Friday, September 28, 2007

Scorched Earth politics burn Michigan

Government needs to be run like a business, so we're always told.

Well, if that's the case, then haul Mike Bishop's butt into the soon-to-be closed unemployment office, thanks to a looming state government shutdown no one seems eager to stop.

The Republican Senate majority leader announced this week "there's no way" a budget can be finished by the Monday deadline and Gov. Jennifer Granholm better deal with it.

When conservative stalwarts like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Big John Engler beg you to compromise — even if it means raising taxes — by God, listen to reason, man. At least take their calls.

Mr. Bishop, in the business world, when you have 10 months to complete a project and countless experts at your disposal, failure equals firing.

Now aren't you glad you work for the big, bad government you're helping demolish?Slap the governor with a pink slip, too.

Granholm's earned it with her reckless disregard for the people about whom she claims to care — children, seniors, teachers, business owners, union members, the poor and the infirm.

During her '06 campaign, the Democratic guv proudly declared, "I'm the captain of this ship."Damn right. And while this ship plummets to new lows — along with the state's reputation and bond rating — she's done little other than blame the GOP.

Now the governor is content to turn away a lifeboat, the continuation budget passed by the Senate.Would it be a sign of political weakness? Who cares? We wouldn't have to destroy the state supposedly to save it.

Schools wouldn't have to close, seniors could still have in-home care and police and prison guards would still be paid to protect us from the bad guys.We wouldn't rack up $4 million a day in debt, adding to the already Herculean $1.8 billion we have today.

But the truth is, Granholm wants a showdown. The Capitol is abuzz this week that she reportedly told her staff, "I want this shutdown to be as painful as possible."

Which translates to: Screw you, Michigan, if I can gain partisan advantage off this. That's the one idea Bishop can agree with, egged on by desperate state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who's salivating over the catastrophe to jump-start his ailing party.

As this crisis careens into a shutdown — which seems inevitable, given the players and their pettiness — it should be a career-killer for Mike 'n Jen.

Any Democratic presidential campaign scouting out talent for an '08 administration (that means you, Hillary) should promptly pass on the poison that is Jennifer Granholm.

Anyone who sticks a Mike Bishop for Governor pin on his lapel should be forced to take a Breathalyzer test.

The tragedy is that everyone knows a deal could have been hammered out back in February if Lansing wasn't the playground of the inept, illogical and idiotic.

Such is the sad state of affairs when lobbyists outnumber citizens and journalists in the House and Senate galleries.

It already is too late to undo some of the damage — at the very least, some state payments and paychecks will be delayed — but our leaders still can turn this ship around.Don't leave the bargaining table until you do.

It is worth noting that the reasonable voices in these scorched earth times are those of Republicans, like the 28 former lawmakers who eloquently called for statesmanship and speed in solving the budget.

Leading the way in the Legislature is a duo from Livingston County, the lily white Detroit exurbs nicknamed the deep South of the far North, where raising taxes is akin to treason. Rep. Chris Ward was the sole Republican to pull the lever for an income tax hike anyway. Ditto for Sen. Valde Garcia in nixing $600 million in cuts to what he called "essential" services.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's called leadership.It's a stark contrast to the Democrats, cowering in the corner from former Rep. Leon Drolet, a little man with a big foam pig threatening recall efforts.

Step up to the plate, make some common-sense cuts to prisons and employee benefits and vote for a modest tax increase.

Wake up. We are now the laughingstock of the country, as if having the highest unemployment and a collapsing auto industry weren't enough.This crisis has gone way too far. The next move isn't about who blinks first.

It's about who loves this state enough to save it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

It's getting hot in here

Wise policy wonks often warn: Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

But when the absolute best you can hope for is mediocrity, then you're pretty well screwed.

That's the scenario with Michigan's budget that's currently $1.8 billion in the hole. Whatever plan Lansing throws together with chewing gum and Silly String by the Oct. 1 deadline — or after, if lawmakers commit grosser negligence than they have already — it will be a train wreck.

Just like previous budgets dating back to the '90s were a shell game of transferred funds and one-time fixes.

After hemorrhaging about 250,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, what anemic Michigan needs is a transfusion of new blood. The best way to do that is by making this a state people want to stay in, play in and raise their kids in. That means spending — not cutting — millions more for economic development, environmental protection and most of all, education from preschool to post-grad.

Confused? You should be. That's because no one is talking about what the Wolverine State really needs.In fact, if you've seen anything on the budget, it's probably a sound bite of pretty people sneering at each other at the Capitol.

That's almost criminal. Anyone who tells you there's a more-important story in Michigan right now is either an idiot or selling something.

It's not just the poor and infirm feeling the pain of this crisis.

