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Governor Snyder: Right to work, "takes the oxygen out of the room"

Michigan Municipal League

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Well, for political junkies, the best time is still Election Day. But, the lame duck legislative season sure ain’t that bad either for Capitol-watchers. And, this year’s lame duck sure is serving up plenty of plots and intrigue; almost all of it revolving around right to work, an issue that’s not even officially on the agenda. In fact, there’s no bill yet. Nothing in writing. But just the prospect, the very possibility of right to work, is sapping up Lansing’s energy; every lobbyist, every legislator is paying attention to it.

And that’s become a problem for Governor Rick Snyder. “It’s a divisive issue. And you just look at all the activity and there are a lot of things we are talking about otherwise and it just kind of takes the oxygen out of the room, so hopefully this is something that can get some closure relatively quickly,” Snyder said this week at the state Capitol.


The issue is hanging over and holding up school reforms, a tax rollback for manufacturers and other businesses, overhauling Blue Cross-Blue Shield… the list goes on and on. There’s a small subset of issues where Democrats in their minority wilderness in Lansing can try to pull a power play – and they’re threatening to without some assurances that right to work is off the table in the lame duck session. The tension is palpable. A platoon of State Police troopers was called to the Capitol as a preemptive measure on Thursday against a Wisconsin-style state Capitol takeover in case right to work does come up.

It would seem that Governor Rick Snyder could settle the uncertainty. But, instead, he says “On any of this, I’ve been very clear for the past 2 or 3 years – right to work is not on my agenda and that’s what I’m going to say on this topic and that’s it.” So, it raises the question: why won’t Governor Snyder put this to rest? Why doesn’t he make it go away by saying, “I will veto this if it reaches my desk”? Well, there’s a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, it wouldn’t make his troubles go away. It would only trade one set of problems for another. That’s because debating and certainly signing right to work would launch a war with labor. Recalls are already being threatened. Governor Snyder has aspirations to be a two-term governor. Vetoing or promising to veto right to work pretty much guarantees him a credible Republican primary challenge.

Also, it’s not like labor did the governor any favors by getting Proposal Two - the union rights question - on the November ballot. The governor had asked labor not to go down that road, and got blown off. “Vengeful” is not a word that comes to mind when describing “One Tough Nerd,” but it’s doubtful he’s agonizing about letting ‘em twist in the wind for awhile.

Meanwhile, the Gongwer News Service is reporting the governor has privately told Republican leaders he would sign right to work if it hits his desk, even as he’s also saying he doesn’t want it to.  But if that’s the case, it raises even more questions: why do it now? Why not wait until next year, when Republicans will still be in charge in Lansing. One possible answer: Because a lot of right to work supporters see this as their moment, if not their last, best chance. They feel there’s momentum to be had from voters’ rejection of Proposal Two. And next year, there will be five fewer Republicans in the state House. The GOP is still the majority, but they lost seats on Election Day. Right to work would probably require some close votes. Also, some departing House members can cast a tough vote or two without political consequences.

And, in the background of all of this, the clock is ticking. If right to work is introduced next week, that extends the lame duck session into the third week of December. The reason: every new bill must sit in the House and the Senate for at least five days each. It takes a minimum of 10 calendar days to get a new piece of legislation through both chambers. Now right to work supporters could find what’s called a “vehicle bill” - something that’s been sitting around that you could amend – which would cut down that amount of time but there are constitutional restrictions on that. For instance, a bill cannot be amended to change its purpose. So, options are limited.

Finally, it’s important to note that Democrats are not playing strictly defense on right to work. For them, it’s an organizing opportunity. The state party has been sending out e-mail blasts to get people to meetings and sign petitions. This is an opportunity to make sure all those people who were with them for this past presidential race don’t disappear into the weeds.

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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