Rick Snyder had never held or even sought any public office when he was elected governor of Michigan in 2010. As a venture capitalist and former Gateway computer executive, Snyder campaigned as a "tough nerd" who would offer pragmatic, apolitical leadership.
During his first year in office, Snyder surprised many Lansing insiders by proposing an aggressive agenda and then seeing nearly all of his priorities through to enactment. The state overhauled its tax system and established a corps of state-appointed emergency financial managers with broad powers to intervene in the affairs of financially distressed localities. He adopted a non-confrontational personal style that gave him a reputation as one of the most moderate of the new Republican governors of 2011.
Governor Snyder stopped by Stateline 's offices last week to discuss his strategy for the coming year, the future of the manufacturing industry, and why he doesn't want Michigan to follow in Indiana's footsteps and become the next "right-to-work" state. He was interviewed by Stateline staff writers Melissa Maynard and Jim Malewitz. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Michigan is now looking at a surplus, which must mean a lot of people pressuring you to restore cuts that have been made to state programs over the years. How will this affect the budget that you will unveil on February 9?
We do have a surplus, but we need to be thoughtful about that. One thing we did that is different than in prior years is we didn't piecemeal things out. We really did it in a perspective of collecting everything, putting it all together, looking at it, then prioritizing in some fashion what would have the most significant value to our citizens, and then make some allocation of those resources in line with that. There isn't just one answer. It's a portfolio approach. How would you actually distribute that to have the best benefits?
I want to start looking out three and five years in terms of forecasting. It does change your decision-making to say, what's the cumulative effect of what you're doing and are you going to be consistent and really invest for the smart long-term future of the state?
In your state of the state address , you said your focus this year will be on improving state government itself rather than tackling major new policy initiatives. What will that look like?
Traditional politicians like to talk about policy a lot. Actually traditional politicians talk too much in my view. They get into policy issues and how to keep on making policy after policy after policy. I don't view that as the best answer. It's really figuring out what makes a difference and be consistent. We did a lot last year. Now it's about good management and good implementation.
We've got a lot of very dedicated people working for the state of Michigan but they haven't been partnered with as much as they should. If you go talk to an average front-line employee, they'll sort of feel that they've gotten lost in the bureaucracy. They don't bring up new ideas anymore, because they probably feel like they weren't listened to. That's not a healthy environment. A big initiative that we have is to actually get in and to work with all state employees to say, "Hey, we're here to listen."
I do employee lunches on a regular basis. I just did one on a random basis with state employees last week. Usually it's about 8 to 12 people and we just have sandwiches and wide-open discussion on whatever they want. I'll normally ask them, anyone here work on a stupid report or a dumb report that we really shouldn't be doing? Almost 100 percent of the time I'll get the hands going up. Why are we doing this? They may have brought it up and no one may have paid attention or it's required by some statute or regulation. They know it doesn't have any value.
You may be the only Republican governor pushing the federal government to adopt more flexible immigration policies. This is particularly interesting because, in contrast to many of your peers, you usually don't tend to comment on federal policy issues. What made you decide to jump into the debate about immigrants by recommending a special program for those with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) backgrounds?
Here you have people who are coming to get a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Michigan or Michigan State, and then we tell them to leave. That's dumb, to be blunt. This isn't talking about solving every issue related to immigration, but there's no reason for anyone to be against this, once the facts are laid out in front of them. This is an exercise in relentless positive action, of trying to get Washington to adopt this methodology to say, "There is no blame. There is no credit. There's common ground. We all agree. Let's just put in a solution and go." It would help our state.
You haven't supported right-to-work legislation, of the sort that Indiana recently passed, eliminating the legally protected union workplace. Why is that? And how do you think Indiana's restriction of union power affects neighboring states such as Michigan?
A lot of the right-to-work issue, I view it as a divisive issue. If you look at what's gone on in the states, you have to ask the question, now what's going to get done in Indiana for the next year or two? The fight isn't truly over. It creates an environment where people are not working together.
If you look at what percentage of the workforce is actually even unionized nowadays, even in a highly unionized state that Michigan would probably be classified as, you're talking in the teens. Then you say how much is in the private versus the public sector, and then you ask, of the new jobs being created, how many are in an environment that is even unionized. Are you going to spend all your energy fighting over that piece of the situation versus saying how much better could we spend time working together creating jobs for all sectors. I don't see value in the dialogue and discussion versus the success we're showing in Michigan.
Are you at all worried about it from an economic competitiveness standpoint? Indiana is explicitly trying to steal companies from Michigan.
If anything, Indiana was probably getting more concerned that Michigan's back. We're doing a lot of good things for our employers, with workers comp reform, unemployment insurance reform, having a balanced budget, education reform. If you look at business, long-term the biggest issue beyond looking at government and wanting certainty and understanding what the rules are, is talent is a major driver. Long term it's more important to have the highest quality workers. I think a lot of the Midwest should all want to come back together, so that it's not one state versus another state. In many respects, the Midwest was treated as flyover territory and we're a great place to be, for quality of life and everything else.
Do you think the research is clear on whether right-to-work would help improve Michigan's economy, political considerations about the fights over getting it passed aside?
No. Actually I think if you look at some of the labor agreements out there, there are some really competitive ones. And if you look at productivity overall, we actually had people when we were meeting with some of the auto companies at the auto show say that their companies regretted being in the southern part [of the country, where right-to-work laws are common] because they weren't getting the skilled workforce the same way that they would in Michigan and the flexibility. They were having people taken away for other lower wage situations versus having the right talent at the right place.
This is not something people should overreact to. In many respects when people say right-to-work, it's like one of those red flag kinds of issues where too many people just sort of have a visceral reaction and say "ok, here's my position and I'm not open to listening to anything else." That's not how good government should operate. I want to listen and hear it and work on it.
What about the state's labor relations with its own employees?
We had successful collective bargaining with our own employees at the state level. I want to give credit to [UAW President] Bob King. It was literally a case where the UAW took the lead and he had great people working for him, but Bob and I got on the phone and we actually met a couple of times to sort of hash through issues. We got things resolved. In the end it was great that when we hit a loggerhead we just sat down and talked and got a good agreement done.