Solutions Sit in Lansing, Change Begins at the Ballot Box

Posted In: Politics, State, Opinion,   From Issue 620   By: Robert E Martin

17th August, 2006     0

Back in 1979, in the very first issue of The Review, the headline story I wrote was how a plant in Caro was striving to produce a new product known as 'gasohol', utilizing agricultural products, improving auto efficiency, and most importantly, saving people money on gasoline at the pump. 

The biggest drawback, of course, was a lack of government & industry support to cover start-up costs involved with production on mass levels.

27 years later, one week after the 2006 August Primary Election, it seems I'm still writing that same story; only now gasoline is $3.00 per gallon, a handful of producers are attempting to get into the game instead of only one, and different faces in government & industry are still talking about mobilizing the needed start up costs to get things flowing on a larger scale.

Fast forward 7 years to 1986.

Twenty years ago I wrote an investigative piece entitled You Don't Know What You Got "til It's Gone, which addressed the future role of GM and the UAW in Saginaw at a time when General Motors was starting to outsource.

At that time, Divisional Manager Mark McCabe told me that by 1988 Toyota would be building 300,000 cars a year in North America and expect to sell a million vehicles, nearly equal to Buick Division's total sales in 1984.

Additionally, both Labor & Management agreed that if 2,500 jobs were lost for one year, based upon $30,000 per year laborer, this would equal a reduction of $75 million dollars out of the local economy, and a corresponding loss of $750,000 from city tax rolls per year.

These are both important stories and figures to remember, not only when considering the loss of the Public Safety 'No Boundaries' Millage, but especially when considering why citizens are so totally & completely disgusted with the ineffectual activities of elected officials that 80 percent of them do not even bother voting, regardless of Party affiliation.

$15 million dollars is a lot of money for a city to lose from its general fund, let alone a county, over a 20-year span.  And as well know, the aftermath over than time period has resulted in the loss of far more than 2,500 jobs.  (Flint has lost 40,000 in the last 10 years alone).

For nearly three decades, leaders & officials have seen the 'writing on the wall', as it were, and yet here I am still writing on topics that remain in the headlines today; paper that has yellowed with time concerning subjects that have only become more ripe with age.

They say contempt breeds apathy in the body politic, and while the pathetic numbers turning out to the polls certainly bears this out, the question remaining is at what stage does apathy gestate into anger and breed much needed action into the mix?

Why Are We Serving the Public Servants?

Andy Coulouris is 27-years old.

He beat out a fleet of African-American candidates and most likely will go on to become State Representative for the 95th District.
Andy was born the year I first started this publication; and apart from marked disagreement over the power government should have to encroach into one's private work environment, I genuinely like him.

Back when Andy first ran for the Saginaw City Council in 2003, we did an interview and afterwards went to have a beer and discuss local politics.   Andy was going to law school at the time, engaged to get married, and didn't have enough money to pay for his drink, so I gladly picked up the tab.

I mention this because come November, should Andy join the illustrious body of the Michigan House of Representatives, he  (along with every other member) will be paid $79,650.00 dollars per year. 

I hesitate to use the word 'earn', because State Reps also receive a nice long recess/vacation in August, have all their health care benefits paid for (courtesy of us fine taxpayers) and, here's the kicker - receive this compensation whether or not they show up for work.

(Editor's Note: Andy's predecessor Carl Williams enjoyed one of the worst attendance records for the past legislative session, but managed to step up to the trough on payday, nonetheless).

One of the 'big issues' in this year's campaign is how to handle the Single Business Tax. The SBT rakes in $1.85 billion per year. To put this figure in context, the state will spend $42 billion in this fiscal year. Around $28 billion of that is raised right here, and the rest is 'federal' money.

About $13 billion is school spending, another $6 billion is in 'restricted funds', which leaves $9 billion in the 'general fund'.  This is the money that the Legislature has more 'discretion' in spending.

This is the 'pot' SBT revenue goes into. Thus while it makes up only 4.4 percent of state spending, the SBT provides 20 percent of the money legislators have the most control over, which is why its such a 'hot topic'.

Consider this, for one moment, if you will:  The average income in Saginaw County is around $44,000 per year. So what would happen if each legislator took a pay cut to $44,000 per year?

Let's do the math. 

Presently there are 38 Senators and 110 Representatives in Lansing, not counting the Governor, Lt. Governor, Treasurer, Secretary of State (whom are paid more than legislators, and a slew of  other bureaucrats (which we'll get to in a minute).

If each of these public servants agreed to preside over and represent the public's interest at this estimably reasonable pay level, the savings annually would amount to $5,402,000 per year. If they eschewed their Cadillac Blue Cross plans, they could make up another $4,000,000 million dollars.

Michigan is presently the nation's eighth largest state, yet its department directors are also among the highest paid in the country, and its legislative budget is among the highest in the nation.

From 2002-2006 state legislators spent approximately $426 million on themselves, their staffs, and operations such as the House and Senate Fiscal agencies.

