Politics & Prejudices: This really could destroy our state

Mar 1, 2017 at 1:00 am

Leonard Cohen, whose hypnotically alluring songs just kept getting better and better, released his final album, You Want It Darker, just before Halloween.

On Nov. 7, battling a host of ailments, he died in his sleep in the middle of the night following a fall. The next day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Clearly, we were going to get it darker, whether we wanted to or not. Now, it is the state of Michigan's turn.

This year started off with a bill before the legislature that could destroy aid to education and end the chance that we might fix our roads and bridges before they completely collapse, among other horrible things. It just barely failed in the House last week, and there may be attempts to revive it.

First, however, let's take a trip up north. Ten miles or so south of the Mackinac Bridge, there's an odd old restaurant called the Levering Café, notably mainly for a garish giant chicken in an Uncle Sam costume over the door.

The food is family-style dining, mainly heaps of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and leaden-thick gravy, and if you aren't a local, don't expect the servers to be warm or friendly. (I've been there; they're not.)

However, this gastronomic oddity, and the nearby party store-gas station, are the cultural center of Levering, a place that isn't exactly famous for diversity, or indeed anything else.

There are no black people among Levering's 215 souls; according to CityData.com. There are just nine Native Americans and a couple lonely Hispanics and Asians.

click to enlarge Lee Chatfield - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Lee Chatfield

But it is the home of state Rep. Lee Chatfield, a guy in his twenties who, even by Levering standards, seems to have lived an utterly insulated life in a narrow, fundamentalist Christian universe. And here's why you should care about him:

Chatfield, who got to the legislature by opposing civil rights for gay people, has been pushing a bill that would do more damage to Michigan than any three recessions put together. What he wants to do is completely eliminate the state income tax. He would cut it from the current 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent this year, and then automatically cut it by another tenth of a percent every year until it is completely gone.

Politicians introduce nutty bills all the time, most of which are promptly filed and forgotten, as this one should be.

But it's not. Speaker of the House Tom Leonard and Michigan Attorney General Bill "perpetually running for governor" Schuette both think this would be a wonderful idea.

The bill sailed through the House Tax Policy Committee after only an hour and half. Last week, it was barely stopped in a 52-55 vote, which seems to have been called too early by a clumsy and inexperienced new speaker. But nobody knows if it is really dead. Gov. Rick Snyder has made it clear he opposes this; he is smart enough to know what horrific damage it would do.

What we don't know is whether governor mealy-mouth would actually veto it.

What we do know is what would happen if it ever became law.

According to figures provided by the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency, Chatworth's bill would have the approximate effect on the state budget as the iceberg did on the Titanic.

Here's why. His bill, the first to be introduced this year, would immediately cut the state income tax from its present 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent.

Republicans are pretending this would put vast sums back into the pockets of working people.

"We must be a state that allows our hardworking men and women to keep more of what they earn," intoned the attorney general, who wasted millions a few years ago on his attempts to deny gay couples the chance to marry or adopt.

"I'm excited to ... return hundreds of millions of dollars back to the people who earned them in the first place," said Speaker Leonard. Nice words, from both of them.

But that is utter bullshit.

The only ones who would get anything meaningful out of this shift-and-shaft tax scheme are the very rich, aka the 1 percent. The nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy crunched the numbers for the tax cut they want to enact immediately, the one taking us to 3.9 percent. Rachel Richards, the legislative coordinator, filled me in on what they mean:

The average annual income in Michigan at last calculation was about

$51,000 a year. That guy would get a tax cut of a whopping $82 — a year.

That's about $1.58 a week.

In other words, he won't even notice. What he will notice is what happens to the state. This cut would blow an immediate $1.1 billion hole in the $9 billion-and- change state general fund.

How will the state make up the difference? Failing that, what programs would be massively cut? Incredibly, the question doesn't seem to even have been raised when they were ramming this bill through the tax policy committee.

What few lawmakers were willing to discuss that were murmuring about

massive cuts in aid to higher education. Hey, students! Here comes vastly higher tuition bills.

Naturally, that wouldn't be enough, so other things would suffer too, and you might end up paying stiff user fees for this or that. Roads and bridges will get even worse, of course.

And that $82 tax cut wouldn't pay for a blown tire or even one credit hour at a state university.

However, the rich would really clean up. Make $300,000, and you'd get $821 back. Those corporate tycoons and athletes making, say, $1.6 million would get a $3,700 tax cut.

Not too shabby for them. But it would be disaster for the rest of us. At some point, our education system and our infrastructure may be so degraded it can't be resuscitated.

You won't be able to punish the people trying to do this to us then, however; they'll all be term-limited out.

Don't blame little Lee Chatfield too much. This is a guy who went to a bizarre little Baptist college that closed down after less than 40 years, and went on to become a teacher and coach at the tiny little fundamentalist high school he attended.

Barely 28, he may well think Jesus will show up with loaves and fishes and fix the potholes and heal the sick.

But there are smarter and savvier people behind little Lee, and they know what they are doing. We have to hope that common sense and a lot of folks reaching out to people and explaining what's happening may save us yet.

The irony of it all

Which horrible liberal Democratic governor caused Michigan to have a state income tax in the first place? Soapy Williams? Jim Blanchard? Jennifer Granholm?

Surprise surprise! The answer is ... none of the above! Republican George Romney, father of Mitt, believed strongly a modern state needs an income tax, and got the legislature to enact one in 1967, exactly half a century ago.

He also was instrumental in seeing to it that the current constitution allowed the eventual adoption of an income tax. I hesitate to mention this, lest today's Republicans dig up his corpse and hang it, or something.

He wasn't a saint; being a Republican, Romney naturally made sure there was no way they would allow a graduated income tax, one that fell more heavily on the rich than the poor.

But he was sane, rational, and a grown-up, and thus would be immediately expelled from his party today.