Jack Lessenberry

Commentary
10:13 am
Thu July 14, 2011

Limiting welfare... now what?

If you’ve been supporting your family on welfare since the Great Recession started three years ago, here’s news for you. You’ve got one more year left. And then your benefits will be cut off, forever.

What if you get a job after that, work hard for another ten years, and then become the victim of another recession? Sorry, you are out of luck, once your savings and unemployment run out.

What if you have kids? Well, you can still get food stamps.

Yesterday, the state Senate passed a bill which, once the governor signs it, will mean that you can be on welfare for a maximum of four years in your entire life.

Doesn’t matter what might happen to you, the nation or the economy. Four years, and that’s it. Doesn’t matter if you are supporting children. Oh -- if you are pregnant or have a new baby you might be able to stay on the rolls for another 60 or 90 days, but then that’s it. They did make one exemption:  those caring for a disabled child or spouse. But that’s all.

The sponsor of this legislation, State Rep. Ken Horn, a Republican from Frankenmuth, says putting this cap on welfare will make Michigan stronger. What I don’t understand is how.

Now, if you aren’t an expert on the system, you may think we are ending welfare for a bunch of lazy adults who would prefer lying around and watching TV to working. Well, guess what.

They were on a program called general assistance, and Gov. John Engler ended it 20 years ago. Welfare as we once knew it has been gradually reduced since the 1980s. Mainly, the only people still receiving payments are needy families.

Now, about 12,000 of those families, which include 25,000 children, will lose benefits forever. That might not be bad, if ending welfare meant the heads of those households would now go out and get good-paying jobs. But they won’t.

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Commentary
11:30 am
Wed July 13, 2011

Could there be an "Airport City" in Michigan's future?

What do you think of this idea for an economic engine to lead Michigan’s revival? A vast business center and international freight-moving operation springing up between two major airports - Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run, a few miles to its west.

The idea is to bring together and coordinate air, road, rail and water transportation systems to move goods to and from the rest of the globe to the Midwest. Planners think that within a few years, this new commercial “Airport City” could handle freight faster, cheaper and more efficiently than anywhere else.

I have to confess that when I first heard of this, I thought it was one more pie-in-the sky dream, probably floated by somebody angling for tax credits.  But a lot of sober, sensible business types really believe that this is a dream that could come true.

Phil Power, the usually cautious founder of the non-partisan Center for Michigan, is an enthusiastic backer of this concept, which he believes could generate sixty-five thousand jobs and ten billion dollars in new economic activity over the next twenty years.

That would be huge, especially for a state struggling to reinvent its economy. And Power is not alone. Doug Rothwell, the head of Business Leaders for Michigan is an enthusiastic supporter.

So is Robert Ficano, the Wayne County Executive.  In fact, he has just chartered an incubator of sorts to help make it a reality, the Aerotropolis Development Corporation. There is a slight problem with what to call all this. Aerotropolis seems to be the most common term.

Phil Power calls it the “multi-modal logistical hub,” a name which I strongly predict will never catch on. My choice would have been Airport City, which is easy to pronounce.

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Politics
8:45 am
Wed July 13, 2011

The week in state politics

State Capitol, Lansing, Michigan
Ifmuth Flickr

On Wednesday mornings we speak with Michigan Radio's Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry about what's going in state politics. Today: the likelihood of a GOP closed-party presidential primary in the state next year and a look at just what lawmakers will be up to during their midsummer session today at the Capitol.

Commentary
10:12 am
Tue July 12, 2011

Can the UAW Survive?

Later this month, contact talks are set to begin between the United Auto Workers’ union and Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

There’s a temptation to feel nostalgic about that. This has been a time-honored tradition in Detroit since the 1940s. Every three years, negotiations began, and the union selected a strike target.

That target could have been any one of what were then referred to as the Big Three. Negotiations followed a system called “pattern bargaining,” which meant the union and the selected company would battle things out to a settlement.

Sometimes a deal could be reached without a strike; sometimes not. Once a deal was reached, the other two automakers would settle with the union on essentially the same terms.

