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GOP Power Play In Michigan Must Go Through Pragmatic Snyder

Reginald Hardwick

Michigan Republicans determined to dilute the authority of newly elected Democrats could see the power play thwarted by a moderate GOP governor, who is not certain to go along with the Legislature like Wisconsin's more partisan Gov. Scott Walker.

Term-limited Rick Snyder is not tipping his hand on whether he will sign the legislation if it is sent to him in the final days of a frantic lame-duck session. In contrast, Walker let it be known early in the Wisconsin process that he was likely to be on board with Republican lawmakers there.

Snyder, like Walker, has weakened unions in the industrial Midwest with right-to-work laws, cut taxes and enacted other conservative policies. But he also has a more centrist streak — expanding Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law and vetoing some GOP-sponsored gun and abortion bills.

"Scott Walker is more conservative, more of an insurgent Republican reformer type than Rick Snyder, and he's got more of an edge just in his personality and his approach to things in general. Rick Snyder has tried to characterize himself as being this kind of above-it-all, almost nonpartisan governor who doesn't make deals and makes every decision based on logic and common sense and what works," said Bill Ballenger, a political analyst and former Michigan Republican lawmaker.

Snyder infuriated Democrats by signing bills Friday to significantly scale back minimum wage and paid sick leave laws. They began as citizen-initiated ballot initiatives but were adopted by the GOP-led Legislature in a maneuver to allow them to be weakened after the election. Snyder's decision to sign them was not surprising because he has long been in sync with their main backers in the business community.

Now Republicans are considering whether to give final approval to a bill that would strip campaign-finance oversight from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson. Another bill would let the full Legislature or individual chambers automatically intervene in lawsuits, a power that until now has been reserved for the state attorney general. The move could affect Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, who has said she probably will not defend a law allowing faith-based groups to refuse to serve same-sex couples who want to adopt children.

An additional measure would make it harder to launch ballot drives , following voter approval of three Democratic-backed proposals last month. And a bill very close to Snyder's desk would hamper the ability of Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer's administration to set environmental and other regulations that are stricter than federal rules.

"If I believe it's in the best public policy interest of our state, I will sign it. If it's not, I won't sign it," Snyder said last week.

Democrats in Michigan are warning Snyder that signing the bills could tar his legacy, a repeat of pleas that did not sway Walker. The Wisconsin governor said his legacy will be the record he left behind that includes all but eliminating collective bargaining for public workers and getting rid of the state property tax.

Snyder is more pragmatic and has not always gotten behind GOP lawmakers' agenda in his eight-year tenure. He said he does not think about his legacy.

There is little doubt that the defining moments of Snyder's tenure will include the crisis over lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, which was a disaster for his administration, and the economic turnaround of Detroit after it emerged from bankruptcy, for which Snyder has received credit.

Many Republicans contend that the proposals to limit the powers of Democrats and voters have been overblown, while Democrats say they are undemocratic and flout the will of voters who elected them in November.

"He talks a good game and then he signs everything that goes in front of him, for the most part," said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint, who said he is not "overly hopeful" that Snyder will veto the measures. "If he signs all these right-wing bills, then that's who you are. That's what your legacy is. It's not what you say it's going to be. It's what you do."

Some within the GOP are speaking out against some of the legislation. Bill Rustem, a former top aide to Snyder who led a 1976 ballot drive for Michigan's 10-cent bottle deposit law, issued an open letter with a Democrat on Tuesday urging Snyder to veto the bill that would cap the number of petition signatures that could from a single congressional district at 15 percent.

"The need to keep this direct democratic option within reach of our citizens is as great as ever, especially given the loss of confidence in government's ability to solve problems in recent years," they wrote, later stating: "By vetoing the legislative to weaken the initiative process should it reach your desk, you would strike a blow for government 'by the people' in Michigan.

Whitmer, who is meeting regularly with Snyder during the transition, told Michigan-based radio host Michael Patrick Shiels on Friday that she is "hopeful" that Snyder will "go out and show that he's a statesperson" by protecting the executive branch.

The bills have passed one chamber or the other, but it is uncertain if they will win final legislative approval this final week of the lame-duck session or if changes will be made.

Tom Shields, a veteran Republican strategist, said Snyder historically has vetoed some bills at year's end.

"I think this year will be no different. He's going to find some things that he just can't live with," he said, before adding: "He's been pretty close to the vest."

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