Friday, September 21, 2007

It's getting hot in here

Wise policy wonks often warn: Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

But when the absolute best you can hope for is mediocrity, then you're pretty well screwed.

That's the scenario with Michigan's budget that's currently $1.8 billion in the hole. Whatever plan Lansing throws together with chewing gum and Silly String by the Oct. 1 deadline — or after, if lawmakers commit grosser negligence than they have already — it will be a train wreck.

Just like previous budgets dating back to the '90s were a shell game of transferred funds and one-time fixes.

After hemorrhaging about 250,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, what anemic Michigan needs is a transfusion of new blood. The best way to do that is by making this a state people want to stay in, play in and raise their kids in. That means spending — not cutting — millions more for economic development, environmental protection and most of all, education from preschool to post-grad.

Confused? You should be. That's because no one is talking about what the Wolverine State really needs.In fact, if you've seen anything on the budget, it's probably a sound bite of pretty people sneering at each other at the Capitol.

That's almost criminal. Anyone who tells you there's a more-important story in Michigan right now is either an idiot or selling something.

It's not just the poor and infirm feeling the pain of this crisis.

You do, when your sewage bill doubles because your township is going bankrupt after receiving squat from the state.

You do, when you have to shell out $1,000 just for the privilege for Billy to play football at public school because the state has disinvested from education for years.

You do, when your speeding ticket is the price of a luxury hotel room because the cops have to cover costs the state used to pick up.

You do, when sending Sally to a state university costs as much as buying a second home.

Think about that the next time snake-oil salesman/Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop tries to sweet talk you into another $1.1 billion worth of cuts. Think about why Republicans won't even tell you from where the cuts are going to come.

As for the Dems, they evidently never read Dante, who warned, "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

Last week, 10 House Democrats in swing districts flaunted their neutrality, refusing to vote for a nudge in the income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.6 percent.

Putting that in perspective, it's about an extra five bucks a week for the median Michigan household.

That measure died, as have reasonable proposals to enact a services tax, cut prison spending and reform employee health care costs.

Because if there's a lesson to be learned from the budget battle, it's don't bother thinking for yourself.

Legislators, just sit at your exquisitely crafted desks and vote the way your leadership, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the AFL-CIO, the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance or God commands you.

Go ahead and yield to the recently issued edict of do-nothing Michigan congressmen to "stand firm" against godless tax hikes. Why not defer to the wisdom of Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, who has to ask the Club for Growth lobby for permission to go potty?

Leadership is overrated. Just ask the governor.

Though Jennifer Granholm finally showed the guts Tuesday to threaten to veto any plan without a modest tax increase, she blew this budget big time starting with a sales tax gambit in February she didn't even bother running past the Democratic leadership.

I don't care if the guv is under the spell of an overbearing first gentleman, sycophantic staff or the voices in her head. A brilliant orator, she of all people should have been able to make the case for Michigan's future.

Which is simple: Do we want to return to the days when our state was known for superlative education, high-tech health care and world-class recreation? Or do we want to cut our services as fast as our taxes to become the backwater of the Great Lakes states?

It's time to put our money where our mouth is.

No, it ain't as sexy as gay marriage, but make no doubt about it: The state budget does constitute the kind of moral crisis defined by Dante.

Our leaders have 11 days to pound out a plan that doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be good for most Michiganders. Better than the slapshot scheme they're bickering over today.

Otherwise we'll all feel the heat — not just on Oct. 1, but in years to come.

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