Commentary: Groundhog Day

Feb 2, 2013

Today, as you probably know, is Groundhog Day. Frankly, I want to say on the record that I couldn’t care less if Punxsutawney Phil or any other rodent sees his shadow today.

What I know is that it is cold and depressing, this winter already has lasted too long, and I really don’t want to go outside until I see the forsythia blooming along the back fence.

Beyond my crankiness, however, I have to wonder if we in Michigan are caught up in a version of Groundhog Day ourselves.

I’d not talking woodchucks here, but the twenty-year-old movie starring Bill Murray, in which an obnoxious TV weatherman gets caught in a time warp in which he has to keep reliving the same day until he learns how to be a better human being.

Sometimes it seems to me like we have been doing that in this state for ages, except that any sign we‘ve learned is nowhere in sight. Take our state‘s roads, for instance.

They haven’t been good enough for years, and we don‘t appropriate enough money to maintain them. In less than a decade, less than half will be in even adequate condition. The governor, a pro-business tax-cutting Republican, is smart enough to know we have to fix this.

If we don’t have infrastructure that works, no new business is going to come here. For the past three years, he has proposed raising an extra billion-plus a year just to maintain the roads.

But he can’t get the legislature to agree. Radical Tea Partiers, like the Americans for Prosperity, are saying we don’t have to raise taxes to fix the roads. Evidently they think we should close the schools or let everyone out of prison instead. Some Republican lawmakers fear they’ll be challenged in the primary if they vote for any new taxes, even if the vast majority approve.

Democrats would normally vote for road funding, but many are more interested in punishing the governor for ramming right to work through the Michigan Legislature in a single day last December. They may vote no just out of spite.

Meanwhile, the  incredibly collapsing City of Detroit continued with their own Groundhog Day Last year, the governor offered to assume responsibility for the once-lovely island park Belle Isle, which the city can no longer adequately maintain.

The state offered to pump millions in, and run it as a state park. Last year the city council rejected this, saying the state was trying to steal one of Detroit’s crown jewels. This week, the governor tried again. The state sweetened the offer and cut the length of the lease. But things went sour again when a parade of ranting protesters hostile to the deal appeared before council.

The council rejected allowing the state to help them, and the governor withdrew the offer. That night, a longtime liberal supporter of the city wrote me to say, “Okay. They really do need an emergency manager.” Add to this mix business interests who think all that’s needed for prosperity is low taxes, and labor unions who seem stuck in the nineteen thirties, and it's clear why we are spinning our wheels.

Shadows aside, we need to see that the old models have failed, and we have to break these molds and try something new.

I wonder if Bill Murray is available.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.