Rick Snyder

Susan J. Demas: Snyder, Trump Loom Large in 2018 Election

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Rick Snyder is the eighth-most unpopular governor in the country. President Donald Trump’s approval ratings hang below 40 percent in Michigan.

And yet plenty of Republicans seem to be in denial about what an albatross these leaders could be in the 2018 election — which is now just nine months away.

It’s not completely unexpected. Michigan voters tend to tire of the party that’s been in power for awhile. The GOP has run the state since 2011 and has had total control of Washington since 2017.

And 2018 doesn’t seem to dissimilar to the 2010 election, which was a referendum on a term-limited governor and new president, who were both Democrats. In that case, Jennifer Granholm was less popular than Snyder is, but Barack Obama fared better than Trump in Michigan.

Republicans ended up winning it all in ‘10: the governorship, attorney general and secretary of state, as well as majorities in the congressional delegation, state House, state Senate and state Supreme Court.

Now things don’t look quite that rosy for Democrats in ‘18 (for one thing, the GOP’s mad redistricting skillz mean big advantages in legislative and congressional districts). But the Dems are certainly better positioned for gains than they have been since 2012, when Obama won re-election and carried the state by 9.5 points.

Trump-supporting conservatives can’t get over that the first Republican to win Michigan in 28 years could now be a drag on the party. He’s fired up the base and helped the GOP make gains in key areas like Macomb County and the Upper Peninsula. And to be honest, many hardcore Trumpers live in a Fox News-Breitbart-InfoWars bubble where the president is always winning, no matter what the polls say or how many people from his campaign are indicted.

But in politics, a couple years can be a lifetime. Obama won Michigan by 16 points in 2008, but his party went down in flames in the 2010 midterms. Trump only triumphed in Michigan by roughly 10,000 votes in 2016, so it’s not really unimaginable that the GOP gets wrecked this year.

Meanwhile, many establishment Republicans aren’t shedding too many tears over Trump’s stumbling. But it’s another story when it comes to Snyder, our CPA governor who made most of their business tax-cutting dreams come true.

Plenty of Michigan Republicans are deeply in denial that Snyder could be in the same role as his predecessor was during the 2010 election. After all, Michigan’s unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, down from 13.9 percent at the same time in the 2010 cycle. It’s obvious that Granholm was terrible for the economy and Snyder ushered in “Michigan’s comeback.”

But it would seem that voters aren’t quite buying the hype. Snyder is less popular than other Great Lakes GOP governors also elected in 2010, like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. And the Detroit News’ latest polling shows 35 percent think Michigan is doing better than in 2010, 33 percent say it’s the same and 26 percent say it’s worse.

News editorial page Editor Nolan Finley seemed positively flabbergasted at Michiganders’ ungrateful response: “Just one-third recognize the remarkable progress Michigan has made during that period. In Detroit, the city Snyder saved, three-quarters think he’s done a terrible job. How could that be?”

Well, let’s start with the economy. Michigan has certainly rebounded from the Great Recession. But who gets credit? It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that question asked. It’s probably worth considering that Obama has polled better in Michigan than Trump or Snyder. In the city of Detroit, Obama and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan fare far better than any Republican.

It’s also true that the the recovery hasn’t been even and people tend to gauge progress based on what’s going on in their own lives. The recession hung on in some corners of Michigan until 2013. From 2010 to 2014, the U.S. Census shows poverty shot up 17 percent and median household income dropped 8.7 percent. In 2017, Michigan only added 44,000 jobs (half of our 2016 total) and real disposable income only grew .8 percent.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP frontrunner to succeed Snyder, has identified another reason some Michiganders might be anxious. Many of us are actually paying more in taxes now than we did under Granholm (though Schuette is still using her as the boogeyman). Snyder’s ballyhooed corporate tax cut in 2011 was partially paid for by $1.4 billion in individual tax increases. So Schuette has made tax cuts the centerpiece of his campaign.

There’s also far more to running a state than just the economy. Snyder burned through a lot of goodwill when he cut education funding early on, gave in on Right to Work, signed anti-LGBT adoption legislation and dragged his feet in helping thousands of people falsely accused of unemployment fraud.

And then, of course, there’s Flint.

Finley scoffed that Granholm “had no clue how to manage a crisis. Everything she attempted made things worse.” But you could say the same thing about Snyder’s shameful handling of the Flint water crisis. Twelve people died of Legionnaires’ disease, lead-poisoned water had a “horrifyingly large” effect on fetal deaths and many of the 99,000 people who drank the water are still dealing with the impact of elevated lead levels, especially children.

Snyder waited halfway through his last State of the State address last week to even mention Flint and quickly returned to happy talk about the “comeback.”

You can pretend people don’t notice things like that. You can insist that they’re misguided or too stupid to realize how awesome things are now. But good luck winning elections that way.  

