By Susan J. Demas
Have you heard about the plan to stop transgendered folks from getting new driver licenses? How about the one preventing Canadians from stealing our construction jobs? And isn’t it time to ban Great Lakes drilling all over again?
As Michigan languishes in its 11th straight year of recession, voters might expect that jobs would be issues one through 100 for candidates going into the Aug. 3 primary. A Center for Michigan review of platforms for gubernatorial, legislative and other statewide races shows that’s largely the case.
But some sideshow issues have wriggled through. So the Center has identified the top six wackiest campaign ideas out there this election season.
That includes the pledge of Secretary of State candidate Rep. Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc) to ban transgendered individuals from changing their sex on driver licenses. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a Democrat running for governor, opposes legislation authorizing a new Detroit-Windsor bridge estimated to create 10,000 jobs because he argues it will only help Canadian workers, not those in Michigan. And freshman Rep. Dan Scripps (D-Leland) wants to ban Great Lakes drilling again with a constitutional amendment, something we put the kibosh on eight years ago.
There’s also an apparently unconstitutional plan to cut state university employees’ pay from Sen. John Pappageorge (R-Troy), who’s running for re-election in the 13th District. Secretary of State candidates want to keep the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) out of Michigan elections, even though the group dissolved earlier this year. And several GOP gubernatorial candidates want to slash taxes by more than $1 billion, but they still want to restore the $140 million Michigan Promise scholarship. The math just doesn’t add up.
At the same time, the Center also has looked at the six most creative ideas for getting Michigan on track, including a state bank proposed by Bernero, Detroit/Wayne County Redevelopment Authority devised by Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo), Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard’s plan for service plazas, forgivable college loans pushed by House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township), a plan for free college and preschool from Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) and Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder’s idea for young professional tax credits to help revitalize cities. All except Warren, a state Senate candidate, are running for governor.
One thing that is different about this election year is that two gubernatorial candidates – Snyder and Dillon — are banking on ideas with crossover appeal even in the primary, said Craig Ruff, senior policy fellow with Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.
“Usually people run for the center the day after the primary,” Ruff said. “But Snyder and Dillon are going for that electorate now.”
But Bill Ballenger, publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics argues the real problem is that candidates have been too timid this year.
“You just don’t get a sense that snazzy, bold, imaginative ideas that have captured any portion of the public’s fancy,” he said.
Top six crazy campaign ideas
1. Cut taxes, add scholarship. Sometimes candidates promise voters the moon and the stars. This would be the case in the pledge of three GOP gubernatorial hopefuls to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax, but still reinstate the Michigan Promise scholarship. Snyder, Bouchard and Attorney General Mike Cox all want to wipe out the MBT, which generates an average of $2 billion in revenue annually. Snyder wants to replace it with a flat 6-percent corporate tax, which would be a net tax cut of $1.5 billion. Bouchard backs a full repeal of the MBT. Cox would cut the tax in half and phase it out completely and also would roll back the 2007 income tax increase. The Michigan Promise was a short-lived grant enacted in 2006. Students would receive up to $4,000 for college if they scored proficiently on the Michigan Merit Examination and maintain a 2.5 GPA in college. The $140 million program was axed in 2010 due to the state’s budget woes. None of the three candidates has sufficiently explained how he will cut spending or reform government enough to cover the loss of at least $1.5 billion in revenue, while adding $140 million to the state’s balance sheet.
2. Transgender driver licenses. Scott, a freshman lawmaker, says that transgendered individuals will not “under any circumstances” be able to change the gender on their driver licenses if he’s running the Department of State. This position has earned him praise from the conservative American Family Association of Michigan. This is the definition of a fringe issue and won’t affect more than a handful of Michiganders each year. That’s especially notable, since the Secretary of State has the most direct contact with citizens of any department, as it handles both vehicle and voter registration. But the issue has become a flashpoint in the Republican Secretary of State race.
3. DRIC. This year, the Democratic-led House passed legislation authorizing the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), a new Detroit-Windsor bridge that will be a public-private partnership. The Canadian government has offered to put up Michigan’s $500 million share of the project. Bernero opposes the DRIC, saying at the second Democratic gubernatorial debate sponsored by the Center on June 28 that Michiganders should be wary of the Canadians’ offer. He argued DRIC will just create Canadian jobs. “I want to create American jobs, not Canadian jobs,” said Bernero. The Michigan Department of Transportation estimates that 10,000 new Michigan construction jobs and up to 40,000 total spinoff jobs will result from the project. Bernero favors a second private span built by the privately owned Ambassador Bridge Co., but the Canadian government has not issued any permits for the project and has rejected the idea outright.
