Friday, October 5, 2007

Readers deserve better government reporting

Ladies and gentleman, your leaders have failed you, and we in the media have failed you.

This Richard Clarke-esque epiphany crystallized somewhere in a 3 a.m. haze at the Capitol on Monday against the backdrop of infantile threats and finger-waving on the floor of Michigan's greatest deliberative body.

Afterward, everyone was left to bemoan what had gone wrong in our great state to make us shut it down for five hours, costing us upward of $1 million, when we were already almost $2 billion in the hole.

Culprits were, quite correctly, fingered as term limits, hyper-partisanship and gerrymandering.

Our neophyte legislators clearly had no concept of what it took to piece together a $42 billion budget without the aid of accounting tricks, even though they had 10 months to learn.

Thanks to term limits, which remain wildly popular, there are no old bulls left in the chambers to help steer the state from disaster. Former House Appropriations Poobah Don Gilmer paced helplessly on the sidelines Sunday night as he watched tadpole reps flail about.

Few, if any, lawmakers bothered to consult the erudite Emergency Financial Advisory Panel headed by former Govs. Bill Milliken and Jim Blanchard.

Pols would rather play the game of poisonous partisanship than make policy, pushed by the two parties and lobbies entrenched on both sides.

It's a dysfunctional system bolstered by redistricting, which is controlled by the party in power at the time of the census. Amazingly enough, the GOP last time managed to sketch state and federal districts that secured majorities, just as the Dems had before.

But enough about them. Flog the media, too.

We are your last line of defense against politics run amok. When the people are informed, it's a lot harder for leaders to run roughshod over us.

Sadly, too many media outlets view politics as a horse race and lack basic understanding of policy, so we figure you don't have to get it, either.

As an ignorant former editor of mine put it, "I view politics like baseball. The exciting time to cover it is during elections, like the playoffs. Otherwise, it's pretty much the off-season and no one's paying attention."

Wrong. I know poodles with a more nuanced take on public affairs.

You deserve to read about the history of the budget crisis, dating back to the '90s, when legislators — many who did know better — capitulated to what was easy and politically expedient. They slashed taxes to unsustainable levels to win elections. They raided $4.2 billion from reserves so they wouldn't have to make real reforms.

You deserve to read how budget cuts and higher taxes affect your life — how much you pay, how much you gain. That means connecting the dots from the state budget to all those local millages you've been asked to OK, program cuts at your local elementary school and the business that didn't open in your neighborhood because a tax structure wasn't in place.

You deserve to read about bills when they're introduced, not after they're law — from HPV vaccinations to pop-up tax reforms — so you know what your lawmakers are up to in Lansing and can be involved in the process.

In the last month, Michigan's press has been a model on all counts. But as soon as this crisis evaporates, so will our policy coverage.

Because just as the Legislature doesn't look like it did in 1983, neither does the Capitol press corps. It's been downsized by at least half, often the first victim in newspaper and affiliate cutbacks. Most media only run copy from wire services, which have taken big hits, as well.

What kind of message do we send to you, the people, when we don't do justice to the most important issues of the day?

In part, that's what's led to the explosion of political blogs, but most just litter the hyper-partisan wasteland. Anonymous posters at Right Michigan and Michigan Liberal routinely run propaganda the mainstream media normally wouldn't (and shouldn't) touch, such as the unbiased (ahem) state GOP poll showing Democrats are doomed with a tax hike or the Senate Dems whining about not being allowed to snap pics for political gain of the tax-hike tally.

We at the Enquirer, a small but scrappy paper, try to do our part, and I think we succeed more than any other in our weight class. But all journalists need to do more.

Because the stakes are too high in Michigan right now for us to fall down on the job.

Cowards and courage: I took aim in Tuesday's column at Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, for stalling on a vote for immediate effect of the new services tax. But Anderson did vote for it, though not for the actual bill, a move which could cost the freshman his seat.

That's what lawmakers are paid to do. But it's worth contrasting that with Rep. David Agema, R-Grandville, who decided embarking on a Russian hunting excursion was far more important than voting on Michigan's fiscal future.

Anyone who thinks the sheep slayer deserves another term should volunteer as his target practice.

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