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Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

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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Biggest pothole of all

Last weekend I ran into the managing director of the road commission for one of our state’s mid-sized counties.She’s both an efficient manager and an intelligent observer of the pulse of her county, which is half urban, half rural. She knows better than most of us that our state's roads are falling apart.Last year, despite public outrage over all the potholes and broken axles, our legislators once again failed to fix this. All they would do is stick a sales tax increase on the May ballot, one that would provide some money for the roads, as well as a cornucopia of other things. I asked my friend if she thought the sales tax would pass.“No,” she said, looking somewhere between sad and grimly resigned. Her answer didn’t surprise me.What’s more, though I have been reporting on the need to fix the roads for years, I haven’t even decided how I will vote.But I do know this proposal is further proof of our lawmakers’ failure to do their jobs. The main culprit here is former House Speaker Jase Bolger, who refused to do what every responsible politician from Governor Snyder to former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville knew was necessary:Raise our taxes to fix the roads. That’s what representative democracy is all about. It’s not clear why Bolger wouldn’t agree. He was term-limited, and his checkered legislative past means his political career is likely over.All he would do is pass the buck to the citizens. This was a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this not the best or fairest way to get the money, it doesn’t raise enough for the roads.If passed, it won’t even really produce significant road revenue for a couple of years. The state will have to spend more than ten million to hold an election, and meanwhile, budget planning is on hold.Governor Snyder has admitted those forces supporting the road plan will need twelve to fifteen million to buy advertising to persuade voters if they are to have a chance to win.Yet as the Detroit News reports in a story today, the money doesn’t seem to be there. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce seems unlikely to help fund such a campaign. They were very much in favor of raising taxes on fuel.But some of its members would be hurt by the sales tax. The Michigan Manufacturers Association says it is broke and can’t help.Meanwhile, groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are gearing up to oppose the sales tax. Some Democrats and other groups who stand up for the working poor will back the proposal, but their clients are notoriously unlikely to vote in a spring election.If they were responsible stewards of our state’s best interests, the current legislature would immediately end our misery and the need for an election by raising the gas tax to fix the roads. With gas prices so low, this is the perfect time to do so.Sadly, that’s unlikely.The senate majority leader is busy instead trying to reduce construction workers’ pay. To paraphrase the old Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, “What a state.”Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at 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.



Politics and Language

We live in an era of what seems to be one of increasing nastiness and pettiness, especially perhaps in politics.

Last week, for example, Michigan’s Speaker of the House denied a routine request from the minority leader to name a particular member ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Speaker Kevin Cotter refused to so designate Brandon Dillon, even though that wouldn’t have changed the balance of power one bit. This angered Democrats, and pretty much ensured that any chance of bipartisan cooperation ended before it began.

Why did Cotter do that? Well, it is no secret that Dillon is outspoken and known for sharp-tongued attacks on Republican policies. He also was in charge of Democratic House campaign efforts last year, and organized a challenge that brought Cotter himself close to defeat. So this was payback time.

But I noticed something else yesterday when Cotter’s press spokesman attempted to defend this, saying, “The Democrat committee members have chosen to stand together in abandoning their responsibilities to the people of Michigan.”

Forget the issue. What is this “Democrat members” language?  Why not “Democratic?” Simple. In order to demean the opposition, Republicans are now often refusing to call them by their proper name. Instead of saying the “Democratic Party,” they prefer the insulting and harsher-sounding “Democrat Party.”

Turning words into slogans is, of course, nothing new. George Orwell described the phenomenon in a famous brilliant essay, “Politics and the English Language,” nearly seventy years ago. There’s always been some of this.

Conservatives were largely correct years ago when they complained that the press was too quick to use the term “right-wing Republican.”  These days, however, the right seems to have gotten the upper hand in the language battle.

Probably the best example is the way in which virtually the entire media has adopted the anti-abortion side’s language in framing that debate.

Those in favor of banning abortion call themselves “pro-life.” The implication is clear. Those who believe a woman has the right to make that difficult decision for herself are somehow “anti-life,” even though the official term is “pro-choice.”

