From the SBT to Proposal A (and Everything in Between): More Reflections from Doug Roberts

Doug Roberts

Doug Roberts

By Susan J. Demas

After serving under five governors, Doug Roberts has plenty of stories to tell.

IMP featured a fascinating interview with the retiring director of Michigan State University’s (MSU) Institute for Public Policy & Social Research (IPPSR) in our Dec. 14, 2015, edition (Vol. XV, No. 15).

That’s where you can find Roberts’ take on the 2016 election and humorous tales of working with Gov. Bill Milliken on the Chrysler bailout and trying to land a job with his successor, Jim Blanchard.

But rather than let the rest of the Roberts’s wisdom hit the cutting room floor, IMP has compiled it into a bonus online feature.

You’ll see that Roberts has plenty to say about Proposal A, the life and death of the Single Business Tax (SBT), the House Fiscal Agency scandal, the state lottery, the Electoral College, redistricting reform, the Michigan Political Leadership Program’s (MPLP) impressive speaker roster, and how then-state Sen. Joe Schwarz saved his life.

Here are excerpts from IMP’s interview:

IMP: The key states in the Electoral College always change [in history].

Roberts: That’s right. It could. Now, we are getting into a very interesting issue in terms of states. Two states, [divide] a portion of their electoral votes, Maine and Nebraska. … To my knowledge, since both Maine and Nebraska have done it, I don’t remember a split.

IMP: There was in 2008. [Barack] Obama got the one up for grabs in Nebraska.

Roberts: Thank you. You’re very good. You’re better at that than I am. But there hasn’t been many times. Usually in both of those states, whoever carried the state carried all of them. But that’s a very interesting issue. And the issue that I raise, the one I quote, is a really controversial issue. And that deals with the issue of whether we should change apportionment.

… If you change the apportionment for the drawing of [legislative] districts, that helps the Democrats. If you change to an apportioned Electoral College, that helps Republicans. Both can make the same argument that the people are more fairly represented. Now why don’t you put them together and adopt those simultaneously? And the reason you don’t get it --- it’s not because of an argument that it’s better for the people --- it’s that both times, parties lose.

The party apparatus loses in both cases. The answer is: They don’t want that. But the public is given a fairer representation. It’s a good argument. It’s also fairer to apportion the electoral votes because the public then is fairly represented. So put them together, and say, ‘We adopt both or we adopt neither.’ And the answer is: How many votes do you get for that, Doug? None. [Laughs]. Neither side wants it.

IMP: Did you watch the Ohio referendum on redistricting reform [in November]?

Roberts: I did not. What happened there?

IMP: They actually had a proposal for redoing the redistricting process just at the state level. They’re thinking of doing congressional districts next. And it passed. It had the support of both parties, which I have not heard is the case here [in Michigan].

Roberts: Well, good for them. I mean, I can understand the argument. I’m not against that. I was just pointing out that whatever argument there is for that, the same argument applies to the Electoral College. And of course, the Democrats know that they’re going to get all of the electoral votes, so why give up any? But it is interesting, in terms of even a better way of reapportioning.

I remember working for George Montgomery in the House of Representatives in the ’70s, and the Democrats had control for 40 years or something. Nobody was raising it [redistricting] a whole lot. And I always thought to myself, ‘I don’t really think it’s the party that’s in power that’s raising it.’ It’s like when you control it for 40 years, you don’t want to give it up. You like it; it’s serving you.

The big issue in my life, unfortunately --- I did nothing --- was when the House became 55-55 for the first time [in 1993 under the co-speakership of Republican Paul Hillegonds and Democrat Curtis Hertel Sr.]. Because then, unfortunately, we had [our version of] Watergate. Isn’t that awful? We had the House Fiscal Agency scandal, and everything just was terrible.

That affected all of us. I was director for awhile of the Senate Fiscal Agency. At the time of the scandal, I was the state treasurer. But people often, when I would say I was director of the Senate Fiscal Agency, and you know, [they were like], ‘What did you do?’ The implication of one bad person is there’s lots of bad people. It really spilled over on all of us. I was really ashamed. And I wish people appreciated that it was just one bad apple. No, they don’t see it that way --- it’s like, ‘You’re all crooks.’

I remember [then-House Fiscal Agency Director] John Morberg very well. I know him very well. I can still consider him a friend. I always knew he pushed the envelope. I just didn’t know how far he pushed it [Morberg went to federal prison]. And that was really a shame, because it affected all of us.

