Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. (He had previously set out to be a historian.) Now, he boasts thirty years of eclectic journalism experience. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Oakland Press.

Currently, he is a professor of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade...in addition to his work at Michigan Radio.

Throughout his years of journalism experience, his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled.

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Commentary
10:02 am
Mon April 4, 2011

Confusion Over Medical Marijuana

Two years ago, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Voters from liberal Ann Arbor to staunchly conservative Ottawa County supported this change.

Some, to be sure, saw this as opening the door to a complete legalization of marijuana. However, they appear to have been a minority. Most people seem to have felt that those who are legitimately suffering from disease such as glaucoma ought to be able to use the drug in cases where it could ease their pain.

But the devil is always in the details, and we probably should have foreseen that administering this law was going to be an unholy mess. Yesterday, the Detroit Free Press took a comprehensive look at how the medical marijuana law has been working.

To nobody’s surprise, their answer was: Not very well. The state is struggling with a huge backlog of applications to grow the stuff.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have been going after people who may be falsely claiming to be growing and selling pot for medical use, and there are also rumors that certain physicians are happy to certify that most anybody qualifies to use marijuana for “medical” purposes.

On top of that, neither the constitutional amendment - or any other law - has made it clear where medical marijuana is supposed to come from. Part of the problem is that marijuana is a controlled substance whose use is illegal under federal law.

So, basically, the original source of any pot supply has got to be illegal, even if the state of Michigan approves someone to grow marijuana for medical reasons. There is also, so far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to ensure purity or quality control of the supply.

Basically, then, we’ve got a system of something approaching anarchy when it comes to medical marijuana.

So, what do we do about it?

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Commentary
9:49 am
Fri April 1, 2011

Doctors with Borders

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Joe Schwarz, one of the best-informed, multi-talented men in public life in this state. After a stint as mayor of his native Battle Creek, Schwarz spent sixteen years in the state senate, where he was immensely knowledgeable on education policy and finance.

That was, of course, back in the era before term limits. Schwarz is also one of those people whose resume could fill a box. He’s also had a career in the U.S. Navy, and as a spy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He ran for governor once and congress twice, finally winning a single term in 2004.

Schwarz’s problem was never the general election. Every time he got to one of those, he won easily. But he had trouble in  Republican primaries. He is a fiscal conservative and a military hawk, but also believes in funding education, and that abortion should be “legal, safe and rare.” Nor does he always suffer fools gladly.

By the way, I didn’t mention his day job. He is an otolaryngologist, which we civilians call an ear, nose and throat surgeon, and is still happily practicing medicine. 

That is, when he isn’t teaching at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Schwarz understands health care issues, and I was curious about our medical school explosion.

The U of M has a medical school; Wayne State has one; Michigan State has two; Oakland University and Beaumont Hospital have started one, and Western Michigan is now starting one.

Is that too many? Will we be producing too many doctors?

That’s a good question, the good doctor told me, but not the most important one. When all these medical schools are up and running, they’ll be producing something like six hundred and ninety doctors a year, trained largely at state expense.

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Commentary
11:19 am
Thu March 31, 2011

Thought Police

Several listeners have asked me why I haven’t commented on the battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.  Well, there’s a good reason for that.

Which is, that we’ve got more than enough in Michigan to wrestle with to keep us all occupied. That doesn’t mean, as one of my devoted admirers e-mailed me, that I am a “gutless wonder.”

Matter of fact, I would like to get an inch or two off my gut. Seriously, I have a hard time accepting that anyone should lose their collective bargaining rights in America, no matter who their employer.

But I have an even harder time with anyone trying to suppress anybody’s freedom of expression in any way.

Which brings me to a very ominous development I first read about on the political blog Talking Points Memo, a story which involves Michigan and the Wisconsin mess.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank best known for supporting free-market economics, is asking, under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, for all the emails by labor studies professors at our state’s three major public universities -- Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State. 

