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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 04/10/2018 - 8:42am

Phil is right to be pissed - this is what happens when people who don't believe in government get put in charge of the government.

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 8:57am

WELL SAID. I share your grumpiness--for the same reasons, plus more. There may be hope for the gerrymandering, if Voters Not Politicians succeeds with its ballot initiative this fall. But for ANYTHING to happen, we all need to wake up and realize that we are the only ones we punish when we, via our choice of representatives, refuse to pay the tab for vital services. When we somehow lost track of the fact that we all (rich and poor, business and individual, urban and rural) share this beautiful state--and country--and that we all must collectively pay the bills, we asked for the rolling disaster that we now experience. We've allowed ideologues to turn "taxes" into a four-letter word with evil implications. That is wrong. Taxes can be overdone, and they can be misused, but most of the time they simply are the cost of living in a civilized society. There is no free lunch, as the old saw goes. We need to wake up, grow up, start paying attention and start paying the tab, before there is no lunch left at all.

sam melvin
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 9:59am

the 2020 census is coming and all citizen will be counted?yes ! that is more money then our working Michigander pay, so where is or will be spend on ..lets see the number on 3 X budget that are Michigan ...
the number from the daily intake of Lottery money..
also the Daily cash intake from SE.of State,
the FEES intake of Lics..hunting,business ...etc ..
income fromm OIL , water ...etc.
TABACO fund .money for all citizen...?
so you see there is plenty of money to go around, just not released to do good in michigan1
see there is much more mon

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 8:57am

You, sir, are right in blaming the Republicans for the present mess, as they have controlled all branches of Michigan's government for many years. But don't forget to save some criticism for the voters of this state who have allowed this situation to continue. In other words, many of the guilty parties are simply doing what the majority of their constituents want them to do. We have met the enemy, and they are us.

Richard Jaissle
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 8:17pm

Yep, ALEC has a lot to do with this mess - and their pro-business shenanigans are made all the easier by the term limit fiasco that is Michigan. We've tumbled a long way down from the days when Michigan was a progressive beacon and builder of the middle class. And at the root of this mess is the two-party system. That's what leads to gerrymandering. We should be allowed to choose which individuals we want to represent us, not be stuck at primary time having to chose a party. Let's get rid of those R's and D's after candidates names. And let's get rid of out-of-district campaign contributions, too!

Greg Rosine
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 9:14am

Is anyone listening?

Jim Fuscaldo
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 9:30am

After 7 years of “dawdling” about financing roads, bridges, water, sewer and other Michigan infrastructure needs, it is time the Republican controlled administration and legislature in Lansing consider creative financial private investment opportunities for infrastructure. The financial investment concept of Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) is an alternative to taxes and bonds to fund infrastructure. Legislation authorizing the funding for infrastructure using a PPP has been passed in thirty-three states (except Michigan) and the District of Colombia.

Congress, with support from the business oriented Trump administration, have reduced taxes on the repatriation of foreign profits. It is time to make it financially attractive for private enterprises to invest those profits in state infrastructure needs. Lansing must consider providing state tax incentives to U.S. corporations who are subject to State of Michigan taxation when such corporations use their repatriated profits as capital investments in a state infrastructure PPP.

Congressional leadership has periodically confirmed the use of PPPs to fund infrastructure. President Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure package is intended to attract private capital. Michigan must be prepared to take advantage of this plan. Michigan’s Republican controlled administration and legislature must initiate and pass broad based PPP legislation and tax legislation to encourage and enable Michigan’s corporations to reinvest their foreign profits in Michigan’s infrastructure. Local businesses who would benefit from infrastructure improvements, and who desire to have “skin in the game” should also be provided with direct state tax benefits for their investments in a PPP.

Communities challenged with aging water and wastewater infrastructure, increasingly complex regulatory requirements and budgetary constraints require proven alternative solutions other than taxation or bail outs from Washington. Many states and municipalities have entered into Water-Waste Water Utility Public Private Partnerships.
The American Legislative Exchange Council has a draft proposal available for state legislatures to consider to authorize PPP’s within their states. The District of Columbia; Chicago Heights, Illinois; Edison and Bayonne, New Jersey, and Seattle, Washington are a few municipalities that have implemented PPP’s to manage their water and waste water treatment facilities. In short proven and tested models and solutions are available. It is time for Lansing to think “outside the box”.

