Voters get chance to size up gov hopefuls side by side

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Retired postal worker Laura Myles is unhappy with Gov. Rick Snyder for making her federal government pension subject to the state income tax.

But the 59-year-old Cheboygan woman is not necessarily ready to vote for Snyder's opponent, Mark Schauer, largely because she doesn't know much about the former congressman and state legislator from Battle Creek — or what he'd do if elected governor.

"All I know is what I've seen on TV, and I really haven't seen much about (Schauer) at all," said Myles, a self-described independent voter. "All the commercials we see up here are negative. You don't know what is true and what is a lie."

The two men will speak directly to a room of undecided voters Sunday night during a televised town hall forum at Wayne State University in Detroit — likely their only debate-style meeting of the campaign.

A Detroit News-WDIV Local 4 poll conducted Oct. 2-4 showed Snyder building an 8-percentage-point lead over Schauer, an improvement from September polling that showed the race was a dead heat with Snyder holding a 2-point lead.

Gov. Rick Snyder, left, Mark Schauer

But 14.7 percent of the likely voters surveyed by Glengariff Group Inc. said they remain undecided. And which side they choose could be crucial to the outcome, pollster Richard Czuba said.

In the pool of undecided voters, 59 percent described themselves as independent, while 29 percent said they are "strong Democratic" voters and the remaining 11 percent identified as "strong Republican."

It's this group of Democratic-leaning undecided voters that Schauer's campaign argues it can appeal to on pocketbook issues, such as Snyder's pension tax.

"From our perspective, this election comes down to one fundamental question: Are Rick Snyder's policies working for you or your family?" said Zack Pohl, communications director of Schauer's campaign. "Our contention is his policies are only working for corporations and the wealthy."

The News-WDIV poll suggests the pension tax remains one of Snyder's electoral vulnerabilities, which likely explains why Schauer is intertwining it with a new television ad mostly focused on the governor's business tax cut.

When the pension tax changes are explained — without mentioning Snyder by name — 68 percent of likely voters said they disagree with the tax on pension income, while 23 percent said they agree with the move. There was a plus-minus margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Snyder defends tax

In recent weeks, Snyder has been defending the tax on pensions as a matter of fairness to older residents who are still working and paying the 4.25 percent income tax.

In 2011, Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature removed all income tax exemptions on private and public pensions for anyone born after 1952. They also exempted the first $20,000 for individuals and $40,000 for couples for pension recipients born between 1946 and 1952.

Government pension income for residents born prior to 1946 remains tax free. Private-sector pensions for retirees born before 1946 that exceed $48,302 for individuals and $96,605 for married couples continue to be taxed, as was the case before Snyder and lawmakers created today's three-tier system.

Retirees like Myles contend it's unfair to tax their pension after they worked under the assumption that it would be tax-free income in retirement. "You work all your life for that, then all of sudden they come and kick it out from under you," she said.

Snyder, who originally wanted to tax all pension income, makes no apologies for forcing thousands of pensioners to contribute an estimated $350 million more annually to the state's coffers.

"Did I get a lot of criticism? Yeah. But somebody needed to do it," Snyder said in an interview Monday with The Detroit News editorial board.

Schauer and Snyder will face off for an hour at 6 p.m. Sunday on Detroit Public Television, which is co-sponsoring the debate with The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.

Czuba, the pollster, doubts the debate will affect the trajectory of the race.

"The only time a debate matters is when someone screws up big," said Czuba, a former aide to Republican ex-Gov. John Engler. "From the governor's point of view, it's stick to your message and don't make a gaffe. I think there's a lot more riding for Mark Schauer."

An audience of undecided voters who will ask questions of Snyder and Schauer were selected by Czuba's Glengariff Group and Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA.

Some undecided voters reject choosing between Snyder and Schauer in favor of a third-party long shot candidate.

Voter grumbles

"I'm tired of having to vote for the lesser of two evils," said Adam Skyles, 37, of Canton, who was laid off from his high school teaching job in Highland Park schools by Snyder's emergency manager. "There's not much I really like about (Schauer). He doesn't present to me that he's going to do anything different."

Lee Allen, a 65-year-old General Motors retiree from Midland, also was among the undecided voters who participated in the recent News-WDIV poll. Even though his pension has been subject to Snyder's income tax changes, Allen said he made up his mind after learning Schauer supports allowing women to choose whether to abort an unwanted pregnancy.

"I wasn't pleased with the activities of Snyder, but Schauer is what they consider pro-choice," Allen said. "I just can't go with anybody that supports abortion. I can be a one-issue person on that."

About the forum

Who: Rick Snyder, Mark Schauer

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Wayne State University

TV/radio: Channel 56, WDIV, WXYZ, WKAR-TV and others; WWJ 950AM