Four of the five Republicans competing to be Michigan's next governor addressed questions Tuesday about public pensions, illegal immigration, right-to-work laws and the economy during an hourlong televised debate.
State Sen. Tom George, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and Attorney General Mike Cox spoke to a packed theater at Oakland University in Rochester. Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder skipped the debate, opting to hold an evening town hall meeting in Grand Rapids instead. The primary is Aug. 3.
The most pointed question asked by moderator Devin Scillian of WDIV-TV was about the pensions held by the four candidates -- all elected officials.
Bouchard said he and all his employees at the sheriff's department were on defined contribution pensions that involved only 401(k)s. He appeared somewhat taken aback when Scillian noted he seemed to be forgetting that he had been getting a defined benefit pension as well from his eight years in the state House and Senate.
"I've never even looked at it," Bouchard said, somewhat at a loss. After the debate, he said his state pension would be worth $1,500 to $2,000 a month once he started receiving it.
Hoekstra said he has the same defined benefit pension as all federal employees and thinks everyone employed by the federal government should be moved to a defined contribution system.
Arizona's pending immigration law also was a hot topic, with Cox pointing out that he is "leading the charge" among state attorneys general to support Arizona against a legal challenge filed by the U.S. Justice Department. On Monday, Cox sent a letter to other attorneys general accusing the federal government of "selective enforcement -- or even complete lack of enforcement -- of immigration laws" when it should be working with the states to control illegal access.
"I will stand up on this issue as I stood up against Obamacare," he said, referring to President Barack Obama's federal health care changes which Cox also has challenged in court.
The Arizona law, set to take effect July 29, would require state and local police to question and possibly arrest illegal immigrants during the enforcement of other laws such as traffic stops.
Bouchard said he supports the Arizona law because the federal government isn't doing a good enough job protecting the country's borders.
"If it starts with illegal, I'm going to be against it," the sheriff said of illegal immigration. "Somehow that's not clear to the people in Washington."
George, however, pointed out that many Michigan growers depend on migrant workers to help harvest their crops.
"Michigan would be best served by a temporary worker program managed by the federal government," he said. "We need to protect our borders, but we can't turn our backs on our agricultural" sector.
The candidates all oppose abortion and share the view that Michigan's business climate would be best improved by lowering taxes and lessening regulations.
But their enthusiasm for making Michigan a right-to-work state was less unified. Hoekstra said he would not make it a top priority of his administration because "we'll create divisions between businesses and labor" that will make it harder to get the economy going again.
Cox, however, noted that his oldest daughter lives just outside Memphis in Tennessee, a state where unions don't have the right to make workers pay dues if they're covered by a union contract.
"Fourteen right-to-work states have passed us by" in per-capita personal income, he said. "That's where our children are going."
George continued to criticize his GOP opponents for their promises to both cut taxes and increase spending, either for certain programs or through tax credits. He especially targeted Cox for his promise to cut the state's main business tax by $2 billion and eventually eliminate it.
"Saying you're going to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax in your first month is a pipe dream," George said, noting such a policy could leave Michigan insolvent. "Businesses won't come to a state that can't pay its bills," he warned.
WDIV-TV aired the debate live in the Detroit area. It was the third debate sponsored by the Michigan Republican Party. State GOP Chairman Ron Weiser said after the final debate that he thought the forums had served their purpose of familiarizing voters more with the five Republican candidates than with the two Democratic ones.
Democrats Virg Bernero and Andy Dillon have held two televised debates and have no more planned before the Aug. 3 primary.