During the glorious fat years of postwar prosperity, the bargaining scenario also followed a predictable pattern.  When negotiations began, the company would offer the union the equivalent of a crust of bread. The union would demand the moon, plus a kitchen sink with gold-plated handles. Eventually, with or without a strike, they’d reach a deal where the union got the moon, but had to settle for a sink with plain old chromium handles.

Walter Reuther would then promise to get the gold-plated ones in the next contract, and he usually would. But everything is different now. Chrysler and GM went through a near-death experience two years ago. As part of the price for the federal government’s saving them, the UAW had to agree not to strike either company.

The only thing they can do in the case of a grievance is ask for binding arbitration. The union could theoretically strike Ford, but now that all automakers aren’t on an equal playing field that’s unlikely.

But the UAW does face two immense new challenges.

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Commentary
11:08 am
Mon July 11, 2011

The Importance of Betty Ford

They’re bringing Betty Ford back home this week, to be buried next to her husband, President Gerald Ford, at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

You knew by now that the former first lady died last Friday in California. But what you may not have known unless you are in your fifties, or older, is just how important she was.

They both were, really. President Ford’s story is better known, and best expressed by Jimmy Carter, who said when he took office: “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford had a big role in that too, but she also did something else. She showed the nation that a first lady could also be a human being.

The Fords took office after the final convulsion of the Watergate scandal, and eleven of the worst years the United States has ever known. The public had learned that Richard Nixon had lied about virtually everything.

His predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had dragged us into a war in Vietnam for reasons nobody understood, a war that went on for years and tore our nation apart. Before that, we’d been traumatized when the young president before him had his head blown off in broad daylight. The presidency and America had taken a beating.

Nor were any of the first ladies of the period women to whom most people could relate. We’d always been fascinated by the presidents’ wives. But they were sort of like royalty, fascinating, forbidden and distant. Betty Ford was a regular person. Just months before she moved in to the White House, she was the unknown wife of the house minority leader, looking forward to her husband’s retirement from Congress. Then, suddenly, she was first lady.

But she was still Betty Ford, the irrepressible mother of four kids, a woman who most of all, was real.

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Commentary
8:51 am
Fri July 8, 2011

GOP: Primary or Caucus in 2012?

If you are a normal person, you probably aren’t thinking a lot right now about how Michigan Republicans should pick their choice for presidential candidate next year.

Actually, you probably don’t even want to think about Labor Day being less than two months away, let alone voting next winter.

But politicians work on a different schedule than ordinary mortals, and in the next few weeks, Republicans in this state are going to decide how to pick their choice for next year’s nominee.

Now, in most states, this isn’t something you have to agonize over. If you live in Iowa, you know that your state will kick things off with a caucus in early January. If you live in New Hampshire, you know you get to vote in the nation’s first primary, a couple of weeks later. But if you live in Michigan.

All you can count on is that the politicians will do something different from last time, and that they will likely screw it up.

Over the last forty years, we’ve lurched back and forth from a primary to a closed caucus to a somewhat more open caucus back to a primary that was sorta kinda closed …

Sometimes our primaries and/or caucuses  have been held in May. Sometimes in March, or April, or February. Last time, both parties outdid themselves in a blaze of stupidity.

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Commentary
11:34 am
Thu July 7, 2011

Shenanigans in Michigan's 7th District

Most congressmen face a big struggle to first get elected, and then stay in their jobs for a considerable period of time. John Dingell, for example, holds the all-time record. He’ll have served fifty-six years before this year is over.

John Conyers has been there forty-six years.

Dale Kildee and Carl Levin have been in Washington more than thirty years. But on the other hand, the seventh district, which spans southeast Michigan’s border with Ohio, has been about the most volatile congressional district in the nation over the last decade.

Starting in two thousand and two, the seventh district has elected a different congressman in every election. Tim Walberg, who holds the job now, won in two thousand six; lost in two thousand eight, and won his old seat back in two thousand and ten.

