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Wednesday, December 30,2009

The decade in politics

In the "naughts," politicians tried, but failed, to revamp Michigan

by Kyle Melinn
Earlier this year, former Gov. John Engler declared the last 10 years in Michigan as "the lost decade."

He chose to delete the first three years he was steering this ship before hightailing it to Virginia to head the National Association of Manufacturers, several members of which collapsed and broke the back of Michigan’s economy.


But this column isn’t going to be about casting blame. There’s been too much of that flying around without me piling on.


If it wasn’t Gov. Jennifer Granholm blaming Engler for leaving an expensive state government and an empty checkbook, it was Democrats blaming former President George W. Bush for being too laissez-fair in his trade policies.


Once Granholm had enough years under her belt to frame her own legacy, it was the Republicans’ turn to play whack-a-mole on her. (And Lt. Gov. John Cherry, too!)


What nonsense. The last 10 years in Michigan politics and government certainly has been "The Lost Decade."


Don’t use "the 2000s" or "the aughts" or "the zeros." The last 10 years has been the "the naughts." Ten years symbolizing the old English definition of the word: Nothing.


It’s not about Engler or Granholm or the Legislature or any of those clowns who make their living under and around the Capitol dome. They tried to do something, but nothing worked.


The giant wrecking ball they were trying to stop was too powerful. The enormous, historic collapse of our automobile industry and our comfortable way of life made Engler, Granholm and everybody else bit players in a much larger tragedy.


Ford, General Motors and Chrysler failed to sell enough cars. They laid off workers, closed down plants, declared bankruptcy, and on.


The enormous, historic collapse of our automobile industry and our comfortable way of life made Engler, Granholm and everybody else bit players in a much larger tragedy.


Every politician running for statewide office wanted to change that. They wanted to fix the economy. If I had a dollar every time I heard a politician say, "My top three priorities are ’jobs, jobs, jobs,’" I could retire comfortably.


And, yet, when our newly elected leaders arrived in Lansing, they quickly discovered how little power state government has. There’s no magic wand: simply "wanting" to create jobs isn’t enough.


The Republican Legislature crowed on and on about a "low-tax climate" and "cutting red-tape." So Granholm went along with it.


In her first four years, Granholm signed every boutique tax cut that came her way. She cut the Department of Environmental Quality to near non-existence. She put more state government permitting on the Internet.


Where was Michigan after it was all said and done? Deeper in the hole. Michigan government still could not give its cities, universities, schools, prisons, public health system or welfare system the funding they had received in the past.


Another year, another round of cuts and state budget freezes.


Then the single business tax became the boogeyman. Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson and recall "specialist" Leon Drolet chased the "SBT" around the state for a while until the Legislature voted to get rid of the "job-killing tax" … only to have the Legislature replace it with an equally confusing business tax that extracted more money from business’ pockets than the SBT ever did.


The new Michigan business tax was written for the Big Three automakers. It made little difference. The jobs kept disappearing.


Granholm hoodwinked the Legislature into creating a 21st Century Jobs Fund by borrowing against
around $1 billion in future tobacco settlement money to get a $400
million shot in the arm for job creation.


It
and other Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) initiatives
created a job here or a job there. All and all, a relative drop in the
bucket compared to the roughly million manufacturing jobs shed.


Granholm
tried a different approach. She declared it was time to invest in
Michigan. Give universities, cities, schools and parks more money. Make
Michigan a desirable place to live and turn our urban areas into “cool
cities,” that will attract young, creative entrepreneurs with their
fertile, economysaving ideas — or so she thought.


The
price of poker was around $1.5 billion. She got a reluctant Legislature
to sign off on a relatively negligible tax increases after a four-hour
state government shutdown. She was off and running. We were going to be
"blown away."


By
the tumbleweeds, perhaps.


Every new penny in higher taxes went back
into plugging holes in the state’s budget. Fewer businesses were making
money. That meant fewer businesses were paying taxes. They employed fewer people, who, in turn, were paying fewer taxes, too.


Granholm
tried to market Michigan overseas. Seeing little worth passing bills in
the Legislature, Granholm became a cable news regular. She never saw a
television interview request she didn’t jump at.


She
talked about our skilled workforce, ethanol, biomass, advanced
batteries, windmills, alternative energy, whatever emerging industry du
jour, trying all the while not to mention the words "labor union" and
"Michissippi."


Finally,
President Barack Obama rode into town with billions of federal mystery
dollars. Seed money to grow our economy? Nope, more thumbs to stick
into the dyke.


The
long-term strategy? The same as the past nine years: Keep plugging
those budget holes and pray to the heavens that Michigan’s economy hits
bottom soon and everything turns around.


Two
weeks ago, former Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis opined
that if a Republican had held the Governor’s seat these last seven
years, Michigan’s unemployment rate would not be 14.7 percent.


Maybe
he’s right. Maybe it would be 14.6 or 14.8. Anything short of deploying
the Michigan Militia to hunt down Americans who didn’t choose
Detroit-made vehicles simply wasn’t going to move the needle much, if
at all.


Republicans
and Democrats alike tried their best in this lost decade. They busied
themselves by injecting political rhetoric into often-dysfunctional
policy the best they knew how. They hoped to provide some sideshow as
the U.S.S. Auto Industry sank, taking with it to the bottom of the lake
our economy.


All attempts to change the outcome have gone for naught.

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