Make them fix it

Oct 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Everybody's sick of the state budget crisis, and for good reason. The idiots in Lansing have not only screwed us over, they have bored us to death. We've had pretty much all we can take of droning Andy Dillon, the caveman-like Mike Bishop and our governor.

Probably the nicest thing you can say about Jennifer Granholm's performance is: pathetic. We are tired of them all.

Yet we can't afford to stop paying attention now, for the worst is yet to come — especially if we don't make them do something. Here's where things stand: Sometime this week, this ship of fools is likely to finish cobbling together what they will say is a "balanced" budget.

The budget won't really be balanced, because the deficit will continue to grow. But beyond that, it is balanced in the way a cup of lard is a balanced meal. What this budget will do is massively damage public education in this state, cutting the amount of money the state provides the districts with by as much as $600 a student.

In an era when everyone knows that Michigan's only hope is a more highly educated workforce, the governor and Legislature are eliminating the Michigan Promise college scholarship grant, betraying the students and parents who counted on it.

They haven't cut higher education itself yet, but don't worry; they will. As the months wear on and the state's estimates of how much money is coming in continue to fall short, the governor will cut the money our colleges and universities have been told they'll receive.

How does that sound as a prescription for re-creating the economy of Haiti, right here at home? Well, that's what we are doing. Incidentally, the Republicans didn't intend to cut the school aid fund nearly as much as our great liberal education governor. They were content to nick the kids by a mere $165 a pupil. But to everyone's horror, La Granholm first announced a draconian hit to 40 districts that traditionally have spent more to educate their kids.

These were not all rich districts by any means. They included middle-class Royal Oak and middle- to working-class Harper Woods. Harper Woods, in fact, is the hardest hit statewide, losing close to $600 a student. One Harper Woods mom I know e-mailed her state representative, newly elected Democrat Tim Bledsoe.

"How does it make sense that we are getting hit with the largest cut per student? … We don't have the option to run to other systems, and the majority of us do not want to."

Bledsoe immediately answered: "I am angry that the governor and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop would use our schools as though they were poker chips in a high-stakes political game."

He is right about the poker game. What the governor tried to do, in her perpetually clumsy way, was force the GOP-controlled Senate into raising taxes by holding hostage Michigan students' education. She should have foreseen the result. Mike Bishop just smiled. Want to cut the budget even more than we do? Fine. Knock yourself out, Jenny. But remember, if our students don't get an education, it is your fault.

Possibly the most sane, decent and competent person in the leadership is Andy Dillon, the Speaker of the House. He is far more conservative than most Democrats. But almost alone, he has been trying to find long-term solutions. Last week, when the governor said that she thought they'd be able to get a budget without a shutdown, Dillon spoke the truth.

"Next year will be worse," he said. Yup. Indeed, this year's badly balanced budget was possible only because the state had a billion federal stimulus dollars to throw into the hole. That money won't be there next year. Oh, they are holding back a little for now, but trust me; it will all be gone before next September.

So what do we do then? Realize that no one will even talk about raising the beer tax, for example, which has been the same dollar amount since they last changed it in … 1966, when they lowered it.

Thanks to inflation, we've given the beer industry an 83 percent tax cut since then. Our leaders can slash funding for early childhood development but not stand up to the alcohol lobby.

If we don't do something soon, we're going over the cliff. Tom Watkins is that rarest of Lansing birds: a man with a mind of his own. He was state superintendent of schools before Granholm fired him a few years ago, and now is an education and business consultant with a special interest in improving our ties with China.

He thinks this is what we need to do to save our state: First, the lawmakers should agree to a temporary tax increase that would be phased out in two or three years. Then, look at what we tax.

Most of our economy today is service-based. Yet we don't tax services. You buy a tire, you pay sales tax. Moe charges you to put on the tire, you don't pay tax. This is silly.

Michigan needs other long-term reforms too. A single health care plan for government workers would save money and jobs. Even more could be saved by consolidating our smaller school districts.

"Then," Watkins said, "if these reforms don't get done in time, the tax will go away," things will fall apart, "and the lawmakers and the people who elected them have no one to blame but themselves."

Another person with guts and a brain, state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), wants to cut the salaries of legislators who don't do their job and don't show up, and cut their pay further when they sell out our schools. She would also end lifetime health care benefits for them. (Did you know they get that?)

Good luck getting any of that passed, senator.

Whitmer and Watkins essentially say our lawmakers in Lansing need to be asked which side they are on.

Up till now, they sure haven't been on ours.

Council by districts:
Detroit voters will decide next Tuesday whether they want to start electing most of their council from different districts. Currently, Detroit is the only major city in the country to elect all its council members at large.

We all know how well that has worked out. This summer, in an encouraging display of democracy, a coalition of citizens managed to collect enough signatures to put a proposal calling for districts on the ballot. Much of the current City Council then tried to thwart the people's wishes. Fortunately, they failed and Proposal D will be on the ballot. If it passes, four years from now Detroiters would elect seven district and two at-large council members.

There are potential problems with a district-based council. However, the current system has proven itself nonrepresentative, open to corruption, and terribly ineffective. TV producer and Detroiter Jamie Kaye Walters said she made up her mind while watching the award-winning movie Milk.

As she noted, politics changed dramatically in San Francisco when that city decided "to choose supervisors by neighborhoods." Suddenly, "black people were represented by black people from the neighborhoods. Gay folks by gay folks. Representation doesn''t have to line up along racial, religious or sexual orientation to be effective, but diversity of thoughts, experience and perspectives has always been key to a rich democracy." Makes sense to me.

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