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.