Your leaders at work

Oct 3, 2007 at 12:00 am

On Sunday morning, less than a day before your state government was to come to a screeching halt, here's what your lawmakers were trying to decide:

Should we tax singing telegrams?

I'm not kidding. After weeks of acting like a mass clinic for the decision-impaired, our elected dysfunctionals sat down to try to stop the train wreck that would happen at midnight, had a balanced budget not been approved.

Shortly before noon, news came that a high-powered conference committee had decided to recommend extending the sales tax to baby-shoe bronzing, but not dry-cleaning. They would tax coin-operated locker rentals, but not golf fees.

Phrenology would be taxed; psychology not. Singing telegrams would in fact be taxed, as would balloon-o-grams. Most intriguing, however, was a decision to extend the sales tax to "social escort services."

Everyone knows that escort services are mainly call-girl or call-boy services. Which leads me to wonder: Wouldn't it be logical therefore to require the whores to have the Universal Product Code tattooed on their person?

Yet before I could fantasize further, the whole last-minute deal was rejected by the full House, and everything seemed to have fallen apart again.

And then, at 4:20 a.m. Monday, a deal was finally cobbled together, so we don't have a United Nations contingent of blue-helmeted troops guarding the rest stop restrooms all up and down our major freeways. Even so, the bottom line of the debacle is this: The system is clearly broken.

So can we fix it? Well, we all damn well better try, unless you are planning to move to Calgary and ride bulls in the stampede or something. Listen, we have to live here. We were once a rich and powerful state, and still are an incredibly beautiful state, but two things happened to ruin things:

First, the bottom fell out of the domestic auto industry, for reasons that are complex and well known. Mostly our executives got too lazy and complacent, and so did labor, and we ended up producing inferior cars that cost more than the foreign competition. The industry is trying hard to fix that now, but is unlikely ever to recover the profits and market share it once had.

What's even worse, however, has been the utter ruin of our political system, by narrow partisanship, gerrymandering and term limits. Years ago, some Republicans in the Legislature were more liberal than some Democrats.

Minds were more open. There were also some old bulls of both parties who stayed in office for decades. They were sometimes in the way of progress — but they also knew how to get things done. Most of them, in the final analysis, cared about the state as a whole more than they cared about some little agenda issue.

They knew they weren't going to be governor. When you had a crisis like this, they came together, sat down, and figured it out. Fred, you get this and are going to have to live with that. Barney, you get your health care amendment, but you keep your mouth shut and vote yes on the sales tax.

Yet those guys are all gone now, thanks to the stupidity of term limits. Nobody can serve more than six years in the House; eight in the Senate, then they are gone forever. They have to leave before they even really learn their jobs.

Even while they are there, they have to worry not only about being re-elected, but what their next jobs will be after they are term-limited out. Worse, the vast majority of the districts are gerrymandered to elect automatically only the candidate of the dominant party in that area.

What that means is that the real action is in the primaries — and the more extreme and ideological candidates tend to win such primaries. That's why we have a Legislature that now consists of two armed camps of people who mostly talk at each other, not to each other.

Now think about what this means to Michigan.

We desperately need to attract new businesses and jobs. But any business would have had to be nuts to move here in recent months. That's not because of our bad economy — frequently that presents some golden opportunities.

The real problem is state government.

They are all but dysfunctional. It took months to get them to agree on a new business tax. Everyone knew the budget crisis would be harder. After years of knowing the crisis was coming, we knew for four months exactly when it would arrive — Oct. 1, 2007. Yet late in the afternoon the day before, nobody had a clue a) what the state sales tax would be b) what the state income tax would be and c) whether the state would even be operating the next morning.

How can we fix that?

Phil Power, a former newspaper publisher for whom I used to work, is devoting his life these days to trying to save the economy of this state.

He's started a nonprofit "think and do tank" called the Center for Michigan. They are putting together a series of meetings — "community conversations" aimed at getting the lawmakers to understand how we all feel. You can learn more — or sign up for one of these — at his Web site: If that doesn't work, we can try writing a new constitution, one that would get rid of term limits and all the other things that have junked up the present document.

You can also think about calling, writing, yelling or, better yet, marching on Lansing and threatening to kick some lawmaker butt. You see, they feel they can count on you to feel helpless and apathetic. Last week Marc Corriveau, a newly elected Democrat from Northville, squalled like a baby raccoon caught in the sugar bowl when I called him out for his vote against a needed tax increase.

Imagine how they would all feel if a few thousand citizens showed up in person to demand they do the right thing.


Knollenberg wars update: Last week I asked why Democrats were so eager to muscle aside Nancy Skinner, who gave Oakland County Congressman Joe Knollenberg a close race last year, and thinks she could beat him next year. Scenting the possibility of beating Old Joe at last, the Democrats now are pushing just-resigned lottery commissioner Gary Peters as their nominee next year.

My remarks drew a flurry of letters from people who said Skinner had run an erratic campaign and was hard to work with, etc. Another well-connected person acknowledged that Peters had run a poor campaign for attorney general five years ago, but said he should do better now that he won't have to work with the jackasses at "Team Granholm." There was also a letter reflecting strong support for Nancy Skinner from, well, her dad.

This one was the oddest, from Sean Kosofsky, member of the electoral committee of the Triangle Foundation: "Unity behind a candidate should be seen as successful electoral discipline," it said. (Da, Comrade Stalin!)

Then he bizarrely added, "Just because many people are lining up to support Peters early doesn't mean Skinner has been left behind." (Huh?)

My guess: Nancy Skinner will be pressured into not running, though I suspect she might have been a stronger candidate than Peters, whose politics are far different from Knollenberg's, but whose electoral persona is similarly dull.

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