After 12 years under Gov. John Engler, Michigan voters will have to choose between two visions of the direction Michigan’s government should take.
Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus favors smaller state government and credits Republican policies with spurring economic development and job creation during the 1990s. Attorney General Jennifer Granholm says the state has been on the wrong track – failing to lower health care costs, protect the environment and the mentally ill and displaying an inability to keep college tuition down.
The Michigan Daily takes a look at some of the problems the next governor will have to deal with and what the candidates say they will do to solve them.
Jennifer Granholm won a tight race for attorney general just four years ago, replacing Frank Kelley, who, during his 38-year tenure as the state’s top lawyer had become a nationally recognized advocate for consumer protection issues.
The Northville resident stresses her ability to “get things done,” noting that she has drastically upped the response time for complaints sent to the attorney general’s office and created a “High Tech Crime Unit” to prosecute cybercrimes and child pornography websites.
A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, she received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and then pursued and received a degree from the Harvard University Law School.
After graduating from law school, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and served as Wayne County corporation counsel before her election as attorney general in 1998.
“We have an image of being a rustbelt state,” Granholm lamented during a recent interview. That needs to be changed, she says. “There are few places considered hip.”
Dick Posthumus has been in state government for almost 20 years. A native of Kent County’s Alto, near Grand Rapids, he grew up on a farm. A roommate of Engler’s at Michigan State University, he managed Engler’s first campaign for the state House of Representatives, then was elected to the state Senate in 1982. When Engler was elected governor in 1990, Posthumus succeeded him as Senate majority leader.
Elected lieutenant governor on the 1998 ticket with Engler and with the current governor term-limited, Posthumus quickly emerged as the candidate to succeed him. Defeating a moderate state senator in the Republican primary, he touts the successes of the Engler administration in cutting taxes, enacting welfare reform and lowering crime.
“We’ve got to continue fighting to create jobs – the reason I first went to Lansing in the 1980s,” he said. “And I made sure kids could stay here and go to school here.”
Both candidates complain about the rate at which tuition has been increasing at the state’s public colleges and universities. The University raised tuition 7.5 percent this year – and 6.5 percent the year before – figures several points above the rate of inflation, and it was worse at most other institutions.
To deal with rising tuition, Granholm proposes making the Michigan Education Trust a more affordable program for families to enter. The MET allows families to purchase tuition for their children’s future college education at rates proportional to current tuition rates. Granholm says the MET has been priced out of the reach of most families. She also proposes making the current $2,500 MEAP Merit Award scholarships, which are currently based solely on test scores, more need-based.
But she also says the state needs
to hold the universities to lower tuition rates.
“Just like everyone else has to tighten their belts during tough economic times, so should the universities,” she said.
Posthumus, for his part, proposes linking the state’s higher education appropriations to tuition increases lower than the inflation rate. Any university revenue received from tuition increases higher than the inflation rate would be stripped from the state appropriations to state colleges.
Now in effect, the Michigan Education Savings Plan, developed by a commission he chaired as lieutenant governor, offers families the ability to invest money tax free – much like the Roth IRA retirement plans – in accounts set aside for their children’s tuition.
“Most working families can only put away a little at a time,” he said, explaining one benefit the MESP has over the MET.
During the mid- to late-1990s, revenue came pouring into state coffers as the economy boomed and the toughest decision lawmakers had to make was how to apportion the surpluses. But with the economy on the downswing, the question now is how to fill a hole projected at $1.2 billion over the next two years.
Neither candidate supports raising taxes. In fact, both want to continue certain cuts in the income and business taxes that had been halted because of the shortfall in the state’s rainy day fund.
Granholm has proposed cutting all state budgets by 5 percent, a plan Posthumus blasts as irresponsible.
“My opponent has talked about cutting the budget but has never had to do it,” he said. “In 1991 … we had a $1.8 billion dollar deficit and as I sat across the table from (then-Democratic House Speaker Lewis) Dodak and Governor Engler, I said we can get through this budget without raising taxes. And we did.”
Posthumus argues that budget cuts cannot be made across the board, saying Department of Corrections estimates show 2,500 prisoners would have to be released. Rather than deciding on which programs to cut, Posthumus said the governor should first decide which programs to fund – in other words: Build the budget up from nothing, not cut it piece by piece.
Granholm proposes “cutting the fat in the state government” – creating a bureaucracy buster to “cut through the red tape.” She says better economic policies would over time fix the revenue shortage.
Crime, Drugs and Mental Health:
Though there was a massive drop in crime during the economic boom, but it has since been inching upward.
Posthumus stands by Engler’s record during the years. During the current governor’s tenure, penalties for crimes have gotten longer and fewer of those incarcerated have been paroled. But at the same time, the prison population bloomed.
Granholm proposes sending more resources on early childhood development, saying better educational institutions will have a long-term effect of reducing crime. She also says too many people in the prison population could have been treated in drug clinics or via mental health programs.
“We have a mental health system that is culturally and completely broken,” she said. “And what (Engler and Posthumus) have done is take the funding away and shut down the institutions, and that people who need treatment end up going to the prison system.”
Posthumus said the state did the right thing in closing down many of the mental health clinics and focusing more on family-based and outpatient treatment for those with mental problems. As for drug laws, he vowed to take a look at the guidelines that state court judges usually have to follow when issuing sentences and perhaps tinkering with them so that petty drug users are not unduly punished.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to taking a very close look at it and make sure we have fair sentencing,” he said. “But also we can’t send the message to young people in middle school and high school that it’s OK to use drugs.”
Environment and Land Use:
Though environmentalists blast Posthumus’ credentials, he shrugs them off and focuses on keeping Michigan’s water clean.
If elected governor, he vows to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by the year 2010 as well as banning off-shore “slant” oil drilling. He wants to ban the diversion of Michigan water to other areas and reducing the number of invasive species.
Granholm has similar proposals but also stresses giving more dollars to the Purchase of Development Rights program, which gives localities the ability to purchase from farmers the development rights to their farms and thereby ensure that the farms do not become sprawling residential areas. Granholm wants the state to give more PDR grants to localities.
“Of all property in this state, we are only temporary possessors,” she said. “We may own the property, but at some point it passes to someone else.”
But Post-humus said the difficulties in preventing sprawl are more complex.
“For us to purchase PDRs for much of farmland is difficult because we’re such an agricultural state,” he said, comparing Michigan to states with less agricultural areas such as Maryland.
“The way to maintain farms is to make sure our farmers are making money,” he said. “There’s no reason not to have PDRs as a tool, but I think it has to be done by local communities.”