Saturday, May 12, 2007

Taxpayers made good choices for Michigan on Tuesday

I am a Michigander by choice, not by birth.

When I moved here almost three years ago, I was fresh off a stint covering the Iowa presidential caucus, just about the only reason to live in the cornfields. And that circus only stampedes into town every four years.

Moving to a land lush with lakes, museums and actual professional sports teams (four of 'em) seemed like a pretty good deal.

After scaling Sleeping Bear Dunes and submerging myself in Diego Rivera's fervid murals, I fell in love — hard and fast.

Little did I know, I was bucking the trend to migrate into the Mitten State, instead of high-tailin' it out of here like 20-somethings by the truckload.

Sure, I'd seen the headlines about Michigan's catatonic economy. But it just didn't seem possible that the land built by W.K. Kellogg, Herbert H. Dow and Henry Ford could have plummeted to the prosperity level of Mississippi.

And it didn't seem plausible we would ravage funding for our world-class public universities to plug the state's $1 billion structural deficit each year — which will never go away until we overhaul the tax system.

But after working everywhere from Howell to Saginaw to Battle Creek, it became clear. My adopted state was in trouble.

Now we have one of the worst budget crises in the nation.And if Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature can't thrash out a compromise to choke off a $700 million deficit by June 1, we'll see more teacher and police layoffs, more prison and school closings and more citizens without medical care.

We don't have the money.


But wait, it gets worse. The government could shut down — and that's not a good thing. We'll all feel the squeeze, beyond being unable to renew a driver's license. Cash-strapped cities and townships depend on state money to collect our trash, fix our roads and run water so we can flush our toilets. That's the stuff we take for granted.

So how do we solve this mess?

Tuesday, voters from just about every corner of Calhoun County took a surprising step. They modestly raised their own taxes or turned down rollbacks.

As much as we're all hurting, most people seem to think our schools, police and sewage systems are hurting, too.

Still, there are many, like White House adviser Karl Rove, who stubbornly maintain Michigan's problem is "too many taxes and too much spending."

That was the turd of conventional wisdom he dropped while recently collecting some cash for the GOP in Jackson. It's a sentiment too often echoed by Luddite legislators barely four months into office.

As someone who's just had to fork over a whole lotta money to four different governments, I can say that taxes do not top my list of favorite things.

But we've taken the tax-cutting frenzy too far, and our state is withering because of it. Not even Standard & Poor's believes purging $2 billion more in business taxes will jump-start the economy.

Almost 65 percent of Michiganders believe we need both service cuts and tax increases to get us out of the doldrums, compared to 23 percent who think cuts can do it alone, a new EPIC-MRA poll shows.

But Granholm is locked in an ego war with Senate Republicans, who seem to think approving a service tax is akin to calling for the slaughter of the firstborn.

They need to take a breath, and a page from our local officials, and invest long-term in what matters in Michigan — instead of slashing and burning our way to mediocrity.

All our kids need a top-notch education from preschool to postgrad. Cities like Battle Creek, Muskegon and Detroit need to undergo the renaissance Chicago has. Enough police need to be out there nabbing drug dealers and murderers.

Those aren't luxuries. That's called living in a civilized society. And study after study shows boosting critical programs — especially education — is the smartest economic development investment the state could make.But that takes money.

And a heaping dose of common sense, like Calhoun County voters showed Tuesday.

Most of all, it takes risk and innovation. Which was the very spirit the Wolverine State was founded upon, after all.

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