Saturday, November 24, 2007

Heavy-hitters needed on deck

Back in the halcyon days when we deluded ourselves that Michigan had a functional government, I sat down with a group of dewy-faced Democratic House staffers.

And walked away unshakably depressed.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm was set to announce her state budget in February, so I asked the aides what their plan looked like. “

That’s really the governor’s thing,” I was told by a smirking staffer, rolling her charcoal-smudged eyes. “We don’t really do that in the House, you know.”

Well, yes, I passed seventh-grade social studies, too, dear. But I also know that the damn Legislature needs to come up with its own spending priorities and choose where to whack – especially when we’re in dire straits. That’s why we have committees headed by lawmakers with expertise in those areas.

Years ago, when any governor – even Big John Engler – tried to lay down the law on department budgets, shrewd committee chairs cheerfully told him to shove it.

That’s how democracy marches on, with engaged, competent leaders in all branches of government.

Lacking such leaders is, of course, how Michigan’s budget became the smelly salmagundi it did.Want the quick and dirty reason why? Term limits.

With a maximum of 14 years in both houses, legislators barely have time to find their seats before we put them out to pasture at the lobbying firm they sucked up to best.

Want a second? Exhibit A above – which can apply to either house, either party. Too many tenderfoot lawmakers can’t tie their shoes without consulting with their chief of staff. But thanks to early retirements – inauspiciously offered as term limits kicked in, to save the state cash -- many of these powerful flacks lack experience, themselves.

Term limits carry a simplistic allure. The bums are automatically thrown out – no muss, no fuss.But what we’ve created here is an idiotic system by which most leaders are inept by sheer design.

When 39 of 140 legislators are freshmen, can we really be surprised that solving a roughly $3 billion deficit for 2007 and 2008 gave them aneurisms?

Partisanship has tragically become the substitute for leadership. It’s the blind leading the blind, with green lawmakers voting the way their neophyte leadership decrees.

The only goals seem to be shoring up re-election and screwing the other side.Forget cross-party camaraderie – lawmakers aren’t there long enough and are warned that’s blasphemy, anyway. So compromise is a dirty word.

After the budget calamity, we had a shining moment to change things. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce wanted to knock lawmakers’ years of service to 12. But unlike the current law, legislators could spend their entire stint in one house or the other.

It wasn’t a brilliant plan, but after incessant polling, it was the best the Chamber thought it could get. Senate Democrats killed it, however, claiming voters would never pass it.Well, if now’s not the time to try reforms, when is?

This is the Major Leagues, boys and girls.

Our economy is still in the cellar and unemployment just shot up to 7.7 percent. This year’s budget is still in shambles thanks to neverending recriminations over the service tax, the structural deficit hasn’t been plugged and the January revenue forecast is sure to clock in lower than calculated – which means more cuts.

And come February, we have to start the whole hellish process over again.We’ve run through the All-Star roster and the AAA ball club. Now we’re digging deep into the farm system for leaders at the most critical juncture of Michigan’s modern history.

So here’s an idea, inspired by the Fantasy Congress nerds like me consider entertainment.

There are still members of the old guard with some years left, even under term-limit tyranny. They’ve returned to successful careers in law, business and medicine – but out of their sense of duty and love for this state, they should step up to the plate.

According to calculations by smarter folks than I, these retired reps could saddle up for the Senate in 2010:

Nancy Crandall, Pat Gagliardi, Don Gilmer, David Gubow, Curtis Hertel Sr., Tom Hickner, Paul Hillegonds, David Hollister, Rick Johnson, Lynn Jondahl, Mickey Knight, Jim Kosteva, Bill Martin, Tom Mathieu, Judy Miller, Susan Grimes Munsell, Gary Owen, Joe Palamara, Tom Power, Kirk Profit, Gary Randall, John Strand and Don Van Singel.

