The ghost of Gov. John Engler still haunts state budget talks

Former Gov. John Engler stopped being governor back in 2002, but, as incredible as it may seem, he’s still very much part of the current budget battle.

It’s as if he’s right there at the bargaining table with the current governor and the two GOP legislative leaders. Of course, he isn’t, but his spirit hangs over those talks like a Halloween ghost.

What the crafty Mr. Engler did way back when threatens to bust the current effort by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield, and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to see if they can once and for all set aside their partisan sniping and do the citizens’ business to finish a state budget of which the trio can be proud.

But Mr. Engler’s gambit years ago to ignore the Legislature and construct a budget in his own image haunts those talks, whether they want to admit it or not.

Years go, the snarly Gov. Engler, who was known for not giving up without a fight, was entangled in a budget battle with legislative Democrats in the House. They wanted budget “X,” and he wanted budget “Y,” and the two were at loggerheads over which side would prevail — not unlike the struggle we’ve painfully watched these past few months in this town.

Out of the blue, Gov. Engler made a threat — at which he was a master — that got the Democrats’ attention. Unless they came to the table and hammered out a deal, he would allow the D’s to send him their budget, and then he, unilaterally, would rearrange the spending programs in each departmental budget.

Then-House Speaker Lou Dodak was outraged at the obvious intrusion … no, make it this stomping all over the time-honored tradition of the Legislature disposing of the budget that the executive branch proposed.

But the threat worked, and Mr. Dodak and company worked with the GOP governor to craft a budget they both could honor. But, still riled by the implications of the threat — not only to his Legislature but future Legislatures, as well — the speaker hauled the governor into court to test his untested and unprecedented power-grab. And the Michigan Supreme Court sided with the governor and enshrined the so-called “Administrative Board option” into the law books for time in memoriam.

So, when the current GOP-controlled Legislature sent Democratic Gov. Whitmer its budget with zero input from her, she dusted off the court case Dodak vs. Engler and went to work to do what Mr. Engler threatened to do. She took the money the R’s had in each department and put it where the spending would reflect her values and not necessarily theirs.

To put it mildly, the speaker and senate leader were not amused.

In football, they call it encroachment.

In politics, they call it war.

Mr. Shirkey forewarned the governor that it would not be prudent if she did it, and it would wreak havoc on their future relationship if she Engler-ized their budget. She did it anyway, saying she had no choice, since the R’s sent her a budget that she called a “mess.”

But, when the dust settled, it appeared that the ad board option was not getting in the way of a renewed effort to resolve the budget differences. In fact, at a closed-door session recently, the governor and the two GOP guys actually made some progress on restoring a host of programs the governor vetoed, and the initial read was that they may actually cooperate and work this thing out.

However, now comes word that the two GOP leaders will ask the governor to chuck this Ad Board option for good.

The governor, who is a creature of the Legislature, argues that the only reason she used the nuclear Engler option was because she was shut out of the budget talks. The R’s claim she is the one who walked out, but the two sides will never agree on who is right.

If there is no accord on how to handle this ad board option, and there is a breakdown in the current talks, some critical state programs could go unfunded, such as 4000 prison parolees who may lose their GPS tethers. Not to mention money for road patrols, schools, and other state services.

The governor could say, “I promise not to use that strategy if you promise to always include me in the budget talks.” And, if the R’s agree to that, a crisis is averted.

But, if they don’t, then the delicate trust they are trying to rebuild could go out the window, and, with it, the bipartisan cooperation that taxpayers want to see.

If it comes to a showdown over executive vs. legislative power, this could be a shinning moment — if they work out an agreement that lays the foundation for future cooperative efforts.

But, if they don’t, it could be a very long three years of a dysfunctional, divided government, and the anti-John Engler crowd could blame him for that.