Susan J. Demas: Dear Michigan Republicans: Your party never wins government shutdowns

September 9, 2019 6:36 am

Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, May 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

Michigan is a mere 22 days away from a government shutdown (but who’s counting?) and you might be confused as to why.

It’s actually pretty simple. From a policy standpoint, Michigan has chronically underinvested for decades — but most egregiously under the GOP in the last decade of relative economic prosperity — in core areas like education and infrastructure. Almost every benchmark shows we’ve fallen behind most states in the condition of our roads, college affordability and student achievement.

So new Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer back in March proposed major funding increases for K-12 classrooms and our worst-in-the-nation roads in her Fiscal Year 2020 budget, as well as boosts to slew of other important areas, like clean drinking water and early childhood education.

She also wants a tax cut for working people by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and to ax the pension tax, in part, to offset the impact of a 45-cent gas tax hike that makes funding increases possible. (Most folks don’t know about the tax cuts because TV news scare graphics on the gas tax mysteriously leave that part out).

But as usual, it’s the politics that’s the real problem. Whitmer has more experience with budgets than anyone in the Legislature, which is still run by Republicans (mostly due to gerrymandering, since Democrats actually won more overall votes last year).

As I’ve noted, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) don’t want to give the guv a win.*

Nobody can argue Republicans have been negotiating in good faith. For one thing, they’ve never publicly released a roads plan, despite endless promises. Instead, they passed some placeholder legislation and entertained wacky ideas like selling the Blue Water Bridge.

Then Republicans just stone-cold took the summer off (the Advance spotted Chatfield galavanting around the D.C. area). Now they’ve adorably decided to just start passing final budgets and toss them on Whitmer’s desk (amazingly, some media haven’t noted that the governor can veto them).

It’s the GOP’s way or the highway, a lesson learned from their Dear Leader, Donald Trump.

Sure, there’s some anti-tax hysteria from Republicans — although both happily voted for tax hikes in the crap sandwich roads plan GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder devised in 2015 that, quite obviously, didn’t fix the problem. But it’s mostly about a political party that lost big at the top of the ticket in 2018, but never accepts defeat.

You saw it after the election, when Republicans rammed through Lame Duck legislation aimed at yanking power from newly elected Democratic executives. You saw it when they gutted two citizen-driven petitions to increase the minimum wage and require sick leave for workers — which is honestly the bare minimum for those living at the brink. And you saw it with Republicans filing not one, but two lawsuits to stop a voter-passed, constitutionally mandated independent redistricting commission.

Republicans don’t care what people voted for. They know what’s best. They’ll tell you what your rights are, thank you very much.

So of course they don’t believe that the governor — who was elected by a roughly 10-point margin — deserves a real say over a $60 billion budget.

Trump threw the same hissy fit after Democrats won back the U.S. House in 2018, and he forced the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history. After failing to win funding for his precious border wall when Republicans ran everything for two years, he embarked on a showdown with Democratic leaders. Not only did he lose that battle (and may only get the money by siphoning it from the military), but he was the one blamed for the shutdown.

That’s because Republicans never win shutdowns.

This is when years of Republican talking points about big-government Democrats come back to bite them. Because nobody believes that Democrats want to mothball the government they love so dearly, shutting down things people enjoy, like national parks, or things they need, like driver license renewals.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

That’s why it was so bizarre that House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) recently threw Whitmer under the bus and called her gas tax “extreme.” Greig is term-limited and will need to find a new gig, but it shows a real political tone-deafness not to see that the GOP has structural disadvantages in this fight. (Some pundits have compared Greig to former Speaker Andy Dillon, an alleged Democrat who routinely cut off former Gov. Jennifer Granholm at the knees in budget dealings last decade. The difference, however, is that Andy Dillon had actual power).

Why Shirkey and Chatfield somehow think they’ll come out on top is mystery, especially if you look at Trump’s poll numbers here going into the 2020 election. (Although if you read between the lines, the House is the real holdout). It’s probably a mix of Chatfield’s inexperience and ambition, as he’s also term-limited next year and the bright lights of Congress could look better than returning to anonymity up in the U.P.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Republicans have argued that there’s no budget crisis, unlike in 2007 and 2009, the last time Michigan went into brief partial shutdowns. But there’s zero reason to adopt their frame. Yes, we had budget deficits, thanks to a decade-long recession, but it was also due to irresponsible GOP policy, like throwing out the state business tax in 2006 with no replacement. (You probably don’t know that because even many senior members of the Capitol press corps weren’t around for those fights).

And boneheaded GOP policy is why we have a failed state today. They keep bleating that we don’t need significantly more money for schools as they’re crumbling and kids continue to flounder. They keep insisting that we can fund infrastructure on the cheap, even while their business group allies plead with them that our pothole-pocked roads are driving away investment.

Whitmer has also raised public safety issues, noting the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse, which killed 13 and injured 145 in 2007. State Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), one of those alleged moderates, recently told Crain’s Detroit “the Minnesota bridge thing just isn’t selling” — which is a pretty cavalier statement that will, no doubt, be played on loop if there’s a major disaster in Michigan.

Republicans had eight years of absolute power to fix Michigan and they failed. If voters believed in their vision, the party wouldn’t have been wiped out at the top of the ticket in 2018 — and Donald Trump’s numbers wouldn’t be in the toilet today.

If they want to continue to battle Whitmer on her home turf of the budget, they should be prepared to keep losing.

* This column has been updated with Shirkey’s and Chatfield’s correct parties.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.