News Story

Are Reluctant Reformers in Republican Ranks Seeking Cover Behind Social Issues?

On Monday, capitol reporter Tim Skubick revealed what he says is the start of a schism brewing between Republicans in the Michigan Senate and Gov. Rick Snyder over social issues. He predicted this during a taping of his “Off the Record” PBS TV show earlier this month. Now there is recent coverage of an allegedly tense, closed-door, “everyone sworn to secrecy” meeting on June 28 between the governor and GOP senators that appears to validate Skubick's powers of perception. The assertion is that so-called “conservative” members of the Senate are agitating for the “somewhat more moderate” governor to pay attention to issues that “appeal to the base of the party.”

But if the meeting went off as has been reported, then what is really going on might be precisely the opposite. 

Snyder has been rapidly advancing a somewhat fiscally-conservative agenda on budgets, taxes and public employee union reform during his first six months. This has been appreciated by his party’s fiscally conservative base and tea party supporters. But back in Lansing, not all of the Republicans have been on board with those votes, leaving them open to the dreaded charge of being tagged as “Republicans in Name Only.” So rather than change their tune on these conservative fiscal issues, some GOP senators might be trying to get the governor to change the songbook over to conservative social issues instead, and hope that their fiscally conservative supporters back home remain faithful and forget about the apostasy on public unions and government spending votes.

Consider the case of GOP Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

Despite the “sworn to secrecy” rules of closed-door GOP Senate caucus meetings, the MIRS Capitol Capsule daily newsletter — where Skubick is also a reporter — revealed the insights of a witness in the room who identified Jones as the specific lawmaker who pressed the governor on June 28 about advancing “Right to Life” issues that would “appeal to the base.” MIRS reports that the governor did not dismiss the social issue concerns, but left no doubt where his energy would remain.

"The governor has been very consistent about what his priority and focus is and that's what the citizens elected him to do," said a statement from his spokeswoman to MIRS. "His focus is on turning around Michigan's economy and ensuring more and better jobs."

Exactly one week earlier, on June 21, Snyder signed into law a K-12 school budget that cut the per-pupil foundation allowance for just the second time in its 17-year history. An initial proposal from the governor that would have cut more was thwarted when some Republicans in the Legislature — including Sen. Jones — refused to go along.

“There are better ways to reform education,” Jones said at the time. “We could have a statewide teacher pay scale. A lot of reforms like that could be done instead of making these deep cuts.”

In the end, the governor and GOP lawmakers came to an agreement that did cut K-12 spending, but by less than he had asked for and that still left the foundation allowance growth higher than the rate of inflation over its 17-year history. Democrats remained united in opposition to even this more modest reduction.

Likewise, nine Republicans broke the spending ranks and joined the Democrats in voting against this budget: four in the House and five in the Senate. Sen. Jones was among them.

The others in the Senate were Bruce Caswell of Hillsdale, Geoff Hansen of Hart, Mike Nofs of Battle Creek and Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights. The House members voting with the Democrats were Kurt Heise of Plymouth, Holly Hughes of Montague, Paul Muxlow of Brown City and Patrick Somerville of New Boston.

This was not the only example of Gov. Snyder signing a bill to reform how state government spends money after Sen. Jones and other Republicans had voted against it. Indeed, one of those reforms involved the state government altering how teachers are paid.

On June 7, Snyder signed House Bill 4152, a new law that will modestly rein in automatic raises that appear in teacher union contracts. The change was supported by numerous fiscally conservative business groups that pay the school taxes, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. It was also supported by groups responsible for spending school dollars, such as administrators, school districts and the Michigan Association of School Boards

Meanwhile, the opposition to this change to automatic teacher pay hikes came from teacher unions, every Democrat in the Michigan Legislature … and five GOP members of the Michigan Senate, Sen. Jones among them.

The others were: Tom Casperson of Escanaba, Bruce Caswell of Hillsdale, Mike Nofs of Battle Creek and Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights.

It remains to be seen whether this call for social issue proposals that “appeal to the base” of the GOP is indeed being motivated by a desire from some Republicans to mitigate their ambiguous records regarding the fiscal reforms. And if this is true, it’s not clear that the “return to fiscal sanity” wing, represented by the tea party, would be so easily distracted.

As Skubick is fond of saying on his TV show: “Stay tuned.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.