This guest column was featured in the January 25, 2018 Lansing State Journal
Gov. Rick Snyder’s eighth and final State of the State address was very much a swan song, contrasting today’s Michigan to the one he inherited in 2011 – short on new initiatives but long on the successes of Snyder’s earlier policies.
I was reminded of the opening sentence of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Snyder spent most of his hour-long speech making the case for how history should judge his time in office. He cited economic expansion, policy achievements and evidence of a fiscally responsible government … demonstrated by budgets completed on time and little political discord.
To the great fortune of Snyder and many parts of Michigan, the last seven years have seen a prolonged, if uneven, period of economic expansion – helped by a growing national economy. These circumstances have allowed the Governor and Legislature to innovate in addressing policy issues and to be fiscally responsible, by addressing debt and stashing money in the state’s rainy-day fund.
Snyder also benefited from Republican majorities in both legislative chambers. With executive and legislative branches in harmony, policy discussions often focused on how issues should be addressed, rather than which ones.
The last seven years stand in contrast to nine years before, marked by Michigan’s single-state recession and the national Great Recession.
With scarce and diminishing revenues, policy innovation was always couched in an atmosphere of contraction and retrenchment. Without cohesion between the executive and legislative branches, the failure to agree on policy goals, let alone the means to achieve them, cast a negative light on state government and all associated with it.
The speech also reminded me of the cliché that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Snyder and his staff have many accomplishments to be proud of. However, residents of Flint, those affected by the unemployment fraud scandal and those left to pay higher tuition at our institutions of higher education might not feel so strongly about those positives.
The “business” governor found out that trying to govern on the principle of fiscal responsibility and only looking at the bottom line can have disastrous results.
Likewise, Snyder is leaving much to whoever follows him in the state’s highest office.
The slow pace of economic growth and the burden of paying for road improvements, personal property tax reimbursement, business tax credits, the Healthy Michigan Plan and other promises will make it very difficult to manage the state’s finances over the next decade, as the Citizens Research Council reported late last year.
Likewise, city and school officials may feel that too little has been done to address their financial conditions.
At the same time that Snyder teased upcoming policy announcements to address workforce development, environmental issues and crumbling infrastructure, he spoke of fiscal responsibility and the perils of leaving tomorrow’s taxpayers to pay for today’s services.
It is not yet clear how new initiatives can be funded with the scarce disposable resources available in the near future without pushing costs off into the future.
The benefits of a stable, responsible state government are especially important in the Greater Lansing area, where so many public employees make their homes.
Still, we must acknowledge that the ability to carry this into the next administration will be challenged by spending pressures pushed off to future years and policies not addressed.
To use an automotive metaphor, the car has a new coat of wax, but there are still sounds coming from under the hood that should give its driver pause. Government has a vital job to do, and we can’t afford another breakdown.