Politics & Prejudices: No wonder we don’t trust ‘em

Apr 12, 2017 at 1:00 am

Phil Power is an all-too-rare example of a rich guy who deeply cares about Michigan. Half a century ago, he came back after a year as a sports editor in Alaska, and started buying some small newspapers in the suburbs.

He bought some, started others, and built a thriving group of papers in Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Then in 2004, he shrewdly saw what was starting to happen to newspapers, and arranged the sale of his Hometown Communications Network to Gannett.

This wasn't so great for me; I was his editorial vice president at the time, and I knew that meant the end of my job. But unlike other publishers who sold out, he didn't take off with his money for Florida or the Cayman Islands.

Not only did he stay in the home he built outside Ann Arbor — he used some of his millions to start the Center for Michigan, which he called a nonpartisan "think-and-do tank" dedicated to finding solutions for Michigan's problems.

Later, the Center started the online magazine Bridge, which is doing some of the best serious journalism in the state.

But what the Center mainly tries to do is get people talking about how they see the state, its problems, and what, if any, solutions they can see. They do this by hosting what they call "Community Conversations" all across Michigan.

Last year, they focused on how people see state government. They held conversations from the Upper Peninsula to Monroe. They also did telephone polling and surveyed people online, and here's what they found out:

When it comes to trust... there ain't much.

Something like four out of five of all residents polled had either "low" or "very low" trust in state government's ability to do the right thing when it came to issues like the environment, education, and protecting the public health.

Three-quarters didn't trust government to do the right thing by low-income folks; more than two-thirds felt it couldn't even make the right moves to improve economic growth.

The report was, Power told me and wrote in his weekly column in Bridge, "by far the darkest and most pessimistic we've ever issued." But there's even worse news.

Not only did residents say they had no trust in government to do the right thing — many of them didn't even think they want to. And no wonder.

"It's very difficult to have trust in a government that has, over a long period of time, declined to respond to its citizens," said one Community Conversation participant.

"You know, there was no trust prior to this, but the Flint situation has literally destroyed our faith," they added.

Prior to that, there was the legislature's stubborn refusal to properly fix the roads — even after every poll showed vast support for doing so, even if it meant more taxes.

You can easily find the whole report, "Fractured Trust: Lost faith in state government and how to restore it," online.

Unfortunately, events since it was published last month have only served to confirm everyone's worst suspicions about the band of self-serving crooks, wastrels, and dimwits otherwise known as those who control the state legislature.

People's Exhibit A: The state Senate gleefully passed a bill last month that sounded like something only Karl Marx could have expected the capitalists to do: Their proposed law would allow businesses to keep a portion of the income tax their employees have to pay. The bill wasn't called the "Legal State Serfdom Act of 2017," but it might as well have been.

"This is about providing jobs," said Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who owns a pizza parlor. Yeah, well, so was slavery. My first thought was that Stamas wanted to get his hands on some of the tax money his poor counter staff makes.

However, the bill isn't quite that bad — at least not yet.

In order to expropriate some of their employees' taxes, companies would have to create at least 250 good-paying or 500 average-paying jobs. If they do that, however, they would get to keep from half to all of their state employees' taxes.

That's not going to happen, unless someone moves a huge new factory to Michigan. But the prospect sounded like such a good deal that even many Senate Democrats foolishly voted for it, probably not realizing this would establish an ominous precedent: Once we accept the fact that it is alright to tax citizens and send their money straight to their capitalist bosses — eliminating the middleman — we are living in a different world.

From that, it's a relatively small step to just decreeing that any employer deserves a cut of the taxes his serfs are paying, allegedly to go to the government for the common good.

Let's hope the state House blocks this turkey.

Finally, consider People's Exhibit B: the case of one Arlan Meekhof, a creature with whom readers may be familiar. The state Senate majority leader may well be the worst Michigan lawmaker of our time, simply because he has so much power.

A cold little man from Ottawa County, he has successfully and gleefully stopped any effort by either party to make it easier to vote by making absentee ballots easier to get.

Meekhof also helped kill an effort by the Republican secretary of state to require people giving money to campaigns to disclose their identities.

But last month, he did something so mean and nasty he had fellow conservative Candice Miller denouncing him, saying "term limits can't come fast enough for some people."

The issue was the now-famous Macomb County sinkhole in Fraser. Miller, a can-do politician with a reputation for getting things done, was secretary of state and served in Congress before deciding to come home.

Last November, she was elected public works commissioner in Macomb, just before the sinkhole calamity, which is both a natural and man-made disaster.

Miller is deeply conservative, and agrees that Macomb County will have to bear the burden of most of the cost of the repair and cleanup, which could be as high as $140 million.

But she wanted the state to provide a $3 million grant to build a bypass channel to keep tons of raw sewage from cascading into the Great Lakes and people's basements.

That sounds like a legitimate use of state money to me, and that sum is barely a blip in a $50 billion plus state budget.

But Meekhof, incredibly, said no. "It's their problem to solve. I'm not interested in having the line go out the door forever with people who want to get in line for free money for their infrastructure," he sneered.

Beyond the short-sightedness, nastiness, and stupidity, what is most remarkable about this is that the legislature has been giving Flint scads of money to fix its infrastructure — $97 million that same month to replace all the lead pipes.

Naturally, Lansing needed to do that, since the entire city had been poisoned by stupid decisions made by state-appointed emergency managers. But all of Michigan has an even greater stake in the Great Lakes, something Meekhof can't or won't see.

He did say he'd let the state offer Macomb County a loan. Miller, his fellow Republican, told him to stuff it.

"It is incredibly pompous and arrogant for one man to stand in the way of a project designed to keep raw sewage out of 150,000 Macomb County basements and from being discharged into our magnificent Great Lakes," Miller said.

Arlan Meekhof is Lansing Republicans' idea of a leader. We'd all do well to remember that.