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Lawmakers fiddle as Michigan burns

Maybe it's how long winter seems to be holding on this year ‒ it was in the teens when I got up Sunday morning, and we're already well into April ‒ but I've been feeling more discouraged and grumpy than usual.

Perhaps it's because we had to put our beloved lab, HomeTown, down six weeks ago. We're still grieving; I find myself weeping at odd moments when memory bites. We're about to do some construction in our house, and Kathy and I dread the inevitable mess and confusion, not to mention moving the furniture out of the way. And then the septic pump at home gave out last week ‒ welcome to country plumbing.

My mood wasn't improved by reviewing the final report of the Center for Michigan's statewide public engagement campaign in 2016, which pulled together 125 statewide community conversations and polls involving more than 5,000 Michiganders. The message, loud and clear, was that people had lost trust in state government to manage even basic tasks. Even worse was the finding that people feel state government has lost the political will and managerial ability to fix things.

2016 report: Michigan residents to Lansing: We don’t trust you to do the basics
2016 report: Download a full PDF copy of the Center for Michigan report

The report concluded, "The risks of thinking and acting only in accordance with party lines and election cycles are too great. Michigan residents want, and deserve, a government that makes decisions that face our state's problems head-on, in a nonpartisan way, with innovation and an eye to a more prosperous future."

Nothing has happened in the intervening two years to change these attitudes.

January 2018: Despite low trust of gov't, Michigan legislators have done little to change
March 2018: Why don’t Michiganders trust government? Let’s count the ways

Our public schools have continued their downward slide; my last column concluded, "Michigan is in the process of becoming the worst state in the nation when it comes to educating our children."  

Expert after expert who has examined our "school system" has concluded that until the basic structure is overhauled, no meaningful improvement in student performance is possible.

Phil's column: Michigan’s #1 election issue is education

The long winter has resulted in even more potholes than usual this spring.  Fix the damn roads? Not according to the legislature, which scrounged a measly $600 million for slapdash roadwork, when infrastructure experts report it will cost $2 billion a year over a number of years to do the job right.  The respected columnist Jack Lessenberry last week wrote, "No one disputes that the state that put the world on wheels now has the worst roads in the nation."

Last week, Governor Snyder announced the state would end delivering free bottled water to Flint residents on the grounds that pollution in the water system had fallen to acceptable levels ‒ when it was state-appointed emergency managers who oversaw the poisoning of an entire city's water supply.

The Michigan Municipal League, which represents local governments around the state, has been warning for years that state government itself is responsible for shorting countless communities, which now have turned to laying off fire and police protection.

Wherever you look, this list goes on and on.

Lurking behind all this gloom and doom: An amazingly unresponsive state government. Poll after poll has shown that the public wants the legislature to fix the damn roads. Now. Public worry number one in the Center for Michigan's community conversations is that our kids will be forced to undergo a crappy school system that won't prepare them for good jobs in the future. The legislature is still debating how and whether to fix the state emergency manager law that represents the basic cause for the debacle in Flint ‒ and it's been years since the first signs of lead in the water began to show up.

What's behind all this? A fundamental failure in political governance in Michigan caused by anti-tax ideologues, term limits and gerrymandering.

Both houses of our legislature are firmly controlled by Republicans. Many GOP lawmakers have pledged not to raise taxes for any reason or for any purposes, even though we all know that when it comes to fixing the roads "you'll pay me now or you'll pay me (more) later".

But in a legislature where many districts are gerrymandered to favor the GOP, incumbents are scared if they raise taxes to perform the basic tasks of state governance, anti-tax ideologues will run against them in a primary election.

And Michigan's term limits ‒ already among the most restrictive in the nation ‒ mean that lawmakers in the House can't serve more than six years or eight in the Senate. Which means sitting lawmakers are home free, if only they can kick the can down the road for a few years.

A democracy depends on shared trust between the people and those elected to lead them. The people need to trust their leaders to consider the long-term benefits to society when they make decisions, rather than hewing to the expedient party line. And the people have to have enough trust in their leaders to be willing to sustain the belief that the system works to the benefit of all the people.

It's beginning to look as though what we're beginning to face is crisis in public trust. Which doesn't make me feel any less discouraged or grumpy than when I started writing this.

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