4. Cut university employee pay. There are a lot of proposals out there to cut state worker pay in light of Michigan’s decade-long budget problems. One of them is from Pappageorge, who’s running for re-election in a swing Senate district. He has introduced a constitutional amendment, SJR U. All state employees would see their paycheck shrink by 5 percent if two-thirds of both houses pass the measure and voters approve it. This would save an estimated $1 billion. The problem is that Pappageorge lumps in employees at the state’s 15 public universities. Although the universities receive state funding, they are autonomous under Michigan’s Constitution. SJR U would violate that, according to former Senate Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee Chair Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), although Senate Republican legal counsel apparently signed off on the measure. “We’re in the conflict resolution business,” Pappageorge said upon the resolution’s passage in committee in May. “I don’t think the Legislature should debate itself on the Constitution.”
5. Great Lakes drilling ban. Michigan outlawed slant and offshore drilling in the Great Lakes back in 2002. The federal government followed suit in 2005. But with oil still gushing in the Gulf of Mexico in the BP disaster, politicians up North are falling over themselves to revisit the issue. Scripps, who’s running for re-election in the 101st District, was first out of the gate with HJR GGG, which would put a drilling ban in Michigan’s Constitution. While an argument can be made for constitutional protection, the timing of the measure proposed by one of the most vulnerable House members indicates that politics, not policy, is driving the issue.
6. Stopping ACORN and SEIU. ACORN was a national group that advocated for low- to moderate-income people in areas including housing, health care and education. It disbanded in April 2010 amid an embezzlement scandal and allegations of voter registration fraud in the 2008 presidential election, although the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a 2009 report found that ACORN had not committed any wrongdoing in the past five years. That hasn’t stopped ACORN from being the biggest issue in the GOP Secretary of State race, with Scott, Sen. Cameron Brown (R-Fawn River Township), Sen. Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau), Calhoun County Clerk Anne Norlander and Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson all vowing to keep the group out of Michigan elections. That won’t be hard, since the group no longer exists. McManus has upped the ante, vowing to go after another “extremist group,” the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which she says also “break(s) Michigan’s elections laws.” The Secretary of State is not investigating the union for any illegal activity, according to a department spokeswoman.
Top six creative campaign ideas
1. State bank. Bernero, a Democrat running for governor, and Senate Democrats want Michigan to charter a state-owned bank to provide loans to small businesses and farmers, as well as low-interest credit cards for consumers. This is modeled on the Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned bank that has generated about $300 million for its state treasury this decade. The idea is that it’s a win-win for citizens and the state alike. Many consumers and small business owners continue to be victims of the credit crunch and could get access to funds. The state could make money off the interest. While economists don’t think this is a magic bullet for Michigan’s budget woes, it could be part of a solution.
2. Detroit/Wayne County Redevelopment Authority. Modeled after the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority following Hurricane Katrina, this authority proposed by George, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, aims to help revitalize the state’s biggest city. While both Detroit and Wayne County have land banks, George argues that the foreclosure crisis and rapidly increasing blight mean that more drastic action has to be taken. A regional authority with broader powers and funding potential could institute infrastructure projects to improve street lighting and landscaping, build affordable housing and convert vacant land into green space.
3. MI Future. Warren, who’s running for the 18th Senate District, has a plan, along with term-limited Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith (D-South Lyon), for free college tuition at Michigan public institutions and 4-year-old preschool. MI Future is funded by a 1.15 percent increase in the income tax, generating about $2 billion. Half-day preschool for 4-year-olds would be covered by the revenue generated. That’s an annual increase of about $524 for a family with a $50,000 household income. Any Michigan high school graduate without a bachelor’s degree would qualify for a reimbursable tax credit. However, voters would have to approve legislation, which has not even gained traction in the Democratic-led House.
4. Millennial tax credits. One of the biggest challenges facing Michigan is how to attract young professionals here and keep them from moving away once they graduate from the state’s top-flight universities. Many of the state’s core cities, once manufacturing hubs, have decayed. Snyder, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful, wants to offer tax credits to young professionals who live and work in cities, modeled after a program in Maine. Snyder argues this would create a talent pool that would attract new businesses and help local economies. He wants to spread the tax credits over five years to encourage young professionals to begin their careers and families here. Businesses could participate through tax credits for creating a student loan repayment program as an employee benefit. This is part of Snyder’s blueprint to rejuvenate Michigan’s central cities.
5. Service plazas. Bouchard, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, wants to transform rest areas on Michigan’s highways into service plazas found in other states like Connecticut. Under his plan, private companies would be responsible for improving rest areas by adding restaurants that could generate tax revenue for the state. Businesses would also be responsible for maintaining the service plazas, which would save the state money. State and federal law requires that concession facilities on state property be run by a person who is blind, so Bouchard said he will work with disability rights groups to ensure compliance.
6. Forgivable college loans. Dillon, a Democrat running for governor, wants a new, lower-cost twist on the Michigan Promise. He backs an idea first floated by business groups, including the Business Leaders for Michigan, that would make the Promise grants forgivable loans if graduates stay and work in Michigan. This way, the state would be assured at retaining some talent after providing education and/or training. There’s no price tag on this plan, however.