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We need to spend money on good roads, education, and foster care

Jan 17, 2018

Last week I talked about the fact that Michigan is headed for a serious budget crisis that threatens everything from education to foster care to public safety.  

We’ve been cutting state government spending on programs that give people a chance at a better life for years. We’ve been neglecting the vitally important public sector of our economy, which is why so many of our roads and bridges are falling apart.

Alone among the major industrial states, we have no mass transit worthy of the name. Thinking we could recruit a company like Amazon today is delusional.

This has happened because we’ve been increasingly brainwashed and held hostage by a right-wing ideology that believes that nearly all taxes are bad, except for whatever is spent to sustain the military. They have us believing that spending money for good roads or to help foster children or to make college affordable is equivalent to wasting it on mythical welfare queens.

So our society is, pretty literally, falling apart. This will get worse in coming years, I noted, as a bill kicks in that will soon take $600 million a year from the state’s cash-strapped general fund and use it for road repair. Unless the tooth fairy leaves more money under Michigan’s pillow, this is bound to mean big cuts for programs from public safety to education.

The lawmakers did this to us because they were afraid to do the right thing and have us pay properly for an essential public good — decent roads.

Naturally, in a rational universe, where we wanted our children to have better lives and our state to be more competitive, we’d see education as another public good — especially when it is clear that’s the only hope of attracting the jobs of the future.

Those who led this state and nation once knew that. Republicans and Democrats spent money to subsidize education during the Cold War. The state paid roughly 70 percent of my tuition at Michigan State and the University of Michigan in the 1970s. Now, students are expected to pay roughly that much, and they drop out or go deeply in debt.

This insanity is well known. So what did the state Senate finance committee do yesterday?  They approved a new bill to give Michiganders a $5,000 state personal income tax exemption to compensate for an exemption apparently eliminated by the new federal tax bill.

I say apparently because nobody really understands the new tax bill, and some, like Congressman Mike Bishop, don’t think it eliminates that exemption at all.

So, they are giving us a further tax cut. Senator Jack Brandenburg, the main sponsor, says it will cost the state another $210 million and give the average family a cut of $125.

That would cover about half the cost of a tire destroyed by one of the potholes we won’t be able to fix because of this bill. Meanwhile, his fellow Republican Senator, Margaret O’Brien, is pushing a caregiver credit that would blow another $81 million hole in the general fund.

This is insanity. Possibly, to save time, we could abolish all government. We’d have to defend ourselves, and take our chances with clean water. But we wouldn’t have to pay any taxes. We’d just have to get used to lives that were nasty, brutish, and short.

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.