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Wed June 4, 2014
Good things happened in Michigan yesterday, because lawmakers acted like adults
Yesterday was largely a good news day for our state, and how often can you say that?
The really big news, of course, was the state Senate’s remarkably fast passage of the so-called "grand bargain," the deal that gives Detroit a chance to emerge from bankruptcy without threatening the city’s art museum or utterly destroying the lives of the retirees.
And, in a development understandably overshadowed, the U.S. Coast Guard finally issued a permit for the building of the New International Trade Crossing bridge, meaning all that’s left now is for Washington to come up with money for the customs plaza.
That will be essential for Michigan’s economy in the future.
But the grand bargain was necessary for the state and its largest city to have a chance to go forward. Surprisingly, legislators who had been squabbling like children for months became responsible adults.
They voted to transfer almost $195 million from the state’s rainy-day fund to a pool of money that would shore up city workers' pensions and protect the Detroit Institute of Arts.
This is not, whatever it is, a pure “government bailout.”
Most of the money in this pool is private, raised by foundations and supporters of the DIA. But the state’s contribution recognizes that we’re all in this together.
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, who seems to have suddenly morphed into a statesman, said it best. “The only thing separating Detroit from Michigan is a comma.” He recognizes that the state can’t truly recover if its largest city is effectively destroyed.
There were a few naysayers on each side who were frozen in the rhetoric and attitudes of the past. Coleman Young of Detroit railed about “inter-state colonialism,” in an apparent attempt to stir up the old us-vs.-them attitudes that helped impoverish the city.
Speaking for the no-nothings and Detroit haters, Jack Brandenburg of Macomb County indicated he would be perfectly happy to have the creditors loot the city and the DIA, saying, “there's lots of assets down there,” that presumably could be sold.
But the grownups won the day.
The final agreement sensibly sets up an oversight commission and a chief financial officer. It drops the silly and vindictive condition imposed by the lower House, which would have prevented the DIA from seeking a millage renewal.
Yet it is important to remember that this is not a done deal. It is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a little more than the end of the beginning.
There are two more things that have to happen.
Active city workers and retirees have to vote to approve small but significant cuts to their pensions. We'll know by July 11 if they have. Those trying to make this happen are especially worried about those still on the job. If they don't approve this, the bargain will all fall apart, and the pension cuts are likely to be much, much worse.
Finally, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has to sign off on the whole deal.
If all that happens, by fall, the city's bankruptcy could be over. Then all that would remain would be for Detroit to find a way to stay solvent and become prosperous again.
You might call that the really hard part.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.