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.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan Republicans Face Landmines with Trump Tax Hike

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Right before Christmas, President Trump signed a Republican tax bill that will raise taxes in Michigan by about $1.5 billion every year.

That’s because the law eliminates the personal exemption, which is $4,000 in Michigan. It’s true that blue states like California and New York have been gouged the most by the plan. That’s by design, as even The Hill declares that red states are using blue states “as their new piggy bank in the GOP Congress.”

But sadly, even newly minted Trump states like Michigan weren’t spared in the tax bill. So that’s left GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature to scramble to fix what the feds have done.

It’s somewhat unusual for Michigan Republicans to try and reverse their Republican brethren in Washington, but it’s a political necessity. The bill has consistently been unpopular, with a majority firmly opposed in several polls. The fact that the Senate rammed it through in the dead of night with handwritten changes scratched in the margins probably didn’t help. (Remember Republicans’ adorable cries of “Read the bill!” during the Obamacare debate?)

Arguing that people aren’t particularly swift and don’t get it probably isn’t a winning argument for the GOP in an election year.

But Republicans — particularly gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette — have to do a lambada-like dance around the fact that their proposals are fixing what Trump has done.

Because if there’s one thing we know about the Trump voters needed to win the August GOP primary, it’s that they don’t take kindly to questioning anything that Dear Leader does. No matter how many times the president erratically speaks, threatens nuclear war over Twitter, or tries to meddle in the federal investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, the Trump diehards still support him, as we know from the countless media sojourns into flyover country. (The pro-Trump Michigan Conservative Coalition even deploys a Trump lookalike to cultishly trot around events around the state, which is definitely not weird).

On the surface, the tax fix shouldn’t be hard for Snyder, who refused to endorse Trump. But his No. 1 mission to salvage his badly damaged legacy after the Flint water crisis is to get Calley elected. And nobody is going to win a GOP primary by taking on Trump.

So while proposing his plan to restore the personal exemption in Michigan, Snyder made some references to Congress but has carefully tried to avoid the “T-word.” His treasurer, Nick Khouri, gave an assist by arguing that the exemption elimination was an “unintended consequence” of the GOP tax bill.

Snyder’s proposal is simple and makes some economic sense. But the politics are always trickier, so he’s sweetening the deal by increasing the exemption to $4,500 in 2021. That way, the GOP can bill it as a tax cut. And conveniently, any hit to the state budget will be a problem for the next governor and Legislature to solve.

Meanwhile, Schuette, who has won Trump’s endorsement and has sought to tie himself to the president’s hip, is taking the D.C. tax plan lemon and trying to make lemonade.

The centerpiece of Schuette’s campaign is that he’ll kill the Jennifer Granholm income tax hike. A few quick facts: The Democrat hasn’t been governor since 2010 and the tax increase passed the GOP-led Senate during her tenure. Furthermore, Michigan has had a Republican governor and Legislature for the last seven years. Instead of killing the income tax, they enacted in 2011 a $1.4 billion tax hike on individuals to help pay for an almost $2 billion corporate tax cut.

The Trump tax plan would seem to put Schuette in a bind and undermine his core message. But never underestimate the AG’s political skill.

First, he blithely celebrated Republicans for cutting taxes at the federal level. Then he pivoted by calling for Michigan Republicans to “finally eliminate the Granholm income tax increase.”

It’s a pretty ingenious play. Schuette doesn’t just manage to avoid criticizing Trump and congressional Republicans for their tax hike on Michigan. He actually turns this political liability into an opportunity to return to his campaign message of bashing the Granholm boogeyman. This strategy, of course, ignores objective reality, but Schuette benefits from an environment where many reporters fret that they’ll be accused of bias just for performing the simple act of fact-checking.

Schuette proposes rolling back the state income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent, which Khouri pointed out would disproportionately favor the wealthy (on top of what the congressional tax bill already did). Naturally, Schuette’s GOP allies in the Legislature think that’s a fine idea.

It seems clear that the tax cleanup debate will devolve into a proxy war between Calley and Schuette. So we can probably expect that politics will trump good policy.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Republicans Would Like You To Kindly Forget They’ve Raised Your Taxes

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History, as we all know, is written by the winners. And in Michigan, Republicans have been on a nearly seven-year winning streak, controlling all three branches of state government.

So Republicans, led by Attorney General Bill Schuette, the likely 2018 gubernatorial nominee, have been spinning a pretty convincing horror story about the diabolical Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm tax hikes a decade ago. The only way to destroy them is to elect Schuette and Republicans next year, of course.

This is a very smooth talking point. Plenty of people will believe it just because everyone knows Democrats are tax ‘n’ spend fiends while Republicans despise taxes more than venereal disease.

