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Groundhog Day in Lansing

Well, it’s Groundhog Day, there’s a foot of snow, and I’d guess  most of the state’s woodchucks aren’t even thinking about coming out of their burrows, let alone looking for their shadows.

Our lawmakers aren’t anywhere near the Capitol Dome either; they prudently took a couple of days off. But they’ll be back soon, and hopefully at work straightening out the state’s finances.

People may differ on how our lawmakers should balance the books, and put our state on a permanently sounder footing.

But nobody wants any further repeats of Groundhog Day. As in the movie of that name where the main character has to keep repeating the same day over and over. 

He had to do that, as I recall, until he learned a profound lesson about life. Our legislators have been doing a version of that for years.  Papering over serious problems; going for quick fixes, kicking problems down the road for future generations to deal with.

Two days ago, our new governor, Rick Snyder, said enough was enough. He unveiled what he called a Citizens’ Guide to Michigan’s Financial Health, which spelled out in some detail how badly the state’s finances have deteriorated over the past decade.

Governments at all levels have been spending more than they are taking in; state debt per person has risen dramatically.  State retirement and pension funds flush with cash in 2001 now have tens of billions in unfunded obligations.

When I talked about this yesterday, I said all this was an indication of a decade of fiscal irresponsibility from the administrations of both Jennifer Granholm and John Engler.

One distinguished former representative took exception to that. Lynn Jondahl of East Lansing, a Democrat known for his integrity, thought I was unfair. He mentioned a lot of good things that have been done in recent years. The number of state employees has declined, for example. Taxes are lower, and the state has won good marks for being well managed during the crisis.

Jondahl thinks the real culprit was “the problem of having to cope with the loss of 850,000 jobs,” not the behavior of our leaders. Well, he is certainly right about the root of the problem. And I shouldn’t have faulted only the governors without mentioning our legislative leaders too.

Yet I still think our leaders let us down, because it was clear to anyone with a calculator that this crisis was coming. And they neither warned us adequately nor presented us with the stark choices necessary.  Michigan could have avoided some of the pain we are about to receive if we had made hard choices earlier, when it would have been easier. But we didn’t. Instead, at one point four years ago the lawmakers sold off almost a billion dollars in future tobacco settlement money for less than half that amount right away. 

They did this because it was politically easier than cutting spending or raising taxes. That was totally irresponsible. Now, fixing the blame for past sins isn’t as important as fixing the problem. As Governor Snyder said Monday, “The outcome is the right thing.“

We need to move ahead and keep our eyes on the prize. But  it’s also a good idea to learn from our past mistakes. Especially, perhaps, on Groundhog Day.