Commentary: Simple and Wrong

Jun 26, 2012

Every so often, I run into someone with a simple solution that they believe would fix all our problems. Sometimes it is a flat tax. Sometimes it is single-payer health insurance.

But whenever someone stops me at the grocery store to explain their simple plan for saving mankind, or at least Michigan, all I can think about is H.L. Mencken’s famous maxim that, “for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”

Those are words that ought to be inscribed over the doors of the state Capitol. Well, just before they adjourned for the summer, Michigan’s House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for simple, neat and wrong. They voted to lower the state’s income tax rate to 3.9 percent over the next six years.

Now, that sounds wonderful, and I am sure this vote had nothing to do with the fact that the entire House is up for election this year. But not only would that tax cut be simple, neat and wrong, it would be monumentally stupid and irresponsible.

Look. The state doesn’t have enough money now to do the things it needs to do to make Michigan competitive again.

We have been cutting aid to education. We have been cutting aid to cities. We’ve cut off cash assistance to tens of thousands of children from poor families. We broke our promise on the Michigan Promise college scholarships. Our roads and bridges are crumbling, but our Republican-controlled legislature continues to ignore their Republican governor’s plea to appropriate new money for them.

Yesterday, Michigan even reduced the amount of clothing they give state prisoners, Yet our lawmakers voted for a tax cut, which would, when it fully kicks in, cost the state nearly $1 billion a year. The main sponsor of this bill is one Nancy Jenkins, a freshman legislator from rural Lenawee County, not far from the border with Ohio. Indeed, she went to college in Toledo, before becoming a public relations assistant at something called the Christian Family Center in Adrian. When she was asked how the state could afford this, she said “this bill is based on expected revenue and will not lead to program cuts.”

I believe the technical term for that is, magical thinking. I don’t know any economist who expects Michigan’s revenue stream will increase to a torrent by 2018. The ones I talk to are hoping it won’t decline any further. This bill doesn’t make sense.

But we live not in an age of statesmen, but of term-limited politicians. And they aren’t going to oppose a tax cut right before an election. Even most Democrats found themselves voting for it. One rare exception was Vicki Barnett of Farmington Hills, who said “this makes no sense in terms of creating stable funding for necessary programs.” She added that she hadn’t been elected “to pander for political gain in an election year.”

What remains to be seen is if the state senate, which is not up for reelection this year, takes up and passes this turkey. And if they do, will the governor sign it? For if this becomes law, you can stop worrying about whether our state will be competitive for the jobs of the future. Because that just isn't going to happen.

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