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Wednesday, December 26,2012

What have we learned?

by Walt Sorg
So what have we learned?

The question is always appropriate at year’s end, especially at the end of a year of contention, dissension and even some significant steps forward.

We learned that voters are often smarter than some politicians think they are. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the $35 million mistake of billionaire Matty Maroun’s one-rich-guy effort to buy a self-serving constitutional amendment that would enshrine his international bridge monopoly in the state’s Constitution.

Maroun’s ads flooded television screens for months, his mailers bombarded voters for weeks prior to the election, all urging an amendment to “let the voters decide.” They decided all right. Nearly 60 percent decided against Maroun’s amendment.

We learned that when Rick Snyder says something “is not on my agenda,” that means “not now.” His after-the-election embrace of anti-union right-to-work laws is seen by many as something Snyder always was willing to do. He just wanted to do it in a way that minimized the political damage. 

There’s little doubt about the political damage, at least in the short term. Recent polling shows voters opposing the new law 51 percent to 41 percent, and Snyder’s disapproval rating makes him one of America’s most unpopular governors. Snyder’s hope: With two years until the next election, the anger will recede.

We learned that anger and frustration will not sustain a political movement. The Tea Party was birthed on those two characteristics.

Locally that was most visible in Delhi Township in the battle over a pro-environment change in sewage treatment. The plan to dry sludge and sell it as fuel for power plants (rather than pay farmers to use it as fertilizer) created a political storm in Holt and environs. A referendum overturned the proposed plant 58 percent to 42 percent; the Tea Party then ousted Republican Supervisor Stuart Goodrich in the primary because of his pro-sludge-dryer vote.

By November, the anger had faded. The Delhi Tea Party slate lost. The sole Republican survivor on the Delhi board was moderate John Hayhoe, with Democrats sweeping the rest of the ticket.

We learned this year that talking about regionalism is easier said than done. Both Rick Snyder and Mayor Virg Bernero spoke favorably of the concept in the 2010 campaign, and some baby steps have been taken. Some sharing agreements are in place, but as the year ends, East Lansing officials are talking about ending the sharing of a fire chief with Lansing. The turf wars continue, and we continue to have more layers of government than we need.

We learned that party affiliation is sometimes more important than honesty and/or ethics. In Wayne County, voters overwhelmingly chose Harper Woods Democrat Brian Banks as state Representative despite eight felony convictions for bad checks and credit card fraud. 

And Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger won reelection despite trying to rig a House election. Bolger conspired with party-switching Rep. Roy Schmidt to field a fake Democratic opponent for Schmidt to insure his reelection. (To their credit, the voters dumped Schmidt.) The case is the subject of a one-judge Ingham County grand jury investigation although few expect Bolger to face criminal charges.

And while on the subject of Bolger, we learned that complying with the state’s Constitution is optional when you are speaker of the House. Bolger repeatedly ignored shouts of protest from Democrats to allow controversial laws to take “immediate effect” even though “immediate effect” requires a two-thirds vote of the members, Bolger didn’t have the votes, but he did have the gavel. That was enough to speed implementation of the unpopular Emergency Financial Manager law.

Less we forget any positive lessons from 2012, we learned that President Obama’s economic recovery program (or, as Republicans like to say, “the failed stimulus”) actually worked. Michigan’s unemployment rate, which peaked at 14.2 percent, has been cut by one-third since August 2009 (yes, the recovery began 16 months before Jennifer Granholm left office!). However, despite the rush of “pro-business, pro-job” laws passed by the Legislature, the Michigan recovery has stalled: We started 2012 with 9 percent unemployed and we’re ending it with 9.1 percent looking for work.

We also learned that bipartisan cooperation (as rare as it is) can be a good thing. Michigan’s congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, fought to save full funding for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $600-million project that will enhance MSU’s world leadership in nuclear physics and be a huge boost to the area’s economy.

On a personal note, I learned in 2012 that there are worse things than losing an election. Running for office is a privilege. To the 1,678 people who voted for me and to those folks from outside the district who helped in so many ways, thank you for your trust and support.

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