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Michigan's Governor Tramples Democracy

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Abraham Lincoln mourned the sacrifice of those who had given the last measure of devotion to ensure that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." Now, without the clash of armies, government of the people is at risk of perishing in the state of Michigan.

There is nothing about an economic crisis that should allow a states' rights ideology to suspend democracy by stripping an elected mayor and city council of authority and then empowering an unaccountable and unelected czar to nullify worker contracts and sell off assets.

In Michigan, a state devastated by misguided corporate trade policies that undermined U.S. manufacturing, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has made himself the tribune of a corporate shuttering of the democracy. Snyder passed a law -- Emergency Financial Manager Law Public Act 4 -- that added extensive powers for state-appointed emergency financial managers to rule over communities or school districts in financial distress.

In the wake of the Great Recession caused by Wall Street's excesses, many communities in Michigan -- as elsewhere -- are in difficult fiscal straits. Snyder has used this crisis to appoint managers who have, in the words of a civil suit filed challenging the law, "nearly unlimited, unilateral and unchecked authority" to make or change laws, to sell off public assets, to run up taxpayer debt, and to abrogate contracts of all sorts.

These are dictators neither elected by the people nor appointed by the city's authorities, but imposed by the governor to enforce what one of the legislation's sponsors called "fiscal martial law."

Pontiac, Mich., has had an EFM for years now. But the most recent appointee, Michael Stampfler, has used his powers to institute a reign of misery. The democratically elected city council has essentially been fired by Stampfler, whose first order was to cut off city council meetings and strip the council of its powers entirely.

Stampfler is paid $150,000 per year, and his assistant $135,000 per year. He unilaterally slashed the salaries of the elected city council and mayor to zero.

The Pontiac Silverdome, burdened with debts and decrepitude, had been budgeted for sale at $7 million; a previous EFM sold it off for $583,000.

According to Councilman Kermit Williams, Pontiac's EFM has laid off more than 200 city employees. He has outsourced the police department, the IT department, the building and safety department -- and, recently, the city's water treatment facility to a company under indictment by the Department of Justice for Clean Water Act violations.

Williams also notes that the EFM has run up more than $1 million in legal fees at taxpayer expense, while refusing to present the 2011-12 budget to the citizens of Pontiac. Now, it is reported that he has held talks about declaring bankruptcy and merging with Oakland County -- all without any check by the elected officials of the city or the people themselves.

Michigan faces harrowing economic troubles, but it is not broke. This is an expression of the governor's insistence on cutting taxes on the rich and the corporations, and forcing working families to bear the costs of the recession. And it is not surprising that these emergency financial managers are being foisted disproportionately on cities and school districts with the poorest people and the highest numbers of minorities. Democracy, the governor seems to suggest, is something they can't afford.

In her famous work, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes how dictators in Chile and elsewhere used national emergencies to impose policies that would never have been accepted by the public. They took advantage of the shock of emergency to impose policies that benefited the few, rewarded the corporations, savaged labor and rolled back everything from public education to retirement programs. Now Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Flint and the Detroit schools are victims of the shock doctrine.

Perhaps Gov. Snyder has forgotten the words of the Pledge of Allegiance that every schoolchild learns. We pledge our allegiance not to the corporate state, not to one party or one ideology, but to the republic, one nation, under God with liberty and justice for all. In the state of Michigan, Gov. Snyder -- now one of the most unpopular governors in the country -- has decided to use the economic crisis to trample that pledge.

This post originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

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