Saturday, December 8, 2007

Could hope spring eternal from tax compromise?

Hail to the victors.

And in this case, that’d be Mike Bishop and his Senate Republicans.

Say what you will about the ever-tan, GQ-attired Senate majority leader (this columnist has, for the record, skewered him as the Tin Woodsman and high school Homecoming king) - but the man got it done last week.

The scorned service tax is no more, replaced by a GOP-crafted surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax. The deal went down 48 hours after all hope seemed siphoned from the Capitol.

The turning point was when Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon on Nov. 28 caved to his caucus, which voted for a plan the Senate would never sign off on and planned to split for six days.

While the Dems’ plan wasn’t unreasonable – it was actually more fiscally responsible – their bravado unwittingly gave the GOP the upper hand.

Incensed and indignant, Bishop and Sens. Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, and Mark Jansen, R-Grand Rapids, marched into the leadership void.

"In my eight years in the Legislature, I've never seen anything that was such a violation of trust," Gilbert seethed.

Now after 11 straight months of backstabbing, bluster and brainlessness, that’s hard to swallow. Nonetheless, negotiations nosedived to another low, paving the way for an even more agonizing budget showdown next year against the backdrop of the 2008 election.

In the end, the GOP nabbed a sunset for the new MBT tax and a lower rate while raiding a rainy day fund, their favorite pastime.

Yes, Gov. Jennifer Granholm won out on revenue-neutrality – supposedly – and furiously negotiated behind the scenes. But her motivation seemed muddled – was it to demolish a bad tax she’d once succored or to slap down Dillon, her perennial rival?

So Republicans emerged the heroes for slaying the service tax just when it seemed certain it would stay on the books.

Bishop’s power was buttressed by the bill passing almost unanimously in the Senate – despite Democrats’ yowling that they’d been shut out of the process – and by a wide margin in the House.

Though Granholm clearly won the main budget battle back on Oct. 1, those are numbers she could only dream of. Which is why the GOP keeps chanting the service tax and income tax hike are “the Democrats’ plan.”

But rather than be statesmanlike about his triumph, the bitter Bishop afterward again slammed the House, declaring there was “no excuse for any legislators to have turned their back on” the process. The governor at least gets better grades for graciousness in the last round.

Yet Bishop’s phrasing is curious. Note that he doesn’t single out House Dems, because Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, was (surprise) MIA in the mediation, as he has been all year.

DeRoche’s sole goal seems to be carrying water for a few whack-jobs in the state GOP and the intelligent, but indelibly ideological folks at the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Bizarrely, this is how he justified his loathing of the deal that was practically penned by the business community: “To say (it) supports this plan is like saying that a death row inmate chooses the firing squad over the electric chair.”

Contrast DeRoche’s denial and disconnect with Bishop, who’s been a player from the beginning.

Now for the downtrodden Dems, here’s the silver lining.

The business tax hike is now a bonified bipartisan baby – 65 percent of legislators flicked the switch for it. Rather than slash spending, Senate Republicans championed a plan that hiked taxes on a core constituency.

Yeah, they spin it as cut over the sales tax – something we’ll never know for sure since the whipping boy is dead. But as diehard conservatives intone, a tax is a tax is a tax.

What this means is that right-wing interests aren’t as apt to ardently rally ‘round the Republicans next year. That could serve as a cushion for Democrats, who sprint out the gate late thanks to a botched, meaningless Jan. 15 presidential primary.

The across-the-aisle deal also could sap the wind from the sails of the recall movement, whose money and momentum was spurred by the reviled service tax.

The anti-tax zealots - who appear to worship at the altar of his immense foaminess, Mr. Perks, instead of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ – have always hunted Dems and a few token Republicans who really irked them. Watch their fervor and funds dry up at the prospect of taking out so many of their own.

In the end, what truly matters is leaders of both parties came together and did something constructive. It wasn’t great policy and it wasn’t without ego, rancorous rhetoric or excruciating delay.

(“We’re trying to forge world peace,” Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, cracked Friday afternoon.)

Could be a start. The odds are long, but this is the season of hope, after all.

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