Republican candidates for governor vow to put brakes on state spending

Craig Mauger Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Michigan's Republican candidates for governor pledged to cut the state's growing budget during a debate Thursday with one saying he'll repeal the personal income tax and another contending COVID-19 relief funds shouldn't be allocated until after the election.

The GOP hopefuls made their promises to reduce government spending at an event put on by the Detroit Regional Chamber for the organization's annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

Their comments provided little insight into what cuts they would make but conflicted with the moves of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The state budget has experienced revenue growth and benefited from billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds during Whitmer's tenure.

"We need to get our fiscal house in order," chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan said at one point. "I will be cutting the budget every single year."

Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, from left, Tudor Dixon, Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke, and Garrett Soldano participate in a candidates debate during the Mackinac Policy Conference at the Grand Hotel Thursday afternoon.

"I would ask anybody that I would appoint, can you cut your budget by 10%?" pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills said. "If they say no, I’m not going to hire them."

Four of the five remaining Republican candidates to be Michigan's next governor participated in Thursday's debate, which took place inside a tent near the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The crowd was relatively quiet throughout the event.

It was the third debate of the Republican primary race, taking place two months before the primary election. It was the first to happen after a series of court rulings that upheld decisions by state elections officials to deny five other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls spots on the primary ballot because of allegedly widespread petition forgeries.

On Thursday, Soldano said he would look first at the state's public universities when it came to making budget cuts. The current budget provides about $1.5 billion in funding for university operations.

The state Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate money to maintain Michigan’s 15 public universities.

"They can do it through private donors and everything else," Soldano said of funding the universities' operations.

Rebandt spoke in support of cutting "corporate welfare."

Dixon gaining momentum

Conservative commentator and businesswoman Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores called on the Legislature not to appropriate additional one-time funds from the federal government until after the November election.

"Is this an inflated budget or is this buying votes? We have the highest budget we’ve ever seen," said Dixon, who has been gaining momentum in the primary race.

Republicans currently control both houses of the Legislature, which is in charge of appropriating state dollars. Dixon said in an interview after the debate that she had discussed her request to halt spending of one-time funds with some lawmakers.

"I want to work with the Legislature and talk about that. I'll put out a plan soon," Dixon replied when asked what cuts she would make. 

She received the endorsements of west Michigan's influential DeVos family and of Right to Life of Michigan in the past 11 days as her campaign appears to be gaining momentum.

“We’ve had a plan from the beginning," Dixon said in an interview ahead of Thursday's debate. "Slow and steady wins the race. We’ve been doing the work behind the scenes, learning as much as we can about the issues and what the solutions are.

"I think people recognize that. So you’re seeing momentum and we’re seeing a payoff for really hard work. And we’re just really excited about where it’s going."

Dixon "over-performed expectations" at Thursday's debate, said Jason Roe, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.

Soldano and businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township also likely impressed some viewers, said Roe of the consulting firm Roe Strategic.

Growing budget

Whitmer proposed a $74 billion budget plan for next year, including nearly $3 billion in one-time spending. The current budget amounted to about $70 billion when it was signed into law.

The state budget was under $50 billion through the 2013 fiscal year, according to data from the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. Republicans controlled the executive and legislative branches of state government between 2011 and 2018.

Growth in state spending over the past decade has been driven by expanded eligibility for the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income adults and federal stimulus funding in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the House Fiscal Agency.

Rinke of Bloomfield Township has vowed to eliminate the 4.25% individual income tax by 2024. The individual income tax produced about $11.9 billion in revenue for the 2021 fiscal year, according to the state Department of Treasury.

Government spending needs to be reined in, Rinke contended at Thursday's debate. He said giving people back their money is the right move.

Rinke's campaign announced a "seven figure statewide ad buy" on Thursday, expanding his outreach to Republican primary voters. The Metro Detroit businessman has previously said he'd invest at least $10 million of his own money in his push to become governor.

The new ad focused on voter fraud. In it, Rinke pledges to create an "election integrity unit" to investigate any "hint of cheating."

"Why is it that dead people only vote Democrat?" Rinke says in the ad, standing next to an individual who appears to be a zombie.

Despite claims to the contrary, there's been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Michigan's November 2020 presidential election, which Republican Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden by 3 percentage points or 154,000 votes.

A March report from the Michigan's Office of the Auditor General quashed the conspiracy theory that a significant number of fraudulent votes were cast on behalf of dead people in the election.

Focus on budgets

Roe, the Republican political consultant, said focusing on "out of control" spending was a logical move for GOP candidates for governor. People are suffering from rising gas prices and inflation, he said.

"It’s the Republicans who are trying to put a few bucks back in people’s pockets, and it’s the governor who’s stopping them," Roe argued.

Whitmer has been advocating for targeted tax cuts and $500 rebates for Michigan households.

Dennis Cowan, the former mayor of Royal Oak and former chair of the Oakland County Republican Party, said Rinke's $12 billion cut proposal was "very ambitious and I want to see some more details on it as exactly what would have to be cut because of that, but I can see why people would be attracted to that kind of proposal because it's a significant cut.

"It's refreshing to find somebody who wants to cut the budget and give the money back to the people. There's nothing wrong with that," Cowan said about the candidates' general agreement on making significant budget cuts.

Republican Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo, who also attended the debate, said there's a "massive amount of government waste" that can afford to be eliminated. 

"They're wasting our money and it's egregious. It's not fair. These issues are not partisan, it's just not right. They take money from the people of Michigan and turn around and dump the money wherever it benefits them," Karamo said. 

But Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, criticized the Republican candidates' remarks at the debate.

The candidates had "pushed fringe plans to ban abortion, slash funding for education and critical services, reverse the progress Gov. Whitmer has made on fixing the damn roads and risk our economic growth. Michiganders deserve better than their radical, out-of-step agendas," Barnes said.

Whitmer gave keynote

The only gubernatorial candidate who remains on the primary ballot who didn't participate Thursday is real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale. Kelley called for boycotting the debate because of the Mackinac Policy Conference's COVID-19 policies, which require attendees to be vaccinated or to have a negative test.

Those policies, however, didn't affect the debate itself, which took place outdoors.

The winner of the Aug. 2 primary will take on Whitmer, who won her first term in 2018 by 9 percentage points over Republican Bill Schuette.

Whitmer gave a keynote address at the policy conference Thursday before the debate.

The governor defended her record over nearly four years in office, including more than two years in the midst of a global pandemic.

Whitmer cited tech innovation projects and manufacturing investments announced by several companies, including $7 billion from General Motors Co., $1.7 billion from LG Energy Solution, $2 billion from Ford Motor Co. and a $200 million campus in Ann Arbor by semiconductor company KLA Corp.

She also touted state spending on childcare, tax cuts for small businesses, expanded workforce development programs and a state budget signed last year that put $500 million into the state's savings account.

"I'm so proud that we got this done," Whitmer said, referencing the Ford investment publicized Thursday morning. "It was teamwork. It's a testament to what we are capable of when we work together."