There are just three big facts that annihilate this premise: The 2007 tax hikes were a bipartisan affair; Republicans under Gov. Rick Snyder raised taxes even more in 2011 and again in 2015; and the GOP has been in power for seven years and could have chopped your tax bill at any time.

If any of this is news to you, that may be because most of Michigan’s political reporters didn’t cover the ‘07 theatrics and plenty weren’t even there for Snyder’s ‘11 tax hikes. Most lawmakers from those sessions have been term-limited and even many knowledgeable staffers have departed the Capitol.

But facts are stubborn things and shouldn’t be forgotten. And as someone who has been around for all of this tax drama, I’ll volunteer to be the annoying voice of intellectual honesty.

Let’s start in 2007, a frenzied time of a short-lived government shutdown and all-night sessions when lawmakers (and even a few reporters) were reduced to sleeping on the Capitol floor. Michigan was dead broke, thanks to a recession that actually started on the watch of GOP then-Gov. John Engler.

Granholm struck a deal with then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) to temporarily raise the state income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent. As the Senate was GOP-controlled, the plan had to have R votes to pass, and it did. So Bishop, now a congressman, can truthfully state he wasn’t one of them, but he certainly did sign off on the tax hike deal.

They also made a mess of the sales tax and eventually fixed it with a Michigan Business Tax (MBT) surcharge. Fun times.

So when Snyder was elected three years later, the Republican’s first order of business was to slay the MBT. Most economists agreed it was a terribly structured tax, so that was all well and good, but Snyder’s plan for a $2 billion corporate tax cut did have a rather big problem.

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You see, unlike the federal government, Michigan can’t run a deficit. So in order to make up for the $2 billion hit to the state budget, Snyder proposed budget cuts and — get this — a $1.4 billion tax increase on individuals. The income tax stayed locked at 4.35 percent the first year and then would stick at 4.25 percent.

But the real hit to taxpayers’ wallets was getting rid of tax deductions for basic things like owning a home, having kids, donating to charity, saving for retirement, and paying for kids’ college. Suddenly, plenty of people used to receiving tax refunds in April were socked with bills for thousands of dollars.

That was fun, too.

But because Snyder and Republicans weren’t ready to quit their tax-hike addiction, they followed all that up in 2015 with the first gas tax hike in 20 years. By upping the tax from 19 cents to 26.3 cents, Michigan vaulted into the top five states, per the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

In return, we were supposed to get better roads and bridges. Now maybe you’ve met someone who thinks they’re driving on fewer potholes now; I’ve yet to interview anyone who does.

Since Jan. 1, 2011, we’ve had a GOP governor, House, Senate and Supreme Court. The GOP could have cut taxes for folks at any time. But even this winter, the Republican-led House failed to pass an income tax cut.

Now Schuette wants us to believe that Democrats somehow are to blame for all these tax hikes and only electing Republicans in ‘18 can save us.

Republicans have failed to protect taxpayers time and time again in the last decade. That’s their record. They can’t rewrite history.

If they want us to believe that things will be different this time around, they should have to answer for their record.

But they’re probably banking on a weakened and neophyte media and a demoralized Democratic Party to save them from tough questions. And to be honest, that’s not a bad bet to make.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Snyder Decides It’s Necessary To Destroy His Legacy To Save It

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Some days, it feels like Gov. Rick Snyder is just going through the motions, running out the clock until December 31, 2018.

Gone are his peppy promises of working in “dog years” on his agenda, complete with PowerPoint-heavy special messages on problems he’d quickly dispatch with “Relentless Positive Action.” His zest for playing the “One Tough Nerd” persona that got him elected has certainly faded.

Snyder isn’t the first governor to get worn down by the job. Running a state home to 10 million people and a $57 billion budget is no easy task.

And many critics, myself included, noted Snyder’s predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, seemed to be looking for the exits in her last two years. As the Great Recession barreled through Michigan, she was constantly tormented by rumors the Obama administration would tap her for a cabinet or Supreme Court slot.

Snyder isn’t looking for his next political gig, however. Oh, there was a time when he was the belle of the pragmatic conservative ball. Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley started breathlessly banging the Snyder-for-president drum in the summer of 2014. A fews months later, Ron Fournier, now of Crain’s Detroit, tweeted: “Watch this Snyder guy in 2016. He gets stuff done.”

But now, in a time when the national media churn out endless speculative candidate stories, Snyder’s name is never mentioned to challenge U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) in ‘18 or for any other high-ranking job. And no reporter even bothers to explain why.

Because everyone has heard of the Flint water crisis. And no one waxes eloquent about Snyder’s decisive leadership and innovative data-driven approach anymore.

