Advice to lawmakers: Time to get it together
Past leaders say budget crisis shows vacuum of power
September 22, 2007
BY KATHLEEN GRAY and CHRIS CHRISTOFF
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
The state House and Senate and Gov. Jennifer Granholm all need to take a cue from leaders as diverse as former Govs. William Milliken, John Engler and James Blanchard as they try again Sunday to roll the big rock of a tax increase up a steep hill, veterans of Lansing's political wars said Friday.
Their advice: Drop the finger-pointing. Stop holding news conferences. It's time to do what you were elected to do – make decisions.
The assessment came from a former governor, former legislators and other longtime observers of the political scene after the state House failed again Thursday night and Friday morning to reach a deal to solve the state's budget crisis.
In the decades they have watched state government, these veterans said, they've never before seen such a deep division as the state's leaders struggle to reach a consensus.
“They all seem to be going over the cliff like lemmings,” said Craig Ruff, who worked for Republican Gov. Milliken. “It's almost a willful self-destruction.”
The state government is on the brink of a partial shutdown Oct. 1 because the Legislature and Granholm can't agree on how to fix a $1.75-billion hole in the budget. Granholm and most Democrats want to raise the income tax from 3.9% to 4.6% to fill most of that hole. The Republicans want to cut spending and implement reforms before they vote on a tax hike.
After announcing he had a deal on the budget at mid-afternoon Thursday, House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, came up four votes short despite keeping weary House members in session overnight until 7:30 a.m. Friday.
Six Democrats, all fearful that a pro-tax vote would hurt their chances for re-election in 2008 or even spark recall campaigns against them, voted against the tax hike.
Neither Dillon nor Granholm has been able to persuade all the Democrats in the House to come around. That sort of defiance would have brought repercussions in the past, several observers said.
“This is where the speaker could go to the members and say, ‘Your staff is gone,’ or yank a committee chairmanship,” said John Truscott, who was spokesman for Republican Gov. Engler.
Only one Republican, Rep. Chris Ward of Brighton, voted for the increase. Two others withheld votes presumably until some of the six Democrats switched their “no” votes.
“I am old enough to remember the Milliken years when people forged relationships. They were able to get past the partisanship and come up with solutions,” said Steven Gaynor, superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools. He sent a letter home to students' parents this week, urging them to contact their legislators about the stalemate. “But the level of partisanship is so high and statesmanship and leadership is so low right now that nothing is getting done.”
Others recalled the administration of Engler, a master politician and expert at the legislative game. His call would come on the House floor and state representatives – Democratic or Republican, it didn't really matter – would slink off to confront the onslaught.
But the conversations with Engler were never shout-fests, even when he was furious, said those familiar with his governing style.
“He would ask what their position was on the issue and what they needed” to come around to his thinking, Truscott recalled.
It might be help with other legislation that the recalcitrant legislator was sponsoring, a project in his or her district or a personal appearance from the governor at a fund-raiser.
In the end, Engler usually got what he wanted.
Former state Rep. Pan Godchaux, a Birmingham Republican, was sometimes on the other end of the Engler call.
“There is a lot of inexperience, not only in the Legislature, but in the governor's office,” she said. “One of the reasons Engler could get things done is that he had been around so long and had something on everybody.”
Bill Ballenger, a member of both the House and the Senate under Milliken and now a Lansing pundit, said Granholm is exacerbating the situation.
“She has not made it easier because she keeps negotiating in public,” he said. “Granholm can't even get her House majority Democrats to get a roll-call vote on anything. That's just inexcusable.”
Another factor in the stalemate is the animus between Dillon and House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi. They have not talked directly with each other during the past week's budget negotiations.
But former Democratic Gov. Blanchard, who successfully proposed an income tax increase right after taking office in 1983, remains optimistic lawmakers will get it done.
They have to, “because every day they don't do something, it hurts the state's credit rating, causes greater expenses for the state and runs up the deficit more,” Blanchard said.
I woke up to a text message from a former coworker, talking of the impending problems we might have if Lansing doesn't get it together. Unfortunately, for the rest of Michigan, we can only avert this crisis as much as we could while watching an asteroid head towards Earth: nothing to do but just watch.
It really is the classic story of Michigan. Because of a few politicians or businessmen's selfishness and unwillingness to compromise, everyone will suffer. No Secretary of States (driver's license and general DOT), casinos, state parks, sale of liquor, schools, lottery, or road work will commence. Worse case scenario, Detroit might be thrown into a catastrophe.
On the other hand, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is stating that he will not allow the casinos here to close. Normally to me, he's a bumbling idiot, but I really have to side with him on this. There will be thousands who will lose their jobs if they close. On top of that, would the welfare offices even be open to help them?
I reflected as I ran errands early this morning. As I rode down Woodward, I could see a crater–one from the imminent, imaginary asteroid post-crash in the center of the city, smoke and ashes creeping slowly through the streets, and citizens who pretended it wasn't there. They had to. It was a matter of survival, taking things day by day. I could see neighbors lining up outside when their power went off in the building, making small talk and still smiling while they could. Waiting for a city worker who would never come, holding on to false hope like a security blanket.
I guess now, we wait to see what happens.