Lansing — A group of House Republicans who helped vote down a plan to cut Michigan’s personal income tax are standing by their decision despite blowback from grassroots conservatives calling them “fake Republicans” and encouraging primary challengers in 2018.

The GOP-led House last week narrowly rejected a plan that would have reduced Michigan’s income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 4.05 percent by 2019. The rate would have fallen to 3.9 percent by 2021 if the state had a balance of more than $1 billion in its “rainy day” budget stabilization fund.

“Conservative principles, from my perspective, aren’t just about low taxes,” freshman state Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, said Tuesday. “It’s about long-term financial sustainability, ensuring that we’re paying down our debts and reducing our liabilities.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, shocked observers by breaking tradition and putting the bill up for a vote even though he suspected it would fail, telling reporters the vast majority of his caucus wanted to go on the record as supporting the tax cut.

The record roll call vote also singled out the 12 Republicans who rejected the plan. They joined all but one Democrat in opposing the bill on the grounds it could jeopardize planned spending increases or force significant spending cuts in future years.

“I’m extremely disappointed they would vote against our core principles and our core values of standing for smaller government, less taxes and more individual freedom to keep what we earn,” said Matt Maddock, co-founder of the Michigan Conservative Coalition.

“I am, however, extremely pleased that Speaker Leonard gave us the opportunity to hold these legislators that voted against our party accountable.”

Despite hostility from some conservative critics, the dissident Republican legislators said the response from their district constituents has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

They also got a vote of confidence from GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who had warned the tax cut proposal could cause major budget problems down the line. Snyder personally called the “no” vote legislators to thank them.

“The calls were acknowledgment of a shared outlook on the need for long-term fiscal planning,” said spokeswoman Anna Heaton. “The governor then expressed his desire to move forward and work together with the entire caucus to accomplish another early balanced budget and address other important priorities for Michigan residents.”

State Rep. Dave Pagel, a third-term Republican from Berrien Springs, said he appreciated Snyder thanking him for “standing up for my convictions and taking a courageous stance” despite the prospect of political blowback.

“That was nice,” he said. “I don’t get a call from the governor on my personal cell very often.”

Budget concerns

Several Republicans who voted against the tax cut plan cited their backgrounds in local government, where they worked on budgets. The tax cut legislation was projected to reduce state general fund revenues by between $624 million to $1 billion by 2021, depending on the rainy day fund trigger.

“It was a fiscal issue,” said second-term Rep. Dave Maturen, R-Vicksburg, who sits on the House Tax Policy Committee. “I talked to some of my constituents before and they said, if you’ve got any money left over, would you please put it on our roads?”

Second-term Rep. Chris Afendoulis, a certified public accountant and Grand Rapids Township Republican, noted a previously approved road funding package will drain $600 million from the state’s general fund by 2021. A related Homestead Property Tax expansion will save taxpayers more than $200 million a year beginning in 2019.

“I was always prepared to have my vote recorded as a no,” Afendoulis said, explaining he does not resent Leonard for holding the vote. “That said, the goal is always to pass the legislation, so I think it’s a little bit of an interesting dynamic there, a little unusual for what I’ve experienced.”

Rep. Larry Inman, a second-term Republican from Traverse City, said his office received about 600 calls thanking him for his no vote, but six or seven calls from voters who didn’t like his decision. He wrote off some of the conservative angst — which included online lists asking critics to call legislators and complain — as “tea party stuff.”

“The far hard right part of the Republican Party, most of them are tea party people, and they just want to eliminate all taxes,” Inman said. “…I get it, but it just has to be reasonable.”

Second-term Rep. Kathy Crawford, R-Novi, said she was “surprised more than anything” that Leonard put the tax cut bill up for a vote so early in the two-year session, suggesting a proposal of such magnitude deserved further debate in committee.

“I’m not concerned about” any political repercussions, she said. “I voted what was the right thing to do for my district, and honestly, every call and every email I got to my office was all positive.”

Caucus tensions

House Republicans are now looking to regroup after the failed tax cut vote, which marked a tumultuous start to the two-year cycle, replete with finger pointing and bruised egos.

Pagel met Tuesday with Leonard, four days after he accused the House speaker of “improper pressuring” in an attempt to win votes for the tax cut plan, a charge Leonard has denied. It was a “cordial” discussion, Pagel said.

“We’re trying to find a way back to where our caucus can be a place of healthy discussion and healthy disagreement, where it’s not a war going on,” he said. “I think we’ve got a little work to do on that front.”

Leonard stripped Rep. Jason Sheppard of a committee chairmanship after the Temperance Republican told him he would vote for the bill but had a late change of heart. Sheppard ended up opposing the measure, saying it could have “jeopardized programs that many of my constituents rely upon.”

House Law and Justice Committee Chairman Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, also pulled a Pagel bill from this week’s meeting agenda, a move he said he did without direction from Leonard.

“I support the team, I support the speaker, but most importantly, I support this process,” Kesto said. “I think I need to have a conversation with Pagel as to where he’s falling in his position as a state representative and being part of this process.”

Pagel said he is optimistic that Kesto will eventually put his bill up for a vote in committee. The proposal, which would allow the Michigan Department of Corrections to hire convicted felons if they pose no threat to public safety, was “very well received” in an earlier hearing, he said.

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