Headed off the cliff

Cutting services for the people, slashing taxes on business; but will it work?

Apr 20, 2011 at 12:00 am

"I think the hardship is negligible." —State Rep. David Agema, supporting cutting out the clothing allowance for poor children without parents

"Let 'em eat cake." —Marie Antoinette

Yes, there is a difference between those two statements. Poor, eventually headless Marie never said any such thing. But David Agema, arguably the worst member of the Legislature, did indeed say that, and worse, last week.

Agema is a narrow, far right-wing Republican, a former airline pilot from Grand Rapids. Until last week, his major claim to political fame was this: Back during the battle to balance the budget in 2007, the year there was a brief government shutdown, he was the only member of the Michigan Legislature not to show up.

Why? Well, he was off hunting sheep in Siberia, which he deemed more important. Two years later, an EPIC-MRA survey of political insiders found he was the least effective legislator.

Unfortunately, he has power now; he chairs a subcommittee overseeing the Department of Human Services budget. Agema defended cutting $9.9 million from the clothing allowance for orphans, saying he thought the money often was used for other things. Perhaps he worried they used it for contraband, like food.

The Michigan Catholic Conference was aghast, saying this "would only create greater hardships for the poor and disadvantaged children and disabled persons across the state."

Disabled? By the way, Captain Crunch also cast the deciding vote cutting State Disability Assistance for people who have gallantly struggled to live independently. They had been getting $269 a month. That's being slashed to $175.

That one, by the way, was Gov. Rick Snyder's idea. Agema, who cast the deciding vote to kick the disabled, gallantly defended it, however, with the most powerful intellectual argument his airline pilot brain could make: They don't give them any money in Indiana.

Agema is a special case of callousness, but not that special. Throughout the capitol, committees and subcommittees are weakening the things that make civilization possible. Slashing education, endangering children and the poor, toppling the former middle class into poverty.

Some of this is being done because post-automotive Michigan has little money, and we've been covering up deficits and running on fumes. But mostly, what they are doing is designed to give huge tax breaks to business.

The theory has become an article of mindless right-wing faith. Slash taxes; businesses pour in and create vast amount of new jobs.

Even at a lower rate of taxes, money comes pouring in to state coffers, and Lansing can fund education again. Maybe even buy a pony. Only trouble is that it doesn't really work very well, if at all.

They don't call it the Laffer Curve for nothing.

Kyle Melinn, editor of the respected MIRS newsletter, which covers Lansing, wrote an interesting piece last week revealing that nobody has any idea whether slashing taxes Snyder-style would create any jobs at all. He noted that Snyder and Lieutenant Gov. Brian Calley have been pulling back from their earlier confident pie-in-the-sky predictions of jobs galore.

Last week, after touting his plan, the governor added, "I can't guarantee results." His deputy echoed that, saying, "What we do believe is that our plan will create an environment that is likely to encourage job growth."

What nobody talks about is studies that show modern businesses care more about quality of life than taxes. Melinn posed the key question our lawmakers are failing to ask: "Is this 'economic gardening' going to coax business leaders into our state — or will the business community's argument about needing a tiny tax rate be exposed as humbug when private-sector decision-makers recoil at our crummy roads, disinvested schools, depleted police forces and sky-high university tuition rates?"

The governor is betting everything on this one tremendous gamble. Those who don't like it have little choice.

The Democrats haven't even offered any alternative plan. That's because they are afraid to say what they need to say, which is that it is time for the rich to pay their fair share.

That's right. For the last 30 years, we've been engaged in a giant transfer of wealth in this country from the poor and the middle class to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

That, more than anything else, is destroying this country, aided by the nastiness and anger and silly ideological polarization.

Charley Ballard, a Michigan State professor who knows more about this state's economy than anyone, tells me we could increase our income tax rate from 4.35 percent to 5.5 percent with virtually no negative effects — and vast positive ones.

We could use that money to repair some of our crumbling infrastructure and invest in early childhood development, things business should want, Ballard told me.

Tragically, you don't hear Democrats talking about this, because they have no guts. The best, as Billy Butler Yeats used to say, lack all conviction. The worst are filled with passionate intensity. ... As the lemmings used to say, see you at the cliff.

Just when you thought we were done with Dynamo Dave:
Evidently, whacking the poor and the disabled wasn't enough for our least favorite ex-pilot. The next day, David Agema, who also chairs a House appropriations subcommittee, voted to stick it to his own governor (and the rest of us), sabotage the new international river bridge and stand with the odious Matty Moroun.

The governor, solidly behind the new bridge, wanted to balance the budget with some of the money Canada is offering to cover our share of funding the new bridge. Agema and his soulmate, state Sen. John Pappageorge of Troy, said no. They want to use "toll credits" from existing bridges (the Ambassador, natch) for some of the transportation budget — and get the rest by cutting funding for public bus systems. This must have been especially appealing, since they get to simultaneously suck up to a billionaire and make life more miserable for the poor.

However, it isn't clear if it is legal; Moroun thinks he has "toll credits" that he can transfer to the state to be used instead of the Canadian money as matching funds for federal highway money.

But the legality is totally unclear, and in any event, Moroun's credits are worth far less than the Canadian offer of $550 million, which Washington has already said can be used as matching funds to get four times as much to fix our roads.

So how did Agema and Pappageorge justify this? "We don't have a [new] bridge," said Pappageorge. Irrelevant, but it does have a nice ring. What he probably meant was that the Legislature still might do Moroun's bidding and kill the new bridge.

Top Gun Dave decided to display his knowledge as an international statesman. He said the Canadian funds weren't a sure thing because Canada is having a national election May 2.

That's totally wrong, of course; Canada's major parties both support what the governor prefers to call the new international river crossing. But then, only secular humanists worry about facts.