Environment Picture

Legislative budget debacle requires re-examination of leadership, term limits

There were few heroes and not a lot to admire in the tortuous road to Michigan’s recently passed tax, budget and policy bills. But it could have been worse, and I was among those who let out a collective sigh of relief at 4:30 AM on Oct. 1.

We’ve passed a modest and temporary restoration of a higher income tax rate, a tax on bronzing baby shoes, among other services, and averted a shutdown of all but the most critical state services. (According to a judge in Wayne County, that would have included casinos along with prisons, police protection and life-saving facilities for the severely mentally ill). With $440 million yet to be cut, we certainly can’t look forward to restoring our environmental, natural resource, and public health protections any time soon.

If we’re to regain Michigan’s previously proud status, it will require state leaders who set their goals somewhere beyond an ideological commitment to “no new taxes” and avoiding a government meltdown.

That will require rethinking of legislative term limits. It was glaringly obvious that the lack of experience and institutional knowledge in the House and the Senate were a primary factor in the budget debacle—and an unwelcome invitation for lobbyists to manipulate the process.

But if there were few heroes in the mix of leaders that cobbled together the policies and votes to keep Michigan’s government alive for another year, there were champions who demonstrated their mettle under extreme pressure. Governor Granholm hung tough and insisted that she would not allow Michigan institutions to be further eviscerated in the name of tax cuts.  Without her persistence and refusal to be bullied, Michigan’s smaller-minded legislators would have had their way. And I give credit to Republicans who stepped up to do what we expect Democrats to do without hesitation.  It’s only right to thank the few Rs who joined all but four Democrats to get the job done.  

John Austin, author of the Brookings Institution’s Report on the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, points out that our region enjoys a powerful convergence of assets in its land- and water-based natural resources. These resources and an historic investment in industrial technology and human capital have created a Great Lakes regional economy equal to the 3rd biggest economic unit on earth. If we’re to maintain this enviable regional position, Michigan, the state with the most to win and the most to lose in this transitional global economy, can’t afford many more brushes with governmental meltdown. Nor can it afford to continue its downward trajectory of investments in natural resources and human capital. 

In spite of the fact that we averted a free fall into economic chaos, there’s no doubt that Michigan still faces a structural deficit and is woefully under-funding its environment, natural resources, and public health, not to mention its education programs from pre-school to graduate school.

One way we can start now to make a difference in the quality of Michigan’s environment is to upgrade the quality of our government. And the best investment we can make in better government is to get rid of legislative term limits. Michigan’s term-limited legislative leaders were obviously unprepared to handle the fiscal and political morass in which they found themselves. Even among the best intentioned, our inexperienced leaders were a drag on the complex negotiations.

It may be counter-intuitive, but I’ve observed that term-limited legislators are less independent, wise or prepared to make critical compromises than the experienced solons with whom I served in the 1980s and ‘90s. We need to fix Michigan’s term limit problem before we can hope to restore Michigan to greatness.

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