Of course, President Trump has never been one to hold failure against anyone (the thrice-bankrupt real estate developer has seen fit to hire several alumni of Goldman Sachs, which helped cause the aforementioned Great Recession). But Snyder shot himself in the leg there, as he refused to endorse Trump. So Snyder can’t really pin his hopes on an administration post, no matter how many people quit.

Flint has irrevocably diminished Snyder’s governorship. But the curious thing is that he seems content to finish the job himself.

Snyder could have helped rehabilitate himself by leading the conservative opposition to Trump’s authoritarian nativism, as I noted after the election. He already made himself a powerful enemy by withholding his endorsement, so why not stick to core principles and send a powerful message as a Rust Belt governor?

Naturally, that was expecting too much of Snyder. But he did manage to surprise even some cynics like me by backing away from two big fights that defined him in the media as a “moderate” governor: immigration and health care.

After declaring himself to be the “most pro-immigration governor in the country” back in 2011, Snyder refused to condemn Trump’s Muslim ban in a mush-mouthed statement. He also said nothing when ICE agents raided a restaurant (after enjoying breakfast there first) in his hometown of Ann Arbor.

And the governor has failed to lead the fight against deporting Chaldeans, Iraqi Christians who fled their war-torn homeland for metro Detroit. That decision is a humanitarian travesty, but it’s also politically perplexing one, as Chaldeans are a fundraising force in the GOP.

Perhaps Snyder’s biggest success was getting the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare through the hostile GOP-led Legislature. Not only has that made it possible for almost 700,000 more Michiganders to have health insurance, but it’s also generated more than $550 million for the state budget in 2016, according to a University of Michigan study.

Medicaid is under attack from Republicans in Washington desperately trying to repeal Obamacare. So where’s Rick Snyder?

He’s been conspicuously absent from the bipartisan group of 10 governors working on health care solutions. They most recently opposed the Graham-Cassidy bill, while Snyder was still hemming and hawing. Studies show the plan would cost Michigan $8 billion, but that won’t really hit until long after he moves out of the governor’s mansion.

So should we conclude that Snyder has just given up on his legacy?

Actually, I believe it’s quite the opposite. Snyder’s lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, would like nothing more than to succeed him. But most politicos doubt he can win. In the GOP primary, he would face Attorney General Bill Schuette, an ace fundraiser and politician who likely started to practice his inauguration speech during kindergarten recess.

Calley is weighed down by Snyder’s dismal poll numbers and has his own problems with the base, as he unendorsed Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape. The LG is trying desperately to prove his conservative cred with his part-time legislature gambit, but he has a lot of ground to make up.

If Calley can somehow pull it off and become Michigan’s 49th governor in spite of Trump, Flint and a restless electorate, that would be quite the vindication for Rick Snyder.

So no, he’s not going to tangle with Trump. He’s not going to stand up against ICE raids and 700,000 people losing health care. He’s not going to do anything that will hurt Calley.

Snyder has decided that’s the way to salvage his legacy — even if it means sitting back while many of his accomplishments unravel.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Republicans Win Rumbles in Michigan, but Stumble in D.C.

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With the Hindenburg-like implosion of the GOP health care legislation this week, it’s become fashionable in Washington to say that Republicans just don’t know how to govern anymore.

While President Obama was in office, Republicans proved to be a ruthlessly capable opposition party, holding hostage the once-routine debt ceiling negotiations, forcing a partial government shutdown in 2013, and undermining Obamacare, even though repeal was impossible. That was largely due to the dogged determination of then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Now the GOP now holds the White House, as well as majorities in Congress and even on the U.S. Supreme Court. And yet the party has been fecklessly unable to win its longstanding agenda, including killing Obamacare, enacting sweeping tax cuts for the rich, and chopping entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. President Trump’s dark populist priorities of a “big, beautiful” wall with Mexico and a border tax are also rotting on the vine.

The lore of McConnell being the “dark lord” of the Senate has definitely taken a hit. So has Trump’s reputation as the consummate dealmaker, as his business experience hasn’t translated at all to the world of D.C. By all accounts, the president has been supremely bored by the health care process and left negotiations up to congressional leaders, with his only goal to sign something — anything — so as to declare victory and stick it to Obama.

Most conservative triumphs this year have come in the form of Trump’s executive orders rolling back environmental protections and fiscal regulations (i.e. the sort of imperial presidency actions for which Republicans eviscerated Obama).

We’re only six months into Trump’s term, so there’s still time to rack up wins. But we’re also less than six months away from 2018, and congressional leaders are typically loath to ram unpopular bills through during election years when voters pay more attention.

And there’s another bright red roadblock. The ever-widening Russia scandal that’s engulfing Trump, his family and top campaign aides is threatening to derail what conservatives believed was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shrink the size and scope of government and rewrite the tax code.

While Republican voters may be incensed by FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and insist it’s a “nothingburger,” smarter politicians and strategists are dissolving into night terrors with each new revelation.