You do, when your sewage bill doubles because your township is going bankrupt after receiving squat from the state.

You do, when you have to shell out $1,000 just for the privilege for Billy to play football at public school because the state has disinvested from education for years.

You do, when your speeding ticket is the price of a luxury hotel room because the cops have to cover costs the state used to pick up.

You do, when sending Sally to a state university costs as much as buying a second home.

Think about that the next time snake-oil salesman/Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop tries to sweet talk you into another $1.1 billion worth of cuts. Think about why Republicans won't even tell you from where the cuts are going to come.

As for the Dems, they evidently never read Dante, who warned, "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

Last week, 10 House Democrats in swing districts flaunted their neutrality, refusing to vote for a nudge in the income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.6 percent.

Putting that in perspective, it's about an extra five bucks a week for the median Michigan household.

That measure died, as have reasonable proposals to enact a services tax, cut prison spending and reform employee health care costs.

Because if there's a lesson to be learned from the budget battle, it's don't bother thinking for yourself.

Legislators, just sit at your exquisitely crafted desks and vote the way your leadership, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the AFL-CIO, the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance or God commands you.

Go ahead and yield to the recently issued edict of do-nothing Michigan congressmen to "stand firm" against godless tax hikes. Why not defer to the wisdom of Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, who has to ask the Club for Growth lobby for permission to go potty?

Leadership is overrated. Just ask the governor.

Though Jennifer Granholm finally showed the guts Tuesday to threaten to veto any plan without a modest tax increase, she blew this budget big time starting with a sales tax gambit in February she didn't even bother running past the Democratic leadership.

I don't care if the guv is under the spell of an overbearing first gentleman, sycophantic staff or the voices in her head. A brilliant orator, she of all people should have been able to make the case for Michigan's future.

Which is simple: Do we want to return to the days when our state was known for superlative education, high-tech health care and world-class recreation? Or do we want to cut our services as fast as our taxes to become the backwater of the Great Lakes states?

It's time to put our money where our mouth is.

No, it ain't as sexy as gay marriage, but make no doubt about it: The state budget does constitute the kind of moral crisis defined by Dante.

Our leaders have 11 days to pound out a plan that doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be good for most Michiganders. Better than the slapshot scheme they're bickering over today.

Otherwise we'll all feel the heat — not just on Oct. 1, but in years to come.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A sex scandal to make you squirm

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Through the thrush of evergreen forest and the Salmon River Mountains, it's about 319 miles to Larry Craig's hometown.

I will not be making a pit stop there — I have a date with the azure shores of Crater Lake — but I wonder how the locals view the voyeuristic feeding frenzy about their favorite son.

Because it's been making me queasy, and I don't even know the guy.

In case you've been even more lost in the wilderness than me, Craig was busted for allegedly putting the moves on a fellow stall dweller in an airport men's room.

The guy turns out to be a cop, the Republican senator cops to disorderly conduct and the sordid story turns out to be just what we all need to survive the Indian summer doldrums, since there are no shark attacks or abducted little girls to terrify us.

And what, evidently, could be more petrifying than a gay guy who likes to get it on in the filthiest of public places? Deadbolt those bathroom doors, gentlemen. No one is safe.

After a couple days of crucifixion and callow mockery ("Ooh! Craig called Bill Clinton a 'nasty, bad, naughty boy' and he is one!") the sexagenarian senator was forced to step down.

Look, Craig pleaded guilty. His explanations seem confused at best. Politicians should be held to a high standard.

But I'm having trouble understanding how his minor offense warranted automatic ejection from the Senate. And I find it amusing that the GOP was so eager to throw one of its own under the tracks quicker than posturing Democrats.It's not because it's sex.

If that's the case, what in God's name is David Vitter still doing in Senate chambers after admitting "a very serious sin" involving a D.C. cathouse? Where was the stampede to throw the deviant out?It's because it's gay sex — the ickiest kind. The kind the Religious Right — which still holds a noose around the GOP — believes is a randy rest stop on the highway to Hades.

Cavorting with a buxom hooker is a sin they can understand (remember that tramp, Mary Magdalene?) It's practically a beltway rite of passage.

But man-on-man congress in the public sphere, no less? That's incomprehensible. And wrong.

And it's precisely that kind of muddled thinking, masquerading as morality, that has turned so many people off of what used to be the Party of Lincoln.

As for the media, the Craig case brought out our worst.Sex scandals seduce networks into actually covering politics — if you call it that, and I don't.

Why bother delving into the specifics of Hillary Clinton's health care plan or Fred Thompson's views on anything besides playing tough guys on TV?

If the president boinks an intern or a congressman solicits a page, that's something we all can understand, right?

