Friday, August 1, 2008

Courage needed, not campaign slogans

If Ray Snell is elected to a Jackson-area House seat this fall, he'll slash state spending that's "out of control."

So will Fort Gratiot's Steve Kearns in the 83rd District, Monroe's JeanMarie Dahm in the 56th and plenty of others, according to various media reports.

I don't doubt the Republicans' sincerity and admirable commitment to conservative principles. But they probably won't whip out the cleaver next year - unless there's a gun to their heads.

It's not because Democrats are likely to keep control of the lower chamber, perhaps even snatching a couple more seats. The GOP, after all, reigned over both bodies for eight straight years (and still runs the Senate) and could never stomach severe cuts.

"In my former life, I would often say to my caucus, 'We've gone from tax-and-spend Democrats to tax-cut-and-spend Republicans,'" recalls former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema. "You've got to reconcile the two."

That's definitely helped create the fiscal mess we're in. Without an immediate crisis this year with only $400 million to cut (chump change compared to a $1.8 billion deficit last year) few people have paid much mind to the process. But just wait till next year when that baby balloons back to $1 billion.

I'm sure legislative hopefuls wouldn't bat an eye. There are a million places to whack (which all look great in campaign literature). Just root out all the Bridges to Nowhere, toss folks off welfare and shave the number of state employees, right?

Not quite. Once you take a closer gander at the budget, you realize that egregious pork-barrel spending is much more of a Washington phenomenon.

When I recently asked state Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Cutlerville, what are the three most glaring examples of fat in the budget, he paused for a bit before answering.

Jansen is no mealy-mouthed liberal, by the way; Michigan Information & Research Service rated him the most conservative senator last year. When legislators finally came up with a Michigan Business Tax surcharge last fall so they could dump the reviled service tax, Jansen just shook his head.

"This isn't where I expected us to be. I never thought I'd be voting for a tax increase, believe me," he said.

As far as budget bloat goes, Jansen first ticked off reducing the size of government. I'm with him on that; Michigan could combine a few state departments. Our state still functions like it's a relic from the 1960s and needs to be smaller, more efficient and more accountable.

However, there's only so much money to be saved there. And cuts need to be smart. For years, Michigan axed Department of Human Services caseworkers. Then we got sued by a children's rights advocacy group for failing to adequately protect kiddies and we're out $200 million we can't spare.

Much of the $9 billion general fund is eaten up by Jansen's second choice - Corrections. At a budget-busting $2 billion and growing, it's about the only department that's been spared in recent years thanks to law-and-order conservatives. But the Mitten State's 50,000-plus prisoners cost about $30,000 each every year to incarcerate, which can't be sustained.

Republicans and Democrats alike know cuts are in the offing next year. Look forward to finger-pointing and shouting matches in which Patrick Selepak's name will be raised 137,000 times before they do the inevitable in another all-night session.

Jansen struggled with a third place to trim, finally settling on efficiencies in education. Once again, I'm on board, but that's a tricky one. The $13 billion School Aid budget is the other pile of money the state has to play with (the rest of the $20 billion or so is tied to federal funds, which is why cutting welfare won't do much).

That means dealing with bureaucracies in 553 school districts, which spend money that should get into the classroom on employee health care and retirement and rising fuel costs. But if we cut per pupil funding, guess who will suffer? We do need a massive educational restructuring, as proposed by former state schools Superintendent Tom Watkins before Gov. Jennifer Granholm canned him for speaking truth to power.

Those kinds of changes are painful by definition. Are we ready as a state? And will it still be enough money to put us permanently in the black?

As luck would have it, our state's wretched economy and budget woes could be that metaphorical pistol staring officials in the face. Jim Hettinger, the smartest economic development guy in Michigan, thinks our state won't hit rock bottom for another three years.

And despite over $1 billion in tax hikes last year, they were the wrong kind. No, not because all taxes are evil by definition. But because the politically acceptable plan was economically deficient - it didn't solve the structural problem by reconciling tax revenue to Michigan's changing economy.

And voila! Another shortfall.

If we want to save Michigan from the brink of disaster, the time to start is now.

So best of luck to all wannabe lawmakers. Here's hoping that you have as much courage when you get to Lansing as you do campaign slogans.

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