Odds were that he would have faced another stiff challenge next year, possibly from one, or both, his two main rivals in the recent past. Fellow Republican Joe Schwarz beat Walberg in a primary in two thousand four, and then lost to him two years later.

Democrat Mark Schauer ousted Walberg from Congress in two thousand eight, and was ousted by him last year.

But this year is a redistricting year. Republicans control every branch of government, and one of their top priorities was to draw the lines so as to make re-election safer for their side’s incumbents.

In the case of the Seventh, they replaced Calhoun County, at the west end of the district, with Monroe County, at the eastern end. The counties are almost the same size, and both usually, but not always, vote slightly more Democratic than Republican.

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Commentary
11:23 am
Wed July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony Verdict: Rushing to Judgement

Last night I was filling up my car in western Wayne County, when a woman next to me, a perfect stranger, said “Isn’t it horrible?”  I thought she meant the price of gas.

But no. She meant the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial. “Can you believe it?"

I thought of sincerely telling her that I wasn’t surprised at all. Of telling her that what happens during a full-length trial in a courtroom is often far different than what you see on TV.

Additionally, our system - though not our media - still operate under something called the presumption of innocence. This means, in criminal trials, that your guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and there seemed to be plenty of that here.

I also was tempted to suggest that she get a life, and become interested and involved in things that mattered to her family, community and state which she actually could do something about.

But of course I did none of that, mostly because I didn't want to get into a fight. So I merely mumbled that I hadn’t really followed the trial much, which also happens to be true.

I haven’t followed it, except to the extent that it was unavoidable. I usually watch CNN for a few minutes in the morning, a network which lately seems to be all Casey Anthony, all the time. If you are trying to discover proof that a large country named Russia actually still existed, you’d be out of luck here.

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Commentary
11:09 am
Tue July 5, 2011

Medical Marijuana

Three years ago, Michigan voters approved allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes by a margin of almost two to one.

Social conservatives weren’t happy, and feared that this would lead to the back door legalization of marijuana for everyone. However, the public was overwhelmingly sympathetic to its use for medical reasons. That’s largely because there is considerable evidence that marijuana can relieve suffering from diseases including cancer, glaucoma, and a host of other ailments. Yet there were problems from the start with the medical marijuana law.

For one thing, it wasn’t passed by the legislature, as most laws are, but was placed on the ballot by citizens who collected enough signatures to put it there. Legalizing marijuana for medical patients required setting up a complex new system.

This had never been tried before in Michigan, and it’s evident that the framework needs to be tweaked.  For one thing, there are clearly a handful of unscrupulous doctors all too willing to certify people for medical marijuana use.

The Detroit Free Press reported that only fifty-five doctors have authorized medical marijuana for more than seventy percent of all those now eligible. Whatever your feelings about marijuana, the voters did not intend to effectively legalize its recreational use.

Nor could Michigan legally do that. Technically, any marijuana use is still against federal law, and Washington could, if it chose, move against any of the sixteen states that authorize medical marijuana. They haven’t, and even allowed a medical marijuana statute to be enacted in Washington, D.C.. But if Michigan or any other state were to openly act as if the legalization of medical marijuana meant we could establish a marijuana industry for all, the odds of federal intervention would become much greater.

On the other hand, it is clear that people do want marijuana to be available to those with legitimate medical conditions.

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Commentary
10:13 am
Fri July 1, 2011

Lansing Takes a Breather

Happy new fiscal year, everyone. Everyone, that is, except for employees of the State of Michigan, whose fiscal year begins October first. The state used to have a normal fiscal year, but switched in the seventies as part of budget-balancing maneuver.

Anyway, even though their budget year isn’t over, our allegedly full-time lawmakers are honoring the conventional year by knocking off for the summer, pretty much. They are scheduled to be in session for only two days in the next two months.

Nice work if you can get it.

To be sure, whether you liked it or not, the lawmakers did accomplish a lot in the last six months. Repealing the Michigan Business Tax. Inaugurating a pensions tax. Balancing the budget earlier than anyone except Bill Milliken can remember.