The following former senators could run for the House in 2008:Jon Cisky, Doug Cruce, Dan DeGrow, Christopher Dingell, Lou Dodak, Robert Geake, Mitch Irwin, John Kelly, Don Koivisto, George McManus, Art Miller, Lana Pollack, Dick Posthumus, Joe Schwarz, Ken Sikkema, Virgil Smith Jr. and Joe Young Jr.

It’s not glamorous work, as you well know. And in a year or three, the damage done could be almost insurmountable.

But the Capitol desperately needs some heavy-hitters. You’re up.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Helping children in a state left behind

You know my high school. Or you did, anyway, back in 2003 when grainy video traversed the globe of Glenbrook North girls covered in feces clobbering each other in a “powder-puff” football game.

It’s the scatological stuff YouTube dreams are made of.

What you couldn’t tell from the spectacle, of course, is that GBN is one of the top public schools in the nation, sporting a palatial campus that rivals many colleges. In fact, the state-of-the-art computer labs in our swanky suburban Chicago school put those of Big Ten universities to shame.

In my class, far more students took Advanced Placement English than the regular track and 99 percent of us headed to college.

Not a bad place to be stuck for four years – especially since I opted out of rolling around in crap with other chicks.

Naturally, any time anyone suggests that “throwing money” at education isn’t the solution, I snigger.

Does anyone think for a minute that I started on an even playing field with a poor African-American kid in Detroit, who studies history books that have Ronald Reagan as president in a classroom that often lacks heat?

We callously call those schools dropout factories, scarcely paying attention to the 60 percent who never graduate, or wondering if those who do ever make it to a college lecture hall.

The truth is, I didn’t deserve a world-class education any more than any other child on this earth. I didn’t earn it. I was lucky enough to be born to professional parents who could afford to move into a school district plump with property tax money.

Yes, I was a smart girl who made the most of a good situation. But how many smart kids are languishing in less flush schools right here in Michigan?

It is a travesty.

And we all pay the price.

Lagging well behind the national average, only 24 percent of Michiganders 24 and older have college degrees (A fact that so appalled my former English teacher, she demanded proof from the Census.) The difference between a high school education and a college degree is $1 million in lifetime income. For Michigan, that means less tax revenue, less consumer spending, higher unemployment and more state services.

Soon that will be moot. If you want to work, you’ll have to hit the books. Roughly 85 percent of new jobs require post-secondary education – even the few left in the auto industry, which used to keep the state afloat.

Investing in education is Michigan’s “single, sole securitization of economic betterment,” says former Assistant Secretary of Labor Roberts [CQ] T. Jones, underscoring decades of research.

Why do you suppose countries from China to Kuwait are lavishing money on schools? They’re the ticket out of the developing world into superpower status.

So what do we do in the Mitten State?

Let’s start with the excellent report by the Cherry Commission in 2005.

We now have tougher high school graduation standards to better prepare kids. But most of the group’s other initiatives – such as merit pay for teachers, universal preschool and doubling the number of college graduates – are rotting on the vine.

This is the time to be bold. We need to revitalize the state the way the Kalamazoo Promise has its city, with a scholarship program for up to four free years of college at a state institution.

The impact reverberated immediately throughout the community – increased K-12 enrollment and subsequently state aid, more parental involvement, fewer dropouts and more home sales.

A statewide Promise open to all would be completely unique – a way to make Michigan stand out from the competition, make skilled workers and businesses flock here and turn the economy around long-term.

Here’s the catch: Implementing the Promise statewide would cost $900 million annually. No politician wants to touch that after two recent tax increases, one of which is in the midst of a messy repeal.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm sang the virtues of a strong educational system from preschool to postgrad all the way to re-election last year – and I believe the Harvard grad gets it. But she won’t stick her neck out on this one, since she never has when it counts. Higher ed spending has been massacred by 25 percent under her watch.

House Speaker Andy Dillon was the biggest booster for an expanded Promise – but he’s so frustrated with legislative inertia that he’s said he may leave Lansing.