The State of Illinois, in comparison, with 3 million more people and a general fund budget more than twice of Michigan's ranked a distant second among the top five states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Great Lakes Region.

According to a report by Kathy Barks Hoffman from the Associated Press, Michigan's Information Director makes $146,000 a year, more than her contemporaries in 11 major states, including California, Florida and New York.

Michigan's Budget Director is making #135,300, the second highest paid budget director among those 11 states, second only to New York.

Add to this, if you will, the high cost for large staff. Michigan lawmakers rank seventh in the country for the amount of staff afforded each member. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Michigan legislators average nine full time staff members each.

Hey, it would be one thing to pay these costs if Lansing actually accomplished anything. But instead we continuously and routinely hear from the mouths of well-heeled lawmakers that there isn't any money to finance schools, protect the environment, provide affordable health care, or do something about replacing the hemorrhaging of jobs we keep losing to India & China.

And what do you tell a working mother with two or three kids that she won't be able to earn a higher minimum wage because the politician who represents her is concerned about getting rid of an Inheritance Tax that affects about 3 percent of the population?

We are at crisis proportions, people. And as I stated earlier, I'm tired of writing about the 'same old topics' 20 to 30 years down the line.

It's time for action and the place to start is with legislative salaries & pensions.  The entire notion of 'public service' is accented around the component of service. 

And the notion of 'service', especially a public one, is not something you expect to be compensated for, especially at a level twice that of the average income level from people footing the bill.

As my friend Andy Coulouris embarks upon this latest trail of his political career, I hope he, as well as all the 'big winners' of the August 8th Primary, take these words to heart.

Politics is about many things having to do with Power; but ultimately it is about Sacrifice and Commitment for the Greater Good of Mankind. 

Make that your Mantra.

And after you get elected, buy me a beer sometime.

Thoughts on Public Safety

As for the Public Safety Millage, I sympathize and support the efforts of Dick Garber and other community leaders who demonstrated their own sacrifice & commitment to Saginaw County by fashioning what can only be labeled a noble attempt to create the type of Metropolitan Government we truly need to succeed, flourish, and foster for the future.

I did ask several of the local candidates on both sides of the aisle in Saginaw County what their own take was on this stunning defeat, but only received replies from winner Ken Horn and challenger Tim Kelly, both of whom faced each other in the hotly contested 94th District Race.

"I'm pleased that the people were able to voice their opinion, because that's what government is all about," commented Horn.

"I believe the information was laid out succinctly and people simply decided this was not the right plan for today. The Commissioners will likely place the .34 mils Road Patrol issue back on the November ballot, as a simple renewal."

"We will also be faced with a renewal for 911 in November. The combination of these two is absolutely critical to maintain our current public safety efforts.

"In upcoming years, any effort that is made above these renewals will have to come quickly to avoid future layoffs of valuable Road Patrol Officers and Dispatchers," concluded Horn.

Tim Kelly had a different take.

"The No Boundaries increase was DOA," opined Kelly. "I stand by my statement that is was disingenuous and unfair. No responsible political or civic leader would ever offer an all or nothing proposition on public safety. It was pure arrogance that drove the initiative."

"A simple renewal of the .34, or even a 100% increase will be doable in November. For a longer term fix, the state must change the law to allow local municipalities to raise taxes on a per household basis rather than the amount of property a person owns."

In this own writer's view, the mechanics, while forged in a manner that crossed jurisdictional lines and embraced departmental cooperation, did not address the root problem. Again, the question is simple: is it necessary to have one unit of government for every 5,000 people, more than two dozen school districts, and 17 police chiefs scattered all over the terrain?

Saginaw County has witnessed a decrease in population over the past 20 years, yet public officials act like Prince is still at the top of the charts and they've got ten more years to party until its 1999.

Sorry, those days are over.

We must get smarter about how we spend our dollars. It's that simple.  Nor is it fair, smart, or equitable to punish citizens by threatening to diminish their security simply because so-called public servants wish to protect their fiefdoms.

On a deeper level, however, there were two un-addressed realities that shadowed this campaign. 

First is the issue of jail over-crowding.  Countless people asked me, 'What good does it do to have more police when three weeks after they're arrested they'll be released back on the streets?   Frankly, other than getting them processed and booked into the system, I didn't have a good answer for that one.

Second, is the issue of actual police patrols. With 92 officers in the City, why are only four to six patrol cars out on the street at any given time, with a majority of personnel handling administrative duties?

Finally, we need to creatively fund public safety operations by thinking outside of the box and addressing how we compensate and fund all levels of government.  What is fair?  What is efficient? What is actually needed?

As Kelly notes, is it fair to assess farmers out in Frankenmuth a disproportionate share because they own acres of property, or is better to assess a 'per person' fee, insofar as everybody within the county benefits from public safety?

Where there is a will, there is a way. A good place for public leaders to begin is to address these core questions and do it quickly.

I don't want to be writing about this topic 27 years from now.


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