Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

December 16, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Control of Detroit just a blip

If you want a measure of how crazy things are in Michigan these days, consider this: On Monday, the state signaled its intention to take control of Detroit, probably next month.

Yet thanks to the right-to-work wars, that dramatic development involving Michigan's largest city got barely any attention.

That is, except from state officials. "We are coming to the end of the road," State Treasurer Andy Dillon said, announcing a required review of Detroit finances that seems almost certain to lead to an emergency financial manager.

Though protesting feebly, trying to insist he might be able to balance the budget once he lays off another 500 city workers, Mayor Dave Bing said, "The state's got to do what they've got to do."

Nothing like this has ever happened before. No city Detroit's size has had an emergency manager or gone through bankruptcy. Yet thanks to the battle over "right to work," the story barely snuck on to the bottom of the front page of Detroit's newspapers.

True, nobody would deny the right-to-work "coup" Republicans pulled off in the lame-duck session of the Legislature on Dec. 5 was stunning. Michigan woke up that day unsure whether Gov. Rick Snyder would sign a right-to-work bill. He had repeatedly said outlawing the union shop "isn't on my agenda."

The self-styled "tough nerd" said he wanted to avoid creating the nasty and bitter atmosphere that developed in Ohio and Wisconsin after governors took on organized labor.

But then he did a complete about-face.

Not only was Snyder suddenly in favor of right to work — last week he said the time to do it was now — right now.

The governor announced his reversal shortly before noon.

By evening, right-to-work legislation had been rammed through both the state House and Senate.

"As much as I detest the legislation, I detest more the way it was done," said State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren. "We've had more deliberate hearings on something like a commemorative license plate," he said. Five days later, Rick Snyder signed the bills into law.

Right to work is bound to change Michigan, though perhaps more for government workers and teachers, a majority of whom are union members. But barely one out of eight Michigan private sector workers is now represented by a union.

The law won't take effect till late March, and it will be much longer before its full effects will be apparent.

But developments in Detroit are bound to happen much faster. Eight months ago, the mayor and the governor fashioned a "consent agreement" to keep the state from having an emergency manager.

However, it seemed doomed from the start, as unions balked at making concessions and the mayor and the city council first fought, then tried to stare each other down in an unnerving cold war.

Led by Charles Pugh, a former local TV anchor with no prior government experience, the council seemed to automatically oppose anything the mayor or the governor were for.

When council repeatedly refused to approve a contract with a law firm, something specifically required by the consent agreement, the state seemed to decide enough was enough.

Monday, the Detroit Financial Advisory Board urged the state to begin a monthlong review of the city's books, something that, in other cities, has been the last stop before an emergency manager.

When that was announced, Detroit City Council suddenly seemed to undergo an overnight attitude adjustment. Members suddenly approved reform measures that had been stalled for weeks.

They approved, by a narrow 5-4 vote, the law firm contract, as well as other measures designed to root out fraud and corruption and allow the city to furlough and lay off employees.

Mayor Bing said he hoped this "will go a long way towards re-establishing the relationship between ourselves and Lansing." But there was no indication that anything fundamental had changed, that the state review of Detroit's finances would be halted, or that any of this solves the city's inability to balance its budget.

The city's accumulated budget deficit is soon projected to be $440 million. That doesn't include $12 billion in unfunded pension and other liabilities. Some members do seem to understand the city's situation. Gary Brown, council president pro tem, sent a remarkable email letter to his constituents. He never liked the idea of an emergency manager, and doesn't want one now "¦ except he knows there may be no choice. Brown said: "it is likely the only option to avoid bankruptcy, as the city's expenses continue to outpace revenue."

Detroit seems likely to run out of cash within weeks.

The councilman, a former longtime police officer, told his constituents "in my opinion, bankruptcy is not an option for Detroit."

"It would increase unemployment, and have widespread impact on public and private institutions in metro Detroit."

That would include a near-certain downgrading of the bond ratings of surrounding counties, communities and the state itself.

What's more, a Detroit bankruptcy filing could be tied up in federal court for months, costing the impoverished city millions. Still, it isn't clear whether any emergency manager could actually stop a municipal bankruptcy or, instead, be forced to lead the city into one.

The week ended with much of Michigan stunned at having been suddenly transformed into a right-to-work state.

But Detroit may yet top Lansing when it comes to drama — possibly even within a few short weeks.

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 Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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