Rick Haglund: Economic worries vying with abortion rights for Michigan voters in gov’s race

October 23, 2022 4:37 am

Tudor Dixon at a GOP gubernatorial debate in Warren, June 30, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 2:50 p.m., 10/24/22

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in June, abortion has been the top issue in the Michigan governor’s race.

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who strongly favors women’s reproductive rights, has enjoyed a substantial lead over Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, who is opposed to abortion in nearly all cases.

But a souring national economy, rife with skyrocketing prices on basics such as food, heat and gasoline, is pinching household budgets and putting voters in a foul mood.

As the Nov. 8 election rapidly approaches, inflation is challenging abortion as the top issue for voters. An analysis of a dozen polls by FiveThirtyEight reflects that, showing Whitmer’s lead over Dixon has narrowed from 34.5% in June to 7.3% on Oct. 20.

Michigan’s chief executive is responsible for a sprawling state government with a $76 billion annual budget. And in weighing the candidate’s proposals to steer the state’s economy through turbulent times, there can be much to consider.

For example, former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder swept into office by portraying himself as an anti-politician “nerd” who would lead the state to prosperity by measuring the performance of various state functions and routinely updating the results on data dashboards.

Although Snyder never sought elective office before becoming governor, he was president of a large personal computer manufacturing company, built a successful career as an Ann Arbor venture capitalist and was the first chairman of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Dixon touts her experience as an executive at her father’s steel company, which failed a few years after she left. And she claims small business cred for starting her own company.

That business, Cornerstone Foundry Supply, is owned by Dixon and her husband, and appears to have just one other employee. 

And while Dixon touts the importance of Michigan-made products, Cornerstone distributes foundry products imported from manufacturers in the Czech Republic and Italy.

In addition, she founded a news service for schools that promoted American exceptionalism and worked as a talk show host on a right-wing streaming service. 

She said she decided to jump into the governor’s race after hearing about the struggles of business owners whose businesses were ordered closed by Whitmer during the deadly COVID outbreak, the worst public health crisis in a century.

Dixon’s economic agenda calls for phasing out the state’s 4.25% personal income tax, saying it would make Michigan more competitive with fast-growing states like Florida, Tennessee and Texas that don’t have an income tax.

But Dixon has not offered any details on how she would cut spending or replace the tax, which raises about $12 billion a year and pays for most state government services outside of K-12 schools and higher education.

Although nine states do not have a personal income tax, many have a variety of sales, excise, property and other taxes that fill the void.

A better measure of competitiveness is tax burden, which the conservative Tax Foundation defines as state and local taxes paid by residents as a percentage of the state’s share of net national product.

Michigan’s tax burden ranks fifth lowest in the country by that measure, according to the foundation.

Dixon said she also plans to focus on workforce training and promote skilled trades as career options. Fine, but the state has been doing that for decades.

Dixon is seemingly ambivalent to the state’s signature auto industry, which is making a historic conversion to battery-electric-powered vehicles.

When asked recently by “Michigan Matters” host Carol Cain for her thoughts about electric vehicles, Dixon said she drives a gas-powered Chevy Tahoe and said she couldn’t afford an electric vehicle “even if she wanted one.”

She has said little about what she would do to make Michigan a welcoming place for automakers and other companies to prosper and grow, except to recite Republican talking points about cutting taxes and regulations.

Michigan’s biggest economic challenge is attracting and retaining talent in the auto industry and others that are increasingly becoming more knowledge based. 

All those bucolic Pure Michigan ads won’t offset Dixon’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, disdain for single working women and drag queen paranoia in convincing young talent that Michigan is a great place to live should she be elected governor.

Whitmer hasn’t been a perfect governor, of course. Under her watch, Michigan’s economy has experienced a slower recovery from the COVID pandemic than many other states. Michigan’s unemployment rate, while low, is higher than the national jobless rates. And her administration was seemingly caught flat-footed when Ford announced last year that it was investing $11.4 billion to build electric vehicle and battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Meanwhile, rising inflation has rankled many, some of whom believe the governor has stripped their personal freedoms, worried about how they’re going to pay the bills. These concerns could be equally important for Michigan voters.

This column has been updated.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.