Lansing must enter the Twenty-First Century of financial creativity for infrastructure needs. PPP legislation must also authorize local units of government (Flint) to utilize PPPs for local infrastructure needs (sewer and water treatment).

One more thing! It is time for the legislature to eliminate the “establishment’s” corporate slush fund. It is called the Michigan Business Development Program. The MBDP only “develops” some businesses at the expense of everyone else by giving subsidies to a few companies selected by the bureaucrats. The current state budget allocates about $115 million for the MBDP to fund questionable crony capitalism. It’s time to replace the politician’s favorite campaign phrase “we need to”… with “I will do”. Just saying!

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 3:18pm

Any 'ALEC' solution is the wrong one for Michigan. 'Private Public Partnerships' is simply: 'privatize profits, socialize costs'.
Thank you for your copy and paste 'patriotism'. The wealthy and corporations thank you.

Jim Fuscaldo
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 6:46pm

And your solution for raising capital to fund infrastructure costs is...??? Raise taxes??? State infrastructure bonds??? Who will purchase the bonds and provide the capital for infrastructure costs...private/institutional investors???....foreign governments??? Who will provide the income/ revenue to pay the interest on the bonds....???? More Taxes???? The State of Michigan is still financially liable on the costs of construction of the Mackinaw Bridge. By the is dumping more tax money into Michigan's education system working out?? Can you substantiate your criticism of Public Private Partnerships with facts.... Facts are stubborn things! You can deny them, you can ignore them but you can't change them. Just saying! The media pundits are quick to criticize...but slow to provide alternative solutions! Why not have a public debate on the merits and potential pitfalls of using Public Private Partnerships to raise capital for Michigan's infrastructure needs. Just asking?

Mary Fox
Fri, 04/20/2018 - 3:30pm

How about ending the 9.6 BILLION in yearly welfare for corporations WHO ARE REQUIRED TO DO ABOSLUTELY NOTHING TO BENEFIT THE CITIZENS OF THIS STATE, NOT CREATE ONE JOB. Instead spend the money on teachers, roads, lead removal, environmental monitoring, bridge replacement AND REQUIRE WORKERS BE HIRED AND LIVE IN MICHIGAN.

Paul Jordan
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 9:15am

So-called 'public-private partnerships' socialize the cost and privatize profits that are ultimately guaranteed by the public. Show us someplace where that has not been the case, and perhaps you might convince someone.

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 9:32am

By keeping "UP" with the rest of america, Michigan might get more business ..
like the $ 46 mill that moved to Alabama...or having full train transportation opens up michigan more business or Tourist business...

sam melvin
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 9:50am

Money for Roads: in 1990......... $ 328 million
in 2001...........$1,54 BILLION ....... 369% increase
Money for schools per -pupil.... in 1990.........$ 4.236
in 2001.............$6,648....56,9% increase 1990......... 0000
in 2001...........20 ............income?????
Total State Budget in 1990...................$ 19.6 Billion
in 2001....................$ 36,5 Billion .........60.7% increase
General Fund Budget in 1990..................$ 7.7 Billion
in 2001..................$ 9.7 Billion..........27.1 % increase
Rainy Day Fund in 1990.................$ 385 million
in 2001 .............$ 1.3 Billion ...............238% increase
under Gov. new appoints....raised salary from $ 157 000 tooooo $ 330 000
too Citizin made poor $ 2.00 now

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 10:09am

But the TV commercials that Snyder is doing for Calley says that everything is wonderful. LOL.

Bob Short
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 10:18am

I'm old enough to remember when Michigan was #1, for many years in having the best highways in the nation. Gas tax went into a separate fund, then the legislature put it into the general budget! Since then the roads, over years went to hell!
Few in today's legislature seem too care!

