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Political ambitions play role in MI budget drama

By Rick Pluta, Michigan Public Radio Network


LANSING, MI – Budget talks at the state Capitol dragged into another day with no deal imminent. Legislative leaders say they're continuing to talk in hopes of reaching an agreement with just two weeks before the October first deadline.

There are sincere philosophical differences pitting legislative leaders against each other and Governor Granholm. But political ambitions may also be playing a role as they attempt to negotiate a compromise.

It's common to see House Speaker Andy Dillon strolling through the chamber, thumbs on Blackberry. He is an incessant e-mailer and text message-sender. Often, the Democratic leader's sending a message to his Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

The two have a cordial relationship even though they disagree on the best way to balance the budget. And they have competing and complementary interests as they try to find a compromise.

Their reputations, certainly, depend on avoiding a second state government shutdown like the one that occurred on their watch in 2007. That matters because both are weighing their political futures as they try to avert a budget disaster on October first.

Dillon was asked recently on the Michigan Public Television show "Off The Record" whether he plans to run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

"I really have dismissed the whole decision until October," he said. "We have a big job to do and that is we have to get the budget done."

Dillon's says any other ambitions have to take a back seat to that job.

"We'll get a budget done," he says. "I'm confident of that."

But that goal has been complicated by tension between Dillon and Governor Granholm, even though they are both Democrats. They've been pretty much on the same page in terms of budget priorities - especially keeping the Michigan Promise scholarship that goes to every student who graduates from high school and completes two years of college or career training. They also want to preserve money for Medicaid, for K-12 schools, for pre-school, and for local governments.

But they have bickered publicly over the timing of budget votes, and whether there's support for the new taxes the governor has proposed to help balance the budget.

The governor said last week that Dillon and House Democrats are delaying a deal because they have not put up votes for a budget plan.

"You know, we've got a plan that's been public," she said. "The Senate has a plan that's been public. The House has to make their plan public, which I think they're going to do very soon, and that allows everybody to come back to the table and negotiate a compromise."

Governor Granholm cannot run again because of term limits. But these negotiations will set the stage for her legacy and for the gubernatorial campaign of her lieutenant governor, John Cherry. Cherry has also been critical of Dillon. The two could potentially face each other in a Democratic primary next year.

Cherry is a friend to the Democratic Party's old-guard labor coalition. Dillon, however, has been a target of his party's leaders because of his plan to put all public employees into a single insurance pool. It is shaping up as one of the biggest fights of the year at the state Capitol. Labor leaders say the plan would force more costs or lower benefits onto unionized public employees. The president of the A-F-of-L C-I-O has said Dillon is not a true Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Bishop says Dillon is paying a price for putting policy over politics.

"I do know the speaker's frustrated, and the speaker wants to get his job done," he says.

While there is still no budget deal, Bishop says he and Dillon have agreed to see if they can find common ground on $1.2 billion in spending cuts. That's the Senate Republican target for balancing the budget without tax hikes.

"I think we all know that you've got to put aside the philosophical differences and get the job done, and that's what we're trying to do," he adds.

There's talk the leaders may just craft their own budget compromise, get it through both chambers of the Legislature, and place that in front of the governor.

Bishop also has aspirations. He'd like to run next year as the Republican nominee to be the next state attorney general. The nomination will be decided by delegates to a state Republican convention next summer. If Bishop gives in on taxes, that could damage his reputation with conservatives who will be key in deciding the GOP's choice.

But there is still a budget to balance, and so, like his House counterpart Andy Dillon, Bishop must also balance the political with the practical.

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