Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder called Thursday for tax relief for “hard-working folk” and defended his record on education funding in the last State of the State address he’ll give before facing voters this fall.
The Republican governor did not endorse a specific plan for cutting taxes, but a memo distributed by his office before the speech said he wants to ease the tax “burden on low- and middle-income families.”
Snyder has previously been cool to election-year ideas floated by fellow Republicans for a permanent reduction in the personal income tax or sending taxpayers one-time rebate checks. He said he wants to avoid “playing traditional politics” with a $971 billion three-year budget surplus as his likely November re-election bid nears.
“It’s good to know it’s on his agenda,” state Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, said after the hour-long address. “We’re going to have to negotiate how big of a tax cut.”
Democrats dismissed the governor’s call for tax relief as an attempt to shade over higher tax bills some families and retirees have received as a result of Snyder’s elimination of several tax credits, exemptions and deductions in 2011.
“This is primarily a campaign promise ... after he put everyone through the wringer,” said state Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit.
Before considering tax relief, Snyder said, lawmakers first need to uphold commitments to investing about $65 million into early childhood education. He also called on legislators to spend more money eliminating a waiting list for senior in-home services, implementing a statewide teacher evaluation system and combating invasive species that threaten the state’s forestry and recreation industries.
The governor’s office said he would unveil a formal plan in early February when he delivers his proposed 2015 budget to the Legislature.
Snyder used the annual appearance before a joint session of the Legislature to boast about Michigan’s improved job growth, double-digit increases in home sales and prices and two consecutive years of slight population growth.
The state’s chief executive also continued to emphasize efforts to eliminate business regulations and make state government more user-friendly. He noted the state has scaled back the number of hunting and fishing licenses from 227 to 43.
“To all of the hunters and fisherman of Michigan, you can waste less time ... and get out there and catch something or shoot something and have a good time,” Snyder said.
After a tumultuous 2013 that included installing an emergency manager in Detroit and taking Michigan’s largest city into bankruptcy, Snyder madea brief mention of the Motor City.
“I’m not going to dwell on it here tonight, other than to say let’s get it done this year,” Snyder said of the bankruptcy.
Snyder devoted a solid portion of his speech to educational issues, asserting basic funding has increased by $660 per student since he took office in 2011. The state is spending another $315 per student on school employee pensions, said Bill Rustem, the governor’s strategy director.
“That’s a huge investment in K-12 education,” Snyder said.
Randy Liepa, superintendent of Livonia Public Schools, said the governor’s education funding claims don’t square withhis district’s budget.
This school year, Liepa said, the 15,000-student district got a $5-per-pupil increase in its state foundation grant, but lost $47 per student after lawmakers eliminated a grant for meeting certain management practices.
“It sounds like I should have more money the following year when I’m building my budget, but the truth is I have less money,” Liepa said.
Snyder asked legislators to appropriate another $65 million for the second phase of a major expansion of publicly funded preschool for 4-year-olds from low-income families. Michigan is in the first year of an effort to enroll 29,000 4-year-olds.
“We’re going to make it a no-wait state for early childhood education in the state of Michigan” through the Great Start Readiness Program, Snyder said.
As part of a 2011 teacher tenure reform law, a state-appointed panel in July recommended the implementation of a teacher effectiveness system based on classroom evaluations and student test scores. Snyder said he wants to proceed with funding the program, which will require technology upgrades in schools to better track student academic growth.
Snyder also called on the Legislature to send him a bill that would prohibit individuals from bidding on tax-reverted properties if they have unpaid property tax bills. Nearly 80 percent of 18,568 properties bought at Wayne County foreclosure auctions in the last two years are now delinquent on taxes, The News reported in September.
Snyder wants to crack down on the practice as part of a larger effort to combat blight in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and other urban areas, Rustem said.
Snyder, who has been a vocal proponent of reforming the nation’s immigration laws, announced the creation of a new state Office for New Americans. “If someone has the opportunity to come to our country legally, let’s hold our arms open and say ‘come to Michigan, this is the place to be,’” Snyder said.
Snyder is in the fourth year of his first term as governor, but has not officially kicked off a bid for a second term. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, is his likely opponent.
But in a departure from his mantra of steering clear of federal political issues, Snyder asked state lawmakers to send Congress a non-binding resolution calling for a federal balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I think it’s about time we let Washington know that we know how to do things right with our budget,” Snyder said, getting a standing ovation from Republicans who control the Legislature.
In a surprise move, Snyder began the speech by taking on the controversial rhetoric of one of his party’s leaders.
He took a veiled shot at Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, calling for “a greater degree of civility” in politics. Agema has been under fire for months for making anti-gay statements and posting anti-Muslim rhetoric on his Facebook page.
“Let’s work to bring Michiganders together, not divide us,” said Snyder, without mentioning Agema by name.
Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel confirmed the comment was aimed at Agema “and everyone who exhibits discriminatory behavior and talk.”
Gov. Rick Snyder has not officially declared his intention to run for a second term, but his campaign team launched an advertising campaign in September about his accomplishments. Snyder has said publicly there are still a lot of things he wants to accomplish that may spill into a second term and has dropped hints about making another run for the office.