Our sorry state

Sep 26, 2007 at 12:00 am

Hooray for the Free Press.

Yes, you heard that right. Nobody has been more critical of that newspaper and its failings than I have, but they are finally doing something right.

The Free Press understands how critical the condition of the state is, and what's at stake if the cowards in the legislature don't do the right thing and raise taxes to balance the budget without ruining the state. They — or at least the editorial page editor and the reporters who cover Lansing — understand how really perilous things are.

They understand this so well they ran a front-page editorial in the Sunday paper that sounded like something an unwashed, ill-mannered radical like myself might have written. Headlined "An utter failure of leadership," it began:

What on earth do Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the state Legislature think they were elected to do, wring their hands and play politics while the state sinks into chaos? Their lack of accomplishment for the last nine months has been a horrible disservice to the people of Michigan ...

The newspaper was right, and, to my pleased surprise, they accompanied the editorial with a comprehensive and — gasp — fairly long story talking about areas of the budget where compromise would be needed.

I am also writing this column on Sunday, and it's possible that by the time you read it, a budget agreement of some kind will have been agreed to.

But if not, that means we are getting close to at least a partial shutdown of state government this coming Monday, Oct. 1. That will both help wreck our state and make Michigan the laughingstock of the nation at the same time.

Even if there has been a last-minute deal to "balance" the budget, it is unlikely to be the sort of reasoned agreement we need. We need something that sets us on the path to build a future for Michigan. We need something that keeps our schools and colleges and universities healthy and able to educate the next generation and do the kind of forward-looking research that may attract new-economy jobs.

That means we will all have to pay a little more. Now, before you have a conniption fit, stay with me for a few moments. You've been scared and lied to about this by politicians who don't really care about you.

As I write this, the most "radical" plan out there is the proposal to raise the state income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.6 percent. Actually, that's not a raise at all, but a restoration to what the rate used to be before 1994. Putting it back would cost you, if you make $40,000 a year, about a mere $3.50 a week. Since then, we've had a series of tax cuts we could ill afford, which is why we are in the present mess.

Our inability to get out of it is due mainly to term limits and selfishness. Here's an appalling example: I spoke last Tuesday night to the West Oakland Democrats. A woman raised her hand. She was a friend of State Rep. Marc Corriveau (D-Northville). "He wants to vote for the tax increase, but is afraid he might lose his job," she wailed, or words to that effect.

I told her that anyone who would be willing to sacrifice the state to cling on to an $80,000 a year job that he'll lose anyway after five years deserves to be impeached. The woman was offended, and I wasn't sorry; she and her boy deserved it.

Yet that, simply put, is the problem. (Last week, after quivering for hours, Corriveau finally voted against the tax increase, showing where his priorities are.)

There was one hero so far: State Rep. Chris Ward (R-Brighton). He crossed party lines to vote to save the state. He said he hates taxes, but shutting the state down would be worse. Ward cannot run again, but he now faces an almost-certain recall effort.

If you want proof how messed up our process is, consider that the entire Legislature is quivering in fear of Leon Drolet, a former state representative who is still on the public payroll (Macomb County commissioner). His idea of having a life consists of dragging around a pink fiberglass pig on a trailer, parking it in front of the Capitol and vowing to recall any lawmaker who votes for higher taxes.

"So what about recalls?" one Democratic legislator wrote me. Unlike Corriveau, she ended up voting for the tax increase, though she does have to run again and also faces the possibility of Pig Man coming after her.

"They will be a huge, politically charged and ugly distraction. They will distract or stop us from doing the people's business. Can they be stopped or neutralized? Is even thinking about them a sign of self-centeredness or cowardice or a necessary calculation in order to stop them? And if they win ... what good policy can come of that?"

Recall elections are, indeed, poison. What everyone remembers is that after another necessary tax increase in 1983, irate anti-tax protestors did recall two Democratic state senators. Jim Blanchard, governor at the time, told me, "We made a mistake in that we really didn't organize to fight the recalls."

Later, other recalls were successfully beaten back. True enough, once a recall gets on the ballot, it is hard for anyone to survive. Voters are only asked if they want to fire a politician already in office. Given that kind of choice, most people would vote to remove just about anybody.

But holding recalls for this purpose is a clear abuse of the Constitution. That's what elections are for. If you remove someone every time they cast a vote you don't like, you have clown government.

Recall elections are also expensive. Incidentally, there is someone itching to waste state money: Pig Man, who sits up in the visitor's gallery, scheming to remove those trying to honestly do the people's business. Someone needs to stand up to him, and beat him back. That's what you do with bullies and demagogues. After that, who knows? He might even have to do his own job.

Sexist hijacking?
Last year, Nancy Skinner ran against Congressman Joe Knollenberg in a district that includes much of Oakland County. She is a political activist and former radio personality who got the nomination because no one else wanted it.

Nobody in the party did very much to help her. She worked very hard and, to most people's astonishment, came close to an upset. The vote was Old Joe: 142,390; Nancy Skinner: 127,620. Old Joe is a 74-year-old Republican who is increasingly out of touch with his district, especially on Iraq and social issues, though he has evidently abandoned his former signature issue: Toilets with a more powerful flush. When he was elected in 1992 he promised to term limit himself after a dozen years in office, and then decided to break that promise.

Last year he outspent Skinner by a vast amount of money; four years earlier, a rich Democratic lawyer spent millions taking on Knollenberg and got creamed.

Logically, Nancy Skinner deserves another shot. Next year should produce a bigger Democratic turnout, and most first-time candidates run a better race the second time around. Yet the boys in the smoke-filled room want to run just-resigned Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters instead. Peters is an able guy who is a lawyer, a businessman and a former state senator. But five years ago, he ran a poor race for attorney general, and became the first Democrat to lose that office in half a century. Does pushing Skinner aside make sense?

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