Time to get real

Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, a Democrat from Redford, hasn't made much of a mark leading his party in the Michigan Legislature. That is, until now. Earlier this month, he came out with a plan that would amount to a vast change in health care for state employees.

He wants the Legislature to enact a single, statewide, uniform health care plan for everyone who works for state or local government in Michigan. Right now, there is a patchwork quilt of dozens of different plans, with vastly differing costs and benefits.

According to Dillon's analysis, consolidating the plans would result in $900 million in savings, money our poor, deficit-ridden and nearly bankrupt state government badly needs. What was the reaction from his colleagues in the Legislature? Not what you might have expected:

Republicans, after wavering for a few moments out of reluctance to praise a Democrat, found themselves generally supporting his efforts, perhaps not with the purest of motives.

The governor, who, as we know, has no vision and doesn't like to make any decisions, first issued an incoherent statement in which she tried to straddle the fence. Later, after getting beaten up by the teachers union and other usual suspects, she inched toward essentially opposing Dillon's plan, while pretending to keep an open mind.

Other Democrats had mixed emotions, though a number of them, including Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, said it deserved consideration. So did Curtis Ivery, who runs the Wayne County Community College system. (They, unlike most legislators and interest group spokesmen, also have to wrestle with health care costs and balance a budget themselves.)

But the Michigan Education Association, the main teachers union in the state, viciously attacked Dillon's plan. The union wasn't even willing to think about it. They vehemently denied that teachers got "Cadillac benefits," and sniffed that since the Legislature couldn't even balance the budget, it is hard to see how they could run a complex health care plan.

The few reporters who still cover what goes on under the Capitol dome raised world-weary eyebrows. They said things like "No way this will pass before October," the target deadline the speaker set. Others sniffed that the Dillon proposal may have been a big idea, but were scandalized that he hadn't worked out every last number.

When I talked about this on Michigan Radio (WUOM/91.7 FM) the other day, one blogger attacked me at great length, saying I was "unhinged" for saying this plan might be worthy of some consideration. Others said I had betrayed my so-called liberal and compassionate credentials by suggesting that health care benefits should be cut for poor public sector employees. (I never said that at all, but, hey.)

Another man suggested I inform Andy Dillon that he should join the Republican Party, since he was one of them anyway, and while he was at it, he should take me with him.

I always find it amusing, dismaying, and big-time baffling how many so-called liberals become so amazingly intolerant when someone who they think is basically on their side deviates from their party line.

So, blogger boys and MEA bureaucrats listen up: Yes, I am a good old lefty too — but one who can read a balance sheet. We are living in a harsh new world that is very different from 1969 or even 1999. Yes, it would be great if all public sector and private sector workers had wonderful, generous, virtually unlimited health and pension benefits.

However, they and we don't have them, and aren't likely to get anything like them in the foreseeable future. The sad, cold truth is that we are a much poorer state than we used to be. The automotive industry that made Michigan rich has shriveled. Hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs are gone, forever. That has affected everything in Michigan, including the way state government calculates its annual budget — a process that is fatally flawed, and was even before the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry.

What this means is that every year the state is virtually guaranteed to run a deficit. With the economy in the shape it is in, that deficit is running in the billions, every year, and will for the foreseeable future.

Right now, the state is making some cuts, yes, but they are mainly patching the giant hole in the budget with $2.5 billion left over from President Obama's economic stimulus package. Within two years, that will be gone, and the state has to do something to get its costs down, or face a nightmare scenario where it is entirely possible universities won't be funded, public schools have to close early, and state government would shut down for some period of time.

Michigan has to get a long-term handle on how to deal with this. Dillon's bold proposal isn't enough in itself to get us there. But it's the first real attempt to save some money to cushion the blow for the longer term.

There are a lot of public sector workers in Michigan. Currently, various health plans insure more than 400,000 of them, plus retirees. They do get Cadillac benefits, or at least fully loaded Buick benefits, by comparison with most of us. The Detroit Free Press calculated that the "cost of health care for state employees averages $16,000 for a family."

That is about $4,000 more than it costs for the average worker at a large company in this state. Yes, if the Dillon plan, or something like it, were to be enacted, benefits might not be quite so cushy for some. That includes teachers. 

Incidentally, I've been married for many years to a teacher who is represented by the MEA. I teach at Wayne State University, which supplies me with benefits. If anything like Andy Dillon's plan becomes reality, both of us are likely to pay more and get fewer benefits. Do we look forward to that?

Not one tiny bit. But it sounds better than the state going into something like receivership, in which case there may not be any benefits anyway. 

We face a long hard time.

Doonesbury, the must-read comic strip of the '60s and '70s, put it best in a strip from a long time ago. One day, Joanie Caucus realizes that the obstinate refusal of Zonker to accept responsibility isn't as cute as it used to be. "The world needs grownups," she says dryly.

That's the case in our state today. Michigan has been lacking adults, especially in government. The Rolling Stones were right too: We can't, indeed, always get what we want. We're at a place now where we need to pull together and try to get what we need.

Overheard over the spoons:
Meanwhile, across the nation, Americans are spending more and more on health care, even as standards are slipping and increasing millions have no health care at all. President Obama is still fighting hard to get a bill that would cover nearly everybody with some form of basic health care, but it has been difficult going.

Last weekend, however, I heard something in my local cheap restaurant that made me think people get it. "This Obama plan must be a good thing," a guy said. "Paul W. Smith says it is bad, and Mitch Albom says it is unfair to make the rich pay taxes for it. That's enough for me."

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]