Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 31, 2013

Lessenberry: A question state voters should ask

By Jack Lessenberry
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Here’s a question Michigan voters might want to ask: Has their state government been hijacked by right-wing fanatics who are acting against the majority’s wishes and interests?
There seems to be a fair amount of evidence that this may be so. Michigan is clearly a moderate-to-liberal state. It has been a quarter-century since it voted Republican for president.
The GOP has won only one U.S. Senate race in the state in last 40 years. Yet the Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican. Democrats haven’t controlled the state senate since 1983.
Nor are Democrats likely to win control of either house of the Legislature any time soon, thanks to one of the most blatantly partisan redistricting schemes in the nation. This has gotten progressively worse, since while there have been Democratic governors, one hasn’t been in office in a redistricting year since 1961.
Seven years ago, more than 54 percent of Michigan voters chose Democratic candidates for state senate seats. But Republicans won 21 seats; Democrats, only 17.
Since then, the gerrymandering has gotten even more pronounced. Nobody can deny that Gov. Rick Snyder won a solid majority of the vote when he ran three years ago.
But once again, last fall, more people cast votes for Democrats than Republicans for the Michigan House of Representatives. Yet this produced a result of 59 Republicans, 51 Democrats.
That might have not mattered so much, once upon a time. Back in the days before term limits, when compromise wasn’t seen as a dirty word, both sides usually sought to reach a middle ground.
Today, that thinking is nonexistent. Legislative Republicans seem not to care what their own governor wants, let alone the people of the state. They either are active “Tea Party” supporters, or seem deathly afraid of a primary challenge from even more right-wing candidates if they cast votes that seem driven by common sense.
Three clear recent examples:
n Transportation experts agree the state’s roads are fast crumbling, and that a minimum of $1.2 billion in new money a year is needed for the next decade to just maintain Michigan’s present roads. The governor proposed raising that by a combination of increased fuel taxes and car registration fees.
But the Legislature didn’t give him the time of day. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, said there was no support for the governor’s plan in his caucus. A House transportation subcommittee adopted a budget containing no new money for roads.
n Washington is proposing to extend Medicaid eligibility to 320,000 Michiganders without medical coverage next year, a figure that would eventually rise to nearly half a million. According to the Associated Press, this would save Michigan $200 million a year.
Businesses would also save millions annually in penalties they might have to pay, as national health care kicks in.
What’s more, Washington would cover all the costs through 2017. Michigan would never pay more than 10 percent.
Nevertheless, the Legislature is apparently refusing to accept this. Some flatly say they don’t care about the savings; they just think the government shouldn’t help people with health care.
Others say they don’t trust Washington to keep its word. In a perfect example of not letting reality get in the way of ideology, State Rep. Robert VerHeulen, a Republican from a Grand Rapids suburb, acknowledged that the “economic benefit is very appealing. But I generally don’t support expansion of government.”
n In a perfect example of cutting off one’s nose in spite, Republicans also refused their governor’s plea to create a state-run health care “exchange.” Next year, most provisions of the Patient Affordable Care Act kick in, and a health care exchange is a way to help people to compare plans when shopping for insurance.
Actually, the governor asked lawmakers to do so last year. They first refused, because they believed the U.S. Supreme Court would soon rule “Obamacare” unconstitutional.
When that didn’t happen, they still refused in the hope that a President Romney might repeal Obamacare. But how about now that it is clear that the program is here to stay?
Once again, motivated clearly by their hatred of national healthcare, they still refused. “This is a federal mandate we don’t want,” said Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a Macomb County Republican.
Trouble is, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a health care exchange, or that people won’t have to have insurance. It means that Washington will design a health care exchange for Michigan.
And instead of getting $31 million from the federal government to design it, the state will have to pay $9 million for them to do it — a net loss of $40 million in badly needed money.
There’s little evidence that voters support these policies - or that those making them care what a majority of the state thinks.
There is a clear long-term solution: Last month. seven Democratic state legislators introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would turn redistricting over to a bipartisan commission without any legislators and lobbyists.
Sadly, the chances of the majority putting this on the ballot is probably slightly less than zero. Yet such an amendment could get on the ballot, with a determined effort to collect the needed signatures.
Something needs to happen, if the Legislature is ever again to reflect the way in which Michigan residents actually vote.
Otherwise, some may ask whether a government that doesn’t reflect what the majority voted for is any kind of democracy at all.
Jack Lessenberry has taught journalism at Wayne State University since 1993. He is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, is ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade, a former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and hosts the weekly public affairs show “Deadline Now” on WGTE-TV in Toledo. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.