System failure

Here's the blunt truth about our situation as we start this election year: Michigan has the worst unemployment rate in the nation, a full percentage point ahead of runner-up Alaska. What's more, things are expected to get worse. Unemployment will almost certainly increase.We've got a state government that took all year to balance a budget, and then did it badly. We've got a governor who sounds good on TV, but who seems unable to lead starving cats to a can of tuna.

We've got a legislature that is inexperienced, often inept and, except for the leadership, largely ignorant of what is really happening. The Republicans are far more interested in embarrassing the Democrats than in doing anything for the welfare of the state.

They are also mostly narrow economic ideologues, or in thrall to right-wing religious fanatics. The religious wackos even have an intimidating effect on some Democrats, which is why we have medieval laws preventing cutting-edge medical research in this state.

The auto industry will continue to shed jobs this year. Frankly, though it is sacrilege to say so, it is an open question as to whether Chrysler and Ford will even survive, at least as stand-alone companies. We had a rough year last year, and we're in for much more hard slogging. We need some enlightened leadership ...

And our leaders have pretty much failed us.

So how did this come to pass?

A year ago, there was reason to be cautiously optimistic about state government. Jennifer Granholm had just been re-elected by an unexpected, overwhelming landslide, beating Amway billionaire Dick DeVos, who spectacularly failed to buy the election.

Democrats had taken the state House and would have won the Senate too, had the districts been anything like fairly drawn.

The governor was talking tough. She told me on the radio last January that she should have been more forceful in her first term. It was clear she knew how bad the state's economic situation really was.

So, I thought, now we are going to do something about it. It's clear that we are going to have a tax increase, to maintain the vital services and infrastructure the state needs to get back on its feet.

Nobody is going to like it, but the governor is finally going to lead, I thought. Everyone agrees she's the best, most empathetic communicator around. So, she'll go on TV and speak to the state, and tell us we're in a mess, but that we are all in it together.

That was clearly the only way. Nobody likes paying more taxes, but if we are ever to attract new industries, we have to keep the roads and the bridges in good shape. We need to make sure we have decent schools and state-of-the-art research universities.

High-tech employers aren't going to come to a crumbling Rust Belt ruin. So we'll tighten out belts, fix things up, figure out a future. You've got to invest, after all, to get anything back.

Sure, telling the truth always carries some political risks. Twenty-four years ago, when things were even worse, a newly elected Gov. James Blanchard stood up and said, "Hey, we're going to have to raise the income tax to save ourselves. Temporarily, but by a lot."

When he spelled out the reasons to do so, the lawmakers grudgingly passed the tax. Everyone remembers one part of what happened next; a few angry citizens recalled two Democratic state senators. That launched the political career of one John Engler.

What everyone forgets is what happened after that. The tax increase worked. The deficit was paid off; the crisis ended; the tax went back down, and Blanchard was re-elected by a landslide.

This time, it should have been far easier for Granholm to ask us to make the hard choices. She was in that extremely rare position of having lots of political capital and almost nothing to lose.

Term limits meant she couldn't run for re-election as governor. Practically speaking, she in fact can't run for anything at all after this.

Both U.S. senators are Democrats, and aren't going anywhere.

Since Granholm was born a Canadian citizen, she is not eligible to run for president or vice president. Sure, she could conceivably be appointed to a future cabinet — but she might have to accomplish something first, like conquering the deficit mess.

That's what she needed to do. She needed to make tough decisions, explain them to all of us, and then stand firm and sell the voters and the Legislature on it. I thought the governor, a highly intelligent, Harvard-educated lawyer, would be willing and able to do that. The people who voted for her were hungry for leadership.

Yet she let us down. Mostly, she seemed to have bafflingly lost her nerve. The verdict on Jennifer Granholm was in when she failed to use last year's State of the State address to tell us that we were going to have to raise taxes, and sell us on why.

Instead, she coyly hinted at it, then talked a lot of feel-good stuff about Michigan. A few days later, when she did get around to first proposing a tax increase — her "two-penny plan" — she didn't even have the guts to do it herself. She had Bob Emerson, her state budget director, do it. That meant it didn't have a snowball's chance.

And for months, the games went on. True, the governor and Legislature did eventually pass a new Michigan Business Tax that is an improvement on the old Single Business Tax.

But the lawmakers covered themselves with disgrace in May, when they failed to make the hard decisions needed to balance last year's budget. What they did instead was to sell off $900 million of future payments from the tobacco settlement money for $400 million up front. That robbed us — the taxpayers — of half a billion dollars.

For me, the enduring memory will be the Legislature on Sept. 30, the very last day they had to balance the budget before the government would have to shut down. That's when they suddenly had the inspiration to tax fortunetellers and people who examine bumps on your head, and who preserve old baby shoes in bronze.

They did, in fact, vote to tax them. Except the business lobbyists went nuts, fearing that they had set a precedent, and that services they cared about might eventually be taxed, like lawyers and golf.

The cowed lawmakers then repealed the service tax before it took effect, and jacked up the basic business tax some more.

The bottom line is that the legislators really don't know what they are doing. They haven't been there long enough. None was there six years ago. None will be there eight years from now.

Term limits have worked to destroy institutional memory. What we have created is a government of young careerists padding their résumés and looking for their next jobs.

By the way, the "balanced" budget will probably turn out to be not really balanced at all. In a few months, they'll have to try to fix it. That should be fun. In November 2010, we will be asked to vote on whether we should call a convention and write a new constitution for the state of Michigan. That is, if we manage to make it till then.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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