Sure, if your goal is winning the race to the bottom instead of informing and inspiring debate. We have so many things to report. Why is it that the cheap and tawdry win out every time?

That's why while I have written my share on political personalities, I have never touched stories shopped around by operatives about Senator X's sexual proclivities.

My questions always are: Do you have proof? How is this relevant to the campaign or the office? If the flacks can't answer them, then I ain't buyin'.

There was a right way to report on Larry Craig. And it wasn't news anchors feigning outrage at the hypocrisy of the senator's anti-gay votes, just to take a break from the illicit gay sex storyline.

The story could have been a textured exploration of public figures who preach family values and practice more profane ones. We could have asked the big questions, like what this says about our real ethics.

At least that way, my only reason for nausea would be writing this column while whipping around a wriggly mountain road.

Friday, September 7, 2007

On swine and spines

Right now, jittery state lawmakers are wishing the anti-bullying legislation they passed this spring applied to one Leon Drolet.

Drolet, the elfin former Republican state representative, has reinvented himself as chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, fond of stalking his old colleagues with a half-ton foam pig named Mr. Perks.

Considering a tax increase to give kids better schools? Mr. Perks and his adorable corkscrew tail beseech you to reconsider.

It's good, old-fashioned third-grade fun by a bunch of guys who haven't quite grasped the concept that evil taxpayer dollars allow us to flush dookie down the toilet.

But now the mirthful Mr. Drolet has turned serious, evidently intent on earning his $39,000 salary, more than half the alliance's funds, Gongwer news service reports.

(One does have to admire Drolet's conservative work ethic. When life gives you term limits, find a think tank, run back to the Macomb County Board of Commissioners from which you came and end up almost matching your sweet $79,000 Lansing salary — sans perks.)

Drolet is gearing up to file recall petitions against 10 Democratic and Republican legislators in swing districts (can you say politically motivated?) to browbeat them into supporting his group's extremist anti-tax agenda.

If need be, Drolet says he'll go after 20 more.Just what we need, to hemorrhage more moderate, reasonable voices in politics, just for doing what they think is right to represent the people of their district and the state of Michigan.

Nine times out of 10, recalls are an ill-conceived scare tactic — a waste of time and money. They should be reserved for cases of rampant illegality when the bum refuses to step down.

What we could face next year is total electoral chaos.State Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer has vowed to recall two Republicans for every Democrat. Not to be outdone, the Michigan GOP is floating a recall of Gov. Jennifer Granholm to motivate the base, throwing the presidential and state House races the Republicans' way.

This takes politicking to a whole new level of insanity, thanks to people allergic to making prudent policy.And it's superfluous. Despite last year's Democratic tsunami, it's not all doom and gloom for the GOP, which could still win in '08 fair and square.

If Michigan-native Mitt Romney is the presidential nominee, he could easily take the state — and thus the Electoral College. The trickle-down effect in state House races could restore GOP control.

Plus, the Dems could deliver a surprise Christmas gift. If state Sen. Mark Schauer unseats U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, (an almost statistical impossibility if Romney's on the ballot) then his old seat is in the bag, thus bestowing the GOP with a healthy 22-16 majority till 2010.

No Democrat, not even those closest to Schauer, thinks the seat will hold.As for the budget, if you seriously believe the Legislature can solve the $1.8 billion shortfall by Sept. 30 without a modest tax increase, then you've spent too much time inhaling Mr. Perks' fumes.

Do the math. Of the $42 billion state budget, most is in restricted funds for things like road repair. The only funds in play are the $13 billion K-12 school aid and the $9 billion general.

Neither party wants to get tagged with hating children, so that leaves deep cuts to corrections, higher education, human services, local governments and community health.

Go ahead and further gut the Department of Human Services and feign surprise at the next Ricky Holland case — the savings still won't go very far.

Nobody's eager to let the bad guys out to shrink the bloated $1.9 billion prison budget. And even if we pillage the entire $1.9 billion from higher ed (Lansing's favorite whipping boy), we'd still run short next year because our Paleozoic tax code never raises the revenue intended.

This isn't tax-and-spend madness. It's trying to keep the Capitol's lights on and ensure the Mitten State has a future.For those morally offended by taxes, I suggest you declare the glorious Republic of Notaxistan in the hinterland, where perhaps Dick DeVos will subsidize your police and public works. Or maybe you'll be content to let the dookie run free.

As for our leaders in the real world, just do your job.

Try something new, like passing a budget and pertinent laws to grow jobs, broaden health care access and improve schools. Seems that would be better for your job security than bumbling around in a daze of fear and confusion.

After all, even Mr. Perks appears to have a spine.