They finished the session yesterday by dramatically changing the way public school teacher tenure works in Michigan.

Not that our lawmakers didn’t do some silly stuff too. You’ll be pleased to know that our lawmakers made it possible for five-year- olds to hunt bear. That’s right. They repealed that pesky socialist law that said you had to be at least ten years old to shoot living creatures with a gun Now, kids of any age will be able to blast away, provided they are accompanied by an adult who has a hunting license.

One more reason to stay out of the woods.

Turning serious, I was struck by something about the teacher tenure battle. The legislation will make it easier to fire bad teachers, all agree. It was bitterly opposed by the teachers‘ unions, who always seem to oppose any kind of education reform.

Interestingly, however, even the unions admitted at the last moment that it was too hard to fire really bad teachers, and that changes needed to be made. They decided to back a less drastic bill introduced in the senate that would have streamlined the process. But it was too late. The problem was that a year ago, the unions would have opposed any changes whatsoever. By not being willing to address the issue earlier, in a sense, they did it to themselves.

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Commentary
10:56 am
Thu June 30, 2011

Selling the Bridge

Our lawmakers are preparing to wind up business for the summer, and Governor Rick Snyder has racked up an astonishing record of legislative success. True, his party has heavy majorities in both houses, and there was a broad consensus that Michigan needed change. But he got lawmakers to agree very quickly to major reforms that faced entrenched opposition.

Taxing pensions, for one thing. True, he had to compromise, finally agreeing to exempt most of those already receiving them. But that he got Republicans to agree to a tax increase at all was something like getting a vegan to eat a hamburger.

The changes in the Emergency Financial Manager law and in the rules covering binding arbitration for government employees will have profound effects in years to come.

In six months, this governor has accomplished more than his predecessor did in four years. But he has so far failed at one thing, something that would have seemed an easy sell.

The proposal to build a new bridge across the Detroit River,  the New International Trade Crossing. The facts indicate this should be a no-brainer. The Ambassador Bridge is old. Canada wants and needs a new bridge so much it will cover all Michigan‘s costs.

Not only that. The federal government will allow Michigan to use the $550 million Canada is offering us as matching money to get two billion dollars in badly needed federal highway funds.

Yet the governor had to postpone a vote on the bridge because he’s been unable to win over most in his own party. To understand their thinking, I talked yesterday with one of the rising stars in the Michigan Republican Party, Senator Tonya Schuitmaker.

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Commentary
11:19 am
Wed June 29, 2011

The Mess in Detroit

What if, back in the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had exploded an atom bomb in Detroit? Let’s say that two-thirds of the people were eliminated.

Even a higher percentage of jobs were lost. Land was left polluted; tens of thousands of buildings dilapidated and vacant, and the school system was essentially ruined. What would we do?

Well, I think the answer is clear. If something like that had happened in the early 1950s, both state and federal authorities would have responded with a massive outpouring of aid. Blighted areas would have been cleaned up, Buildings rebuilt. Detroiters who came through all this would have been battle-scarred but immensely proud.

Well, it’s more than half a century later, and while no nuclear device has gone off, much of Detroit does in fact look like it has gone through a war. Maybe not a nuclear war, but parts of it could easily have been pounded by allied bombers during World War II. 

The population is largely poor, undereducated, jobless and desperate. Yet there is no massive outpouring of aid. Mostly, there’s just a collective shrug of our shoulders. People who live in Grand Rapids don’t want to think about Detroit. Some of them act as if it didn’t even exist. What is even more bizarre is that some people in the Grosse Pointes and Birmingham act the same way.

They know that it is no longer socially permissible to say that Detroit is beyond help because its inhabitants are virtually all black and don’t share the cultural values other Americans have, most notably, the work ethic. They don’t say that, but many think it.

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Commentary
10:46 am
Tue June 28, 2011

China Daze

In many ways, the Toledo area just south of the border is more like Michigan than Ohio. It features an aging industrial city based on the automotive economy and suffering from its decline.

