Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday night teased an ambitious agenda during his final State of the State address, proposing significant increase in school aid, a renewed push for infrastructure funding, and a new plan to retain and develop talent.
Wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, the Ann Arbor Republican highlighted economic gains over the past seven years and urged legislators to continue on a path of fiscal responsibility, a not-so-subtle critique of election-year tax cut fever that is gripping Lansing.
“We have a broken culture in our political world where it’s okay to say we can spend money or we can cut taxes and do that now for short-term benefit and leave the bill for our kids,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right either. If we’re going to do something, let’s make sure we’re paying for it.”
Instead of tax cuts, the governor outlined several new spending priorities. In his budget presentation next month, Snyder said he will propose the largest per-pupil funding increase for K-12 schools in the last 15 years. He’ll also seek to boost road funding beyond the revenue being generated by a gas tax and general fund deal lawmakers struck in 2015.
One week after Amazon left Detroit off its list of 20 contenders for the company’s second world headquarters, Snyder hinted at the “Marshall Plan for Talent” he plans to unveil in February but provided few details about the initiative.
“This is going to lay the groundwork for a new way of producing talent in Michigan,” he said. “It will lead the world in this thought process. It’s going to prepare Michigan students to invent the future and prepare for what comes next.”
The Amazon rejections shows “that we can do better,” Snyder said.
The governor met with family and guests at the Michigan Capitol ahead of the annual speech, which was attended by fellow politicians from both sides of the aisle.
State lawmakers, judges and department officials were joined on the floor by U,S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak. There also were regional leaders such as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard.
Snyder began his speech by holding up contrasting headlines from The Wall Street Journal – one from 2009 warning job creators to “steer clear or Michigan” and the other outlining the “Michigan comeback story.”
“Folks, we’re back, and we’re only going to keep going up,” the governor said.
He pointed to the state’s falling unemployment rate that now sits at 4.7 percent and the creation of more than 540,000 private-sector jobs. That’s more jobs than combined for the people in Grand Rapids, Warren, Sterling Heights, Marquette, Traverse City and Marquette, Snyder said.
The governor noted improving water quality in Flint and ongoing efforts to replace lead service lines, highlighting progress on a contamination crisis that has clouded his legacy.
The most recent quality tests showing lead-in-water levels of 6 parts per billion are “comparable to most other cities in Michigan,” Snyder said. “So the water has improved dramatically, but we’re going to continue to work hard in terms of educational efforts and” work opportunities for young people.
The federal standard for remediation is 15 parts per billion, but Sndyer has proposed a tougher state limit. Officials are still advising Flint residents to drink bottled water or filtered water from home taps as the city works during the next two to three years to replace all of the water lines in the city.
A year after highlighting a massive Fraser sinkhole to make a similar plea, Snyder again urged lawmakers to address aging infrastructure across the state. He said he will launch a series of new initiative next week. He’ll renew pushes to expand rural broadband access, fund the cleanup of contaminated sites, increase recycling rates and prevent Asian Carp, he said.
On roads, “we can do even better than what we’ve already committed,” Snyder said. “Let’s improve our infrastructure and make an investment ... to get rid of those potholes.”
Mixed reaction from lawmakers
House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said he was happy to hear the governor “highlight how far Michigan has come” but would have liked to hear him discuss driver responsibility fees. Leonard and the GOP-led House want to forgive unpaid fees that have cost motorists their driver’s licenses, but the Snyder administration has expressed budget concerns.
“If we’re going to talk about skilled labor, we have to get 300,000 people their drivers’ licenses back and allow them to drive legally,” Leonard said.
Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature bucked Snyder last week with a rare veto override, approving an accelerated sales tax cut for trade-in vehicles Snyder rejected last year. They’re also pursuing additional tax cuts the governor has warned could compound looming budget pressures.
Hours before Snyder’s speech, the Michigan Senate earlier Tuesday approved the final two parts of a three-bill package that would increase the state’s personal exemption and create a new child care tax credit for parents. The tax cut plan would cost the state about $287.2 million a year once fully implemented in 2022, according to the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency.
The state House is considering its own tax cut plan that would expand the personal exemption and create a new $100 senior tax credit for any filer age 62 or older. The plan would cost the state roughly $357.5 million a year by 2021, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.
Snyder’s call for continued fiscal responsibility was “a benevolent way” of saying he does not support the tax cut plans, said state Rep. Jim Tedder, R-Clarkston, who chairs the House Tax Policy Committee and believes the state budget could handle the impact.
“I still think that though there may have been many elements of our economy that have come back, including job creation, that wages have not quite kept pace,” he said. “So this is a give back.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he was “not willing to be lectured by the governor” on tax policy. He noted a 2011 tax code rewrite that lowered taxes for business but effectively raised taxes on many individuals by eliminating various credits and exemptions.
“My constituents, other people across the state, they feel anxiety,” Ananich said. “They feel they’re not getting enough ahead. They have some optimism, but optimism doesn’t pay your bills.”
Democrats were happy to hear the governor discuss a large K-12 funding increase, which Republicans said they’re also willing to hear more about.
“We’d love to see that, but I want to make sure where it’s coming from” said Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo. “I look at the budget every day and I can’t imagine where that new money is coming from.”
Snyder also championed Healthy Michigan, the state’s unique form of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act that President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Congress have unsuccessfully attempted to repeal.
The program is “saving lives” and helping people avoid expensive emergency room visits through preventative care, Snyder said. “This is the right way to help people.”
While the governor typically avoids controversy, he briefly mentioned former Michigan State University gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is accused of assaulting more than 100 girls and young women.
Snyder did not mention the university or embattled President Lou Anna Simon but urged Michigan lawmakers and residents to “reach out and support the courageous survivors and make sure that cases like this never happen again.”
Snyder ended his speech with a call for civility in politics and urged the Republican-led Legislature to “stay the course” on the work they’ve started over the past seven years.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Snyder said, reflecting on his tenure. “It hasn’t been a straight line, but there’s no question, Michigan is a better state today than it was in 2010.”