Slip of state

Last week we finally learned that Anna Nicole Smith died of an overdose, and nobody said the Kennedys had anything to do with it. Closer to home, it appeared that our local media were reluctantly forced to conclude that they were not likely to find more rotting fragments of the chopped-up Macomb County mom.

And with the disappearance of their favorite stories, our newspapers suddenly discovered that our state government was about to crash and burn in a major way. Our leaders are failing us, and the result threatens to ruin our universities and our schools, and cripple care for the aged and sick, among other things.

The list of casualties includes, by the way, any hope of a better future for Michigan.

What also is painfully apparent is that just when the state needs leadership most, it doesn't have any. We have indeed no, repeat no, leadership, in any real sense of the word.

The Republicans who control the state Senate have been no more than a bunch of hack politicians and ideological zombies.

Some seem to care only about making the Democrats, especially Gov. Jennifer Granholm, look bad. A few really do seem to think that making sure the rich pay as little in taxes as possible is the best way to a brighter future. And some don't give a damn about any future, except their own.

For her part, the governor does understand what's at stake. And she does want to do the right thing. But she seems terminally unwilling or unable — or both — to fight hard enough or smart enough for any kind of difficult decision.

Leaders rally support to themselves. Nobody is rallying to Granholm. That's in large part because she doesn't even seem to have a clue how to get it done. Because of that, the Democrats are flying off in a hundred directions. You can scarcely blame them. Two months ago, their governor didn't even have the courage to propose her "two-penny tax" herself, in the state of the state speech.

Nor did she even line up the troops to fight for it. Instead, she had her budget director propose it after her mostly happy-talk speech. They dropped it on the legislators, and it was a simple matter for her enemies to kill it.

The governor needed to lead. To tell her people, on television, why this was necessary and what it would do and what would happen to them otherwise.

She did not. The tragedy is that she is perhaps the best speaker of any governor we have ever had. But she doesn't seem to have enough guts to ask people to do anything unpopular, even though she is term-limited and cannot run for governor again. There is nothing else she can run for either.

Why in the world not give this your best shot?

If anybody could sell Michigan on the need for moderate short-term pain for long-term gain, it is she. Yet she didn't even try, and now everyone is off spinning in a dozen directions. New House Speaker Andy Dillon, a Democrat, has some bizarre plan to squeeze $500 million out of the utilities in return for letting them be monopolies again. (Sounds like some version of Mussolini-style "corporate state" fascism.) State Rep. George Cushingberry, who usually has the Legislature's worst attendance, is trying to increase the income tax. Someone else is probably proposing checking sofa cushions for change. With the leadership vacuum showing and Democrats disunited, jubilant Republicans are in full "We need to destroy the state in order to save it" riot gear.

Granholm's blunders have allowed state Sen. Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who represents only a small chunk of Oakland County, to successfully portray himself as her power-sharing equal. And as a result, we are facing disaster. To quote Leonard Cohen, "I have seen the future, brother, and it's murder." We are about to pay for the stupidity of years of small-minded partisanship and weak leaders produced by term limits.

Here's what's going to happen if nothing changes fast:

Sometime in May, the state is projected to run out of cash on hand. That could mean massive layoffs of state employees and the possibility of payless paydays for those left. From there on, it gets worse.

The state has to balance its budget by Sept. 30. When last week started, the deficit was officially $940 million and growing, though the experts thought that the real figure was $1.1 billion or worse.

The gov did manage to shave $344 million off that by delaying payments to colleges and universities and badly hurting already underfunded foster care and welfare programs. Hey, who gives a damn about the neediest?

Nobody much in Michigan, that's who. Yet even those cuts don't get it done. What could happen next is that the state will lack the cash to make the promised payments to schools and universities. That could happen as early as May 20, though they may be able to delay that for a few weeks.

Michigan can't borrow any more to help itself through this crisis. State Treasurer Robert Kleine says Michigan is maxed out on its short-term loans.

The state needs to come up with $1.3 billion just to pay those back by Sept. 30 as well. Without more revenue, more massive, devastating infrastructure cuts are going to have to be made by fall.

If the state doesn't get it together, fast, it will lose its credit rating, and have to pay even more to borrow money; money lenders will be more reluctant to loan. Standard & Poor's, the financial services company, says it plans to downgrade Michigan's credit rating by June 1 if the crisis isn't solved. (Maybe they know Jack Kevorkian appropriately gets out of jail that very day.)

That's more than bad enough — but hanging over everything is the specter of the Single Business Tax black hole. The SBT was repealed by the Legislature last year, effective Dec. 31, 2007.

If it is not replaced, another $1.9 billion will be added to the deficit next year. But our dithering politicians still can't agree on a way to replace it.

The Detroit Free Press' still largely un-Gannettized editorial page gets it; they ran an admirable editorial on the front page Sunday, calling on both parties to behave like adults. Both sides, as the paper noted, are dragging their feet.

But what is most of all needed is for the woman we elected to be a leader to take charge. "We put out a plan. The Senate put out a plan. The House gets an opportunity to put out a plan," she languidly told the Gongwer news service last week. Aw, ain't that nice and democratic?

Trouble is, the forward compartments are filling with water now, Captain. You asked to be re-elected, and more than 2 million of us asked you to lead.

So start.


Correction: Last week's column on bullying in schools referred to state Rep. Marie Donigan's husband, Kevin McLogan, as the head of the Royal Oak School Board. He was, but the position rotates, and he is now the treasurer.

The anti-bullying bill, despite the best efforts of the homophobes, passed the House, with even some Republicans voting for it. But the haters, led by the twisted American Family Association, are fighting hard to let the bill — which protects all kids — die in the Senate. Let your state senator know you want this bill to come up for a vote, and that you want it passed.

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