Beyond that are leafy suburbs, and then smaller towns, farms, and a significant agricultural sector. Yet there is one way in which Toledo is very different from us. The mayor and the chamber of commerce have been actively and aggressively courting China.

And their efforts are paying off. Earlier this year, the Chinese investment firm Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. bought a restaurant complex for more than $2 million dollars. Then this month, they paid the cash-strapped city even more to buy sixty-nine acres of land in what is known as the Marina District, along the Maumee River.

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Commentary
10:42 am
Thu June 23, 2011

Mutual Assured Deterrence

Governor Rick Snyder’s Emergency Manager law was highly controversial even before it was passed - and yesterday, a coalition of twenty-eight teachers, union members and private citizens filed suit, claiming the law is unconstitutional.

In their view, it violates the state constitution because it gives the executive branch power over the legislative, violating the separation of powers, something fundamental to both the United States and Michigan constitutions. To me, the only thing surprising about this suit was that it took so long to be filed.

This is not the first of the governor’s sweeping reforms to face a constitutional challenge. Lawsuits have already claimed the taxing of pensions is unconstitutional. Such cases can often take months or even years to wend their way through the court system. But in the case of the pension tax, to his credit, the governor requested a speedy decision from the Michigan Supreme Court.

The justices have agreed to hear the case in September, which is lightning speed in high court terms.

Getting this resolved quickly makes perfect sense, partly so that the state can try to figure out budget alternatives just in case the ruling goes against them.

Deciding this early should also prevent the endless cycle of hearings, injunctions and motions to lift injunctions.

But as long as the high court has agreed to an expedited decision on the constitutionality of the pension tax, it should give us a speedy ruling on the emergency financial manager bill as well.

Everything I know about our state’s highest court, and the experts I have talked to about this, makes me think it is highly likely the justices will rule in Governor Snyder’s favor in both cases.

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State Politics
11:22 am
Wed June 22, 2011

The Week in State Politics

Capitol Building, Lansing, Michigan
Allieosmar Flickr

Michigan Radio's Zoe Clark speaks with Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry about what's happening this week in state politics. On tap for today: Governor Snyder signs the state's budget into law, Michigan lawmakers continue debating redistricting and a look at the new education reform proposal for Detroit Public Schools.

Commentary
9:23 am
Mon June 20, 2011

Redistricting Woes

You have to admit that in Michigan, Democrats have been supremely unlucky when it comes to redistricting. For the last fifty years, Republicans have controlled the governor’s office whenever it was time to draw new districts.

This time they control everything - house, senate, and a majority on the state supreme court. That means they can impose  whatever plan they like, as long as it does a couple things.

First of all, all districts have to have more or less equal population. For Congress, that means exactly equal population. Based on where the census showed people lived, each Congressional district has to have seven hundred and five thousand, nine hundred and seventy-four people, give or take one.

There’s more wiggle room for legislative districts, but still, each one has to have within five percent of the target number of roughly ninety thousand per house and two hundred and sixty thousand for senate. There’s also the Voting Rights Act to consider.

Courts have held that means that a certain number of seats have to include a majority of voters who are members of the dominant minority group. Other than that, Republicans had a free hand. They finally unveiled their work at the end of last week.

And on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised. Naturally, since Michigan has to lose a seat in Congress, they combined the seats of two Democrats, Sandy Levin and Gary Peters, meaning one has to go. They also redrew the legislative lines to make it harder for Democrats to win back the state house and senate.

But some of what they did in terms of Congress is actually an improvement. For example, they took Calhoun County, which includes Battle Creek, out of the Seventh District, and put it into the Third, based on Grand Rapids. In terms of uniting communities of interests, Battle Creek would have been better off in the Sixth District, with Kalamazoo. But it is better off than where it was.