This is all “very bad” and “Sad!” as our president might tweet. But I’m not sure that the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party only excels as an obstructionist force is correct.

It’s easy to imagine a more competent and less tainted GOP president — say, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or even prickly Ted Cruz — cajoling members of Congress with far more success. It would still be difficult to pass a complete repeal of Obamacare, but a less ambitious conservative health bill — marshalled by a Republican president not subject to social media war whims or Vladimir Putin’s charms — likely could glide through Capitol Hill.

While this is a hypothetical scenario, we do have some real-world examples of Republican success at the state level. Many states have enjoyed complete GOP control this decade, including Wisconsin, Ohio and, of course, Michigan. And Republicans have been able to achieve some stunning conservative victories.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was no true-blue conservative’s first choice. He’s occasionally bucked his party on major issues, like championing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and several minor ones, like vetoing the Right to Life license plate (which the savvy lobbying group will just turn into a fundraising opportunity and an ‘18 candidate litmus test).

But Snyder has presided over a right-wing agenda that probably makes former Gov. John Engler pickle with envy. From Right to Work to huge business tax cuts to cuts to welfare and teacher pensions, Michigan has taken a hard right-hand turn — which won’t be undone, even if Democrats recapture the governor’s mansion next year.

That’s not to say that Snyder and more conservative legislative leaders have always had the same priorities or styles. The governor has privately and publicly chafed with many of them.

One of the primary issues is that Snyder, a former CEO, would like legislators to function more as his employees than a co-equal branch of government. But in the era of term limit-fueled inexperience and hyperpartisanship, there have been few big flare-ups.

You would expect this dynamic with Trump and Congress, but the president has curiously ceded most of his agenda to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).

So far, however, there’s one clear parallel between Michigan and Washington. Each legislative branch has been willing to give the executive branch a pass — and even play interference — during a major scandal.

Snyder and his team escaped long, ruinous legislative hearings over the Flint water crisis, as Republicans had no appetite for flagellating one of their own. And thus far, Trump has benefited from lax congressional oversight of his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, and Ryan and McConnell have refused to engage much with the media on the firestorm.

For now, Republicans at both the state and national level seem resigned to the fact that they’re all playing on the same team, whether they like it or not. Hope for enacting their right-wing agenda springs eternal.

We’ll see if it lasts.

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.

 

Susan J. Demas: Snyder Doesn’t Really Seem Like the Most ‘Pro-Immigration’ Governor Anymore

In 2011, Rick Snyder proudly declared that he was “probably the most aggressive, pro-immigration governor in the country.” His main argument was that it can create jobs, pointing to immigrant-founded companies like Dow and Meijer that built Michigan.

Championing immigration was a position that put Snyder at odds with his own Republican Party, even back then, as it was a hot-button issue in the 2012 presidential primary. It seems almost quaint now, but eventual nominee Mitt Romney ran to the right, calling for “self-deportation.”

It’s a whole new ballgame now under President Donald Trump, who ran on an explicitly anti-immigrant platform and called Mexicans “rapists” on the campaign trail. There’s always been speculation that that’s one reason why Snyder never endorsed him, unlike most Republicans.

As president, Trump has repeatedly fired off incendiary texts about terrorist attacks well before all the facts are in. He tried and failed repeatedly to defend his Muslim ban in court.

So did Snyder stand up against it? Not really. He already called for a “pause” on Syrian refugees in 2015. In a mushy statement that first extolled Michigan’s tradition of immigrant entrepreneurship, the governor then said: “The President’s 120-day reassessment period is leading to a much-needed national dialogue on immigration policy, and I plan to be part of that discussion.”

That was strike one. Strike two came last month when ICE agents enjoyed a lovely breakfast at a restaurant in Snyder’s home town of Ann Arbor and then proceeded to detain three workers there. The brazenness of ICE agents — who have been stepping up raids since Trump was sworn in — made national news. But Snyder, who recently bought a $2 million loft downtown (the pics are gorg, as the Kardashians say), once again stayed silent.

Then this month, ICE arrested dozens of Iraqi Christian immigrants in metro Detroit. They risked everything to flee persecution. Now they face a “death sentence” if they’re sent back to Iraq. And still, Snyder hasn’t lifted a finger.

This is all disturbing from a moral standpoint. What is it that Rick Snyder really stands for if “the most pro-immigration governor in the nation” can’t weigh in on unjust acts against immigrants?

It seems that, once again, the governor is being cowed by the far-right of his party, like when he demonstrated no discernible backbone on LGBT rights or Right to Work.

But Snyder’s fumble on the safety of Iraqi Christians is particularly curious from a political standpoint.

