When the Observer interviewed Rick Snyder in December 2010, the newly elected governor figured he had six months–from his inauguration on January 1 until the legislature’s summer break on July 1–to reinvent Michigan.

“We’re well positioned to hit the ground running,” the Ann Arbor venture capitalist said then. “We’re going to be in sprint mode. We can do incredible things in this time period.”

Four years later, Snyder reckons he did–and that he did it his way.

“Too often in Lansing the process has been all about the money,” Snyder says in a phone interview. “To get through the budget deficit issues we had to look at not just the money but what services we were providing to our citizens and how we could scale those back as efficiently as possible in a thoughtful way.

“It worked out reasonably well,” he continues in his boyish tenor. “I’m proud to say that we solved the budget deficit, started a payment plan for long-term debt, and did tax reform for both corporate and individuals in Year One. It was very fulfilling.”

A Republican, Snyder was a moderate compared with the deeply conservative state legislators elected with him in 2010. But he says his way of working with them wasn’t political.

“I gave them the facts and stayed focused on ‘What’s the problem to be solved?’ not politics. That’s very much my philosophy. It’s not about being a political person. It’s about seeing that there are serious structural problems in the state of Michigan, here are alternative solutions, and here is the solution that solves the issue in the best way to give the greatest benefit to our citizens.”

Democrat Jeff Irwin was also elected in 2010. As Irwin sees it, Snyder won then because “he had no experience or record to run from. There was no way to attack his positions on issues because he didn’t have any positions on any issues.”

When he ran for reelection last year, Snyder had a record–and had upset a lot of people. He’d crossed senior citizens by taxing their pensions, union supporters by signing a right-to-work law, and education supporters by squeezing school funding. Yet he still beat Democrat Mark Schauer by 51 to 47 percent.

Since his reelection, he’s taken a bold position on an issue that galls many of his fellow Republicans. In December, after trying and failing to come up with a plan to rebuild the state’s cratered highways, legislators kicked the problem over to the voters. On May 5, they’ll be asked to amend the state constitution to increase the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent.

Snyder is campaigning hard for Proposal 1, but as the legislature reminded him in December, tax increases are anathema to Tea Party Republicans. And the amendment and a package of related bills have a lot of moving parts: They would change the way fuel is taxed and dedicate the proceeds to transportation; tweak funding for schools and colleges; and give low-paid workers a break by raising the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

How did Snyder manage to win a second term despite making so many enemies? And can he overcome the hostility of his fellow Republicans to pass Prop 1?

Irwin believes Snyder won again largely because the state’s economy improved–but says that happened not because the governor cut corporate taxes but “almost exclusively because of the auto rescue and the resurgence of the auto industry.”

Snyder’s “staid demeanor hid the fact that he’s very radical,” the Ann Arbor rep argues. “When he took office, businesses paid a little over $2 billion a year in taxes. In this next year’s budget, businesses are going to bring in $180 million in taxes.”

As a result, Irwin says, the state’s economic recovery disproportionately benefited the wrong people: “There was a tremendous influx of revenue, and all that money under previous law and practice would have gone to schools. But instead he turned it into tax cuts for businesses.”

“Governors and presidents always get too much credit and too much blame for the economy,” says Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum. “Things are going reasonably well in the state, and he’s the incumbent, so he gets credit for that.”

Before the election, Democrats figured taxing seniors, reducing support for education, and making Michigan a right-to-work state would make Snyder an easy target. How did he overcome those negatives?

“A lot of [the criticisms] weren’t accurate, so a lot of it was overcoming misrepresentations in terms of the educational part of my record,” Snyder replies. “I’ve actually increased education funding from state dollars for K-12.”

“Snyder did a good job of muddling the story on education funding,” retorts Irwin. “You had to actually look at the per-pupil foundation allotments and to find out what schools actually receive–which [has been] going down during his administration.”

Irwin thinks low voter turnout was a factor in Snyder’s second win: “If more people voted, the election certainly would have been close if not different.”