… I worked for really good people. I started working for George Montgomery in 1972. In January of ’72, he was chair of the House Tax Committee. He treated me extremely well. I then moved on to work with somebody who taught me a lot, Jerry Miller, who was director of Management and Budget. I worked for people like Bob Naftaly, who was director of Management and Budget.

… One of the things I did in my background, which is not well known because I don’t push it --- it wasn’t something I wanted to do. In the state of Michigan, we have a position called the Office of State Employer. I was the very first one. I was under the [Gov. Bill] Milliken administration. The whole idea under the Milliken administration was that they were going to create this office, and at that time, we didn’t really negotiate as you would think about it. We had what was called a compensation hearings panel. So I represented the state in terms of how we didn’t have enough money, how we shouldn’t do something.

And then the Michigan State Employees Association [would go before the panel]. We were heading towards labor-management in a real sense, but we had to walk there slowly. And the Milliken administration had the idea that they would start this, and then after it got going, they would then ask the public to change the constitution to change the civil service issues … and, in fact, go to what we would call more traditional labor-management negotiations. Well, they never changed the constitution, so we have this, and we have the civil service. We have both.

… All the changes in my career were not by choice, but that was OK. When I sit back, [I think] how lucky I was to work with really a lot of wonderful people, to have learned a lot of different things. I learned [as state employer], that that’s not what I was good at. And that’s OK! But I learned a lot about labor-management issues.

And so every time that I helped something, it was important. Other things that people don’t know is that I attempted twice to become the superintendent of public instruction. I failed both times, obviously. Once, I was only trying to become interim director --- Phil Runkle was the superintendent and left. And Gary Hawks and I competed, and Gary Hawks was the ultimate winner. And I’d like to say something nice about him. I told him later, when a person wins when you’re head-to-head, the winner doesn’t have to treat the loser very nice. He treated me wonderfully well. He was a great gentleman. I’d like anyone to remember that. I even told him later, ‘I said, you know… it’s not the way it usually happens.’ [Laughs].

And later, Tom Watkins became the superintendent and I was coming back from Washington, D.C., and I was in the finals, and I withdrew [and became state treasurer again]. But I really care about education; I spend a lot of time in education, I’m here [at MSU]. I was on the Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees for eight years. I was chair of that board for two years. Both higher education and K-12 are very important to me. I think we improved some things; some things we didn’t do very well. You think of it as budgets, and taxes and stuff. But I spent a lot of time with education.

IMP: With the Political Leadership Program, you’ve had some of the top minds in American politics who share their wisdom at your annual dinner and breakfast. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing quite a few of them. Ari Fleischer, Eugene Robinson, Tim Pawlenty, Karl Rove, Jim Messina are just a few of your recent guests. What’s the secret to getting them here?

Roberts: I’d like to say there was a secret. People come to the dinner and breakfast, in part, because they’ve done it for a number of years. Sometimes we’ve seen that. There are speakers out there, the number of people, and they talk to each other. It’s word of mouth. We have speakers on different side of the fence whose kids go to school together.

The point being is that if you and I were in Washington, D.C, and you were a speaker, say, up here, and I got a call. I might come to you and say, ‘Didn’t you go up there?’ And I would say, ‘Well, was it worth it or wasn’t it?’ You’d say, ‘I had a wonderful time!’ --- if you did. So part of it is word of mouth among the speakers themselves. Success breeds success.

But they know each other. It’s so funny because we have a society in which people disagree and it’s almost catatonic. And yet, some of the participants are really good friends, even though they really disagree with each other. They seem to have crossed that barrier better than the people they are talking to, who don’t seem to be able to cross that barrier and differentiate. So I think we’ve been successful [because] I think people enjoy the program.

It is a long night. From my point of view, we go down [to Livonia], we have a little dinner, we drive to Grand Rapids. And we get a very good price. They [speakers] almost always give us a fee of one-and-a-half, really for two speeches. And that’s because they can get out of town by noon the next day. So they come in; they get dinner, speak; we drive them to Grand Rapids; they speak early in the morning for breakfast. They get out of town; they give some speeches; we get two of them. It works out.

We do use speakers’ bureaus, but even so, I think it’s the speakers themselves talking among themselves saying: ‘Did you go there? What did you think? Was it worthwhile? Did you have any fun?’ And I would think someone would say: ‘Yeah, I had a great time. It’s a nice group, a nice event. Go for it!’ I will say this, however. The speakers are becoming more and more expensive, so we always have to weigh the issue. And then sometimes speakers we would love to get, we just can’t because of the cost. We’re not some of the more bigger companies in the state that can grind out a huge check.