Actually, in the interest of fairness, we should call the anti-abortion activists what they are: Anti-abortion.

But somehow, that hasn’t happened. If you don’t think this sort of grammatical warfare has an impact, consider this:

Remember that the nasty Bolsheviks managed to triumph over the more moderate Mensheviks in their power struggle in Russia a century ago? 

There were a number of reasons for this, but the word Bolshevik in Russian means majority, Menshevik, minority.

They were both factions of the same party, and these were nicknames given them after one side got more votes than the other in one obscure vote over the composition of an editorial board.

Ironically, there were probably more members on the Menshevik side. But if you are saddled with the name “minority party,” I’d guess it doesn’t help your future prospects.

Years ago, a young member of Congress was rebuked by his leader for referring to the other party as the enemy. “Son, they aren’t the enemy. They are the opposition,” his senior said.

Whatever your politics, I think we would all be better off with a little more of that spirit today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at 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.



Silly laws and serious consequences

Did you know that in Michigan it is against the law to try to get people to dance to the Star-Spangled Banner?

Nor is that all. They can arrest you for arguing in favor of polygamy, or promoting a walkathon, or for making fun of somebody for not accepting a challenge to a duel.

Well, the odds are that the polygamy police won’t bother you no matter what you say about it. But we have a vast number of other bad laws on the books that sometimes are enforced – even against people who have no idea that they are breaking the law.

Take poor Lisa Snyder, who six years ago, was caught in the act of helping neighbor children board the school bus every day. For doing this, the state Department of Human Services claimed she was operating an illegal day care center.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley was then her state representative. Fortunately, he got the legislature to fix this. But not everybody is so lucky. Twelve years ago, Ken Schumaker brought some scrap tires to a facility he thought was a legal depository.

It wasn’t. And the prosecutors went after him – even though Schumaker had no idea that he was doing something illegal. He ended up with a nine month sentence and a ten thousand dollar fine.

All this and more is in a Manhattan Institute study that came out in October, and which was brought to my attention by Phil Power, the founder and chair of the non-partisan Center for Michigan.

You can easily find the short, very readable study, “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State” online. Power, in fact, wrote his weekly column for his online magazine Bridge about what it means.

The authors noted that Michigan’s penal code is eight times the length of that of neighboring states. We have more than thirty-one hundred crimes on the books, and our lawmakers are adding, on average, forty-five new ones every year. What really concerned the authors of the study is that a vast number of these crimes don’t require the state to show that the accused person intended to break the law.

That was how poor Lisa the school bus helper and Ken the scrap tire man got in trouble.

The Manhattan Institute noted that many Michiganders are unknowingly committing crimes every day. Maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but if an unmarried man seduces an unmarried woman, that too is against Michigan law.

The study calls on the legislature to either set up a bipartisan task force or a special commission to review Michigan’s criminal statutes and suggest cleaning up the books.

Laws and penalties should be made consistent, silly or outdated laws should be done away with, and people should not face prosecution for minor crimes they had no intention of committing.

Not only does that make sense, Power notes that this is a perfect time. A lot of budget and other decisions can’t be made until voters decide in May whether to increase the sales tax. The lawmakers may now have some time on their hands.

Otherwise, we’ll go on living in a state where you could become a convicted criminal for entering a horse in a race under a false name.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at 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.



Two Speeches

I was fascinated last night by the contrast between Governor Snyder’s State of the State Speech and President Obama’s State of the Union Speech. Think about this.

Two middle-aged guys, one fifty-six; the other fifty-three, both wearing dark suits and blue ties, speaking two hours apart. One black, one white; one Republican, one Democrat.

A majority of us in Michigan voted for both of them twice, even though polls show most of us don’t think either is doing an especially good job.

The speeches couldn’t have been more different. Obama’s was an inspiring rhetorical delight, designed to make us feel good about ourselves and our country and challenge us to do better.

Governor Snyder’s speech, which was assembled from talking points, was largely about administrative reforms.

It is hard to imagine someone running home, throwing open the door and saying breathlessly:

“You won’t believe it. The governor is merging the departments of Community Health and Human Services ... And if that wasn’t enough, he is going to combine a bunch of other commissions into a new state energy agency.”