“Voter turnout was 2 points lower [than in 2010],” says Ian Robinson, president of the Huron Valley Central Labor Council/AFL-CIO. Though the unions worked to get their supporters to vote, they’re not sure if they succeeded: “We’re going to do some analysis based on state data to find out if the people we actually reached with all those door-knocks turned out more.”

“We already know we did really bad with eighteen- to thirty-five-year-olds,” says Irwin. “They didn’t vote very much this time, and that’s a key demographic for good results for Democrats.”

Larry Kestenbaum sees another reason Snyder won again. “He had the most swing voters. I spoke with Mark Grebner, and it helped me understand how Snyder won.”

“It’s very simple,” says Grebner, founder of Practical Political Consulting and chair of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. “The electorate consists of three groups: people who vote Democrat, people who vote Republican, and people who split the ticket. In Michigan only 20 percent of the vote is actually up for grabs.

“2014 surprised us,” Grebner continues. “In votes cast for the statewide education offices, Democrats won by 51.5 percent. There were three million-plus voters, and Democrats had the advantage. All they needed was 43 percent of the ticket-splitters and 80 percent of their straight-ticket voters.”

But Schauer got just 31 percent of the ticket-splitters. “He had to do well among moderate Republicans, and he didn’t,” Grebner says. “Snyder did well in Oakland County, and Schauer did poorly there.”

In a talk to the Washtenaw Economic Club after the election in November, senior Lansing correspondent Tim Skubick marveled at Snyder’s leadership. As Skubick described them, the governor’s biggest decisions have been taken not out of political calculation, but because he believes they’re the right thing to do for the state. But when asked what principle let Snyder sign right-to-work after saying it wasn’t a priority, Skubick pointed out that the governor had tried to dissuade the state’s unions from pushing a 2012 ballot proposal that would have added union protections to the state constitution–and allowed that right-to-work looked like “revenge.”

Snyder strongly disagrees. “That was a policy decision, and I wouldn’t use the word ‘revenge’ either–ever. I don’t believe in fighting or blaming people, and I haven’t done that since I’ve been in office. I’m very proud of that.

“I’m not for or against the union. I wanted to create an opportunity where people who saw value in a union should feel free to join, and if they didn’t see value they shouldn’t be forced to join. If you look at it in the reelection campaign, right-to-work was not a large issue.”

“He didn’t care about right-to-work,” Grebner opines. “In his world unions are a theoretical concern.”

“He wasn’t getting a lot of votes from the union folks in the first place,” adds Irwin.

“I’m angry about the union thing,” says Kestenbaum. “If you want to help working-class people, you make unions stronger, not weaker.” And the county clerk believes that political calculation did factor into the decision: “Much as he didn’t want to do it, Snyder was pretty much obliged to go along once [the legislature] had passed it. Part of being able to maintain influence in the legislature is giving in on lots of stuff, and this wasn’t important to him.”

“When Snyder first ran, he said he didn’t care about social issues,” says Irwin. “What he meant was ‘I don’t care about social issues so if the legislature wants to go crazy attacking gay rights or women rights or civil rights, I’m going to be on board as long as you give me what I want–favorable tax treatment for wealthy people.’

“That’s what he’s done to the state of Michigan,” Irwin continues. “He reorganized our tax policy so that wealthy people can pay $1.8 billion less every year and poor people about $1.2 billion more every year. That’s going to happen every year from now on.”

Snyder spokesperson Sarah Wurfel calls some of Irwin’s characterizations “ridiculous.” She promised to send a detailed response, but it had yet to arrive as the Observer went to press.

Some saw signing right-to-work as a peace offering to Tea Party Republicans. If it was, it didn’t help much when the legislature considered fixing the roads. A quarter of the Republicans in the state house, and well over a third in the senate, didn’t even want to send the question to the voters.

