"The past year has been brutal ... any honest assessment of our state's economy has to recognize that things are likely to get worse before they get better ... courage is the ability to sacrifice what we are for what we could become." —Gov. Jennifer Granholm
What I have just given you is the best part of the governor's speech last week, painstakingly quarried from a televised hour of breathy self-promotion and relentless optimistic chatter. If you've been dwelling under a rock in Central Asia, you may not know that the auto industry is barely hanging on and that the nation is in the worst financial crisis or recession in modern times.
Michigan, naturally, is in worse shape. The state budget for next year is so out of balance it is hard to see how it can be fixed without, among other things, destroying education funding. We were told the governor knew all that, and would level with the people and propose toughly realistic solutions.
I looked forward to that. Michigan is hungry for leadership. We wanted Franklin D. Roosevelt last week. Instead, after a brief acknowledgment that yes, the economy was in the outhouse, we got Shirley Temple starring in Annie. The sun was coming out!
"Things will get better!" she told us. "Our people are resourceful and resilient and ... our battle plan is focused."
Arm the warheads, Joe. But ... focused on what? Banalities: "... fighting for more good-paying jobs; educating and training our people. And protecting our families during the worst economic conditions in more than a quarter of a century."
That's nice. But how about the ticking time bomb in the room? Yes, she is so focused that the governor never once mentioned that the state is facing close to a $2 billion deficit next year, without a cent in reserve. No money, and no way to close that gap and support education and maintain social services.
That's what it looks like now. Likely it will get worse, especially if any of the Once-Big Three automakers goes belly-up. That, however, would be a little too much reality for Pirate Jenny to share with her poor fellow inmates of the twin peninsulas. No, you have to hand it to her. With the state's economy teetering on collapse, her alternate-reality universe may have taken a licking, but it kept on ticking.
When she spoke, President Obama's stimulus package was still nowhere near becoming law. But the governor's has spent it already. "While other states will use this federal recovery funding simply to survive, Michigan will use it to move further and faster into a better future," she chirped.
The surrealism got worse. We'd been told in advance that, to save money, she was going to shrink government by collapsing 18 state departments into eight. She did eliminate one — the tiny Department of History, Arts and Libraries. But as for the rest — she put poor Lt. Gov. John Cherry in charge of leading a "comprehensive effort to dramatically change the shape and size of state government, reforming our civil service system," and, oh yes, "infusing technology everywhere."
If I ever have any grandchildren, perhaps they will live to see how that turns out. I was dismayed. But I shouldn't have been surprised. You have to admit that Jennifer Mulhern Granholm never loses her ability to let you down. Foolishly, I had thought Miss Happy Talk would level with us about how much of a ghastly mess we are in. That's because, again, her office had been telling the press all week that there wouldn't be any sugarcoating here.
And lo, after the governor thanked the usual suspects and, as she does every year, fussed over an Iraq war veteran, she pledged "not to sugarcoat the severity of the crisis we face."
Nice to know. Except within moments, she did exactly that, taking us to Jenny's world. Soon, we were all happily working again, making wind turbine blades: "Jobs for electricians installing wind turbines in the Thumb! Jobs for machinists making the parts of those wind turbines in Eaton Rapids! Jobs for factory workers assembling wind turbines in Novi!"
What's that you say? There aren't going to be 4 million jobs in the wind energy business? Not to worry. "Jobs for salesmen and women selling solar panels in Auburn Hills! Jobs for workers to manufacture those solar panels in Greenville! Jobs for truck drivers hauling the waste from paper mills to biorefineries in the UP!"
It was enough, as she used to say, to blow you away. Except, well, we have to live in the here and now. Dreaming is fine, even necessary. So is bucking up the troops. Yet we in Michigan have tough painful times ahead before we reach wind turbine paradise. We are grown-ups and need to know what she is going to do.
Now, that is. The mythical wind turbine windfall won't arrive by this spring, when she will have to cut about $300 million out of the current budget. After that, she and this Legislature have to work on the new one, for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Projections say the state is going to take in at least $1.6 billion less than it counted on.
The books, by law, have to be balanced. What that means are nasty, brutal cuts that will wipe out about one-fifth of state general fund spending. Or worse. If we assume that the governor can face reality, the state House of Representatives should go along.
The trouble is the Senate, more solidly in GOP control than ever. After the governor gave her speech, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop replied. Republicans have only one solution to every problem: tax cuts, which he trotted out again. His major priority is not saving the state from going over the cliff. He made that clear.
The darkly glowering Bishop is fixated on getting rid of the 22 percent surcharge lawmakers stuck on the new Michigan Business Tax last year. For once, Darth Vader is right.
That surcharge should be repealed. But the revenue has to be made up some other way, or the deficit will soar even higher. Republicans do not want to increase state revenues in any way. They are also likely to fight against prison reform, where many millions can be saved, because they have to look tough on crime.
What the governor needs to do is go on television and talk to Michigan about the tough realities, and how she needs to balance this budget without destroying our hope for a better future. How we have to support her in making hard choices, now. Otherwise, we will be screwed. The governor likes catchy sayings; here's one from a few years before her time: Not to decide is to decide. Come out fighting, Jennifer Granholm, not just for wind power in 2020, but for saving education and social services next year. You will have a legacy if you do that.
We'll have nothing but ashes if you don't.
Watch for this: Next Tuesday, Chrysler and General Motors have to present detailed "restructuring plans" to Congress, or else they risk losing all the federal money they've got and forfeit their chances of getting any more. Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co., the only automaker not now on federal welfare, found out it may have to pay an unexpected $4 billion or so into its pension fund.
Don't be surprised if the bailout line is soon just a little longer.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]