On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder will step to a podium in the House chamber and deliver his eighth and final State of the State address.
Though Snyder has 11 more months in office, the speech is likely his last opportunity to address all Michiganders and set out his final plans and priorities as governor. Snyder's legacy will always be tied to the Flint drinking water crisis — in which state failures resulted in lead contamination of the city's water supply, a public health catastrophe and eroded faith in government — but both his supporters and detractors agree his record includes much more.
For better or worse, Snyder, 59, has put his stamp on the condition of Michigan's roads, its health care and education systems, on labor relations, the future of Michigan's auto industry, its largest city and the share of taxes paid by individuals and corporations. He's credited with confronting serious and long-standing issues — such as the Detroit financial crisis and mounting state and local unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities — that others had kicked down the road. In a time of extreme political divisiveness, he has sought to make Michigan's political discourse more civil.
How much credit does Snyder deserve for Michigan's vastly improved economy during a period when the national economy also surged? How much blame for the Flint tragedy, which Snyder has largely attributed to mistakes by "career bureaucrats"? Both questions will be debated. What can't be disputed is the scope of change in Michigan — which continues today — under his administration.
Flash back seven years, to Jan. 19, 2011, when Snyder, a newly inaugurated political newcomer, self-described as "one tough nerd," delivered his first State of the State speech:
- Detroit was drowning in billions of dollars in debt that has since been erased, its former mayor was recently indicted on federal corruption charges, and the city's current financial renaissance and bustling downtown was impossible to foresee. Snyder moved the city into emergency management and bankruptcy before pushing for a $195-million state contribution to shore up Detroit retiree pensions and save from creditors the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
- Massive cuts Snyder proposed to business taxes and a new tax on pension income — and the resulting tax shift from corporations to individuals — were not yet law. In 2011, half the state's general fund revenues came from personal income taxes and 17%, came from business taxes. This year, 69% of general fund revenues come from personal income taxes and only 5.1% from business taxes, according to state fiscal agencies.
- The state's unemployment rate was 10.7% — more than double the 4.7% rate today. After 10 consecutive years of job declines, Michigan gained 88,500 jobs the year Snyder took office, and it has gained another 438,000 jobs since.
- The state's unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities stood at $69.5 billion. By 2016, the most recent year available, they'd been reduced to $54.5 billion, according to the Office of Retirement Services.
- Development of self-driving cars was in its infancy. Snyder, who believes autonomous vehicles and related technology are the future of the auto industry, pushed through legislation to allow self-driving cars on Michigan roads and backed development of the American Center for Mobility, a proving ground for autonomous vehicles that opened near Ypsilanti in December.
Snyder's changes to the tax system remain controversial, and other accomplishments are often overshadowed not only by the Flint crisis, but by a Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency scandal in which about 37,000 innocent claimants were falsely accused of fraud and financially punished by a $47-million state computer system run amok.
For some business leaders, the bigger issue is the overall direction of the state.
Charlie Owens, Michigan director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said he initially had concerns that Snyder's background as a Gateway Computers executive would cause him to favor large corporations over the small businesses he represents.
"I couldn't have been more wrong," said Owens, who said his members are benefiting from lower taxes, reduced regulations, and a right-to-work law, signed by Snyder in 2012, that makes it illegal to require employees to financially support a labor union.
He believes the fact that Snyder, a millionaire, self-funded his 2010 campaign insulated him from the influence of corporate lobbyists.
"His legacy is going to be that he took the state at a very dark time and led it to where it is now, which in our view, is very much improved," Owens said.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, sees Snyder's legacy much differently, pointing to not just the Flint water crisis and the Unemployment Insurance Agency false fraud scandal, but problems with abuse and inadequate care at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and ongoing reports of drug smuggling and sex acts between prisoners and kitchen workers following Snyder's privatization of prison food services.
All four situations involved attempts to save money — the first by replacing an elected government in Flint with a state-appointed official instructed to cut costs, the second by replacing state workers with a computer system, and the last two by privatizing state government jobs through the hiring of private contractors.
