As Michigan crumbles

You know Michigan must be in bad shape when even the mainstream media notices, and, finally, they have. When the news came Friday that the budget mess was even worse than expected, both Detroit papers had enormous headlines. "STATE'S DEFICIT BALLOONS: $802 MILLION," the Freep screamed.

That's a truly scary number, far more frightening than the vastly larger federal deficits, at least in the short term. That's because the state absolutely has to balance its books by Sept. 30. That means Michigan's government has to a) get more money somehow or b) cut spending drastically or c) both.

Drastic spending cuts are clearly on the horizon, even if our paralyzed, leaderless and largely incompetent legislators did the right and responsible thing and raised taxes today. It is hard to see how they now could get enough new revenue in enough time to avoid slashing spending.

As I noted here last week, the first move will be huge cuts to elementary and high school education. The schools will be hit with a $122-per-student cut next week. These are dollars the state promised the schools, but which it is going back on a promise to deliver. This will hit the schools hard and hurt our children, but you wouldn't want the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, would you?

Other cuts, to higher education and other departments, will shortly follow. But some of the lawmakers seem fixated on the idea of going after the teachers, and what they see as their indecently high salaries and, especially, their pensions.

Indeed, The Detroit News had a lurid front page story May 11 about a weird loophole in state law under which a retired former school bus driver in a rural district (Remus) could, and did, earn lifetime health care by coming back to work another 102 hours as a school aide. Yes, that probably should be fixed.

What was most disturbing, however, was the subtext of mean-spiritedness: How dare some poor old bus driver think she should be entitled to health care! Years ago, when America and Michigan were more confident about the future, we might have cheered her on. We might have been happy that she won't have to worry about medical bills in her old age.

Now, however, we are increasingly becoming a nation of cold-hearted paranoids. What the right wing in Michigan wants is to go after teacher pensions and teacher salaries; they are even now planning to use the case of the poor bus driver and her "outrageously high benefits" as a place to start.

Frankly, most teachers more than earn their salary and their pensions. Someone suggested last week that my pro-education stand was motivated by self-interest; I teach full time at Wayne State University.

Well, that's not where I make most of my income, and I don't qualify for a pension from the school or the state. But my wife, Karen, does; she is an award-winning high school teacher in Birmingham. She works, as her colleagues do, seven days a week, 10 months a year. On average, she works 12 hours a day.

I am writing this on Sunday afternoon. She is at school correcting exams. On Saturday she was at school conducting a review for her students, on her own time, for the advance placement exam. When she retires she will qualify for a pension that will be equivalent to somewhat more than half her salary.

But guess what: She could have retired and been collecting that years ago. She could probably get a much easier job in the private sector and bring home, all told, more money than she makes now, for less work.

Yet she keeps teaching to make a difference in the lives of young people. She gets far too little credit for it, as do most teachers. And we have an attitude now that anyone who works for the people is somehow illegitimate.

This is part of America's growing culture of nasty selfishness. Here's another example: One of the very few good things about the Bush administration has been an attempt at some kind of rational and enlightened immigration policy.

Last week, after many months, a compromise was reached on an immigration bill that would grant legal status to most of the people now illegally here. It would establish a guest worker program based on occupational need, and provide safeguards to keep more illegal immigrants out.

Still, that set up a howl from every little bigot in the empire. Something called the "Center for Individual Freedom" bombarded me with e-mails urging me to "do whatever it takes to protect this country" and stop this bill. In case I was inclined to wash the car instead, the center added that "Illegal aliens molest eight children every day," and that "240,000 illegal aliens are sex offenders."

Damn, I've been hanging out with the wrong people. But that was positively moderate compared with the rant I got from one Ed Hayes, who calls himself "Heart of America Chapter Director, Minuteman Civil Defense Corps."

Ed doesn't beat around the Bush. In fact, he says that Bush, that raging liberal, is in fact a "traitor," who "committed treason with several traitors behind closed doors" in whipping up this immigration bill.

What yokels like me don't understand, sayeth Ed, is that "We do not need an immigration bill and (if) any of these people like Jerkoff, our homeland security chief, (and a) Bush puppet, and any of the other Traitors tell you that 'we can't send these people back home,' you know they are lying."

Fast Eddie also enclosed a touching note from an anonymous man who talked about how sick to his stomach he got when Mexicans came into his store and could not speak English and asked their children to translate for them.

Moderate Ed indicated he lives in Kansas, and I earnestly hope nobody out there sells him the kind of fertilizer used in making truck bombs anytime soon. I was tempted to ask whether he thought Squanto and Sitting Bull considered his ancestors legal immigrants. People like that may well kill the immigration bill, though let's hope not. We've had years now of believing a lot of lies and wallowing in this type of low, destructive and disgraceful politics.

Don't you think we should try to be better than that?


Someone who is better than that: If you read nothing else this week, get the new issue of Time and read the cover story about Al Gore, who, it will become readily apparent, does not want or intend to run for president.

It also should become painfully clear that he is probably our best hope for any future. Seven years after the election he really won, he stands out as being so far above the current candidates, both intellectually and in terms of character, as to make the idea of choosing any of them ridiculous. However, Gore says he now knows exactly who he is and what matters.

He thinks he can do more good fighting for his causes (saving democracy and the planet) without joining the national gong show. Yet I think we should not take no for an answer. The stakes are too high. We should be inspired by what Gore said about emission controls to the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently: "I understand this is considered politically impossible. But part of our task is to expand the limits of what's possible."

Making Gore president at last might be the best place to start.

Jack Lesseberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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