Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

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Daily interviews and essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry.More from Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take »

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Still Needed: Mass Transit

The nation was transfixed last winter by the story of James Robertson, who walked twenty-one miles to and from work every day, from his home in Detroit to his factory job in an upscale suburb, where he made only about $22,000 dollars a year. His car had broken down, and at that salary he couldn't afford another. Well, donations almost instantly began pouring in. A kind-hearted college student set up a GoFundMe account for Robertson, who is in his late fifties. Soon, the hard-walking man had a new car and nearly four hundred thousand dollars besides. What happened next sounds like a movie. His neighbors began hounding and threatening him. His former landlady, also his former girlfriend, demanded a vast sum of money to fix up his apartment. Eventually, Robertson dumped his former acquaintances, got a personal protection order against the landlady, and moved to an upscale Detroit suburb. He said of his old neighborhood, "I may have been born there, but God knows I don't belong there anymore." Well, I certainly don't begrudge Mr. Robertson his sudden good fortune. But what everybody seems to have lost sight of is the real problem, which was that Metropolitan Detroit is the nation's biggest mass transportation desert. This is the only major metropolis in the United States where you can't get some form of mass transit from the airport to the downtown. The reason Robertson had to walk to work is because the city and suburban bus systems have no reliable connections. Buying him a new car was like fighting hunger in Haiti by giving one child a T-bone steak. While there are people trying to solve the real problem, though they haven't gotten nearly as much publicity as the walking man. Back when the legislature passed Right to Work two and a half years ago, they also authorized something called the RTA, or Regional Transit Authority. The idea was to have a network of special lanes with special buses that in fact look more like railroad cars. You'd be able to get one in any of Metro Detroit's counties and zip out to the airport, or to a convenient connection with another bus system. John Hertel, who runs SMART, the suburban bus system, became the RTA's first head, but resigned after a few months when he learned there was no funding for him to hire staff. Michael Ford, who had run the Ann Arbor transportation agency, is now running the RTA, and he's been trying to build awareness before elections next year in which the various counties will be asked to authorize funds to build the system. They are holding a series of public meetings to get input about what people want and need. One is going on now, until seven o clock tonight, at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. Tomorrow, there will be another from 1 to 7:30 p.m. at the Elks Club Lodge in Royal Oak. Last night, they held their first meeting in Detroit, where the Detroit News reported that one man rode two buses for two hours to get there. This is a problem holding all of Southeastern Michigan back, and which now we have a chance to fix. That is, if we have the will to do it. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Governor Rick Snyder's Smart Justice

Back in the 1960s and '70s, the popular law and order slogans were "get tough on crime," and "lock 'em up and throw the key away." Well, we tried that. What it got us was an increase in the state prison population from 18,000 to more than 50,000. Michigan's prison budget more than tripled. Now, it's about two billion dollars a year, far more than we spend on higher education and roads. We may not feel much safer, but we sure are broke. The prison population has since declined to about 43,000, in part due to the fact that Michigan's population is on average older, and older people don't tend to commit as many crimes. But most experts, and Governor Rick Snyder, believe that is still far too many. For the last few years, the buzz in criminal justice has been dominated by two different slogans: "Get smart about crime," and "We should lock up those we are afraid of, not those we are mad at." Yesterday, the governor came down firmly in that reform camp. In a special message on criminal justice, Snyder called for a bunch of common sense, criminal justice reforms that would save the state money and give convicts a better chance to turn their lives around at minimal risk to the population. He wants the legislature to pass bills that would parole inmates once they reach the earliest possible date they'd be eligible. That is, if their prison records are clean, and Department of Corrections authorities think their chances of making it on the outside are good. The governor also wants to do more to keep juvenile offenders from being incarcerated; so-called "kiddie prisons" have often mainly served as a training school for career criminals. Snyder also wants to set a thirty-day cap on locking up people for violating probation, something that is now costing us a quarter of a billion dollars a year. These are all highly sensible reforms that have the potential to save a great deal of money. The question is, however, will they happen? They haven't in the past, largely because politicians of both parties have been paranoid about being accused of being "soft on crime." There were clear indications yesterday that this attitude still lingers. The governor even felt he had to say of himself, "Is he just being weak on crime? The answer is no." In fact, a couple of his reforms would actually make people safer. One would help victims of sex crimes and domestic assault protect their anonymity, and another would relieve those seeking personal protection orders of the financial burden of doing so. Initial legislative reaction to the governor's reforms was mostly positive. Reaction from those working in law enforcement was less so, as it always is; cops almost never relish seeing those they regard as the "bad guys" getting out. The big question, however, is what Attorney General Bill Schuette will do. He's opposed sentencing reform in the past. And he's been accused of grandstanding to win favor with hard line conservatives. One thing is clear: Michigan can no longer afford to keep everybody locked up who we are supposedly "mad at." Not, that is, if we ever want to educate our citizens and fix the roads. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Eyeball to Eyeball

