Michigan gubernatorial debate: Points were made. 'Undecided' voters asked questions.



UPDATE 8:25 p.m.:

Much will be made about the 54-minute town hall forum between Michigan's candidates for governor. Incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder got feisty, at times wagging his finger at Detroit News Editorial Page Editor and moderator for the debate, Nolan Finley, so he could finish a point; his opponent, Democratic nominee Mark Schauer, talked with his hands — a lot. The candidates were dressed, one with a tie (Schauer), the other without (typical Snyder). Observers will offer their opinion on who won (neither), and why it's important for both to debate again (they won't). 

So what's there to say of the candidates' talking points? Let's stick to three topics: Education, Transportation, and Detroit. I'll try to do my best to highlight points perhaps not being covered on other turf. 

Finley, rightly, observed, early on that neither candidate will ever agree on a figure Schauer often throws around: $1 billion. That's in reference to cuts he contends that Snyder implemented to public school funding after taking office. 

In response, Snyder said, "Unfortunately, our broken political system has people making up lies."

To support that, Snyder points to an analysis by the Detroit Free Press from earlier this year, backing up the governor's claim that, in fact, he's increased public education spending since taking office. Snyder said tonight that he has increased total spending by nearly $750 million since taking office. Most of that money, however, has been utilized to shore up teachers' pensions; classrooms, as Schauer has said, hasn't seen squat. 

Of course, when Snyder inherited the budget in 2010, there was a significant loss in federal dollars for education, part of the reason K-12 funding was reduced. In spite of it all, Schauer maintains his claim is legit. From MLive:

Schauer also cited an analysis by Mitch Bean, former head of the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency.

By eliminating the Michigan Business Tax in 2011, the state also got rid of an earmark that would have sent about $600 million a year into the School Aid Fund, according to Bean. Under Snyder, the state has also used about $400 million a year from that fund to pay for higher education and community colleges.

“They’ve taken a billion of revenue right there,” Schauer said. “That’s irrefutable.”

So take it or leave it. That conversation devoured the first 15 minutes of the town hall — and if you really want to reach undecided voters, disputes over granular budget items sure does the trick. 

Things segued to a question from the audience on higher education costs. Which, in case you've been living under a comfortable rock, is insane. I'll avoid getting into the candidates' points here, because the most substantive thing either of them said is, "Well, yeah, it does cost a lot."

Here's something that didn't get mentioned: A bill currently lodged in the state House would launch a "pay it forward" tuition program of sorts. Introduced earlier this year by State Rep. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights), the $2 million pilot program would allow 200 students to attend a community college or public four-year university — for free.

To cover the cost, students would pay the school back with a fixed percentage of their future income, if it's above the federal poverty line. As the Detroit Free Press reported at the time, that means a student who graduated from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in four years would have to pay 4 percent of their total income for 20 years. (For every year it takes to graduate with a degree, the person would have an additional five years to pay back their tuition.)

Seems like an interesting proposal, no? Germany certainly got everyone's attention when it announced literally anyone could attend college in the country for free. Other states across the country have taken a stab at similar programs.

Would Schauer or Snyder support the bill? No clue. There wasn't a peep about it tonight. 

On to transportation. Both candidates agreed that our roads suck. How will we fund it? Schauer said, imaginatively: "We're gonna get our fair share from Washington." Snyder, mind you, has pushed for a $1.2 billion annual increase in spending on roads from the Legislature for over two years now. That hasn't happened yet.

But, Snyder said, he would like to see some form of a funding package passed during the upcoming lame-duck session. Here's a thought: What sort of behind-the-scenes dealmaking would have to get done to accomplish that? For instance, state Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) told me earlier this year that he would use his Regional Transit Authority opt-out bill as a political chip over Detroit's so-called "grand bargain." The bill would allow communities in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties to opt-out of the transit authority, similar to the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART, bus system.

Which brings me to my next point: When asked how they would support mass public transit in the state, Snyder pointed to the passage of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA).

While that certainly was a long-awaited feat, the authority was bare-bones from the onset — literally. It didn't have the money to land its initial pick as CEO, setting it back two years in the quest to gain voter approval to support a more expansive transit system.

Two years later, the RTA has done, what, exactly? Implementing an effective regional transit system takes time, sure, but residents waiting two hours a day for a single bus to arrive are likely sick of being told to be patient. SMART still doesn't have adequate funding to restore service throughout all hours of the day into Detroit, DDOT has made improvements on some fronts but still remains hellish for most, and the RTA won't be asking voters to approve a tax for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system until November 2016.

