Public Act 4, the emergency manager law, is now one year old. Over the past 12 months, we've seen outrage and organization, motivation and mobilization. The people of the state of Michigan have submitted an overwhelming number of signatures on a petition to put the law up for a statewide vote this fall. Communities and school districts across the state have had their local governance usurped and others are on the verge.
The concept of emergency management, as pushed forward by Governor Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature in Lansing, is deeply flawed. It is a draconian attempt at a solution to a problem caused in large part by policies and circumstances not promulgated or perpetuated at the local level.
Proponents of this misguided law have honed in on "mismanagement" as the reason for necessary emergency management. Mismanagement is a convenient scapegoat for our problems but it is sorely lacking as a reason for such broad-sweeping legislation. As in nearly every area of the private and public sectors, some mismanagement -- from human error to corruption -- certainly exists. It is incumbent upon all of us to be vigilant against these malfeasances, but by no means do they equal the sum total of the challenges we face.
The state, in fact, is guilty of mismanagement. Both times Detroit Public Schools were taken over by the state, the district was left with a larger deficit as a result. The first time, DPS had a budget surplus before the takeover; afterwards, it was in the red. The second time, Robert Bobb spent countless resources and dollars on unneeded lawsuits, salaries, sweetheart deal contracts and buildings, and left the district in debt to the tune of $363 million.
The budget deficits our cities and school districts are facing across Michigan -- especially in Detroit -- are symptoms of a much larger disease known as "disinvestment." For years, urban areas have been systematically disinvested from. This phenomenon was on stark display last year when K-12 education, college education and revenue sharing that cities depend on were drastically cut. Taxes were raised on low-income citizens and seniors, while tax handouts were given to large corporations.
Much has been made of the statements by some Detroit leaders asking the state to make right on its $220 million owed to the city. Much less has been made about the real policy implications of why Detroit's claim to that money is legitimate. Lawmakers from elsewhere in the state say Detroit does not deserve a "bailout." I agree. Nobody is asking for a bailout, though. Detroit just wants the state's hand out of its pocketbook and the $220 million it wrongfully took.
In 1998, the state made a deal with Detroit: the city would agree to keep its local taxes below a certain point, and the state would make up for the resulting lost funds through revenue-sharing. Detroit agreed and has held up its end of the bargain for more than a decade; the state has not.
Indeed, policies like these, coupled with population loss -- Michigan was the only state in the nation to lose population between 2000 and 2010 -- and a national economic recession, inevitably lead to tough fiscal conditions.
The solution, however, is not to do away with our long democratic tradition and turn our cities and school districts over to privately backed emergency managers with demonstrable preferences for outsourcing and awarding no-bid contracts to longtime business associates, as Robert Bobb so blatantly did when he was the unelected czar of Detroit Public Schools.
If Governor Snyder or Republican legislators are serious about finding ways to stem the tide of disinvestment in our urban core communities, I welcome them to the table. The governor's Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, for example, can be utilized to promote investment in cities. Conservative ideology must be done away with in favor of common-sense and forethought -- no governing entity can cut itself out of a fiscal hole; there must be investments and development.
On the eve of the appointment of an emergency manager to the Highland Park Community Schools, I joined with community activists, parents, educators, businesspeople and the faith-based community in Highland Park to form the Financial and Academic Reinvestment Commission. We are committed to not only opposing emergency managers -- because of their dubious constitutionality and track record of failure -- but to putting forth positive public policy proposals that can and will rejuvenate urban areas from Detroit and Highland Park to Benton Harbor and Muskegon Heights.
We have had a series of meetings and one public hearing thus far, with an upcoming Disinvestment Tour to highlight just how systemic this problem has been. Our work continues as we work toward crafting policies to right the wrongs of disinvestment.
On the first anniversary of the enactment of Public Act 4 today, and as an overwhelming number of signatures are being counted on petitions to put the law before a vote of the people of Michigan, we sincerely hope that next year, on March 16th, 2013, there will be no PA 4 left to recognize. Then we will know that We The People have truly spoken!
Bert Johnson is the state senator for Michigan's 2nd District, which includes northeast Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the five Grosse Pointe Communities. He is the co-chair of the Financial and Academic Reinvestment Commission.
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