Traverse City Record-Eagle

Columns

December 30, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Crystal ball couldn't have predicted weirdness

(Continued)

n For at least the first few months of the new year, the focus is bound to be on Detroit. The city may soon run out of cash needed to pay its daily bills. The so-called "consent agreement" designed to avoid an emergency financial manager hasn't worked.

Mayor Dave Bing and the nine-person City Council are barely on speaking terms. Many on council seem determined to reject any offer of aid, no matter how beneficial, if it comes from "outsiders." Exasperated, the governor earlier this month named a team, including State Treasurer Andy Dillon, to conduct a 60-day review of the city's municipal finances, a process expected to end with the appointment of an emergency manager, possibly in February.

However, a law giving emergency managers tougher powers doesn't take effect till late March. (An earlier law was repealed by voters in November.) Will the governor wait till then to appoint an emergency financial manager for Detroit? Can he afford to?

Detroit also has city elections this year. While voters will choose a new city council, the real question is the next mayor.

Mayor Bing won high marks for restoring honesty and dignity to the office after the disgraceful Kwame Kilpatrick years. But in recent months he has seemed tired, disengaged and ineffectual. He hasn't indicated whether he plans to run for re-election. Mike Duggan, a former Wayne County prosecutor and head of the Detroit Medical Center, has moved into the city and clearly plans to run. But it is hard to imagine that a white machine politician from suburban Livonia could attract the votes of an electorate which is overwhelmingly poor, poorly educated and black.

Benny Napoleon, the current Wayne County sheriff and a former Detroit police chief, may have the best shot. The real question, however, may be whether being mayor of Detroit will mean anything on Jan. 1, 2014. If an emergency manager is in fact in power, the mayor and council members will be little more than figureheads, with no power whatsoever over spending decisions.

Though Detroit is likely to loom largest, the state will be grappling with two other major issues in the coming year:

n Right to work: The law doesn't kick in until the end of March, and its effects will be gradual. In the meantime, will the unions and the Democratic Party try to repeal it? After Gov. Rick Snyder signed RTW into law Dec. 11, longtime U.S. Rep. Sander Levin said "the effort to reverse this wrong-headed action "¦ begins today." Stirring words, but will there actually be any kind of organized effort to do anything about right to work?

Lawmakers included some money in the bill, which prevents voters from trying to repeal it by referendum. But opponents could collect signatures to ask the lawmakers to repeal right to work, a maneuver known as a citizen's initiative.

If they collect enough valid signatures — currently about 258,000 — the Legislature would either have to repeal the law or place it on the November 2014 general election ballot.

Unless the law is repealed, union membership is bound to shrink. With fewer dues-paying members, unions are bound to have less money available for political contributions.

Republicans, who seldom get any of that money, were well aware of this when they passed the right to work bills.

There are bound to be a boatload of other issues as well. For instance: Will the new changes in personal property tax on industrial property really begin to stimulate growth? Or will they leave already cash-strapped local governments with even less money?

A year from now, we may know whether the impact of Snyder's reforms mean he'll be a favorite for re-election or a likely candidate for retirement — voluntary or otherwise.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Columnist.

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