Giving Michigan voters what they want

Michigan's next statewide election is almost a year and a half away. We'll be electing a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.  

Every one of the 148 seats in the state House and Senate will be up for election, too.  Sadly, it's already possible to figure out what the big quarrel will be next November. It will be between the tax cutters, who now control the legislature, and those who insist that our futures depend on investing more in things like schools and roads.

Republican lawmakers, who have a lock on the state legislature, are hell-bent on cutting the state income tax, even though the cut would be worth chump change to the average family.

However, they need to figure out how to cut taxes without crushing Michigan's economic future by inflicting on us ever-worsening schools, even crappier roads and more local communities which are failing because their public services are being strangled.

On the other hand, those making the case for public investment need to show how they intend for us to pay for all the education and infrastructure improvements they are certain we need.

Not only that, they must convince a public that is deeply disillusioned with government that these investments will be worth it.

Sounds tough.  And nasty.

Especially for the average Michigan voting family, which is both trying to survive the aftermath of the Great Recession ‒ and find good reason for them and, especially, their kids, to hang around in the hope of a better future.  Many people simply cannot figure out how in blazes Michigan has gone from one of the country's richest and best run states to one that's 34th in per capita income, leads the nation in deteriorating school performance and has a government that has become a national joke for poisoning an entire city’s water.

Here's a suggestion for anybody who's thinking of running for office next year: Instead of buying in mindlessly to either Republican or Democratic doctrine, think about what ordinary citizens want.

What, that is, average citizens might hope to see to make a better state ‒ a citizens' agenda for a better Michigan.

I have three simple suggestions for what that might look like:

Fix our politics. Community conversations and statewide polls sponsored by The Center for Michigan have revealed a citizenry that overwhelmingly distrusts our political system, figures politicians are in the game mainly for their own benefit and is deeply skeptical that voting will make much difference.

Two things lurk at the heart of citizen distrust: Gerrymandering and term limits. Given the opportunity, both political parties are always thrilled to stack the redistricting decks to make sure their nominees get elected and re-elected. The last time districts were redrawn was in 2011, when Republicans controlled the process.

The result: The GOP has iron-clad control of the legislature, winning majorities even when their candidates collectively get fewer total votes than their Democratic rivals.

With many districts rigged in favor of one party or the other, ordinary voters have no real chance of making a choice. And because gerrymandered districts are kept safe for one party or another, office holders have no incentive to listen to citizens outside their party or to work across party lines to get things done.

Voters not Politicians is a new group that wants to put a state constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would give the power to draw district lines to an independent, nonpartisan commission. The idea is to give the power to set districts to citizens, and not to the politicians who want to rig the game.

Michigan also has some of the strictest term limits in the nation ‒ six years for state reps, eight for state senators ‒ after which they can never serve again.

The net effect is that almost as soon as wet-behind-the ears lawmakers are sworn in, they start worrying about raising money for the next office. As a practical matter, our term limits constitute an incentive that favors inexperience.

That's one reason why anybody who knows anything about how Lansing works rolls their eyes when asked whether they think anything useful can come out of our current legislative process.

Invest in our people. The returns on investing in human capital ‒ the skills and the knowledge of our citizens ‒ are far greater than any returns from investing in plant or equipment. But many policymakers in Lansing act as though they seem to believe that investing in our future is a low priority.

It shouldn’t be.

Kids who can't read, do math or graduate from high school are condemned to a lifetime of low wages. The statistics may be outdated, but it’s clear that too many adult residents of Detroit remain functionally illiterate – something that is clearly a big part of what's responsible for persistently high poverty in the city.

States where a high percentage of the workforce have post-high school degrees ‒ think Massachusetts, California, Minnesota ‒ have thriving economies that feed of the brainpower of their citizens.

This isn't soft-hearted, teary-eyed liberalism. It's tough reality. It's why business groups like Business Leaders for Michigan make investing in education one of their highest priorities. They know this is one investment that is worth it.

Get Serious About Government. The easy way to diagnose who is a left or a right-winger is to ask about the role of government in our society. Liberals want more of it; conservatives want less.

Unfortunately, this argument makes no sense whatsoever, because it is nothing more than generalized blather. Whether we have more or less government isn’t what matters.

What we want ‒ and what we're entitled to expect for our tax dollars ‒ is effective, efficient government that works and helps make things better. Candidates who offer ways to do this will succeed.

And my guess is that any candidates who take up my challenge to campaign for a simple citizens' agenda to make Michigan better – regardless of party ‒ will be those who win.

