For a concise list of the problems faced by state government over the past decade, there’s no need to look any further than Michigan. For an equally concise list of decisive actions taken in the face of those problems, there’s no need to look any further than Michigan’s governor, John Engler. Whether in education, social services or the economy, the 53-year-old Engler has consistently made policy in his own image — and he’s never cared much about the feathers he ruffled in the process.
“His attitude has always been, ‘Just get it done,’ and if he doesn’t have to ask first, he won’t,” says Bill Rustem, vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan government think tank in Lansing.
Because of his steamroller style, Engler’s reign in Michigan is as easily defined by those who don’t like him as by those who do. Early in his tenure, he eliminated general welfare assistance for able-bodied adults and pushed to close state mental hospitals, winning him the eternal enmity of social service activists. When he reorganized environmental programs in the name of accountability and efficiency, critics saw it as a tactic of “divide and conquer.” He’s regularly at war with organized labor, and has backed numerous initiatives to weaken unions, including tightening rules that restrict teacher strikes.
The simple fact is, however, that Engler’s record of achievement would be the envy of any governor, Democrat or Republican. During his decade in office, the state has gone from being $1.8 billion in the red to having a $1.3 billion rainy day fund; Michigan is now the only large Midwestern industrial state with a AAA bond rating. Engler has engineered 31 tax cuts (he eliminated state inheritance and capital gains taxes), adding up to more than $20 billion. At the same time, he’s come through politically unscathed while pushing increases in sales, cigarette, liquor and gasoline taxes.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge of Engler’s career came in his first term, when he was forced to broker mandated changes to equalize school funding around the state. In the end, the governor engineered things so that voters were given a tantalizing ballot choice: in exchange for a property-tax rollback they could either increase the state income tax or sales tax. The electorate chose the higher sales tax, the school funding system was reformed, and all parties ended up with significant portions of what they wanted. It was a rare instance in Engler’s career in which consensus, rather than stubbornness, prevailed; it was also perhaps the most successful resolution of the school funding issue in any major state.
Mostly, though, Engler has used the full range of his powers — from executive orders to Republican majorities in the legislature, to fashion market-oriented policies aimed at turning a listing industrial behemoth into a technically sophisticated economic development competitor. Engler has placed Michigan at the very top among states in information technology and continues to exercise personal leadership on this issue as his final term comes to a close. The results of his approach are hard to argue with: Last year was the fourth year in a row that Michigan led the nation in new plants and expansions.
Outside Michigan, Engler has played a key role crusading for devolution and making the case that states are ready to become the decisive players in the federal system. “There’s a lot of competency and administrative skill that’s been acquired at the state level,” he insists, “and there are lots of areas in which states have clear operating advantages over the federal government.
Michigan citizens will be talking about the Engler legacy for years, and arguing over his policies. The only thing that will be indisputable is the powerful effect of his time in office. “Engler has succeeded in reshaping Michigan in ways affecting nearly everyone’s life,” the Detroit News concluded a few months ago. “His deep imprint will be evident well into the new century.”
— Jonathan Walters
Photos by Dwight Cendrowski