Susan J. Demas: How Gov. Rick Snyder May Have Flourished Under Divided Government

  Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Gov. Rick Snyder’s last two years in office will probably be unhappy ones if Democrats succeed this fall in wresting control of the state House.

He’s been noticeably absent from the campaign trail –– and not just because he refuses to endorse Donald Trump. No, the primary reason has been his administration’s myriad failures (and Snyder’s own collapsing numbers) due to the Flint water crisis.

The governor hasn’t been completely sidelined, of course. He’s been flexing his financial muscles with his new Relentless Positive Action PAC contributing to several House Republican incumbents, particularly vulnerable members like Reps. Holly Hughes (R-Norton Shores) and John Bizon (R-Battle Creek).

But let’s face it. Snyder’s final years are probably destined to be lackluster, at best, no matter what happens in November. Second-term governors usually hit a slump in their approval ratings no matter what. Voters get the six-year itch, which doesn’t help the governor’s party (although sometimes gerrymandering can be enough to salvage legislative seats).

And Snyder has been deeply wounded by his perceived incompetence and indifference regarding the public health catastrophe that’s merited international attention.

If Trump continues to tank at the top of the ticket, that may just be enough for Democrats to win a slim majority in the House –– although it can’t be underestimated how challenging it is for them to flip nine seats. As long as the party sticks together –– which has been a historical challenge –– it should be able to block much of the GOP agenda for the next two years.

What I would have liked to see, however, was how Snyder would have dealt with a Democratic House from the onset. I don’t think there’s any question that he would have been a much better governor (something many Republicans will say privately, as well).

For one thing, like governors before him –– William Milliken, James Blanchard, John Engler and Jennifer Granholm –– Snyder would have had to learn the art of legislative dealmaking. (No, not all of them were smashing successes on that front, but divided government necessitates trying). Especially given the fact that Snyder hailed from the CEO boardroom –– not the halls of government –– he could have used that crash course.

But he hasn’t had to compromise much, as he’s enjoyed his party controlling both chambers of the Legislature (as well as the Michigan Supreme Court) for his entire tenure since 2011. That’s enabled Snyder to pass the crown jewel of his governorship, his sweeping tax reform of 2011, which included an almost $2 billion business tax cut.

The governor has also won other big conservative victories: the Emergency Manager law, Personal Property Tax reform, regulatory reform, charter school expansion, workers’ compensation benefit cuts, the 48-month cap on welfare and cuts to unemployment benefits.

But Snyder has had to swallow some tradeoffs in working with a GOP-led Legislature, which has only shifted further to the right in this last term.

So he’s signed a slew of right-wing legislation that wasn’t “on his agenda”: abortion restrictions, the ban on LGBT couples adopting children, the straight-ticket voting ban, the Oakland County redistricting redo and, of course, Right to Work.

No one really believes Snyder is a rabid partisan or true-believer culture warrior, but acting as such has been the price of doing business with those who are. If he’d had a Democratic House to tangle with, however, he could have blamed it for blocking the far-right agenda (and a smart speaker would have played along with the political kabuki to win concessions in fiscal and education policy).

A Democratic House also could have provided Snyder with some much-needed votes for his more moderate policy objectives, like the long-delayed Medicaid expansion and his half-a-loaf road funding plan. And some of these initiatives, like the state-run Obamacare health exchange, rotted on the vine.

Perhaps having a check on complete Republican power could have prevented some black eyes on Snyder’s record, like alleged abuses at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, as well as and health and criminal infractions related to a private food service contact in prisons.

It’s doubtful that the biggest tragedy on Snyder’s watch, the Flint water crisis, could have been averted completely. But perhaps residents would have been helped sooner if Democrats had held some power in Lansing. Sometimes partisanship can reap rewards.

It’s not unreasonable to presume this would have happened. Democrats represent Flint, so they have a reason to rapidly respond to the needs of their constituents. They would also have naked political reasons to question the Snyder administration. More importantly, they’d have had the latitude to take some action.

Consider the fact that House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) have certainly clashed with the governor on politics and policy. But they’ve have unquestionably served as key allies on Flint.

The now-shuttered legislative panel investigating the water crisis never called Snyder to testify –– saving him hours of embarrassment (which he already been subjected to during a congressional hearing). And the Legislature has made no move to question the $3.4 million in legal fees Snyder has racked up and charged to taxpayers.

Surely the governor couldn’t have expected such a soft touch from a Democratic-controlled Legislature, or even just the House. But as a result, there are scores of unanswered questions about the crisis. And who knows how many more millions citizens will have to pay for the governor’s lawyers.

It’s widely expected that the next governor will be a Democrat, although more than two years remain before the 2018 election. But if that happens, s/he will almost certainly have a GOP Senate to contend with, as it’s currently split 27-11.

Given the partisan excesses Michigan has endured under one-party rule for the last six years, however, that may not be a bad thing.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.