Despite the best of intentions, Michigan legislators remain far from concluding a budget agreement for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, much less the two-year budget deal leaders of both houses said they hoped to strike early this year.
It's time for Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, both of whom are increasingly distracted by campaigns for statewide office, to relinquish their critical leadership posts to legislators who are not so encumbered.
This legislature is following the same pattern that they have since the beginning of 2007, when both Andy Dillon and Mike Bishop were elected leaders of their respective chambers. Spend the year making and breaking promises, tell us they are "working" during endless vacations only to find out that they were not, and push everything off until the last minute when they offer up budgets that fail to address Michigan's needs. There has been no indication so far that this year is any different.
Under Dillon and Bishop's leadership, the Legislature has already blown several important opportunities to reduce spending. Last month's legal deadline for rescinding a budget-busting 3% pay increase for state employees passed while lawmakers were on spring vacation. They've also failed to act on Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposal to lure about 35,000 teachers and state employees into early retirement, diminishing the savings the state might have realized by finalizing the terms of a retirement deal in a more timely way.
Dillon and Bishop like to say they have a good working relationship, but so far all they have to show for it is a bipartisan nothing-burger.
Each man has made notable efforts to jump-start the budget negotiation process. But neither has been able to rally his caucus behind what virtually everyone outside the Legislature agrees will be needed to fix Michigan's structural budget imbalance: a combination of spending cuts and the elimination of loopholes that currently exempt much of Michigan's economic activity from taxation.
This editorial chooses to ignore what "virtually everyone outside the Legislature" has agreed needs to happen - a change in our tax collection to reflect the shift to a service based economy. Rescinding the 3% pay raise will do nothing to resolve our chronic structural deficits, and it's disingenuous to suggest it would, or to call it "budget busting". And, if "elimination of loopholes" means "tax more services", then the editorial should come right out and say so.
As our Senate Fiscal Agency recently pointed out, the "best measure of a state's overall economic welfare is income per person" - and Michigan has fallen to 37th in the nation as of 2008, reflecting the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs. This, combined with the two recessions of the past decade, has affected the state's bottom line on income and sales tax collections, exacerbating our the problem of our declining revenue stream and contributing to the need for more budget cuts. In other words, simply cutting wages, in any sector of the economy, will only make the problem worse. Not only do you lose income tax revenue, those workers stop spending money. Double whammy - and part of the "race to the bottom" mentality that really needs to be eliminated if we are to have prosperity.
Simply cutting spending is not the answer, as many experts and editorialists have now pointed out. Just this week, the Board of Education joined the ever-growing list of public and private leaders that agree that we need to shift to a service-based revenue stream. Despite these calls from from our state's professionals, and numerous legitimate polls that show voters are very open to the concept of either service taxes, or especially a graduated income tax to fund crucial state services, Bishop and Dillon have simply ignored both fiscal reality and our citizens' desire to see something done. This fact, probably more than any other, is why both Bishop and Dillon should step aside. We need to position this state to take advantage of the national recovery as it happens - not play catch-up after the fact because they were too busy running for their next job.
Mike Bishop has shown nothing but contempt for the function of government, utter disrespect for the office of the governor and towards his own colleagues in the legislature, and a callous disregard for the people and the welfare of this state. He worships his own extreme partisan ideology of hatred of government - and he has made damn sure that the system remains broken while he has been Senate leader. Not only should he resign his leadership position, he should return back to the private sector as soon as possible. His record in the Senate reflects an immature and arrogant attitude that seems to despise public service, and it's about time that both the public and the media started to call that out for what it is.
Andy Dillon has made endless promises to address our problems, and then has failed to follow through on any of them. He pledged to address our tax structure at the beginning of 2009, and then never offered a plan. He introduced a state employee health insurance pooling proposal in the summer of 2009, and nearly a year later, that still hasn't moved through chambers. The House has nibbled around the edges on issues, afraid to offer bold leadership to counter the obstructionist Senate Republicans, and as a result the wishes of the voters that gave them a huge majority in '06 and '08 have been betrayed. Speaker Dillon should either move to get something substantial done, or turn the reins over to someone who will. If the caucus won't follow, so be it. The voters will address that at the polls. But to do nothing at all is way too dangerous - both politically and financially.
All of that being said, the reality of removing these two is a very nice thought, but it's possible that it wouldn't make any difference until the entire legislature turns over. When you consider the lockstep, extreme partisan ideology that permeates the Senate Republican caucus, it's doubtful that anything would change. Cropsey? Cassis? Sanborn? Does anyone honestly think they would work at bipartisan solutions to our problems? Hardly. And it's doubtful that anything would change in the House either, as Democrats there have shown that they won't vote for cuts, reforms, or revenue. Difficult votes to reform the tax base seem out of the question for this crowd, and chances are we will end up with another budget that uses Republican votes to make deep cuts by the time this is over.
Unfortunately, reforming Michigan's tax structure will probably have to be done by the voters themselves through a ballot proposal. It's also doubtful that a new crop of lawmakers next year will have the experience necessary to face the job at hand, so another year will go by - and then we are right back to another election year, where the same excuses will come up again. A pattern has been established now, and, with extremism on the part of Republicans who serve a radical right wing base growing deeper by the day, it's hard to see how meaningful reform will be accomplished anytime soon.
So, who has a couple million to throw at a ballot proposal? Anyone? Set your sights on 2012 and a high voter turnout. It's a shame that we will have to wait that long, but at this point it might be our only hope.