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Commentary

Governor seems lonely in his support for sales tax increase

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Two months ago, I said it was possible that the best day of Governor Rick Snyder’s second term might very well be his first day, and that it would go downhill from there.

Now, that looks more likely than ever. The governor suffered a minor loss of face Monday, when the Michigan Chamber of Commerce refused to endorse the amendment that has now become Snyder’s baby. I’m talking, of course, about the May 5th ballot proposal to raise the sales tax from six to seven percent, mostly to fix Michigan’s scandalously bad roads.

The governor wanted fellow Republicans in the legislature to do this by just raising the gas tax and registration fees. But they refused. He barely got them to agree to put a constitutional amendment raising the sales tax on the May 5th ballot. And it is not even straightforward.

It would also raise money for schools and mass transit and restore an earned income tax credit for the working poor. The governor had to agree to all that just to get it on the ballot.

Nobody questions that the roads are badly in need of repair. Chambers of Commerce are essentially subsidiaries of the Republican Party, and it is mildly astounding that this chamber would refuse to endorse this governor’s ballot proposal, especially after he has done so much that its members wanted, beginning with huge business tax cuts.

But that’s nothing compared to the shock when Attorney General Bill Schuette, another fellow Republican, denounced  the sales tax proposal yesterday. “Proposal A has a lot of potholes and pitfalls,” he said, announcing he would vote against it.

For a Michigan attorney general to speak out against a governor on something not related to legal issues is virtually unheard of – especially when the men are in the same political party.

I know that, because I’ve just finished helping Frank Kelley, the longest-serving state attorney general in American history, write his autobiography. Kelley, who is a Democrat, mostly served with Republican governors. He told me that he never disagreed publicly with any Democratic governor over anything.

There were, he said, a few occasions where he took on Republican governors over issues involving the constitutionality of their actions.

But otherwise, Kelley told me, he mostly kept his mouth shut. 

“You know what’s going on here,” he told me.

"Schuette wants to be governor, and he is cynically pandering to the far right, and throwing the governor under the bus, as part of an effort to win the Republican nomination three years from now."

That’s a feeling shared by nearly everyone. Something else also seems clear.

Neither the legislature nor the attorney general seem to have the slightest fear that Snyder can or will retaliate against them. They think he is a lame duck.

If Proposal One is defeated two months from now, this will go a long way towards confirming that. Someone close to those fighting to pass the ballot proposal told me things will change when the governor’s team begins its multi-million dollar campaign. He may be right.

But if he’s not, it’s hard to see how the governor can recover. And even harder to see any way we’re ever going to fix our rotten roads.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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