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once said, "we're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." What he meant was that the Soviet Union was supposedly backing down from a dangerously escalating situation. Well, the stakes are much smaller in Lansing. But it appears that the governor and his fellow Republicans in the legislature are going into an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. And this time, it isn't clear if anyone will blink. The issue is over prevailing wage. That's a requirement that construction workers on state projects be paid union scale wages and fringe benefits, whether they are in a union or not. Getting rid of prevailing wage so that workers can be paid much less has been a longtime goal of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. He claims the state could save hundreds of millions if this happens. Others disagree. Naturally, unions are against this repeal. But major construction companies oppose it as well. There was a time in the 1990s when the legislature did suspend prevailing wage rules. Barton Malow is a huge, now nationwide construction management firm founded in Detroit. Last week, a senior executive of the company told the Gongwer news service, "I never want to return to those days," when they didn't have prevailing wage. What happened then was bidding public work became all about ...how cheap could a contractor bid for work." What happened then, he and others said, was that many reputable contractors didn't bother to bid. In the end, cost overruns meant the state was often paying as much for work that may not have been as reliable. But Meekhof has long vowed to push a bill repealing prevailing wage through the senate. And last week he did, though five members of his caucus deserted him to vote no. Among them was Senator Tom Casperson of Escanaba. He told his fellow senators, "I implore my colleagues to ask themselves, when you're accused of supporting the corporations in place of the working man ... are you?" The bill now goes to the House, where Democrats, while still a minority, are stronger than in the Senate. But House Republicans are generally more conservative than those in the senate. If Democrats hold firm there, nine Republicans would have to defect to defeat the repeal of prevailing wage. Though he won't say so publicly, that is exactly what Rick Snyder must be hoping will happen. Because otherwise, someone has to blink. The governor has made it very clear that he opposes repealing prevailing wage and has hinted strongly that he will veto such a bill if one reaches his desk. But would he? Senate Leader Meekhof seemed to be almost openly taunting the governor last week, noting that Snyder at first opposed right-to-work, and then came to support it. Clearly, if a prevailing wage bill reaches Snyder's desk, it will be as clear a test of wills as you can imagine between the governor and the legislature. My guess is that the governor will have to cast a veto. Otherwise, he will be seen as essentially impotent for the balance of his term. And regardless of what happens, many voters will be left wishing the legislature was as passionate about fixing the roads. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once said, "we're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." What he meant was that the Soviet Union was supposedly backing down from a dangerously escalating situation. Well, the stakes are much smaller in Lansing. But it appears that the governor and his fellow Republicans in the legislature are going into an eyeball to eyeball confrontation. And this time, it isn't clear if anyone will blink. The issue is over prevailing wage. That's a requirement that construction workers on state projects be paid union scale wages and fringe benefits, whether they are in a union or not. Getting rid of prevailing wage so that workers can be paid much less has been a longtime goal of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. He claims the state could save hundreds of millions if this happens. Others disagree. Naturally, unions are against this repeal. But major construction companies oppose it as well. There was a time in the 1990s when the legislature did suspend prevailing wage rules. Barton Malow is a huge, now nationwide construction management firm founded in Detroit. Last week, a senior executive of the company told the Gongwer news service, "I never want to return to those days," when they didn't have prevailing wage. What happened then was bidding public work became all about ...how cheap could a contractor bid for work." What happened then, he and others said, was that many reputable contractors didn't bother to bid. In the end, cost overruns meant the state was often paying as much for work that may not have been as reliable. But Meekhof has long vowed to push a bill repealing prevailing wage through the senate. And last week he did, though five members of his caucus deserted him to vote no. Among them was Senator Tom Casperson of Escanaba. He told his fellow senators, "I implore my colleagues to ask themselves, when you're accused of supporting the corporations in place of the working man ... are you?" The bill now goes to the House, where Democrats, while still a minority, are stronger than in the Senate. But House Republicans are generally more conservative than those in the senate. If Democrats hold firm there, nine Republicans would have to defect to defeat the repeal of prevailing wage. Though he won't say so publicly, that is exactly what Rick Snyder must be hoping will happen. Because otherwise, someone has to blink. The governor has made it very clear that he opposes repealing prevailing wage and has hinted strongly that he will veto such a bill if one reaches his desk. But would he? Senate Leader Meekhof seemed to be almost openly taunting the governor last week, noting that Snyder at first opposed right-to-work, and then came to support it. Clearly, if a prevailing wage bill reaches Snyder's desk, it will be as clear a test of wills as you can imagine between the governor and the legislature. My guess is that the governor will have to cast a veto. Otherwise, he will be seen as essentially impotent for the balance of his term. And regardless of what happens, many voters will be left wishing the legislature was as passionate about fixing the roads. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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LESSENBERRY: Gordie Howe Bridge and improvement over NITC or DRIC

