Years ago, I heard a young reporter ask an old editorial writer what the difference was between Republicans and Democrats.
The old guy said, “Democrats love big government, preferably controlled by and run from Washington. Republicans are in favor of smaller, less intrusive government, and local control,” he said, and then paused.
“Except, that is, when they’re not.”
The young reporter asked when that was. “Whenever local government does something they don’t want it to do,” the old cynic said. That was long before the Tea Party or Rick Snyder.
But events in recent years have proven him right.
Yesterday, I talked about how Michigan towns, cities and villages have been systematically starved for revenue.
They’ve also increasingly had their powers taken away by Republican legislatures which, for example, didn’t want local governments to give employees better benefits than they thought appropriate. The emergency manager laws have also been a great tool that has allowed the state to help control local governments.
When disgruntled voters went to the polls four years ago and repealed the emergency manager law, Governor Snyder and the Legislature immediately passed a new emergency manager law. This time, however, they stuck in a token appropriation to render the law “referendum proof,” which means it can no longer be repealed by the people.
The beauty of the new law, at least for those who like having Lansing in control, is this; It enables the state to keep control of some cities even after they are officially done with the emergency manager process.
Case in point: Flint.
Flint hasn’t been under an emergency manager for a year and a half. Officially, the city is now being run by Mayor Karen Weaver and the city council.
Except, that is, when it’s not.
Six months ago, we recently learned, the city filed a notice of intent to sue the state of Michigan. Actually, the city apparently didn’t have any immediate intent to sue, but under law, it had to file the notice within six months of any potential claim or lose the right to sue.
Now, when Flint did this on March 24th, it was less than six months after the state finally admitted the water was contaminated with lead. Contaminated because of actions taken by state-appointed emergency managers. Flint quite reasonably thought it might eventually determine it had no recourse except to sue the state.
But while the city manager is gone, the state can still pull the strings behind the scenes with a five-person Receivership Transition Advisory Board, whose members are appointed by the governor. So far as I can tell, most or all of them are not from Flint.
And while few noticed at the time, within days after Flint filed that placeholder notice, the so-called “advisory board” moved to take away the city’s right to independently sue the state.
From now on, if Flint wants to sue the state, it first has to get approval from that state-appointed board.
Good luck with that.
How long will Flint be under the thumb of the Receivership Transition Board? So far as I can tell, the answer is pretty much forever.
So remember, those now running our state are solidly and ideologically in favor of local control. Except, that is, when they’re not.
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.