Nel's New Day

August 3, 2012

Michigan Voters Win

Ten days ago, I wrote about how petitioners in Michigan went to the state’s Supreme Court to get a referendum on the ballot after it was refused by the Board of Canvassers in a partisan 2-2 deadlock. Their petition was to overturn the state’s emergency financial manager law that has allowed towns and school districts to be taken over and run by Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointees, disenfranchising the voters who selected the people who Snyder deposed.

The Board of Canvassers ruled against the petitions on the basis that they had  the wrong type font size despite the petitions’ approval bythe state’s Board of Elections. The state requirement for font size is 14 point. Petitioners used a Calibri font, making the 14-point size unacceptable to challengers. To see how hard the anti-referendum people fought to keep a legitimate referendum off the ballot, the ten pages following p. 16 of the Opinion make for good reading.

The petitioners won! In a 4-3 decision, the judges ruled today that the petitions met the state requirements and can be certified for November’s election. One of the four Republican judges broke from the other three to join the Democrats. The immediate result is that the law, which has been used for over a year, is now frozen for the next three months until the Michigan voters determine its outcome.

Putting the law in limbo creates confusing implications for towns and school districts that had lost its local leadership. In Muskegon Heights school district, the new emergency manager privatized all the schools into a charter system. In Benton Harbor, the new emergency manager sold the local park, donated to the city a century ago, to a wealthy developer. Three holes of the private golf course are already in place.

In Detroit schools, the new emergency manager ordered a ceiling of 61 students in every class. For the past two years he fired all the teachers. This year he has forced any rehired teachers to follow his personal contract with greatly reduced teacher pay and refused any negotiations with the teachers. Detroit leaders slashed the city workforce to avoid Snyder’s assigning the city an emergency manager. The question is whether this agreement will stand because it was done under duress.

Flint, Pontiac, and Ecorse all have governor-appointed emergency managers as do public schools in Detroit and Highland Park. River Rouge and Inkster also have consent agreements to avoid an emergency manager.

Snyder said that the emergency managers will remain because an earlier law will go into effect. Challengers said differently, meaning that question will almost certainly go to court. The earlier law did not allow as much latitude for the manager in breaking contracts and removing pensions.

The repeal side is behind by 10 percentage points, but 20 percent of voters are undecided. A November vote at least gives people the right to determine their fate rather than handing it over to the governor’s appointees.

April 20, 2011

GOP “Small Government”

Conservatives pride themselves on pushing for smaller and smaller government whereas liberals are known for “big government” (aka regulations that help people be safer and more comfortable). But just look at some examples of the GOP’s “small government” concepts.

Imagine that you lived in a town that could be taken over by the state with no voter rights. That’s what happened in Michigan after GOP Governor Rick Snyder signed, on March 16, the Local Government and School District Financial Accountability Act. The law gives the governor the right to rule towns and cities with neither legislative oversight nor residents’ consent. By declaring that the town or city is in financial distress, he can legally appoint an emergency manager, answerable only to the governor. This person can then dismiss elected officials, close or reorganize schools, alter or abolish government contracts and collective bargaining agreements, control taxes and spending and even dissolve the town as if it never existed.

It seemed impossible that this would actually happen, but Gov. Snyder did exactly that when he appointed Joseph L. Harris as Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) of Benton Harbor, Michigan. With that appointment, elected officials are permitted only to call meetings to order, approve minutes, and adjourn meetings. Why would Gov. Snyder want to do this? When Whirlpool closed its plants and decided to convert old manufacturing land into Harbor Shores, a $500 million golf course and residential development, the development company wanted Jean Klock Park, a beautiful shoreline donated as a park for the public good and a children’s park in 1917.

The bill that allowed Gov. Snyder to take over Benton Harbor was sponsored by Al Pscholka, who has some interesting connections to the town. The former aid to Congressman Fred Upton, a Whirlpool heir, he represents the area that includes Benton Harbor, he is the former vice-president of the development company responsible for building Harbor Shores, and he was on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit involved in the Harbor Shores development.

Once appointed, EFM Joseph Harris didn’t waste any time in moving ahead with his plans. He first replaced people on the Benton Harbor Planning Commission, involved in decision-making about Benton Harbor real estate development, with his personal choices. These hand-picked people decide who gets permits, what the developments will look like, and who gets the best parts of Benton Harbor.

This is just the beginning. Snyder has over 200 EFMs in training, just waiting to take over more Michigan towns and cities. Financial distress in Michigan cities and towns will increase greatly because the state is withdrawing its support of them. And the mainstream national media is not reporting this!

