Rookie speaker changes tax tune in state

At first impression, Michigan’s speaker of the House of Representatives, Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, might seem like a textbook case against term limits.

At the tender age of 34, he’s not very experienced, having served one term in the House before being elected speaker. He’s not a very polished public speaker. And he stumbles when asked to articulate a comprehensive vision for the future.

But a closer look suggests that DeRoche might soon become a textbook case in favor of the term limits adopted in 1992. He is proving to be a surprisingly effective counterweight to Michigan’s popular Gov. Jennifer Granholm, he has stiffened Republican resolve to keep taxes low and he is making life miserable for the state’s leading teachers union, the Michigan Education Association.

Plus he seems to be enjoying himself. “I like to stir things up a little,” says DeRoche, whose prior political experience consists of two terms on the City Council in Novi, a fast-growing edge city on the far outskirts of Detroit.

It’s too early to call DeRoche an unqualified success. But he is having an undeniable impact.

Republicans lost seats in the House and Senate last fall after GOP leaders caved in to Granholm on a string of tax increases. DeRoche, freshly elected to succeed former Speaker Rick Johnson, promptly reversed course, making it clear that the House GOP majority would oppose further increases.

Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, R-Wyoming, obviously worried that House Republicans might ignite the Republican base against him, seems to be taking a tougher stance against higher taxes himself, despite Michigan’s continued budget woes.

This has caused the governor to propose selling bonds to both accelerate public works and road projects as well as $2 billion of “investment” in job creation. DeRoche promptly raised tough questions about that strategy. “Bonding for infrastructure is a legitimate function of government,” he says, “but creating jobs is a role for the private sector.”

He also expresses skepticism about Granholm’s proposed reform of Michigan’s Single Business Tax, which would have the effect of cutting levies on manufacturers but would raise them on insurers and knowledge workers.

“I’m against the idea that tax reform should be revenue-neutral,” DeRoche says. “We need to reduce taxes overall so we stop driving jobs out of the state.”

It’s a powerful theme in a state whose unemployment rate is now the highest in the nation. By raising such issues, DeRoche may have contributed to the slide in Granholm’s approval ratings from a near-stratospheric level to merely mortal — barely above 51 percent in one poll. There is suddenly a widespread belief in GOP circles that the governor will be vulnerable in the coming election.

DeRoche also is threatening to drive a wedge between Democrats and their allies in the teachers unions by proposing to require competitive bidding for school contracts. Republicans have long complained that the MEA uses its power to bludgeon school boards into awarding sweetheart deals for the administration of teacher benefit packages to an MEA affiliate. The requirement for open competitive contracting is likely to sound like common sense to the average taxpayer.

“My goal isn’t to cut benefits for teachers but to make sure the taxpayers are getting a fair deal,” says DeRoche, who worked as the regional representative for a major insurer and started his own firm to bid on such contracts. (He subsequently sold his interest to his father and brother.)

DeRoche, in other words, is kicking up a lot of dust for a neophyte speaker, much less a second-termer in the House.

No doubt the veteran political establishment will do its best to muddy the image of this brazen upstart if he has many more successes. For the moment, though, the amateur seems to be more than holding his own.

Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist who is published on Sunday and Wednesday. You can reach him at (313) 222-2544 and