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Will House GOP leader seek harmony or revenge following tax vote debacle?

State House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) is figuring out his next move after his income tax rollback tanked in the House last week. It was an embarrassing defeat largely the result of putting the bill up before the Speaker knew the votes were there. And he ran into a hard-dozen fellow Republicans who, along with all but one of the Democrats, torpedoed what was supposed to be a marquee moment in the early days of this session.

The question now for Leonard and the House GOP leadership: Will the next step be discipline or reconciliation?

The 12 “no-way” Republicans refused to vote for a major tax cut without knowing what the accompanying budget cuts would be. And that put them alongside Governor Rick Snyder and against Speaker Leonard.

A point not lost on the governor, who made courtesy phone calls to the dozen, well, let’s call them “Snyder Republicans” for now, thanking them for their “no” votes to keep the budget balanced.

The vote was barely over in the early hours of last Thursday before Leonard stripped one of the offending Republicans of his committee chairmanship. The Speaker says it was because Representative Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance) said he would vote “yes” and then voted “no.” But it was no secret that the loss of his House Financial Services Committee gavel had been dangled over Sheppard for a couple weeks now as a possible sanction for not going along.

That was enough for another Republican lawmaker to call for an internal look at whether Leonard went too far in strong-arming reluctant Republicans into supporting the income tax cut.

“I felt pressure,” says state Representative Dave Pagel (R-Berrien Springs). “I think all of us felt a lot of pressure to change our votes.”

Pagal says he wants some answers about why things happened, and what’s going to happen next.

And Pagel may also pay a price for his vote and for speaking out. In fact, he is already. A bill of his up for a committee vote this week has already been pulled from the agenda. The committee chair made no secret it’s for not being a “team player.” We’ll see if more sanctions await any of the 12 Republican “no” votes. More bills can be stopped. Their staff can be re-assigned. They could lose caucus support services.

The question is, what does it mean to be a “team player” in this House Republican caucus?

Winning the tax rollback vote would have been a coup for a new Speaker with aspirations of winning the Republican nomination for state attorney general in two years. Not to mention for the host of state House Republicans eyeing bids for state Senate seats in 2018. All of which added to scepticism about whether this tax rollback was really about returning money to taxpayers, or allowing some lawmakers with bigger ambitions to cast a politically useful vote.

House Republicans may be in the market for a good relationship counselor as they chart a course for what could be a very fractious session leading into the 2018 elections.

Because being a “team player” can mean different things to different people.

Being Speaker is one of the toughest jobs at the state Capitol. The position is selected by a majority of the majority caucus. The Speaker, who is also the majority leader, has to manage a lot of strong personalities and personal agendas (not unlike an NBA coach).

If he’s not careful, Speaker Leonard runs the risk of creating a committed opposition team within his own caucus. And that’s on top of fighting with the Democratic opposition.

In politics, as in life, it’s important to be careful in choosing your friends. And it’s just as important to be careful in choosing your enemies.

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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