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A Great Levitator Comes Back to Earth

Public’s embrace of Michigan governor wanes

January 16, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  After 12 years of the Engler administration's political wizardry, many people grew aware that the message voters bought and what they actually got were distinctly different.
There is about Governor John Engler something of the magician. Materializing out of nowhere in 1990 to narrowly beat an incumbent, Mr. Engler has used equal parts political skill, showmanship, and illusion to build a right wing governing majority unlike anything ever experienced in Michigan. 

But as Gov. Engler enters his 12th and final year in office, the central issue facing the three-term governor and the Republican right is how much interest does the act still hold? The answer is not nearly as much as it used to, but still enough to make the 2002 gubernatorial race the most compelling in decades.

Even before September 11, opinion polls were beginning to show a new public willingness to embrace the government’s role in the American experience and in advancing community values, such as public education and health care. In the weeks since, the polls have shown an even stronger emphasis on coming together, tolerance, and community.

The problem for Republicans is that those values clash with their dominant message. Gov. Engler and his legislative allies swept into office by arguing that Michigan’s economic and social woes could be solved by shrinking government, reducing taxes, and limiting government’s reach.

The message worked beautifully. Working families, convinced that government was the problem, allied themselves with industrial interests and the wealthy in a coalition that stressed business at any cost, individual rights over community values, jobs over environment, and suburbs over cities.

But 12 years is a long time for even a great levitator like the governor to treat a packed house to the full complement of his onstage genius. In other words, as the years passed many more people grew aware that the message voters bought and what they actually got were distinctly different.

Instead of less government, the Engler administration threw up ever-higher barriers to citizen involvement in public education, transportation, economic policy and the environment. Indeed, Mr. Engler’s idea of a more efficient government was to consolidate power in the governor’s office and help conservative jurists win state benches. In 1991, for example, the governor summarily eliminated all of the citizen oversight boards that once helped manage the state’s air, water, minerals, and timber.

Instead of limiting the public sector’s intrusiveness, the Mr. Engler consolidated power in the governor’s office and turned the apparatus of state over to his party’s important industrial allies and political donors. Business executives were invited into the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Transportation, and other agencies to rewrite or eliminate rules they considered burdensome and to help decide how and where to spend taxpayer dollars.

The result was that industrial access to the state's treasury, never mind its natural bounty, vastly increased. Tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds were doled out each year in the form of grants, loans, tax breaks, and direct subsidies to some of the state’s biggest companies.

In 1993, for example, the administration and the oil industry reached a private sweetheart agreement that accelerated natural gas development in the public forests of northern Michigan and saved energy companies $8 million in royalty payments to the state treasury.

Last summer, the administration approved a nearly $10 million subsidy package to the Perrier Company — a subsidiary of Nestle, the world's largest food company — to sink wells in Mecosta
County and bottle the state's fresh water.

The end of the year has been a favorite season of giving. In 2001 the big winner was David Johnson, the owner of two thirds of magnificent South Fox Island, a 3,400-acre Lake Michigan jewel 25 miles off the coast of Leelanau County. Mr. Johnson, a close political ally to Mr. Engler and one of the Republican party's most generous donors, has since 1987 given more than $100,000 to state and national GOP causes, according to public records, including a $20,000 gift in 2000 to the Republican National Committee.

On December 7, after more than a year of debate so pointed that Congress intervened, the Department of Natural Resources approved a trade of public and private land that handed Mr. Johnson ownership of 218 acres of the most magnificent terrain in all of the Great Lakes.

Mr. Johnson's new holdings include some of the tallest freshwater sand dunes in the world, more than a mile of sun-drenched beach, and a rare stand of coastal white cedars more than 400 years old.

Public dismay over such apparent favoritism is already influencing the governor’s race. Whoever the next governor is, Michigan appears poised for a new era that embraces state government as representing the will of the community. State voters are calling for a future based on investing in more environmental protection, livable communities, and economic opportunity for urban and working families, not just tax breaks and subsidies for the rich.

Even a talented magician can’t make that sentiment disappear.

Keith Schneider is an environmental writer and program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on January 14, 2002. Contact Keith at keith@mlui.org or for more of the Institute’s first-rate environmental journalism see www.mlui.org.
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