Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan lawmakers mostly look out for themselves



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DETROIT — Do Michigan lawmakers care about the people they represent? Increasingly, the answer seems to be no — or at least not much.

That may be because they no longer have to care. Outrageous gerrymandering has given most of them seats that are so safe, they no longer have to worry about a general election.

Term limits mean that none of them are in for the long haul. If problems can be swept under the rug for a decade, it makes political sense to do exactly that. And they do, which is one of the reasons Michigan’s roads are among the nation’s worst.

If that weren’t bad enough, the system has been rigged since term limits began in the 1990s, so that taking care of the public interest is not in lawmakers’ best interests.

In fact, for lawmakers, screwing the people usually makes financial sense. In Michigan, lawmakers can serve no more than three two-year terms in the state House. Then they never can return. They can serve two four-year terms in the state Senate. Then they never can go back there either.

That may not present a potential problem for those few lawmakers who are independently wealthy. But most aren’t. Imagine you are a 48-year-old state representative in your last term. You have a mortgage and kids approaching college, and you are going to need a new job.

You know that if you vote the people’s interests, you may earn their gratitude. But that doesn’t pay the bills. If you vote the way a corporate lobbyist wants you to, there’s a good chance you’ll be taken care of when your legislative days are done.

Former Republican state Rep. Paul Opsommer provides a particularly blatant example. During his six years in the House, he rose to become head of its transportation committee. While he was in that post, he did everything he could to oppose the planned new bridge across the Detroit River to link Detroit and Windsor, Ont.

A new bridge was mainly opposed by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun. When Mr. Opsommer was term-limited out of office, he immediately took a job with the holding company that owns the Ambassador Bridge.

What lawmakers do after they leave office is one thing. But increasingly, there seems to be a pattern of lawmakers introducing bills that are sure to be unpopular — then packing them with a small “poison pill” appropriation to make sure angry voters can’t take part in a referendum to repeal them.

Last month, Republican state Sen. Joe Hune sponsored a bill that would limit the amount that could be paid to people who care for victims of catastrophic car accidents. Not surprisingly, this limit is something the insurance lobby wants very much. Even less surprising, big insurance companies have given more money to Mr. Hune than to any other lawmaker.

Back in the real world, very few people outside of those who have a direct financial interest want to change the system. Knowing that, Mr. Hune collaborated with Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof to tack a $150,000 appropriation onto his bill.

Under Michigan’s constitution, bills that include money can’t be overturned by a popular vote. The measure narrowly passed the state Senate. But it has bogged down in the House, partly because it is hotly opposed by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

There are plenty more examples. Lawmakers have failed miserably for the past three years to raise revenue for the state’s bad roads and bridges.

Now, Republican state Rep. Kurt Heise is eager to get his colleagues to prevent people from finding out about one of the state’s most notorious polluters. Five years ago, the Canadian multinational firm Enbridge had a 40-year-old pipeline rupture in the Kalamazoo River near Marshall.

The result was the worst inland oil spill in American history. More than a billion gallons of oil went into the river; the cleanup took four years.

Enbridge has a much older pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. If something were to happen to it, the consequences for Lakes Michigan and Huron would be hard to imagine.

But companies such as Enbridge don’t as if answering questions about what they do. Mr. Heise’s bill basically would exempt all oil, gas, and other energy companies from answering questions under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, including questions about pipeline safety.

Environmentalists were horrified. Mr. Heise said he was motivated by the need to protect the pipelines from “people who have ill intent” — that is, terrorists.

The prospects for his bill aren’t clear. But none of this seems apt to bolster citizens’ faith in a state government that seems increasingly unable to fix the roads, fund schools, or make it possible for Johnny and Susie to afford higher education.

Which may just be the most worrisome thing of all.

The insurance lobby loses a vote: Only one Democrat supported Senator Hune’s bill to limit benefits for catastrophic accident victims: State Sen. Virgil Smith of Detroit, who — perhaps by sheer coincidence — was the second biggest recipient of insurance lobby campaign money.

Mr. Smith is facing multiple felony charges that include allegedly assaulting his ex-wife on May 10 and shooting her Mercedes. It seems likely that his legislative career is over — which may be the least of his worries.

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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