We tell them [speakers] what we think we would like --- obviously interesting material, we’d like a little humor. We don’t mind a few digs. … We’d like it to be both an informative topic, and also an entertaining evening. So far, we’ve been pretty successful at it. I’m very glad you raised that; I’m very proud of what we’ve done and our selection at MPLP. People take it very seriously. The other issue, which I think is very interesting in MPLP, is that an awful lot of people that we asked to speak don’t end up charging us anything. They want to be part of it.

IMP: We have a very unique higher education system in Michigan. The 15 public universities have constitutional autonomy, unlike other states. How do you see the path forward for universities, during a changing economy, and continuing beyond tough times?

Roberts: I reckon there’s an awful lot of some very good friends of mine that somehow believe that some very good coordination [between universities] would save some money. And it might. But … where else do you get the new ideas if they aren’t willing to take a risk or something? I’m very much for that. I think that the independence --- I can understand the negative side --- but on balance, I think it’s a plus. There's no reason why every single university has to have a law school. Which is not to say that they do, but there’s no reason for that. There ought to be some political pressure which if somebody says, ‘Well, I want to do something.’ [And somebody replies], ‘We really don’t need another one of these.’ And I don’t care if there’s a little coordination. Not every single school needs to have [new programs], but again, I’m willing to let that happen so that schools can be a little bit more creative. I think we have a very strong system.

The other thing, of course, that’s different in Michigan, is that people just accept what they don’t realize is the position of State Treasurer is fundamentally different than almost the rest of the country. There’s only about five treasures in the country that are appointed; all the rest are elected. And almost all states that have one –– there’s something like 45 states that have the position of state treasurer –– use it as a stepping stone to higher office.

For example ... Kay Bailey Hutchison, a former senator from Texas was a state treasurer. Former senator from Louisiana … Mary Landrieu … she was a former state treasurer. The [former] governor of Illinois [Pat Quinn] is former state treasurer … Whereas in Michigan, it’s an appointed position. It’s much more like the secretary of Treasury. But it also means the job is fundamentally different.

… When the governor controls the state treasurer, you can put stuff in the Department of the Treasury. The treasurer is not a rival, at least, to the current governor. Because if they are, they won’t be there long. [Laughs]. And I must tell you, as someone who wrote my thesis of state and local taxes, got my doctorate right here at Michigan State --- that has got to have been one of the real thrills of my life [to be] the state treasurer of Michigan. I think I really used my expertise the best there, even though I enjoyed Higher Ed and K-12 [education].

And so I worked very hard with the Governor [John Engler] on Proposal A [the massive property tax and school funding reform law of 1994]. I mean, Proposal A is the highlight of my life, in terms of things we worked on. And it was very special. And it covered an enormous amount of detail. … But people forget how much was in the initial proposal of Proposal A --- I mean, that it was not only talked about what taxes to change, or how to distribute the money.

But that’s where they talked about the issue of charter schools; that’s where they had schools of choice. We even proposed a whole change in the way we would fund local government. They passed on it. And I have the evidence here if anybody wants it. We told local government that an exchange for statutory revenue sharing, that they could raise taxes on their own without a blow to the people. But the County Board of Commissioners would have to vote. And they said, ‘We don’t want to.’ They said, ‘We get statutory spending without that vote.’ But, of course, as we know, years passed and they lost all that statutory revenue sharing.

I mean, that was a really bad deal they made. We laid it out for them and they didn’t see the writing on the wall coming. And then the other thing that was a little bit fun is that I worked really hard when I was in the Legislature on adopting something called the Single Business Tax (SBT). And then I was here when we buried it. [Laughs]. And so I thought, ‘Here’s my whole career! I don’t know, what a career!’ [Laughs].

IMP: [Former state Senator and U.S. Rep.] Joe Schwarz is one of my good friends, and he says Proposal A was the highlight of his career, too.

Roberts: Did I tell you that Joe Schwarz saved my life?

IMP: No.

Roberts: Seriously.

IMP: What happened?

Roberts: I mean physically saved my life. … In the year that we’re working on Proposal A, 1993. I’m in a meeting, and I’m sitting next to Sen. Schwarz, and I was going to crack a bad joke. I said, ‘My hearing is going bad, my hair stays black, and I want to cut a deal.’ You know, give up the hair just to get my hearing back. [Smiles].

