Michigan on the rocks

Everybody hates government, right?

We bitch, moan and complain about it constantly. Nationally, the right wing is cleverly whipping up the yahoos, getting them to noisily protest against a health care plan that would drastically help this nation and greatly improve most of their lives.

Here in Michigan, things have been bad for years and, naturally, state government is easy to blame. "Jennifer Granholm better not even think about raising my taxes," the lady at my butcher shop spat out as she gave me two pounds of hamburger the other day.

"They are all good for nothing," she said savagely. The legislators, their staff, that money they spend on fancy offices — we would be better off getting rid of all of them. We can just take care of ourselves."

Do you really mean that? I asked. "I certainly do," she said.

Well, guess what. Odds are that she may get her wish. She and all the rest of us are likely to get to see how wonderful life is with little or no state government, six weeks from now. Actually, the butcher shop lady wasn't completely wrong. Our state government has let us down — but not by taxing us too much. The reason she might want to consider tarring and feathering Gov. Jenny and Co. is that our so-called leaders have consistently put off making the hard decisions.

They have avoided telling us the real truth about the state of our state, and what we need to do to save ourselves. And as a result, we are heading for the edge of a cliff. Here's what's really happening:

The Michigan Constitution requires the state to have a balanced budget every year. Consequently, by Sept. 30 — one day before the start of the state's new fiscal year — the Legislature has to pass a budget that is, in theory, "balanced," meaning they show that money going out is no more than money coming in.

This year, the bottom has fallen out. As of now, it looks as if, given traditional spending patterns, the state will have a $2.8 billion deficit. How did that happen? Mostly because of the recession and the drastic downsizing of the auto companies. But it is also because our leaders haven't taxed us enough.

"What?" you say? Am I insane?

Nope. Not on this issue, anyway. We haven't been taxed enough — for the things we say we want. Is it important to have a prison system? Is it important to have good schools and colleges and universities?

Sure. But really, "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch," as the libertarians used to say. Now, the clock is running down, and the state has hard choices to make. Six months ago, the lawmakers thought their asses were mainly covered, thanks to the "Obamabucks" stimulus from the federal government.

But guess what? The deficit got a lot larger, and much of the stimulus had to be used to cover the current year's deficit. Next year, there is less than $1 billion left. That means they have to find $2 billion more. How will they get it?  There aren't many options. Cut spending to the bone, raise taxes or, most likely, do both.

But for anything to happen, the state Senate and House have to agree. Democrats overwhelmingly control the house. Republicans have a hammerlock on the Senate. And they do not see eye to eye.

For weeks now, the leadership has been meeting behind closed doors. For a long time, nobody said very much about what was happening, but late last week, Senate Minority Leader Mike Prusi, a Democrat from the Upper Peninsula, finally said: not much. "We haven't really gotten anywhere near solid discussions on any of that stuff," he said.

They better, soon. To break it down, there is about a $1.8 billion shortfall in the general fund, which finances, among other things, the prison system, Medicaid, and aid to higher education. That's huge, given that the general fund was supposed to have about $7 billion in it.

The rest of the deficit is in the $10.9 billion school aid fund, the main source of support for elementary and high school education. If the Legislature and the governor do not sign off on a deal by Sept. 30, the state will start shutting down. That could mean no renewing your driver's license. No fishing or hunting licenses. Might mean no classes at state universities, laid-off teachers, no state troopers on the roads. Fixing the roads? Forget it. By the way, if you are a nonessential state worker (meaning, mainly, nonelected) forget about getting paid.

You haven't heard much about this financial iceberg approaching, have you? That's because your elected legislators don't want to make you upset. Upset with them, that is. Anyway, the media would rather tell you about the Dream Cruise, and the trivial lives of celebrities.

By the way, the state normally figures out its budget in July. Every day of delay hurts local governments, especially school districts.

Next week, I plan to suggest how we might fix this. Meanwhile, you might pressure your local lawmaker to get the job done.

Telephone wars revisited: 
Several weeks ago (July 8), I wrote a column about my astonishing wars with AT&T, which reported one day that someone had stolen my wife's telephone number, transferred it without her approval, and said there was nothing they could do about it.

Unfortunately, I left a wrong impression: I concluded by saying that Comcast had promised to fix the problem and give her back her old number. I was, sadly, a naive fool. A succession of Comcast representatives lied, never delivered what they promised, and never showed up for scheduled appointments. Eventually, I figured out what to do.

The trick to modern life is remembering that this country is fast turning into the old Soviet Union: a network of vast and incompetent bureaucracies, some "private" and some "public," which become harder and harder for the average person to negotiate.

What's needed is patience and time, not logic. So I washed seven loads of laundry, heaped them on the bed, grabbed a phone and waded in to the hellish jungle of customer service lines. Fortunately, after many, many conversations while I folded, all of which required me to repeat the same information, I lucked onto a real human being who fixed the problem by giving me a new line and connecting it through the old jack, something various AT&T zombies swore they could not do.

The next month, with a newfound faith in AT&T, I had their version of Ethernet and cable installed in another building where I have an office. Naturally, the technicians screwed it up. I am writing these words in that office Sunday morning, waiting for an AT&T technician to come and try to fix what they should have done the first time. I am now linked to the outside world only by a circa 1993 dial-up connection. 

But I have used that time wisely; I got three months of unauthorized charges taken off a credit card, and sent a telepathic message to the last rulers of the USSR. Congratulations! Your way of life is in fact triumphing all across the United States. If you had just hung on for two more decades, you could have walked in and taken us over, and nobody would have noticed. Except in Michigan, that is. After all, you commies did give people jobs. Poorly paid, maybe, but jobs.

We could dig it, comrades.

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