Detroit: Before and After

Tuesday former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 felonies that will keep him in prison for decades.  Today the state of Michigan will likely deny an appeal from members of the city council of Detroit to hold off on appointing an emergency manager to overhaul the finances of Michigan’s largest city.  In and of themselves, neither of these events will change anything on the streets of the city.  Garbage isn’t going to be collected any more efficiently.  Crime won’t go down, and property values certainly won’t change because of this.  But these two events, both symbolically and practically, portend the end of one era, and the beginning of another.  This week, more so than any other in Detroit, with the possible exception of another week in 1967, delineates one epoch from another.

Kilpatrick, to the end, was delusional.  His response to the verdict: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’  Kilpatrick excelled at this sort of colossal lie, not just to the people of Detroit, but to himself.  This is a man who, to this day, still does not appreciate the fact that he committed dozens of felonies.  I think there’s a sort of cognitive dissonance that Kilpatrick personifies that is manifested in the politics of Detroit.  Even though the handwriting is on the wall, the people who run this city largely feel allowed, but compelled to ignore it.

But no longer.  The man who presided over the old Detroit has been summarily dispatched, and the remnants of the political system that attempted to fill Kilpatrick’s shoes are likely to be dismissed today.  The emergency manager will be appointed, and city council will be given a chance to play ball.  Mayor Dave Bing has resigned himself to the fact that an emergency manager will be easier to work with than the assembly of characters that fill the ranks of the city council.  Council will pretend to play along initially, but eventually they’ll be circumvented with the power of the new emergency manager law that takes effect on March 28th and will lose any remaining authority.

This week closed the books on a very dark, very sad period of the history of Detroit.  It lasted 45 years.  What comes next for government and politics in Detroit is anyone’s guess.  There’s no guarantee that it’s going to be successful, but it sure as hell won’t be boring.

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Hello, Pot? Kettle Here.

I accept that in politics people are just fundamentally going to see some things differently.  The difference could stem from philosophy, experience, interests or a number of other factors.  But, when that blindness is willful, and includes significant revisions to the past, that’s when accepting those differences just turns into bullshit.

For example, the whole hullabaloo about ‘right to work’ legislation that passed through a lame duck session of the Michigan legislature this past winter is a prime example.  The whole reason that it was taken up in the session was that the GOP majority was about to become smaller and that outgoing members would never again be subject to the wrath of the voters at the ballot box.  It was, at its best and worst, a hard-nosed calculus of what they could get away with.  It enraged much of the state, but it worked.  At the time, Michigan Republicans were called anti-democratic (note the lower case D), and that they were trying to subvert the will of the electorate, a charge that was later borne out in a spate of polls.

Now that we find public institutions adapting to the new reality of the law, it’s the turn of Republicans to be outraged.  Why?  Because state universities such as Wayne State and Ferris are attempting an end run around the legislation, which has not yet taken effect.  Those two schools have negotiated new long-term contracts that would take effect before the RTW legislation takes effect.  It is, in effect, an end-run around the law, a perfectly legal tactic, and clearly an effort to subvert the intent of the law.  In short, it’s just politics.

The Republicans are blinded by their own rage that their will is not being adhered to.  According to this report, a faction of legislators made the trek up to Big Rapids to convey the message that should they lock in new contracts (before RTW takes effect) against the will of the GOP, they would lose a portion of their funding.  And Ferris folded, fearful that the educational-industrial complex they’ve constructed for themselves would lose one of their biggest revenue streams with which they use to compensate themselves quite richly.  I doubt that should the same delegation come to visit Detroit, they will probably be chased out with torches and pitchforks, such is the outlook of Wayne State.

Republicans opened up Pandora’s box when they rammed this through in a lame duck session of the legislature.  They have no right to attempt retaliation at institutions who respond to in a completely legal fashion.  What these people are doing is nothing more than outright bullying.

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Another more troubling trend that is beginning to use our universities as political props.  From the fracas at Michigan State last year that mandated students have insurance because aggrieved Michigan Republicans thought it smacked a bit much of Obamacare, to meddling in internal policies when it comes to same-sex partner benefits, the state government is continuing a policy that as amoral as it is stupid.  This applies to both Democrats and Republicans.

Municipal Fiefdoms

Something odd about driving around metro Detroit is that you find yourself first in one city, two minutes later, another, and in another two minutes, yet another city.  Southeast Michigan, with its dense population, is a patchwork of lots of different municipal entities.  And while at one point, having lots of different municipalities probably made a fair amount of sense, there’s much more pressure now on municipalities to streamline their operations and merge as many functions as possible with neighboring entities.

Wayne County alone, at least according to my calculations, has at least 39 different police forces*.  That’s 39 different chiefs, 39 different payroll departments, 39 different HR departments, and 39 different of everything that a police department has.  If we considered all of the duplicative work that’s being done across agencies, the sum would be staggering.  Finding data on matters like this is somewhat challenging, so the precise scope of the financial savings that could be realized is hard to calculate, though, suffice it to say, instead of making further cuts in personnel, we could realize significant economies of scale by merging many of these departments into countywide organizations.

