Bishop's block

Prepare to get whacked in the teeth, hard.

Michigan is heading for a smashup of titanic proportions that will have a huge and devastating effect on your quality of life. You will pay far more for a poorer quality of education. You'll get fewer essential services from the state.

We will become a place from which people of brains and quality flee. This will be a state with little chance of drawing serious high-tech or new-economy jobs. That's what we are headed for — unless the Legislature comes to its senses. And that may not happen unless someone does something in the next two weeks to out the Republicans, who are selling you an enormous pack of lies.

And you can largely blame one man for this: Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), who represents perhaps Michigan's richest district.

Oh, there is lots of blame to go around. The governor, as I have said, has mostly lacked courage and consistency. Until the last couple weeks or so, Speaker of the House Andy Dillon has seemed not to have a clue half the time. But you can largely blame Bishop for what's happening now. His actions over the last nine months prove that he couldn't care less about you.

Nor could Bishop, a lawyer and a real estate salesman, care less about higher education or the state's future, though he graduated from the University of Michigan. What he cares about, as far as I can tell, is pleasing the really rich who he hopes will donate to his campaign when he runs for governor in three years.

Now — let me explain what's really going down:

By law, the state (unlike the federal government) can spend no more money than it takes in every year. Michigan's economic, or fiscal, year starts Oct. 1, and the Legislature must submit a balanced budget before then.

The present crisis has been a long time coming. The politicians have starved state government and set up the current crisis by slowly choking off public money through a series of tax cuts.

Stay with me for a minute while I explain how that happened: For many years, Michigan's income tax was 4.6 percent. That was cut to 4.4 percent in 1994, when Proposal A increased the sales tax to finance education.

That was fine and dandy. We wouldn't be in the mess we are in if they had just left it at that. But the Legislature then gradually cut the income tax rate from 4.4 percent to 3.9 percent — without replacing that money.

What that meant was that every year the state came up short. Those who wanted the tax cuts said, "Fine, that means we should cut spending." In fact, the Legislature did, gradually eliminating programs, some of which (sorry, liberals) probably deserved to be eliminated.

But those savings weren't enough to make up for the loss of money, and inflation and other factors (such as the growing prison population) meant the state needed more and more money for legitimate needs.

Things also have gotten worse as the dwindling auto companies threw people out of work, further reducing tax revenues coming in.

What did our lawmakers do about that? Ducked responsibility, that's what. They raided whatever savings and "rainy day funds" the state had. They shoved the problem over into future years. Last May, in a move that should have gotten the legislators all impeached or shot for dereliction of duty, they sold off money the state was due to get in future years for an outrageous fraction of its worth.

According to the national settlement against the tobacco companies, every state gets a pot load of money every year to compensate for medical expenses incurred by the millions of people tobacco kills. Michigan's irresponsible lawmakers traded $900 million in future payments for $400 million right then.

That was, again, to avoid dealing with this year's budget problem. They also shoved a lot of the deficit into next year's budget. Now, the party's over.

There are no more funds to loot — not enough, anyway, to come up with the money needed. Now, the cupboard is just about bare, and the state starts out with a deficit of $1.8 billion. Not million, billion.

What would make sense is to immediately put the income tax back to the old 4.6 percent rate — or, temporarily, even higher. At the very least, the rate needs to put back to the old 4.4 percent rate. Even The Detroit News editorial page says that, and those guys lust for the reinstatement of Calvin Coolidge.

But Mike Bishop has blocked every move to do so. He can do this because, thanks to gerrymandering, the Republicans control his house of the state Legislature, even though far more people voted for Democratic Senate candidates last November. As the state's crisis has worsened, his arrogance has increased. Last month, when he didn't like what he read on the site "Blogging for Michigan," Chairman Mike ordered the site blocked from every computer in use in the Michigan Senate. Even the right-wingers objected to that, and our not-ready-for-prime time Goebbels had to beat a hasty retreat.

Then last week, with the clock ticking, and most of the reasonable parties wanting to get this done, Bishop first floated the distracting and irrelevant idea of putting a sales tax increase on the ballot, which would have no effect whatsoever on the current crisis. He topped that Friday, however.

The Legislature didn't work that day, Democrats told me, because El Caudillo had a golf outing. "Shouldn't the people know that Bishop played everyone for fools so that he could play golf instead of going to work?" asked a frustrated state Rep. Marie Donigan, a Royal Oak Democrat.

Bishop's PR man did not return my phone call when I asked about this, but another more prominent PR man, one who had worked for Gov. John Engler in fact, wrote me this:

You are exactly right about Bishop. He is only interested in his pals and the chamber, and he has little intellectual capability. Why is it folks like you and Phil Power are willing to say stuff that the reporters in Lansing refuse to discuss? All of them believe the same thing — that Bishop is a whore with little intellectual capability ..."

Taxes are the price we pay for a decent life. Restoring the state income tax rate to 4.6 percent would cost someone who makes $50,000 about five bucks a week. You blow more than that on vending machines. Failing to raise taxes might double college tuition, lower the quality of our schools at the same time, risk the public heath and raise license fees through the roof.

If you don't want to live in that world, let your state lawmakers, and especially Big Man Bishop, hear from you right away. There isn't much time, but if he thinks that his future is in danger of going back to peddling strip malls on Rochester Road, he might be capable of learning.


Tooting my own horn: If you are interested in the stuff I talk about here and on Michigan Radio, I now have a weekly half-hour television program called Deadline Now, in which I do more of it, at 8:30 p.m. on Friday nights; this night's show is devoted to J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb. The bad news is that it is in Toledo (WGTE-TV, Channel 30) and only some Detroit-area stations broadcast it, but it's online at

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