Snyder wants to create 'river of opportunity' for poor

Chad Livengood and Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday night he will focus on "revolutionizing" state government services in his second term to help Michigan's poorest and most disadvantaged residents get into the "mainstream" of the economy and society.

"I call it the river of opportunity," Snyder said during his fifth State of the State address before lawmakers and state officials.

Snyder said he wants to expand programs that put social service counselors inside schools to help address student absenteeism and help low-income parents get assistance and job training opportunities. Another program the governor promoted has focused on linking the habitually unemployed with companies that need low-skilled labor.

"It's about creating an opportunity for success, not facilitating dependency," Snyder said. "Let's ramp up these programs."

Snyder's emphasis on changing the way state workers treat residents seeking assistance for life's troubles came as he renewed his call on lawmakers to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians.

The governor asked fellow Republicans who dominate the Legislature to continue debating an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include anti-discrimination protections in the workplace, housing and public accommodations for the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

"Let's keep up that dialogue and let's show that we can deal with issues of discrimination in our state," Snyder said.

Snyder's fifth-year plans for streamlining state government services for the poor will begin in earnest with a merger of the Community Health and Human Services departments, said John Walsh, the governor's strategy director.

"This is truly an opportunity to revolutionize how we operate and realize we work for real people," Snyder said near the end of the speech. "They deserve results. They don't deserve to be a number in 15 different programs."

The Republican governor, who won re-election in November, also heralded the economic comeback of Michigan but said much more needs to be done during his second and final four-year term as the state's chief executive.

Lon Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, was skeptical of Snyder's new emphasis on helping lift people out of poverty after implementing a first-term agenda focused on the state's business environment.

"Lansing is drowning in a lake of lobbyists," Johnson said. "This governor has given this lake of lobbyists here in Lansing everything they've wanted while talking about a river of opportunity that's run dry for the people of Michigan."

Gay community reacts

Snyder's olive branch to the gay community comes as Michigan prepares to defend its voter-approved ban on gay marriage in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled for late April. Laws from Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee also had been upheld in a 2-1 ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges in other circuits have struck down bans on gay marriage, which led to the Supreme Court hearing.

Democrats stood and applauded the governor when he called for continued debate on gay rights.

"I thought it was a great Democratic speech by a Republican governor," said Rep. Henry Yanez, D-Sterling Heights.

A legislative effort to amend the civil rights law fizzled last month during the lame duck session when Democrats refused to vote for a bill that would not include specific protections for gender identity or expression that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates say is necessary to protect transgender people from discrimination.

"The governor simply remains committed to the issue and asks for a continuation of the debate," Walsh told reporters before the speech. "He thinks it's important for economic development and the dignity of citizens of our state."

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Republican senators are more focused on job creation than reprising last year's prickly arguments on gay rights.

"I don't see it as a top priority for the Senate," Meekhof told The Detroit News.

Last May, Snyder encouraged lawmakers to debate expanding Elliott-Larsen to include the LGBT community, but never made it a major part of his agenda as he sought re-election. He lent his tacit endorsement of the issue during the Mackinac Policy Conference just as a coalition of the state's largest businesses began advocating for expansion of the law to help recruit a diversified pool of workers.

Political observers and activists within the LGBT community were skeptical that Snyder could convince a more conservative Legislature to pass the gay rights legislation.

"His best chance would have been to ensure that this was passed last legislative session if he wanted to see the Republicans take the lead and go down in history as making this happen," said Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan. "If he can flip the script on this and still make sure that they have seized this opportunity to change their reputation on LGBT rights, this would be the time to do that."

Gay rights advocates have said they will not settle for a bill that does not include specific protections for gender identity.

"No one in the (LGBT) community has said 'OK forget it, let's go for a lesser version,'" said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the ACLU of Michigan.

New House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, previously told The News that he opposed a Republican-authored bill to extend the anti-discrimination protections to just gays and lesbians by adding "sexual orientation" to the list of protected classes under the law.

John Truscott, a Republican political consultant, said he thinks the new legislative leaders could still be persuaded to reconsider the issue.

"It would take a lot of political capital to get it done," Truscott said. "Sometimes when people take different leadership positions, their stances may have to evolve. Even though they may be personally against something, sometimes they have to let things come up for a vote."

Sales tax vote

Snyder used the speech to back a sales tax hike as part of a deal to hike annual spending on roads and bridges by $1.2 billion within three years.

"We need to do something folks," Snyder said about the road funding needs, "it's time to get it done."

Last month, the Legislature placed the sales tax increase on the May 5 ballot as part of a bipartisan deal to boost road funding, generate $300 million more annually for public education and restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, which Snyder reduced in his first year.

"Vote yes so we can have safer roads," Snyder urged. "Vote yes so we can get rid of crumbling bridges. Vote yes to give Michigan stronger schools and local governments."

Snyder's push for a 17 percent hike in the sales tax rate did not sit well with Terry Gunia, 61, a retired corrections officer from Muskegon.

Gunia said he has already been hit in recent years by Snyder's extension of the 4.25 percent individual income tax on his $20,000-a-year state pension and increases in hunting and fishing license fees.

"He's taxing us to death," Gunia said.

'We solve problems in Michigan'

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder used the end of his State of the State speech Tuesday night to draw comparison to his track record and that of President Barack Obama just an hour before the Democratic president gave his annual address to Congress.

"It's kind of interesting the timing of this event. In a couple of hours, you get to hear another speech," Snyder said. "And what I would say on that is I think it's a great opportunity to watch both speeches. And not just watch the speeches, but watch the outcome and results."

The governor added: "While we solve problems in Michigan, we have gridlock in Washington. And this is not a partisan comment folks — both sides have these issues."

Snyder got a standing ovation from fellow Republicans who dominated the Legislature when he uttered his trademark motto after commenting on partisan gridlock in Washington.

"And if you look at the positioning, they're already figuring out how to take shots at one another," Snyder said. "We don't do that here. Does it make a difference? It absolutely does. We use relentless positive action."

— Chad Livengood