I have to say, I never thought they would name the new Detroit River bridge after hockey legend Gordie Howe. We've been calling it the New International Trade Crossing so long it was at first hard to think of it as anything else. Originally, planners called it the DRIC, for Detroit River International Crossing, a dreadful name that sounded like post-nasal drip. If you had asked me a week ago if the bridge should be named after a sports figure, I'm sure I would have said no. But naming it after a cultural icon does make sense. And there's no man who better symbolizes the best of the partnership between the U.S. and Canada than Gordie Howe, the greatest hockey player of his time, if not ever. Howe was born in Saskatchewan , but began playing for the Detroit Red Wings when he was eighteen, right after World War II. He played professional hockey for more years and in more decades than any other player in history. He had many qualities one hopes the new bridge will have: Longevity, endurance, resilience. He was an extremely graceful player who could fight with the best of them, and was never above taking an opponent out with a hard check into the boards. There were many times when it seemed as if Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun was on the brink of killing the new bridge to preserve his monopoly over heavy trade. Howe, too, had his share of problems. Early in his career, in 1950, his skull was badly fractured during a playoff game with Toronto. They had to operate to relieve pressure on his brain, and he very nearly died. But he returned to lead the league in scoring the next year. After a quarter century with the Red Wings, he retired due to a wrist injury. Later, he had surgery, joined a newly formed team, and played alongside his son Mark, who became an NHL star in his own right. Recent years have been difficult for Gordie Howe. His beloved wife Colleen died six years ago after a long struggle with a disease that was something like dementia. Gordie, now 87, and a veteran of many injuries, has dementia himself. Seven months ago, he suffered a major stroke, and we were told to expect the worst. But he went to Mexico for experimental stem cell treatment, and it seems to have worked amazingly. We're told he has gained twenty pounds, can play "driveway hockey" with his grandkids, and has at least some flashes of lucidity. Anne Jarvis of the Windsor Star reports that when his son Murray told him the new bridge would be named for him, Gordie Howe reportedly said "that sounds pretty good to me." Actually, it seems to sound pretty good to everyone. Well, maybe not to Matty Moroun, who is still fighting a last-ditch effort to stop the bridge. His job, however, just got harder. After all, you can take on an anonymous concept called "DRIC" or even New International Trade Crossing. Fighting Gordie Howe, however, is something else again. It always was. Here's hoping he is with us long enough to be in the first car driven over the new bridge. Somehow, that would just seem right. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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How not to fix the roads

