SOS: Save our state

Last week I went to see Andy Dillon, the speaker of the House, to talk about what will happen to us in Michigan next year.

Most people have no idea what's coming. They know that times are bad; they may know schools and cities took a big hit when Lansing finally managed to balance its budget in October.

But they haven't a clue what lies ahead.

Bad as they were, the cuts to state services weren't as bad as they could have been, thanks to more than a billion in leftover federal stimulus money. Now, that money is virtually all gone.

Next year is going to make this one look like sunshine in the park. Higher education will be put out of reach of most kids. Cities that look fine now may go into receivership. Medicaid will be slashed and more schools destroyed, unless our representatives grow up fast. 

Michigan is like a man who received a massive dose of radiation a few hours ago. He feels basically fine, but he won't in a year. Remember, the state government — unlike the feds — has to balance its budget every year. If money coming in falls short, they have to make cuts. 

That happened this year. Next year looks just as bad. How big will the deficit be? I asked the speaker, a tall, lanky 48-year-old with a slicked-back, 1950s hairstyle. "My guess is about $2.8 billion, in both the general and school aid funds."  

Most of the shortfall will be in the so-called general fund, which pays for most of the programs we think of as government — higher ed, prisons, social services and Medicaid.

We talked about this in Dillon's high-ceilinged office, under Michigan's ancient and elegantly lovely Capitol dome. A few steps away, representatives were vigorously debating a bill. Did it have to do with the budget crisis? Not on your life. They were arguing over which agency should set rules for feeding deer in 2016. 

Dillon, at least, was willing to talk about what matters. Realistically, I asked, is there any way next year's budget can be balanced without raising taxes? He shook his head no. "Not responsibly, in my opinion," he said. He knows that unless the state gets new money from somewhere, schools and cities are going to be ruined. Bear in mind that Dillon is a politician, who is deciding whether to make a run for governor. Though he has a law degree from Notre Dame, he is a businessman by trade, the former managing director of capital investment firms.

He knows he will be demonized by the fruitcakes for saying we need to raise taxes. But he knows what will happen if we don't. "Oh, you could balance the budget mechanically," without new revenues.

"You could start by eliminating virtually all aid to higher education," which would cripple programs and send tuition through the roof. "Then you'd have to eliminate revenue sharing, then start on Medicaid, and that still might not be enough."

Raising taxes is hard enough, politically, in good times. Raising them in a recession-plagued election year would normally seem politically impossible. Except next year is different. Next year, we will all be in the balsa wood barrel, headed over the cliff.

Andy Dillon is, despite his aw-shucks manner, a shrewd politician who cares deeply about this state. At the start of the year he plans to propose a "Grand Bargain." Democrats would consent to long-overdue government restructuring, Republicans to new revenue increases. 

He's discussed this with Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Nobody ever knows, of course, if she will stick to any position, but as of now, he says she is making favorable noises. The idea would be to get this all signed, sealed, delivered and out of the way by March, so that it has a minimum impact on the November campaign. But nothing can happen without the state Senate, which the Republicans control. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop has dug in his heels and sworn to allow no new taxes, no matter what. So far he's been coolly noncommittal to the speaker's suggestion. 

Is Dillon optimistic that he'll go along? By now, he knows his counterpart very well. "No," he says. What the speaker hopes is that outside forces — corporate leadership — will realize that preventing Michigan from destroying itself would be a good idea. He'd like them to weigh in and lean on the Republicans. 

Last year, there was an attempt to recall Dillon for having voted to raise taxes in 2007. To the surprise of most so-called pundits, it was decisively rejected. 

Dillon thinks that's because he went home to Redford, the town he grew up in and represents in Lansing, and explained: "I am prepared to say here's what the global solution is, even if it isn't politically popular. You can move people. People are very fair and reasonable, if they understand the facts, and not all this false rhetoric about government's fat, and there's been no cuts."

There certainly have been. A generation ago, a right-wing tax-cutter named Richard Headlee led a drive to pass an amendment to limit state government spending. The experts said it was too extreme.

Today, Michigan spends $9 billion less than the Headlee limit, and roads are crumbling, schools are in trouble, and we ain't seen nothing yet. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Soon enough, we'll see if that's something our leaders are willing to buy. 

Our war in Afghanistan: Frankly, I am amazed that liberals don't understand how important it is that we make a massive military effort in Afghanistan. As previous presidents have noted, Afghanistan is a small island only 90 miles off the Florida coast, and represents a direct threat to our way of life.

North Korea is also a direct threat to our shores, as is Grenada. But there are also clear signs our policy of Vietnamization is working. The people just voted overwhelmingly for our hand-picked puppet, Nouri al-Maliki or Hamid Karzai or Nguyen van Thieu, I forget which.

Anyway, you catch my drift. To veteran watchers of many a non-splendid little war, this all seems far too much like déjà vu all over again. Emotionally, I wanted President Obama to declare victory last week and announce the troops were all coming home. 

However, now that I am done venting, I have to say as a grown-up that, sadly, that isn't very realistic. We've helped destabilize a country that has long been a mess. Obama seems to be calculating that if we pull out now, it would almost certainly mean that the Taliban would take over again, this time more virulent than ever. 

So he is trying to give the government in place now some help and time to establish itself. There are lots of reasons to think that won't work. But almost nobody, including me, thought George Bush's "surge" in Iraq would work either, but it had an effect. The number of Americans killed fell dramatically. Today, the Iraqi government seems a little stronger.

Nobody knows what will happen in Afghanistan. What is clear is that if it goes badly, it could mean disaster for President Obama. However, the good news is that he has to know that. Stay tuned.

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