Snyder says he isn’t surprised by how many politicians are against Prop 1. “We’re asking for a tax increase, and that’s one of the hardest things you can ever do in the public sector. But it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s not about politics,” Snyder argues. “We’ve been underinvesting in our roads for a very long time. We simply need to invest more dollars. We spent a billion dollars [a year] less than Ohio, and when you cross that border, everyone notices the difference.”

While he admits the legislature couldn’t agree on a fix, Snyder points out that “they did ultimately agree on something. There was a compromise, and compromise can be a good thing. It shows how we can find common ground to solve a problem together. And to put this on the ballot required a two-thirds vote by the house and the senate. It had support by both parties in both chambers. The legislature did their part to come up with a solution that was workable.”

In Snyder’s view, it’s another example of a nonpartisan problem. “We’re solving the transportation issue. We’re taking something complicated and simplifying it.” Prop 1 would more than double the state’s wholesale gasoline tax, from 19 cents per gallon to 41.7 cents or 14.9 percent, whichever is larger, and dedicate all the money raised to transportation. Much of the wholesale increase would be offset by eliminating the sales tax currently collected at the pump.

Things get more complicated from there. Unlike the wholesale tax, the retail sales tax is not dedicated to transportation–so simply eliminating it “would have opened a big budget hole for schools and local government in particular,” Snyder says. “The most reasonable solution was to raise the retail sales tax [on everything else] from six to seven percent, which requires a constitutional amendment. That’s why it had to go on the ballot.”

Prop 1’s opponents call that raising taxes to benefit “special interests.” “I wouldn’t use that characterization,” Snyder counters. “When people understand [the increase is] for schools and local governments, quite often they become supportive of the proposal. The local government piece is essentially taking revenue back to the level before we had to make those difficult cuts in 2011. That part about the Earned Income Tax Credit is restoring what was also cut in 2011.”

When asked what he’s doing to pass Prop 1, the governor laughs. “Talking to a lot of people who are colleagues of yours. We’re doing a lot of media events around the state. I’ve been doing tele-town halls … and I’ll be doing some regular town halls as part of this.

“I’ll be doing some bus tours at the end of the campaign right before the election, and I’m actually planning on filling in some potholes myself. I’ve got my steel-toed boots ready to go, and I’m just recovering from my Achilles tendon [injury] so hopefully I can get them on to walk behind a truck with a shovel!”

A March Detroit Free Press poll showed that if the election had been held then, Prop 1 would go down three to one. Seeing that, some legislators have come up with several Plan Bs. What’s Snyder’s Plan B?

“There isn’t a good plan B,” replies Snyder. “The choice isn’t between the proposal versus Plan B. The choice is, ‘Is it better to try the proposal or do nothing?’ And ‘do nothing’ is the very worst answer. That does a disservice to all of us.

“If this ballot proposal does not pass, it’s going to be a real challenge,” the governor warns. “I think you’ll find that the legislators are more hesitant to pass a tax increase after the voters just voted it down. That’s why it’s important people get out and vote for this. And I wouldn’t over-read into the polling. Polling can be very difficult on ballot proposals, particularly when you’re talking about a May election.

“I believe it’s gonna pass. We had bipartisan support to get it through the legislature and put it on the ballot. And there’re over a hundred different organizations that are in the coalition. This is one of the broadest coalitions I’ve been part of, and I’m very proud to be part of it. It includes a number of chamber organizations and the small business association, but it also includes AFL-CIO and the MEA [teachers union].”

Conspicuously missing is the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which is neutral. “Not all organizations,” Snyder concedes, “but we have a number of chambers who are part of it.”

“It’s going to fail pretty big,” says Larry Kestenbaum. “I hardly know anyone who’s for it.

“I’m planning to vote for it, but my reasoning is, the legislature is never going to come up with anything better. And if it doesn’t pass, the problem is not going to be solved, now or in a long time. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s a lot better than nothing.”