All the e-mails, that is, that these professors have sent regarding the union strike in Wisconsin, that state’s governor, and, oddly enough, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Why are they asking for these e-mails? The managing editor of the Mackinac Center’s newsletter wouldn’t say. But some fear the center wants to use them to attack liberal professors for using state resources for what could be called improper political activity.

That, or cow them into not expressing their points of view.

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Commentary
12:48 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

Cutting Unemployment Benefits

Two days ago a friend of mine called me in a semi-panic. Her unemployment benefits were about to run out, and she had eighty-seven dollars to her name. She wasn’t going to be able to make the modest payment on her small house, and didn’t know what to do. Nor did she understand what was going on in the legislature. Someone had told her that the governor was signing a bill to extend unemployment benefits. Somebody else told her he was going to shorten them. Which, she wanted to know, was it?

Well, both, I said. The governor signed a bill Monday that extends eligibility for federal extended unemployment benefits for up to ninety-nine weeks.

That’s only, however, for people like my friend Karen, who already is collecting unemployment.

Next year, however, things will change drastically. Any Michigander who loses his or her job after January 15, 2012 will only be eligible for state unemployment benefits for a maximum of twenty weeks. That’s less than five months.

For years, jobless workers in Michigan have been able to collect benefits for a maximum of twenty-six weeks, or six months. They can collect them for longer periods of time now because the federal government decided to temporarily provide benefits, because of the lingering effects of the recession. Those effects are still hanging on in Michigan, where unemployment is still more than ten percent. Economists expect that to come down a little by next year, but we’re likely to continue to be a long way from full employment. What that means is that for many people, twenty weeks is not going to be enough time to find a job.

So why is our government making it tough for jobless workers? Interestingly, nobody is really coming forward to defend this. Governor Snyder said he signed this bill because it was necessary to extend benefits for those who are jobless now. He said he would have been happy to leave eligibility at twenty-six weeks, and blamed the legislature for shortening the time period. Why did they do this? Well, nobody is rushing forward to claim credit.

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Commentary
10:55 am
Tue March 29, 2011

What’s Wrong With the Democrats

A lot of people are uneasy about Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal to cut aid to education at all levels in order to balance the budget and give business a huge tax break. Even some of those in favor of cutting business taxes have problems with this.

They reason that no matter what happens, there aren’t going to be any jobs in the future for unskilled, undereducated workers -- and certainly not any good-paying ones. Our young adults are undereducated as it is, and cutting education won’t help.

So yesterday, we were alerted that the Michigan Senate Democrats were going to offer an alternate proposal. I was very interested to see what it would be. And frankly, I was hoping it would be an alternative I could support.

That’s because I am convinced that better education and training, more than anything else, is the key to Michigan’s future.

Well, I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the Democrats -- or in Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a charismatic and intelligent figure who may be their best hope for the future.

The minority leader called for a state constitutional amendment that would prevent the governor from taking money out of the school aid fund in the future.  In practical terms, this is the equivalent of my calling for an amendment requiring it to be seventy degrees so I don’t freeze when I walk the dog in the morning. 

First of all, this does nothing to address this year’s problems. Even if the legislature thought this was a good idea, they’d have to agree to put it on a statewide ballot so people could vote on it.

That wouldn’t happen until long after this budget has been passed. But the legislature isn’t going to do any such thing. Republicans control both chambers. Democrats are especially weak in the Senate, where Gretchen Whitmer’s party has less than a third of the seats, and by themselves are powerless to do anything.

That’s not the worst part of her proposal, however. When she presented it to the media yesterday, she was asked this sensible question: If her proposal became law, how would Democrats then propose to fill the resulting deficit hole in the general fund?

The Senate minority leader refused to offer an answer -- other than to say the tax code should be “re-examined.”

This is precisely what has been wrong with Michigan government for the past decade, and what got the Democrats tossed out of office last fall. This is also why Governor Snyder’s plan is likely to be enacted. The governor has made a comprehensive proposal for changing the way things are done.