As evident by the sweeping tide of union-breaking across the United States after Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker started his devastation, a conservative idea in one state moves to another. Although Walker says that he doesn’t intend to follow Michigan’s example, a business group in Milwaukee is pushing to stress tests for municipalities, euphemism for erasing elected officials in Wisconsin. Over a dozen states are considering a similar law. Your state could be next.

The federal budget has been settled for this year (which ends in September), but the conflict continues, first with deciding whether to raise the deficit and then to determine next year’s budget. Much has been said in the past few weeks about Rep. Paul Ryan’s recommendation for a budget that removes money for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. while lowering tax rates for the wealthiest people in the U.S. (Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, is from Wisconsin. What is there about Wisconsin!?)

A letter-writer to The Oregonian (Portland, OR) comments that watching Eric Cantor cradling “The Path to Prosperity” document reminds him of the Twilight Zone episode about the advanced alien race landing on Earth. As they promise benevolence and peace, they also have a handbook, ”To Serve Man.” That particular handbook is a recipe book.  He concludes, “Space ships which took Americans on vacations to the beautiful alien homeworld were on ‘the path to prosperity’ for alien restauranteurs and marketers of fresh or frozen food, creating jobs jobs jobs!”

Ryan’s plan, The Roadmap for America’s Future, would give the most affluent households very large tax cuts by reducing income tax rates on high-income households; eliminating income taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest; and abolishing the corporate income tax, the estate tax, and the alternative minimum tax. The Ryan plan would cut in half the taxes of the richest 1 percent of Americans—those with incomes exceeding $633,000 (in 2009 dollars) in 2014. Households with incomes of more than $1 million would receive an average annual tax cut of $502,000. The richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans—those whose incomes exceed $2.9 million a year—would receive an average tax cut of $1.7 million a year on top of those from the Bush tax cuts.

At the same time, the Ryan plan would raise taxes for most middle-income families, privatize a substantial portion of Social Security, eliminate the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance, end traditional Medicare and most of Medicaid, and terminate the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The plan would replace these health programs with a system of vouchers whose value would erode over time and thus would purchase health insurance that would cover fewer and fewer health care services in the future.

To offset some of the cost of these massive tax cuts, the Ryan plan would place a new consumption tax on most goods and services. About three-quarters of Americans—those with incomes between $20,000 and $200,000—would face tax increases. For example, households with incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 would face an average tax increase of $900. The shift tax in burdens proposed by The Roadmap for America’s Future from the wealthy to the middle class results in people with incomes over $1 million paying much smaller percentages of their income in federal taxes.

How successful will this plan be? There are suggestions that this “roadmap to poverty” will destroy the conservatives.

Remember Arizona and its SB1070 that plans to identify illegal immigrants without profiling? (More small government?) Their latest ploy seems to be too much even for conservative Gov. Jan Brewer. Last Monday, she vetoed two bills: one would have allowed firearms onto parts of college campuses, and the other, referred to as the “birther bill,” would have mandated certain “proofs” of US citizenship for candidates running for president. The latter would have accepted a “circumcision certificate” if a long form of the birth certificate was not submitted. Is is the circumcision certificate that stopped her? Or is it the fact that John McCain might have trouble passing the “birther” law because his birth certificate was issued by the Panama Canal Health Department?

This “birther bill” concept is catching on across the nation. Thirty-seven states are considering it, and some are coming very close. Louisiana’s bill extends the birth certificate requirement to U.S. Congressional candidates. Another state wants not only the candidates’ birth certificate but also those of the candidates’ parents. And running on the birther wave, Donald Trump has a 52 percent approval rate from voting Republicans.

Unfair taxation is the topic of Iris Van Rynback and Pegi Deitz Shea’s picture book, The Taxing Case of the Cows:  A True Story about Suffrage, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Clarion, 2010).  One-hundred years after the American Revolution, women could not vote—but they could be taxed.  Sisters Abby, 72, and Julia, 77, Smith believed that this was taxation without representation, especially when town leaders taxed them an additional amount because they were single female landowners.  Their fight that began in 1869 lasted seven years during which time the sisters continually lost their cows and bought them back at auction.  They also had to sue the town for confiscating their home; supporters helped them financially by selling bouquets of flowers and hair from the cows’ tails with a black ribbon with the words “Taxation without Representation.”  These two “older” sisters show that anyone can fight unfair taxes, even when they may not think they have the backing to do so.

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