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Published: Friday, 10/2/2009

Michigan budget standoff bares leadership failure

LANSING - Once again, the system failed. That's the hard, cold meaning of Michigan's second brief state government shutdown in less than two years.

Yes, the lawmakers managed to pass a month-long "continuation budget" after a few hours, a budget that gives the lawmakers a few more weeks to dither over the hard decisions.

Two years ago, after another brief and embarrassing shutdown, Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Republican, both agreed that must never happen again. This year, when it was clear the state budget deficit was zooming to record levels, they started planning early.

They met behind closed doors for weeks. Both were oddly united in open contempt for Mr. Dillon's fellow Democrat, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who they, and many others in Lansing, regard as a failure as a leader.

Republicans are a small minority in the House, and control the state Senate only through the grace of a redistricting plan that allowed them to win more seats in the last election while getting fewer votes than the Democrats. But in an astonishing move, Speaker Dillon agreed to pass the entire Republican budget, which called for no new taxes and fees. He said he plans to try to pass new revenue bills after the budget is finished. So the Speaker bowed to GOP insistence on erasing the entire $2.8 billion deficit with deep budget cuts and revenue from the remaining federal stimulus money.

Both parties agreed to break the state's promise to 96,000 Michigan college students by ending the Michigan Promise tuition grant. They slashed social services. But they still couldn't get the budget done. At the last moment, lawmakers from both parties - especially the Democrats - rebelled.

They couldn't face the enormous cuts they were proposing for public education. The most dramatic moment came when state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D., East Lansing) addressed the chamber.

"Now, here's the straight talk," she said. "Education is the most important factor in an individual's ability to succeed in the new economy. Businesses of tomorrow need educated work forces.

"This budget rips apart the fabric of our education system, a system I'm willing to bet every one of you made campaign promises to uphold … How are we going to compete with China, India, or even Indiana, for that matter, when you balance the budget on the backs of our kids?"

Senator Whitmer added that the cuts would lead to teacher and support staff layoffs that "will have the same devastating impact on our communities as job losses in the private sector."

With that, both chambers voted down the education budget, then voted to enact a one-month continuation budget to allow the state to keep paying its bills until Halloween. What happens next isn't clear. The governor has line-item veto power. She could veto all or parts of those portions of the budget that already have been passed, as well as those yet to pass.

Lawmakers will argue about whether to use more of the remaining federal stimulus funds to lessen the education cuts. Some are opposed, saying as much as possible of that money should be kept to help with next year's budget, which is expected to be just as grim, and with fewer resources.

Either way, finally getting the process done will be sticky, unless Senate Republicans relent and agree to some new revenue sources. But even if finally finishing this year's budget goes smoothly, more trouble lies ahead. Here's something no one has mentioned: The $2.8 billion deficit figure is only an estimate that is likely to rise throughout the fiscal year

That means more cuts ahead, most likely to higher education.

And the lawmakers have done nothing about structural reform of the basic budget process. That means that another huge deficit is likely next year. If unemployment continues to rise as expected, the deficit may well be even larger for the year that starts next October.

There will then be far less in federal stimulus dollars to cushion the blow, and lawmakers will then be trying to make tough decisions in an election year, when their seats are in play.

To many, the system seems broken beyond repair, thanks in large part to term limits that mean nobody has to take long-term responsibility for decisions. Next year Michigan voters will also be asked if they want to try and write a new state constitution. That increasingly seems like a good idea.

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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