Michigan at a crossroads

Fellow Michigan Citizens,

I don’t often write about politics, but I feel I must today.  Michigan is at a crossroads. It’s a civic emergency, and I feel a duty to educate and, yes, advocate.  Senator Bishop, the southgoing Zax (brush up on your Dr. Seuss here, people) stands nose-to-nose with the northgoing Zax(es), which would be Representative Dillon and Governor Granholm.  Bishop says “No revenues.”  Period.  He won’t move.  Dillon and Granholm have offered a menu of ways to bring in revenue.  Here are some examples and Bishop’s positions:

  • He says no to closing loopholes through which companies favored by lobbyists years ago continue to get unfair breaks that other companies would love to have.
  • He won’t support a tax on doctors that would bring in three times as much in federal dollars as it would cost our docs (and that federal revenue stream would be dedicated in the binding budget to more than compensate docs who see medicaid patients – a win for all – docs, taxpayers, and medicaid patients who increasingly can’t get seen anywhere other than expensive ERs).
  • Bishop won’t support a tax on water that is being removed from Michigan’s precious land, even though consumers across America would pay that tax (just as Michiganians pay for Florida’s beaches or the Louisiana’s oil or Oklahoma’s gas).  Seen your rental car or hotel taxes on a trip down there?
  • He won’t support a tax on non-smoking tobacco equivalent to the tax on smoking tobacco.
  • He won’t support a penny tax on bottled water (even though that enormous penny tax could be avoided by getting their water from a tap).  (By the way, does it ever strike you when conservatives say, “businesses can’t increse the price when things are hard.”  Um, has anyone but me seen the price of M&M’s or Coke these days, presumably due to higher sugar prices?  We can pay $1.50 for a 20-ouncer but how dare our elected representatives ask us to pay a penny for schools and police!)
  • We’re scheduled for a tax cut – our personal exemption on our income tax will go up – we could save about $50 million by freezing that right now.  He says no.

Granholm (and Dillon) months and months ago (the Gov in a February budget document) agreed to very deep cuts . . . over a billion dollars worth already passed, nearly all signed by the governor. Bishop says he will agree to ZERO revenue increases.  It is not like we are talking about “balance” here.  We’re talking about total rigidity: “I don’t agree with you on anything. I can block you, so I will.”

Schools have been cut nearly $165 per pupil and based on new revenue assessments stand to lose hundreds more.  The Dept of History Arts and Libraries has been abolished.  Granholm has signed cuts averaging 15% to Veterans, Transportation, Corrections, Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, Aging.  Every department will receive similar treatment.  Yesterday, the Governor signed a School Aid bill that, as I said, cut $165 per student out of every district.  To add insult to injury Bishop sent her a School Aid bill that did not add up, so Granholm was required by law to make it balance and she used her line item veto to cut the “extra” aid that goes to wealthier districts.  So, they’re losing even more.

One more personal point before I put the question to you.  Today we received a call from our daughter who is volunteering a year of her young life in a large-city, high-dropout school. She’s an aide to children in a 9th grade classroom.  The challenges are enormous, but they are establishing great relationships with children who have seldom had close personal attention.   Then our daughter heard today that they are laying off the young teacher in whose room our daughter is an aide.  The school system had promised to fund her, a gifted “Teach for America” teacher in a 9th grade classroom where the children on average read and do math at a 4th grade level.  So my wife is being forced and in turn forcing our schools to lay off teachers at the same moment our daughter is literally crying at the stupidity (forget the injustice) of laying off this teacher in a room of kids who are desperately in need of good teaching, and who have bonded with this great young teacher.  Now they’ll have substitutes – lower-paid, less qualified, potentially uncertified teachers.  What do you think will be the results?  I’m no genius when I predict:  higher adult ed costs and employment training costs if we’re lucky, and in too many cases, increased prison costs, crime costs, welfare costs.  $200 per pupil cuts in Michigan equate – in my rough math – to about 8 laid-off teachers in a 50-teacher high school.

Make no mistake:  These are very very tough times in Michigan.  Workers and business owners are stretched and stressed. People are earning less (and due to the structure of the income tax paying less income tax); tightening their belts and spending less (and due to the sales tax structure paying less sales tax); and their housing values are going down (and due to the tax structure paying less property tax).  It’s why we’ve seen a couple billion dollar shortfall almost every year in this decade.  That’s why the legislature and governor in Lansing have had to cut, cut and cut again; and, yes, why in 2007, they passed temporary revenue increases (I believe all those tax increases have sunset provisions) to help fill the hole.

I feel for these legislators.  They don’t want to tax individuals or businesses in a down economy.  But they don’t want to have docs stop treating people because the medicaid rates are ridiculous (they know we’ll pay even more when they go to the ER).  They don’t want to cut police and fire, which they keep forcing localities to do.  They don’t want to cut schools.  Yet they face this shrinking pie problem.

So, with tighter collective and personal budgets, what do WE want? How important are some taxes right now, when weighed against police, fire, schools and basic health care?  The legislature and governor have reduced our business tax burden so that according to the Tax Foundation (a non-partisan research group) Michigan has gone from the 28th best business tax burden to the 19th best.  To hear Bishop and Company talk we’re the worst.  And to hear their pure ideological stand on taxes, you’d think these cuts would surely have pushed us ahead of other states.  Yet we are still worst in unemployment.  Why? The driving reason is not taxes, but our struggle to survive in a global economy, that is increasing productivity, decreasing jobs, and driving our wages and benefits lower.  Is now the time to renege on the bipartisan Michigan Promise that would allow every Michigan child in this capitalist democracy to get a community college education?

Here’s what I believe matters most:  If we are to survive in this new economy the most important thing we need is a great educational system, so that our children can compete.  So that they can be great workers that fuel businesses. And so that they can be great entrepreneurs who create those businesses. Taxes for schools and retraining can be seen as “burdens,” or they can be seen as smart investments, just as the governor and legislature are doing their darnedest to spur investment in the private sector. The highest income states are NOT those with the lowest taxes. They ARE those with the highest educational attainment.

Granholm and the Dems have agreed to huge cuts, because we need them. We must get more efficient.  (State government employment is down, by the way 16% since 2001. It is shrinking.)  Bishop’s extreme, uncompromsing position that there will be NO new taxes, will mean that schools – rich and poor – will be pink-slipping teachers at the worst time in the world to do that.  He’s painted himself into a terrific corner.  He can single-handedly drive these cuts deeper and deeper (oh, not entirely single-handed: he’s got about 12 solid Republican backers, and about 5 Republican independent thinkers that he’s fighting to keep in line with his no-compromise position).  That’s a lot of responsibility on him – pretty scary and maybe a little crazy-making.  Maybe it’s why he called the governor a “liar” today and an “extortionist.”  And he declared again today that he would not support any revenue increases.

I honestly have hope for him – and a little more in some rational Republicans in his chamber.  I am reminded of the famous statement that people routinely clip from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. My hope is that Mr. Bishop will heed Emerson’s wisdom and move from the simple safety of his ideological hard-line.  Bishop’s stubbornness has in days gone by helped win some deep cuts.  He can claim some genuine victory for pushing Granholm and Dillon further than they probably wanted to go on cuts to police, fire, schools and health care.  But now it’s time to open his mind to the non-sense of it all.  Smart voters will see in either case – the stubbornness or some ability to compromise. Mr. Emerson, please take us out:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

What do you think?

Here’s the form to write to Senator Bishop, and here to Representative Dillon, and Governor Granholm