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Post-election the Michigan Tea Party continues to try to flex its muscle

Before we get down to pure-politics this week, we want to first take a moment to remember former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, who just passed away. She was married to Michigan’s longest-serving governor, Bill Milliken, thus, making Ms. Milliken the state’s longest serving first lady. She was not a woman content to simply stand in the shadow of her husband’s accomplishments. She was part of that generation of first ladies, embodied also by Betty Ford, who made it clear that even though they were married to their husbands, they had their own opinions, their own causes, and their own accomplishments.

First Lady Milliken was an advocate for the arts, for environmental causes, feminism and abortion rights. She was an ardent enough activist in her own right that when Michigan environmentalists wanted to recognize environmental activism they named it the Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award. She exerted some influence in making those Bill Milliken’s priorities, as well, even though at times it put both of them at odds with the more-conservative elements of the Republican Party.

And, interestingly enough, this brings us to the current Republican administration. There are some tensions between Snyder-Republicans and the right wing of the Republican Party, especially the Tea Party. The Tea Party continues to send the message that it is not planning on going away, that it’s going to continue to push Republicans in the most-conservative direction possible. And we’re really seeing this play out with two particular issues right now in Michigan: health insurance exchanges and right to work.

The politics of the Exchanges

The health insurance exchanges are the online marketplaces where people and small businesses will shop for health insurance under Obamacare. Like Orbitz or Travelocity, but for health insurance. Basically, Michigan has three options: a state-run exchange, a federally run exchange, or some type of hybrid. Governor Snyder and a lot of business groups wanted a state exchange. But, all year-long, state House Republicans kept saying, “No, not yet.”

First House Republicans wanted to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. When that didn’t go the way they wanted, they said the state should wait for the November election and see who’s elected president, with the idea that if Governor Romney was elected, then Obamacare would be repealed and the health insurance exchanges would be a moot point. But, as we know, that didn’t go the way they wanted either. And, now, they’re still dragging their feet, saying they still have more questions.

All of which raises more questions: what have House Republicans been up to and why can’t they make a decision after all this time? Especially with federal deadlines looming? Well, the Republican chair of the state House Health Policy Committee, Gail Haines, seems to have an answer. She says she’s not too concerned with federal deadlines, “Deadlines have really not meant a tremendous amount in this process,” Haines says. And, there’s something to that. Just today the Obama administration once again moved its deadline back for states to decide whether to run their own exchanges.

This almost month-long extension will give Michigan policymakers more time to decide what to do next. But, it’s perceived in some quarters as a back-down by the Obama administration, still trying to get a few straggler states to join in. It also gives the Tea Party another month to keep up the pressure on lawmakers to adopt a policy of total non-cooperation with the healthcare law. The Tea Party is betting that Obamacare will fail, that it will collapse, especially if states don’t cooperate. The election may be over, but the Tea Party is saying: No surrender. No cooperation.

The politics of Right-to-Work

But, unlike Obamacare, where the Tea Party says there is no mandate, in another case, the Tea Party is saying: heed the results of the election. In this case, they’re saying don’t ignore what happened November sixth. In this regard, they argue that the election does signal the direction the state should take on right to work. (Because consistency is a lot to expect of anyone; particularly politicians).

Michigan voters rejected Proposal Two – the ballot question that would have put union rights in the state constitution and Tea Partiers are pressuring Republicans to accept that as an invitation to pass a right-to-work law and send it to Governor Snyder.

Governor Snyder, however, keeps saying he doesn’t want that, even though he won’t say outright what he’d do if a right-to-work bill actually reached his desk. He simply says it’s not on his agenda, which seems to be a political word game. A game we don’t have the answer to. Is it a message to unions: Play ball or it could be worse? Is he trying to set some boundaries on antagonizing the Tea Party elements in his party? He does, after all, want to be re-nominated in less than two years. And, so, he’s got to strike a balance. He’s certainly not a traditional Republican – he is more of a Milliken Republican – in what is still a right-centered – as opposed to a center-right – Republican party.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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