Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

It was 20 years ago today…

Republished from Written and Noted

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Amnesia can be wonderful thing, especially in politics. To listen to  John Kennedy, one may think that of course, the teacher pension problem is about poor planning. Then again, that may not be a flaw but a feature. He writes for the West Michigan Policy Forum:

It’s simple math. Today’s vastly underfunded teacher pension systems are not good for our teachers or students. Twenty years ago our state teacher retirement plan was fully funded, but due to poor financial planning assumptions and not meeting the annual funding requirement, there is now a shortfall of least $29 billion.

Here’s where amnesia takes over: twenty years ago the Engler administration raided the teacher pension fund as part of Prop A. Under that same plan, the Engler administration also shifted responsibility for increases in pensions to the local districts. The raid destabilized the funds and the cost shift meant that districts came into fiscal risk while simultaneously losing money to effectively teach their children.

And to spell this out completely: John Engler enjoyed some of his most significant support from the Republican party of W Michigan. This crisis is almost entirely one of their own making.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, , , , ,

Betsy DeVos, Michigan’s finest

A friend writes on Facebook:

“But what I do know is that she’s smart, committed to kids, and a mainstream conservative Republican.” I think that we need to question how mainstream she is given who she is associating herself with. Also, is she committed to kids or to privatization? Another question.

Any one who has clashed with Betsy DeVos knows what kind of Republican she is, she is moneyed,  partisan. and close to the center of Michigan politics, if not in fact one of its main movers. So  “mainstream” is altogether reasonable given where the GOP is these days. There are several aspects of this mainstream Republican that bear on educational policy, that in fact have given such heartburn: there’s the preference for the private solution, at least so far as services are considered — and urban education falls into that category; and then there’s the no tax dogma which again seeks to hamstring social spending generally by pitting services against each other, a process that at once short-changes retirees, yet refuses to raise funds. This has bred considerable trouble for our State.
Here is where privatization of schools takes shape. From her past actions, Betsy DeVos  push for privatization is  a combination of private school advocacy and triage of the urban school. Charters basically began as a way of addressing the urban schools, their administration and teacher corps — both being perceived as intrinsically hostile to GOP interests (this is Engler c. 1998), and manifestly failing. This failure drives the larger push for educational reform. And it is a fair question to ask (as do the conservatives): Must the kids in Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids  have their future cut short simply because of where they live and go to school?  That’s the big question that the Charter-ists have been trying to address. One can read the current reform efforts of Grand Rapids Superintendent Neal as a direct response to this problem. Those who care about schools and our cities know that something needs to be done.
 
To this, DeVos and other conservatives also bring the voucher. This is a sort of triage: the very best get a private education, the middle gets charters, and the rest? well sucks to be you. And of course the middle class (white) suburbs also get a benefit. That the charter payments are lower than the state grants only adds to the benefits: the charter provides the “reform” while taking the requirement to meet educational goals off the plate. Lansing gets cheaper schools and less accountability laid at its doorstep — it’s now someone else’s problem. Disadvantage the city, reward the suburb: classic GOP policy.
 
Of course, the unions are right to be so oppositional. Betsy has been their foe directly for at least 15 years, 20 if you add in the Engler years. The movement to educational reform was not simply to meet the needs of the city (something of an afterthought, actually, having to wait until Pres. George W Bush came by with No Child Left Behind), its goal was to break the power of the teacher unions for a generation. In Michigan the job was made all the easier by a longstanding cultural hostility that had persistently underfunded schools — a  residue of manufacturing era.
 
Then there is the darker secret behind the DeVos/Republican agenda, that it fed on the racial animosity and segregation that so profoundly shaped Detroit’s regional politics. In this politics, any attempt to help kids in the urban setting (and especially Detroit) was seen as coming out of the pockets of the middle class (white) suburbs.In effect, the DeVos led reforms envision two systems of schools: one for the poor (the charters, with income for GOP supporters), and another, the regular schools of aspiration and achievement, te schools of GOP supporters. This two-track model is the problem, but that is for another day. For now, thanks to tax cuts, Michigan’s educational problems have metastasized so  that we have educational dysfunction across the state. By refusing to address the question of revenue the DeVos/Republican approach has cut short the possibility of real reform or achievement, and threatened the schools of its supporters. This is less a problem of privatization than of neglect and the ironic turning to Washington to help out. Betsy DeVos may yet help clean up Michigan’s mess.

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , ,

Governor Roundheels

What else do we call the Governor who for the best of positive reasons, still refuses to say “No?”

