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Wednesday, April 10,2013

The easy way

by Walt Sorg
“He took the easy way out.”

That’s former Mayor David Hollister’s blunt assessment of Mayor Virg Bernero’s latest budget proposal, a document released just days after the Hollister-led Financial Health Team issued a detailed, dramatic plan to deal with Lansing’s short- and long-term budget issues.

“Instead of taking [the city’s structural deficit] on now, he put it off until after the election,” Hollister told me. “He took some of our suggestions to ease the short-term deficit, but he took the easy way out, shifting the cost to the Board of Water and Light. It was kind of a painless way to do it.”

Bernero is known as blunt, outspoken and — some critics would charge — reckless. He is rarely described as “meek” or “timid.” And his reelection in November is a virtual lock. No serious candidate has emerged to oppose him.

So why is he holding back? It could well be a recognition that much more is at stake for Bernero in November than just his own reelection — like that of his three main supporters on City Council, Kathie Dunbar, Tina Houghton and Jessica Yorko.

Voters will tell you they want to elect “leaders,” but the reality is, most of the time they want anything but.

A leader is out-front on controversial issues, providing direction to his or her constituents. History suggests, however, that doing so is hazardous to a politician’s electoral health.

Remember Walter Mondale? He famously accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president by announcing, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won´t tell you. I just did.” Yes, Reagan did in fact raise taxes, but only after annihilating Mondale with 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13.

There was the Clintons on health care, and Al Gore pulling the “too-soon-too-fast” trifecta with his ahead-of-the-public-opinion-curve views opposing the Iraq War, championing early development of the Information Superhighway (we call it the Internet these days), and his decades-long crusade on global climate change.

President Obama’s views on marriage equality “evolved” once it became clear public opinion was moving inexorably toward support of gay marriage. And while a majority of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana, don’t look for most politicians to follow — at least for a while. Still too controversial.

Political “leadership” is often about timing. So most politicians follow a different course: Either gauge the direction of public opinion and race to the head of the parade, or emulate Reagan by waiting until just after an election to make tough decisions. Remember when candidate Rick Snyder campaigned on slashing education funding and raising taxes on middle-class families and seniors? Of course not. He saved those surprises for after the election.

That takes us back to Bernero’s latest budget.

Like every city in Michigan, Lansing faces a combination of plunging property values, stagnant population figures and ever-shrinking state revenue sharing, which has created all sorts of budget problems.

Bernero knows drastic, unpopular decisions need to be made — a combination of more revenue and cuts in spending. To set the stage for those decisions, he put in place the Financial Health Team. The idea, Hollister candidly admitted at the time, was to shift the political heat for unpopular ideas away from elected officials and onto the backs of a bunch of respected but unelected community leaders.

And they did it, coming up with a plan that includes a plethora of ideas for the short and long term that ruffled multiple feathers across town.

Recommendations for immediate action included raising fees for services; ending subsidies to things like the golf courses, human services organizations and cemeteries; making permanent the part-time status of many city workers; reducing the police and fire budgets to make them consistent with similar-size communities; shifting some costs to the Board of Water and Light (likely triggering BWL rate increases); and ending direct city subsidies to the Lansing Center.

Long-term recommendations included a further, permanent downsizing of the city workforce; major restructuring of retirement and health benefit programs; the sale of city assets, including City Hall (and BWL, which was discussed but never formerly proposed); and possible privatization of city services like parking, waste hauling, ambulance/emergency medical services, accounting and information technology.

The report was released three weeks ago, setting the stage for a new city budget proposal that dramatically repositions Lansing’s future government. The stage was set, but the show hasn’t opened.

Hollister hopes Bernero’s reluctance is a matter of timing.

My take on why he’s waiting: To protect and possibly enhance his support on City Council.

Right now the mayor can only count on three of the eight City Council members for support. All three —Dunbar, Yorko and Houghton – are up for reelection in November. With the loss of even one of them, Bernero could face a veto-proof City Council, and the Council would become the dominant force in city government.

The always pugnacious Bernero isn’t afraid of a fight. He simply doesn’t want to have it now when it could endanger the reelections of Dunbar and Yorko. (Houghton appears to have little or no opposition.)

If Bernero holds those three Council votes — he’d also like to topple Councilman Brian Jeffries, but that’s a long shot — 2014 will be the time to debate major changes in city government. It likely will include a highly contentious battle with police unions over staffing levels, work rules and benefits; a stronger push for regionalization of fire protection; and privatization of at least some city services.

If even one of the three Council members is defeated, the balance changes. So the debate will wait until 2014.

After all, in politics — as in life — timing is everything.

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