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Election 2014: Snyder starts countering political jabs

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

With his job on the line, Michigan's confrontation-averse governor is starting to take on his critics after absorbing political jabs for four years with little response.

Gov. Rick Snyder has, in recent days, challenged criticism of his record. In TV ads and at town hall meetings with voters, the governor has touted his decision-making.

Gov. Rick Snyder is contesting a litany of television ads and attacks from Democratic challenger Mark Schauer that he slashed education funding $1 billion in 2011 to deliver a tax cut for businesses and the wealthy.

Snyder calls those claims "hogwash" and "lies" — a sharp change of tone in the self-described nerd's tempered rhetoric with just over four weeks until Election Day. He started the counter-offensive in a new TV ad that says he has increased education spending every year and Schauer cut it while in the Legislature.

"Enough is enough," he said in an interview with The Detroit News. "They've continued with the lie; it needs to be clarified."

Snyder said he'll use a series of campaign town hall meetings to address other "lies" about him "on a number of other fronts."

What the accountant-turned-governor considers a mathematical lie about education funding has morphed into a political liability. Snyder finds himself in a tight re-election battle against Schauer.

Snyder acknowledged he has shied away from engaging with adversaries about his more controversial decisions.

"One of the challenges I have is I'm after solving problems because I'm trying to reinvent Michigan," Snyder said.

"So I don't stop to do victory laps or credit laps after I do most of this stuff. I just say: What's the next issue? Let's go."

The governor has "missed some opportunities" to fire back at his critics earlier, potentially to the "detriment" of his re-election campaign, said John Truscott, a Republican political consultant not working for Snyder.

"He realizes he needs to do a little bit of it, but it's not in his nature," Truscott said. " ... And that's what has allowed this race to be closer than it should be."

Snyder is defending his record, while hinting about his priorities for the next four years if re-elected.

Snyder points to the near-end of Detroit's effort to shed $7 billion of debt in bankruptcy as a success under his leadership, while touting the addition of 400,000 low-income adults to a health insurance entitlement program that earned him scorn from many fellow Republicans.

"I would hope they have a good reason to vote for me — they now have medical care that they didn't have before," Snyder said about newly enrolled Medicaid recipients after becoming the second governor in history to be endorsed by the Michigan State Medical Society.

'Reinventing' plan targeted

Snyder spent his first term dealing with challenges ranging from the financial crises in Detroit and other urban communities to crumbling roads and bridges. Since former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and a split Legislature twice created chaos by failing to pass budgets before Sept. 30, Snyder and a GOP-controlled Legislature have approved four straight budgets by June — three months ahead of time.

He also signed laws to give emergency managers more power to tackle chronic municipal financial problems and the Medicaid expansion. His most controversial move was to sign in December 2012 a right-to-work law making union dues collection voluntary.

But it's Snyder's first-year actions of "reinventing" state government that Democrats have turned into a focus of the governor's race.

The changes include a $1.8 billion tax cut for businesses, reining in unionized government employee benefits and raising $1.2 billion in additional annual income tax revenue by eliminating popular deductions, credits and exemptions that hit the wallets of families, seniors and middle-aged retirees.

Snyder has no regrets about how he tackled a projected $1.5 billion budget deficit in his first year in office, arguing the tax on pensions was a matter of "fairness" to other workers among a rapidly aging population.

"We had to solve the deficit, and we made significant cuts to some areas," Snyder said.

Snyder's initial budget plan called for nearly $1 billion less funding for schools, with half the reduction due to the loss of short-term federal aid Granholm used to temper deep cuts to K-12 schools during the recession.

But Snyder and the Legislature refused to replace the lost federal dollars, resulting in a $470-per-pupil cut for schools in his first year.

Snyder said it's "not fair" to blame him for the loss of federal funds that the "prior administration" used to cover ongoing expenses.

"What they did was essentially extend out a runway until it wasn't on their watch any more so someone else could be blamed for it," Snyder said.

Contrary to Schauer's claims, the governor's proposed $1 billion cut never materialized after the state's tax revenue forecast improved and the Legislature adopted a less severe education spending plan.

But Schauer can correctly argue Snyder cut $1 billion in available funding for K-12 schools by eliminating $600 million in business taxes earmarked for schools and diverting $400 million from the School Aid Fund to universities and community colleges, said Mitch Bean, former director of the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

"The rhetoric that he's getting away with may be technically correct but obfuscates the data to no end," Bean said.

