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.

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