And unfortunately, Republican leadership on education croaked when lions like Joe Schwarz were term-limited out of the Senate.

So politicians will continue to think short-term and bleat that we can’t spend another dime on education.

In 20 years, when it’s not just Massachusetts, but Arkansas and Mississippi that have left us in the dust, maybe those fearless former leaders can tell our grandchildren why they decided to skimp on their future – and Michigan’s.

But my guess is they’ll have blown this popsicle stand long before then.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Jumping through hoops for the caucus circus

Take it from an Iowa girl, or at least one who lived there long enough to know better: The presidential race ain't over.

You can forget about the coronation of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

The battle really has just begun.

This is distressing news to sane folks who believe two years is about 21 months too long to be bombarded by the smug mugs of all 698 aspiring leaders of the free world.

Of course, the two frontrunners have been barnstorming for far longer — Giuliani since Sept. 12, 2001, and Clinton since 1974 or so.

Polls show Clinton is losing ground, perhaps because of her campaign's clumsy claim that her opponents are "piling on" because she has ovaries. Some punches thrown by Barack Obama and John Edwards have landed.

Clinton's negatives always have been her Achilles heel. Powerful Democrats may worship her — but too many Republican and the all-important independent voters saw enough of her in the 1990s and won't back her at any cost.

Why do you think the GOP spends so much time cheerleading Hillary as the "inevitable nominee"?

The race is even more muddled on the Republican side, with the Religious Right juggernaut now hopelessly off-kilter.

When Pat Robertson comes out for the thrice-married guy who supports abortion and gay rights, you know there's a full-blown GOP identity crisis.

Giuliani might have the reverend and a lead in the national polls, but Mitt Romney's got the money ($17.5 million of his own and counting) and has stubbornly courted the early voting states. And there's stiff competition from John McCain, Fred Thompson and even Mike (who?) Huckabee.

It's still anyone's game.

Four years ago at this time, Howard Dean seemed to have the Democratic nomination sewn up. If you want to see how his dream fell apart, look no further than the bizarre "I have a scream" speech he belted out after a surprise upset in the Iowa Caucus.

Iowa and New Hampshire remain the epicenters of the electoral process, despite power grabs by bigger states like Michigan and Florida.

Although New Englanders won't take kindly to this, I'll fill you in on a secret: Iowa is more important. It's first, it's a caucus (stay with me) and it's kookier.

Politicians who have shunned Iowa's corn-fed goodness for the Granite State have rued the day, like Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark. It's hard to regain momentum out east after eight days of nonstop news coverage that you're irrelevant.

John McCain is a notable exception back in 2000, but he's not pressing his luck this time around, busily pressing the flesh of voters from Boone to Bettendorf.
All politics is local in the Hawkeye State and it isn't glamorous.

I've talked to Bill Clinton after he slurped down a milkshake and Dennis Kucinich after he grabbed a veggie burger to go at one of my favorite Iowa City haunts, the Hamburg Inn No. 2. It's a must-stop on the stump where waitresses still invoke the lore of Ronald Reagan (a good tipper) and curse Pat Buchanan (who evidently was not.)

But the Burg isn't unusual, even if its soggy tan booths and wilted laminated menus worked their way into a "West Wing" plot. Any dowdy Maid-Rite diner or chili cook-off in a church basement will draw contenders as quick as $1,000-a-plate dinners. Which is actually the most refreshing part of the circus.

Regular folks do rate.

They have to. Caucusing is a commitment.

The date always changes, but it inevitably falls on the coldest night of the year. That's enshrined in the Iowa constitution. A foot of snow is always a nice touch.

Caucus-goers don't just punch a ballot behind the curtain and go home. It's mayhem at many of the 1,784 precincts starting at 7 p.m. If you're a Republican, you take part in a straw poll, declaring to all your undying love for Tom Tancredo.

