Snyder proud of health laws, realistic about 4th year of term

By David Eggert

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- Gov. Rick Snyder looks back on 2013 and is proud of the substantial changes he and lawmakers made to Michigan's health care landscape.

Nearly a half-million low-income adults will qualify for government health insurance through an expansion of Medicaid that the Republican governor squeezed through the GOP-led Legislature. He had an easier time with a Blue Cross Blue Shield overhaul leading to the creation of a nearly $1.6 billion health endowment fund over time.

Snyder also made more low-income children eligible for dental coverage and gave more disadvantaged kids a chance to qualify for publicly funded preschool.

"We're cutting that (preschool) waiting list in half and hopefully with this next budget year we'll get rid of the waiting list because of need-based situations. That's huge," he told The Associated Press in a recent year-end interview.

Snyder will give his fourth State of the State address in January and unveil his proposed 2014-15 state budget in February. But the governor who likes to move in "dog years" is dialing back expectations of major legislative achievements before November, when he and legislators will be up for re-election.

"It becomes more challenging next year, an election year. So I'm being realistic about it," said the first-term governor, who saw some of his top initiatives stall in the Capitol this year.

A high priority -- permanently raising more money for road maintenance with increased fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees -- is dead. But he remains hopeful lawmakers could agree to replace Michigan's flat per-gallon fuel taxes with percentage levies based on the wholesale price.

A switch might not cost drivers any more than existing taxes in the short term. But as inflation pushes up the price of fuel, the state could gradually gain more money for transportation.

The per-gallon gasoline tax was last raised in 1997, which the governor said shows how difficult it is to pull off. If legislators 15 years ago had begun taxing fuel at the wholesale level or done something similar, "we wouldn't be having a discussion of nearly this magnitude," he said.

Asked to assess reaction to his scaled-back proposal, Snyder said: "I think it got caught up in the bigger issues. So that's where there may be an opportunity to have a more focused discussion."

Another of Snyder's plans -- capping unlimited medical benefits for people seriously injured in car crashes coupled with a drop in auto insurance premiums -- hasn't seen legislative action in half a year. Yet he said private talks continue and points of disagreement are being narrowed, so there's the potential for an agreement.

Snyder declined to reveal details of most new initiatives coming in 2014, saying he will mention more in his mid-January State of the State speech. But he said one focus will be mental health, both how care is provided in Michigan and how to divert the mentally ill from the criminal justice system.

Snyder in February created special mental health panels after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut and is awaiting the findings of a report due from Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and others. He tamped down the possibility of proposing a rewrite of renewable power, energy efficiency and electric competition requirements before the election but said it could be ready for the lame-duck legislative session or in early 2015.

Outside his work in the Capitol, Snyder's 2013 likely will be most remembered for his decision to clear the way for Detroit's historic bankruptcy filing. The impact to retiree pensions, city-owned artwork and basic services will stay prominent as November approaches.

While Snyder and lawmakers are reluctant to propose a direct financial bailout to Detroit, he said he appreciates that out-state residents are paying attention.

"There's a lot of awareness. Most of it's been very positive. I think there's been a large improvement in perspective and concern about seeing Detroit turn around across the state," Snyder said.

Published: Mon, Jan 6, 2014