But it was the struggle to cut Michigan's property tax that probably best defined the Engler administration, especially in its early years.
Leading up to that period, Michigan's property taxes, set by basic law in the 1890s, had been growing despite state efforts to keep them in check. Ironically, according to Mr. Roberts, some of the efforts to keep the taxes in check actually accelerated their growth.
"There was a lot of good legislation enacted that created this dynamic," he said. There was the "equal yield formula" that assured that even poor districts will get more money. The difference those districts would get under the program suddenly meant that voting extra millages in those districts "was not an irrational vote."
Enactment of the "circuit breaker" which paid people back for higher property also helped prompt people to vote for more taxes, he said.
The state attempted to strike at the issue through solutions like "198s," named for the public act number that granted companies property tax relief in the state's cities, but the situation, Mr. Roberts said, was getting out of control.
"On the average, property taxes were 34-35 per above national average. In places like East Lansing they were so far out of line they would make people's heads spin," he said.
And property taxes were a major detriment to attracting and keeping businesses, said Mr. Studley.
Taxes are not the only factor a business looks at when making a location decision, Mr. Studley said, and they have to be balanced with factors such as infrastructure, closeness to market, labor availability and knowledge. But clearly taxes are a major factor in decisions, he said, adding "the cost of property taxes was a major challenge."
However, Mr. LaFaive contends taxes and whether a state is a right-to-work state are the two biggest factors when businesses consider location.
In the 1990 campaign, then-Governor James Blanchard had a property tax proposal that Republicans calculated would mean taxpayers would save on average five cents a week. Mr. Engler leaped on "the nickel" and made it a major campaign theme. And through the course of his administration Mr. Engler would make constant reference to the nickel. In his 1992 State of the State Address, when he proposed his "cut and cap" proposal, Mr. Engler said if adopted it would amount to "130 billion nickels."
When he won his squeaker of an election, Mr. Engler began his drive to meet the promise of cutting property taxes. During the first four years of the administration, Mr. Roberts said he was always working on a property tax proposal of one sort or another.
Cutting property taxes was the major goal, Mr. Roberts said. But in typical Engler fashion, it was never the only plan. While the administration lists 31 enacted tax cuts, the number of various tax cuts proposed is larger. Some ran into roadblocks when Democrats controlled the House, such as his proposal to grant a tax break for every new employee hired.
But there were both historic and immediate problems to cutting the tax. The immediate problem was a major budget crisis that forced the administration to delay tax cut plans as it balanced the budget. Even in that, Mr. Engler declared victory, saying Michigan was virtually the only state to balance the budget without raising taxes. To that end, Mr. Engler was helped by a Legislature reluctant to raise taxes after the 1983 income tax increase that led to Republicans seizing control of the Senate and setting Mr. Engler on the road to the executive residence.
The first tax cut Mr. Engler claimed was a property tax freeze in 1991-92 that blocked assessment increases that year. But the larger task of passing a property tax cut meant overcoming an historic reluctance by voters to do nothing despite their rising complaints.
A number of property tax proposals had been on the ballot over the previous decades, and the voters had turned them all down.
In 1992, Mr. Engler filed petitions for his "cut and cap" proposal that would have cut property taxes by 20 percent and limited increases each year. Without an alternative to assure that local schools and governments were not hurt, the voters rejected it, though Mr. Roberts noted it drew 41 percent of the vote.
Like U.S. Grant, who never retreated after a defeat but kept marching into the South, Mr. Engler did not let that defeat deter him. The election of 1992 brought split power between Democrats and Republicans in the House and with the Senate in solid GOP hands, he immediately renewed the call for a 20 percent tax cut in http://michiganlegislature.org/mileg.asp?page=smartlink &objName=2001-SB-0001.
Then, a coalition of school groups, local governments and Mr. Engler joined to create Proposal A of 1993, which would have cut property taxes and increased the sales tax to help ensure no lost revenue to schools. The selling point on the sales tax increase was that it would be partially borne by tourists and businesses, but again voters rejected it in a June 1993 election, with Mr. Roberts noting the support level rose to 46 percent.
Again, Mr. Engler and the Republicans refused to abide with defeat. And on a late July night just a month later prepared to vote for http://michiganlegislature.org/mileg.asp?page=smartlink&objName =2001-SB-0001 to cut property taxes, when then-state Sen., now U.S. Sen., Debbie Stabenow offered an amendment.
Mr. Engler and legislators knew the Democrats were going to propose eliminating all property taxes for education since they had been told that by the Democrats. While GOP leaders balked at the idea, Mr. Engler encouraged them to take it. So when Ms. Stabenow did offer a total repeal of property taxes for school operations, the Republicans at first said no. But during the course of the debate and a series of phone calls with Mr. Engler, GOP lawmakers turned around and voted the most historic tax change since the adoption of the income tax.
The House voted the next day to accept the changes, and the race was on to restructure education financing.
The next six months, particularly December 1993, was an exhausting run of proposals, counter-proposals, and intense lobbying and negotiating. During December virtually every legislative session went late into the evening, with closed-door negotiations going on until dawn.
As a major player in the discussions, Mr. Roberts was harboring a secret. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, something only Mr. Engler and Mr. Roberts' wife knew about. He thought that this proposal might be the last thing he would ever work on, and when, after a 26-marathon legislative session that ended at noon on Christmas Eve, the proposal was set, he grew very emotional to the surprise of many who, of course, did not know of his health worry.
In retrospect, Mr. Roberts said, "blowing up the system" as the Legislature did in July was probably not the way to enact major tax changes. Still, "it was the best thing I ever worked on. And if it was the last thing, I would be proud of it."
But the credit, he said, goes to Mr. Engler. "I gave him the best advice I could," but Mr. Engler astounded with his knowledge of detail and his ability to grasp ideas and spin off new ideas.
And in March 1994, the voters responded overwhelmingly and voted the sales tax increase into place that then became the main school financing mechanism.
The voters acted, in large part because they knew they could not go back to the old school financing system. If they did not approve the sales tax increase, then the state's income tax would have gone up.
Ms. Parks said the solution the voters adopted was more regressive than a property tax increase. And it continues to be regressive as services become a bigger, essentially untaxed part of the economy.
But Mr. Roberts said the average property tax bill in the state is 44 percent less than it would have been.
Former Speaker Paul Hillegonds said Proposal A revived Mr. Engler's administration, and many political commentators have said its passage assured his re-election that November and led him, with a now Republican Legislature, into a period of major tax changes.
In recent years, complaints have increased about property taxes creeping up. And many home purchasers are shocked when their assessments-which have controlled to increasing no more than 5 percent a year-balloon when they acquire their property.
There will come a time when some parts of Proposal A will have to be reviewed, Mr. Roberts said, but overall the program has not only helped keep tax growth under control but helped improve overall school equity.
It has provided half of the estimated $32 billion in savings taxpayers have enjoyed during the administration, said Mr. LaFaive. Even if Mr. Engler had cut taxes by $16 billion, that would have been impressive but $32 billion is a true achievement, he said.