Well, this may not be the stuff that sends the heart racing, but unlike the reforms President Obama wants, the governor does have the power to make his happen.

Over the years, some governors have combined agencies; others have taken them apart. Republicans usually say they are in favor of smaller government. Here, however, the governor is creating two mammoth agencies, one of which, the new Department of Health and Human Services, will account for nearly half of the entire state budget.

The governor is clearly hoping to streamline services and save money through economies of scale here. Democratic leaders seem open-minded about all this.

They were, in fact, cautiously supportive, but a little rightly worried some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens could be lost in the creation of a new enormous bureaucracy.

That’s a legitimate concern. But there seemed last night to be far more willingness to try to find areas of bipartisan cooperation. Far more, certainly, in Lansing than in Washington, where the Republican majority largely sat stone-faced while the president spoke.

In Lansing, there was near universal praise when the governor called for more investment in early childhood development. There also seems to be a consensus developing to steer clear, at least for now, of more divisive debates on gender identity.

While the governor said there should be “more discussion” on expanding the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, presumably to include gay Americans, the new Speaker of the House said no thanks. In other words, this is going nowhere. Not for the next two years.

On the other hand, it is interesting that new Senate Majority Leader Arlen Meekhof doesn’t seem eager to take up divisive “Religious Freedom Restoration Act “ legislation again.

My guess is that everyone is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on same-sex marriage.

The bottom line is that Obama gave a far better speech last night, but Snyder’s is certain to produce far more concrete results.

But ask yourself this: How many lines do you remember from any State of the Union or State of the State speech?

I thought so. Well, the political year is now truly under way. Be prepared for a bumpy, if interesting, ride.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at 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



President Snyder?

As you probably know, Governor Snyder gives his State of the State speech tonight, two hours before President Obama gives his annual State of the Union address. We also know that America will get a new president exactly two years from today.

And there are those who have been speculating that maybe, just maybe, the State of the Union speech two years from now might be given by a President named Rick Snyder.

Long shot? Sure. But you might say — hey. Who thought in January 2007 that the next President would be a black freshman senator whose father was a Muslim from Kenya?

True. Amazing upsets do happen. But I have been watching politics all my life, and I am here to tell you that there’s no way Rick Snyder is going to be the next President, barring some epic cataclysm out of a Tom Clancy novel. It isn’t happening.

And here’s why. If Snyder had been bitten by the presidential; bug, he needed to not run for reelection last year.

Why? Simple. You can’t run for president these days and carry out the responsibilities of being governor of a major industrial state. True, Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, but that was then an essentially part-time job in a small state.

Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney ran only after each had left the governor’s chair. George W. Bush was governor of Texas when he was elected, but in that state, the lieutenant governor does most of the heavy lifting.

I’m aware of only one governor who was nominated and tried to campaign while trying to run an important state. That would be Michael Dukakis.

And we know how well that turned out.

These days, campaigns for President start years in advance. If you want to run, you need to raise huge sums of money. You also have to have something that makes you stand out from the crowd, a unique selling proposition, as they say in advertising.

Rick Snyder managed to distinguish himself from the pack in Michigan with his “one tough nerd” strategy.

But that would be far harder on a national scale. Snyder is not ruggedly handsome like Romney, nor does he have the golden voice and charisma of a Reagan.

No particular faction identifies with him.

He also lacks any kind of Washington, military, or foreign policy experience. He is not widely recognized nationally, nor does he have any one huge accomplishment to display.

If he had a slogan, it might well be “competence, not ideology.” Except … that was Mike Dukakis’ 1988 slogan. The two men are alike in many ways; both were technocrats who appealed to the mind, not the heart.

Dukakis, who was a much better speaker than Snyder, started far ahead in the polls, and ended up losing forty states.

That doesn’t mean Snyder doesn’t have a national future if he wants one. Were a Republican to win the White House, Snyder would be a prime candidate for cabinet positions like Commerce or Management and Budget, maybe Transportation.

But not President. Sorry about that, but that’s the way it is. And now it’s time for Lansing to get back to work.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at 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