I had a great opportunity to interview Michigan 20th dist State Rep. Kurt Heise R-Plymouth regarding the 2011 session in Lansing, which was the first year of Gov. Snyder’s administration and first year of the new GOP controlled Legislature. He was gracious with his time, and was a joy to speak with. Please enjoy!
In your opinion, what was the single biggest accomplishment of the new administration and majorities in 2011? And why?
Heise: Balancing the budget. We went from 1 billion dollar deficit to a 400 Million dollar surplus at end of year. One of the great things we did to achieve this was we did not spend all the money that was allocated from the last Granholm budget we inherited. We actually spent less than was budgeted. There was also an uptick in revenue, but we had great executive leadership from the Governor regarding spending habits, and that filtered down to
department heads of various agencies. Another major accomplishment was the restructuring of Michigan’s tax code. Repealed the Michigan Business tax and replaced with flat 6% tax. We used a 2 year budget model…. The state constitution requires an annual budget, but we planned two years ahead, and were done by end of May. Shows stability and predictability to local government and gave as much warning as possible for budget cuts. The Plymouth Canton school district was able to balance its budget. So, “Budget and Tax Policy” together were the biggest accomplishment and the #1 reason the GOP were sent to Lansing.
What was the biggest disappointment for you in 2011, two part question?
Vorva: First, what was the biggest missed opportunity for action? Heise: Biggest missed opportunity was the Bridge. I support building it, lots of us in the House would vote for it…but there are still some major issues. Such as what will be the nature of public private partnership…The US Government putting in 500 Million, Canadians putting in 500 million.then a private operator and capital. I’m very concerned about governance..who will own it and who will run it? I do not want it to be a Wayne County run bridge. Now, the Blue water bridge model is good, for example. We need to make sure it is non-political.
Vorva: And did a law get signed that you opposed, and why did you oppose it? Heise: Governor’s K-12 budget. I was one of four GOP members to vote against it. I Ran on pro K-12 platform. My kids are in our public schools. My district has the last two destination districts in Wayne County with Plymouth/Canton and Northville. I promised to protect our schools. One major hit in the budget was the removal of a line item state payment of 6 million dollars to Wayne Westland Schools. This was put into place by Gov. Engler and Sen. Bennett, both Republicans. WW Schools depend on that funding. The entire 6 Million was removed, but I was able to get 3 million restored. Another reason I opposed the budget was because I believe the intent of prop A was to fund K-12. The Governor’s budget diverted some of the education funds to Community Colleges and public universities. This is not what Prop A was meant to do. Also, universities have not worked to cut costs. We have not had the discussion of whether we can afford the universities we have. Community Colleges and Universities can raise tuitions. Community Colleges can ask for a millage. They have ways to increase revenues that are not available to our K-12 schools.
Which of your bills successfully made it into law? Why were they needed?
Heise: My bill regarding the use of Drug Forfeiture money and where it can be spent. It used to go into special fund and could only be used on drug enforce activities. This was a 1970s law with good intentions. Now, the new law does not BAN use of this money for drug enforcement, but expands the scope in which it can be spent. This money can now spend on other law enforcement activities. I got idea from Phil LaJoy, Canton Township Supervisor. They had almost half a million dollars in this fund. But because of state and local budget cuts, local governments had to delay equipment purchases for law enforcement while this large surplus was sitting unusable in the forfeiture account. It is a common sense law, gives some flexibility with the money. Signed into law in April. Second bill that was signed into law was mandating that all school board elections occur in even number years in the November elections. This is only fair, and ensures greater turnout and voter participation in very important school board elections. Some bills I have on the way…allowed Townships to prosecute under super high alcohol level laws. Allowing expert witness testimony by video in criminal and civil cases if all parties agree. This will save the state a ton of money, and helps in court efficiency. As Vice Chair of house judiciary committee, many of my bills have to do with law enforcement.
Emergency Manager law. Did you vote for it?
Heise: Yes. It expands on law signed by Gov Blanchard in the 1980’s. You need an EM who can exercise his/her power to full extent of law. Making new contracts, renegotiating or abrogating if needed, even the authority to dismiss elected officials. This action has never happened yet. We have EMs in Benton Harbor, Pontiac, and Flint. No elected official has been kicked out of office. You would not want to do this. First, it would anger the community and isolate the Emergency Manager; this would be poor leadership on the EM’s part. Partnership is better. But the authority has to be there in case it becomes necessary. This charge of “undermining democracy” is not reality. This notion that even if the officials are corrupt, at least they are our people has to end…the reality is that Michigan local governments are are public corporations! They have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders.the people! When corruption and misuse of money happens in private sector, those responsible are removed and sometimes prosecuted. But these pulbic corporations are governed by state law. And the law has to be followed. All local governments receive and spend state money. If they fall into bankruptcy, the state is the receiver. It is the unions and other vested interests who are complaining.
Vorva: How do you feel the Gov is using this power? Heise: He is being pretty prudent. We have new managers in Highland Park Schools and in Flint. It is a methodical and careful process to install an EM and that is being careful process is being used. Gov. Snyder has been pretty fair. He is not running off trying to take over communities.
Vorva: How confident are you in the oversight/EM regime? Heise: Confident. The EMs serve at pleasure of the Governor, just like a department head. If he/she is not performing, he/she can be removed and replaced.
