Shaming our state

Instead of making hard decisions, our pols just kick it down the road

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When the wimps running the British government sold out Czechoslovakia to Hitler, Winston Churchill, not yet in power, reportedly growled that they had been faced with a choice between war and shame.

"They've chosen shame. They'll get war later."

Last week, the Michigan Legislature did much the same thing in passing a budget. They faced a choice too. What they should have done — what they were elected to do — was, simply, to make the tough choices they were elected to make, and chart a difficult path to a somewhat more hopeful future for Michigan.

We should have seen a principled war over two different versions of what government should look like. The choice is very clear. Choose one way, and those of us who are working will have to pay somewhat more in taxes to fix our roads and bridges, invest in education, and give our children a shot at a better future.

We can either do that, or we accept becoming a backward, Third World sort of state, where the rich eventually live in gated communities, the intelligent young leave for other states, and the poor live increasingly impoverished and desperate lives.

That's the choice. Our lawmakers, of course, avoided making any hard decisions. They threw together a document that was "balanced" only on paper, throwing vast federal sums into the deficit hole, and scuttled out of town.

They chose shame, but sadly, most of them won't pay for it later. We will. Most of the lawmakers, and every single member of the leadership, are term-limited. They've gone off to run for other things, or to seek jobs from the special interests they've been protecting.

Some are still doing it. Our senate majority leader, Mike Bishop, possibly the most appalling creature in the Legislature, and his pet imp, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt), deserve cushy jobs from Ambassador Bridge owner-troll Matty Moroun. Bishop is still working hard — even against fellow Senate Republican Jud Gilbert — to prevent a vote that would allow work to proceed on a new publicly owned bridge over the Detroit River.

Everybody in government and industry wants and needs this bridge, but, as noted here before, Matty has deep pockets.

Beyond that, however, the lawmakers passed, almost at the last moment, a spending blueprint that will blow up in the new lawmakers' faces next year, when the stimulus money is all gone.

Next summer, the experts expect the state to be looking at a deficit of $1.6 billion. There is very unlikely to be any more stimulus money, regardless of which party controls Congress. A brand new Legislature and a brand-new governor will have to deal with the crisis.

The choices ahead will be that much more difficult because they've been put off, time and again. Unless we raise taxes considerably, the state will have no choice but to make appalling cuts to education, especially perhaps higher education, to Medicaid, to whatever social services are left.

What is going to have to happen is that for a good long time, we will have to pay more — those of us, that is, who are still lucky enough to have a job — and get less. State workers, whose contracts were modeled on those of the auto workers in the flush times, are going to get less pay, less pension, less benefits.

Ironically, our only hope for a decent future may lie in the willingness of those who are better off to pay more in the short run — more to fix up our roads and bridges and schools.

Investing more in higher education is, in fact, our best hope of all. I don't say that because I teach at Wayne State University, by the way; this is something everyone who has looked at the figures knows is true. We are paying the price now for being a state where too many mommies and daddies thought high school was all the kids needed.

Our lawmakers did very little to get us ready to face the future in the last two years. They did reform the teacher retirement and health care system in a sensible way, and did a weaker version of the same for state civil service employees. Our speaker of the house, Andy Dillon (D-Redford), did try to put all state workers on the same health care plan; he accomplished little, except his own political destruction.

And, oh, yes — our wonderful elected leaders did do a little something for all of us, right at the end of the session.

They voted to legalize the sale of alcoholic drinks, in bars and at the supermarket, on Sunday mornings. Damn nice, since thanks in part to what they failed to do, many of us may well need it.

Worth reading:
�Regardless of your politics, here's something undeniable: You can't figure out where you are, or where you are going, till you have some idea where the hell you've been.

Two new books coming out this week are worth the time of anyone who has the faintest interest in the history of this state. Wounded Warrior (MSU Press; $39.95) , by Lawrence Glazer, a former circuit judge from Lansing, is the tragic story of a man who beat the odds to be elected Michigan's governor exactly half a century ago.

Nobody in politics today has endured anything like John Swainson, who sadly has been almost totally forgotten. Not only was he only 35 when he was elected governor, he shouldn't even have been alive. When he was a 19-year-old soldier in World War II, a German land mine ripped off his legs, shattered his jaw and sent pieces of metal through his body. He survived all that, put himself through college and law school and launched a meteoric political career. He nearly got comprehensive tax reform though the Legislature, something that's as badly needed today.

But he couldn't get re-elected, and ended up being convicted of perjury in federal court, then losing himself for a while to alcoholism. Judge Glazer, who compiled a distinguished record on the bench, concluded after studying the trial transcripts that Swainson was guilty of bad judgment, but probably otherwise innocent.

What's especially admirable, however, is that no matter how much crap he had to endure, Swainson kept his sense of humor and kept bouncing back and rebuilding his life, right up until the big one felled him in 1994. (Compare that to some of today's wimps.)

The second book is more joyous and more fun. Lawyer Dean Robb, still working his head off for good causes at age 86, has just collaborated with his 25-year-old son on an autobiography: Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical . Robb, a farm boy from Illinois, went to law school at Wayne State in the 1960s. He looked like a Republican.

But instead he emerged to become a crusader for civil rights, for workers screwed by their employers, and for virtually all the good guys against all the baddies. When he was middle-aged he, moved up to Suttons Bay in 1971, where he defended pot-smoking kids against pot-bellied sheriffs, came down occasionally for great civil rights cases, and still found time to do some serious trout fishing, women chasing and have one hell of a time. I drove up and had dinner with him Saturday night; he has more energy than I do, and his book (available at; $24.95) shows it.

You should read it, and the Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology should order him cloned.

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