That doesn’t change his view of Prop 1’s prospects. “All the passion is on the negative side, and that counts for a lot in stand-alone elections.”

If Proposal 1 does pass on May 5, it will burnish Snyder’s image as a moderate who gets things done and help keep his name in circulation as a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender. Snyder has said he won’t decide whether to run until after the vote, but he’s already taken steps to lay the groundwork, including creating a nonprofit to finance trips around the country to promote the “Michigan story.”

On the other hand, he and his wife, Sue, are buying a condo in downtown Ann Arbor. Where does he expect to be in January 2017?

“I’m excited about moving to downtown Ann Arbor,” Snyder says enthusiastically. “We’ve been Ann Arbor residents for a long time, and now that we’re empty nesters we’re excited to get downtown. It’s going to be a lot easier to go out to dinner. The other part is to explore, walking around downtown and enjoying it. And it’s great that our children are still in the area. We’re three for three in the Ann Arbor area right now, and I hope we keep that up.”

Dinner with his wife and visiting with their kids certainly sounds more fun than joining the growing roster of presidential candidates dialing for dollars as they make the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire. But whatever Snyder does next, he has no regrets about his political trial by fire.

“I was in the private sector most of my life, and this is my first foray into the public sector,” he says. “I really encourage other people in the private sector to consider it. It’s a great way to give back and help people, and there are great people working in the public sector. It’s something that I hope more people look at.”


School Millage Jitters

The Ann Arbor Public Schools usually don’t sweat passing millage renewals.

“The last four times the district has gone to voters with millages, they’ve passed with between 70 and 77 percent of the vote,” says school board member Donna Lasinski.

“The last time there was opposition to a school millage was for the 2009 county-wide millage,” adds board treasurer Andy Thomas. “It lost heavily out-county but passed in Ann Arbor.”

For the May 5 debt renewal vote, however, Lasinski and Thomas are sweating, because the AAPS measure shares the ballot with the state’s Proposal 1 (see main story), which would raise the state income tax from 6 to 7 percent.

“We’re concerned folks may be confused,” says Lasinski. “The no-new-taxes folks will be activated on this one.”

The AAPS renewal “would not increase taxes,” Thomas emphasizes. “The current rate is 2.45 mills, so people are paying $245 a year on a $200,000 home with a taxable value of $100,000. That would continue unchanged. We’re seeking to issue bonds to borrow between $31 and $33 million over the next ten years. The exact amount depends on interest rates.”

Lasinski outlines the three principal expenditures. “We’d use $10 million to update the school bus fleet. Much of it is over ten years old. We’d use $10 million to update classroom furnishings like chairs and desks. Most is thirty to fifty years old and can’t be repaired any longer. And we’d use $5 million for a security upgrade for the schools’ entrances. We have a ten-year [security] plan now, but if we’re successful with the bond that will accelerate to two years.

“We’ve been very conservative about asking our community to incur debt,” continues Lasinski. “Our bonded debt is 2.45 mills. Every other district in the county is higher. The closest is seven in Ypsilanti, Chelsea, and Saline. Dexter and Manchester are at 8.5 and Milan is over nine.

“If it doesn’t pass, the secure entrances will happen on a ten-year schedule, but the classroom furniture might not happen at all,” she warns. “The school buses have to be replaced, but that will have to come out of the general fund.”

Former trustee Kathy Griswold helped defeat the countywide millage in 2009, but she’s on board of this one. “I am supporting the bond proposal and urging others to vote YES,” Griswold emails. “It will not raise taxes; in simple terms it is a renewal that will allow us to continue to invest in our school facilities.”

State law won’t let schools use tax dollars to advocate for the proposal, so Lasinski and Thomas and the rest of the all-volunteer Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee do it instead.

“We’re school board members, PTO members, parents, and other concerned citizens,” says Thomas. “There’re probably sixteen people with a core group of eight or nine. We’re the committee that raises money for campaign yard signs and handout literature–and a lot of it comes from ourselves.”