It's nice to know there's one cliff Lansing's GOP clown car won't drive this state off of, yackety-sax blaring through the windows all the way down. The Legislature debated, late into Wednesday night and early into Thursday morning, the merits of sharply reducing the Michigan income tax from 4.25% to 3.9% over four years, blowing a $1.1-billion hole in the state budget with no means of replacement — and, quelle surprise, it failed.
Actually, that clown-car bit isn't fair to the 12 Republican lawmakers who broke with Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard's ill-conceived plan. Ladies, gentlemen: We see you. We applaud your decision not to destabilize the state's still-recovering economy and still-lacking provision of services. Keep up the good work — well, keep it up for as long as you can, because, without question, you'll soon be the target of political ads calling you pro-tax.
Inevitable retaliation from your own party — tragically, that's the price of good government these days.
The plan to obliterate the state's income tax without replacing the revenue was billed as tax relief for working stiffs, but the numbers show that to have been a hollow conceit.
Michigan has a flat income tax, so the cut would have applied equally to all earners. But what's real money to folks at the high end of the scale equates to pennies for others. As state Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, noted, the average person in his neighborhood making $35,000 a year would have seen a savings of roughly $10 a month.
By contrast, someone pulling down $350,000 a year would save $100 a month.
Around midnight, it seems to have dawned on Leonard that his plan to take state government down didn't have enough support to pass; when the state House of Representatives opened session in the wee hours of Thursday morning, the proposal had changed, with a provision that would halt the decrease if the state's rainy-day fund fell below $1 billion. It still failed.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that it only failed by three votes, 55-52. And that despite this clapback from their own caucus, Leonard — with the enthusiastic assistance of state Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering — is likely to try again. Before the sun rose, Leonard had already stripped a committee chairmanship from state Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, accusing him of lying about his vote. That's the kind of intra-party dirty laundry that's normally handled in private; that Leonard was willing to chastise Sheppard so publicly, in a near-3 a.m. announcement, may indicate a lack of finesse that could suggest an uneasy leadership.
Indeed, the whole episode — a 12-hour drama of coaxing and prodding, the House floor opening and closing, then holding a vote that the Speaker did not have enough support to sway in his favor — points up Leonard's profound inexperience. That's not entirely his fault; term limits mean we will perpetually have amateurs in charge. But Leonard showed Wednesday night just how much learning he has to do.
If you're having trouble contextualizing $1 billion, as a percentage of the state's $56-billion budget, it's a lot. The income tax is the state's single largest source of general fund revenue. That's the fund that pays for stuff like roads, and the state police, local government revenue, and environmental protection — really, most of the things state government does. And lawmakers' proposal to eliminate the income tax didn't come with any replacement revenue attached, because it’s hard to generate a billion dollars in revenue, particularly with major cuts to the general fund already set to roll in over the next several years.
We expect to find much disagreement with Lansing's Republican majority. That's fair. But on this point we cannot compromise: A thoughtful and functional government is an essential part of American democracy.
For years, Republicans have peddled the canard that government's biggest problem is government; if we could only rid ourselves of the pesky tax collection government requires, and all those irritating services government provides, life would be ever so much nicer.
It's a playbook that's proved successful: Break government. Say it's broken. Get re-elected on the idea that government's broken and that you command the fix. Then break it more.
Ideologically, it's a winner. But only if you forget that there are people on the other end of the line.
People who depend on good roads and clean water and breathable air, people who need the Michigan State Police to help keep their cities and counties safe, people who depend on unemployment benefits or food assistance to make it through hard times after a layoff or a disabling illness. People who vote. People who pay taxes. People who expect more from their state Legislature than rank disdain. People who expect to be viewed as more than collateral damage in an ideological war.
Do not forget them.