His numbers add up.

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Commentary
11:01 am
Mon March 28, 2011

Why Business Leaders Support the Budget

The changes Governor Rick Snyder wants to make with his proposed budget are hugely controversial. But everyone agrees on this: They are designed to bring new business to Michigan.

The governor believes there is no other way to revitalize our state’s economy. But what does business really think of the governor’s budget? People in business aren’t monolithic. General Motors doesn’t have a lot in common with the mom-and-pop restaurant in my neighborhood with five employees.

So last week, I talked to two business leaders who each represent a broad cross-section of somewhat dissimilar interests. Doug Rothwell is president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, a group of seventy-six of the state’s largest employers.  Rob Fowler has the same title with the Small Business Association of Michigan, sometimes known as SBAM.

SBAM has more than ten thousand members, many of whom have fewer than a hundred employees. Fowler and Rothwell don’t always see eye to eye -- but they do on the governor’s budget.

They support it, right down the line. “I think the governor’s tax plan is the right thing to do, even though some of our members are going to pay more,” said Rothwell, who ran Detroit Renaissance before it evolved into Business Leaders two years ago.

Rob Fowler, who has also had small business leadership positions in Indiana and Ohio, put it this way: “You have to understand the moment in time we are in.”

“Sure, there are things in the governor’s plan I am sure, standing by themselves, our members would not support.”

But both men said it was vitally important to pass the plan as a whole, that if lawmakers started picking off pieces, it would fall apart.

I talked to each man separately, and discovered that what both liked most about the plan was that it offers a coherent, comprehensive strategy for Michigan’s long-term economic recovery. Rothwell noted that this was not a budget of quick fixes and one-time solutions, but one with vision.

Critics have said that the governor is just betting an hunch, gambling that slashing taxes will bring new business into the state.

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Commentary
10:53 am
Fri March 25, 2011

Defying Age

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly speaks in support of Sen. Tom George's legislation to regulate the billboard industry in Michigan. At 86, he reminded Jack Lessenberry he could still run for Attorney General.
senate.michigan.gov

Former Governor Bill Milliken turns eighty-nine tomorrow. When I talked to him a couple weeks ago, he said, after discussing the current Michigan budget, that I keep getting his age wrong.

“I am actually fifty-three,” he said, before bursting into laughter. Talking to Milliken always perks me up, because I am thirty years younger than the man who I always think of as “the governor.”

And I certainly hope I still have a sense of humor at his age, though by that time I may well want to give up talking about state budgets.  I find it very encouraging that there are a great many people who are now living to tremendous ages, and enjoying life.

A week ago, I went to visit former Attorney General Frank Kelley in Florida. He had me hop into his convertible and we sped towards Marco Island, where we had lunch with a tough old Massachusetts politician, Francis X. Bellotti.

Kelley is eighty-six; Bellotti is about to be eighty-eight and looks sixty-five. The two Franks talked about old wars and about John F. Kennedy, who both knew. “When you saw him, you didn’t just think he should be president. You thought he was the answer to everything wrong in the world,” said Bellotti.

Later, on the drive back, Kelley sighed. “It’s hell getting old,” he said. “How would you know?” I wanted to ask.

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Commentary
10:21 am
Thu March 24, 2011

The UAW’s Dilemma

You may not have noticed, but the United Auto Workers union has been holding its bargaining convention in Detroit this week.

Every four years, union leaders get together to plan and map out their strategy for negotiating a new contract with the automakers. Once, this convention was an enormous deal, intensely covered by both local and national labor media.

The big question every time was - which company would be the strike target?

Years ago, the union came up with the concept of “pattern bargaining.”  One company - Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler, would be selected as the target. Union officials would then try and hammer out a contact with that automaker first.

Sometimes they’d have to go on strike to achieve that; sometimes not. Meanwhile, the workers at the other companies would keep working under the old labor agreements.

