Environment Picture

President's Column: Under a cracked dome--A view from the Capitol

If you need a reason to have your voice heard in Lansing, here are two good ones. They are recent statements by House Speaker Andy Dillon and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop that really got me going recently. First off, I know both these leaders personally and consider them friends. I have the utmost respect for them, which makes their statements even harder to swallow.

“I feel betrayed,” House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township), told several thousand supporters, mostly construction trade workers, about opposition to a new coal plant in the Bay City area. “Three years ago, I had a dream to change the rules in this state to allow baseload power plants to get constructed … we got bipartisan support … [then] the bureaucrats stepped in the way and took it out from under us.”

Let’s be clear that a new plant is not needed for at least the next 13 years, according to an analysis done by the Michigan Public Service Commission staff. Thus, the speaker wants the ratepayers (you and me) to foot the bill for $46 billion over the next 40 years, including $2 billion for construction of the coal plant, $9 billion worth of imported coal, $17 billion of carbon costs, plus operation and maintenance.

That’s a lot to ask us to pay for a secret “deal” for a new coal plant. Amazing how no one else in the room was aware of any deal for the new coal plant. Even if I take the speaker at his word that he was “promised” a new power plant, a lot has changed from three years ago—heck, even from a year ago. The economy has changed dramatically, and the energy world is changing almost as much. Michigan’s use of electricity is down more than 10% in just the last two years.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) said in a recent interview with the Michigan Messenger that it is time to cut luxuries like local revenue sharing, the Michigan Promise scholarship, health care and the environment.

Environmental protection a luxury? It must be easy to say you don’t need new revenue if you view education, public safety, health care and protection of human health and the environment as luxuries. Those seem like basic services to me, not luxuries. Clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean land to raise your family on are not privileges; they are basic rights that all residents of Michigan should enjoy. And those rights need to be reflected in our state’s budget.

The state budget is in tatters, without new revenue, the only option is draconian cuts. There is a strong case to be made that the state needs more revenue to meet some very basic needs. In a bad economy it’s tough to ask people for more money, but I believe the cost is less burdensome than further cuts to education, public safety, health care and environmental protection.

The situation is no better than two years ago when the legislature shut down the state for several hours due to budget deadlock. This year, they vowed not to repeat that experience. I guess they technically kept their word shutting down state government for only half as long.

What went wrong with the budget? It definitely wasn’t going to be easy with so little money to spend on so many priorities. But it doesn’t get any easier when you throw out a process that has worked well over the past several decades. Too much of the decision-making process has been given over to leadership. Committee and subcommittee work is just window dressing instead of where the heavy lifting gets done. Now a triad of leaders—the governor, speaker and senate majority leader—holds the cards on too many of the details of the budget process. Too much politics has seeped into the process. Add a pinch of political ambition, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Next year’s budget will only be a bigger challenge than this one. This year, the legislature had $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money available to balance the budget. Next year, only $200 million is left to fill a gaping hole in the budget. And now, State Budget Director Bob Emerson has announced that the state is facing a $1.4 billon deficit for the next fiscal year.

We should expect more, and we should demand more. Michigan deserves better leadership.
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