Real leadership 

What could have and should have happened last week in Lansing:

Jennifer Granholm faced the television cameras during her state of the state speech. But it was a far different governor than we've seen for the last four years. This time, the warm feel-good happy talk had vanished:

Citizens of Michigan, I have come to level with you tonight. The situation in our state is not good. We have had a great economy in the past. We can, some day, have a great one again.

But we do not have one now. The decline — and that's what it is — of the domestic auto industry has hurt us badly. We are working on solutions, and on ways to attract people who can invent the solutions.

We have made some progress, but it will not happen overnight.

Nor is your state government running the way it should be. There are those who say government is the solution to every problem, and they are dead wrong. But there are those who say government always is the problem.

And they are wrong too. We need a vibrant and healthy state government to do the things the citizens of our state need done — to make sure our children are educated and our water is clean and protected and that we have good roads.

Government has a role in making sure the private sector on which our society and civilization depend is vibrant and thriving. Yet the way to do that and the way to attract high-tech and new economy businesses is not just to slash taxes. Modern technology companies understand you get what you pay for.

Western Michigan University commissioned a study that shows that the businesses of the future are willing to pay a little more if they can exist in a community that has good schools and roads and public services.

For too long, you have been told by the naysayers that all that mattered was low taxes. That is not true. For too long your politicians have told you that you could have a free lunch. That government could afford to give you a steady stream of tax cuts even though it had trouble meeting our basic obligations.

Term-limited politicians who knew they would not be in office when it came time to pay the piper allowed you to mortgage your children's futures without telling you. And I have to confess that I too did not do nearly enough to speak out and tell you the truth.

So now it is time for honesty. Now it is time to repair the damage. I am asking the Legislature to lower the sales tax from 6 to 5 percent — and to extend it to all services except educational and medical services.

There are some who say that this tax falls more heavily on those who can least afford to pay.  Accordingly, I am also asking the Legislature to place on the ballot a proposed amendment to our state constitution that would allow a graduated income tax that would exempt our poorest citizens.

If it is enacted, we will roll back the sales tax and ensure a firm foundation for our legitimate needs for the foreseeable future. This will meet with a lot of opposition from those who are now our most comfortable citizens.

But I was elected — and re-elected by a landslide — to look after the interests of all the citizens of Michigan. You know, we actually have a single Latin word as our official motto: Tuebor. It means, I will defend.

And I have taken an oath to defend the best interests of this state, and that is what the program I have put forth will do.

Fellow Michiganders, thank you very much.


That's not what Jennifer Granholm did, of course. Her speech was filled with glowing warmth; only journalists and politicians could see that she meant to sneak a tax increase in later. Two days later, it came: a proposal for a scanty 2 percent sales tax on services. Library funding would be cut in half. Day care and foster care money will be reduced.

However, business gets an immense tax cut.

After the election, she proposed a "revenue-neutral" replacement for the Single Business Tax. She told me on the radio that business better accept this, because they might not get as good a deal if they waited.

Now, she is offering them a $480 million tax cut — about what Dick DeVos (remember him?) would have given them.

Naturally, they aren't grateful; business and the Republicans, scenting blood in the water, are busily savaging her proposal.

What will happen — best-case scenario — is that Our Governor will, after paying a further political price, get most of what she is proposing, but that it will be only a temporary fix, enacted on the hides of our poorest citizens.

However, come the next round of plant closings, etc., and the budget will likely keel over into deficit again. What puzzles me is why Granholm has so little backbone. This was her chance to leave a legacy, a fiscally strong government.

Instead, she is choosing to fight only to hold it together with twine and paper clips. Years from now, odds are that she will be remembered only as our state's first woman governor, and that when you look at her legacy, she will have turned out to be Michigan's version of Franklin Pierce.

Who was, in case you have a burning desire to know, a long-ago U.S. president who didn't do much, did that little badly, and couldn't have led ants to a pool of honey. Michigan needs better, much better, and now.


Mea culpa: In last week's column, while bemoaning the money our state spends on prisons, I said "We are paying heavily — $30,000 per prisoner per year — for tough 'three strikes' laws for small-time hoodlums."

Well, my point was sound, but what I said was technically wrong. We don't have a "three strikes and in for life" law. California does have such a law; one did come up before our Legislature and was sensibly voted down.

What we do have, however, is nearly as bad: harsh drug laws that prescribe life sentences for fairly small amounts of the stuff, and which have quadrupled the population of our prisons since 1982.

Moving on to another of my failings, Pat Clawson, a respected broadcast journalist now living in the Flint area, took me to task for saying last week that anyone who preferred living in an undertaxed slum ought to leave for Guatemala.

Guatemala is doing much better than we are, he says: "According to the CIA World Factbook, they have GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growing at 3.9 percent," Pat reports, while "Michigan's GDP is only moving ahead 1.1 percent."

Hmmmm. Good point, Pat, but what else do your spooks tell you?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at

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