Michigan GOP gov hopefuls urge tax cuts, blast gun control

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Four of Michigan's Republican candidates for governor sparred  Wednesday night over how to cut taxes and fight inflation while agreeing they would resist attempts to place new restrictions on guns.

During an occasionally combative 90-minute debate on the campus of Grand Valley State University, businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township touted his proposal to eliminate the state's 4.25% personal income tax, a move that could slash $12 billion in annual state revenue.

Conservative commentator Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores suggested Rinke's plan is incomplete by saying she supported reducing the income tax over time but arguing Rinke had no plan to replace the state funds that would be immediately lost.

"I think that people should just be aware that there is no plan to eliminate the income tax in one year," Dixon said at one point about Rinke's proposal.

WOOD-TV and the Michigan Republican Party sponsored a televised debate held Wednesday night at Grand Valley State University's downtown Grand Rapids campus for GOP gubernatorial hopefuls Tudor Dixon, Kevin Rinke, Garrett Soldano and Ryan Kelley.

The Metro Detroit businessman countered by saying his plan speaks for itself and Lansing "has plenty of money." State lawmakers last week approved a $76 billion budget for next year.

"People are suffering now," Rinke said. "And taking our time to slowly reduce income taxes is like a slow death for the state of Michigan.”

Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke asks a question during debate preparation ahead of Wednesday night's Republican gubernatorial debate sponsored by WOOD-TV and the Michigan Republican Party. Rinke sparred with Norton Shores commentator Tudor Dixon over his plan to eliminate the state's 4.25% personal income tax.

That exchange was one of a series of disagreements on full display during the fifth debate of the GOP primary race for governor, which was organized by the Michigan Republican Party and WOOD-TV.

The debate occurred 27 days ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election, when GOP voters will select a nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

In addition to Rinke and Dixon, real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale and chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan participated in the debate.

Kelley said he has a 100-day plan that includes doing a budget audit to find “that wasteful spending." He said property taxes are rising too much and need to be capped, reduced and eventually eliminated.

Norton Shores commentator and businesswoman Tudor Dixon said Republican foe Kevin Rinke doesn't have a plan to replace the $12 billion in annual revenue the state would lose by eliminating the 4.25% personal income tax. Rinke said he would work with the Legislature to find the revenue to replace the income tax shortfall.

Under Proposal A, which went into effect in the mid-1990s, property taxes are capped so they grow at the rate of inflation or up to 5% in a year, whichever one is lower. The taxable value is capped if a home hasn’t changed ownership or seen additions to the property in the past year. The taxable value is only uncapped when the house is sold under state law.

Soldano vowed to do a forensic accounting of the budget because the spending growth is not sustainable. Soldano said he would "go through the budget line by line" and get rid of “needless spending.”

More unity against gun control

The four candidates were more unified in their opposition to gun control and abortion. Their comments on guns came after a mass shooting at a Monday Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park that killed seven people and wounded more than two dozen others.

"It’s not law-abiding citizens that are committing these crimes," Rinke said. "It’s kids, and it’s people who are criminals, who are sick mentally, who are socially outcast and abused in many instances by the people that they interact with daily."

Likewise, Kelley said criminals wouldn't follow new laws on guns.

Real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale said he wants to cap, cut and eventually eliminate property taxes. Property taxes have been capped in Michigan since the mid-1990s under Proposal A, the law backed by GOP former Gov. John Engler.

"Guns are not the problem," Kelley said.

Soldano focused on mental health.

"We do not have a gun problem," he said. "We have a mental health problem."

This year, Democrats in the state Legislature have pushed for new storage standards for firearms and background checks for firearm purchases.

How they stand on abortion

The GOP candidates also touted their stances on abortion, which has become a key topic in the election after the U.S. Supreme Court last month overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which had safeguarded abortion access nationwide.

While Whitmer has said she will "fight like hell" to protect abortion rights, Dixon described herself as "unequivocally pro-life." Soldano said he's against abortion with an exception to preserve the life of the mother.

“This is a legislative issue," Rinke said. "And the Legislature needs to represent the people of this state to determine what our path forward is."

Kelley has supported a longstanding Michigan law that bans abortion except to preserve the life of the mother. The state law can't be enforced in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision because a Michigan Court of Claims judge issued a preliminary injunction that prevents it from taking effect.

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the Republican candidates had "fought to stake out the most radical stances and again refused to offer any real solutions for Michigan families" at the debate.

"Rinke, Kelley, Dixon and Soldano laid out a dark vision for Michigan’s future, where anti-democracy conspiracy theories and dangerous abortion bans take priority, while progress on strengthening infrastructure is reversed, law enforcement funding is slashed, and public schools are dismantled," Barnes said.

Playing to Trump

The four Republican contenders at the debate were playing to both primary voters and former President Donald Trump, who hasn't endorsed a candidate in the race yet, said John Sellek, CEO of the Michigan political consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.

"I'd expect the Trump endorsement factor to be the elephant in the room, pushing candidates to play up to him because he would likely push one of the top four into a durable lead," Sellek said ahead of the debate.

Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano made a play for the support of former President Donald Trump during Wednesday night's debate, referring to Trump as "my president."

Multiple candidates specifically said they supported Trump on Wednesday, with Soldano calling him "my president."

Dixon, who has actively sought Trump's endorsement, including holding an early February fundraiser at his property in Florida, said the former president never got the attention he deserved for the good things he did.

"We have this focus on Jan. 6, where there were peaceful protesters and then some who disrupted the process," said Dixon of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to count the nation's electoral votes.

On Trump's unproven claims that fraud cost him Michigan's 2020 presidential election, Kelley pressed Rinke at one point for an answer about whether fraud directly swung the race.

Rinke had only said there were irregularities and fraud in the election.

"Ask him," Kelley told moderator Rick Albin of WOOD-TV about the question of whether fraud cost Trump the election. 

Albin moved on instead of pressing Rinke.

Dueling over DeVos family

In another tussle, Soldano and Dixon clashed over the fact that she's been endorsed by west Michigan's DeVos family. Soldano repeatedly labeled Dixon the "establishment-backed candidate."

"You are backed by the establishment. You are backed by the DeVos empire," Soldano said during a debate that took place at the Richard M. DeVos Center.

Dixon countered that Soldano had sought the same endorsements she had — an idea Soldano appeared to disagree with.

Pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills was the lone GOP candidate left out of the debate because he didn't meet the polling threshold set by the event's organizers. Candidates had to get 5% in independent polling to be invited, according to WOOD-TV.

In a statement, Rebandt criticized the policy and emphasized the large percentage of voters who remain undecided, according to multiple primary polls.

"In every poll that’s been taken, there’s been one consistent variable — at least 48%, as a low marker, to 66% as a high marker of Michigan voters are undecided, and in a race where no candidate has reached double digits, and where all candidates are within a few points of one another, it’s just plain poor journalism judgment to leave one candidate off the stage," Rebandt said.

Kelley has gained the political spotlight in recent weeks after he was arrested on June 9 on misdemeanor charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

He was scheduled to be arraigned at 10 a.m. Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., over 13 hours after the debate ended. However, Kelley has to appear only through a video connection, according to the court. The real estate broker has insisted he didn't enter the Capitol on Jan. 6.

During the debate, Kelley was asked about the events of Jan. 6, 2021. He said, "Jan. 6, 2021, back when gas was under $2 a gallon. Those were good times."

cmauger@detroitnews.com