If there's one thing that defines us as a people, it may be how much we love fantasy. That's why men in their fifties comb over that bald spot and go to singles bars, and why others still imagine they will someday see the Detroit Lions in the Super Bowl. And still more deluded people expect rational, adult behavior out of the Michigan legislature. And no, I'm not even talking about the senator awaiting trial for felonious assault. During the campaign for the ballot proposal to fix the roads, there was a lot of perfectly proper anger over the lawmakers' cowardly failure to have addressed the problem. That made sense. What didn't was the fantasy that once we voted this down, that the legislature would automatically do the right thing. Well, yesterday we got what I expected. Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter unveiled his "plan" to fix the roads, and it is the worst and stupidest yet. According to Cotter, it would generate a billion dollars a year to fix our roads, which is only about half of what is needed. But in fact, this is almost all fantasy money. Cotter, like too many of his colleagues, is opposed to raising any taxes, even though this state is facing a huge infrastructure emergency. So where would he get that money? Well, the bulk of it would come from – are you ready for this – projected future growth in tax revenue. Yes, he is counting on automatic economic growth with no future slowdowns, prosperity that will send billions cascading into state coffers. I don't know why he just didn't propose hauling that blueberry pie out of the sky and selling it. Suffice it to say that the staunchly Republican Detroit News called this an unreal fantasy. Cotter would dedicate a little real money to the roads by doing things that would hurt people and the economy. He would get some money by finally killing the last of the film subsidy program, take money we promised the Chippewa Indian Tribe, and continue the time-honored practice of raiding the tobacco settlement money, which was supposed to be used for health-oriented programs, something lawmakers have historically ignored. And, in a particularly cruel twist, Cotter would wipe out the last of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has done so much to help the working poor. The EITC had already been cut so that Governor Snyder could give business a huge tax cut during his first term. Proposal One would have fully restored it. Now, they want to completely kill it. This isn't a plan to fix the roads; it is an outrage. Now, we need to hope to see some sanity from the state senate, and hope it is catching. There were a few who thought that as unsatisfactory as Proposal One was, it was the best we were likely to do. So far, it looks as if they may have been right. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan

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Fighting the last stigma

The good news is that we've clearly made progress towards eliminating a lot of stigma in this society. There's certainly much less against gay people, and we have, after all, a black president. Most people are no longer unnerved by the thought of meeting someone with AIDS, and as far as I can tell, nobody cares if their coworkers happen to be Jewish. But mental illness is something else again. Too many of us prefer not to think about it. We're often reluctant to mention it if we have family members who are mentally ill. Yet there are far more mentally ill than many of us realize. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than one in every four American adults experience mental illness every year. That's more than sixty-one million people. Many are at serious risk of suicide. Nearly fourteen million of those live daily with its most serious forms – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. This is not something most Americans realize, or want to think about. Partly as a result, too many treatment programs are inadequately funded. Two years ago, President Obama proclaimed May National Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, the Detroit Wayne County Mental Health Authority is trying to use that to, indeed, get people's attention. Tom Watkins became the authority's director two years ago, and at the time, some thought that was an odd choice. Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, was best known in recent years as a passionate advocate of closer ties with China. But Watkins felt he had both a professional commitment to this work as an educator, and a personal one. His two brothers both suffered with severe depression, and committed suicide. He told me yesterday that his philosophy is that if his organization does no more than help one person – one family – it will have "added value and made a difference." Mental illness is no respecter of education, income or class – though not everybody in this society has equal access to treatment. African-American, Hispanic and Asian Americans use mental health services at less than half the rate of white Americans. Some of this may be due to ignorance of what's available, or the stigma some associate with seeking and receiving help. One of the smallest groups in society may also be among the most heavily affected – military veterans. Those now serving are less than one percent of the population. But nationwide, veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides. If this is an average day, 22 vets will kill themselves before May 13th is over. To raise awareness, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority has produced a new half-hour documentary, "Opening Minds – Ending Stigma" in partnership with the Flinn Foundation. It will air on Channel 62 in Detroit May 23, but can be downloaded and watched anytime from the mental health authority's website. (www.dwmha.com) Among those taking part in the video are Senator Debbie Stabenow, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and Michelle Obama. Watkins told me his goal was first to raise awareness, and then fight for the resources to provide the highest quality care and treatment to some of society's most vulnerable people. When you think about it, it's hard to imagine a more worthy goal. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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State Senator Virgil Smith ought to have the decency to resign

