Schuette hews to Snyder on economy, roads and Enbridge Line 5

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer shake hands after individual sessions infront of the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday, Oct. 31.

Detroit — With term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder refusing to endorse a successor, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer each used a Wednesday forum to court supporters of the Ann Arbor Republican. 

Schuette, the attorney general who has feuded with Snyder and prosecuted administration officials over the Flint water crisis, framed himself as the best candidate to continue economic gains made the past eight years under Snyder's watch. 

"Are we better off today than we were eight years ago?" Schuette told Detroit Economic Club members and guests during an event at the MotorCity Casino Hotel's Soundboard.  "Are we going to go forward or backward."

Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader who has also been critical of the administration's handling of the Flint water crisis, touted her work with Snyder to expand Medicaid eligibility as evidence of her ability to work with Republicans on big issues. 

"When Gov. Snyder embraced the Affordable Care Act, I crossed the aisle to work with him to get it done," she told the Economic Club six days before the Tuesday election. "I knew that despite the fact his party controlled both chambers of the state Legislature, there's no way he was going to get it done without my help."

The kind words for Snyder stopped there for Whitmer, who like Schuette, wants to repeal the so-called pension tax implemented when Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature eliminated a longstanding exemption as part of a 2011 tax code overhaul that cut business taxes.

Asked about the budgetary impacts, Whitmer said the cost of exempting pension income would get "smaller and smaller as people don't have pensions anymore." The statement contradicted a House Fiscal Agency analyst who told The Detroit News that the cost of repeal would "get bigger fairly quickly" as more people reach retirement age who would be subject to the tax.  

Schuette said he also wants to cut the state's personal income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent, similar to a proposal Snyder opposed last year on the grounds it would wreak havoc on the state budget. 

But Schuette linked himself to Snyder on other big issues, including road funding and replacement of Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

The Midland Republican said he supports "the approach taken by Gov. Snyder" to move the oil pipeline into a new tunnel that Enbridge would pay to construct deep under the lake bed.

The tunnel would allow for "visual inspection" of the pipeline to monitor for leaks, Schuette said. 

Whitmer disagreed with Schuette, saying she does not think Michigan should allow oil beneath the Great Lakes. 

"We need to get serious about eliminating corporate threats to our water," she said. 

On roads, Schuette suggested his relationships with Republican President Donald Trump and his administration would help him advocate for more federal highway funding, which Michigan is already generally maximizing. He also said he'd "complete" implementation of Snyder's 2015 road funding law to increase annual road funding by $1.2 billion.

"That's the way we pave our road to the future, not by raising taxes," Schuette said.

State transportation officials say the 2015 road funding law — which raised gas tax and registration fees and is phasing in a general fund diversion — will slow projected declined in road quality but not fully reverse the trend. 

Whitmer has proposed an additional $2 billion in annual state spending through an infrastructure bank that would fund road repairs and other projects, including upgrades to aging water and sewerage systems. If the Legislature is not willing to raise user fees, which could include gas taxes, Whitmer has said she'd ask voters to approve bonding. 

"If we're going to maintain our edge in mobility, we can't have roads that are downright dangerous," she said Wednesday. 

The Detroit Economic Club forum is likely the last joint appearance for Schuette and Whitmer ahead of Tuesday's election. Whitmer and other Democrats are scheduled to rally with former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday in Lansing. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway is set to campaign with Schuette and other Republicans that night in Sterling Heights.