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Commentary: Don't forget Detroit

Chances are you’ve been hearing about only one state government story today: The protests and the politicians battling in Lansing over right to work legislation. That’s a battle, however, whose outcome was decided in one dramatic day last week.

What happens next is something we’ll be working through for years. What’s almost as amazing is that the furor over right to work has been so huge it has all but blotted out another huge, huge story.

Which is, that by the end of January, it is all but certain that the State of Michigan will have effectively taken over the city of Detroit.

Everybody has finally thrown up their hands in despair over the failed consent agreement, an agreement which failed to ever win the consent of Detroit City Council.

The consent, that is, to behave responsibly and rationally. Late last week, the best and brightest on that council, President Pro Tem Gary Brown, sent a candid message to his constituents. “Our primary issue is that we are burning through cash every minute while the reforms are not being implemented,“ he said.

Today, a last-minute meeting of the council was scheduled to try and pass some of those reforms. Given their behavior in the past, it was hard to be optimistic that sanity would prevail. Even if it does, it is pretty clear that it will be too little, too late.

For yesterday, almost unnoticed, the financial advisory board set up by the consent agreement basically threw in the towel.

They unanimously asked the state to start a month-long review of the city‘s books, a process all-but-certain to lead to the appointment of an emergency financial manager.

Councilman Brown told voters he had never wanted an emergency manager, he thought the consent agreement could have worked. But he said, “both the city council and (the) Bing Administration failed to respond with the sense of urgency warranted in this crisis.’

As a result, he concluded, an emergency manager “is likely the only option to avoid bankruptcy as the city‘s expenses continue to outpace revenue.”  Mayor Dave Bing continued to feebly protest, and to insist he might be able to balance this year‘s budget once he lays off another 500 employees. But even he must know even that won‘t work. “The state‘s got to do what they’ve got to do,“ Bing finally said.

State Treasurer Andy Dillon made it pretty clear what that means, saying. “We’re coming to the end of the road.”

By the time they get there, any emergency manager is likely to have broad new powers. Legislation providing those is probably going to sail through after the right to work battle is finished.

What happens after that, however, nobody can say. Councilman Brown sees bankruptcy as the worst possible option, and he is far from alone. Municipal bankruptcy might take years in the courts and cost the impoverished city vast sums.

Nobody knows just what that would look like. Nor is it clear that even an emergency manager could stop the city from getting there. You‘ll be hearing a lot about right to work today.

But you are soon going to hear and read more than you ever imagined about the train wreck called Detroit.

Hear and read about it, all year long.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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