Well, perhaps “weak” is another word.

As Dave Murray notes in today’s Press

It appears Gov. Rick Snyder doesn’t like to say “no,” at least when it comes to bills crossing his desk.

Staffers say it’s a different approach to the job, the result of a relentlessly positive approach. Fine. But the role call of failures begins to make one wonder.

First, there was the DRIC and with it the failure to off-set the lobbying efforts of the Mouron family. This was not simply a political failure, a defeat, but a failure of the economic vision for a more vibrant Michigan. As has been clear, the new Michigan is seen as a logistics center, facilitating the border traffic with Ontario manufacturing, the auto industry, and much of the industrial heartland. Moreover, logistics offer the possibility of large-scale, post-auto employment — exactly the sort of work that Detroit and Michigan could use. So the failure is significant.

What this relentless positive spirit has brought has been a refusal to stand up to his own presumably pragmatic roots. As Murray notes, first there was the anti-labor measure, stopping the MEA from deducting dues from pay checks — a bill beloved by the radical Right, but expressly against Snyder’s wishes. Then there was the motorcycle helmet law, a measure that puts the State on the hook for increased medical bills. A life style bill made all the more inexplicable by the large number of voters against the measure. Another minority position.

These three alone, suggest that relentless optimism is little more than another word for a certain moral weakness.

What he misses here is that the easy going nature then creates the doubt elsewhere. If he will not be able to say yes to common good ideas (through the veto), can his advocacy for such agenda items as better schools mean anything? Will he be able to protect these causes?

Of course Republicans believe that all this is better understood as the fruit of good communication? But if the Governor gives it away on the first date, what sort of political virtue is there in this communication? Michigan needs better.

Filed under: Michigan, , , ,

Mixed Messages

Trevor Thomas formally kicked off his campaign for the Third Congressional seat with a special guest: Bob Eleveld. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Eleveld is a former chair of the Kent County GOP and helped in the local McCain campaign in 2000. So what brings him out? As MLive reported

While Thomas supports the environment, woman’s rights and LGBT rights, he’s strong in his beliefs and will not waver, Eleveld said.
“He’s not going to be anybody else but what he is to get votes. He’s just going to be Trevor,” Eleveld said. “He thinks for himself.”

Eleveld, you see, is that most rare of endangered species, a liberal/centrist Republican, socially liberal but economically conservative.

His endorsement is a prize for the Thomas team,  but it also is one that adds some new challenges.

When combined with the theme of “Jerry Ford values”, the endorsement suggests a real move to the center. There’s more than a whiff of the “post-partisan”  when Thomas touts his ability to put aside partisanship.

Then again this is the same campaign that has vilified the Pestka campaign for being in the center and insufficiently progressive. Clearly a message is getting confused. Who could blame Democrats for wondering which is the real Thomas?

The presence of Eleveld on the campaign team, and even the messaging of “Jerry Ford values” create more distance between the campaign and the minority community. Those with memory know that the long time “progressive” Republicans nonetheless held to conservative economics. It’s Suburbs v. City, Forest Hills v. GRPS.

The desire to be post-partisan, to be a bridge-builder is admirable; the lessons of the past four years in Washington, offer abundant evidence that a tougher mindset may be needed.

Of course, it may also be that “progressive values” really do end up as a set of social issues and leave off economics and the question of jobs. In a word, suburban values.

But make no mistake, it’s going to take a tougher mind to fight the Austrian economics of Amash and the Tea Party.

Filed under: Democratic Party, Elections, , , , , , ,

Furniture City, meet Cereal City

The state Republican Party released their planned congressional redistricting map. While the contortions in the northern burbs of Detroit make this another piece of court bait, the map for the local 3rd Congressional is certainly interesting, linking as it does Calhoun County and Battle Creek with the folks of the Furniture City.

Perhaps the most intriguing part is how the GOP gives up Battle Creek — a definite Democratic stronghold. The explanation no doubt lies in an attempt to save Rep. Tim Walberg (CD – 7). For those in Kent County this looks to be something of a fair trade. The new 3rd Congressional gets a Democratic stronghold, but needs to surrender (parts of?) Wyoming. By most lights that would be a fair trade. If the GOP plan does anything it formally creates a more competitive seat.

“Formally” is the operative word here. The configuration raises two important campaign challenges, particularly for any Democratic candidate. This is no longer a seat that can be run from the City; it’s no longer “local.” The inclusion of Battle Creek will ask campaigns to divide their time between the two regions — especially Democrats who will need a strong turnout in Calhoun to have any chance of winning, at all. The addition of a second media market also raises the funding bar for any serious campaign.

