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Legislators without integrity

Feb 15, 2018

Both houses of the legislature collaborated to pass bills yesterday that will put chump change in your pocket and damage our state’s ability to educate children and have a future. What’s more, they don’t care. The architects of this plan will be out of office soon.

Most of the state senate is term-limited, and so voters, even if they figure out what happened, will be unable to punish them. By then, many will be working as lobbyists for the special interests who told them how to vote.

Here’s what happened. The legislature actually did two things, one somewhat justified, one not. Fifteen years ago, lawmakers enacted something called “driver’s responsibility fees,” which were a system of surcharges on certain traffic tickets. You had to pay the ticket; then you had to pay the fee to keep your driver’s license. This really was a new tax passed by lawmakers too gutless to admit the state needed money to balance the budget.

There were honest and decent ways to raise taxes, but not this. It generated some money, but many poor people couldn’t afford to pay, and so lost their licenses.

Eliminating them, and writing off more than $600 million in money the state was never going to collect, was the right thing. But the state needed the money it was bringing in, and the lawmakers needed to replace it.

They didn’t. And a second, far less justifiable bill raised the personal tax exemption to $4,900 dollars to compensate for citizens being hurt by the poorly crafted tax bill rammed through Congress late last year. Together, these bills will cost the state, which cannot now properly afford to maintain its roads and educate its children, perhaps $220 million a year.

State Senator Jack Brandenburg of Macomb County, never one to let facts get in the way of ideology, called it a “huge win for taxpayers” that will directly “make people’s wallets thicker.”

That it will do, if you make several million a year. But if you are an average Joe or Jane, it will mean about $102 dollars, less than half the cost of one tire destroyed by a pothole.

There was an attempt to protect the School Aid Fund, but Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a man who has shown clearly that he doesn’t care much about education, blocked that.

Instead, he said he was confident the legislature would boost education funding next year. This is demonstrably horse exhaust; he doesn’t know because he won’t be in the legislature next year, nor will more than two-thirds of his colleagues. They don’t know or care.

Unless, that is, Meekhof was hinting that voters will put Democrats back in power because of his party’s irresponsible economic stewardship.

There are those who do still tell the truth in Lansing, notably Gilda Jacobs, a former legislator who now runs the Michigan League for Public Policy.

“Lawmakers are making bad decisions today that will force future legislators to pay for them with significant cuts to the services residents value and rely on,” she said, vowing the league would “continue to be the voice of fiscal responsibility" and "we will keep on advocating for policies that truly make a difference for struggling Michiganders.”

The tragedy is that those we’ve elected to run our state don’t feel the same way.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.