This is a national scandal, and few people have noticed.
Here’s a political storyline that might seem familiar to you: With economic pain and political discord ripping across the land, he appeared to have the ideal resume to become the Republican contender for the top job.
Not just another career politico from the dysfunctional Congress, he was a son of heartland Michigan who had founded his own venture capital firm. He looked like the image-perfect “job creator,” and he’d achieved notable financial success in the no-nonsense corporate world.
That success, he figured, would now catapult him to electoral victory, for it demonstrates that he’s a can-do fellow with the know-how to run government like a business and fix the economy.
Mitt Romney? Yes, but before him, Rick Snyder played the lead role in this made-for-TV political drama–and it hasn’t worked out well at all for the people of Michigan. Two years ago, this former corporate chieftain and founder of two venture capital outfits stepped into Michigan’s political arena, snatching the GOP gubernatorial nomination from the grasp of a congressman, the state attorney general, and a couple of other experienced pols. The times were right for a Mr. Fix-it–with Michigan’s key auto industry in the ditch and middle-class wages decimated, working families were struggling, poverty was on the rise, and whole cities were on the brink of broke.
Backed by bales of corporate cash, Snyder won the general election by ceaselessly running a series of “job creator” ads (never mind that he had been a top executive and director of a computer corporation that relentlessly shipped thousands of American jobs out of the country until 2007, when the corporation itself was shipped to Taiwanese owners). Snyder said he had a plan to “reinvent Michigan,” the essence of which he expressed in one of his campaign ads: “Eliminate Michigan business tax. Cut taxes on job creators $1.5 billion. Slash needless regulations. Help small business.”
That’s not a plan, it’s a scam–essentially the same ol’ Republican same ol’, now being regurgitated by the Romney-Ryan duo. However, Michiganders were desperate enough for a way out of the state’s economic doldrums that 58 percent of voters cast their ballots that November for the “Businessman with a Plan.”
What they didn’t know–because the campaign never hinted at it, much less spoke of it out loud–was that a cabal of corporate-funded, far-right extremists behind Snyder would soon spring a secret plan on them. It was to be a horrific “Spring Surprise” that literally would reinvent Michigan–along with negating the very idea that the American people have a democratic right to be self-governing.
Michigan goes berserk
One of our nation’s finest political satirists, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, has created a buffoonish character named Trff Bmzklfrpz for his “Doonesbury” comic strip. A caricature of despotic thugs everywhere, Bmzklfrpz is presented by Trudeau as the ruler of the aptly named Greater Berzerkistan.
Rick Snyder must’ve studied there, for he had barely taken his oath of office before suddenly teaming with leaders of the Republican-controlled statehouse and senate to ram into law an astonishing measure of despotic rule. It only took two weeks in March of 2011 for the ponderously titled “Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act” to be rushed through both houses of the legislature and signed by Snyder. Before the public knew it–BAM! –the governor was authorized to establish his own autocratic republic: Michiganistan.
At bottom, the LGSDFA Act is a doozy of autocratic mischief-making. It lets the governor seize control of any local government he deems to be in fiscal trouble, suspend the people’s democratic authority, impose a corporatized version of martial law, and install his own “emergency financial manager” to govern by diktat (like some hybrid of Soviet czar and tinhorn potentate–a Bmzklfrpz, in other words).
The official rationale is that many Michigan cities and school districts are in dire financial straits, requiring extraordinary intervention to “save” them from their own people and elected officials. “It’s about helping communities,” Snyder dissembled, as he began installing EFMs.
Helping? This is the kind of “help” a fox brings to the henhouse:
- Emergency managers begin by usurping the power of all elected officials or simply “firing” them.
- They can then rewrite the public budget without any public participation, unilaterally eliminate various services, cancel contracts, seize and sell off public assets, privatize government functions, and dictate new laws.
- They can even dissolve a city’s charter.
This isn’t merely un-democratic–it’s aggressively anti-democratic.
Yes, there are some severe fiscal messes in Michigan’s local governments, but the big debts that have piled up are not caused by too much democracy, bloated bureaucracies, or reckless spending by hometown officials.
That’s just mendacious political claptrap spewed by those wanting an excuse to impose their anti-union, government-shriveling, privatizing, partisan agenda on vulnerable people. It’s no accident that the cities presently under state siege (including Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint, and Pontiac) are heavily populated with low-income, union, African American, Democratic-voting households. While it’s true that these places are in deep budgetary holes, there are real reasons for their fiscal woes, including:
- The implosion of the auto industry that’s central to these local economies, resulting in massive joblessness and drastically downsized family incomes.
- The tanking of housing values, destroying the one source of wealth that working people had, creating a sudden plummeting of property tax collections that finance schools and city services.
- The grim (and largely successful) corporate campaign to crush unions and bust middle-class wages.
- US trade policies and tax subsidies that encouraged Michigan corporations to move manufacturing offshore, eliminating good jobs and forcing a large number of former taxpayers to leave their cities in search of work.
Oh, let’s not forget another major cause that Snyder & Company don’t want discussed: His $1 billion cut in corporate taxes. This increased the state’s budget hole, which he helped fill by slashing or eliminating state funds and tax credits that went to local school districts, low-income workers, and seniors.
The LGSDFA coup against local democracy does absolutely nothing to address–much less fix–these actual causes of the financial crises that mayors and other elected officials face. And by the way, since when did self-styled, small-government “conservatives” become such gleeful champions of using centralized governmental power to whack the once-hallowed Republican tenet of local control? Indeed, to see the irony of their governor trampling their democratic rights, Michigan citizens need look no further than the website of the state Republican Party. Right up front, it proudly posts a list of nine inviolate GOP principles, including this gem: “The most effective, responsible, and responsive government is government closest to the people.”
Spawn of the Kochs
While corporate plutocrats rant about out-of-control government regulators, they do not really hate big, invasive, authoritarian government–as long as they can own it and use it for their own needs. This is why such multibillionaire corporatists as Charles and David Koch have been pumping truckloads of money into dozens of front groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Set up 25 years ago and linked to a network of Koch-headed centers in nearly every state, Mackinac is an idea factory and advocate for shrinking people power and enhancing corporate control.
While it refuses to name its super-wealthy individual backers on the absurd grounds that disclosure “would be a tremendous diversion,” the Center does have to report donations from “charitable funds,” which includes money from a host of corporate foundations tied to the Koch brothers, Domino’s Pizza, Amway, Coors, GM, ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, and Walmart, among others.
In 2005, one of Mackinac’s grand ideas was put forth in an essay written by a privatizing enthusiast named Louis Schimmel, who was the Center’s director of municipal finance. Noting that Michigan already had a limited program for sending state managers to aid cities engulfed in a fiscal crisis, he argued that the law should be radically expanded to create an emergency financial manager with autocratic power to take control of Detroit’s troubled budget. Specifically, Schimmel’s Mackinac proposal called for four fundamental changes: (1) the financial overseer would “replace and take on the powers of the governing body”; (2) have sole discretion to alter the governing charter; (3) be immune from lawsuits; and (4) have the power to alter and ultimately abolish union contracts.