Likely the most interesting item — and the reason that the GOP likes this configuration (well, apart from saving Walberg) — is how it skews old. Where approximately 25 percent of Kent County is over 62, in Calhoun County the number is over 33 percent, one third. These are generally  more conservative voters, although in the Ryan era and the proposed revision of Medicare this older make-up opens a significant vulnerability to the sitting congressman in the 3rd, Rep. Justin Amash.

Filed under: Elections, , , , , , , , ,

First Map on State Senate 29

The Michigan Dems released their redistricting map for the state senate on Tuesday. While we can’t say much about redistricting elsewhere, the proposed map for Kent County has a lot to recommend:

To understand what’s going on, keep in mind three numbers: Kent County’s population (602,622), the minimum size for a senate distict (247,091), and the maximum (273,100).  With these numbers, the county is entitled to 2.2-2.4 State Senate seats. Or to look at it another way, between 50,000 and 100,000 residents will be attached to a district outside of the county.

From a Kent County perspective, the proposed map matches the districts fairly well with the underlying social reality. The city of Grand Rapids is paired with Wyoming (for Dems, a happy thought, giving at least the possibility of a win); the southern tier of townships are sent to neighboring Allegan county, again a happy match of the economic populist/libertarians; and the remaining townships form the second complete district — one strongly Republican but also with a mix of economic and social conservatives. This last would be Hildenbrand’s seat.

But if this map is modestly happy for Dems, that’s a pretty good reason why it’s not likely to be adopted. Several other configurations suggest themselves for the GOP, chief would be the sending off the top two tiers of northern townships (roughly 50,000).  Grand Rapids would then be paired with Plainfield, Cannon, GR Twp, EGR Ada, Vergennes and Lowell. Again, an easy district for Sen. Hildenbrand. The second seat would then be Wyoming, Kentwood and surrounding western and southern townships – a district more in line with social conservatives.  There are other configurations, but as to sending folks away, the GOP would be advised to keep their social conservatives on the west intact (Alpine down to Byron Center).

Filed under: Democratic Party, Elections, , , , , ,

So that’s the plan?

Thursday, the County approved the GOP redistricting plan — no real surprises here, it’s the same one presented two weeks ago:

Over at MLive, there are plenty of disgruntled reactions, as well there should be.  The plan comes with several flaws, repeating the same flaw of the Dem’s plan, but also adding in the more problematic weighting of districts. The most notorious being the difference between districts 17 and 19 — a near ten percent spread. Add to all this the problems with Hispanic representation and this is a plan almost certain to be going to court.

But for now, perhaps a few broad observations can be made (detailed notes will come later).

The plan speaks to a  surrender of the city, metaphorically and literally. What is so striking about the 18th and 19th districts is that they go outside the City to gain some sort of (presumed) partisan edge. The action alone functions as a concession that in the present configuration the seats are too marginal, and behind that the realization that the City itself cannot support the GOP in state races. When you go outside for help, you admit that you no longer possess the electoral power to hold the City.

There also appears to be a metaphorical surrender when it comes to Grand Rapids and perhaps urban areas generally in Kent County. However much the proposed districts meet the formal requirements, their broken quality most notoriously seen in the twisting 15th suggests a lack of understanding for how the urban area is actually linked. This is a map composed by some one on the outside, not one who lives here. Contrast again the map developed in 2000 by the late Glenn Steil Sr., a conservative map that understood these inner connections far better.

The map also hints at what appears to be an intra-party feud within the local GOP, between the true believers and, as they would have it, the RINOs. There is of course, the lack of urban understanding (the city being where RINOs like to roam), but it can be most clearly seen in the split of East Grand Rapids, the separation of Lowell from its namesake township, and in the putting of Commissioners Boelema and Ponstein in the same district (7).  The combination of the older urban central neighborhoods of Wyoming with the suburban and even more conservative neighborhoods in districts 8 and 9 also seems to reflect his same trend.

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , , ,

Sacrificing Efficiency

When it comes to the proposed plans for redistricting our county, the picture is not pretty. Literally.

The opening shot by the Dems set up the problem — a virtually illegible map as to actual boundaries, save that city lines were routinely traversed in Grand Rapids. The first follow-up by the Republicans appeared to revel in the word “gerrymander” with its distorted snaking districts through the City of Grand Rapids and Wyoming. A second Republican map is only incidentally better, adjusting boundaries for the 15th and 16th Commission seats.