Economic gains touted

The governor can claim many legislative victories and has trumpeted the comeback of Michigan's economy. Michigan has added 233,200 payroll jobs since January 2011, according to state statistics, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.4 percent in August from 11 percent — tied for the sixth highest rate in the nation.

Republican allies questioned Snyder's campaign strategy in recent weeks before the counter-offensive, especially one TV ad where he looked into the camera and told voters that they might not feel like they are prospering "but you will soon."

"Why put a little caveat on all of these accomplishments?" asked Ken Sikkema, a former Republican Senate majority leader from suburban Grand Rapids.

But Snyder's efforts to solve the state's road funding deficit have largely fallen flat.

Lawmakers have made some one-time annual increases in road funding. But they have resisted the governor's call for double-digit increases in the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees to raise at least $1.2 billion more annually.

Snyder said this week he hopes the Legislature will renew debate on a road funding solution in the "lame duck" session in late November and early December — whether he's re-elected or not.

Looking ahead to a second term, Snyder says his No. 1 priority is expanding vocational education because thousands of job openings in the state can't be filled because of an unskilled workforce.

His broader agenda is less clear. He doesn't rule out overhauling how public schools are funded, but isn't offering particular solutions.

When Detroit presumably exits bankruptcy later this year, the city's financially struggling system of public education is his next priority.

"That's on my list as we resolve Detroit," Snyder told The News. "As we get to the end of the year, next year, I think we need to ask a lot of serious questions about ... education in Detroit."

In 2012, Snyder attempted to tackle Detroit's persistently failing schools by getting his emergency manager at DPS to transfer 15 city schools to a newly formed school reform district, the Education Achievement Authority.

Although the governor points to some success at EAA schools in getting students up to grade level, the authority has been plagued with financial problems, teacher turnover and declining enrollment. It has received intense political scrutiny from Democrats and public school advocacy groups.

Snyder is unapologetic about creating the EAA.

"These were the bottom-performing schools in the state of Michigan," he said.

The governor, however, concedes the EAA could have been better structured to have "feeder schools" geographically clustered together in Detroit, instead of spread out across the city.

Snyder said he wants to examine how to better manage the mishmash of schools operated by DPS, the EAA and charter schools within Detroit's boundaries. "We need to continue to work on higher standards of accountability in every school in Detroit," he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder has emphasized his decision-making skills when he speaks to the media and to voters in a series of town hall meetings.

Business-type events favored

Unlike Schauer, who relishes door-to-door campaigning, Snyder has largely shied away from political events. Snyder is not planning to attend a GOP event this morning in Livonia with 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and every other Republican at the top of the ticket because his campaign said he had a scheduling conflict.

Instead, Snyder has maintained a steady schedule of speaking at business-orientated events.

Snyder's first town hall meeting Monday night in Kalamazoo was a mostly friendly crowd of loyalists who applauded the governor repeatedly.

Battle Creek resident William Kelleher, 53, attended the town hall and said he's been impressed with Snyder's focus on paying down debt and rebuilding Michigan's economic image and cities.

Snyder often jokes 2038 will be a good year to be governor when the state has a "mortgage burning party" because of his emphasis on accelerating debt payments.

"He's the first person I've heard who is talking about 50 years, the future, not what gets him re-elected," Kelleher said. "And that's the kind of public servant we need."

Snyder has been lauded by business executives for making a policy decision and moving on to the next problem or issue — a skill most political observers say Granholm struggled with during her eight-year tenure.

"Gov. Snyder is not as good of a political campaigner (as Granholm), but is a very good decision maker," said Mike Jandernoa, former chairman of the Allegan-based pharmaceutical giant Perrigo Co. "He has the right heart and the right mind to make the best decisions for all Michiganders."

But Snyder's critics say some actions don't match the glowing vision he presented voters four years ago.

Snyder made clear in 2010 he would repeal the Michigan Business Tax, but he didn't say he would tax pensions or eliminate popular loopholes in the tax code to help pay for it. The new tax on some pensions generates $350 million annually.

"I feel betrayed," said Joe Anne Peterson, a retired Grand Rapids teacher. "He didn't come to us and say 'Help us out. We need help.' Rick Snyder took."

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Rick Snyder

Age: 56

Hometown: Superior Township (north of Ann Arbor)

Family: Wife, Sue; three adult children

Education: Bachelor's, master's and law degrees from the University of Michigan

Background: Certified public account; former executive at Gateway computers; venture capitalist and investor in startup companies; chairman of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation board under former Gov. John Engler