Saturday, October 20, 2007

Long-term thinking still lacking in Lansing

"Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today/ And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey."— Grass Roots lyrics, 1967, and unofficial motto of the Michigan Legislature

Who knew that a risqué ode to sweet lovin' could so perfectly encapsulate the state's ongoing budget fiasco?

No, it ain't over yet.We still don't have a 2008 budget, and there are only 13 days left until the Halloween deadline — which, for the superstitious or policy wonks among us, are very bad signs, indeed.

When the Capitol gang held their Oct. 1 slumber party (House Speaker Andy Dillon forgot the beer), they only finished half the job. At least legislators were true to the work ethic they brandished when going on holiday for most of July.

Lawmakers finally swallowed $1.35 billion in new taxes, prompting Gov. Jennifer Granholm to sign a 30-day budget extension. But nobody had the stomach to send programs and jobs to the guillotine that night (witness once-slash-happy Republicans surrender their plan to cleave $600 million.)

Since then, the Legislature has gone on a great treasure hunt to find $440 million to cut, which probably will mean prisoners being let out, fewer poor people seeing doctors and fewer child abuse investigations.

Gotta find the money somewhere, and the state budget office says the departmental bleeding can't be absorbed solely by attrition and efficiencies.

The budget battle begins anew next week when bills come to the floor.Oh, and here's the bad news. We're fewer than four months away from having to do it all over again for 2009.What's worse, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council estimates we'll have a $200 million to $500 million hole to patch.

How's that possible? You can almost hear the sound of seething taxpayers surrounding the Capitol, pitchforks in hand.

After all, you now have to pay taxes on all your astrological and escort service needs. That wouldn't be so bad if we could stave off future draconian cuts to schools, health care and police.

It could work if we were investing in what would grow jobs and modernize Michigan — higher education, culture and natural resources. It would be worth it if Lansing finally licked the state's structural budget deficit.

If you're going to ask people to sacrifice, do it right.Here's the hard truth: They didn't.Extending the sales tax to some services isn't a bad idea, since our economy increasingly has shifted in that direction. Problem is, our tax system remains out of touch, said Tom Clay, former deputy state treasurer and the council's emeritus state affairs director.

The key is to draft a less capricious list than lawmakers cobbled together at the last minute. (Forget about fees to tee off, but pay up for phrenology, that staple of 19th century pseudoscience.)

Meanwhile, the economy and the auto industry are still in shambles — though there's some hope on the horizon for the Big Three with recent union contract talks. Still, there's little chance we'll see a boost in tax revenue for a while, especially if more people lose their jobs.

The new bump in the income tax to 4.35 percent doesn't stabilize revenues, Clay said. What's more effective is to raise the rate even more, and increase taxpayers' personal exemptions.

There's also initiating a gradual income tax rate, as most states have. Of course, that would take a constitutional amendment.

"This stuff is pretty straightforward," Clay says. "But it's pretty tough politically."

And there's the rub.Politicians have flaunted their "live for today" mantra since term limits kicked in, knowing they could shun unpopular reforms and pass unsustainable tax cuts to ride to re-election and sweet lobbying jobs afterward.

They no longer have $4.2 billion in reserves to raid, but lawmakers have done their damnedest this year to avoid tough choices anyway.All except Dillon, who truly gets it, but has been bogged down by the partisanship of his peers.

Like that of Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who's busily plotting a gubernatorial bid, and Minority Leader Mark Schauer. who's picking out curtains for his new congressional office.

Though there's little love lost between the two, they might well break into a soulful Grass Roots rendition betwixt fundraisers:

"We were never meant to worry the way that people do/ And I don't need to hurry as long as I'm with you/ We'll take it nice and easy and use my simple plan ..."

Simple plans often carry heavy price tags. The bills are coming due for Michiganders today, in more taxes and fewer services.
But unless politicians shed their tunnel vision, you can bet you'll keep paying more in years to come.

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