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Joe Spaulding
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 9:12am

Phil,

Joe with Voters Not Politicians here. I know it seems like a minor detail, but it is important to clarify that our proposed commission will be nonpartisan, not bipartisan as was stated in the article originally. Current language heavily favors involvement from interested voters who have not worked for a political party for to make up the commission.

Hopefully the importance of the distinction is obvious to dedicated readers of your column; the problem with gerrymandering is far deeper than an imbalance between red and blue districts or a disparity in outcome between the number of people voting for the incumbent party and the number of seats won by the incumbent party. Even within parties our system needs to be fixed if we want to hold our nominees accountable once they are elected.

Partisan influence from the redistricting process can be reduced until it has no impact. All it takes is a combination of a proposal, like the one being worked on by Voters Not Politicians, which is mindful of the difficulty of eliminating partisanship from the electoral process, and they hard work of the thousands of volunteers needed to get this proposal on the ballot.

Finally, speaking of volunteers, we are a 100% volunteer run and donor driven organization and campaign, so at the risk of sounding self-serving, please go to votersnotpoliticians.com , read up on what we are about, and sign up to circulate a petition or to donate. We can not be successful if everyone who knows this issue is vital for democracy in Michigan simply wishes us luck.

Thank you,
Joe Spaulding

Nancy Derringer
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 9:59am

Thanks for pointing that out, Joe. I am making the fix now. 

Bob Barnhart
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 9:33am

You make some great points, Phil. I agree that Gerrymandering is a disincentive to voting and destructive to our democracy. Well funded public education and adult work training opportunities are key to a healthy economy. Your article should be required reading for all Michigan politicians.

David Waymire
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 10:36am

People do not want another tax cut. They want investment. And if we create a fair tax system (today in Michigan, the wealthy pay a smaller share of their income to taxes than do the poor and middle class) they will support that. Here is question from a statewide poll earlier this year, taken when GOP leaders were insisting on a massive cut in state income taxes.

Which of the following two statements comes closer to your view? [ROTATE TWO
PARAGRAPHS BELOW]
The most important thing state government can do to provide more and better jobs and a higher quality of life for Michigan families is provide a quality education, good roads and transportation, quality public services like safety, water, fire protection, parks and libraries that create an environment in which people want to live, work and run a business.
OR....The most important thing state government can do to create more and better jobs and improve the quality of life in Michigan is to cut taxes for individuals and business. That’s what really creates more and better jobs and will make our state a better place to live and work.
67% Statement 1 – provide a quality education, good roads & transportation, & quality public services
30% Statement 2 – cut taxes for individuals and business
3% Undecided/Refused

Chuck Jordan
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 10:46am

Nice idea Phil, but not gonna happen. As long as we have a two party system that is as adversarial as it is, nothing will change. We need more that 2 (really only one) parties so others have a say so in government. That's not gonna happen either as long as congress has made it impossible for other parties to be successful.

Matt
Wed, 05/24/2017 - 9:29am

Giving voters what they want!!! Wow, where do you start with that? As usual we get the failed schools story, without the question to the parents, "How much time did you spend going over that spelling test or math problems with your kid?" Or " Why can't Michigan be like Massachusetts?" Why Greece isn't like Germany.? We hear the ventilation about redistricting and term limits, yet how many voters even know who their representatives even are? Or that there is really any such thing as an "independent non-partisan commission". Maybe instead of relying on big changes pushed or forced down from the state, maybe the solutions lie in small changes that people do largely themselves? Maybe much of this dissatisfaction bandied about is because they, the citizens, secretly know it and the government is a convenient place to pass off the blame and discomfort? Maybe this dissatisfaction is because we no longer and even agree on basic foundational premises and the solution doesn't exist to some large part of the voters?

