BY LINDSAY VANHULLE
TRAVERSE CITY — A retired teacher and a school board member with no party affiliation are taking on a well-funded incumbent Republican legislator for the state House.
Democrat John Scrudato and independent candidate Megan Crandall will challenge state Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, in the 104th District, which consists of Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties.
The winner of the two-year term Nov. 2 will head to Lansing amid state fiscal troubles and political changes. A new governor will take office in January.
All three candidates said the state's economic recovery and K-12 education funding reform would be among their top priorities.
Michigan could become more attractive to companies if the state's tax structure was more conducive to business owners, said Schmidt, 44, who is seeking his second term.
He anticipates victory for Republicans in the governor's race, and believes tax policy and regulation reform could happen in the first six months of Rick Snyder's administration.
Schmidt wants to roll back personal property taxes to encourage more investment in capital projects and eliminate the Michigan Business Tax and its 22 percent surcharge.
"You're hoping that it's going to stimulate the economy and you'll be able to make up for it in other revenues," Schmidt said. "If we raise taxes now, it could extinguish that little flicker of economic growth."
With federal stimulus funding no longer able to prop up future budgets, lawmakers are going to face more cuts to services, he said.
He opposed a recent measure that transferred about $208 million from the School Aid Fund into the general fund to cover community colleges, and supports reinstating the "2X" equity formula that provides more state funding for the lowest-funded districts.
Schmidt said the schools budget should be finished before districts' fiscal years start July 1. The state's fiscal year doesn't start until Oct. 1, which means district budgets often are set using projections of per-student funding revenue.
"I understand their frustration," he said.
In his first term, Schmidt served on committees for energy and technology, transportation, the Great Lakes and the environment, and intergovernmental and regional affairs. He sponsored a bill that would keep public universities and colleges from prohibiting concealed firearms on their campuses.
More than once, he cited his position as a new representative in the minority party as a roadblock to moving legislation.
"I had a good freshman term," he said. "(I) didn't get done everything that I wanted to get done."
His campaign raised $5,620 from Sept. 3 to Oct. 17, bringing his monetary contributions in the current election cycle to $81,555, according to state campaign finance statements filed last week. He's received roughly $1,000 in total in-kind contributions.
Schmidt has spent nearly $91,224 throughout his campaign, dwarfing the amounts generated by his two challengers who raised less than $10,000 between them.
"It comes down to the votes," Schmidt said. "That's ultimately the final say."
Scrudato, 62, spent more than 30 years in education, most recently as a special education teacher with Traverse City Area Public Schools. He retired at the end of the last school year.
He had been president of the Traverse City Education Association union, which represents teachers, counselors, social workers and nurses.
His bid was secured in the August primary by earning 389 Democratic write-in votes in Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties. He needed 167 to qualify.
He knows he is an underdog. Scrudato raised $7,141 from Aug. 23 to Oct. 17, according to his campaign finance statement. He spent roughly $3,233.
"This is not a job for me," he said. "I'm already retired."
Predictably, education is one of Scrudato's key focus areas. He wants to serve on the House education committee.
Among his ideas: State-funded preschool for all children and the understanding that students will continue learning after high school, whether at a university or a vocational school.
"I don't think everyone needs to go to college," Scrudato said. "There's nothing wrong with being an electrician, a plumber."
What hasn't helped K-12 schools, Scrudato said, is "shuffling money" from the School Aid Fund to the state's general fund.
Legislators need to stop pointing fingers and start fixing problems, he said.
"Because the economy is so bad, everyone is willing to throw everybody under the bus," Scrudato said. "You have to be open, you have to be honest and you have to be willing to talk to people on the other side."
The Grand Traverse region could be a draw for high-tech firms, Scrudato said, but it also needs to keep young, tech-savvy workers from leaving for better job prospects and higher salaries.
The business tax burden should be eased to help companies hire more part-time workers or pay more toward health care — not to increase profits, he said.
But Scrudato isn't running on the "mantra" of cutting taxes and creating jobs. Revenue is needed to pay for services.
He doesn't think adding sales tax to services is the best way to generate money, but has considered a graduated state income tax similar to the federal model.
"That's when people say, 'Oh, he's willing to raise taxes. He's bad,'" Scrudato said. "That's a chance I'm willing to take."
Crandall, 29, was elected to the Traverse City school board in 2007.
She has only missed one meeting — a special, closed session Oct. 5 when Crandall was scheduled to appear at a 104th District candidate forum. She's running as an independent because she's seen little action on plans espoused by both major political parties.
The Legislature needs to decide what to prioritize and follow through with funding, Crandall said.
"Do you choose to throw up your hands and back down, or do you say, 'I'm going to keep fighting this?'" she said. "If we're going to do something, let's commit to it."
Michigan needs economic stability to bring companies here, she said. Tax incentives, such as those given to the film industry, are helpful but can't be the only solution. A better deal always will exist somewhere, Crandall said. Replacing the Michigan Business Tax with a flat business income tax could be a good place to start discussions, she added.
She believes the state needs to retain young workers, many of whom left during the recession. To do that, more financial aid should be given to students at the end of college than at the beginning to help them finish their degrees.
And, she said, students who prefer hands-on careers should be encouraged to pursue them earlier than high school.
"There's a trend in this country that people think you must have a bachelor's degree to be a competent worker," said Crandall, who earned a real estate sales and commercial pilot license after graduation. "I don't think that's the case."
Lawmakers shouldn't divert money from the school fund to other sources, she said. They also need to look at using the "2X" equity model when cutting per-student aid, so the impact is more evenly spread among the lowest- and highest-funded districts.
Of the three candidates, Crandall raised the least — $2,185 in monetary contributions and nearly $627 in-kind, according to her campaign finance statement from July 18 to Oct. 17. She has spent roughly $1,028, saying money should not be the deciding factor in an election.
She believes being an independent allows her to work with both parties, and make her a crucial swing vote on important issues. Legislators need to vote less by party line and more based on principle, she said.
"It's going to have to come from voters demanding real accountability," Crandall said.