Column by Jack Lessenberry
I do a fair amount of speaking to citizens’ groups across Michigan, mostly to people who read my columns or listen to my daily radio broadcasts.
Most of those I meet are polite, intelligent, reasonably well-read — and anxious to learn why Michigan has gone from being one of the nation’s richest and best-run states to a poor state with a government that can’t seem to do anything right.
And, inevitably, someone in the audience asks a question which I’ve heard in the last three weeks in Detroit, the city of Parchment just outside Kalamazoo, and the old resort town of South Haven not far from the Indiana border:
“What can we do to make things better?”
Forty years ago, Michigan was a state where wages were considerably above the national average.
Today, though unemployment is barely 5 percent, the state is a dismal 34th in per capita income.
Higher education of some kind is essential to anyone making a decent living these days.
But while someone in the 1970s could work during the summers and virtually put themselves through school without debt, skyrocketing tuition costs have made that impossible.
Young people today often graduate from college owing $30,000 or more in student loans, a debt which seriously cripples their ability to start a life.
Infrastructure is also a devastating problem. Detroit may be the city that put the world on wheels, but today the state’s roads are among the nation’s worst — and are not improving.
Despite widespread support for increasing taxes to fix the roads, and studies showing that would actually cost the average citizen less money in the long run (because of less wear and tear on their cars) the legislature has failed to fix the problem.
That doesn’t make it easy to attract new jobs. Though Gov. Rick Snyder was elected on a pro-business platform in 2010, and a solidly Republican legislature approved huge tax cuts for business, it doesn’t seem to have worked.
Michigan’s personal income growth was less than half the national average between 2000 and 2013, according to the respected firm, Public Sector Consultants.
So what can citizens do about their state?
After nearly a lifetime covering and thinking about Michigan politics and government – here are my suggestions:
Fight to end gerrymandering: Every ten years, the legislature draws new congressional and legislative boundaries after each census. Michigan Republicans had complete power the last time, in 2011, and drew some of the most grotesquely distorted districts in American history.
What this means is that only did they ensure the GOP keeps control of these bodies even when they get far fewer votes, the whole principle of representative democracy is lost, because districts no longer follow community lines.
What’s worse, gerrymandering means most districts are entirely safe for one party or another, and so representatives have far less incentive to reach a sane compromise.
Voters not Politicians is a new group which plans to collect signatures this summer to put a constitutional amendment on the state ballot in 2018 that would switch the responsibility for drawing district lines to an independent, bipartisan or non-partisan commission.
Something like that would go a long way to restore a working democracy people could believe in.
End Term Limits: Michigan voters enacted some of the nation’s toughest term limits laws in 1992, amending the state constitution to do so. Every serious observer agrees they have been a disaster.
Representatives can serve a maximum of six years in the lower house and eight in the state senate.
After that, they are banned for life. This has had horrendous consequences. Nobody serves long enough to really learn their jobs or forge the kind of relationships that made intelligent and effective compromise possible.
Lawmakers who know they can’t be there in a few years are often happy to put off dealing with serious problems rather than making the hard decisions to solve them now.
Term limits also foster corruption. There have been numerous examples of lawmakers in their last terms looking out for special interests, not their voters, because special interests can give them jobs as lobbyists when they are done.
Just Fix the Roads: With much fanfare, lawmakers enacted a plan two years ago they said would solve the problem. Trouble is, it doesn’t – and may create more problems than it solves. It provides only $1.2 billion in new money a year, doesn’t really kick in till 2021 – and requires half of that to come from cuts in the already strapped general fund.
That likely means cutting education. Snyder had the most sensible idea: Get the money needed to fix the roads mainly by raising the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel.
Boost the tax by 30 cents a gallon, and that means about $1.7 billion in new money a year. Gas, which fluctuates constantly, would still be less than it was a few years ago.
Additionally, there’s sort of a rough justice to this, in that those who drive the roads most would pay more.
Finally, Fix Education: The current generation of Americans may be the first in a long time who can expect to live less well than their parents. That’s because of weaker support for the public schools, and policies that have made it cripplingly hard for the middle class to afford college. This is not only unfair and outrageous; it endangers this nation’s future. Politicians running for statewide or national office should be required to pledge to regard their children’s futures as more important than their own.
Doing all these things wouldn’t solve all this state’s problems, but they are all absolutely necessary if we really want better government and a better future for this state.
is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.