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Weekly Update
John Lindstrom
Gongwer News Service

Fare Thee Well

March 30, 2012

Ah, what a phrase is fare thee well. In one voice it can be a heartfelt goodbye that suggests a worried prayer to be safe against the harms lurking in the unknown.

In another tone and voice, it can be a breezy dismissal, more polite than barking “get lost,” but still implying good luck with that idea or plan or pitch I care nothing about.

As Governor Rick Snyder gets into the work of his second full budget, he might be forgiven if he gets the sense that the Legislature is giving him a casual fare thee well to his ideas.

In fact, the Legislature thus far seems to have taken a casual fare thee well attitude towards one end of Mr. Snyder’s overall scheme for the state: the idea of investing.

While the deadline for completing the annual big sloppy cake is September 30, lawmakers are rushing to get the thing out of the oven by June 1. They have pre-sifted the budget numbers all over the state kitchen, and separated the eggs largely by throwing them at Mr. Snyder’s ideas.

But it’s early yet in the budget baking process. Mr. Snyder and his budget director, John Nixon, might yet be able to convince the bakers to all line up and fold the ingredients into a budget concoction more to their liking.

Mr. Snyder will have to do a bit more work to get people to buy into his idea of investing, though.

Admittedly, as the Legislature rushed through to get the budget past one house before taking off on a spring break, Mr. Snyder was legitimately focused on other matters. Chief among those was getting some agreement with Detroit on how to fix its finances. A problem of that nature was bound to be all consuming, and so take the governor away from the budget pre-baking ritual.

Still, from Mr. Snyder’s standpoint, his recipe for the budget so far is not winning him any legislative ribbons. Lawmakers are essentially giving him a cheery wave and a casual fare thee well as they substitute ingredients.

Consider:

–One legislative appropriations subcommittee called for closing a prison, which Mr. Snyder did not. Another called for closing all three of the state’s juvenile justice facilities, which Mr. Snyder definitely did not.

–Another legislative appropriations subcommittee cut in half his proposal to increase the number of workers overseeing adult foster care, called for privatizing most child welfare services in Kent County (again, Mr. Snyder did not call for that), as well as chopping more money out of the Human Services budget.

–Legislative subcommittees made further cuts to the general fund portion of the proposed Department of Community Health budget.

–Virtually all of Mr. Snyder’s proposed changes in terms of best practices and evaluations in the different education budgets were dumped. Also dumped by at least some legislators were his proposals to add more general fund money to some parts of education spending, putting more pressure on the School Aid Fund.

–Mr. Snyder called for a film credit of $25 million. So far, the Legislature is doubling it to $50 million.

–The Senate also voted to take some sales tax revenues on fuel sales, which will again put some pressure on schools and other budget areas, to put towards roads, and then trashed Mr. Snyder’s proposal to put more than $100 million in general funds into the state transportation budget. They replaced most of that money with the funds they had voted to take out of the sales tax.

After this, Mr. Snyder could be forgiven for wanting to say fare thee well to the Detroit fiscal situation and get back to dealing with the state budget.

Of the changes legislators have made thus far to the budget, two overall tones seem to develop. One is that lawmakers are more comfortable making budget cuts than Mr. Snyder seems to be at this point.

Ironically, some of these budget cuts came as Lt. Governor Brian Calley assured members of the Michigan Association of Counties that legislators really don’t like to cut spending, and only do so if their only other option is to raise taxes. No, actually, it really doesn’t seem there’s too much reluctance to make additional cuts.

The other tone is that many of the issues the legislative committees cut were those in which Mr. Snyder sought investment. Now, his view of investment is very much tied to changing and measuring operations of government (which goes back to his argument of trying to get “value for money”) and many of those proposed changes ran into opposition from many quarters.

Other investment areas he has talked about have also run into opposition. Most notably is his proposal to build a new bridge between Ontario and the Detroit area. That clearly is an attempt to invest by making metro Detroit more important as a logistics hub for the central U.S./Canadian region. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that message just hasn’t been accepted, that proposal remains stuck for now.

Mr. Snyder also proposed, without being specific, changes to bring more money into the state’s road and bridge system. The response so far has been what the Senate passed in terms of trimming funds off the sales tax, which, as earlier stated, could cause intra-government squabbling.

A number of Michigan’s best governors were business executives, think George Romney and Bill Milliken, but Mr. Snyder has brought probably the most business oriented style of them all to the Executive Office. Any business executive knows one has to control costs. And Mr. Snyder has called for that in budget cuts and in cutting future anticipated debt costs.

Building a business also often means making drastic basic changes to the overall plan, changing focus, switching product lines, targeting a different market sector. Mr. Snyder has also called for an overall business change, if nothing else, by encouraging a more positive attitude and putting greater focus on business development.

But holding the line on costs alone will not build a business over the long-term. Nor will simply deciding to change the overall business model grow a business over time.

In fact, controlling costs and changing a business model together will not build a business.

To grow, a business must bring in more business, which means investing, which means spending money, on equipment, plant, product, personnel, logistical paths and so on.

Mr. Snyder has tried to make the case that investing is also critical in the state. A business executive has more autonomy to make and enact decisions on investing than does a governor who must get legislative backing for many of those decisions. Mr. Snyder has been not as direct on the investing issue as he should, but his message is evident.

But the Legislature, so far, has been fairly casual to the investing message. Not dismissive, mind you, but clearly more focused on the idea of cutting costs as a goal of driving the state forward.

They have pushed some investment areas, but have focused on areas that got less attention from Mr. Snyder. The film credit is one area. So too is their push to put more money into agricultural development. They are not ignoring roads, but attacking that in a way that, again, could cause conflict.

Still, the message from the budget discussions thus far is less spending overall. A popular message to be sure, but not one that builds roads, provides for more affordable higher education, or other priorities that all lawmakers support, at least publicly.

What then to make of this fare thee well attitude, one that suggests good luck to what you want but we’re going the other way? One presumes Mr. Snyder will eventually make an even stronger argument for his investment strategy, an argument that may sway some lawmakers.

One also expects that at some point Michigan residents will start demanding some new investments. Low costs are fine, but people want good basic services and an improved quality of life.

Presuming the public reaches that stage, will they be willing to say fare thee well to lawmakers who have not paid enough attention to investments? We shall see. Until then, well, honestly and sincerely and fondly, fare thee well. Fare thee well.

John Lindstrom is publisher of Gongwer News Service. For more than 50 years in Michigan, Gongwer News Service has provided independent, comprehensive, accurate and timely coverage of issues in and around Michigan’s government and political systems. For subscription information, including a free trial, visit Gongwer online.

March 29, 2012 · Filed under Weekly Update Tags: , ,

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