You get what you pay for

Jan 24, 2007 at 12:00 am

Sometime in the next few weeks, Gov. Jennifer Granholm will almost certainly ask the Legislature to find a way to raise taxes. And she damn well better, or she should be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

We have to save Michigan. Raising revenues is absolutely necessary if we are to keep the essential services going that will allow the state to continue to be a decent place to live. The state has been cutting taxes, often irresponsibly, for years, thanks to selfishness, greed and cracked-brain ideologies.

Now the bottom is falling out, thanks in large part to the slumping auto industry. If we have any hope of attracting the high-paying, high-tech jobs of the future, turning ourselves into Mississippi or Haiti (i.e., a low-tax, low-wage place without decent public services) sure the hell isn't the way to do it.

Taxes sound terrible, I admit. We've been brainwashed to think they are always bad. But what do you think pays for the water that makes the toilet flush? What do you think paved the freeways and paid to teach you how to read this column? Taxes, that's what.

You should thank God for taxes, every time you have to go to the potty in January. True, Neanderthals never had to pay them. But outside the Legislature, there are precious few of them left.

Civilization costs money, and is worth it. Yes, we need to at least maintain the quality of schools that need to be even better, and not cripple our universities.

You can be for taxes and for private enterprise and getting rich. You need both a flourishing private sphere and a functioning, healthy public one.

By the way, lots of lies are being told, mainly by opportunistic Republicans, about bloated state government where spending has spiraled out of control. Matt Milosch, a former state representative from the Monroe area who has lost the last two elections (Earth to Matt: We just don't want you!) is circulating a petition to try to stop any tax increase.

Yes, taxes can sometimes be too high. Right now, they are dangerously low. Last week Liz Boyd, the governor's press secretary, noted that "since 1999, Michigan has approved or enacted $1.4 billion in tax cuts."

That doesn't include, by the way, the $1.9 billion that will be lost starting next year unless the Legislature replaces the Single Business Tax, which the Republicans abolished last fall in a failed attempt to pander to the voters.

Why is the state in trouble? The best place to go for answers is the nonpartisan, nonprofit, nonideological Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Last year it put out a responsible memo analyzing the mess. Part of the recent crisis is indeed inflamed by the layoffs, buyouts and plant closings.

But in addition to that, the government is suffering from "self-inflicted" wounds, caused by an orgy of tax cutting. "The state reduced tax rates, failed to offset negative effects on state revenues created by federal tax changes, and cut other state taxes," so to speak, by adding new exemptions.

Two weeks ago, the governor asked a bipartisan council of a dozen wise men, including two former governors, one from each party, for recommendations.

She was heavily criticized because the Emergency Financial Advisory Panel didn't include any howling right-wing nuts. Good for her. Guess what. It didn't include any Trotskyites or members of al Qaeda either.

They will make recommendations within a week. Want to know what the easiest and most practical way of solving this problem would be? Extend the sales tax to services — not including medical services. That means haircuts, fixing your lawnmower, having a muffler put on your car, etc.

Experts say if you did that, you might even be able to lower the sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent. When I asked several people what they thought about that idea, most said they thought they were already paying taxes on those kinds of things. Pressed against a wall, most Republicans will reluctantly conclude they could stomach a sales tax before an income tax.

But then there was a baffling nonsense story on the front of Gannett's Detroit-less Free Press Sunday, a pile of distorted garbage that is incomprehensible ... until you realize that Gannett's strategy is to pander to the right wing occasionally, while being generally moderate on the editorial page.

Sunday, the Detroit-less product had a moronic front-page story (with little cute illustrations!) that said raising the sales tax could cost Joe Consumer an extra $36.79 a day. Sounds pretty horrible. Till you read the idiocy that follows.

Their "typical day" includes paying $100 for a haircut, $95 for child care and $50 to rent a limo to enjoy an $80 seat at the Pistons game.

Sheeeeeit. Even most of the finer pimps I know don't live like that, except on Saturday nights. When you look at the story more closely you can figure out what the paper's real problem is: Extending the sales tax would also add three cents to the cost of the daily fish wrapper they sell. With circulation falling by thousands every month, they feel they can ill afford to lose any single-copy sales.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Extend the sales tax, with an exemption for products of negligible intellectual value. The state will be saved, and the Free Press will die perhaps a little more slowly.

But seriously, we have to do something. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and we thank you in advance on behalf of common sense.


Newspaper blues: Speaking of fish wrappers, it is hardly a secret that newspapers in this country — and especially this area — are dying rapidly. The weekly Mirror newspapers, which once made a gallant and plucky effort to cover South Oakland County, have basically ceased to exist. They have combined all the communities, laid off all but one reporter, and the papers are mostly filled with reused stories from Gannett's abysmally boring Observer & Eccentric papers.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press lost a net 22,272 subscriptions last year, nearly 7 percent of the total, and now has exactly half the circulation it did in 1987. Why are papers doing so badly?

For a lot of reasons, but the best one was given by the nation's most fun columnist, Molly Ivins. "Newspaper owners look at one another and say, 'Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let's solve that problem by making our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.'" Gannett believes in that in the same way fundamentalist wackos believe "on" the Bible, but other newspaper chains are as bad or worse; waste a few quarters on any Journal-Register product.

It doesn't have to be this way. In his excellent "Newspapers and After," in the Jan. 29 Nation magazine, John Nichols surveys the scene and concludes that good papers may last, but that what is more important is that journalism — "the serious-minded gathering and analysis of news" — survive in some form.

Otherwise, freedom and democracy really don't have a chance. By the way, it is not true that young people don't need newspapers. A musician who was once a student of mine became upset last month when she heard the Wall Street Journal was going to shrink the dimensions of the paper to save money.

"But they can't do that. The Journal fits the bottom of my parrot cages perfectly!" she said. I felt a slogan coming on: Newspapers. Still catching a lot of crap, but still needed, even when they keep letting us down.

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