Is Michigan a shithole state?

Jan 31, 2018 at 1:00 am
Is Michigan a shithole state?

As previously noted, we currently have a president of the United States who is an emotionally disturbed, possibly mentally ill man-child. This is, of course, endlessly fascinating.

Think of how much more boring our lives would be if we were saddled with a sane and sober leader who was doing boring things like trying to make trade deals better or make college affordable.


But while the Donald and his thugs and contemptible fellow travelers are cheerfully providing entertainment for the masses, less flamboyant maniacs, flying under the radar, are ruining our state.

We are just too distracted to pay much attention. But that's what's happening. Two weeks ago, a friend who had worked for the legislature for years suggested I check out a sexy little book published just before Christmas by the state Senate Fiscal Agency.

The book, which is free online, is called Michigan's Economic Outlook and Budget Review, FY 2016-17, FY 2017-18, FY 2018-19, and FY 2019-20, and is just the sort of thing nobody would curl up with on the couch in front of the fire.

Nobody, as in, not even me. But you should read it, and carefully, for in its pages are hidden the story of coming disaster.

Indeed, if those wild and crazy guys at the nonpartisan fiscal agency had any marketing background, they might have called it For Years to Come: Fifty Shades of Despair. But they didn't.

What the report shows, hidden in tables and charts and between the lines, is that we are headed for a massive budget shortfall within two years that may mean devastating new cuts to aid to our schools, public safety and public health — every year.

And voter won't be able to punish the politicians who did this to us, because thanks to crazy term limits, most of them will be gone.

Here's what they are doing to us: After years of ignoring growing public demands that they do something about our horrible roads, the legislature passed a bill in November 2015 that they said would raise $1.2 billion a year in new money for the roads... eventually.

Never mind that this was only about half of what's needed to even keep the roads in no worse shape than they are now. Never mind the fine print that said even that doesn't fully kick in till 2021.

The fact is, we were sold a pile of horse dung wrapped in a poison pill. They did raise fuel taxes a little bit, and by now you've certainly noticed how much your license tabs have gone up.

But the worst is yet to come. The right-wing ideologues in the legislature only agreed to pass the road bill if half of the money — $600 million a year — would come out of the state general fund.

That is certain to cause suffering. The $10 billion general fund is where virtually all the money lawmakers can affect — so-called "discretionary spending" — comes from.

Not that most of it is really discretionary. The prison system, for example, costs about $2 billion of that. Much of the rest goes for things like aid to higher education, foster care, and public safety.

Adjusted for inflation, the general fund is a lot smaller than it was 30 years ago. Programs dependent on it have been cut and cut again. But when the state starts draining it for road repair, hard and painful decisions will have to be made.

Either new revenue — taxes — will be needed, or massive cuts will be made to programs that have been repeatedly cut to the bone.

The legislators who did this knew very well the pain it would cause. That's why it doesn't fully kick in till 2021, by which time most of them will be term-limited out of office.

But even before that, we'll be facing budget chaos. An economist friend of mine who worked for the legislature for years suggested I look carefully at the bottom line. We closed last year with a healthy balance of $643 million in the general fund.

Yet that won't last. By the end of this year, that is projected to fall to $285 million. But for Republicans running for election, my economist noted, "of course the messaging will be that our budget is balanced and everything is great." Except it won't be.

By October 2019, the balance will be only $1.6 million, and deficits will be looming, followed by disaster — unless somebody has the guts to just say the state needs more revenue.

The state will, and does. Adjusting for inflation, Michigan's projected total tax revenues in 2020 will be less than they were in 1968, when we had considerably fewer people.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was a cranky old conservative who hated the New Deal. But nearly a century ago, he observed that "taxes are the price we pay for civilized society," something today's GOP plainly doesn't get.

He also once said "a mind that has once been stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."

Don't look for any stretching in Lansing, anytime soon.

Look for things to just get worse.

Midlife crises for multimllionaires: As a true conservative, I hate tradition being broken. And the time-honored rules are pretty clear as to what a rich guy in his 60s should do when he gets bored.

He's expected to get a 19-year-old mistress or boy toy. He may buy a large yacht and try to sail it around the world, perhaps dying.

He may buy an obnoxious house or some million-dollar car and race it, perhaps dying. But in recent years, a distressing number of them have chosen politics instead.

Not just the kind of politics where they buy their very own legislators or congressman: There is a curious species that is happy to throw large sums of money at a statewide race for an office for which they are by no means qualified. Take Shri Thanedar, for example: a nice, sweet business man originally from India.

He made a pile with chemical testing services, and is now spending something like $6 million of it into a quixotic campaign for governor with the slogan "Shri for we." He has vaguely sensible positions on the issues and good values, but no experience.

Then there's Sandy Pensler from Grosse Pointe, a rich businessman who owns a bunch of plants that make dishwasher soap. He's throwing $5 million of his money into a campaign to win the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.

He actually might get the nomination, since all of the real candidates vanished when it dawned on them that nobody could defeat Debbie Stabenow this November.

But I have a practical suggestion for both those guys: Shri, Sandy — pull your money out of your campaigns, drop out, and give it all to me. In return, I will write your names in for the offices you seek.

You will get the same result with less embarrassment and less wasted time. In return, I will use most of it to help students pay tuition or pay off their obscene college loan debts.

After, that is, I buy a Bentley. Hey — I'm an old white guy too. I ought to be able to at least get something out of the deal.