A Refreshing Approach to Politics in Michigan

If Rick Snyder is a faux reformer, he disguises it well behind gobs of data and the passion of an evangelist.

Source: Congressional Resource Service
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Dec. 15, 2015, 2:32 p.m.

A mul­ti­colored quilt of circles and squares, con­nec­ted by faint gray lines, charted the 80-plus pro­grams serving low-in­come Amer­ic­ans for $1 tril­lion per year. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder stared at it.

“How many un­du­plic­ated people are on this?”

He wanted to know how many Michigan res­id­ents were rep­res­en­ted on the chart that Nick Ly­on had brought to the gov­ernor’s con­fer­ence room for a Nov. 30 meet­ing. Ly­on is dir­ect­or of Michigan De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

“About 2.5 mil­lion,” Ly­on replied.

“How many du­plic­ated?” Snyder fired back. “If you just took each one of those pro­grams and bubbles and ad­ded up all the mem­bers. I got to be­lieve there is over 10 mil­lion.”

“Oh yea,” Ly­on said. “It’ll be over 10 mil­lion.”

Snyder nod­ded, his point made: Pro­grams aren’t people. The ludicrously com­plic­ated Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice chart il­lus­trates how gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions are stuck in the 20th cen­tury: While cor­por­a­tions, cam­paigns, and oth­er so­cial in­sti­tu­tions are us­ing mi­cro-pars­ing tech­no­lo­gies to serve their cus­tom­ers (or voters) on an in­di­vidu­al­ized, al­most cus­tom­ized basis, gov­ern­ment still op­er­ates in the macro—count­ing and caring for pro­grams, not people.

A bur­eau­crat looks at the chart and sees 80-plus pro­grams serving 10 mil­lion Michigan cli­ents, double- and triple-count­ing people en­rolled in more than one pro­gram.

Snyder sees 2.5 mil­lion of his fel­low cit­izens lost in a mul­ti­colored maze.

“Just think how crazy the sys­tem is,” the twice-elec­ted Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor told me in a re­cent in­ter­view. “We’re treat­ing it like there’s 10 mil­lion cli­ents in the sys­tem rather than 2.5 mil­lion cus­tom­ers.”

This an­ec­dote il­lus­trates how Snyder tries to ap­proach gov­ern­ing dif­fer­ently. He didn’t start the meet­ing with Ly­on by de­mand­ing to know where cuts could be made, as would a Re­agan Re­pub­lic­an. Nor did he start with the as­sump­tion that more money will solve the chart’s riddle, as would a Roosevelt Demo­crat.

A nerdy, data-driv­en former busi­ness­man, Snyder re­fuses to en­gage in the retro ar­gu­ment over wheth­er gov­ern­ment should be big­ger or smal­ler. He says he wants it to be bet­ter.

After win­ning reelec­tion in 2014, Snyder prom­ised in his Janu­ary State of the State ad­dress to make gov­ern­ment a stronger ad­voc­ate for Michigan res­id­ents strug­gling to reenter what he calls the “river of op­por­tun­ity.”

“What we’ve done is we’ve sliced and diced people in­to pro­grams, we’ve moved away from treat­ing them as real people and, in some cases, we’ve taken some of their dig­nity,” Snyder said in the Janu­ary speech.

“Quite of­ten, we’re ad­dress­ing symp­toms. We’re not ad­dress­ing root cause,” he con­tin­ued. “In some cases, we’re ac­tu­ally fa­cil­it­at­ing de­pend­ence on state gov­ern­ment. That’s not right. We’ve also built a lot of bur­eau­cracy and in­ef­fi­ciency in the sys­tem, and that’s not right.”

A month later, Snyder signed an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der to merge two health-ser­vices de­part­ments, prom­ising “a fun­da­ment­ally bet­ter way of ser­vice. Of ef­fi­cient, ef­fect­ive, and ac­count­able gov­ern­ment. Let’s treat people as people, not pro­grams.”

The cyn­ic in­side me is wary of a politi­cian who prom­ises to re­form gov­ern­ment. I’ve seen Demo­crats like Bill Clin­ton and Re­pub­lic­ans like George W. Bush wrap them­selves in the mantle of change while they pur­sued con­ven­tion­al courses. If Snyder is a faux re­former, he dis­guises it well be­hind gobs of data and the pas­sion of an evan­gel­ist.

Talk­ing to me about ju­di­cial re­form, Snyder men­tioned that the state cor­rec­tions sys­tem tra­di­tion­ally waited un­til pris­on­ers were three months from be­ing re­leased to be­gin reentry pro­grams. “To be hon­est with you, I think that’s kind of dumb,” he said. Snyder re­cently hired a new pris­ons chief and ordered her to be­gin reentry pro­grams from the start of each in­mate’s sen­tence.

Re­cog­niz­ing the na­tion­al dis­grace of over-sen­tenced drug con­victs, Snyder sup­ports us­ing pro­ba­tion op­tions and di­ver­sion­ary court pro­grams to keep non­vi­ol­ent of­fend­ers out of pris­on. After the state Su­preme Court struck down man­dat­ory-sen­ten­cing laws, Snyder hin­ted that he may ask the state le­gis­lature to ret­ro­act­ively re­duce the sen­tences of people in pris­on un­der the old guidelines.

“These are the things you learn when you get a chance to really dig in,” he said, “and this is what I really en­joy: Dig­ging in.”

He’s dug in­to De­troit, work­ing closely with Demo­crat­ic May­or Mike Dug­gan to se­cure $178 mil­lion in state fund­ing for the city’s bank­ruptcy bail­out. Now that De­troit has made the first step to­ward a dec­ades-long re­viv­al, Snyder wants to solve the school crisis via a com­mis­sion that would over­see all pub­lic and charter schools in­side the city lim­its.

A com­plic­ated school-debt re­struc­tur­ing plan would cost the state $72 mil­lion a year for 10 years. Tax­pay­ers out­side De­troit are likely to balk, trig­ger­ing an­cient ra­cial and re­gion­al rifts, but Snyder thinks he can get it done.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Snyder says he has big plans for his next State of the State ad­dress Jan. 19. He wants to change the way lead­ers gov­ern and in­crease the pub­lic’s trust in gov­ern­ment, two goals worthy of the pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate he de­cided not to be.

“This is cool stuff!” he said halfway through our con­ver­sa­tion, gig­gling like a nerd at his first Star Trek con­ven­tion. “This is what gov­ern­ment can do. So I’m ex­cited about this stuff.”

It’s re­fresh­ing to see a politi­cian as pas­sion­ate about gov­ern­ing as he is about win­ning.

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