If a $500 million BRT system — of which the first leg would, oddly, cover Woodward Avenue from Pontiac to Detroit — even makes sense for this region, as opposed to say, a well-connected commuter rail operation, hasn't been considered — although transit officials remain hopeful that an Ann Arbor-Detroit rail line will come online sooner rather than later.

Officials remain bullish about the 3.3-mile M-1 Rail streetcar on Woodward in Detroit, which they say will show voters deciding on an RTA tax the benefits of transit. It is expected to open sometime in the fall of 2016, potentially after a vote on an RTA ballot proposal has already taken place. 

Detroit was the most loaded topic of the evening, one that could've been the centerpiece of an eight-hour debate between the candidates that will never happen. The city's bankruptcy filing is ripe with a loaded history, and Snyder's passage of a law that greatly expanded the powers of state-appointed emergency managers has been the center point of serious debate since he took office. 

"That was one of the toughest decisions to be made in the United States," Snyder said of ushering Detroit into bankruptcy, later adding, "If you're not going to do things like looking at bankruptcy ... what will you do to pay those $9 billion in liabilities?"

That may be so. But, Schauer shot back with a reference to the biggest sticking point in Detroit's historic municipal bankruptcy, "I would have never cut retiree pensions." Protection of a workers' pension is enshrined in Michigan's Constitution. 

Retirees have accepted cuts as part of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's proposed plan to exit bankruptcy and shed some $7 billion in debt. It has long been noted, though, that Snyder had a chance to shield pensions from taking a hit. But, as Snyder pointed out tonight, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes confirmed that, indeed, pensions were fair game.

Schauer, meanwhile, said he doesn't support the expanded emergency manager law; whether he would support the previous EM law that afforded the appointee less powers is unclear. 

Lastly: Schauer made what was perhaps the most interesting comment of the night. After launching into a riff on why he believed the three-year $145 million contract with Aramark Correctional Services to handle prison food services has been a bloody mess (it has), he suggested this: Maybe we should look to reduce the prison population by reviewing our sentencing guidelines.

"We need to look at who we are mad at, versus who we are afraid of," he said.

As Bridge magazine observed in an excellent report earlier this year, "Since 1980, Michigan's biggest growth industry has been its prison system."

It is a dubious distinction, as the state devotes a bigger share of its general fund budget to prisons than any other state. With annual spending of about $2 billion, Michigan pumps more money into corrections than higher education. And the state keeps its prisoners behind bars longer than the national average.

With some elderly and sick prisoners, many who are charged with non-violent crimes, it costs taxpayers as much as $200,000 per year, Bridge reports. The cost of operating Michigan's prisons consumes a whopping 21 percent of the state's annual general budget. 

Why, you might wonder, was that not a focal point of the debate tonight?

Actually, here's my final thought, albeit it's one that gets beaten to death by the throngs of observers who say third-party candidates will never crack the mold of our system: Why not invite other candidates? There are three other candidates in the race — Libertarian Mary Buzuma, Green Party candidate Paul Homeniuk, and U.S Taxpayers Party candidate Mark McFarlin — who no viewer or listener had the opportunity to meet tonight.

There's already a reasonable argument to be made on the pointlessness of debates, so for that alone it would make sense to invite all candidates to the shindig. It would make for a far more interesting dialogue, something clearly evident last year when every single candidate running in the Detroit mayoral race participated in a debate. Yeah, I get it, they don't have a shot at winning the election. But when 60 percent of Americans agree that a third party is needed, it only seems foolish to keep things contained within our beloved two-party system. 

Simply, if we're going to continue beefing up the purported importance of allowing voters to hear from the candidates through debates, we might as well include all those in the race. Otherwise, you're left with two people standing in a room, talking with "undecided" voters, reiterating a lot of the same points that have already been spouted on TV ads.  

And, 54 minutes later, most who tuned in to hear them speak have already tuned out. So it goes. 
6 p.m.: If you buy stock in debates, then hopefully you're tuned in to the only instance this season where Michigan's gubernatorial candidates will chat with one another. 

MiWeek's Christy McDonald will host the one-hour town hall. Detroit Free Press and News editorial page editors, Stephen Henderson and Nolan Finley, respectively, will ask the candidates — incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic nominee, former State Rep. Mark Schauer — questions. Alleged "undecided" voters will also have a chance to ask questions.

Schauer, it has been said, won the coin toss and will take the first question. 

Will undecided voters discover which of the two they'll vote for in November? Will there be a polite back-and-forth about whether Snyder cut $1 billion from education funding since taking office? Will there be post-game analysis on how each candidate performed? Of course, that is, if you buy stock in debates. 

If you don't have access to a television, you can watch on wxyz.com, or, better yet, follow along with us here. MT's Ryan Felton will be live-tweeting throughout the hour on Twitter @ryanfelton13

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