Two cheers for Granholm

Feb 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

Last week Gov. Jennifer Granholm actually did blow me away for the first time since she took office more than seven years ago. What's more, she did so in a positive way — twice.

First, she came out strongly in favor of holding a convention to rewrite Michigan's now-broken Constitution. More than a year ago, it became clear that a new constitution was our only hope for fixing the impossibly broken mess that is our state government. We're going to be asked on the November ballot if we want to do that, and that may be our only chance. 

Thanks to term limits, special interests and a regressive tax structure, our state has been going downhill for years. Once upon a time, things worked pretty well. Michigan's current Constitution had a lot going for it when it took effect in 1963. The main problem, however, was that it doesn't allow lawmakers to enact a graduated income tax.

They could change the rate of the state income tax, which has gone up and down like a yo-yo ever since. But our state constitution requires that we impose the same tax rate on Mike Ilitch and on his lowliest minimum wage pizza slinger. Does that seem fair to you? 

But what really ruined this constitution and state government in general was something else: The framers made the constitution too easy to amend. Nobody foresaw an era when mainly right-wing, out-of-state special interests could swoop in, pay money to get signatures, and stick an amendment on the ballot. The same interests could then spend lavishly on advertising to get what they wanted passed.

Nobody saw that coming, and yet, in the 1990s, it came. That's how universities lost the ability to have affirmative action programs in Michigan. That's how same-sex couples lost the right to domestic partnership benefits and the potential right to marry. And that's how we got the poison pill that has ruined Michigan: term limits. 

Before term limits, there were always some legislators of both parties who had been in Lansing for many years and understood the complexities of government. Most knew they were unlikely to go anywhere. They also knew that Michigan, its education, environment and people were more important than any one party.

So these old bulls (most were men) could be counted on, after a certain amount of silliness, to get everyone together and come up with something everyone could live with. Not perfect, but it worked. 

Today, however, that's all broken. Nobody can stay in the state House of Representatives for more than six years. Nobody can stay in the state Senate beyond eight years. Then they are barred from serving again, for the rest of their lives.

Years ago, an elderly reporter told me it took six years at least to know how the legislative process really works and get comfortable with your colleagues. Even during their six puny years, members of the House are further distracted by having to run for re-election twice.

Finally, after running that gauntlet, during their last two years, most legislators are acutely aware that they need to find another job. So their minds are not totally on their work, and they are easy marks for special interests that might just help them land new positions.

What if the state has a serious problem — as we do have with a state budget that is out of balance every year, because it is based on wrong assumptions? For years, our Legislature's unofficial answer has been: Why take the political heat for trying to fix it when you can kick the problem down the road a few years? 

Put the problem off, that is, till you are gone! Now our backs are to the wall; there is no money, another huge deficit, and no choice except to raise taxes or destroy higher education and aid to cities, and severely slash or eliminate help we supply the sick and needy.

For years, it has been clear that rewriting the constitution is the only way to fix this. Whenever I have suggested this, however, everyone in the establishment recoils in horror — especially progressives. They fear any convention would be taken over by right-to-life fanatics, tea party anti-tax loonies and anti-arms control zealots.

Conservatives fear that labor unions would dominate and write economic policies they couldn't stand. But what choice have we got? Here's what has to happen: We vote for a constitutional convention when we go to the polls Nov. 2. Then we work like hell to elect intelligent, progressive delegates to write the document we need. These would be chosen in a special election a few months later. This may not work, but if we wind up with a constitution worse than the old, then we can vote it down.

The governor at least gets it. "The state of Michigan is dramatically different than it was in 1961, and we need a foundation document that reflects the 21st century," one that would help create "a streamlined government that moves Michigan forward in a comprehensive way," she said last week. Good for her.

But even a new constitution wouldn't help us for years, and we need help now. The governor, who has driven people to despair because of her failure to lead, astonished us all again.

She did at last something we've been waiting for her to do for years — she made a major government reform proposal that is gutsy, sensible, is sure to anger some — but which could help save us from the massive train wreck that is otherwise certain.

The reforms would give state employees strong incentives to retire, saving the state millions and creating some new jobs. State workers would have to pay a bit more into their pension funds and pay part of their health care premiums. State retirees would lose dental and vision coverage. Current lawmakers would also lose their lifetime health care coverage — something her main Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, has not been willing to give up.

The unions are already screaming that this is unfair. But they have no sense of reality. The glory days of the auto industry are gone.

Sadly, the state is out of money. The governor's proposals are not enough to balance the budget. New taxes will be needed.

"The current state of the state can't survive unless we have a gigantic tax increase," said Gary Olson, longtime director of the Senate Fiscal Agency. Republicans control his agency, and they, or at least their leader, the oafish Mr. Bishop, would apparently rather see the state's universities and future destroyed than raise taxes. That's clear when one looks at Bishop's own "reform" proposal, which would require all public employees to take a pay cut and pay a fifth of their health care costs. This would mean big-name scholars at our major universities would promptly be recruited by other states.

Goodbye, high-powered higher ed. Good-bye, future prosperity. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a conservative Republican with a brain, once said. 

After years of dithering, the governor finally seems willing to fight for the hard choices necessary. Thanks to the budget mess, this is the year that will decide our futures, and if we screw up, and fail to fight as hard as we can to get the lawmakers to do what's right, we may end up with an economy much like rural Mississippi's.

Or maybe even Haiti's, before the earthquake. Except much colder.

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