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Governor Snyder: Picking losers

Jul 31, 2017

I haven’t seen the new movie Detroit yet. I think I’m like my African-American teaching colleague Alicia Nails, who told me that after weeks of non-stop coverage, she was starting to feel a little “rioted out.” What I have heard from friends who have seen the movie is that it is powerful but lacks nuance, and leaves the impression that the Detroit in that film is still the Detroit of today.

But there was one nuance I didn’t miss. This was in an interview in the Boston Globe with Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director. The interviewer asked why the movie wasn’t filmed where it happened.

“We originally located it in Detroit but the tax-credit program had just been disbanded, so we went to … Boston, and shot the movie there,” Bigelow said.

Oh well. We didn’t need the jobs, or the excitement of having that movie shot here, did we? Most mistakes and failures have many fathers. Governor Rick Snyder doesn’t bear all the blame for the tragedy in Flint, though he was at the top.

But the collapse of Michigan’s film industry is entirely his fault. Probably the best thing Governor Jennifer Granholm did was create the Michigan Film Initiative, which offered massive tax incentives to Hollywood for making movies in our state.

There were conflicting reports on whether it was a net money loser or a net plus when it came to state revenues. My guess is that it was about even, but was likely to pay off in the long run. But even if it lost a little, it was worth it.

Suddenly, friends of mine were bumping into Jack Nicholson at a restaurant. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were in my local grocery store.

Senior citizens I knew lined up to get a chance to be extras. People were excited, after years when there was little to be excited about.

But when he was elected governor, Snyder drastically cut back, and then eliminated the film initiative. When I asked him about that, he said he didn’t think state government should be in the business of picking winners and losers.

Well, that was then and this is now, and last month, the governor lobbied the legislature to create a new law that would allow some employers to keep all or some of the state income tax their workers paid. His staff hinted that if they did so, Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics giant, would come and create thousands of jobs. Both parties were deeply split, but the bill passed. And Foxconn announced that they were expanding – to Wisconsin.

With egg on his face, Snyder tried to be relentlessly positive, saying well, maybe this will get them to build another plant here later. I found it curious that there was no outrage over the idea of our government collecting taxes from citizens and turning it over to a foreign company from a nation with which we don’t even have diplomatic relations.

But a Republican state representative named Martin Howrylak did note correctly that this was “taking away from the poor and middle income and giving it to a select corporate class.”

The governor was doing what he used to denounce – trying to pick winners and losers. What makes it worse is that he picked wrong.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.