Washing and Rinsing The Green From Rick Snyder’s Political Machine

Sunday’s televised debate threw a rare spotlight on Rick Snyder, the kind he didn’t entirely control. Mostly what we heard from him was a blank pistol firing into an echo chamber–lots of empty noise repeated as meaningless sound bites like “values-based budgeting.” 

The format was narrow and didn’t allow for much real debate, and among the many things deemed unimportant in yesterday’s forum was Michigan’s environment.  Not a green word was asked or answered.

This is a real problem for anyone trying to figure out where Snyder plans to take Michigan.  It’s clear, for example, that Snyder is playing some sweet environmental music in his frontrunner bid to get greenies swooning to his tune. 

But is the Snyder money machine massively green washing us or is he the real deal?  What’s truly behind the Snyder  “I care” environmental PR mask:  An anti-environment GOP firebrand Governor John Engler or a moderate Republic448-IMG_0091-thumb-500x373-194-thumb-500x373-195.jpgan Governor Bill Milliken?

Serious players in the environmental policy world who also do election work are siding with Virg Bernero, who has an actual record to evaluate and not just words to offer.

Still, what are we to think about Snyder? For evidence, let’s start with Snyder’s web site where the Nerd’s legions of hired hands have planted little green policy nuggets.  From Snyder’s site sprouts this political rarity for a Republican:  Protecting the Environment.  Yep, environmental protection is #7 on Snyder’s 10-point plan for Michigan.  

Just seeing the word “environment” on a Republican web site makes you want to break out in song and embrace your inner Glee.  Snyder’s site talks tough about slaying Flying Asian Carp, promoting mass transit, “green chemistry”, and “green collar jobs.”   With the exception of Asian Carp–which even Republicans understand is Great Lakes Public Enemy #1 in Michigan–those are not words usually associated with Republican candidates unless they are followed by “liberal extremists.”

Mostly, however, on closer examination Snyder’s environmental policies read like a coffee table book of feel-good words as opposed to something you could safely rely on to hold him accountable if he’s elected.

Perhaps the best argument for Snyder being real about valuing and protecting the Great Lakes, fighting pollution and preserving natural resources is not the soothing words on his web site.  It may be his endorsement by Milliken, Michigan’s longest serving governor who some environmental groups still hug close nearly three decades later to burnish their non-partisan credentials. 

You have to go back to 1969-1983–the Milliken era–to find the last time truly landmark conservation and environmental legislation was enacted under Republican rule.  So just how bad could Snyder be on environmental issues if Milliken supports him?  The answer is, we don’t know, but there are clues that suggest that at least part of Engler’s anti-environment agenda is hard-wired into CEO Snyder’s thinking. 

The only real decision Snyder’s made–selecting state Rep. Brian Calley as his running mate–could be seen as a huge negative in evaluating Snyder on where he will take the state.  Calley’s voting record on the environment is awful, which is to say it reflects the same standard-issue corporate Republican politics that animated Engler and thrives to this day. Yes, lieutenant governors don’t count for much.  But given Snyder’s complete lack of political experience it’s the only real  political decision he’s made to date so it’s worth looking at.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV)–which endorsed both Snyder and Bernero in the primary election–gave Calley a 30%  lifetime legislative score out of a possible 100 percent. You won’t see that mentioned anywhere on Snyder’s web site.  That’s the same lifetime score LCV gave state Sen. Patricia Birkholz, the grossly overrated Senate natural resources committee chair who Snyder has cited as an example of the kind of “environmental” Republican he likes.

The experts who most closely follow and work environmental policy at the state Capitol and who also evaluate candidates offer more clues about Snyder.  Those two groups–Clean Water Action and Sierra Club–are endorsing Virg Bernero.  LCV, the other environmental group that endorses, isn’t endorsing either candidate in the November election.  Instead they are opting to blog the bread crumbs of position papers and public statements each candidate leaves along the campaign trail.   

In supporting Bernero Sierra Club and Clean Water Action cite his strong environmental voting record in the Legislature (an average LCV score of 87% from 2001-2006) plus an impressive list of Bernero environmental accomplishments as mayor of Lansing, including establishing pioneering renewable energy standards for the city.   

Moreover, Sierra Club and Clean Water Action were motivated to sharply criticized Snyder after Snyder recently unveiled his agricultural plan, which overlooks massive pollution problems associated with the more than 200 large industrial animal factories in Michigan. Snyder’s plan to deregulate animal factories will virtually guarantee that millions more gallons of raw animal sewage will flow into Michigan’s waters and the Great Lakes. It would undermine 10 years of work to gain the modest state government oversight currently in place.  Former Detroit Free Press environmental reporter Hugh McDiarmid Jr. writes that Snyder’s ag plan “virtually ignores pollution issues.” l
 
The selection of Calley and Snyder’s agricultural proposals aren’t the only worrying signals Snyder is sending on the environment.

If you look under the hood of Snyder’s policy positions posted on his web site you find solid evidence that Snyder is, aghast, a real contemporary corporate GOP creature when it comes to regulations. Very much Wall Street, not much Main Street. 

Several rungs up the candidate’s 10-point policy ladder from #7 Protecting the Environment is Snyder’s higher priority:  #3–Fix Michigan’s Broken Government.  Dive deeper and you find Snyder’s fix includes “Reform Michigan’s Regulatory System.” 

Michigan’s state government certainly needs some fixing.  But what Snyder is most fixated on besides cutting corporate taxes is reducing government regulation of corporations.  This is standard Republican boilerplate.  Corporations good.   Government bad.  Regulations worst.   Only Snyder is supposed to be a different kind of Republican, right?  Well, not so much when it comes to corporate polluters. 

Snyder anti-regulatory approach would change the way we pay for enforcing pollution and other environmental laws and make corporate compliance more voluntary.  Borrowing heavily from the Michigan Manufacturers Association’s “reform” agenda, Snyder says we must shift the cost for pollution enforcement away from corporate polluters and onto taxpayers.

Snyder doesn’t explain why taxpayers should be paying for pollution they don’t create.  Or why businesses who don’t pollute should pay for those who do.  What Snyder’s advocating is a kind of corporate welfare.  In Snyder’s corporate welfare state the taxpayers pay the costs of dirty manufacturing rather than the corporate polluter.  

Snyder says he believes most corporations want to do the right thing, which may be true.  Still.  Most of us don’t drive like maniacs but we have traffic laws and cops to deal with those who do.  You don’t need an Enbridge or BP oil spill to know that the free market isn’t really set up for self-policing that doesn’t clearly result in short-term profits for investors. 

Let’s give Snyder credit for saying the right things on clean energy, mass transit and the rest.  His policy paper on invasive species is thorough enough and seems mostly on point.   He’s also said he’s against drilling for oil under the Great Lakes.

But there’s at least as much evidence–if not more–that Rick Snyder could be more like John Engler than Bill Milliken on protecting Michigan’s Great Lakes environment. Just with more money and a slick web site.

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