Of course, he’s [Schwarz] an ear, nose and throat doctor. He didn’t smile at all. And he said, ‘What’s wrong with your hearing?’ And I said, ‘My right ear isn’t any good.’ He said, ‘Do you shoot?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t shoot at all.’ He said, ‘Have you been around explosions?’ I said, ‘No, not that I know. What’s this about?’ I said, ‘I’m getting older.’ He said, ‘Yes, hearing does go.’ He said, ‘Both ears go; one ear doesn’t go. That’s not the way it works!’ He said, ‘Can I examine you?’ So I went to his office, and as a physician, and he tested me, and he said, ‘You need an MRI.’ I did not know why; he did not explain that.

And I had a brain tumor. And he’s pretty sure what it was. I had the brain tumor; we did Proposal A, I knew then I had it, but it was slowly growing. And we finished Proposal A, and I had the surgery in February, and Proposal A was delivered in [the] March [1994 election]. So I was there through the end writing it. I did not have anything [noticeably] wrong, other than my hearing was going bad. And without that, who knows when --- I might have waited too long. And it was removed, and that was some years ago.

And I lost my hearing; I don’t hear on my right side. But that’s a small price. But no, seriously, he [Schwarz] really did save my life. It just gives you an idea how those things happen.

And now I’ll follow up [about] him. Since you’re a good friend, I will tell you another story. I now come back [to work]. I owe him. I knew I owed him. So he calls me up and I’m state treasurer. He wants something. I said, ‘Senator, I can’t give it to you.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. I can’t say ‘no’ to you. And that’s not fair to my current boss; it’s just not fair.’ So I said, ‘I’ve already talked to the governor [Engler]. And in the future, when you want something, you call him directly. Because I can’t deal with it because I can’t say ‘no’ to you, and that’s not right to the guy who employs me. [Laughs]. So he can say ‘no’ to you!’

IMP: Things always go well when you say ‘no’ to Joe Schwarz.

Roberts: Yes. So these are all true stories. He’s just a terrific guy. I admire him immensely to this day, and I can’t say enough about him.

… I have a couple of things for you. … This is a speech I give called, ‘I Was There.’ … I go through all my history of what I’ve done. I talk a little bit about the unemployment rate. And there was only seven years in which Michigan’s unemployment rate was below the national average. Some people want to give it to the governor; I prefer to give it to the state treasurer. But that depends on who is telling the story. [Smiles].

And then the other thing I want to talk about is Michigan’s population. … The point I’m trying to make is that you had situations in which we had almost no increase, and then we actually had a decrease. We’re the only state in the union that after 10 years, we fell in population [from 2000 to 2010]. Why is that important? Our [congressional] representation fell.

Now, this is my personal story about the lottery. … They tried to run me out of town for this. … The argument is that when people adopted the lottery way back in May 1972, that people were duped because the lottery was 100% for education. That’s just not true. And they said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, it’s true.’ And I said, ‘Well, I was there; it’s not true.’ And I said, ‘The people adopted it.’ I showed the constitution. I showed the first act that was adopted by the Legislature that summer that would go to the general fund. And then I point out that the speaker of the house at the time [Bill Ryan] … he is absolutely one of the most trustworthy people that you’ll ever meet.

The point being is that [people said], ‘Clearly, the ads said it.’ OK. Let’s go look at the ads now [shows ad]. This was an ad that would run, like, five years later. Wait a second, this is the small print. There’s the small print. And it says all this money went for education, but then went on to list social services [the money went to]. And everybody said, ‘Well, you still lied to us.’ Look, if you want to put it all in education, fine, but don’t tell me that what was a myth that it was always intended to go 100% for education. It’s just not true.

And it just blew up. And I remember even when I was in different offices, I would try to argue this, and I was just government lying to them. And I just quit [trying]. … Bill Ryan was one of the most honorable people I ever had the privilege of knowing, and the idea that he would intentionally take something that everybody thought was going to happen and say that, ‘No we didn’t,’ just isn’t true.

All right, it’s a lot of history. And when I start talking about when I started in ’72, when I got before some of these classes. Most of the kids in the class weren’t born. In fact, almost none of them. [Laughs]. As a matter of fact, we’re really debating whether their parents were born. [Laughs]. That’s when it begins to really hurt.