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Michigan Gov. Snyder offers GOP a less-confrontational model of governing

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 5:29 PM

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) follows his own muse. In a party that includes leaders who thrive on confrontation, he is the opposite, an upbeat and earnest political newcomer pursuing an agenda to change a state that has been through a period of economic decline worse than perhaps any other state in the nation.

Snyder, a former Gateway computer executive, has none of the bravado of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who seems to relish attacking public-employee union leaders and jumping into the national budget debate while denying his interest in running for president in 2012. So far, he has drawn no lines in the sand, the way Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose state is in turmoil over his face-off with public-employee unions, has done.

Snyder stands out by not standing out. "I respect the other governors," he said Friday over a cup of tea in Washington. "I have a different style. Talking is not my big model. My model is getting results. And that's how I want to speak to people. Where's the common ground? Where's the common-sense solution? How do we move the ball forward? How do we show progress?"

Snyder, who has joined his counterparts this weekend for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, won last year's Republican gubernatorial primary over more experienced and better-known candidates. A political newcomer, he was elected in the fall by a wide margin. He is a conservative businessman with a relatively moderate style in a party defined over the past two years by tea party activists and sharp attacks on President Obama and the Democrats.

He inherited a state with a double-digit unemployment rate and a budget with long-term structural problems. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous for embracing what he called "bold, persistent experimentation" to attack the Great Depression. Snyder has adopted what he calls "relentless positive action" to deal with Michigan's persistent economic problems. "We're just going to out-positive everybody else," he said.

Shortly after he was elected, he described public-employee compensation and benefits as the next major national challenge after health care. He shares that view with many other governors, including Walker. But as deeply as he feels about the problem, he parts company with Walker in style and substance, most obviously on the issue of denying collective-bargaining rights to the unions as Walker has proposed.

"I believe in good faith we should be going through the collective-bargaining process, and my belief is it should work in our state to achieve the goals we need to achieve in terms of balancing our budget and addressing some of these issues," he said.

Is that because it is a fight not worth having or because it simply isn't necessary to do what he wants to do? "It could be either one, but shouldn't I go work with them first?" he responded with a laugh. "One of the things I've worked hard to do - I'm here to work with people, not get in fights with people."

Those fights might be inevitable. He may approach his job with a positive outlook, but his policies have created partisan divisions. Under his new budget released last week, he proposes cutting business taxes by almost $2 billion and offseting most of that by increasing taxes on individuals, including taxing pension benefits for private-sector and public-sector employees, which most states except Michigan do.

The budget also calls for about $180 million in concessions from public employees. But Snyder declined to detail how to achieve those cuts. "We didn't take that $180 million and say here are five things that make up that $180 million," he said. "The reason we didn't do that is because I thought that should be part of collective bargaining, to show proper respect."

Snyder's new budget has provoked criticism from Democrats in the state legislature and union leaders. Yet some of those opponents have kind words for the way Snyder has conducted himself.

State Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer called his new budget "divisive" but also praised Snyder for reaching out to members of her party even before he was sworn in. "On a personal level and cerebral level, there's an earnest desire [to find common ground]. But in terms of what's in his budget, it's pretty traditional Republican budgeting." Still, she added, "it's better than what's going on in Wisconsin."

Snyder named the former Democratic speaker of the Michigan House as state treasurer and has several holdovers from the Cabinet of his predecessor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm. In policy terms, however, he has embarked on a course far different from Granholm's. But when asked what steps he has taken to undo her agenda, he was predictably nonconfrontational. "I don't even go there on that. . . . I'm not here to be critical," he said. "I'm here to do my job."

Nonetheless, his new budget tosses out key elements of the blueprint Granholm put in place to diversify a state economy long dependent on the auto industry. While cutting business taxes overall, Snyder would eliminate many of the tax incentives Granholm implemented for sectors she wanted to build up, from brownfield redevelopment to advanced batteries and the film industry.

"We're not doing winners and losers," Snyder said, who believes an overall reduction in corporate taxes is a more equitable and effective way to create jobs. "We're out of that. We're scaling back the tax credits dramatically."

Snyder's style has not produced a new era of bipartisanship in Lansing, the capital. His program is moving through the legislature on mostly party-line votes. He also has to contend with fallout from proposals by conservatives that would rile the unions and Democratic constituencies even more than some of his proposals, including one to make Michigan a right-to-work state.

"Governor Snyder is very clear about focusing on his comprehensive budget and tax plan and on the economy and turning Michigan around," spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said. "Those other bills are not part of his agenda or priorities."

Asked whether he is consciously trying to offer his party an alternative style of governing, he said: "I believe what we're doing could be a great role model for the rest of our country. But that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I believe it's the right thing to do for the state of Michigan.

"It has nothing to do with how anybody views me outside Michigan," he added. "If it's not about Michigan, I'm not even going to talk to anybody. . . . I'm not here to solve the federal government's issues. I'm here to reinvent the state of Michigan."

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