Once the new contract was finally hammered out, the unions would then go to the other two automakers and say -- “okay; this is what we negotiated with them; this is what you need to agree to as well.  No fooling around; take it or leave it; sign or we walk.”

That’s how it’s been done for many, many years. In the past, there were sometimes historic strikes which led to historic settlements that gradually won the workers everything from paid vacations to profit sharing to dental care, on top of high wages.

But as all the world knows, excesses and globalization caught up with the auto companies. General Motors and Chrysler nearly went out of business less than two years ago. They survived in part because the union was willing to make major concessions.

New hires, for example, now make half of what a longtime autoworker  does -- $14 an hour, or $29,000 a year. The union decided that and other sacrifices were  necessary to keep their employers alive.

Well, the world is different now. Ford and General Motors are now making profits in the billions. Chrysler is believed close to profitability, and at any rate, has a new owner with deep pockets.

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Commentary
2:52 pm
Wed March 23, 2011

Devastation

Hilary Flickr

Detroit expected to get grim news from the U.S. Census bureau. But the results are, in fact, far worse than expected. They paint a picture of urban devastation unlike any in our nation’s history, a snapshot of the depopulation of a major American city.

Consider this: Since the Republican National Convention in 1980, Detroit has lost half a million people. In the thirty years before that, it lost even more -- another seven hundred thousand.

For years, the term “white flight” had been synonymous with what was happening.  Today, it’s mostly about black flight. The black population of Detroit declined by more than one hundred and eighty-five thousand people during the last decade.

What that indicates is that the middle class of both races has given up on the city, in large part because the schools are perceived as being so bad. There have been a number of stories in recent months speculating that, for the first time, the census would find that the percentage of Detroiters who are white was increasing.

Optimists believed that the city was attracting a new generation of young urban pioneers, who were returning to Detroit from the suburbs, living in lofts and creating an artistic and urbane lifetstyle.

The census shows that this was a complete fantasy. Sure, there may be a few kids doing those things. There are also a few people who vote for the Socialist Workers’ party. But both groups are statistically insignificant. Nearly half of what white population remained in Detroit in 2000 vanished over the next decade.

There are now only about fifty-five thousand people in Detroit who identify themselves as white. Sixty years ago, when the city celebrated its 250th anniversary, that figure was one point six million.

That means that more than ninety-five percent of the white population has disappeared.  That’s not to say that Detroit’s troubles are solely due to the fact that the whites left. In fact, one-quarter of the black population left over the last decade as well.

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Commentary
3:03 pm
Tue March 22, 2011

Mergers and Acquisitions

There’s been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth statewide over the new proposals the governor outlined in Grand Rapids yesterday, the ones especially that will affect local governments.

He proposes to hold back one-third of the revenue sharing money communities get from the state, and release it only if cities, villages and townships adopt certain reforms. Those would include putting all new hires on a pension plan based on what they and their employer put in, a so-called “defined contribution plan.”

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Commentary
2:26 pm
Mon March 21, 2011

Shortchanging the Future

Macomb County Commissioner Phil DiMaria is angry about Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to tax pension income, and he’s doing something about it. He’s launched a statewide petition drive to oppose the tax, which is key to the governor’s proposed budget.

DiMaria, who has been on the county commission for twenty years, thinks the governor is badly out of touch. “He’s rich. He’s never going to be an old person who has to pinch pennies to try and get by, try and buy milk and bread,” he told me yesterday.

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Commentary
2:54 pm
Fri March 18, 2011

Unpopular Votes

For the last two months, Michigan has been consumed with debate over Governor Snyder’s proposed new budget --  and with a number of his other deal-changing priorities as well, such as the just passed tough new Emergency Financial Manager law.

But there are other issues, and a lobbyist for one showed up in Lansing yesterday to urge the legislature to vote to change the way we elect presidents. Tom Golisano, a millionaire businessman and philanthropist, is the spokesperson for a group called National Popular Vote, which is beginning to have some success.

