Chance for real change 

Don't look now, but Michigan government has, literally, suffered a nervous breakdown and is in a semi-paralyzed, near-catatonic state. That might not be so bad if things otherwise were humming along perfectly, but they aren't.

We are headed for the edge of a cliff, and we know exactly when we will all be dragged over: Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009. That's when, absent a balanced budget agreement, state government will shut down.

Want a fishing license? Need your license plates renewed? Tough cheese, Charley. Did your car break down on a bad stretch of I-96 after some jerks rammed it? Do you feel you need a state trooper? Forget it, sport.    

Welcome to the Shutdown Zone. Here's the scorecard: The state is running a budget deficit for the next fiscal year that, when the final figures are in, will probably reach $3 billion.  If the Legislature doesn't pass a balanced budget and the governor sign it by the end of this month — wham. Michigan government legally has to shut down. All except utterly "essential services," which I suppose means the prisons.

The legislative leaders have been meeting nonstop for weeks, but as of last weekend, nothing has happened. Every so often, Speaker of the House Andy Dillon (D-Redford) says he thinks they are close to a deal, but nothing happens.

The Republicans — give them credit for this — have offered up a budget. It cuts the hell out of many services, eliminates the Michigan Promise Grant scholarship entirely, and does other bad things. But they've given us something to argue about.

How about Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposed budget? What about Andy Dillon's alternative? Get ready for this.

Democrats haven't offered a budget proposal, at least not for public consumption, though I doubt they have one at all. They don't seem to be doing anything except fighting some kind of rear-guard action, saying, "No, no, please don't cut this so much." Or, "Couldn't we tax the rich just a teensy weensy little bit more?"

But evidently our governor doesn't even have an overall plan. Either that, or she doesn't have the decency to let the rest of the Legislature, let alone the common herd who pay her salary, see it. We know she thinks they will have to make deep spending cuts, which will hurt most of us in some way. Yet with less than a month left, she won't tell us what she thinks we can afford to cut. 

We also know that she thinks the state needs to raise "some" new revenue. Yes, but how? Tax increases? Increased fees, on, for example, hunting and fishing licenses? We don't have a clue. And why should she tell us?

After all, we only live here.

Actually, the worst part is that I think Granholm does have a plan — one that is about as profound as she is able to visualize. Her plan is to somehow staple-gun things to hold together until a year from January. That's when the governor will leave office for the last time. Matter of fact, Dillon loses his job then, thanks to term limits, as does state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester,) and almost the entire state Senate.

Thanks to term limits, nobody has to be responsible, in the long run, for anything. Term limits are the single worst thing to happen to Michigan government in history. But they aren't the only problem.

Our Constitution, which was seen as the very model of a modern document when it was adopted in 1963, is badly out of date. 

1) It is ridiculously easy to amend. Any group with money to pay for signatures can at least get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and if they can fool the folks into passing it, yippee. Which is how we got term limits.
2) Michigan's Constitution absolutely forbids a graduated income tax, unless we amend it to allow for one. That's something the rich would spend zillions to stop, if anyone ever tried. Currently, we have a flat tax, which means the chairman of Ford Motor Co. and I pay the same rate of 4.35 percent. So does some poor single mom who has a minimum wage job at Walmart. Does that make sense? We need to tear up much of this document and start over — and next year, we'll have a golden chance. Everybody is going to be asked this question on the November 2010 statewide ballot:

Should we summon and elect a statewide convention for the purpose of writing a new constitution?

The interest groups including, oddly, the Roman Catholic Church, already have come out against a constitutional convention. Cynical Republicans say we can't afford it. Some timid liberals are even against the idea, fearing that the anti-abortion and anti-labor loonies will elect all the delegates and do us in.

That's the same kind of cowardly, cover-your-ass thinking that got us into this mess. The man who was most in charge of the last constitutional convention was George Romney, who once told a new governor his only advice was "Be bold." He was right about that. These times demand daring, and guts. What some nonpartisan, nonprofit group should do is seize this issue, excite and energize the public, and fight to get a yes vote on a convention.

Then — and this is just as important — they have to wage a campaign to get us to elect smart delegates to write the new constitution. By the way, this all has a powerful safeguard built into it. Once any new constitution is written, there has to be a statewide vote of the people on whether to adopt it.

If they give us a turkey, we can say no.

What we do know is the system is broken. We're being given a chance for real reform, right now, and we better have the guts to take it.

Freedom House update:
  Last week I talked about Detroit's Freedom House, the only place in the nation that provides a temporary home and full assistance to survivors of persecution and torture across the world. 

I recently spent a day with the residents, who were some of the noblest, most tragic, and yet inspiring people I've interviewed in a long time. One of them, a Ugandan named Babu Emile, has a piece in the current Dbusiness Magazine. Freedom House has been struggling as donations have fallen off, and the day I met with the residents, they got more bad news. ACCESS, the Dearborn-based private social welfare agency, lost the funding they have received for years from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

That's important for the refugees, because ACCESS has used that money to provide primary medical and mental health care for all of Freedom House's clients, most of whom have been tortured. "The loss of this funding will leave a traumatized and vulnerable population without the care they so desperately need," said Deborah Drennan, Freedom House's interim administrator.

It would be ironic if the Obama administration, which has denounced the Bush-Cheney era policy of tolerating torture, ends up causing more victims of torture to suffer, right here in Detroit. Another odd twist of fate is that the federal refugee office is under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan's Department of Human Services is now headed by none other than Ismael Ahmed, the co-founder and for many years the guiding spirit of ACCESS. Ish – could you talk to your counterparts in Washington on this one?

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

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