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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

As bad as it is, it could get worse in Michigan

DETROIT - Anyone glancing at most daily newspapers in Michigan would conclude that the state's biggest stories were the plight of the auto companies and a local election or two.

Plus, of course, the continuing obsession with the fact that Michael Jackson continues to be dead.

Yet the mainstream media have been mostly ignoring a ticking time bomb in Lansing that threatens to blow apart much of life as the state's residents have known it.

You might call it the Mother of all Deficits. Early in the week, politicians were still maintaining that the shortfall for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 was around $1.8 billion.

Bad, yes, but capable of being completely cushioned by federal stimulus dollars.

Then, however, the roof fell in. The Senate Fiscal Agency released a memo on Wednesday showing things were much, much worse. The newest estimate for next year's deficit: $2.7 billion.

What's even worse is that it turns out that there is a huge remaining budget deficit for the last two months of this fiscal year - $1.4 billion.

True, that can be covered with stimulus fund money. But Michigan has only about $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money left. If more than half of it is needed for this year, the remainder won't nearly be enough to cover the next deficit. What comes after that is being referred to grimly as "the edge of the cliff."

How Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the legislative leadership reacted to this wasn't known. They have been meeting for days behind closed doors in an effort to hash out a budget agreement.

What did leak out is that these are now the figures they are using. While they are in fact estimates, for the last two years revenue projections have been wrong in only one direction: The deficits have invariably been worse than forecast.

Word in the capitol is that Republicans, who began by saying their bottom line was "no new taxes," have become grudgingly reconciled to the need for some "revenue enhancements," possibly by curtailing tax credits and raising licenses and fees.

By law, the books for this year have to be balanced on Sept. 30 - and before then the state must adopt a balanced budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year - or face the very real threat of shutdown.

Nobody wants that to happen. What is baffling, however, is that the governor hasn't done more to explain the state's plight to its people. Dramatic budget cuts are certainly coming. So, most likely, are tuition increases and less support for public education.

In fact, it is hard to see how a state facing a $2.7 billion deficit can continue to adequately fund its network of colleges and universities.

Within weeks, Michiganders are apt to get their first real look at the shape of the new world they are facing.

And if that doesn't take their minds off Michael Jackson, anyone serious about Michigan's future better just beat it.

Why are Detroit politics so crazy? Martha Reeves, once one of Motown's greatest singing talents, has not found similar glory on Detroit City Council since her election in 2005.

She has frequently seemed to not know what is going on. She reliably voted for whatever former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick wanted. But she did make headlines of her own with one of the most bizarre campaign flyers ever seen in the state.

Now calling herself Martha-Rose Reeves (or sometimes, Martha Rose-Reeves) she claims on the flyer to be a member of the Detroit Lions and reproduced - without permission - their logo.

Turns out she thought the Detroit Lions and the Lions Club were one and the same.

She also reproduced logos from other organizations, none of which gave her permission to do so.

Most puzzling, the flyer says "elect Martha-Rose Reeves and the Vandellas," her 1960s backup group. When asked about this by a TV reporter, she said "they are running and dancing in the streets."

Nevertheless, the odds are good she will be re-elected. Why? Not because Detroiters are nuts - their system is.

Voters on Tuesday will be asked to choose nine council candidates out of no fewer than 168 names on the ballot. The top 18 make it to the November general elections.

Nobody can sort out that many people, so they tend to vote for names they know.

Some fear that the recently resigned Monica Conyers, now awaiting sentencing for taking a bribe, may even win.

It's good that Detroit is in the process of revamping its city charter. It's hard to see how it could be worse.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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