Democrats are less organized (surprise!). Typically, you line up in a school gym for your chosen candidate, in front of God and everyone.

Your friends and neighbors can (and will) cajole you into coming over to their side, especially if you stand with a non-viable candidate (who has less than 15 percent support.) If you don't, prepare to be catcalled and find their pizza boxes strewn across your yard in the morning.

And so come Jan. 3, politicians will defile their Prada shoes, trekking across frozen tundra while chugging a coffee and Dayquil cocktail until the caucuses begin.

In a process this peculiar, you never know what's going to happen.

For political junkies, it's still the greatest show on earth.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Can fringe GOP conjure up a clue?

After months of stunned silence, House Republicans are finally ready to rumble on the budget.

And they're not about to let pesky details — like the fact that final budgets passed on Halloween with near-unanimous consent — stop them.

It was the Senate that voted Thursday to delay the new service tax. But House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche & Co. want to slay it completely, unraveling nine months of anguished compromise.

Yes, after spending money Wednesday like welfare mommies at the Cadillac dealership (begotten from tax revenues few in the GOP voted for), straight-faced Republican reps revealed their flair for even more flagrant hypocrisy.

They want to make the service tax's $625 million magically disappear from the budget, perhaps via séance with Ronald Reagan's ghost.

Seems like if you abhor all those evil government programs, you shouldn't have just voted to fund them.It's bad form, bad policy and the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.

Besides, if Republicans truly were committed to anti-tax policy, they would try to decapitate the income tax increase worth $725 million.But let's not forget, the GOP-led Legislature tax-cut its way to popularity while merrily ravaging about $4 billion in reserves since fiscal 2001. Beats significantly scaling back government. (One-time fixes didn't abate in fiscal 2007 when Dems took over the House, but now the bills have come due.)

Clearly, slashing government waste ain't the GOP's forte.True, the capricious list of oft-arcane services, from numerology to baby-shoe bronzing, is hard to defend. Legislators surely can conjure up a fairer levy, especially when they're not throwing together a slapdash bill four hours before the government shut down on Oct. 1.

That's why Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and House Speaker Andy Dillon — who have done the heavy lifting on the budget from the get-go — are feverishly talking to business barons about a revenue-neutral replacement.

That could mean a hike in the income tax or the new Michigan Business Tax.

But none of them — not even the Republican Senate head — is pushing the cockamamie scheme of cleaving millions more from the budget.

In a nine-month process with an endgame as gory and excruciating as childbirth, the Senate plan to skive more than $600 million was mopped away like so much fluid.The $433 million in cuts was all leaders could muster, made palatable by $1.35 billion in new revenues that allowed them to take credit for caring about children by barely boosting education.

Still, DeRoche insists on peddling a tired list of cuts, chock-full of vague promises to "streamline" Community Health by $93 million and "reform" Department of Human Services by $109 million — details not included.Sacred cows — like sentence guideline reforms and prison closures that could net $500 million — don't rate.

Cuts are necessary, DeRoche warns gravely, unless we want to "kill more jobs."

But he evidently sees no conflict in whacking $75 million from the 21st Century Jobs Fund, the economic development vehicle Republicans once touted as the elixir for Michigan's economic woes.

"It's not a real list — everybody knows that," the always cogent Rep. Lorence Wenke, R-Richland Township, says. "I give it no credibility whatsoever."

To be sure, DeRoche's plan has zero chance of passage. He doesn't have the votes. And without a functional relationship with any leader, even Bishop, the once-brash boy wonder who rode to the speakership at 34, has lost almost all credibility.

He epitomizes the fundamental lack of understanding of public policy by fringe Republicans determined to place partisanship and ideology above sanity.

There's no excuse for that in either party. The stakes are too high.

Evidently, some have learned nothing from bloody budget negotiations this year.

If DeRoche truly wants to be a player next year, he might want to stop drinking the Kool-Aid — and instead invite Dillon and Bishop to have a beer.