The Most Important State Election This November: Michigan's Next House Speaker

Three representatives face off for the top spot

In early August, primary voters in Michigan’s 110 state House districts decided which Republicans and Democrats would face off against each other for state representative races in November. Local TV and newspaper reports focused on the reactions of individual winners and losers, but in Lansing, the specialized newsletters read by insiders had another focus. They were concerned with what the primary outcomes mean for another contest — the one to decide who will be the next speaker of the Michigan House.

The next speaker will actually be selected by the members of the majority caucus, a choice that is routinely confirmed by a recorded roll call vote of the whole House on the first day of the new Legislature in January. Republicans currently have a 63-47 majority in the House and while anything can happen in this wild political year, they are generally expected to keep control of the chamber.

Though rarely showing up in the headlines, the races for the leadership in the House and Senate are important for setting the legislative agenda going forward. The House speaker and Senate majority leader have wide discretion in who will chair the committees, positions that carry the power to push forward or kill bills. The races can also signal where the core beliefs of the majority of the caucus lie.

On the GOP side, two current representatives are vying for the speakership — Rep. Tom Leonard of DeWitt Township and Rep. Rob VerHeulen from Walker. Both contenders raised money and provided additional support for a number of candidates in just-concluded primary races. So the outcomes of those races will have a lot to do with which one of these lawmakers gets the nod, assuming Republicans keep their majority.

If Republicans don’t keep the House, it is widely expected that the current Minority Leader Tim Greimel will be chosen by his caucus and the full House to be the speaker.

The three candidates, including the two Republicans, differ on a variety of issues. Comparing their voting records on various legislative scorecards created by conservatives and libertarians using a tool on the website, and posted by them there, suggests that Leonard has the more “conservative” voting record.

As chair of the Insurance Committee, Leonard has sought to change Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law that mandates unlimited medical benefits for crash victims. The law is one reason the state has the nation's the highest average auto insurance rates. MIRS News reports that Leonard’s attempts to revamp the system have caused opponents of reform to try to block his speakership bid and support VerHeulen. Greimel has opposed even modest changes to the system.

Earlier this year, the Legislature sent Detroit Public Schools more than $600 million to repay the debt incurred by past overspending. While arguably the state was already on the hook for much of this debt, there was a push from the governor, Senate, and Detroit officials for the bill to include an entity that could close down charter schools.

Ultimately, the House blocked the provision, but before the final vote, VerHeulen said “there is merit” to it and he supported the concept. Leonard opposed the commission that would have been able to limit school choice, saying, “I had serious concerns about the way that this [commission] would squeeze out parental choice in Detroit and it certainly would have been a deal breaker for me.” Greimel blasted the bailout package for not limiting charter schools in the city.

The total voting record of the three can be compared using the scorecard tool. To see a comparison of a variety of fiscal issues, click here.

In the course of the current Legislature and the 2013-14 one, VerHeulen and Leonard have been on opposite sides of other votes.

In the closing days of 2014, the Legislature passed a road-funding package that would have hiked taxes by $2 billion, some of which would have gone to transportation. In May 2015, voters killed the proposal with 80 percent voting against it. VerHeulen and Greimel supported the plan while Leonard voted “no.”

They candidates for speaker also disagreed on taxing internet sales (VerHeulen “yes” with Leonard and Greimel “no”), authorizing funding for Common Core academic standards (VerHeulen and Greimel “yes” with Leonard “no”), repealing a ban on allowing people to freely sell sport tickets (VerHeulen “no” with Greimel and Leonard “yes”), mandating license plate replacements every decade (VerHeulen “yes” with Greimel and Leonard “no”), accepting the Obamacare Medicaid expansion (VerHeulen and Leonard "no" with Greimel "yes"), and a few votes on select corporate tax breaks or subsidies (VerHeulen and Greimel “yes” with Leonard “no”).

Michigan Capitol Confidential contacted the three speaker candidates to ask what their goals would be if elected and how they separate themselves from the competition.

VerHeulen chairs the Health and Human Services Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Before becoming a legislator, he was a legal counsel for Meijer. He responded to his record on the votes in which he and Leonard disagreed.

