Last week, Michigan saw its second government shutdown in the state’s history. In the history of this country, only two other states have had government shutdowns because of a budget crisis, and Michigan is the only state to have more than one shutdown. What’s even more sad is that the 2 shutdowns came only 2 years apart.
I ended up watching most of the late-night sessions last week, as I followed the budget crisis, and while there were some humorous segments (such as “I can count!” coming from the chairman of the Senate), most of what I saw was just sad – it’s sad that the Michigan legislature can’t pass a budget on time.
So why does Michigan have problems passing a budget? There has been a fundamental failure in leadership, as well as the overall impacts of having the state in such a poor economic state.
Michigan is essentially the same position as it was for the 2007 shutdown: a Democratic Governor with terrible economic policies, a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives with Andy Dillon (D-Redford) as Speaker of the House waiting until it is too late to work on the budget, and a Republican-controlled Senate who tried to get the budget done on time, but was unable to overcome the incompetency of the House.
In both the 2007 and 2009 shutdowns, work on the budget started too late, and many legislators (including Republicans) weren’t committed to finishing the budget on time.
While portions of the budget were being passed by the Senate late Tuesday night, the House had already recessed for the day. We saw the same thing in 2007: Andy Dillon would go would only have the House in session once or twice a week over the summer, and he even took a five-day weekend trip to Mackinac Island after acknowledging that the state was facing a budget crisis.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) had been getting Senate budget bills passed and sent over to the House faster than House bills were coming to the Senate.
But this isn’t to say that all Republicans were trying to finish the budget on time or that all Democrats were uninterested in finishing on time. While the Senate Republicans seemed to generally work harder as the deadline got closer, NOBODY was working hard enough in the month and weeks beforehand. Instead of passing a budget 2 hours into the government shutdown, the legislature should be passing a budget weeks or even months beforehand.
Representative Tim Bledsoe (D-Grosse Pointe) has suggested that the Michigan Constitution be amended to require the budget be done by July 1st, and legislators wouldn’t get paid after that date until a budget was passed. Bledsoe told the Detroit Free Press, “We’ve had every opportunity to get this work done earlier in the year. There’s no excuse to be moving the budget as late as we did.”
Senator Hansen Clark (D-Detroit) has suggested fining legislators $1,000 a day for each day after the fiscal year that a budget isn’t completed, with the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leaders paying $3,000. He told reporters, “Even though many of us work long hours, we don’t have the same incentives as other sectors of the work force. Typically, our incentive would be to do a good job so we can get re-elected, but apparently that’s not enough. … The leaders have to be accountable for results. If you don’t perform the core mission of your job, and that’s to enact a balanced budget … there should be a penalty.”
Former Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R) said that the problems run deeper than just legislators not cracking down in time: “The gap between revenue and spending is so large that there isn’t any structural issue that can compensate for it. It’s a much deeper issue that legislators don’t want to deal with. Michigan as a state can’t continue the level of spending it’s enjoyed for many years. The economy has downsized underneath it. Until you change the tax structure and the spending process, this kind of paralysis is likely to continue. There is no process change that is going to make this a rational, timely, decision-making process. Until there are fundamental changes, you can’t avoid this kind of chaos.”
And in part, I would agree with that. The Democrats in the legislature have refused to accept that spending cuts are an inevitable result of the state’s deficit. Taxes can only be raised so many times and only to a certain level, and when you’ve exhausted that option, you have to cut spending. Michigan is not in a position to raise taxes. Businesses won’t come to Michigan if we raise taxes, and we’ve even seen film companies come to Michigan now that we have a tax credit for film companies. Raising taxes is only going to hurt the economy more and drive more people out of the state.
Fortunately, an interim budget was passed and signed by Governor Granholm only 2 hours into this year’s shutdown, but we aren’t in the clear yet. The legislature gavels into session tomorrow, and a permanent budget still needs to be passed for the new fiscal year. Unless legislators understand that spending cuts are not and option, but a necessity, and that they have to start cracking down and getting to work, we will wind up seeing a full government shutdown when the interim budget expires.
And we need to learn from our mistakes – this cannot happen in 2010. It’s just unacceptable. Fortunately, 2010 is an election year, and lawmakers will be trying to pass a budget on time so that they can get reelected, but unless things change, we will see ourselves back in this same position in 2011.