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Governor Snyder encounters choppy (political) waters on Mackinac Island

This week we are taping It's Just Politics at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Policy Conferenceon Mackinac Island. This is an annual statewide event where business people and politicians come to plot the future of Michigan. Big shots. Serious stuff. Except, of course, for the iced-vodka luge.

Really this is Rick Snyder’s party. Most of the people that attend the conference are his people: Moderate, but right-of-center business folks, impressed by cutting taxes and balanced budgets.

Two years ago at this conference, the Governor had only been in office for six months and, in his words, “working in dog years."  One Tough Nerd came to the conference with a state budget done in record time; nothing like the budget gridlock we saw in a couple showdowns in the Granholm years (2007 and 2009 were doozies). Also, in that six months, Snyder had gotten a couple big wins on tax policy and it sure seemed like he was simpatico with the Legislature’s Republican majority.

Basically, the 2011 Mackinac Policy Conference was Rick Snyder’s jam.

The focus was the economy, not social issues, and Snyder would brush off talk of hot-button controversies by saying, “not on my agenda;” a phrase we certainly don’t hear anymore post-Right to work.

So, now, let us fast forward two years. Mackinac Island 2013.

The post-Right to Work environment in Lansing is awfully different. Republicans are still in charge, but the House doesn’t have the same commanding majorities. And, Democrats are in no mood to cooperate. That means the Governor arrived at this conference with no deals on some things that Michigan’s business community had high on their wish list. The Governor hasn’t been able to pull together the votes in the Legislature for road funding; in fact, only a revenue windfall saved the state from missing its full share of federal matching funds for roads.

The Governor called for expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Businesses think that will cut the number of emergency room visits and reign in their insurance costs. But too many Republicans want no part of Obamacare. Fear of Tea Party-backed primary challenges come-2014 are no doubt part of that. And even businesses are getting in the way. Lobbying by business groups has effectively blocked a permanent solution to a $140 million revenue shortfall in the Michigan Medicaid program created because a tax on insurance claims is bringing in less than expected. State lawmakers also came to the Conference this week after handing the governor a schools budget that doesn’t enact national student performance measurements.

Lansing these days - and maybe government in general - is more of a “vetocracy” than a democracy. We have interested parties of all kinds that are all in a position to stop stuff, to effectively exercise their veto over policy-making. It’s been a much, much bigger challenge -impossible, in the cases we just mentioned - to put together a group that can get things done. Even the budget: the Governor and his fellow Republicans have made a big deal the last couple of years that they got the budget wrapped up by June first. It’ll still get done, probably by next week. But that June first date has become a benchmark, a measure of competence and accomplishment under the Snyder Administration.

On top of all of this, the Governor also had to spend part of his time on the Island talking about the controversy over the Detroit Institute of Arts and the announcement that home builder PulteGroup will move its headquarters from Metro-Detroit to Atlanta. But, the Governor doesn’t appear to be letting any of this get him down, at least not publicly.  “We’re just going to keep working the issues. That’s the ‘relentless” part of positive action.”

So, this begs the question: where will all this stand next year, when this group is back on Mackinac Island? Is this the trough, the low-point, of the Snyder administration? Is that how we’ll look back at this period? Or is this a permanent stalemate? We should, of course, also mention that all of this is happening as anticipation builds toward 2014 and Snyder’s reelection campaign. And we here at It’s Just Politics aren’t pretending that the governor hasn’t said he will see reelection. He may not have formally announced, but he’s said as much.

So, let's all just sit back, have a drink from the ice vodka luge, and wait patiently until Mackinac 2014.

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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