Municipalities have been having to do more with less for years.  The boom of the 1990s, with all of the accompanying tax revenues is  but a distant memory for a generation that has come of age amongst nothing but layoffs, closures and budget cuts.  Local governments, particularly in Detroit, have gotten to the point where further cuts isn’t cutting into the muscle, but the bone.  Consolidation of municipal services, be it school districts, libraries, police and fire departments, and a number of other services offered by local governments is the best possible method of putting local government on a sustainable fiscal basis.

Another upside of consolidation would be that in addition to saving money in the future, the opportunity could be used to make significant changes to the benefits and pension systems for retirees, which would also make them more fiscally sustainable, and they  needn’t consist solely of cuts or having to claw back benefits from workers and retirees.

But there’s going to be lots of problems with achieving this.  Opposition from the ranks of some public sector unions would inevitably arise.  There’s the racial dynamic at play, with municipalities such as Livonia or any of the Grosse Pointes probably being very, very hesitant to join forces with Detroit in anything.  And there’s the problem that the system we have in place right now, while not as efficient as it could be, isn’t in a crisis (yet) and is working relatively well (for the time being).  This is an issue that could be addressed with relative ease now, as compared to years in the future, waiting until the situation has reached the point of crisis, making the politics of all of it much more difficult.

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*Include also Wayne State University PD, Detroit Medical Center Police.

The Man from Kalkaska

Meet one Republican, you’ve covered much of the spectrum that the GOP occupies.  Meet two dozen Democrats, and you’re only halfway there.  Republicans are a far more unified, ideologically coherent political party.  Democrats barely qualify as a party.  In my mind, I think a much more accurate description would be a coalition.

The Republican party is composed of the affluent, the religious and the rural.  Granted, there are segments of the GOP that fall under none of these categories, but these three groups form both the bulk of the muscle and the rank and file of the party.  With the Democrats, you have the following: labor, gays, Jews, blacks, Latinos, most of the ladies, urban dwellers, environmentalists.  This listing is also incomplete, but as with the characterization of the GOP above, these groups comprise the majority of the left.

So, depending on where you are in the country, Democrats can be very, very different creatures.  Historically in Michigan, the Democratic party has been an extension, by and large, of the labor movement.  Up until this weekend, for the last 18 years, Mark Brewer has led the Democratic party.  He withdrew at the last minute after it became clear that he would lose his tenth bid to be chairman of the Michigan party.

He was unseated by Lon Johnson, a 41 year old Michigan native from Kalkaska who recently narrowly lost (53%-47%) a race in a strongly Republican district in the Michigan House of Representatives.  Johnson has been a midlevel Democratic functionary in various campaigns and organizations for the past decade, and is married to Julianna Smoot, the deputy director of the President’s reelection campaign.

The thinking is that Johnson will bring the same sort of organizational talent to a moribund Michigan party apparatus that has been more concerned with turf wars and pushing a predominantly labor agenda.  Brewer, a creation of former US House whip David Bonior, was essentially the mouthpiece of labor, and conducted party policy as such.  Proposition 2 in the past electoral cycle was widely regarded as a pipe dream.  It would have enshrined collective bargaining as a constitutionally protected right in the state constitution.  It was a massively expensive political operation and failed by a wide margin during an electoral season when Democrats did well across the board.  In theory, the money that underwrote Prop 2 been dedicated to better field operations that could have potentially retaken the legislature for the the Democrats.

Brewer was widely viewed as having become very complacent during his long tenure, and this weekend, after a tactic that would have allotted much of the votes to Brewer supporters failed, he withdrew.  Lon Johnson took the help by unanimous acclamation.  Electoral intrigue and analysis of this sort is always fun.  Now it’s time to move a legislative agenda and extract as much as Democrats are able to out of Snyder by pitting him against the far right flank of his party.  It can be done, but it couldn’t be done by Brewer.  Let’s see how the man from Kalkaska can do it.

Leaving Cash on the Table

When you think about the budget meltdown taking place in Detroit, you would assume that the problem is spending that’s out of control. Particularly measured against how little value that spending delivers (either through incompetence, corruption or inefficiency), there’s a lot that we could do differently.  But a substantial portion of the problem is that Detroit has lost both the willpower and the ability to collect money owed it by citizens.

Last year, the city was owed $131 million dollars in unpaid property taxes. The 36th District Court in Detroit is owed $294 million in judgements.  Together, that totals $425 million.  The city’s annual budget deficit is $324 million.  Pause, for a moment, and consider the colossal stupidity of this.  Detroit, despite having a structural deficit that’s been around for decades, can’t be troubled to make sure that the way that the city takes in revenue is functioning.  Along with police and fire protection (other public services that seem to be in a slow-motion state of implosion) I can’t think of a more basic and fundamental role of what local government should do.