Richard Cole
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 10:53am

Reading your column makes me (again) thankful that we have you looking over the shoulders of our legislators (a low bar, indeed) and shaking your finger at them, and I know that you are looking out for nothing more than the best interests of the state, and the responsibility we seem to be overlooking to leave the state in better shape than we found it. And I was so saddened to hear of the loss of your pal and my friend, the wonderful "Hometown," and I am reminded of the great philosophical truth that "with all this horse excrement, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere." A much wiser person than I once observed that I have to stop looking at the glass as half empty, and I need to go out an get a smaller glass. I know you are one who will never allow your expectations or energy to be downsized. You are the best.

Janet Van
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 1:57pm

First, I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved dog.
Second: Between this column and the other Bridge articles in my email today, I see that Lansing is taking our tax dollars and NOT spending them on: Schools, police, roads, Flint and the poor. WHERE IS IT GOING? If I've missed a comprehensive Bridge report on this, I would love a link to it; you're pretty much the best source for that kind of insight. Thanks.

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 2:07pm

Sorry to be out of step with congratulatory praises of previous commenters. But Phil, what is your plan? What taxes do you want raised? How should this windfall be allocated? And what exactly makes you so certain that these additional funds will make the difference you seek? These, woe is me (us), idealess articles and comments are boring. Pick a problem and give us your solution!

Kevin Grand
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 2:37pm

"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."

Not to fear, Mr. Power...a solution is readily at hand!

Since you feel that yourself (and others) are not "contributing" enough to Lansing I would highly recommend that you open up your checkbook, make out whatever amount you feel is necessary to assuage your conscience, stick it into an envelope and mail it to this address:

Michigan Department of Treasury
Lansing, Michigan 48922

I'm certain that Treasurer Khouri (or most likely a subordinate) will promptly cash your check, thereby easing your conscience.

And as for term limits, if someone cannot get off of their duff and fix the problems that they campaigned on, why would giving them even more time to solve that problem make any difference whatsoever?

Washington DC would be the benchmark of efficient government were that actually the case.

We both are smart enough to know that it is not.

John Q. Public
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 12:22am

The report concluded, "(M)ichigan 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."

Perhaps the authors would care to explain how they reached that conclusion. Michigan residents have ample opportunity to vote for candidates who will do that, and they never do. Since they continually elect, then re-elect, candidates who ignore (and seemingly abhor) excellence, I find it impossible to think we 'deserve' it.

de Toqueville must have been talking about Michigan when he made his famous quote.

Paul Jordan
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 9:12am

The answer is: Gerrymandering. This guarantees that the vast majority of representatives--Republican AND Democrat--are elected in safe districts. Both become complacent. The result is that we have a senate and house that protect and preserve their members' ignorance and incompetence.
There are three complementary solutions. The first two are to require a non-partisan redistricting commission to redraw districts, and to eliminate partisan primaries. If the top two vote-getters of any party advance to the November election, then there are no more safely partisan districts.
The final thing would be to eliminate term limits. Dominic Jacobetti has now been out of the legislature for many years, and it is time to rely on elections to limit terms.

Don S
Thu, 04/19/2018 - 6:57pm

Michigan has some of the highest, (top 5?) gasoline taxes in the country, and one of the lowest spending in the nation on roads. We don't need new taxes for roads, and the citizens told Lansing that 80-20. But Snyder and his RINO cronies imposed the taxes on us anyway, and then spent it on anything but roads. Senator Patrick Colbert was threatened with having his legs broken by Nolan Finley, when he dared to point out where the road money was really going (Medicaid). MDOT has broken spending priorities. Public Act 51 is broken. This state gives too much road money to Detroit. And as a concrete (pardon the pun) example of this, Detroit is paving residential streets with state road money, while the rest of the states county mile roads crumble. We don't need trains, buses, bike paths, roundabouts, curbs and sidewalks, when the roads are crumbling before our eyes. Snyder was the biggest tax and spend governor in Michigan. And he's been led by the nose by Business Leaders for Michigan, and their crony capitalism. These people don't give a rat's behind about taxpayers. We need more conservative Republicans who aren't afraid to stand up to the billionaires, and media.