If you think a hot date, a great game or a good movie is more fun than studying your state's revenue estimates ... you may not be a nerd.
However ... that also means you were probably fooled last week into thinking that the state budget crisis is over. You may think the Legislature's decision to raise taxes last week was a necessary evil. Or you may think raising taxes was a terribly wrong thing to do. But you probably think what they did settled things.
Ha ha. Not by a long shot! The budget isn't even balanced yet. We could still have another government shutdown at the end of this month, and even if we avoid that, look for another deficit crisis to happen next year ...
... and the year after that and the year after that.
What they did, you see, was a quick-and-dirty fix. That's not just my opinion but also that of the most respected budget analyst in the state, the thoroughly nonpartisan and professional Tom Clay. He said last week that the budget deal did nothing to tackle the long-term deficit problem.
Indeed, in some ways it may have made it worse. What the lawmakers did was raise the state income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent, and then extended the sales tax to a bunch of services. Which ones?
Simple. All those not protected by lobbyists.
That means, for example, that there was no tax on golf course fees, but there is one on dating services. There is no tax on legal fees, but there is on numerology. Does the Legislature really have any idea how much money taxing the bronzing of baby shoes will generate? I doubt it.
But even if all their assumptions are right, this still doesn't get us to the legally required standard of a budget that is balanced, at least on paper.
To get there, your lawmakers have to agree to another $435 million in budget cuts, and do so by Oct. 30, or the state really does shut down.
Speaker of the House Andy Dillon (D-Redford), who has behaved better than most throughout this fiasco, told me that he didn't think there would be a lot of problems with making the cuts. He said they had already agreed in principle as to which departments would take the hits.
Figuring out the exact details is all that's left. Well, maybe he's right, but I've seen a whole lot of deals "in principle" fall apart over the details. Even if he is right, however, everyone knows two things are likely to happen anyway:
A) This "balanced budget" will turn out to have a shortfall after all as the months go by and less revenue than expected comes in. Having passed two tax increases too small to get the job done, the legislators won't dare try to raise taxes again. So the governor will have to make a series of last-minute cuts by executive order. What will she cut?
Why, almost certainly, higher education! Three years ago, the governor's own commission concluded that Michigan's only hope of being competitive in the future was to spend a lot more on our colleges and universities. Since then, higher education has mainly been cut, over and over.
This year, our colleges and universities were supposed to get a 2. 5 percent funding increase. However, the budget deal erased that. As it now stands, our universities are drifting slowly downwards, raising tuition to try and cover their needs. In the process, poorer students are being shut out of essential education.
Wayne State University President Irvin D. Reid doesn't confide his secrets in me, but he had to have known all this last month when he announced his sudden and unexpected decision to step down after a decade.
Why is he really leaving? Well, why would he want to preside over the likely decline of something he's helped build up? Which brings us to the real problem with our "solution" proposed by our Legislature:
B) This budget deal doesn't solve the state's long-term problems at all. That's what the experts call the "structural deficit." Michigan's government now is set up to always take in less money than it needs to fulfill its basic obligations, like roads and prisons. With our auto-based manufacturing-based economy still declining, the odds are good that next year the state again will find itself with less money than it needs to pay its bills. Nobody denies this. What we have to do is make some hard decisions, such as: What do we want? Is it worth paying for? So how do we pay for it?
Too many of us have been waiting for "somebody else," to pay for it. Wrong. It's up to us, via that dirty little word that makes civilization possible:
Taxes. We've been so effectively brainwashed that taxes are a bad thing that people are making decisions that go against their actual economic interests.
Here's an example. A former student named "Sandy" is trying to get enough money to finish her degree. She makes less than $20,000 a year.
During the budget debate, she sent me some hysterical Republican propaganda about how raising the income tax would be bad for people like her.
I tried to explain to her that there are all sorts of "taxes." Even doubling the income tax would cost her less than Wayne's 18 percent tuition increase this year would. That, of course, amounts to a tax on the poor and the struggling, made necessary by avoiding a tax on those who can more readily afford to pay it.
Sandy whose last job was cleaning toilets in a fast food restaurant finally understood, but said she was still against a tax increase, in case she got rich some day. I really hope everyone isn't that stupid, but I despair sometimes.
So how do we solve this for the longer term?
Glad you asked. Here's a simple solution that would take care of things for a few years, and even give the lawmakers political cover.
They put a new proposal on the ballot giving the voters a choice: They can opt to A) lower the state sales tax to five percent and extend it to all services except medical and educational. Or they can B) drop the sales tax on services, and extend the state income tax to a flat 5 percent.
Either of those options, the economists tell me, would get us through the next few years, and give us some resources to try to get this state ready to compete again in the future. That's is really what we need. The only question is whether we have what it takes to get there.
Here's who the Republicans really are: There's nothing the GOP, especially State Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), likes better than going after public employee benefits. Except, that is, their own. Did you know that anyone serving six years in the Legislature gets great health care benefits for life, starting at age 55? Newly elected State Rep. Robert Dean (D-Grand Rapids) thought that was excessive and introduced a bill to cut them back.
That was passed by the House, and sent to the cost-conscious Senate. Do you suppose the Republican leadership seized on this great chance to save us money? Do you suppose they have even scheduled it for a vote? You know better. They don't want to touch their bennies, comrades. Just yours.
You might want to let Bishop and his boys (and the Democrats too) know how you feel about that, and don't take any double talk for an answer.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected].