Rick Snyder Promises Improved Programs, Focuses on State's 'River of Opportunity'
By Paul Egan and Kathleen Gray
Gov. Rick Snyder launched his second term Tuesday with a State of the State address in which he called for "revolutionizing how government operates" to move all Michiganders into the mainstream "river of opportunity" where he says most residents already swim.
Snyder said he was fortunate to be born into a two-parent family in which he was able to take advantage of middle-class opportunities. But he said too many face barriers to that "river of opportunity," due to poverty or family issues, sickness or disabilities, or a lack of access to transportation.
"Government and nonprofits are in the forefront of offering help, but we must fundamentally reshape the way in which we do that.," Snyder said. "The system is failing, folks," Snyder said. "What we've done is we've sliced and diced people into programs We've moved away from treating them as real people."
Michigan must move to a system focused on people, not programs; dealing with root causes, not symptoms; maximizing results, not bureaucracy; involving friends and neighbors in the community, not just the state; and measuring results. Central to his plan, he said, is merging the Departments of Community Health and Human Services to form one department aimed at streamlining services.
Snyder began his 50-minute address by reciting statistics, new programs and steps to improve Michigan's business climate that he said have moved Michigan far ahead of where the state was four years ago. Snyder highlighted improved benchmarks, such as an unemployment rate that has dropped from about 11% to below 7% since he took office.
He talked about the Detroit financial crisis and the city's recent emergence from the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy in the nation's history. Now, "let's grow the city of Detroit," with emphasis on resurgent neighborhoods, not just the downtown, he said.
"We're better, but to be open with you, better is not good enough," Snyder told the joint session of the Legislature and invited guests at the Capitol. "We need to do more."
Democrats criticized Snyder in advance of the speech, saying recent state projections of budget shortfalls for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years show the policies advanced by him and the Republican-controlled Legislature are not working. And while the state's economy has improved from where it was, its unemployment rate and other measures have not improved relative to the rest of the nation, critics said.
But immediately after the speech, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said it was a good address and "there are a lot of things we can find common ground on.
Ananich said he liked Snyder's emphasis on helping people move "from dependency to self-sufficiency."
Not all Democrats were as positive about what Snyder said. Lon Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said Snyder talks about equal opportunity but has backed a tax system that punishes "working families and seniors."
Sen. Coleman Young, D-Detroit, said he was disappointed by how little Snyder said about Detroit and felt there was "no meat on the bone."
Republicans generally praised the speech, as did the left-leaning Michigan League for Public Policy and the Michigan Catholic Conference. Snyder in his speech attributed the budget crunch to an unexpected recent surge in the redemption of corporate tax credits issued by prior administrations. Snyder discontinued the tax credits, which are good for up to 20 years, at the end of 2011.
Wearing a cast due to a torn Achilles tendon suffered after jogging in Florida during the New Year's holiday, Snyder used a ramp and a scooter to help him ascend to the podium normally used by the House Speaker. But he stood to deliver the speech, resting one leg on a piano bench. Snyder announced plans for 2015 that include:
--Government services: A pending executive order to merge the Department of Community Health and the Department of Human Services, creating a Department of Health and Human Services that will be the largest department in state government, with more than 14,000 employees.
--Jobs: Snyder announced the creation of state "regional prosperity teams," made up of existing state officials, to work with officials and people in 10 prosperity zones around the state to help turn cities and counties around.
--Technical training: Expanding on a theme Snyder has been hammering on for more than two years, the governor said he wants to improve the way students move from high school to post-secondary education, with emphasis on improved counseling, training in high-tech and other skilled trades, facilitating simultaneous enrollment in high school and college, and online schooling.
--Civil rights: Snyder called on the Legislature to continue a debate on extending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but did not explicitly take a position on the issue. "Let's keep up that dialogue and let's show that we can deal with issues of discrimination in our state," he said.
House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, said "that's a discussion we had last session," and "I'm not looking to bring that up."
--K-12 Education: Snyder asked the Legislature to approve a commission on third-grade reading, and wants to improve reading performance and other outcomes by improving efforts to nurture and educate from prenatal to pre-school and beyond.
--Roads: Snyder appealed to voters to support a May 5 ballot initiative that would increase the sales tax to 7% from 6% and provide an extra $1.2 billion a year to fix roads, $300 million a year for K-12 schools, and $100 million each for mass transit and local governments. The ballot initiative was approved by the lame-duck Legislature in December after lawmakers couldn't agree on a legislative road funding plan. Snyder painted the issue as a public safety one and also emphasized the additional costs to Michigan motorists for auto repairs.
--Energy: Snyder, who this year is expected to announce a new energy agency, talked about the need for a state energy policy focused on affordability, reliability and protection of the environment. Snyder plans a special message on energy for March.
--Government accountability: Snyder wants state lawmakers to include a "fiscal note" with all legislation setting out how it will be paid for and ask local governments for improved financial metrics.
--Health: Snyder called for an aggressive strategy to combat abuse and addiction to opiates and other painkillers. Snyder wants proposals ready in October.
Snyder's speech comes three weeks ahead of his budget presentation as the state faces projected budget shortfalls in the general fund of about $325 million for 2014-15, which is the current fiscal year, and $532 million in 2015-16, which is the budget Snyder will deliver Feb. 11.
House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said in advance of the speech that Snyder's "Republican economic policies" have blown a hole in the state budget and "these indicators should be heeded as warning signs that the policies of the past four years are wrong and don't work.
After the speech, Greimel said he thought the "river of opportunity" metaphor was somewhat awkward, but Democrats are ready to work with Snyder if he is interested in expanding opportunities to everyone in the state.
"If on the other hand, he's going to simply use rhetoric and try to cut programs under the guise of changing government, then we're going to have some concerns."
Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who joined Greimel at the news conference, called on Snyder to increase spending on K-12 schooling and reduce the student cost of community college.
"We have to reward kids who go to college and want to stay here," Hertel said.
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