On Proposal 1 of 2015, which asked voters to approve a $2 billion tax increase, VerHeulen said he supported the package during the legislative process “because I felt it was important to allow the citizens of Michigan to make this decision.” In the lead up to the vote on the ballot proposal, “I did not endorse Proposal 1 in any way and simply provided information about the proposal to the citizens of my district. Once the voters rejected Proposal 1, I worked with my colleagues in the House and Senate to craft a road funding solution that was supported by both of the Republican candidates for speaker.”

On the Detroit Education Commission, which would have limited school choice in the city, VerHeulen said that he was “actively opposed to that entity.” He added, “I believe that parents in Detroit and across the state should have the freedom to choose the best education for their children. I would actively support any policies or legislation to increase, improve or expand school choice and charter schools in Michigan.”

VerHeulen said he agrees that auto insurance in Michigan needs to be reformed in some ways. He said, “I am a strong supporter of the creation of a fraud authority over the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, as well as changing the rules and policies regarding attendant care in Michigan.” There is independent research showing that because Michigan’s no-fault law requires insurers to cover unlimited medical expenses, they are unable to effectively negotiate for better rates from health providers. This means the same procedure costs more for auto insurers and their customers than regular group health insurance plans.)

However, he does not support eliminating unlimited personal injury protection benefits because “doing so would push more Michiganders onto government programs like Medicaid and Medicare.”

VerHeulen defended his vote on the internet sales tax, pointing out that the new law “simply ensured the collection of this tax that was already law.” It did not establish a new tax, though at the time conservatives criticized it for raising more government revenue with no cuts elsewhere.

As for his vote on Common Core, he said it was “to guarantee local control over curriculum development and decisions” and while it authorized the State Board to spend money to implement the curriculum standards, “this resolution ensured that the local boards of education can make the final decisions that are best for our parents and children.”

VerHeulen supported the use of at least some targeted tax credits for particular companies, including a controversial one for a proposed data center near Grand Rapids called "Switch." He said, “The Switch data center is a great example of how tax reductions create jobs. … Michigan needed this change to our law in order to stay competitive in an emerging industry and these credits are similar to other tax abatements that Michigan has for the insurance and agriculture industries.”

When asked what separates him from the other candidates, VerHeulen replied:

Representative Leonard and I have similar views on free-market and limited government issues as noted by the American Conservative Union who gave us both the “Award for Conservative Achievement” for our 83 percent conservative rating on 17 legislative votes. What separates [us] is experience. My experience is in the private sector while Rep. Leonard’s experience has been in government service. With over three decades of private sector experience, my view on each issue begins and ends with limiting government, maximizing free-market solutions, limiting the burden on taxpayers and creating economic opportunity for businesses and workers in Michigan.

Greimel and Leonard were asked the same questions and their full responses are below.

Tim Greimel is the House Democratic leader and widely expected to become speaker if his party can take back the House, where they’ve been in the minority since 2010. Greimel serves on the Government Operations Committee and is from Auburn Hills. He sees some significant differences between himself and the Republican candidates.

“The major difference distinguishing me from both Rep. Leonard and Rep. VerHeulen is my belief that government should be open, accountable and transparent,” Greimel said. “To that end, I will fight for an accountable and transparent government, including expanding the Freedom of Information Act to cover the governor and Legislature, shining a light on the MEDC's operations, ending big corporate giveaways that don't produce jobs, and reforming the tax system so that it treats families and small businesses fairly."

"I strongly believe the role of state government is to provide an environment conducive to economic opportunities and job creation, without creating unnecessary burdens on individual taxpayers. We must create an educational framework that includes the funding needed to adequately educate students, while holding all taxpayer-funded schools (traditional public, charter, and cyber schools) accountable for student achievement.”

Leonard is the current speaker pro tempore, the number two position under current House Speaker Kevin Cotter. Prior to being an elected official, he was an assistant attorney general for the state and a prosecutor for Genesee County. He was the first to announce for the speaker's office and reportedly has the support of the bulk of current representatives considered to be the most conservative, including Rep. Gary Glenn and Rep. Lee Chatfield.

When asked about his voting record and campaign for speaker, Leonard said, "I am proud of my conservative record and will continue to stand for conservative principles. My top priority this fall is to ensure a Republican majority next term."

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.