Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What was the budget war good for? Absolutely nothing

LANSING — It was about 56 minutes into Col. Mike Bishop's quixotic last stand at the Capitol early Monday when one of his GOP foot soldiers crossed enemy lines.

John Pappageorge marched over to fellow Sen. Tupac Hunter on the Senate floor and bellowed, "C'mon, let's go home."

But the Democrat didn't budge, and he didn't vote on the budget."Tell him to stay on the other side of the aisle," he hollered, just a half-hour after the last near-fisticuffs on the floor.

It would be another 26 minutes before the last vote hit the board at 4:18 a.m., much to the chagrin of yawning staffers and reporters.The skirmish was over a new services tax, the first shot Gen. Jennifer Granholm had fired when negotiations commenced in February.

The Democratic governor finally marshaled the troops, first twisting the arm of Republican Rep. Chris Ward on the income tax. Her next target was AWOL Democratic Sen. Glenn Anderson, who was quivering in the back room as a blue-jean-clad Granholm strutted across the chamber.

"Where is he?" she demanded with the moxie of Douglas MacArthur.

She got her man. Seconds after Anderson pushed the button for the service tax, Republicans fell in line and our long state budget nightmare was over.

In bleary-eyed hindsight, Granholm looked to have executed a flawless strategy.

Even consternated conservatives conceded victory after the Dems triumphantly impaled the GOP's no-tax mantra, hoisting a bounty of $1.35 billion in new revenue.

Granholm didn't even bother to hold a news conference right afterward, letting the results speak for themselves.

In reality, she got lucky after months of bitter brinkmanship. And to the victor go the political spoils.Truth is, Republicans couldn't pull the trigger.

Even the GOP-controlled Senate could only muster up $600 million worth of cuts — a far cry from the $1.8 billion deficit. In the end, Bishop had an easier time selling income- and sales-tax boosts to his soldiers than even that level of cuts.

Proving that although Republicans hate raising taxes, they hate cutting spending even more.

Everyone is gung-ho for cuts until they hit home. Then lawmakers aren't so keen on moms, teachers, seniors and CEOs banging on their office doors.

Take the $500 million the House cleaved from business tax breaks. Sounds great until you read the fine print, that without exemptions, Battle Creek's Duncan Aviation would high-tail it out of this state.

The reality is, no one in Lansing truly was itching to raise taxes. It was simple arithmetic. After more than a decade of cutting taxes and raiding funds while the state's economy tanked, the bills came due this year.

Proposals to gash spending fell far short of the deficit, like paring welfare and employee salaries, or were deemed unfeasible, like slashing prisons and schools.

That's because, year after year, we've already chopped higher ed, community health, K-12 schools and child-protective services. State government has the fewest employees since the 1970s.

Michigan's budget doesn't work like the feds', packed full of pork (or earmarks when they're in your district) and can (and does) run in the red year after year.

We don't have that luxury.

Maybe legislators finally had an attack of common sense in the blue hours of Monday morning.Or maybe they were just sick of sleeping in their cars after 17 straight days of battle.

Whatever the reason, Michigan dodged a ruinous government shutdown with the extreme last-minute budget deal — and that is good news for all.

The bad news is, legislators passed a hodgepodge of bills no one's even bothered to read, and they'll now have to spend the next 30 days working out the kinks. We can only hope the flaws won't mean the Wolverine State will face another critically out-of-whack budget next year.

For now, bruised lawmakers have left the battlefield in search of showers and Scotch.They said they were fighting for Michigan — but their backbiting and infighting has only further jeopardized the state's future.

"In a true compromise, no one can claim victory," Sen. Mark Schauer said without a hint of a smile late Sunday night.

After this debacle, no one in Lansing should.

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