At the heart lies the determination by both parties to meet their goals by breaking municipal and township lines to create fractional representation. Behind this game playing lies an important and overlooked truth (at least at redistricting): Civic life functions better when community interests and representation are aligned. It’s a classic game scenario, we all win together but it is easy to break equity or in this case, the boundaries.

So what’s at stake?

Greater inefficiency
Mis-aligned districts, increase difficulty of representation. When a district is built of fractional units of government from breaking municipal or township boundaries, is overly contorted (“gerrymandered”) or is too diverse it challenges the commissioner to keep track of major concerns. The fractional add-on, the neighborhood at the far end of the district, these will not get the same attention. In turn that means that the County has less information than it should as to how policies affect residents, or how it meets needs.

Greater friction
Not surprisingly, mis-aligned districts also create problems for the local governments. Fractional representation interferes with the alignment of county and other units of government when it comes to co-operative projects, such as economic development. It’s not that the various entities don’t eventually mesh, but it takes longer. Meanwhile, unnecessary division creates the potential for mixed signals, in short, more friction. In the next decade, Kent County will be challenged in multiple ways to align its governing bodies whether its competing for jobs or expanding services. There’s little to be gained from creating roadblocks.

Greater distance
The last rip in the civic fabric takes place in the voter. Mis-aligned districts encourage disengagement between the voter and the county government. The harm is two-fold. First, the disengagement — this alienation — slows public acceptance of County initiatives, arbitrary districts creating the sense that policies themselves are arbitrary. The second harm rests more with the parties themselves, where the arbitrariness or craziness of the district is then applied to the author of that district. Although the partisan will believe that this second harm is moot, given that they (the disgruntled voter) will not vote for them anyway, this represents in fact, a subverting of future efforts. Not unlike the boy who cried wolf, teaching the voter that the party does not care for them  in redistricting can easily expand to a general distrust of the party in larger, more significant items.

The danger in all this is that the party — the Republicans in particular — not only sacrifice a certain governing efficiency, but that they compromise their future. Really, we can do better.

Filed under: Community, Elections, Politics, , , , , ,

Drawing Lines

The Republicans released their county redistricting plan today. There’s much to be said about it, not much of it good. For now, it appears to be a win for the True Believers over the “RINOs.” That and the proposal for the cities of Wyoming and Grand Rapids have their absurdities. There’s more to be said later.

Filed under: Community, Elections, Politics, ,

Mixed Time Lines

Of all that can be said about the proposed budget of Governor Snyder (and there certainly is lots), the question of time perhaps exposes the conflict best.  The cuts envisioned by the Governor are largely immediate; the hits to the schools will be felt in the classroom this fall if not sooner. By contrast the benefits of tax cuts for business would seem to have a longer time frame, 18 – 36 months, before their impact is felt. And therein lies the risk for the Governor’s proposal.

Talk of sacrifice is always best when the sacrifice and the benefit are closely linked.  The farther apart the links, the more difficult the sacrifice.

For the GOP, two risks immediately come to mind.  The primary one is the gamble that the substantial hits to cities and schools will not be crippling, that the economy sufficiently rebounds to add to the State budget and walk back these cuts. That’s the core of “shared sacrifice:” we put up with the admittedly constrained budget for the moment, trusting that it will be undone.  The obvious danger is that the cuts may themselves be too deep, that they end up stripping too much from communities and so crippling them in the regional competition for new employers.

There is also a second risk to the policy, this by way of human nature.  Will the businesses who benefit from the tax cut, those who have been saying that taxes stop them from hiring, begin adding employees? If the employment does not pick up as the advocates would have it, then what? Here there is a fixed time line: 18 months, or September 2012. A tax cut that doesn’t deliver on added employment will be a heavier burden for incumbents in an already contentious 2012 cycle. And no, you can’t redistrict yourself out of this.

Crains also points to the other great risk of the mixed time lines: perhaps the longer term economic theory doesn’t work well enough. Low tax rates may not be a sufficient competitive advantage.  There is more to making the state economically competitive than this.  What else must be put into place remains the unspoken question. Here the administration and its Party can probably finesse the next election, but not 2014.

Of course, in a rational world, revenue enhancements would end up being part of the package, too.  And they may very well be, but almost certainly not this budget cycle. For now, there is the immediate pain of loss of public goods, whether the offsetting economic expansion will be sufficient let alone evenly shared is far less certain.

Filed under: Michigan, , ,

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