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Commentary
2:05 pm
Thu March 17, 2011

Carping Criticism

Remember the Asian carp, which migrated up the Mississippi, into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and which experts feared were about to get into Lake Michigan?

That’s where things stood when I first talked about this issue here more than fifteen months ago. Since then, traces of carp DNA has been found in Lake Michigan, though there is no evidence that a permanent breeding population has been established there.

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Commentary
2:45 pm
Wed March 16, 2011

You Never Can Tell

The governor’s made some decisions that are wildly unpopular. Unions are upset. Taxpayers are upset. His own party isn’t too sure he is right.

Behind closed doors, leaders of the opposition party are rubbing their hands in glee. They think they know a one-term governor when they see one.

That’s what’s going on right now in Wisconsin, to be sure, and also, to a lesser extent, in Lansing. Democrats are convinced that if Governor Snyder indeed manages to tax pensions, cut education, and end the Earned Income Tax Credit, he’ll be toast.

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Commentary
11:54 am
Tue March 15, 2011

Glimmers of Hope

I know we’re just a week or so away from the beginning of spring, but it’s hard right now to feel especially hopeful. It’s been a long and grinding winter, and we all know we haven’t seen the last of the snow and ice yet. And while unemployment is down, most of us know people who have been out of work, or still are.

But I can’t help but think of something inspiring that happened at the start of this winter. The American Civil Liberties Union of  Michigan ran a high school essay contest.

Students were asked to read Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, the one that includes the famous line, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free.”

Then, they were to write about how their experiences as a part of this melting pot had defined their American identity.

The contest was sponsored by a friend of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a humanist and community leader in the Detroit area who was tragically killed in a car accident in Morocco three years ago.

I was a friend of the rabbi, and since I supposedly know something about writing, I was asked to be the final judge. Frankly, I wasn’t too optimistic. This is a busy time of year, and for many students, reading and writing aren’t top priorities.

But I have to say, I was blown away. The ACLU asked me to pick the best two. But four were so good I insisted they honor all  their authors. When I judged them, I didn’t know who the writers were. But when I met the students, I had a pleasant surprise.

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Commentary
10:57 am
Mon March 14, 2011

Saving Newspapers

It’s hardly a secret that newspapers aren’t doing very well these days. Over the decades, they’ve been gradually replaced as the nation’s universal mass medium by television.

Newspaper’s biggest economic blow came, however, with the flight of advertising revenue to the Internet. This, combined with an ever-more busy public bombarded by more and more media choices, has badly wounded what was once a thriving industry. And, left us in danger of being dangerously uninformed as well. Ann Arbor, for example, no longer has a daily newspaper at all.

The problem is perhaps most acute in Detroit, where, twenty-five years ago, the Detroit News and Free Press sold a combined total of one point three million newspapers every day.

That number has declined ever since. Audited figures show that as of last September, they were down to a combined circulation of less than four hundred thousand, a number that has dropped further since then.

To save money two years ago, Detroit’s newspapers embarked on an experiment in which they would deliver the papers only three days a week, and asked consumers to read them online or go to the store and buy it the rest of the week. This really hasn’t worked.

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Commentary
11:40 am
Fri March 11, 2011

Wacky Weather

You don’t need me to tell you this, but we’ve had a rough winter. Not nearly as tough as they’ve had in New York, or almost anywhere on the eastern seaboard. But it’s been cold and snowy.

How snowy? Well, in Detroit, we are already in the top dozen winters of all time, with more than sixty inches. Last month was the third snowiest February in recorded history.

But it could always be worse. If you have any interest in the weather, by the way, there’s a fascinating little book that just came out last year: Extreme Michigan Weather: The Wild World of the Great Lakes State, published by the University of Michigan Press.

Author Paul Gross is a longtime meteorologist who now works for WDIV-TV in Detroit.  His book looks at the strange and constantly changing weather we have in this state, or, as he puts it, everything from heat waves to bitter snows, ice storms to tornadoes to floods.

