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Published: Friday, 3/24/2006

Can 'a bunch of raging moderates' save Michigan?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Last week, hundreds of Michigan's brightest experts in economics, education, and government gathered together at the University of Michigan to try and save their state.

"The state of Michigan is in the midst of serious economic trouble, probably the worst crisis in our lifetime," UM economics professor George Fulton told them starkly.

"Since 2001, the state has lost one-quarter of its automotive work force and is in its sixth consecutive year of job loss, a period of decline unequaled in the 50 years for which we have data." Things ahead look even worse, he continued. To put it succinctly, "We are in a pickle."

The conference was jointly sponsored by UM and by the Center for Michigan, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan "think-and-do tank," founded precisely to address the state's crisis.

For an entire day, speaker after speaker delivered bad news to a somewhat stunned audience. Tom Clay, Michigan's most respected nonpartisan budget analyst, told them the state's structural deficit was even worse than they had thought, and that the state had been balancing its books by smoke, mirrors, and selling off assets.

They learned that prisons are now by far the largest component of Michigan's general fund budget and that the state pays 40 percent more than surrounding states for corrections.

"We spend more to keep a prisoner behind bars each year than it would cost to send them to Harvard Law School," Phil Power, chairman of the Center for Michigan, wryly observed.

They learned that the manufacturing economy that built Michigan is dying or in steep decline. And they learned, largely to their surprise, that Michigan is no longer a high-tax state, but collects less than most states do in taxes from its citizens.

But they also learned that the tax system, especially the Single Business Tax, is unpopular with corporations and citizens alike, and that it neither seems to provide for the state's needs nor encourages companies to start factories and create jobs.

In other words, the once-overflowing cupboard is bare and might be repossessed. If there was any good news, it was in the near-unanimous realization that something needs to be done.

"That was the whole reason for the conference in the first place," said Mr. Power, its driving force. A longtime suburban newspaper publisher, he sold his papers last year and decided to devote himself to trying to help Michigan out of its pickle.

That's why he founded the Center for Michigan, which is now based in a suite of offices in Ann Arbor. Though Mr. Power is a Democrat who lost a U.S. Senate primary long ago, he pledged that the center would be rigorously nonpartisan.

Indeed, the two keynote speakers were both Republicans - former Michigan Gov. William Milliken and U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R., Battle Creek). "I see us as a bunch of raging moderates," said Mr. Power, who was a longtime regent of the University of Michigan. "Michigan's politics and government have been hijacked by ideologues of the labor left and the radical right. What's needed are common-sense solutions aimed at making the state's economy competitive again and building the next great Michigan."

The trillion-dollar question, of course, is how you do that - and how a think-and-do tank can help make that happen.

(Full disclosure; this columnist has agreed to serve as a non-paid member of the Center's steering committee, which mainly means I offer free advice to which nobody is compelled to listen.)

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Prosecutors who go after abusers in domestic violence cases may soon see their jobs get a lot harder.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two Michigan cases that could mean anyone accusing someone of spousal or child abuse would have to be willing to confront the person they are accusing in court, and be cross-examined.

University of Michigan law professor Richard D. Friedman argued that no one should be exempt from the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that anyone prosecuted in a criminal case shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

Those who work with victims of domestic abuse fear that will prevent their clients from charging their tormentors at all. They say many are too intimidated to appear in court. Police in such cases sometimes have used taped 911 calls from victims as evidence.

Indications are, however, that the high court is likely to rule in Mr. Friedman's favor - perhaps unanimously.

Two years ago, in a similar case, Crawford vs. Washington, the court barred most out-of-court statements when victims were unavailable to testify. The vote then was 7-2, and the two dissenters are no longer on the court.

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