Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Michigan government and voters’ wishes don’t match

GOP lawmakers seem not to care what their governor wants, let alone people of the state.

DETROIT — Here’s a question Michigan voters might want to ask: Has their state government been hijacked by right-wing fanatics who are acting against the majority’s wishes and interests?

There seems to be a fair amount of evidence that this may be so. Michigan is clearly a moderate-to-liberal state. It has been a quarter-century since it voted Republican for president.

The GOP has won only one U.S. Senate race in the state in the last 40 years. Yet the Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican. Democrats haven’t controlled the state Senate since 1983.

Nor are Democrats likely to win control of either house of the Legislature anytime soon, thanks to one of the most blatantly partisan redistricting schemes in the nation. Redistricting has gotten progressively worse. While there have been Democratic governors, one hasn’t been in office in a redistricting year since 1961.

Seven years ago, more than 54 percent of Michigan voters chose Democratic candidates for state Senate seats. But Republicans won 21 seats; Democrats, only 17.

Since then, the gerrymandering has gotten even more pronounced. Gov. Rick Snyder won a solid majority of the vote when he ran three years ago.

But once again last fall, more people cast votes for Democrats than Republicans for the Michigan House. Yet this produced a result of 59 Republicans and 51 Democrats.

That might not have mattered so much once upon a time. Before term limits, when compromise wasn’t seen as a dirty word, both sides usually sought to reach a middle ground.

Today, that thinking is nonexistent. Republican lawmakers seem not to care what their governor from their party wants, let alone the people of the state.

They either are active Tea Party supporters, or seem deathly afraid of primary challenges by even more right-wing candidates if they cast votes that appear driven by common sense.

There are three clear recent examples:

●Transportation experts agree that Michigan’s roads are quickly crumbling, and that a minimum of $1.2 billion a year in new money is needed for the next decade to maintain the roads. Governor Snyder proposed raising that amount through a combination of increased fuel taxes and car registration fees.

But the Legislature didn’t give him the time of day. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R., Monroe) said there was no support for the governor’s plan in his caucus.

A House transportation subcommittee adopted a budget that includes no new money for roads.

● Washington is proposing to extend Medicaid eligibility next year to 320,000 Michiganians who are without medical coverage. That number of people eventually would rise to nearly half a million. According to the Associated Press, this would save Michigan $200 million a year.

Businesses also would save millions of dollars annually in penalties they might have to pay for failing to insure their employees, as Obamacare kicks in.

What’s more, Washington would cover all the costs through 2017. Michigan would never pay more than 10 percent.

Nevertheless, the Legislature is refusing to accept this. Some lawmakers flatly say they don’t care about the savings; they say government shouldn’t help people with health care.

Others say they don’t trust Washington to keep its word. In an example of not letting reality get in the way of ideology, state Rep. Robert VerHeulen, a Republican from a Grand Rapids suburb, acknowledged that the “economic benefit is very appealing, but I generally don’t support expansion of government.”

● In an example of cutting off one’s nose in spite, Republicans also refused their governor’s plea to create a state-run health-care exchange. Next year, most provisions of the Affordable Care Act kick in. An exchange is a way to help people to compare health-care plans when they shop for insurance.

“This is a federal mandate we don’t want,” said Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a Macomb County Republican.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a health-care exchange, or that people won’t have to have insurance. It means that Washington will design a health-care exchange for Michigan.

And instead of getting $31 million from the federal government to design it, the state will have to pay $9 million for the feds to do it — a net loss of $40 million in badly needed money.

There’s little evidence that voters support these policies, or that lawmakers who craft them care what most of the state thinks.

There is a clear long-term solution. Last month. seven Democratic legislators introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would turn redistricting over to a bipartisan commission without any legislators and lobbyists. (Ohio voters rejected a similar proposal last November.)

Sadly, the chances that the majority in the Legislature will put this on the ballot are probably slightly less than zero. Such an amendment could get on the ballot with a determined effort to collect the needed signatures.

Something needs to happen if the Legislature is ever again to reflect the way Michigan residents actually vote.

Otherwise, some may ask whether a government that doesn’t reflect what the majority voted for is any kind of democracy at all.

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.

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