Property taxes are unreasonably high in Detroit.  There are three municipalities in Michigan that have the highest legally acceptable property tax rates in the state.  The first two are Ann Arbor and East Lansing, which have some of the best public schools in the nation and first rate city services.  The other is Detroit, where there is very little, if any, value for the taxes paid.  The schools are a disaster and city services are nearly non-existent (and likely to get worse before they get better).  While I recognize that the rates in Detroit should come down substantially, regardless of where they are, they need to be collected.  It’s not feasible that the city is going to be able to collect the total amount owed it in property taxes at the maximum legally allowable rates, but it can get a lot more of the cash than it’s getting now by switching to lower rates.  This seems counterintuitive, but lower rates spread across a broader tax base would actually yield more revenue.

As with property taxes, so too with the court: while it’s unrealistic to think that the court is going to be able to squeeze the full amount owed it out of the debtors, the court owes it, both to the city and to those who manage to pay their bills to the court, to go after those who owe it money in a far more aggressive manner, including garnishing wages, taking out liens on personal property and obtaining more judgements against those that are able to, but refuse to pay.

I am not one of those delusional Detroiters (like resident lunatic Joann Watson) that claim the state owes us money to the tune of nearly a billion dollars because of a long-ago abrogated revenue sharing agreement.  But to think that we have to solve this crisis through cuts, and cuts alone, is patently absurd. Imagine, an adequately funded city government that can also deliver core services in a cost-efficient manner.  The difference would be staggering, and we owe it to everyone in this city to aim precisely for that.

Gaming the System

Out of the past six presidential elections, Republican candidates have lost the popular vote five times.  Party identification is declining.  The party is getting much older, and much whiter, than mainstream American society.  The base demands policies that run counter both to common sense and empirical sense.  And so, instead of demanding change in the form of a fundamental overhaul as to what modern American conservatism should look like, Republicans have begun the process of tampering with the way that presidential elections are won.

In short, we don’t have a single presidential election in America, we have fifty separate elections, each conducted by the states, and with the electoral votes being allocated according to state laws.  Historically, the understanding of this is that when a candidate wins a majority of the vote goes to a candidate, the electoral votes do as well.  However, two states, Maine and Nebraska, use a different system.  The electoral votes are apportioned according to the winner of each Congressional district.  Meaning, if Mitt Romney won Nebraska by a landslide, he’d get the electoral votes in those districts where he won, but not in the district that covers Omaha, traditionally a Democratic stronghold.  Maine has had this system since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996.

Now, measures are before state legislatures in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.  All are states voted for President Obama in the past two electoral cycles.  The move is not being considered in any traditional Republican strongholds in either the west or the south.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has said that he’ll keep an open mind if a bill passes through the state legislature.  Given his waffling on right to work legislation and his sudden about-face on that issue, his current verbage all but assures that he would indeed sign it.  And if states in the Great Lakes region did so, it would become nearly impossible for a Democratic candidate to ever set foot in the White House for generations.

This is not hyperbole.  This is not lefty handwringing over an imaginary issue.  This fundamentally affects each and every single one of us for many reasons.  Namely, it is yet another attempt on the part of the troglodytic GOP to resort to ever more corrupt tactics in trying to force their agenda down the throat of a country that does not want it.  And you can be sure that if this bill comes to a vote in Lansing, the demonstrations that we saw over RTW would look like a walk in the park.  See you in Lansing.

Let the Litigation Begin

From the moment Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law legislation making Michigan a ‘right to work’ state, it was clear that this law would not stand uncontested.  The precise issues on which to challenge the statute, however, was not known.  Well, it took all of one day to figure out that the bill may not actually have the sweeping powers that we thought it had.

Explicitly contained within the bill was language that specifically covered both state and local government employees in the legislation. Meaning, that they are covered, and that public sector employees are not to be compelled, either by law or collective bargaining negotiations, to join a union.

Not so fast, say some.  Though the Republicans managed to pass the bill into law, they may have lacked the authority to do so.  So who has the authority?  The Michigan Civil Service Commission.  And who is that?  Basically, it’s the body that regulates relations with state workers, and it’s stuffed to the gills with Democrats.  So what does that mean?  That if it has to go through an organization chock full of liberals, it’s not going to cover public sector employees in Michigan.  As Rick Perry would say, ‘Oops.’

The Democrats objected to the passage of the law in a lame duck session, and claimed that it wasn’t democratic.  Now, it’s going to be up to a bunch of unelected bureaucrats in Lansing to decide on the issue.  Meaning, we’re going to hear the same chorus of ‘It’s not fair and it’s not democratic!’ being shrieked again, but from Republicans this time, instead of Democrats.

And you may have noticed that in the course of this entire brouhaha, we didn’t hear any of the unions that represent government workers state that it wouldn’t cover government employees.  On the contrary.  It was government unions that were whipping up the absolute most hysteria over the entire undertaking to begin with.

I’m beginning to think that this entire fiasco, if it achieves anything at all, which is looking increasingly unlikely only a day after its passage, is that it’s going to make everyone in the state of Michigan who holds a modicum of power look like the greedy slobs that they are.  If you wanted a cautionary tale as to the dangers of democracy when adults begin acting like petulant children, look to the events of the past week in Michigan, and you have all the makings of a terrifying German fairy tale, but with consequences that stretch far beyond the individual.  Get it together people.