Snyder, Schuette at odds over more than just Flint
LANSING — Republicans have held the Michigan governorship and the state attorney general’s office for 5½ years — a feat that had been out of reach for more than six decades before Rick Snyder and Bill Schuette coasted to victories and then were re-elected in 2014.
Given recent strife between the two, though, you could be forgiven for thinking they are of different political parties.
The friction is not limited to Schuette’s high-stakes criminal and civil investigation of Flint’s water crisis, for which Snyder has apologized and five state employees have resigned, been fired or charged.
Beyond the ongoing Flint probe — which has sparked highly public disputes between the men over turning over documents and a lack of communication — they are at odds over a federal directive related to transgender students, school employee retirement deductions, U.S. pollution regulations and Great Lakes water withdrawals.
Schuette is expected to run for governor in 2018 when Snyder cannot due to term limits.
Their latest clash came Friday, when the attorney general — whose office represents the state in legal matters — joined a new lawsuit opposing the Obama administration’s requirement that public schools allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms conforming to their gender identity. He sued for the “people” of Michigan when Snyder did not bless a suit on behalf of the state.
“Our time and attention is focused elsewhere right now,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.
On Tuesday, Schuette announced that he would not appeal a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that ordered the return of $550 million withheld from school employees’ paychecks for retiree health care. Snyder is pursuing the appeal, so Schuette’s office will provide for a special assistant attorney general instead.
In June, Schuette said he was “disappointed” that the governors of the eight states adjoining the Great Lakes had approved a suburban Milwaukee city’s proposal to draw its drinking water from Lake Michigan. He called it a “bad precedent.”
Schuette also continues to challenge federal regulations targeting pollution from coal-fired power plants, without support from Snyder.
Schuette has sought to downplay the tension, saying that his relationship with Snyder receives too much scrutiny from the media while noting that staffers for the men “might get too competitive.”
“I have high regard for the governor and respect his office and what he does. I think he respects my responsibilities as attorney general,” he said.
Schuette pointed to their personality differences but said “on many, many, many of the key issues, we have agreement.”
Much of the conflict stems from the Flint investigation, for which Schuette has appointed an outside team of 22 lawyers and investigators. It is expected to cost at least $4.9 million and result in additional criminal charges. Two state Department of Environmental Quality regulators and Flint’s utilities administrator were charged; two water engineering companies were sued.
Snyder aides were unhappy when special counsel Todd Flood said publicly that he was not receiving all the documents requested from the Snyder administration. Schuette subsequently backed Flood, saying that the governor’s attorneys had not provided sufficient information.
The Snyder camp reported difficulty turning over records that are not under its control and that date as far back as 2003. The sides have since met and pledged to “work collaboratively” on producing documents.
Before that flap, Snyder was forced in May to temporarily halt civil and administrative investigations into how a state agency contributed to the drinking water crisis after being warned they were unintentionally compromising Schuette’s probe and a federal criminal investigation.
The Schuette camp was perturbed with an already-concluded state police investigation of the DEQ’s role in the lead contamination, while the Snyder side was frustrated over having to delay an inquiry targeting a second state agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, months after the review was publicly announced.
Given the “charged” political dynamics related to the Flint probe, it is not surprising that the tension has spilled into public view, said Tom Shields, a Republican consultant in Lansing. But the public back and forth is beneficial for both sides, he said.
“People would be suspect of any deals that are cut that were not done in public,” Shields said.
The 2018 gubernatorial race is a factor, too, as Schuette appears to be distancing himself from a governor who has overseen an economic recovery but whose approval ratings have sunk in the wake of the Flint disaster. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Snyder alley, could also run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
“At this point in time, (Schuette) needs to make sure he’s carving out his own agenda here and his own track record, so that he’s not painted with some broad brush by people that are opposed to him,” Shields said. “An attorney general should do that.”