoing some of the more controversial provisions. Bills that critics charge will change the structure of government and make administrating more difficult for Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and the other new constitutional officers, those are the measures many are calling on Mr. Snyder to veto.
But Mr. Snyder has made it pretty clear what he expects his legacy to be, and even though a newly released survey shows him leaving office with some of his lowest approval ratings ever he likely is not worried about that judgment.
What will be more worrying to Mr. Snyder is how the state will respond to the recession which will come (and according to some economists come as early as next year). If Michigan weathers the recession better than it has in recent downturns – fewer jobs lost, state revenues not thoroughly trashed and government possibly able to get through the recession without major budget cuts or tax increases – then Mr. Snyder can probably say his legacy will go down well.
As he leaves office, Mr. Snyder is keeping a gubernatorial tradition going back to at least former Governor John Engler. His overall approval ratings have fallen to just 28.5 percent of the public surveyed by the State of the State Survey from the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. Those aren't his lowest approval ratings ever (in 2011, after his controversial business tax changes were enacted, just 19.3 percent said he was doing a good or excellent job).
And in his final approval ratings not being his lowest ever, he has beaten Mr. Engler and former Governor Jennifer Granholm who each left office with their lowest approval ratings. But they also, during their time in office, enjoyed higher approval ratings than Mr. Snyder did during his eight-year term. And they also left office during recessions. Mr. Snyder is the first governor to escape a recession altogether in decades.
Mr. Snyder made it clear during a press conference earlier this week that he views his legacy as the changes he made to Michigan's business tax structure and regulatory environment to help restore the state's economy.
The public still sees Flint and the unemployment scandal as part of his legacy, and one suspects Mr. Snyder will not ignore those when he writes his autobiography.
But he clearly he is betting on the changes made to the state's tax and finance structure as proving him right when history judges. And he has the luck of having the Legislature still under Republican control to ensure major changes aren't made to those when Ms. Whitmer takes office come January.
Again, if Michigan does better in the recession to come, Mr. Snyder may have some claim to a type of victory, at least regarding the economy.
However, let us not forget that the recession was ending or done when Mr. Snyder took office. How much, then, of Michigan's economic improvement is due to the tax and development changes Mr. Snyder championed and how much to an improving economy anyway?
And when we go into recession, it is useful to remember the state cut taxes more than 30 times when Mr. Engler was governor and still suffered more than most states. While Mr. Snyder's policies likewise fail at the critical moment?
Well, Michigan's economy is significantly different now than it was in 2002. It far less dependent on manufacturing, which Mr. Snyder can claim some credit for and which also occurred without much influence from him at all. That should help the state. But how much? That will depend on how large and how severe a recession the state will face.
The critical test of Mr. Snyder's economic legacy is coming. It is just a matter of when.
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A Big Change In Tactics Since Last Struggle Over Authority
On October 5, 1999, the state's first new attorney general in 38 years, Jennifer Granholm, strode into a committee room on the third floor of the House Office Building with her predecessor, Frank Kelley, at her side to testify about legislation majority House Republicans had introduced to eliminate the attorney general's power to issue binding rulings on state agencies and take both sides of a case.
Ms. Granholm, seated at the witness table, landed a roundhouse with three simple words.
"This is shameful," she said in a room jammed with news reporters and photographers covering the confrontation.
At that moment, the Republican movement to curb Ms. Granholm's powers collapsed, the rising Democratic star leaving GOP lawmakers flustered about how to explain why they were acting to curb the powers of the state's first woman to serve as attorney general after having left Mr. Kelley alone for years.
Fast forward to Michigan's 2018 lame-duck session, where majority legislative Republicans are moving legislation to strip the secretary of state's authority over campaign finance, where it has rested since the enactment of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act in 1976, and move it to a bipartisan commission – legislation that surfaced only after Jocelyn Benson became the first Democrat in 28 years to win the office.
And then there is the legislation to allow the Legislature to intervene in any state court regarding lawsuits involving constitutional or statutory issues, a move that would chip away at the attorney general's and governor's authority to determine the legal strategy of the state when sued. Instead of Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, both Democrats, deciding in January to, say, drop the state's defense of the law repealing the prevailing wage law and ruling it unenforceable because they agree with the plaintiff union it is unconstitutional, scuttling the law, the House and/or Senate could intervene as defendants to fight for the statute.
But as the Legislature moves these bills, Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel – the primary ones affected – have communicated remotely, mostly through prepared statements via their spokespersons. Ms. Benson did do at least one radio interview.
What they did not do, unlike Ms. Granholm 19 years ago, was march into House and Senate committees taking up the bills and directly confront Republicans.
The big difference between then and now is that Ms. Granholm was in office. Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel don't assume office until January 1. And while in 1999, nearly all members of the House who might have had to vote on the bill would face voters for re-election the following year, relatively few members of the Legislature now serving will ever face voters again for the positions they currently hold.
The incoming Democrats appear to be gambling that if they avoid pouring gasoline on the fire, perhaps they could avoid provoking Republicans into passing the bills. That doesn't appear to be working with the bill letting the House and Senate intervene in court. A Senate committee moved swiftly on it Tuesday, and that bill looks primed to land on Governor Rick Snyder's desk sooner than later. The bills curbing Ms. Benson's powers, however, so far have not seen action in the House, and House Speaker-elect Lee Chatfield's comments last week as the court intervention bill passed the House seemed to suggest – perhaps – some reticence about the idea.
That said, those bills could move anytime between now and when the Legislature adjourns for the year.
A court challenge also appears certain on the court intervention bill, so maybe that also makes the incoming governor and attorney general less alarmed about it. There's also the possibility that even if the bills stripping campaign finance powers away from the secretary of state pass and Mr. Snyder signs them, Ms. Whitmer upon taking office could sign an executive order moving the authority right back to Ms. Benson.
Article V, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution says, "the governor may make changes in the organization of the executive branch or in the assignment of functions among its units which he considers necessary for efficient administration. Where these changes require the force of law, they shall be set forth in executive orders and submitted to the legislature." Now, the House and Senate could vote by simple majorities to overturn such an executive order and keep those powers from reverting to Ms. Benson, but it would be the new Legislature making that call, not the lame-duck lawmakers. Would all those new Republican senators and representatives have the appetite for that?
So, these could be reasons Ms. Whitmer, Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel are not orchestrating mass protests and confronting the Republicans face to face even with national news media descending on Lansing.
All that said, it's a risk, putting their fates in the hands of Republican lawmakers, Mr. Snyder and the courts, where there will be still a 4-3 majority of the Supreme Court nominated by the GOP.
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