duane
Wed, 05/24/2017 - 1:29pm

I am saddened by Mr. Power’s article. I am one of those voters who truly wants to see the politics change, I want the results government is delivering to change, I believe that officials need to be asking and listening to the voters and change to deliver on what voters want.
So as I began reading MR. Power’s article/commentary I became hopeful, and when he framed it as “…a citizens' agenda for a better Michigan…” I thought this could be the first step in change by reframing Michigan politics and rebuilding voter trust by focusing on results. I continued to read to see how it could happen and reality hit me square in the face, it was the same old politics. Mr. Power create a gimmick campaign phrase and gave us his long held agenda, even worse, there was nothing new, it was nothing that would change any results and would only further our distrust. It was the same old politics buried under a pile of same old media arrogance.
Mr. Power sees how frustrated voters are but rather than listen to voters and hear about how they want results that are better than we are getting, he tells us, in our despair, that it is how we elect people that is wrong and we need to end ‘term limits’ [which the voter chose], we need to end ‘gerrymandering’ which we have had in good times and bad. Effectively he says the ones he wants in power are out of power so the rules have to change so they can get back into power, and ignore program/spending results.
To show his listening to ‘citizens’ he tells how we need to spend more on ‘human capital’ [education] and holds up Detroit as the glaring example of why, ignoring how many millions and millions have been spend on Detroit schools to deliver the results he bemoans. He sees spending more and more of other people’s money as the solution while history in Detroit and around the State show it has failed. We need to have conversations with the students that are succeeding and listen to why and how they are succeeding, not hearing the same old cry for more spending and blaming the program failures on other people.
I am saddened, that in a time of falling voter/citizens trust in politics and in the media, Mr. Power wants to return to the same old politics and simply wrap it in a different catch phrase.
If Mr. Power we truly interested in “a citizens’ agenda”’ he would being talking about specificity of results, about program accountability, and about pubic visibility. He would be asking about government activities and the results they are delivering, about how voters can measure the performance of programs, how citizens can regularly assess politicians and media, how we together can change Michigan and its quality of life. If Mr. Power truly believed in the ‘citizens’ agenda’ he would start here on Bridge by having conversations with readers about why they have lost trust in our longest and most critical institutions, about how that trust can be regained, about how the ‘citizens’ agenda’ should be constructed.

Pam
Sat, 05/27/2017 - 10:02am

Duane, please read and understand how Redistricting is accomplished in Michigan and the history of "Gerrymandering" before spouting off. I suspect the state of Michigan will return to democratically controlled legislature within a couple voting cycles...just in time for the next census in 2020. The party in power will redistrict the state to favor keeping them in power for future elections if allowed to control the splitting of the state. You should be kissing the "liberal's" feet for trying to pass this constitional amendment that will ensure a balanced process and make your vote and voice louder. Frankly, I would love it if the Democrats would stay in power, turn this state back to blue, but also want the "will of the residents" to prevail. This is not a red or blue issue but a citizen controlled vs politician controlled issue.

duane
Sat, 05/27/2017 - 9:02pm

Pam,
Do you think the last election showed a diminishing voter confidence in government and elected officials? Do you believe that by changing 'gerrymandering' this will rebuild voter trust?
It seems 'gerrymandering' was around since 1812. If it is such a horrendous and politically debilitating activity, how have we survived so successfully with it for over 200 years?

How many [110 Representative and 38 Senate] districts would you identify as 'gerrymandered'? Do you believed that 'gerrymandering' in Michigan began with the Republicans? Do believe that Democrats haven't used 'gerrymandering'? Do realize that both Parties at one time or another were in power using 'gerrymandering' and they subsequently lost power?

Specifically, how does 'gerrymandering' impede the voters? Does it prevent the secret ballot in those districts? Does it restrict who can vote based on the Party affiliation? Does 'gerrymandering' guarantee the results in those districts?

Throughout my life I have heard this complaint about 'gerrymandering', a common factor seems to be that the complainants were always the ones who are out of power, unhappy about a recent election.

Luba Petrusha
Sun, 05/28/2017 - 11:23am

Computers have made a huge difference. Gerrymandering in the old days was a lot of guesswork and fairly crude. There was only so much you could do.

Nowadays computers can help politicians custom design congressional districts. Rather than need ing a district which is overwhelmingly R or D to protect a seat, they can have one that is jsut R or D enough to guarantee a win. Rather than a few safe sets, they can create districts that are mostly or all safe seats.

duane
Sun, 05/28/2017 - 5:06pm

Luba,

You seem to presume that voters today are as blindly loyal to a particular Party as they have ever been. I disagree, I think the computers you claim can make district drawing so precise also allows voters to have much better access to information and the voters have change making more decision on their own rather than relying on the pronouncements of others.

The most effective way to diminish any impact 'gerrymandering' may have it to provide voters with credible criteria for voters to use when assessing candidates. I think voters would like remove the emotional appeals and personal attacks on candidates from the election process, but people with the means to change the political campaign [such as Mr. Power and Bridge] don't step up to facilitate the development of a new criteria for assessing candidates.

What criteria would you suggest for voters to use?