A Dramatic week in Michigan politics and government

Dec 3, 2011

This was the week in which Flint finally got an emergency manager, and the week when it began to seem inevitable that Detroit would get one. It was a week when it seemed apparent that the legislature is about to open the state up to unlimited charter schools.

The auto industry seems to be doing better, even as the weather turns worse, and the governor unveiled a major message on talent that was aimed at preparing us for the jobs of the future.

We are, in other words, in a time of transition. Almost a quarter of a century ago, I covered a now almost forgotten presidential campaign in which the Democratic nominee, one Michael Dukakis, has this slogan: “competence, not ideology.” Unfortunately, he didn’t strike most voters as being especially competent.

Nor did he appeal to their passions, and in the end, he lost pretty badly. But I think he was on to something with his slogan.

In fact, it could almost be Governor Snyder’s slogan, though he would probably prefer something like “solutions that work.”

I certainly don’t agree with a number of things the governor has done, such as cutting aid to education and throwing children off welfare. I think raising income taxes moderately on those who can still afford to pay would do nothing to derail our state’s recovery.

But this governor does seem willing to make tough, rational, hard-headed decisions. He is doing something else that is a test of a true leader—challenging us to go outside our comfort zones.

Whether he succeeds is yet to be seen. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth yesterday in Detroit at the news that Snyder is evidently close to ordering a state review team to examine the city’s finances. That’s the first step in a process that could end with the appointment of an emergency manager.

That did have the effect of seemingly unifying—at least for a day—the city council, the unions, and Mayor Dave Bing, all of whom agree on one thing: That they want to avoid losing their powers to an emergency manager. Trouble is, that may be the only thing they agree on. They’ve spent much of the last two weeks calling each other names.

My guess is that if they can somehow get it together and find a financial solution for the city that avoids an emergency manager, that would be fine with the governor. But my guess is also that, sadly, they won’t be able to.

Detroit’s long-term budget problems are so deep and go back so many years that they defy easy solutions. In past years, the city committed itself to literally billions in unfunded pension and other liabilities. Today’s Detroit is a city of 700,000 largely poor people, many jobless. There’s no way they can pay for that.

Resolving this problem, however we do it, will involve frightening scenarios outside our comfort zones. But we’ve done this before. Think of those who came to Michigan when it was unsettled wilderness and swamp, braving hostile tribes and cholera.

Thomas Jefferson thought America would need a revolution every generation or so. Like it or not, we’re going through one now.