Susan J. Demas: It took a Democratic governor to ax pork-barrel spending in Michigan

October 2, 2019 5:33 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gets ready to begin her first State of the State address with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist standing by | Casey Hull

It’s been nine months since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office, but Republicans are still struggling to accept that they don’t run everything in Michigan anymore.

She’s also managed to do what conservatives have piously begged for: Cut $1 billion in pork-barrel spending from the budget — the opposite of what her supposed fiscal genius GOP predecessor did before leaving office last year, by the way.

But Republicans don’t seem very happy about this act of fiscal prudence. The Tea Party (remember them?) is nowhere to be found. Let’s not forget that the GOP has busted the federal budget with its 2017 corporate tax giveaway, so it might be time for pundits to rethink their stereotypes about which party is really fiscally responsible.

So how did we get here?

Susan J. Demas: GOP’s 2018 pork-laden spending spree wounds Whitmer’s plans

Well, GOP legislative leaders tried backing Whitmer into a corner, slapping a $59 billion budget on her desk without bothering to negotiate with her, which — let me stress as someone who’s been around for awhile — just does not happen. (That this was often portrayed in the media as somehow normal speaks to an inexperienced press corps easily spun that divided government works this way).

She was undercut by House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) who cut a bargain-basement deal with Republicans on the K-12 education budget. And last week, Whitmer announced that she would be signing budgets to avert a government shutdown.

Many progressives were left scratching their heads about what she was doing and even agreed with conservative pundits (which is a bit superfluous, tbh) that the gov got outplayed.

Whitmer, Greig agree their relationship is ‘fine’ after K-12 budget split

The governor kept her strategy largely close to the vest. It’s not easy to take that many punches, especially from your own side. But this is Whitmer’s 15th budget, by my count — and as a veteran of the Legislature, she knows how the process works far better than anyone on the GOP side of the table (or in a Facebook politics group).

So when she announced Monday night that she was issuing 147 line-item vetoes in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to the tune of $947 million, it was a powerful statement.

It also caught Republicans off-guard. While many said they were prepared for vetoes, nobody expected almost $1 billion worth, while taking aim at programs near and dear to GOP hearts like tuition grants for private colleges, charter and private schools and anti-abortion outfit Real Alternatives.

Snyder signs $1.3B ‘Christmas tree’ spending plan

It should be noted what a contrast this is to the $1.3 billion Christmas tree budget supplemental GOP now-former Gov. Rick Snyder signed in December that, once again, shifted money from schools and spent more than $100 million for lawmakers’ pet projects.

The briny pork goodness included $18 million for a parking ramp for the state Senate, $10 million for a ski jump in the Upper Peninsula, $2 million for the Detroit Economic Development Association to prepare for the city’s first-ever Professional Golf Association, and even a $10 million grant benefiting former Michigan GOP Chair Bobby Schostak.

The move also drained $500 million of Michigan’s budget surplus as a gesture (you can guess which one) to the incoming Democratic governor and her priorities.

Whitmer vetoes almost $1B in GOP ‘pork barrel’ spending in budget

In this budget, Whitmer wiped out 72 sections of boilerplate language, which the GOP Legislature used to try and box her in, including one barring most union shops from getting state road contracts and another requiring Attorney General Dana Nessel to testify before GOP-controlled legislative panels every time she sued their beloved Trump administration.

Attorney General Dana Nessel at
“Solidarity Sunday” at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Sept. 22, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Whitmer made sure to include this little touch in her signing statement: “Nevertheless, the attorney general has informed me that she would be pleased to appear.”

Because you know she would have.

Then on Tuesday, the governor flexed even more executive muscle at the State Administrative Board a la John Engler, which approved $625 million in transfers within departments for her priorities. This is where Democrats sweeping all the top offices in Michigan last year really paid dividends, as Whitmer had allies in Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on the panel — an advantage the last Democratic governor never had.

State board OKs $625M in spending transfers, Whitmer invites GOP leaders to budget meeting Thursday

Whitmer has been very clear that some of these vetoes and fund shifts can disappear if Republicans return the the bargaining table. But right now, leaders are letting their bruised egos get the best of them, with state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (D-Clarklake) saying he’s “in no rush” to do so, even as charter school lobbyists are breathing down his neck.

It’s not clear if Whitmer will get her top priorities of a comprehensive roads deal and a real boost for education spending, given Republican recalcitrance. The way to win sweeping change in Michigan is clearly through the ballot box and a progressive income tax should be the top priority next year.

But there’s something to be said for putting Republicans in their place and exercising some raw power — something compromise-minded Democrats are usually wont to do. Last week, U.S. House Democrats finally opened a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump — and support has shot up.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan deserves great schools and roads. It’s time for a graduated income tax.

The dirty little secret is that progressives don’t like feeling impotent any more than Republicans do. Leaders have to take some bold stances and fight for their agenda instead of trying to score points with Very Serious editorial boards.

Let’s face it. The conventional wisdom on bipartisan compromise is essentially Democrats acquiesce to whatever Republicans want. You saw that when John Sellek, a top adviser to Whitmer’s 2018 opponent Bill Schuette (Pro-tip: You should probably note that in coverage), crowed about the education funding “deal” struck between Greig and Republicans.

Sellek will cheer for something that helps Democrats just as soon as Trump admits to criminal activity. I love John; he’s a great guy, but honey, that’s not gonna happen.

Sens. Curtis Hertel and Jon Bumstead at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

One of the Democrats who had this figured out the whole time is state Sen. Curtis Hertel (who had the advantage of learning politics on the knee of his dad, the late House speaker with the same name, because, yeah, experience matters). The East Lansing Dem who’s been ride or die for the gov (and understands that’s his job) said Whitmer has proved she “isn’t just going to roll over.”

When asked if Democrats will be united in budget negotiations going forward, Hertel said yes and dropped this pearl of wisdom: “When you’re playing chess, there’s only one king on this board — and that’s the governor.”

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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.