The Chaldean community is a vibrant, entrepreneurial and generally conservative one in southeast Michigan. They’re very politically active, from generous political donations to filing suit against a new mosque in Sterling Heights. Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Twp.), who’s Chaldean, is mulling a 2018 bid for attorney general.

So you’d think that Snyder would condemn the attack on Iraqi Christians just because it’s politically savvy to do so in Michigan, even if he’s not overly concerned that it’s the right thing to do.

If Chaldeans continue to feel abandoned by Republicans, that could have an impact on 2018, especially in some key metro Detroit state House districts.

Perhaps the governor will reverse course and reassert his “pro-immigration” stance. But for now, his silence is deafening.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Yes, Snyder Will Cave and Kill Teacher Pensions

Let me help you skip to the end of this story. Yes, of course, Michigan will kill pensions for teachers.

And I’ll tell you why. Gov. Rick Snyder wants the state budget done. And when push comes to shove, he rarely fights for the right thing. All you have to do is remember how he’s folded on Right to Work, unnecessary abortion restrictions and the anti-LGBT adoption law. And for good measure, consider how much Snyder has tried to ingratiate himself to President Donald Trump, who’s only delighted in humiliating the guv because he made a big show of being too principled to endorse him.

Then there’s the budget. The first thing you have to know is that ending the pension system is not critical to passing next year’s budget. It’s not going to save us money. To the contrary, the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency says it could cost us $46.2 billion (billion with a “B”) over 40 years to shutter the system.

So using the budget as cover is just about legislative leaders exercising leverage. They considered springing the pension issue during the lame duck session last December, when Republicans were totally pumped up after their big electoral win.

But you’ve got to hand it to Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and company. Holding the budget hostage over this issue that so delights their donors is a great idea from a purely political standpoint.

Our CPA governor can’t stand that. You see, Snyder is a businessman. He is a strong fiscal steward, unlike that liberal woman he preceded (Jennifer Granholm, in case you’re interested), and the budget has always been done by early June because of the great Michigan Comeback (and the fact that we no longer have divided government, so Republicans can basically do whatever they want).

Now Snyder is having a sad because it is already almost mid-June and the budget is still not on his desk. Republican legislators usually like playing ball on this because it’s summer and who wants to work during the few months when Michigan weather is actually tolerable?

But Snyder is a lame duck governor and a very unpopular one at that. So this is an excellent time for conservative Republicans to push him on an issue that is not, we should stress, critical to the budget’s passage. But it’s on the wish list of right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity-Michigan and part of the education reform lobby’s all-out assault on teachers and public education.

So everyone’s a winner. I mean, except Michigan teachers, whose salaries are stagnating. And enrollment in teacher prep programs has dropped precipitously, a trend that’s only likely to accelerate.

Why? Since Snyder has took office, he’s made it a fairly miserable experience to be a teacher. Budget cuts, charter school expansion and attacks on teacher tenure make conservative interest groups happy. But talk to some parents. You’d be hard-pressed to find many who think their students are blossoming in these conditions, even in excellent public school districts like Okemos, where I reside.

And believe it or not, most teachers care deeply about their students. That’s the reason why they buy school supplies with their own money and stay up late grading papers. They deserve pay and benefits commensurate with their status as educated professionals. If I had my way, teachers would make at least what the average lobbyist in Lansing does.

But let’s get real. Anti-intellectualism is all the rage in a Republican Party led by Trump. His education secretary, big GOP donor Betsy DeVos, is moving heaven and earth to privatize more of our educational system. And teachers’ unions are a big bulwark for Democrats.

So teachers will probably lose this fight in Michigan and many others on a national scale.

If you read history, societies that don’t value education and vilify intellectuals tend to be subjected to some pretty terrible things. Luckily for us, school history requirements will probably soon be replaced by watching reruns of “The Apprentice,” so everything will turn out swell.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Run, Dr. Mona, Run

Why We Need People Like the Flint Whistleblower To Get Political

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a bona fide hero.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without her unflagging advocacy for her patients and the people of Flint, we could still be in the throes of deadly denial about the water crisis.

Many others sounded the alarm, from residents to pastors to politicians like U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), a likely 2018 candidate for governor.

But elected officials’ motives are always viewed with suspicion by the media and public. The default assumption nowadays is that politicians are always looking out for their career first and the people they serve second. Quite a few self-serving politicians — say, a president who can draw money from his myriad businesses at any point without disclosing it to the public — have certainly fed this stereotype.

So it’s not really a surprise that we’re much more comfortable with non-political figures, particularly Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech Professor Mark Edwards, serving as the proverbial “white hats” in this wretched story.

But when you have a public health crisis of this magnitude, you can’t avoid politics for long. After all, the state, and to a lesser degree, the federal governments are the reason why people were poisoned, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s own task force. And the government ultimately has the responsibility to help those harmed and make damned sure this never happens again.

