How past Michigan governors handled budget fights — and what to expect from Whitmer

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

For former Gov. Rick Snyder, who ran as a self-described nerd, budget presentations were like Christmas morning.

Unlike other governors, the Republican personally presented all eight of his budgets. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, his predecessor, delivered her first and last budgets, but typically budget directors have been tasked with that duty.

Rick Snyder and Brian Calley at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

“I think that for [Snyder] it was more important than the State of the State,” said Kurt Weiss, spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Snyder, who holds master’s degree in business administration, was considered a “numbers and spreadsheet” type of manager, according to Weiss, who worked with the Republican on all eight of his budget presentations.

“So his budget presentation reflected that,” Weiss said. “We did a lot of numbers in his presentations.”

Thanks to strong GOP majorities in the House and Senate, Snyder routinely signed budgets into law by June — well in advance of the Oct. 1 start of the state fiscal year.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Feb. 12, 2019 | Casey Hull

That’s something that his successor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, set as a goal in her first State of the State speech last month. She laid down a marker for Republican leadership in the state House and Senate to work with her and get the budget done before summer.

“Budgets got done before the break,” she said. “And that was a good thing. Because just like every other workplace, we shouldn’t go on vacation until we get the job done.”

When Whitmer presents her first budget for fiscal year 2020 on Tuesday, she’s expected to reiterate that call. Most budget observers, however, are skeptical that a quick deal will be reached in an era of divided government.

John Cherry, Granholm’s lieutenant governor and longtime Democratic state senator, said that getting budget passed early doesn’t necessary mean that the product is better.

He called GOP former Gov. John Engler a “master” at the budget process during his tenure in the 1990s and early 2000s. Cherry would know, having served as Senate minority leader for many go-arounds.

John Engler | Wikimedia Commons

“John knew how to run out the clock,” Cherry said, using a basketball analogy. “He would squeeze you at the last minute to get what he wanted.”

Engler’s experience as Senate majority leader for years served him well, Cherry noted. He knew many of the players and how to work the process.

Cherry pointed out that both Granholm and Democratic former Gov. Jim Blanchard came into office facing a deficit.

“That kind of governed how they dealt with their first budgets,” he said.

Blanchard chose to back a state income tax increase in 1983, but it came at a price. Two Democratic state senators were recalled over the tax hike the following year, flipping control of the chamber to Republicans. They’ve been in charge of the Senate ever since.

Granholm had to deal with a decade-long recession, which started before her term. That drained state revenue and made her job presenting a balanced budget — which is required by law — difficult. The Democrat embarked on a statewide listening tour to hear residents’ suggestions for budget solutions.

Jennifer Granholm | Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, state government had two brief government shutdowns during Granholm’s tenure when she had a GOP state Senate and a Democratic House, which was run by Speaker Andy Dillon, a conservative Democrat who went on to serve as Snyder’s first treasurer.

The 2007 standoff ended after she made a deal with then-state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) to solve the almost $2 billion budget gap by increasing the state income tax and restructuring the main business tax.

The 2009 shutdown involved a partisan dispute over an almost $3 billion deficit, which was eventually filled in with budget cuts and federal stimulus funds.

Whitmer has similar pressures as she has to solve big problems like crumbling roads and neglected schools, Cherry said, while Michigan has unpopular measures like the so-called pension tax on the books.

“The budget now reflects the Gov. Snyder years,” Cherry said. “I’m sure Gov. Whitmer has her own priorities. She’ll want to put her own stamp on things. This first budget is a critical piece as she begins to do that.”

Cherry said that Whitmer’s 14 years serving in the Legislature does give her an advantage that Granholm and Snyder didn’t have. He added that building a team with legislative experience also helps. Chris Kolb, Whitmer’s budget director, also is a former state House member.

John Cherry

The former LG said that Snyder’s inexperience cost him.

“In the end, it’s about how you surround yourself with,” Cherry said. “You have to have a team. A good governor is a governor who has a good team. The Legislature dominated Gov. Snyder. It was a unique partisan environment and Gov. Snyder was a not partisan individual.”

But Snyder had one big thing going for him that Whitmer doesn’t: a Legislature in which both houses were run by members of his own party.

That helped him get through his 2011 tax overhaul, which he paired with his first budget — even though it contained unpopular provisions like the pension tax.

Former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, a Republican who served during the pre-term limits era during the late 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, agrees that Whitmer’s experience as a state lawmaker works to her advantage. But he said dealing with a Republican-led House and Senate will be difficult.

“Considering the priorities that Gov. Whitmer has, it’s going to be a challenging budget for her,” he said.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.
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Susan J. Demas is a 17-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on 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, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. 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 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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