When I was in junior high school my class was taken to Lansing, to see the state capital. I was blown away with awe — the Capitol Dome, the stately Senate and House chambers, the display of Civil War battle flags. This was a long time ago; President Kennedy was still in the White House, but I thought this was sacred ground, in a sense, and I still think that. Though I have seen plenty to disillusion me since, I also know that a working democracy is a priceless thing. Many good and occasionally great men and women have worked under that Capitol Dome, and it should be a place of honor. We don't have as much respect for politics and government as we did before Vietnam and Watergate and the rise of all news, all the time, and social media everywhere. Skepticism is healthy. Cynicism, however, can destroy democracy. Some people don't have any respect for government at all, which is a dangerous thing for our state and our country. Skepticism is healthy. Cynicism, however, can destroy democracy. And State Senator Virgil Smith, a Democrat from Detroit, seems to have done his best to reinforce the view that all lawmakers are clowns or crooks or both. Smith, who is only 35, is largely in the senate because his father, who has the same name, was there before him. Actually, as far as I can tell, he's never had another job other than serving in the Legislature. He first ran at 21, got elected to the House when he was 23, and has been there ever since. He drew some notice earlier this year when he was the only Democrat in the Senate to support a bill limiting benefits for victims of catastrophic car accidents; we then learned he had taken more than $36,000 in campaign donations from the insurance industry. But Smith is all over the news now. According to police, he shot up his ex-wife's Mercedes on a residential street in the wee hours Sunday. Apparently she showed up at his house to find him with another woman, a fight ensued, and he banged away with a gun. You can read much more lurid accounts in the papers. Smith is in custody, and Detroit's police chief said he anticipated charges, including aggravated assault with a gun. Everyone is indeed innocent until proven guilty. But citizens also deserve adequate representation. It is hard to imagine that the senator will be able to do his job properly if on trial for various felonies. Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal five years ago saying people could not hold public office if they committed "dishonestly, deceit, fraud or a breach of the public trust." Well, it's hard to see how this isn't a breach of the public trust, if there is any truth at all to what the police are saying. Those who do the people's business don't have to be saints. However, there should be some sense of respect for those they represent and the responsibility they hold. This senator ought to have the decency to resign. If he does not, and is convicted, he needs to be expelled. They still bring twelve year olds to the state capital. Our future depends on their having some respect for those inside. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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How to fix Detroit Public Schools

Whatever your politics, here's something hard to deny: Detroit Public Schools are a terrible failure, and have been for years. Four emergency managers have failed to stop a staggering hemorrhage of students, or make the schools any kind of academic success. Nor have they managed to get the district's ballooning deficit under control. The numbers tell the tale. Detroit Public Schools had 167,000 students at the turn of the century, barely fifteen years ago. Only 47,000 are left today. The deficit is $170 million. Worse, the district owes $53 million to the state pension system and apparently hasn't made a payment since last fall, which in turn means more penalties. Clearly, this can't go on financially. And there's a deeper problem: If Detroit is ever going to be a real city again, one where normal people want to live, it needs a public school system where they can confidently put their children. It's as simple as that. Even if you cleaned up the crime and brought in boatloads of new jobs, few other than hipsters and the elderly will live there unless there are schools they can trust. Right now there are two plans to overhaul the schools. At the end of March, a group of community and business leaders called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren offered theirs. It calls for the immediate return of power to an elected board, and also for the creation of a Detroit Education Commission to oversee the opening and closing of all schools in the city, both DPS and charters. The coalition also calls on the state to assume a good chunk of the public schools' debt, noting that most has been racked up since they've been under state control. Governor Snyder then presented his plan. It would divide the schools into an old DPS, which would only exist to eliminate the deficit, and a new "City of Detroit Education District" to educate the students, with the help of new state funds. But Casandra Ulbrich, a member of the state board of education, has one big problem with the governor's plan. As she told me, "This governor refuses to take on the charter school lobby and limit their abilities in any way." The governor would create an "education manager" who could close schools and open replacement schools. But she says it is unclear who would be responsible for the opening of new Detroit Public Schools, if needed. Meanwhile, there is nothing to prevent a charter school operator from opening up a school across from a successful Detroit public school in an attempt to lure away their students. By the way, if you think charters have a better education record in Detroit, think again. Detroit students are indeed performing far below the state average. But according to a poster distributed by the governor's office, charter performance in nearly every category was significantly lower than that of Detroit public school students. Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, says the biggest need is for all the adults to check their wants and egos and construct education reform that's in the best interests of the kids. Perhaps the best features of both plans can be combined. But something has to be done, and quickly. What's happening now just can't go on. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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We don't trust government