Last year, both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, spent a lot of time in Flint before Michigan’s March primary. They even agreed to a last-minute presidential debate in the city.

None of the GOP hopefuls bothered to stop by and Donald Trump only visited the non-operational water plant there long after he secured the nomination. But that didn’t stop Republicans like Snyder and now-Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel from sniffing that Democrats were politicizing the tragedy.

I’m on record noting that everyone politicized the crisis and no one should care. At least it brought some much-needed attention and aid to the long-suffering city.

Hanna-Attisha first dipped her toe in political controversy when she couldn’t stop shaking her head “no” at a Snyder administration’s January 2016 press conference. The physician took issue with how then-Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyons minimized the damage caused by lead poisoning. A year later, Snyder smartly appointed Hanna-Attisha to serve on his Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission.

There was certainly some private grousing among Republicans that the pediatrician was making Snyder look bad over Flint, but people were smart enough not to say so publicly.

But the grumbling has gotten progressively louder after Hanna-Attisha spoke this winter at the Michigan Progressive Summit, which is kind of like Lollapalooza for liberals. The Iraqi-born immigrant praised the 1936 Flint sit-down strike and slammed the Emergency Manager law for being “undemocratic.” She revealed she’s not a fan of the Electoral College and criticized gerrymandering.

She also wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed on Trump’s Muslim ban, noting that her family arrived in the United States in 1980 “full of hope, trading a future of war, fascism and oppression for one of peace, freedom and opportunity.” The doctor argued they would have been denied entry to the country if the ban had been in place, which is causing the “American dream to fade away.”

And Hanna-Attisha accompanied Kildee to Trump’s address before the joint session of Congress. She issued a joint statement with him afterward slamming the president for failing to mention Flint and vowing to cut the Environmental Protection Agency.

She’s told the media she’s not going to run for office. But this will probably all make her a political target anyway. The right-wing Independent Women’s Forum just published a mocking post on the “March for Science” this month in Washington, which appeared to question the physician’s qualifications to speak there.

Hanna-Attisha will likely soon be subject to admonishments from conservative and centrist opinion-makers that she’s sullying her cause by “getting political” or becoming an unwitting tool of the left. That’s naturally pretty insulting to someone with a medical degree.

And it also underscores a destructive, self-sabotaging force in politics today. Most people — even those who work in and around government — agree that politics is a filthy, filthy business. And so therefore, anyone who sullies their hands by speaking out or running for office is viewed as being somewhat tainted.

That’s, of course, a terrific (and perhaps a deeply cynical) way to drive good people away from politics.

Think about it. Why wouldn’t we want people making positive change in Flint or anywhere else to talk publicly about political problems or make the leap to being a candidate for office? That’s how this is supposed to work.

I understand why Hanna-Attisha may not want to run for anything. She would lose plenty of friends and discover she has enemies she never imagined. Her personal life would be put under a microscope and judged. And some of the same folks who fell over themselves praising her unselfish work in Flint would now finger-wag that she’s just a typical politician.

But we desperately need people like Hanna-Attisha in public service, now more than ever. And if our political culture drives people like her away, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s irrevocably broken.

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.

Susan J. Demas: What Would Michigan’s FOIA Reform Really Do?

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

As a nosy reporter, I always want to know what politicians are up to.

That’s harder to uncover in Michigan than most states — 48, to be exact. Because unlike those states, we shield both the Legislature and the governor’s office from our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

So while you can unearth a wealth of information about your township clerk’s office or the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, you’re out of luck if you try to FOIA your state senator or Gov. Rick Snyder's office.

I think most people would like to know more about how their government operates. I think they’d like to know how the governor and legislators are spending their tax dollars and how they’re tackling problems, whether it’s the Flint water crisis or House members abusing their offices (i.e. former Reps. Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser).

But don’t take it from me. Poll after poll shows that trust in government is at an all-time low.

That’s why I don’t buy Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s brusque rebuke to journalists: “You guys are the only people who care about this.”

Meekhof (R-West Olive) was appearing on a Michigan Press Association panel last month in Grand Rapids when he dismissed a question about reforming FOIA (full disclosure: I also spoke at the conference).

The good news is that such legislation exists. Reps. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Jeremy Moss (R-Southfield) introduced a bipartisan package last term, which passed the House. But Meekhof made sure it died in the Senate.

Now Moss has teamed up with Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) to reintroduce the bills this term (McBroom was term-limited in 2016). The press conference announcing the legislation was staged with great fanfare, and was attended by both new House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) and most members of the lower chamber.

Meekhof seems to relish his role as the bespectacled cartoon villain in this scenario, serving as a one-man wrecking crew against open government. (Although there are rumblings that he’ll eventually be willing to allow the legislation on the floor, so long as it doesn’t go into effect until 2019 — when he and the majority of senators will leave Lansing due to term limits).

