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Snyder needs to tell Legislature that budget is far from finished

A governor working in a politically divided government often has no choice but to concede some measure of power to a legislative chamber controlled by the opposition party.

When government is unified, a governor has two choices in pursuit of policy aims: Hope that intraparty disagreement can be resolved with a civil tone and tasty carrots. Or take out the stick.

It might be time for Gov. Rick Snyder to consider the stick, given a 2014 budget headed for his desk that pointedly rejects three of his signature policy aims, with far-reaching economic consequences:

--Medicaid expansion.

--A long-term funding solution for infrastructure and transit.

--Implementation of the Common Core State Standards by the Michigan Department of Education.

Snyder could continue to accommodate legislative recalcitrance on the assumption that good faith talks will someday expand Medicaid and boost road funding by the minimum $1.2 billion amount necessary. And if those efforts collapse … oh well, at least it was good constructive dialogue.

Or he can get out his veto pen and send House Bill 4328 back from whence it came with a message that he won’t sign another bill until it’s complete -- accompanied by a reminder that the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year is still more than three months away.

Since he hadn't yet received the bill as of Monday afternoon -- and since lawmakers aren't scheduled to leave until June 20 -- a third approach provides a signature only when the budget is paired with supplemental legislation that reflects the health, transportation and education goals he laid out in his budget presentation four months ago.

Arguably the worst outcome for Snyder is to sign the budget into law and have full-time lawmakers go home for a three-month summer break on the vague assurance that unfinished work can wait until fall.

Odd issues to generate impasse

It’s not as though this is radical stuff; all of it is supported to one degree or the other by Michigan’s business community, in alliance with organized labor.

Other Republican governors are pressing for Medicaid expansion that would, in Michigan, mean $4.3 billion in federal aid over the next two fiscal years, coverage for nearly 500,000 uninsured and a big reduction in health-care cost-shifting that can add thousands to employer-provided health packages.

As for road funding, the business community for years now has set aside its aversion to higher taxes so that lawmakers could have the political room to do something – anything! -- to put Michigan infrastructure on stable financial footing.

And Michigan’s adoption of Common Core State Standards developed by the National Governors Association and state education officers provides schools with a yardstick that specifies what students in every grade need to know in reading, math and science to ensure they are prepared for the coursework in the grade to come.

These initiatives are predicated on the understandable premise that containing employer health-care costs, repairing embarrassing roads and taking consensus steps to improve student performance just might be in the state’s economic interest.

But since they necessarily involve the application of more government -- and anger certain factions of the political right whose members apparently are making phone calls -- all three Snyder-backed efforts were excluded from the omnibus budget bill approved by the Senate and sent to the governor. (It didn't help that Snyder accepted a target agreement that spends $350 million in one-time surplus so lawmakers could bail on new road revenue.)

Last week, there there were signs of movement on Medicaid expansion when Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, promised a substitute bill that presumably can satisfy a majority of his caucus and can still qualify for a waiver from Washington.

The window is smaller for a transportation package that would logically require a two-thirds vote for a statewide election to alter the state sales tax.

Snyder should be saying that without those pieces, and a reversal on the Common Core spending ban in the Department of Education appropriation, the budget is unfinished. And that he doesn’t intend to sign it until it is.

If he doesn't use the leverage of the budget to get those pieces now, it's a major opportunity lost because in 2014 everyone's up for re-election.

Also, assertion of authority is important beyond the specifics of these policies.

Despite Lansing’s reputation for dysfunction, the big stuff still can get done when powerful bipartisan interest group alliances form to negotiate through the rough patches and see it through to completion. If that mechanism breaks down because ideology and timidity prevent it from working, that's not good.

While Snyder takes pride in ending Lansing’s chronic budget turmoil, what good is a smoother budget process that meets artificial deadlines if it doesn't produce what you want policy-wise?

Snyder's primary appeal to ticket-splitters in 2010 was that he would make Lansing work again. If it's still broken -- as would be apparent by the failure of a Republican Legislature to complete a Republican governor's pro-business platform -- then it means he hasn't fixed it.

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