Susan J. Demas: After years of cutting Michigan to the bone, Republicans cry crocodile tears over Whitmer’s vetoes

October 12, 2019 5:10 am

Protest of Gov. Rick Snyder at Benton Harbor Blossomtime Parade, 2011 | Brett Jelinek via Flickr CC BY–ND 2.0

In 2011, I was having dinner with a big media executive on a day that teachers were protesting GOP then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget cuts in Lansing.

As everyone seems to have forgotten, Snyder — who was supposed to be some sort of moderate — took a hatchet to Michigan’s public education system and safety net all in the name of giving corporations a $2 billion annual tax cut.

He also probably raised your taxes along the way, between the pension tax and axing tax breaks for kids, college tuition, charitable contributions and more.

Snyder’s first budget was something out of Charles Dickens’ novel, with schools receiving the lowest foundation allowance from the state seeing a $526 per-pupil cut, public universities being whacked by 15%, and the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families seeing a massive cut from 20% to 6% of the federal level. State employees also were told they’d have to swallow cuts during the next contract negotiation.

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Things were so nasty that at one point, a GOP-controlled House panel even chopped a $10 million program that provided clothes to orphans. And all this was years before the horrors of the Flint water crisis.

Naturally, Snyder’s budget was hailed as visionary by Very Serious People, who solemnly agreed that poor people, schoolchildren and college students would all have to sacrifice for the greater good of fattening big corporations’ bottom lines. All hail Michigan’s “comeback!”

The fact that ungrateful teachers had the nerve to refuse to lay down for corporatist “progress” was deeply offensive to the media bigwig.

“You lost; get over it,” he laughed as he took a swig of whiskey.

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I didn’t agree with that glib assessment then or now, which is one reason why I am a terrible fit for corporate journalism. I’m just not into clickbait headlines and I’ve never been the reporter management could railroad into writing stories about their particular hobby horse.

Eight years later, I have to say it’s pretty weird to watch so many conservatives and opinion leaders suddenly decrying budget cuts handed down by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Some are pretty hard to defend, like $700,000 to a shady anti-abortion program that can’t seem to prove it actually did much in Michigan, or $35 million for charter schools whose advocates apparently thought busing kids in to chant, “Money!” outside Whitmer’s office this week really drove the point home that it’s all about the children.

There have been plenty of stories about cuts to some favored programs, particularly for the Autism Alliance, whose board features heavy hitters like Snyder’s former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley turned Small Business Association of Michigan president and Ron Fournier, a former prominent journalist who’s now president of the Truscott Rossman PR juggernaut.

The irony hasn’t been lost on some of us who have been around awhile that Republicans have glommed onto that one after so many grumbled that the former LG’s autism insurance mandate was “Calleycare” (a callback to the much-despised Obamacare).

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And there’s the broader irony of Republicans crying crocodile tears over $1 billion in budget cuts, when they’ve been whining for years that it’s crammed with too much pork.

Suddenly all the right-wingers who swear up and down that money doesn’t make any difference for public schools are singing a very different tune when it comes to programs for rural districts and private colleges. And what happened to all those rugged individualists who told us we could easily slash $2 billion or more to fix the damn roads, no tax hike required?

You can’t blame lobbyists for doing their jobs and advocating for their clients. And they’ve certainly had success, given the host of outraged stories, like one on Whitmer breaking ground on an opioid clinic and then cutting its funding.

Of course, the GOP-passed budget — which leaders disdainfully tossed on Whitmer’s desk without negotiation — contained plenty of cuts. Our state’s 15 public universities and 28 community colleges received below-inflationary increases (i.e. a net cut), which Moody’s noted is a “credit negative.”

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So, in the interest of fairness — both sides, if you will — shouldn’t there be plenty of those stories? Picture this: State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) received an award from Jackson College back in April and then (insert dramatic musical score) turned around and cut its budget.

Of course, there’s a natural impulse for news outlets to go with a new take. Stories on budget cuts impacting perennial whipping boys, like public schools writ large and vulnerable people, don’t seem as fresh as the program nobody had heard of up until now suddenly getting the ax. And many of those groups are just trying to stave off more damage after years of being on the firing line, so their spokespeople often don’t provide hot fire quotes — like those from groups used to being shielded by Republicans — which reporters can’t resist.

The bottom line is this is all part of the dance over what priorities will win out in the budget (which may never really be done until the next one). It’s a good sign for everyone that Democrats and Republicans have both laid out supplemental proposals and are talking things out.

But Whitmer certainly isn’t the only one who’s played hardball — Republicans have made it clear they believe they should have carte blanche and the governor’s only duty is to sign whatever they send her way like a good little girl. Any takes that suggest otherwise are disingenuous at best, and just complete Mackinac horse fudge at worst.

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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.