Merrily down the drain 

At the moment I am writing this column, the collection of largely pathetic political creatures known as the Michigan Legislature is fighting over how to damage our futures.

Basically, one of two things seems certain to happen. They may pass a budget that is guaranteed to weaken the quality of education in this state, make it harder or impossible for many people to go to college, and further punish the poor, the sick and the elderly. Or they may shut state government down altogether for a while, except for the politicians and the prisons, before finally agreeing to some other version of a bad deal for all of us.

I can hardly wait. But that's the hard, cold reality. One thing won't even be considered: Asking those who can afford it to pay more taxes, to shoulder their fair share of the burden. Hell, no. For example, I certainly should have to pay more state taxes than I do.

My annual earnings are probably something like Ford Motor Co. Chairman Alan Mulally's dry cleaning budget, or perhaps what Michael Moore spends on Big Macs. But I make a decent living and got an excellent taxpayer-subsidized education at both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, and, before that, in public schools. I have water piped into my house and my poop magically flushed away. Ancient kings would have given treasure beyond counting for what we would see as a very ordinary furnace, shower and toilet.

Everyone who is working- and middle-class or better in this state owes something to both the people who came before and those who will come after us. Yet, since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, we have been brought up to think that we have a right to be selfish. Jim Hightower, that fabulous Texas populist, once said that George Bush "was born on third base and thought he hit a triple." These days, that's true of far too many of us, and worse, spoiled kids with money think they deserve praise for being smart enough to have been born to well-off parents.

Last week, some character named Stephen Ternullo from Macomb Township was upset at my support for President Obama's health care plan. "What president should have the authority to require a young healthy person to have health insurance?" he whined. He even had the gall to add that if the unwashed all got insurance, it would be harder to get a doctor's appointment.

The answer, you conceited brat, is that everyone should be required to have health insurance, even if they, like you, don't care much about the rest of humanity. I hate to break this to you, Stevie, but the young and healthy won't always be so. And I don't want the rest of us to have to pay when your sorry ass is hauled into an emergency room someday because you lost your job and have no ability to pay.

You also don't have the right to be without health insurance because there are contagious diseases, and you have no right to give me smallpox or some modern-day equivalent, old chum.

Macomb Township Stevie is, alas, far from alone. People like him are a good part of the reason for what is happening in Lansing. 

Whatever else we know about the future, we know that to have any chance of being a rich and economically competitive state again, Michigan has to have a better-educated workforce. Five years ago, Lt. Gov. John Cherry presided over a very high-powered commission on higher education. It concluded that in order to have any chance at being competitive in the future, Michigan had to double the number of students graduating with bachelor's degrees in the next 10 years. What did we do about that? Well, in the last five years, Michigan cut aid to higher education by more than any other state. Most of those cuts came, mind you, before the auto industry crisis of a year ago.

Now, it is even worse. Last week, negotiators for the House, which is overwhelmingly controlled by the Democrats, and the Republican-controlled Senate agreed to eliminate the Michigan Promise Grant, betraying 96,000 students now in college who had been promised tuition scholarship money by the state.

They eliminated other college scholarship and work-study programs too. They voted to cut aid to elementary and high schools by a staggering $218 per pupil, essentially ensuring a poorer education for every child in Michigan. Some school districts may suffer the equivalent of bankruptcy, and will have to be taken over by the state. Some communities will be at risk too, if a proposed $164 million cut in revenue sharing stands.

Those few desperate people still on welfare will take a hit. Early childhood development programs will lose a quarter of their funding.

We are, in short, making sure that in the future, we will be a state that produces generations of poorly educated kids who are fit mostly for working on 1950-era assembly lines, bolting on fenders. Trouble is, there are no jobs for those people, and never will be again. We are driving over the cliff in an ancient Oldsmobile without seat belts. But hey! At least we didn't raise Dick DeVos' taxes.

On Sunday, I talked with the man who understands this mess and our state's economy better than anyone else: MSU economist Charles Ballard, author of the book Michigan's Economic Future.

What the Legislature is doing now will have a long-term destructive impact on the state, he said. "In the current economic environment, it is hard enough for us to get anyone to exercise wise and courageous leadership. But it's even more difficult when the public doesn't really have a good understanding of what is going on.

"I believe that there is a widespread impression that our state government is a vast, bloated bureaucracy, which wastes tremendous amounts of money," he said. So everyone wants to cut government spending. That is, till they are asked about specific programs.

When you ask if we should get rid of health inspectors, if you ask if we should stop fixing the potholes, lay off cops, and stop teaching little Johnny to read, suddenly they think again.

"I think a lot of folks don't know that outside of the Department of Corrections, the state government workforce is only about half as large as it was in the early 1980s. I think a lot of folks don't know that we haven't done any serious maintenance at our state parks in 10 years. I think a lot of folks don't know that the caseloads for (those) who provide social services are impossibly large." 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a rock-ribbed old 19th century Republican, used to say that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. Apparently for some, that price is too high. 

Should the governor be examined?
Last week, two highly educated colleagues asked me if I thought Gov. Jennifer Granholm was clinically depressed. I said that not only was I not competent to render any kind of clinical diagnosis, I was hardly a regular at the mansion. Why, I haven't hung around the family since, well, ah, never. But why, I wanted to know, were they asking?

They responded that she seemed to have vanished from view, especially when it came to the crucial budget battle. Occasionally she has her press secretary, Liz Boyd, say that the governor doesn't like something. But Her Ladyship is not much visible. "Classic signs of depression," one person said to me.

Don't know about that. But I do know that when I look at what passes for leadership in this state, I get depressed as hell.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at

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