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Michigan legislature begins 2010 session

By Rick Pluta, Michigan Public Radio Network


The Michigan Legislature is back in session. The state constitution requires the Senate and the House to begin its work for the year at noon on the second Wednesday in January. Much of the focus this year will be on government reform. But, as Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta tells us, "reform" is a word that means different things to different people.

The Legislature's only constitutionally required job is to pass a balanced budget by October 1. That job has been very this past decade, and 2010 will be no exception to that trend. The state is once again facing a budget deficit. It's pegged at almost $2 billion. Without some new source of revenue, that means cuts to schools, higher education, and local governments are once again on the table.

The watchword this year at the state Capitol is "reform" as lawmakers and Governor Granholm look for savings that will make those cuts less painful.

"I think reform means a fundamental change in the way you do business," she says.

Robert Emerson is the governor's budget director. He says reform does not mean one big idea.

"I don't think anybody's got gigantic changes that they want to put out there," he says. "I think everyone will have small ones. There will be lots of them that will be talked about."

But Emerson acknowledges turning controversial new ideas - big or small -- into laws and policies will be tough this year because of elections and a lot of open, competitive races - including the campaign for governor.

"Just given that it's an election year, I think there will probably be more fighting than normal," he went on. "I hate to define the last couple of years as normal, but I think there will probably be more fighting than the last couple of years."

And recent years have been notable for partisan battles that twice dragged the state into brief government shutdowns as budget negotiations dragged past the deadline.

And that's unacceptable, says Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan. He was at the capitol pitching his group's reform plan. It includes reducing the state's payroll costs by laying off public employees and shaving paychecks and benefits; forcing local governments and school districts to combine more operations with their neighbors; and stabilizing sales tax revenue by extending it to services, but reducing the rate to 5.5%.

"Michigan, with a two billion dollar budget deficit it's facing next year, we really owe it to ourselves and the state to not wait a year just because it's a political season," he said. "We really should try to move things forward this year, and that's what we're trying to do."

Representative Tim Melton is part of the House Democrats' leadership team. Melton says the Legislature should reform itself by moving past jockeying for partisan advantage.

"It's got to be all about the economy," he explained. "Incentivizing it and getting a vision of what do we want Michigan to look like?'"

He says constant fighting over new ideas as well as economic turnaround tactics that have already been adopted by the state is not productive. He specifically named the continuing debate over offering big tax breaks to film companies.

"At some point," he went on, "we've got to make sure, we've got to see what we passed and let it work for a little bit, too, but I'm certainly open to any discussion that looks progressive and could move Michigan forward."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop says he's also open to a wide variety of ideas. He even pointedly refused to reject expanding the sales tax. But Bishop says, with personal incomes falling in Michigan, he won't agree to anything that's a net increase on taxpayers.

"Personal income is going down and at the same time we're going to ask them to do more in terms of giving more out of their paycheck. I am not in a position to use that as part of my list of remedies."

However, many Democrats say the state cannot cut $2 billion more out of the services government pays for. There might some more financial help coming from Washington, but not enough to fill the budget hole. They say that means cuts will be necessary --but so will new revenue.

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