By Paul Egan and Kathleen Gray
Building on the theme "the comeback continues," Gov. Rick Snyder promised to promote immigration and provide greater support for schools, cities, veterans and the environment Thursday in his final State of the State address of his first term.
The election-year speech was thinner on major new initiatives than Snyder's past State of the State speeches. Instead, the governor spent considerable time detailing -- and taking some credit for -- improvements in the state's economic fortunes since he took office three years ago.
Democrats panned the speech for trumpeting economic resurgence while Michigan's unemployment rate of 8.8% remains among the highest in the nation and said Snyder offered no new solutions to fix the problem.
Snyder cited gains in employment, personal income and population growth, among other measures, in his hour-long speech. "We had a broken system in Michigan," Snyder told lawmakers and invited guests at the Capitol.
"We've become the comeback state, but our work is not done," he said. "It's about keeping your foot on the gas."
Snyder sought to counter claims that he has cut $1 billion from K-12 education, saying per-pupil spending has increased by $660 since 2010. But even before he finished speaking, school superintendents and others in education issued news releases saying the governor's commitment to education spelled out in the speech fell short.
The governor started his speech with an apparent reference to recent anti-gay and anti-Muslim remarks by Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema. Snyder did not mention Agema by name, but called for "a greater degree of civility and respect for people of different backgrounds and views" and recognition that "differences are a positive." He said Michigan residents should work to bring people together, not divide them.
Lawmakers posed for photos in the legislative chambers before the speech, many wearing bright pink scarves to show their support for women's health issues.
-- An extra $65 million for the Great Start early childhood education program to eliminate the waiting list for low-income kids.
-- Creation of a Michigan Office for New Americans to spearhead attracting talented and well-educated immigrants. He said Michigan is trying to become only the second U.S. state designated by the federal government as a center for attracting immigrant entrepreneurs with money to invest.
-- Expansion of Meals on Wheels and in-home programs for seniors, with more measures aimed at seniors to be announced in a special message this year.
-- Requiring more financial information from local governments and school districts as a way of providing early warnings of local units heading into financial distress.
-- Funding to fight invasive species, particularly the Asian long-horned beetle, which is heading north toward Michigan and threatens the state's hardwood trees.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer said the speech was "incredibly disappointing." Snyder offered "no hope, no solutions, no answers," Schauer said.
Snyder, who has nearly $1 billion in extra revenue to work with as he finalizes the budget for the 2015 fiscal year, voiced support for some limited tax relief for Michigan families, but said it must be part of a broader plan that includes reducing the state's debt and adding to Michigan's Rainy Day Fund.
State officials have stressed that two-thirds of Michigan's $971-million budget surplus is one-time money that can't be built into any ongoing program such as a tax cut.
Snyder called on the federal government to follow Michigan's lead by passing a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. The symbolic move drew loud cheers and a standing ovation from his GOP colleagues in the audience.
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said Snyder was only able to balance the state's budget "as a result of stealing money from the School Aid Fund, taxing pensioners and taking money from the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit)."
Judy Putnam, a spokeswoman for the Michigan League for Public Policy, said she found Snyder's statements vague on what to do with the surplus. She said she would have liked to hear Snyder oppose a tax cut in favor of needed investments in schools and Michigan families.
Snyder renewed his call for more than $1 billion of additional annual spending on the state's roads and urged continued progress on building a public bridge to Canada -- a project he moved ahead on through executive powers after he couldn't win legislative support.
Snyder took office in 2011 vowing to reinvent Michigan government, adopting a mantra of "relentless positive action" and promising to work in "dog years" to urgently change the direction of the state.
He touts the elimination of the Michigan Business Tax and the planned phased removal of the personal property tax on manufacturing equipment, plus the elimination or streamlining of business regulations. Snyder also signed into law in December 2012 controversial right-to-work legislation that makes it illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment and says Michigan's business climate has significantly improved in the last three years.
Snyder pushed through an unpopular pension tax in 2011, which he says was needed as a matter of fairness and to assure balanced state budgets into the future. Bond rating agencies have improved their outlooks for Michigan debt, and the state's Rainy Day Fund savings account, drained nearly to zero when Snyder took office, has grown to $580 million.
But Democrats and other critics say Michigan businesses have benefited from a $1.8-billion tax cut under Snyder, while middle- and lower-income residents, seniors, public schools and higher education have been left behind.
Snyder has not formally announced that he will seek a second four-year term, but his campaign has purchased more than a half-million dollars' worth of TV time across Michigan during the Super Bowl broadcast on Feb. 2, suggesting he plans to launch his campaign in the same way he did in 2010.
Snyder called for quick resolution of the Detroit bankruptcy. Among those attending the address were newly elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the tri-county executives: L. Brooks Patterson from Oakland, Robert Ficano from Wayne and Mark Hackel from Macomb. Kevyn Orr, Snyder's state-appointed emergency manager for Detroit, did not attend because his duties require him to remain in the city, spokesman Bill Nowling said.
On Wednesday, Snyder proposed in meetings with lawmakers that the state contribute $350 million over 20 years to protect the pensions of Detroit's retirees and the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts during the city's historic bankruptcy proceedings.
A Free Press analysis of Snyder's three earlier State of the State addresses found he has completed or made progress on 76% of the 67 unique pledges he made.
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