In each case, Ananich said, the "balance sheet approach to government" advanced by Snyder, a certified public accountant, produced a cost saving that resulted in more problems than it cured, and, ultimately, higher costs.
"We've seen crisis after crisis, with plenty of warning signs for each one," he said.
The state has so far appropriated close to $300 million to pay for bottled water and filters and address health, infrastructure and other problems in Flint. Outside legal fees for the state exceed $20 million, with many lawsuits and criminal hearings pending. On the jobless agency scandal, the state has repaid about $21 million to claimants, amid more lawsuits and discussions of additional settlements.
Unlike many Michigan governors, Snyder has governed throughout his two terms with both chambers of the Legislature controlled by his political party. But with a state House, in particular, much more conservative than he is, the one-party rule has produced its own divisions.
As he stood at the Capitol podium that 2011 winter night, Snyder was not expecting to sign bills in 2012 to make Michigan — once an organized labor stronghold — a right-to-work state. The divisive issue was "not on my agenda," he said, but GOP activists forced the issue after an unsuccessful 2012 ballot drive, backed by labor, to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution.
Just as his approval of right-to-work angered the left, Snyder infuriated many on the right in 2013, when he pushed for and signed into law the expansion of Medicaid under Democratic President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, bringing government-funded health care to nearly a half million more Michigan residents.
Expansion of Obamacare isn't the only time Snyder clashed with his party's right flank. He has vetoed one bill to allow guns in schools and another to create a "Choose Life" anti-abortion license plate. Though Owens is pleased with Snyder's performance overall, he's unhappy with Snyder's repeated promise to veto a repeal of the state's "prevailing wage" law requiring union wages on government construction jobs.
Snyder has spent seven years being pushed right by the Legislature while frequently being appealed to from the left by moderates and liberals who saw him as a last-hope check on the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Not infrequently, both sides ended up unhappy. Wednesday's override of Snyder's vetoof a bill to reduce the sales tax charged when residents use a trade-in to purchase a car was the first in Michigan since 2002 — when the GOP also controlled both chambers under former Gov. John Engler.
"Sometimes he's more of a government activist, sometimes he's more of a government hands-off person," Erika King, a professor of political science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, said of Snyder.
As a result, "I don't see him having a completely enthusiastic base that champions his every move."
Snyder's job approval rating, which hit a low of 39% in early 2016, improved to 45% in a December poll by EPIC-MRA of Lansing. But 52% still gave him a negative rating, while the other 3% were undecided or refused to say.
But Snyder deserves credit, King said, for taking a more pragmatic and less partisan approach to public policy issues. Though he hasn't always been successful, Snyder favors policies based on outcomes more than ideology and an environment in which "differences are heard and expressed in a civil tone and people reach compromise," she said.
Snyder came into government talking about working in "dog years," and his major tax changes and passage of right-to-work were all pushed through in his first two years in office.
The "dog years" mantra is now heard less frequently, mostly replaced by "relentless positive action" as Snyder grinds away at longer-term issues such as training more skilled workers to meet employers' needs. His "Marshall Plan" to develop talent and improve educational opportunities for high-tech jobs — named after the U.S. initiative to help rebuild Western Europe's economy after World War II — is to include more money for K-12 computer science teachers and a raft of other measures expected to be detailed in his Tuesday speech.
Snyder is also focused on building a new public span, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, across the Detroit River to Canada. Snyder sees the bridge as a key link in continuing and expanding Michigan-Canada trade in manufacturing and agricultural projects. It would also create thousands of construction jobs. Site preparation and land acquisition is under way, amid ongoing court challenges, with a bridge opening tentatively slated for 2022.
The governor continues to make annual trips to Asia and Europe, working on building trade relationships and investment opportunities, while working in Michigan and abroad to position Michigan as a leader in the "mobility" industry of self-driving vehicles. In 2016, he launched a "Planet M" branding campaign to highlight the state's engineering talent, history of automotive innovation, and other advantages as home to the fledgling industry.