We don’t, however, have hurricanes, and his book will tell you why. (Not having any tropical ocean waters around here is a big part of it.)  Ice we do have -- in abundance.

Ice and snow. But if you are feeling so tired of snow you can’t stand it, consider this. We lucked out today. Grand Rapids once got almost seven inches of snow on March 11. In Flint, it’s been as cold as seven below zero this day, which I found in Paul Gross’s book.

He includes all these tables for fun in Extreme Michigan Weather. So, just in case you were burning to know, it was once twenty below zero on this date in Ironwood.

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Commentary
1:25 pm
Thu March 10, 2011

Emergency Financial Managers

Nobody in Lansing was neutral yesterday when the Michigan senate completed passage of new, tougher Emergency Financial Manager legislation on a straight, party line vote.

State Senator Phil Pavlov said this is needed to maintain “vital services, such as public safety and education,” when a city or a school district is in desperate financial straits.

This reform, he said, is necessary to allow steps to be taken “to protect public interests and the public’s money and strengthen local control and accountability.” His fellow Republicans all agreed.

But if you talked to any of the Democrats, they sounded like this was the equivalent of Mussolini seizing power.  “An unfair and unjustified power grab,“ Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer called it. One of her colleagues said it went way too far, “and was going to damage our communities and our schools.”

Well, you could say that it is nice to see that our time-honored tradition of bitter partisan divisions is alive and well, but I think the opposite. We’ve had four sterile years of that in Lansing. I think we’d all be better off if this could have been a bipartisan bill.

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Commentary
11:45 am
Wed March 9, 2011

Funding Education

Mike Simeck, the superintendent of schools in Berkley, Michigan, has something in common with Governor Snyder -- or at least, with the way the governor ran his businesses:

He believes in proven results. “I run an organization that is the largest employer in our city, where I would hear from our client base immediately if we begin to fail,” he told me last night at ten o’clock, after each of us had put in more than a full day.

“I run this thing based on empirical evidence, on data and results, and as a result, we’ve been successful.”

That‘s no idle boast. Berkley is a small but diverse district with a little less than five thousand students. Roughly speaking, they are two-thirds white; one-quarter black, one eighth Hispanic and Asian.

He has affluent kids from Huntington Woods, working and middle class kids from Berkley, poor kids and Orthodox Jews from a slice of Oak Park. They run lean and mean and get results.

Want proof? More than four out of every five Berkley students who apply to the University of Michigan get in. Their ACT scores are way over the national average. Simeck, who’s been in his job for four years, says this is no accident. When other school districts outperform Berkley, they study them and make changes.

That’s helped lead to Berkley High being recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s “public elite”  high schools.

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Commentary
9:02 am
Tue March 8, 2011

Taxing Credibility

Two plus two equals four. Simple, right? That’s math even a journalist can understand. Unfortunately, the legislature and a large section of the general public doesn’t quite seem to get it.

State government is currently on course to run a huge deficit for the next fiscal year. State budget deficits are illegal, under Michigan’s Constitution. That budget has to be balanced by September 30.

Four months ago, we elected a ton of Republicans to the legislature who pledged they wouldn’t vote for any new taxes, no matter what. We elected a Republican governor who said he was going to deeply cut taxes on business, because he believed that was the only way to attract new jobs and industry to this state.

So we voted for no new taxes of any kind, less taxes on business, and we‘ve got a big budget deficit to start. And now we are shocked, shocked, that the governor is insisting on making huge cuts in state spending.

Well, we shouldn‘t be.

We voted for this. And, we tolerated the last governor, and several different past legislatures, refusing to deal with our problems. We put things off till we couldn‘t do it any more.

And now, we have to fix it. What‘s worse, we have to do this when we are still mired in the effects of the worst recession since World War II. Yes, I know the recession is officially over.

The economists say so, anyway. But hard times are not even close to over in Michigan. The auto industry is never coming back the way it was, and we need a new economy.

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