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Historical
4:51 pm
Thu June 16, 2011

The Ambassador Bridge: Looking back, looking forward

Patricia Drury / Flickr

In his state of the state address, Governor Rick Snyder urged the legislature to approve the construction of a new bridge span between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Michigan Radio’s Political analyst Jack Lessenberry sat down with Michigan Radio’s Jennifer White to talk about the role the Ambassador Bridge has played in its 82 year history, and the reasons why a new bridge may be necessary. 

Billions of dollars a week move across the Ambassador Bridge. “It’s the most important trade crossing between the United States and Canada, and perhaps in the world,” says Jack.

The Ambassador Bridge was built largely as a beacon of prestige for Detroit in the roaring twenties, and would eventual grow to be a massive economic asset.

Jack would remind us though that “nothing lasts forever.” While the Ambassador Bridge was state of the art in 1929, it’s no longer adequate for the amount of traffic or the size of today’s tractor trailers.

--Cade Sperlich, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Commentary
10:47 am
Mon June 6, 2011

Kevorkian Remembered

When Jack Kevorkian died Friday, I was on vacation in the Scottish highlands. For once in my life I was without a cell phone, but someone I was with got the news. I mentioned Kevorkian's death to an Israeli woman on our tour.

"I thought he died years ago," she said. She was not alone.

I've run into plenty of people who didn't know he was still around. And in a sense, Kevorkian the assisted suicide crusader had ceased to exist.

Since being released from prison four years ago, he had mostly faded into obscurity. He largely lived the life of a cranky recluse. He divided his days between the Royal Oak Public Library and a cheap apartment across the street. There was a time when I felt that I knew him better than any other journalist. I covered all his trials for the New York Times, did major pieces for Vanity Fair and Esquire, and saw him frequently for six years in the 1990's.

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History
4:30 pm
Fri June 3, 2011

Historical: Union power, past and present (audio)

Seventy years ago, Ford Motor Company recognized the UAW.  Ford was the last major automaker to recognize the union, and that decision marked the starting point of the union’s “Golden Age.”

In this interview, Michigan Radio's Jenn White talks with Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio’s political analyst about unions past and present. And what lessons can be learned from those "golden years."

In 1941, the UAW signed contracts with General Motors and Chrysler, but Henry Ford remained opposed to unionization. After several days of strikes Ford gave in and soon after the first contracts took effect.

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commentary
10:30 am
Fri May 27, 2011

Now for the Hard Part

When Governor Rick Snyder took office in January, he said he wanted to have the state budget signed, sealed and delivered by the end of May.

Nobody in Lansing took that seriously. In fact, if the budget had in fact not been completed until July, that would still have been seen as a remarkable victory. 

After all, we’ve become accustomed to lawmakers frantically struggling on September 30th, the last day possible, to pass a budget before the state would have to shut down.

True, this year is different in that the governor’s party controls both houses of the legislature. But the reforms that Snyder was calling on them to make were so revolutionary it was hard to see how he could possibly win early passage.

Well, we were wrong. Rick Snyder may officially be a “non-politician.” But he is in fact one of the shrewdest political operatives I have ever seen. People have consistently underestimated him, beginning with the famous “nerd” commercial which launched his candidacy. Everybody scoffs at Snyder, and he smiles and keeps on winning. Primaries, general elections, legislative fights. The governor got virtually everything important he wanted here.

Where he did have to compromise - on the pension tax, for example - one got the feeling that he had planned on compromise all along. With a series of wrenching moves, he changed the way the system works. He seems to have eliminated the structural flaw that for years has caused automatic billion dollar deficits. He did so at a terrific cost, balancing the budget, and providing huge tax breaks for business by cutting aid to the poor, to children, and to education.

But he got what he wanted, and now we’ll see what happens. Make no mistake: This is entirely a Rick Snyder, Republican Party budget. It did not get a single Democratic vote. If this pays off, if the lowered business taxes do create new jobs, Snyder should be able to waltz to re-election, and the political culture of this state may be forever changed. But if it fails - if the promised new jobs don’t materialize, and people keep falling through the tattered safety net - well, it will be clear who to blame. It will take awhile to know exactly what’s happening. But what does the governor do next?

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