“Michigan has always been the automotive industry leader, and as the transportation industry evolves, our state’s influence will continue to shape the way the world moves," Snyder said.
Education is an area Snyder has consistently cited as a priority, but it is where his record shows repeated setbacks. He lifted the cap on the number of charter schools, but that didn't move the needle on student performance. His Education Achievement Authority, designed to improve the lowest-performing schools, became caught up in a corruption scandal and later dissolved.
Standardized test results released in August show Michigan's elementary and middle school students are slowly making gains in math and social studies, but that progress is overshadowed by declines nearly across the board in reading and writing, as well as continued struggles in science.
A report released Wednesday said the state invests too little in K-12 schools, and on higher education, even some business groups say funding under Snyder has fallen woefully short.
"During his tenure, Michigan's public schools have sunk in national ratings," said Liette Gidlow, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University.
"Higher education has become more inaccessible as state funding for some public universities remains at levels below funding levels in place when he took office."
Snyder has persisted against obstacles in pursuing certain objectives, such as the bridge project, where he negotiated an agreement under which Canada would fund the project after the Michigan Legislature refused to OK the span in the face of intense lobbying against it by Manuel (Matty) Moroun, owner of the nearby Ambassador Bridge to Windsor.
He got a $1.2-billion road funding deal through the Legislature in 2015, after voters rejected a more ambitious plan in a referendum. The plan increased fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees and will contribute $600 million a year in road funding from the general fund, when fully implemented in 2021. But motorists continue to complain about crumbling roads, and Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said the roads will continue to deteriorate, just not as quickly as they would without the extra funding.
But other initiatives appeared to drop off Snyder's to-do list in the face of resistance, such as a statewide plan to reduce obesity, announced in his 2011 State of the State address, and a plan to improve campaign finance and worst-in-the-nation government ethics laws for state and local government, announced in his 2012 address.
Snyder's expressed desire to greatly scale back on picking "winners and losers" through economic development incentives aimed at specific projects, in favor of a more favorable tax and regulatory climate for all developments, also received a major rethink. Snyder got behind significant tax incentives for large employers, including massive incentive plans aimed at luring Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn to build a $10-billion Michigan plant and online retail giant Amazon to build a second headquarters in metro Detroit. Neither effort was successful.
Joshua Sapotichne, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said Snyder deserves credit for taking on the Detroit financial crisis — something other Michigan politicians were reluctant to do.
Many Detroit residents are not yet experiencing the recovery there, but "if managed the right way, this is the early stages of a city that can be a thriving middle-class community again," Sapotichne said.
While giving Snyder credit for Detroit, Sapotichne said Snyder's legacy will never be discussed without talking about Flint, which "exposed the emergency manager policy for not being an appropriate way to respond to fiscal distress in city government," because one person with limited staff can't be expected to run a city the size of Flint and the law gives managers no power to raise ongoing revenue, but only make cuts.
In Flint on Thursday, former security guard James Milton said he's concerned that Snyder will declare victory over the Flint drinking water crisis in his address Tuesday night, since tests are now showing lead levels consistently below federal action levels.
But Milton, 59, said his trust in government has suffered, and, after having trouble obtaining a water testing kit, his tap recently showed a spike in lead, which he attributes to recent work replacing buried lead lines at other Flint homes.
Even with a filter, "I'm not drinking it," Milton said.
2018 State of the State address
Gov. Rick Snyder will deliver his eighth and final State of the State address Tuesday at the Capitol.
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: House of Representatives chamber, state Capitol, Lansing.
Can I attend?: All public seating at the Capitol during the speech is by invitation only, mostly for lawmakers and their guests.
How to watch/listen: The speech will be livestreamed at www.michigan.gov/snyderlive. It is also broadcast live on public TV and radio stations in Michigan.
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