But I wonder if some of the focus on Meekhof’s obstinence is inadvertently obscuring the fact that the package has serious flaws.

When it comes to the executive branch, the legislation is pretty straightforward. The governor’s and lieutenant governor’s office would be subject to FOIA with a few basic exceptions, such as materials related to pardons or special messages to the Legislature.

But if you read the many bills outlining the new process for getting information out of the Legislature, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s a bit of a mess. Instead of subjecting the House and Senate to FOIA with the same executive branch exemptions, the legislation creates a different law, the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), complete with a new bureaucratic body.

There are more exceptions for the legislative branch, including advisory communications between public bodies and caucus records (i.e. internal Democratic and Republican communications), which sounds fairly broad. It looks as though the Legislature wants to play by its own special rules.

Another (likely intended) consequence is that as written, the law could put the governor at a tactical disadvantage in negotiating with the Legislature, as more of his/her records could be open to scrutiny.

Under the bills, the House and Senate would put LORA administrators in charge of approving records requests. If they’re at-will employees, that raises concerns about their willingness to disclose information that legislative leaders don’t want the public to see. And I’m concerned that citizens may not have recourse in the courts if their requests are denied.

Most disturbingly, the public wouldn’t have access to records related to ongoing internal or legislative investigations or litigation. That means that LORA would still keep details secret in another Courser-Gamrat debacle. Let’s not forget that the sex scandal, however delectable, was the least significant detail in that case. The Michigan House had to shell out $350,000 to two whistleblowers — meaning that taxpayers ended up footing the bill.

While Meekhof may not believe the public cares about government records, I’m fairly certain that people would like to know more about why hundreds of thousands of their tax dollars were spent in this tawdry episode.

Many of the package’s supporters see it as a good first step and want more transparency measures down the road. You can certainly make the case that something is better than nothing.

But that shouldn’t stop citizens, especially those of us in the media, from casting a critical eye at this FOIA package and digging into what it really will do. That’s our job, after all — and we shouldn’t forget that.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan’s Unemployment System Fiasco Has Damaged Too Many Lives

Being fired was one of the low points of my life.

Sure, it taught me a lot about the media business and basic human nature. And it (quite unintentionally) paved the way for me to run two companies and have far more time with my children.

But as someone who gave their all and devoted upwards of 90 hours a week to work, being fired made me question everything --- who I was, what was important, what I really wanted to do with my life.

I’ve written about this before in columns and humorously in the FAQ in my website, which one dour former colleague begged me to take down (“It has too much about you being fired,” he warned). Honesty is something I’ve always promised my readers, however, which is why I’ve shared my personal experiences, like my miscarriage and being raped, when I’ve written about related policy matters.

So I admittedly have a rather visceral reaction to the fact that there are at least 20,000 cases in which Michiganders were falsely accused of unemployment fraud from October 2013 and August 2015. If I had claimed benefits, I could have been one of them.

The problem seems to have primarily stemmed from a new computer system, Michigan Integrated Data Automated System (MiDAS), which falsely flagged people for committing fraud and thus receiving payments they weren’t entitled to.

The falsely accused were then forced to pay back their benefits –– and were hit with interest and penalties that were often two to four times their original payment. Their wages and income tax refunds were garnished.

As a result, many who were already reeling from the loss of a job —— which is pretty traumatic, in and of itself —— say they lost their homes or had to file bankruptcy. It’s amazing how many lives can be damaged and how many families can be uprooted by a computer program error.

A judge just approved an agreement that halts most collections for those claiming benefits during that two-year period. And the state is looking into another 30,000 cases during that time for possible errors.

But for too many people, it will be too little too late. And it’s fair to ask, as some like U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak) have done, why it took so long for the state to admit error and take action to help people.

I began hearing of problems with MiDAS back in early 2014 and discussed this with Tony Trupiano on his Detroit-based radio show. But the state repeatedly dragged its feet and only seemed to respond after TV news shined a light on the problem.

It’s hard not to see parallels with the Flint water crisis. For months, residents pleaded with government officials to no avail about their foul-smelling water that was sickening children. Only after doctors, scientists and reporters started raising hell did the state begin to respond. But that was after too many kids tested positive for lead and too many people died of Legionnaire’s disease.

The poor and unemployed have traditionally been forgotten members of society. As dozens of readers have pointed out to me over the years (often in curiously spelled screeds), these folks deserve what they get. They’re just too dumb or too lazy to succeed, so why should we care about them?

I don’t think Gov. Rick Snyder or his administration are that callous. But it does seem that the problems of the dispossessed consistently don’t rate as high as those of business owners. And there’s been an unhealthy level of skepticism leveled at many who are needlessly suffering.

The governor has less than two more years to leave a legacy. Doing more to help everyday people would be a good start.

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.