Five ways to fix Michigan

May 17, 2017 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Five ways to fix Michigan

For many years, I've been writing about what's wrong with our fair state, once one of the nation's richest and best.

Michigan still is one of the most diversely beautiful places in the country, with unmatched scenery, a highly skilled industrial workforce, and some superb community colleges and universities, despite our politicians' best efforts to ruin them.

Yet we have now become one of the poorer states in the union; we are ranked No. 31 in per capita income from 2015-2016. Our roads are a disgrace and getting worse, and despite lying to us, the legislature has done nothing meaningful to fix them.

Higher education, which is more essential than it has ever been, is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Elementary and secondary education in most big cities is a disaster.

Our politicians mostly couldn't care less about our needs, and are mainly interested in getting better jobs for themselves and pleasing their rich masters. Term limits ensure that the best of them are prevented from sticking around long enough to master their jobs and look out for our interests.

Even when voters figure this out, the system is hopelessly stacked against them. Thanks to out-of-control gerrymandering, politicians choose their voters, rather than the opposite. There is now no way Democrats can ever win a majority in the state Senate, a body controlled by right-wing ideologues and their moneyed puppetmasters. Representation in the lower house and Congress is rigged too.

So what can we do about this?

Is there any way we can overcome all this and turn things around? Yes, there is, and yes, we can — if we are willing to work hard, work smart, and have a lot of patience.

But most of all, we need a plan.

So here's the beginning of one: A short list of things we can do to save Michigan before it becomes too late. You may not want to take the time. You may want to pretend things will somehow get better on their own, or that some savior (Dan Gilbert? Mike Duggan?) will do it for you.

They won't.

We've got a choice: You, me — we, all of us — can commit ourselves to tackling reform in Michigan.

Otherwise, most of us can accept the fact that our quality of life will steadily decline till Michigan is more or less Haiti with occasional freezing rain.

The odds are, if you are young, that this is far more important for you than me. I'm old; I have a house, a relatively secure job; I may even get Social Security.

The system just might outlast me.

Your kids can't count on that. And if you agree this place is worth saving, here are five ways to fix our state:

Do something about the outrageous gerrymandering that has ruined our politics

Republicans have, as I said, so rigged the system that Democrats can never control the state Senate or a majority of seats in Congress, even when they get more votes for these offices. Democrats probably would have done the same thing if they could, but they've partly been unlucky, and partly victims of a system that perpetuates itself.

That's not the worst effect of gerrymandering, however. With nearly all of the seats totally safe for one or another party, extremists tend to win primaries. One of the reasons the lawmakers won't vote to fix the roads is that Republicans who know better are terrified of a primary challenge from some Tea Party lunatic if they vote to raise money to fix the roads, even though they know the voters support it.

This nuttiness carries over into bad policy decisions, and gives us totally unrepresentative districts, making it impossible to vote out of office, for example, criminals like Brian Banks.

A group called Voters Not Politicians ( is preparing to launch a campaign to get a state constitutional amendment on next year's ballot that would turn redistricting over to a bipartisan commission. You should do all you can to support it.

End Term Limits

Term limits have served only to give us inexperienced lawmakers who can never stay long enough to become truly effective at their jobs. They also have given tremendous power to lobbyists and special interests.

On top of that, term limits breed corruption. Since these temporary lawmakers know they'll need another job soon, too many of them tend to go along with the lobbyists in the hope they'll hire them when they are done.

Term limits also take away from the people the power to choose. The only proper term limits are the ones called elections, when the voters decide to throw failed politicians out.

Fix the goddamn roads and bridges

Jeff Cranson of MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, tells me that a new Transportation Asset Management study found a steady deterioration in our roads; 39 percent are now in poor condition, and only 18 percent were classified as good.

The phony "fix" passed a couple years ago by the legislature only raises, at most, $1.2 billion, and that would require taking $600 million out of the cash-strapped general fund, presumably by cutting education.

That's not happening, and that would, in any event, be far less than needed. Actually, Gov. "One Tough Nerd" Rick Snyder had the best idea; hike the gas tax, something that would render a form of rough justice, because those who drive the most would pay the most. Boost that sucker 40 cents a gallon, and we'd have $2.2 billion more for the roads each year. The price of fuel fluctuates so much we'd barely notice, and most of us would save more than the tax hike on car repairs we wouldn't have. Good-bye, broken axles; hello, new business and industry.

Properly fund education

You can't possibly make it in this society without education beyond high school. But the ideological jerks in the legislature have been waging war on teachers for years, taking away their health care and pensions.

Why would any sane and skilled person want to plan a teaching career in Michigan? We've also made it harder and harder to get a college degree. Back in the 1970s, the state absorbed, on average, 70 percent of the cost.

Now, students are supposed to pick up at least that much, leading to massive loan debt.

Do we want this country to have a future or not? Any sensible nation knows their young people are the future. America always was the nation that wanted children to have better lives than their parents had. Evidently, not anymore.

Finally, get real about jobs

Yes, we need new high-tech jobs and the workers to man them. There's promising hope in the coming of driverless cars. They are seen as the cutting edge of the vastly expanding artificial intelligence industry. If we can get it to locate in metropolitan Detroit, we could really be looking at an economic renaissance.

But there's something else that often gets overlooked in all the dreamy Detroit Future City utopian talk: Detroit has many thousands of people who are poor, undereducated and underemployed. They are not going to become architects.

Yet many of them could be trained to do worthwhile jobs, from cleaning up rubble to helping rebuild infrastructure. Idiots on the right would scream socialism if anybody suggested the government put them to work, as they did in the Great Depression. The fact is that those programs — the Works Progress Administration and CCC, the old Civilian Conservation Corps — worked pretty well.

Well, you can find all sorts of fault with this program, and you can sit and whine and watch us keep going down the drain.

Or you can try to change things; after a lifetime of reporting and studying, I've given you a map for where to start.