The big news today is that Governor Snyder has decided not to run for President, which is only slightly less surprising than that snow isn't expected in August. I don't think he was ever really running, and when Proposal One went down, it took his national chances with it. But there is real and disturbing news related to all this. First, it is very clear that the voters just don't trust state government. That's true on the right and the left. When you have Carl Levin and Rick Snyder both telling people to vote yes, and more than eighty percent vote no, it's pretty clear we aren't following our leaders. We don't trust them, and here's something worse. They don't deserve our trust. They demonstrate daily that they don't work for us, or care about what we think. Here's the latest example: Kurt Heise, a Republican state representative from Plymouth, introduced a bill this week to prevent all of us from getting information about things like oil and gas pipelines in this state. Currently, a lot of people are worried about a pipeline Enbridge has under the straits of Mackinac. If it broke, that would utterly devastate the Great Lakes. Enbridge, as we know too well, had a pipeline break five years ago, sending more than a million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. Its pipeline under Mackinac would be old enough to collect Social Security, if it were a person. If that were to break it could be the worst environmental disaster in our history. But Kurt Heise doesn't want us to be able to find out much about it. We wouldn't be able to find out much about high-energy power lines either, or other critical and potentially dangerous energy sources. He would exempt their owners from the state Freedom of Information Act. Why? Well, Heise says this is designed to protect us from terrorism, and is in the "interests of national security." They used to say patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel; it's been "national security" ever since Richard Nixon used those words to try to prevent the taped evidence of his Watergate crimes from becoming public. I don't know yet where Heise's campaign contributions have been coming from, but I do know the oil and gas companies are lobbying hard for this bill. And if that weren't enough, Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press points out today that Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlen Meekhof quietly got his colleagues to repeal a rule that required the Senate to respond to requests for public information within two weeks, and to otherwise exempt themselves from disclosing anything they don't want the public to see. This is entirely consistent with Meekhof's record. Last year, he got the legislature to pass a bill to prevent us from knowing the source of so-called "dark money" campaign contributions, making our campaign finance disclosure laws all but meaningless. These legislators don't work for us. They largely work for the special interests they hope will give them lobbying jobs after their term-limited political careers are over. What's more, there's little chance of defeating them in their gerrymandered districts. If this doesn't make you worried about democracy, I don't know what would. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Roads: The worst is yet to come

Something odd happened the night before last, once it became clear that the sales tax amendment to fix the roads was headed for an overwhelming defeat. Everyone not in the legislature began assuming the legislature would now fix this. By morning, people were talking as if our lawmakers would now quickly pass either an increase in the gas tax to fix the roads or put a new "clean" sales tax amendment on the ballot. Both options make a certain amount of sense, and getting this problem solved and behind us would make even more. Except ... we are dealing with the Michigan legislature here, the same body that has refused to fix the roads for years. We are talking about a group of lawmakers, none of whom have more than a few years' experience, and many of whom have no intention of letting reality get in the way of ideology. By the end of yesterday, it was clear that when it comes to fixing our roads, we are now in for the state policy equivalent of Vietnam: A lot of painful, slow and bloody fighting at a great cost with no victory in sight. Yes, the legislature could fix this problem; fix it tomorrow, in a way that would be barely noticed after a week. Raise the gas tax twenty cents a gallon and use it all for roads. That would make the most sense. Gasoline prices fluctuate all the time. The price of a gallon of gas is nearly two dollars less than it was a few years ago, and seventy cents more than it was few months ago. After a very brief time, consumers would barely notice and the roads would be fixed. But if common sense were a common thing, we wouldn't be in the fix we are in. Yesterday, new Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter said he wants to fix the roads mainly by using existing revenue. That would mean severe cuts to essential programs that have already been cut and cut again. That's what the last Speaker of the House, Jase Bolger, wanted to do. His plan to fix the roads would have taken nearly a billion dollars away from schools and local governments, something Governor Snyder found unacceptable. Cotter said he wasn't proposing to revive that plan, but it is hard to see where he could get that kind of money otherwise. Unless, that is, he wants to close all the state prisons and turn everybody loose. Other legislators are talking about cutting off film credits and business development credits, but that's the equivalent of looking for loose change in the sofa cushions to pay the mortgage. You cannot get the needed billions that way. What I fear is a worst-case scenario where they end up cutting valuable programs enough to hurt them without generating anything like the amount of money needed to really fix the roads. The vast majority of people hated Proposal One. But its defeat leaves us with one big negative. We've got a lot of other issues we need to tackle in this state, but for the foreseeable future, roads seem likely to continue to be the elephant that fills the room. We can expect a long summer ahead. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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