Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your 2010 Michigan Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Engines

You have to give Speaker Andy Dillon credit - this was one gutsy move. Reforming state employee health insurance is a monster of an idea, but the question of the timing suddenly becomes more of an issue than the idea itself, and that won't help any of us at this point.

It should be noted first and foremost that Democrats, in general, are the ones coming up with viable (but still evolving) plans for government reform, whereas the Republicans are simply mouthing the words without offering any real solutions to back them up. From the administration's idea of streamlining state departments, to this idea of streamlining health care for public employees, these plans would change the "way we do business" in Michigan in such a way that we wouldn't recognize the government if they were to be implemented. Both of these general themes for vast reform are grand, sweeping ideas that are ambitious, and increasingly necessary, given our changing economy. For that, Democrats are to be commended for the attempt. Hope that people remember that as we go along here.

Problem is, there is no way it all gets done by Sept. 30th of this year, and all of it starts to smell of 2010 campaign strategy, rather than genuine desire to change the government. At least, that is the spin the media will put on it, and that has already started - setting up the inevitable knife fight that may tear apart the party. Doing this sort of thing on the national level in '08 was easier, given the implosion of the Bush administration; doing this at the state level might be a really bad idea.

But back to Dillon's plan first, which he is calling the "Dillon Reform". Dead giveaway there. In theory, the idea of a single health insurance plan that covers all state obligations to 450,000 public employees and retirees seems like it would be a path to greater efficiency. To put it in practice though, well, that would take so much arm-twisting that it will be virtually impossible at this point in time. According to the Freep, there are over 2,000 plans in place currently, the product of hard-fought negotiations on the part of various unions who have made sacrifices to keep their current health benefits, and there is no way they will willingly give them up. The MEA reaches for the typical knee-jerk reaction, and quite frankly, they make themselves look bad by doing so. Details aren't available yet, but yet they simply attack with lines that feed right into the Republican playbook, making the teachers unions seem protectionist, when everyone else in the state is going to be asked to sacrifice in some form or another by the time this budget is complete.

The proposal was slammed by the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"The only way to get these cost savings is a massive reduction of benefits," said Doug Pratt, spokesman for the union.

"It's a massive expansion of government" at a time the state is trying to cut $1.8 billion out of its budget, he added.

The words "bureaucratic nightmare", and a slam on the ability of the lawmakers to balance the budget as it stands, also came up. Bad move. The MEA needs to take a tip from the UAW, who pointed out that they really can't comment until they actually see the entire plan.

Cheryl Streberger, benefits representative for UAW 6000, which represents 22,000 state employees, said the union will look at anything that cuts health care costs while preserving benefits.

"We've been wanting more affordable health care for a long time. Our premiums just went up 3 to 10 percent," she said. "But we need to see the details of this plan."

Bingo. Unions need to be willing to look at savings, and they need to say so. Loudly. Get on the bad side of public opinion though be seeming selfish, and you give the Republicans the ammunition they need to destroy you. We already have a perception problem about union workers being propagated by the chattering class in the political arena - don't give them more fuel by dismissing this outright. The Granholm administration has taken a measured response with a willingness to look at the idea, but rightly points out that this can't distract from the matter at hand, and that is that we are increasingly under the gun to find big savings in the budget right now. Time is running out.

"We've got to look at any and all proposals that could help lower the cost of government in Michigan without sacrificing the things that matter most to us including quality health care for public employees," she said. "But what we can't afford to do is to let the theoretical savings of any proposal prevent us from making tough choices about spending and revenues in our budget."

Very true. The Freep points out that other states have tried this approach, with various levels of success. In Wisconsin, it took "decades" to accomplish. Here, changes in state law would have to be made - and that isn't going to happen anytime soon. So, while it all looks really good in theory, the timing of it doesn't coincide with current political and economic reality. It can't be done in the space of two months, especially if your own Democratic House members flinch at the idea. Which, of course, they are doing. In a big way.

All this does right now is alarm the some of the Democrats biggest supporters, and will start the accusations flying, as evidenced by the MEA above. Dillon claims that he doesn't care if it ends his "political career", but that seems a bit disingenuous, given that he has indicated that he would walk away from politics before in '07, and he yet here he is. Not sure "I'll just quit" instills confidence in the public or the party members, but it might be an underhanded attempt at painting a portrait of a man who is bold enough to sacrifice his standing with his fellow Democrats - and that may or may not play well in 2010. Hard to tell at this point.

Seeing as how the normally very quiet and private Speaker Dillon has started a website,, with more details of this plan to be released later, and, with the rumor being that he will jump in the race around Labor Day (but that came from the folks who claimed that Terri Land was definitely in, so take it for what it's worth), you just have to wonder what he is really up to here. If he does jump in, this will set up infighting in the Democratic Party like you won't believe.

Never underestimate the ability of Democrats to eat their own. With Alma Wheeler Smith "stealing a page from the Republican playbook" by taking the very intellectually dishonest and Republican position of pinning the state economy on the Granholm administration, to Dillon seemingly attacking some of the party's biggest supporters in the unions, the House Democrats might fall into such disarray that it could be impossible to tackle the current budget, as they will be too worried about future political concerns when making decisions that will affect us in the immediate future.

All the Republicans have to do is sit back and watch the show - but they run the risk of seeming to be ineffectual and devoid of ideas by doing so. They may laugh now, and pay the price later for it. But, if the Democrats hand them the weapons willingly by attacking their own constituencies? All bets are off at that point. Republicans can steal all the ideas behind this "reform" and claim them as their own (and you know they will), and end up using the Democratic House members attacks against the Democrats themselves when it comes to the general campaign.

Watch for it.

Dillon may be doing the right thing here, but for all the wrong reasons that could backfire in a really bad way. With Andy, it's really hard to tell. My guess is the public would rather see a solution to the current budget crisis now, and save the theories for the future. If we can't count it towards the bottom line this very second, and you can't get your own members to even support it, it won't do us any good when it comes to solving our immediate problems - and that should be the priority for the state at this time.