Vorva: Does Detroit need an EM? Heise: I hope not. This is a classic case where the real threat of an EM is pushing labor and management into working harder to work together. No one wants an EM there. The entire region would pay the price for what is essentially a bankruptcy inDetroit, through lower credit ratings for municipal and county governments in the region. This would include the Detroit Water & Sewer Department which serves virtually everyone in Southeast Michigan.
Michigan’s economy seems to have some life in it, adding some jobs. It also seems that jobs are coming from more than just the auto industry. How important is diversification to our future economy, and what steps can the state take to insure we build a strong diverse economy?
Heise: Government should not get deeply involved in picking winners and losers. We should not lavish tax breaks to drag people to Michigan. The failures from those approaches are the legacy of the Granholm years. We need to go back to our assets – and one of them are our natural resources. Smarter use of mining, forestry, agriculture, water resources including ground water. Granholm really stifled mining and forestry and use of water resources. She was beholden to radical environmentalists. I am one of most pro environment Republicans in Legislature, and I can tell you we are not making full use of our resources. It can be done safely and prudently. We are seeing copper mines opening in the UP again! We need to encourage those four areas I mentioned. This is really a regulatory area as far as state action is concerned. The technology today is so good; we can utilize our resources safely. We just have to have political will to do it.
State budget has a surplus now thanks the work of Gov Snyder and the Legislature. What should it be used for?
Heise: Paying down long term debt. Doing this demonstrates to the financial markets that we are trending in the right directions and will improve our credit rating. In fact, this has already happened in 2011. Better rating means even more savings. Also, we will focus on paying down our debt in the teacher retirement account. This not only reduces long term debt, but saves the local school districts money on debt payment so they can put those resources into education.
Vorva: Government likes to quote the ‘unemployment rate’ but uses the rate whose calculation leaves out those that have given up for work and are underemployed. According to a story on www.mlive.com, while Michigan added over 66,000 jobs last year, the workforce lost 100,000. Some of the reduction in the workforce was due to retirement, but many due to people giving up trying to find work here, and many leaving the state altogether. So the real rate is higher than advertised. How do you feel about the government (both Obama and Snyder) quoting the less than honest rate? Would be better off if we discussed solutions to our problems with a full and honest view of how tough the problem is?
Heise: Of course we can’t ignore those who have dropped out. This is not ok in the US or in Michigan. Virtually everyone is working harder and longer for less pay with fewer benefits. Some have given up. Some are making so much less. I listen to the media and we are to believe that somehow an 8% unemployment rate is good? It’s crazy. All of this is political, designed to prop up Obama, and what we have now is unacceptable. We need to fundamentally restructure our economy into a more free market economy with less government intervention. We need jobs and we need increasing wages.
Domestic Partner Benefits:
Vorva: Gov Snyder ran on an economic/budgetary platform, and the so called “social issues” were not a part of his race. One of the last acts of 2011 was a bill taking away medical benefits for domestic partners/families of state employees. How did you vote on this, and what were your reasons?
Heise: While there are some in the legislature with strong feelings against gay people, I am not one of the. I voted for it, but my motivation was not to hurt or attack anyone. The move by the Michigan Civil Service Commission (to grant these benefits with no advice or consent from the Legislature) was a purely political move. It was illegal and unconstitutional. That is reason enough to overturn it. But also, Michigan is in no shape to start granting benefits to anyone above and beyond what we already grant, and what we can afford.
Vorva:There was a very rude awakening about the true levels of math and science scores on the MEAP. It turns out even “good” districts are performing in a pretty dismal fashion. What should be done with education standards and HOW do we enforce them? What will you be proposing/supporting to finally get math/science results in our schools?
Heise: One thing we could try is year-long school. More time in the class would help. In some cases more technology in the class can help. But look, it is also the culture. We need to raise our expectations of work ethic and effort, for everyone. Parents need to work with their students, and the students need to work harder, too. Education begins at the kitchen table. Get off the internet and get into the books. Now we need more vocational training, especially at Community Colleges. I support more 4 year programs and skilled trade programs at our Community Colleges. I also will be supporting more dual enrollment for juniors and seniors, so they can be getting college credit as they finish their High School credits.
Vorva: You have done an amazing job in constituent outreach. Everyone recognizes that. I can attest to this fact, as you have always provided answers to my inquiries faster than I anticipated. Obviously this is good politics, you need votes to be in office. But outside of that, with a year under your belt as the REPRESENTATIVE of the people, how important is it to your job to stay in touch with folks in the district? Have there been any occasions where you have learned from the voters and carried that into your work? Heise: I thrive on it, and I enjoy it. And to enjoy it, you have to be comfortable in own skin and be in the public. I created four advisory boards in the district. Education, seniors, Local Government and Small Business. All 4 advisory boards are open to the public. I don’t control who comes in or goes out. I am stimulated and energized by them. I am always trying to learn and get more info and perspective. They have been civil, and sometimes tough, but it is great. I also do the coffee hours, and library hours too. You have to know the issues and be quick on your feet. It keeps my focused and on my toes!
Vorva: Last question…how does your family feel about sharing you with the public? Do you have permission to run again?
Heise: I have already filed, and have $54.000 in the bank. My family is supportive. My wife has been public official. My kids have been raised in a politically-active family. They understand the long hours, but we have adjusted well. We went in with open eyes about it. This is my first public elected office, but not my first experience in public sector.
Vorva: Kurt thanks so much for making time for michiganvoices.com first elected official interview!
Heise: You’re welcome and thank you!