Wednesday, March 28, 2007

High school attitude ruling the State House

Washington may be Hollywood for ugly people, but it's the bickering beautiful people who reign today in Lansing.

The Capitol is at the mercy of the callow cool crowd from high school — the jocks, cheerleaders and Future Business Leaders of America who made sure their mugs were splattered on every yearbook page.

But they never really did anything.

That's not going to fly in Michigan right now.

We hold the embarrassing distinction as the only state with a negative credit rating from Standard & Poor's, because smug legislators slew the $1.9 billion Single Business Tax last year without bothering to replace it.

Right now, we're running out of time to plug a $900 million hole in this year's budget. And then it's off to tackling the $3 billion shortfall projected for next year.

What Michigan needs right now is leadership.

We didn't get it Thursday.

No, instead we're treated to the tiresome antics of Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, our very own homecoming king and queen sparring for the spotlight on the tacky gymnasium stage.

On Feb. 8, the immaculately-coiffed Democratic guv smiled at the crowd, trumpeting her budget plan complete with a $500 million business tax cut and a 2-percent tax on services.
Sniggering Republicans said they'd think about it, while House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche slapped a "Kick Me" sign on beleaguered Budget Director Bob Emerson's back.

Granholm, fresh off a landslide victory for her final term, still seems oddly paralyzed by Sally Field syndrome. She'd rather have people like her than make tough decisions in a truly comprehensive plan to save the state.

On Valentine's Day, the aqua-eyed Bishop dumped Granholm YouTube ninja style, announcing the GOP-led Appropriations Committee had rejected her executive order out of hand.

Mike felt betrayed by Jen, who would never return his calls. And he wanted his Duran Duran tape back.

The next week, Bishop proclaimed he'd solved the budget crisis sans tax hike in his super-secret plan, evidently ditching that day of history class on Richard Nixon's fictitious one to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam.

Bishop's main goal isn't to solve this fiscal train wreck. He'd rather tag Granholm with this mess and coast to the governor's mansion in 2010 John Engler-style.

Waiting in the wings is House Speaker Andy Dillon, the slick-haired student body president who's friends with everyone. He flirts with Jen in calculus but still cracks open a beer with football buddy Mike after practice.

Leaving the role of Granholm's cheerleader to Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer, Dillon came out last week with ideas no one can argue with, such as cutting legislator benefits.

Courted mercilessly by both sides, the Democrat clearly is relishing his role as the decider. He's willing to cut more services than Granholm but raise taxes more than Bishop — as long as the final compromise won't jeopardize his control of the House next year.

By the end of last week, the homecoming king had stopped talking to the student body president, and both were miffed the homecoming queen had jetted off to Germany.

Thursday, Granholm issued her executive order with $344 million in cuts. Bishop had already determined she didn't go far enough and led the Senate effort to slash schools by $34 per student. They're no closer to a deal.

And so the political posturing goes.

The frustrating part is that it doesn't have to be this way.

Ambitious, astute and all under 50, the Capitol cool crowd isn't wonting for talent. As a reporter, I've found all three eager to talk policy; where they falter is in solutions.

With only 14 years combined state budget experience, the trio needs to book some serious time with the old bulls who have been through this before. Say, the tragically underused members of Granholm's own bipartisan Emergency Financial Advisory Panel.

They might not look as pretty on TV, but they know Michigan has to reform employee benefits, invest in higher education and restructure outmoded taxes to build a better budget and a stronger state.

One thing is clear: The longer our leaders wait, the worse things get.

Entrepreneurs are refusing to set up shop in a state lacking a clear business tax structure. Poor children don't know if they'll still have health care. Students wonder if their schools can afford to stay open. Prison guards don't know if they'll have jobs.

Granholm, Bishop and Dillon have to decide if they like playing politics or if they love this state.

It's one or the other.

Ten million Michiganders await their answer.