Jack Lessenberry

Well, as you probably know, the legislature has still done virtually nothing to fix the roads. Once again, the State Senate and House have passed wildly different plans.

The Senate bill is honest enough to include some new revenue, which it would get largely by raising the tax on fuel. But it also calls for cutting Michigan’s already bare-bones general fund by $700 million a year, without saying where the cuts would come from.

It’s clear that our grossly gerrymandered legislature is painfully out of touch with the needs and desires of Michigan citizens.

A few days ago, I went to see Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in his downtown office. I’ve visited a lot of mayors in that office, and generally they have a large picture of their families in the space behind their desk.  Duggan doesn’t.

Instead, he has a picture of the famous civil rights march down Woodward Avenue in 1963, the place where Martin Luther King first gave a version of the “I have a dream,” speech.         


Well, with great difficulty, the state senate passed a package of roads bills yesterday. They would raise some new revenue, shift billions over time from other priorities to the roads, and include a complex formula for a possible income tax cut.

user Tyrone Warner / Flickr

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about a new law affecting Michigan workers, a plan to fix the roads that increases the gas tax, the high cost of information, and government officials looking at the effects of the same sex marriage ruling.

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the U.S. Supreme Court has released a flurry of momentous decisions in the last few days covering everything from lethal injection methods to the environment.

The two which drew the most attention were, of course, the rulings which saved the Affordable Care Act, and found that same sex couples have the right to marry everywhere in America.

But the court made another tremendous ruling yesterday that, in effect, said we can take back representative democracy in this state if we want to.

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the nation, I was in the town of Ironwood, which is both in Michigan and in another world.

Ironwood is more than six hundred miles from Detroit. It is so far west that it is one of a handful of Michigan communities on Central, not Eastern Time.

There must be Republican strategists who are secretly relieved and happy that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the subsidies that help millions buy health insurance.

Had they ruled the other way, not only would millions of people have lost coverage, but it would have caused immense problems for a private health insurance market that has changed the way it does business to comply with the Affordable Care Act, usually known as Obamacare. Opponents were hoping the high court would invalidate the subsidies based largely on semantics.

Many years ago, a wicked old police reporter told me that he thought common street prostitutes were morally superior to politicians.

That was because “they admit that those who give them money expect something for it.”

Well, he had a point.

As you probably know, there is now an intense debate over whether to remove Confederate flags and other symbols of the so-called “lost cause” from public places in the South.

My guess is that some will go away, but that most people have short attention spans. The longer their defenders can stall, the better the odds are that most will still be around in a year.

Last week I discussed a new bill that would make it easier for citizens to get absentee ballots in Michigan, a bill sponsored by a Republican state representative, Lisa Posthumus Lyons, and enthusiastically supported by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

She’s also a conservative Republican and Michigan’s chief elections official. The bill is scarcely radical; it would merely allow any voter who wants an absentee ballot to get one. Two-thirds of the states already allow what is called “no-excuse” absentee voting.

When I learned about the shootings in South Carolina this week, I thought of a fascinating book I read earlier this spring* about the assassination of President Garfield, in 1881.

His shooting had nothing to do with race. But his death also had nothing to do with his shooting. Garfield was shot in the back by a deranged assassin, but the bullet lodged harmlessly deep within his body. Had he been left alone, he probably would have recovered quickly.

For years, Michigan has made it harder to cast a vote than most other states. Most states now have early voting, where you can show up at the polls and cast a vote on certain days before the election.

Most states also allow anyone to request an absentee ballot who wants one, no questions asked. There are only fourteen states that don’t allow either option. And Michigan, along with Mississippi and Alabama, is one.

Thirteen years ago, when Dick Posthumus was running for governor, we talked about higher education. 

We’re almost the same age, didn’t come from rich families, and had gone to the same state school at the same time, in the early 1970s.

Yesterday, Jeb Bush announced he was running for the Republican nomination for president. If you had been under the impression that he’s already been running for what seems like several years, that’s because he has.

When I was in elementary school more than half a century ago, there was still widespread ignorance about mental illness.

There were also no home computers, no thought of smart phones, no internet and virtually no seatbelts in cars. Black people were called Negroes, not allowed to vote in many states, and nobody imagined they’d ever see an African-American president.

There’s been a myth for a long time that Governor Rick Snyder is really a moderate on social issues, who sometimes is forced to go along with the right wing of his party in order to try to get votes for the rest of his agenda.

UPDATE:  Since this commentary was published,  the AP reports that Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law letting adoption agencies refuse referrals that violate beliefs.

Well, let’s start out today by getting in the old Time Machine and going back to early May 1954. That was just before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools.

Potholes are a familiar obstacle on Michigan roads.
Flickr user Michael Gil / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Drivers can all agree: Potholes are a fact of life here in Michigan. But does it have to be that way?

Jack Lessenberry’s recent opinion piece for Dome Magazine, Why Budapest Has Better Roads, examines Central Europe’s approach to infrastructure.

The difference, he says, would be shocking to Michiganders. “I drove hundreds and hundreds of miles on roads in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, former East Germany, without seeing anything we in Michigan would call a pothole,” he says.

There’s an old joke that some politicians look at a program and say, “Well, I don’t care that it actually works in reality. I need to know if it fits my ideology.”

Nearly two weeks ago, the legislature narrowly passed a bill to allow GEO, a for-profit multinational private company, to bring highly dangerous prisoners from other states to a facility it runs in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Michigan has thousands of old, energy-inefficient factories, apartment complexes and office buildings. Nationally, the U.S. government estimates that the average building wastes a third of the energy it uses. My guess is that figure may be even higher here. How important is that?

To parody Winston Churchill, this year’s Battle of the Budget is Over; the Battle of the Roads is about to begin. The legislature passed the general fund budget this week with rather less fuss than I would have expected, given some of the controversial decisions.

If you’ve been following the news for a long time, sometimes the biggest indicator of how things have changed is not the stories themselves, but how they are treated.

State Representative Jeff Farrington of Utica wants to pass a bill he says would raise $115 million to fix the roads. That would be a mere drop in the bucket towards the at least $1.3 billion a year needed, but hey, every little bit helps, right?

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks in East-Central Europe, countries that were communist satellites of the old Soviet Union until a quarter of a century ago.

The nation was transfixed last winter by the story of James Robertson, who walked 21 miles to and from work every day, from his home in Detroit to his factory job in an upscale suburb, where he made only about $22,000 a year.

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the popular law and order slogans were “get tough on crime,” and “lock ‘em up and throw the key away.”

Well, we tried that.

What it got us was an increase in the state prison population from 18,000 to more than 50,000.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once said, “we’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”