Snyder, Schauer joust on schools, taxes, roads

Chad Livengood, and Jennifer Chambers

Detroit — Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer jousted Sunday evening over the governor's record on the economy, taxes, education and fixing bankrupt Detroit during a sometimes testy debate.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and his Democratic challenger Mark Schauer during Sunday’s televised town hall forum at Wayne State University.

Standing on a Wayne State University music hall stage during a fast-moving, one-hour forum, the usually confrontation-averse Snyder challenged Schauer's positions on issues ranging from taxing pension income, school funding and a state furniture contract from which his cousin benefits.

The Republican governor defended his controversial tax on pension income for individuals born after 1946 as "fairer" for all seniors because of a new tax exemption built in for all forms of income.

"If you think that's fair, no wonder our economy is not working," Schauer told the governor.

"I think it's fair to working seniors to say they deserve a break, people who didn't happen to have a certain type of income," Snyder retorted.

At one point, the governor complained his opponent used the pension tax question to bring up issues related to a furniture contract Snyder's cousin has and double-digit raises for some Treasury Department investment employees.

Snyder defended a furniture distribution contract his cousin, George Snyder, got under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm to install office equipment that Democrats have argued reeks of political cronyism.

"I think it's somewhat disgusting that he's impinging on a good person's name," Snyder said of Schauer. "It has nothing to do with me being governor. So this is, again, a professional politician making up stuff."

Both campaigns used the televised town hall forum to draw contrasts about their style, knowledge and approach to issues and governing.

Schauer, a former congressman from Battle Creek, repeatedly referred to the governor as "Rick," while Snyder called him "congressman."

"Rick cut taxes for business by $1.8 billion," Schauer said during one instance.

Schauer told to show respect

Republicans criticized Schauer for not addressing the sitting governor by his title.

"A little respect probably would have been appropriate," said Bobby Schostak, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

Schauer did not meet with reporters after the debate, despite a schedule that called for both candidates to answer questions separately. Schauer sent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and state Democratic Party chairman Lon Johnson to answer questions from reporters.

"Our governor's a very informal man. He doesn't wear a tie, his signs say Rick," Stabenow said. "I'm sure it wasn't a sign of any disrespect."

Whitmer, D-East Lansing, criticized Snyder for not having an opinion on gay and lesbian marriage "until a court decision comes out." The governor sidestepped questions about whether he would continue fighting a federal judge's ruling overturning Michigan's voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

"What we need from a governor is values, someone who is going to fight for people in this state," Whitmer said.

Candidates spar on Detroit

One of the more heated moments came when Schauer and Snyder sparred over the governor's involvement in Detroit's financial crisis. Schauer said he would have never allowed Detroit to cut earned pension benefits in violation of the state constitution.

Snyder defended his Detroit emergency manager's plan to impose pension reductions on some 23,000 city pensioners, noting federal bankruptcy supersedes the state constitution.

"It is constitutional," Snyder said. "A federal judge said that."

Schauer sidestepped Snyder's question about how he would have reduced Detroit's debts and liabilities without touching pensions.

"I would have never thrown Detroit city pensioners — police officers, firefighters — under the bus," Schauer said.

"We didn't leave them underneath the bus," Snyder responded. "We did the grand bargain."

Snyder got Republican and Democratic lawmakers to contribute $195 million in tax dollars to a pool of $466 million in pledges from foundations and private donors for pensioners.

The governor sought to highlight improvements in Detroit's governance, services and economic development and a double-digit decrease in violent crime in Detroit.

"Stop and think: Have you ever thought you'd see Detroit poised for a bright future as you've seen it today?" Snyder said.

Per-pupil funding argued

The debate began with Schauer accusing Snyder of cutting $1 billion from education, citing a Senate Fiscal Agency report as proof that such cuts "hurt our kids" and put them in more crowded classrooms. He argued that per-pupil funding in the classroom has been reduced.

Snyder denied the accusation, saying the year before he became governor the K-12 budget was $10.6 billion. The year it is $11.7 billion.

"I've been truthful about our numbers in education," Snyder said.

After initial cutbacks, overall spending on education is up $1.1 billion since Snyder took office. About $783 million more is going toward school employee pensions, while the governor has directed $175 million to expand public preschool.

"Why would we make that investment if we were cutting education?" Snyder said about the preschool funding.

Schauer said the impact of the governor's education policy can be found inside schools.

"There are less dollars in the classroom than before he became governor," he said.

Schauer, whose campaign is aided by teacher unions opposed to charter schools, said he would put a cap on charter schools if elected governor.

Snyder defended his decision to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can compete for students with traditional districts.

"Charter schools are giving parents choice because we've had a lot of failing schools in Michigan. They are not unregulated," he said.

Both candidates sought to push their vision for the next four years.

Schauer said Michigan needs a strategy to support its cities.

"The current system is broken. We need a strategy for municipal finance. We need to pull together our best ideas with local communities to design a partnership," Schauer said.

The governor said his top priority in a second term is to bring back skilled trades training.

Schauer, who served in the state House and Senate for 12 years, said the political culture in Lansing needs to change and argued he could more successful than Snyder

"We've seen the experiment of a CEO governor who doesn't know how to work with legislators," Schauer said.

Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed.