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Published: Friday, 1/1/2010

2010 could be make-or-break year for Michigan

WASHINGTON - For Michigan, last year began with everyone in the state wondering if Chrysler and General Motors would be around at the end of the year. They were, but with thousands fewer employees, and death sentences for Pontiac, Saab, and Saturn.

The year ended with the bizarre, yet terrifying farce of the "thigh bomber," the Nigerian student who apparently got some explosive from al-Qaeda, tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, but only set his own legs on fire instead. Years ago, lonely, maladjusted men in their early 20s shot at politicians or rock stars. Today, they try to become terrorists.

This year promises to be a make-it-or-break-it year for Michigan. The state faces massive unemployment, probably its toughest budget deficit in history, and tougher choices about whether to raise taxes or gut higher education, revenue sharing, and perhaps public schools as well.

Michigan is entering a year too in which every state office is up for election - and every top officeholder in the state has to retire or run for some other office because of term limits. Additionally, there may be no more than half a dozen members of the current state Senate in their seats next January. The speaker of the House and other key leaders will be gone too.

Those aren't conditions that make it easy for politicians to make hard decisions. But Michigan's leaders have no choice. The federal stimulus money they used to plug half of this year's $2.8 billion deficit is essentially gone.

It's worth a look back at 2009, a bizarre year when poor, battered Michigan seemed to be unable to escape getting brushed by virtually everything wrong with the country and the world. That wasn't just limited to the decline of the manufacturing-related economy.

By year's end, environmentalists were reporting that the terrifying Asian carp were within a few miles of Lake Michigan. Experts agree that if the bighead and silver carp get established in the lakes, they are unlikely ever to be eradicated. That would devastate the $7 billion sport fishing industry.

There were some glimmers of hope. Detroit endured four mayoral elections, but ended up with a responsible, business-oriented mayor (Dave Bing) with wide credibility and no apparent need to act out his ego at the city's expense. Most of the worst members of Detroit's City Council were convicted, declined to run for re-election, or were defeated.

Michigan residents too finally appeared to understand that even if the domestic auto industry survives, it will never again be the mass high-wage employer of low-skilled labor that it was for decades.

Yet Michigan still has a thriving agricultural sector, spectacular tourism, and first-rate university and manufacturing talent. Detroit has had a motto for more than two centuries: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.

Translated from the Latin, that means "We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes," a sentiment that easily could be adopted by the entire state.

My mistake: Last week, in discussing a new almanac of facts about Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I indicated that there were elk up above the Mackinac Bridge. Steve Pollick, The Blade's outdoors editor, set me straight.

"Michigan's elk herd is limited to roughly a 700-square mile area in the northern lower peninsula," said Mr. Pollick, one of the nation's most-awarded outdoors writers. That'll teach me not to consult an expert.

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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