2004-12-11 / Editorials

Does Michigan Have ‘Too Many’ Legislators?

Michigan Politics
By George Weeks


By
George Weeks

Term-limited House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, soon will retire to his second seat of power--the one atop a 185-

horsepower John Deere tractor on his northern Michigan tree farm.

The plainspoken leader leaves the Capitol with a solid record of accomplishment, and a provocative thought worthy of consideration: "We have too many elected officials in this state, period -- townships, schools, whatever."

The shocker in my chat with Johnson, whom I have long found delightfully candid, was his suggestion that Michigan has "too many legislators."

As set by the Constitution, there are 38 senators and 110 representatives. (At $79,650, they are the second or third highest paid in the nation, depending on calculation of other compensation beyond base salaries.) Johnson says their numbers maybe could be reduced to 30-90.

No way would the Legislature vote to put a constitutional amendment to reduce its size on the ballot. But taxpayer and other groups could well do it by petition.

Many advocate that Michigan should have a part-time Legislature. Johnson wisely rejects that. In recent years, it has been almost a full-time job just making cuts and other steps to deal with budget shortfalls--$3 billion since January 2003 alone.

Reducing the number of lawmakers might sound appealing to taxpayers, but would those in sparsely populated areas end up with adequate representation? Would the 15-county Upper Peninsula, for example, have just one senator? It now has two, including one who represents two of its counties and six below the bridge.

"Should schools be county-wide?" Johnson asks by way of suggesting consolidation of schools.

That wouldn't sell if it meant one team per sport per county. But consolidation of services makes sense. In his county of Osceola of 23,000 or so souls, Johnson says it does not make sense to have four bus garage managers.

Speaker Johnson, who says he has not decided what he will do beyond farming, is the latest to be spun by term limits out of the revolving-door of the office that periodically has been the second most powerful under the dome, especially when the speaker is of the opposite party of the governor.

So it was during the extended Democratic reign of 1969-74 Speaker Bill Ryan, Detroit, and 1975-82 Speaker Bobby Crim, Davison. They worked cooperatively in tough times with 1969-82 Republican Gov. Bill Milliken.

To the benefit of Michigan, but to distress of some conservatives in his 63-member caucus, Johnson has worked cooperatively in tough 2003-04 times with Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm after his more cozy 2001-02 relationship with Republican Gov. John Engler.

Early in his all-too-limited tenure, outstater Johnson had an effective Odd Couple relationship with Minority Leader Kwame Kilpatrick, now mayor of Detroit. The Detroit public school mess is among the issues Johnson has been dealing with in his final weeks on the job.

But his biggest current chore is what Granholm calls Lansing's latest "great struggle"--a $370 million deficit for the fiscal year that started just two months ago.

In his early years in the House, which began in 1999, the former Osceola County commissioner had a conservative voting record. Now, according to the latest analysis of votes by Inside Michigan Politics (IMP) newsletter, he is "one of the more moderate members of the House GOP caucus--10 Republicans have more liberal voting records than he does, but 50 are more conservative."

Among the 50 is Speaker-elect Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, who voted "liberal" on the IMP scale only 16.2 percent of the time, compared to 25 percent for Johnson.

As Johnson properly notes, a legislative leader has to compromise on occasion when the executive power is with the other party.

It's not that Johnson caved on conservative causes. On his watch, he trumpets, the House passed a law to ban partial birth abortion; "crafted a comprehensive economic stimulus and job creation plan which slashed taxes and regulations for Michigan job providers;" continued cutting the Single Business Tax, "resulting in $1.5 billion in savings for Michigan job providers;" and "completed a fair redistricting plan which resulted in no legal challenge."

Democrats dispute its fairness.

Also on Johnson's watch, Democrats gained five House seats.

But, on balance, Johnson has been a good speaker for his party as well as the state. It's too bad solid lawmakers like Johnson are broomed out after three terms, or six years.

Should there be a constitutional amendment on legislative service, it should at least provide that House members can have eight years on the job--as now allowed for senators and the executive branch officers.

Bringing Home the Bacon

What's the Michigan spin on the $388 billion spending bill that Congress passed after inserting special project grants for enterprises and communities across the land?

Did our lawmakers pork barrel or just bring home a bit of bacon for crucial projects in a state that long has had a poor return on tax dollars sent to Washington?

The Upper Peninsula's congressman, Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, got some projects for his sprawling district but did not like the bill to increase the federal debt ceiling, calling it result of "out-of-control tax cuts."

He said: "Four years ago, we had the largest surplus in history. Today, we have the largest deficit in history and our national debt is over $7 trillion. Congress and the Administration must reign in these reckless tax cuts or it will saddle our children and grandchildren with trillions of dollars of debt that will hinder their ability to invest in our own security and success."

Wise words.

"Pork barrel projects thrive as federal deficit soars," read a Detroit News headline on a November Associated Press story that noted the bill, passed after Congress increased the federal debt limit by $800 billion, is "chock-full of special items." Among them: $350,000 for Ohio's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and $50,000 "to control Missouri's wild-hog problem."

USA TODAY reports Congress this year voted $22 billion for 18,000 special projects, including $1 million "for dealing with brown tree snakes in Guam."

It could be that hogs in Missouri or snakes in Guam are as serious issues as cows in Michigan. Bovine TB research was included in a $7.9 million agricultural grant to Michigan State University. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, touted it among more than $20 million earmarked for his district-mostly for public transportation.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, announced: "Dingell Brings Home $12 Million for 15th District Projects." Biggest: $3 million for buses and facilities for Southeast Michigan regional transit. Metro Airport gets $1 milllion.

Dingell also snared grants of $269,750 for an Arab-American National Museum and Cultural Center in Dearborn, and $500,000 for "Automobile National Heritage Areas to continue their effort to conserve and tell the nationally significant story of the auto industry."

Just as Cleveland considers it vital to tell the story of rock and roll, and Nashville gets $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. One town's pork is another's economic/cultural nourishment.

What in the world is the "the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project" that gets $900,000 thanks to Dingell? Most of us get wet weather demonstrations free of charge all too frequently.

It turns out this is a poorly-named, ongoing Wayne County

infrastructure project having to do with such critical flooding problems as assuring clean water and dealing with buckled roads.

It should be noted, as Congressman Rogers emphasized in trumpeting bacon he brought home, that Congress kept within the spending limits set by its leaders and the White House. That means, that, beyond military and entitlement programs, the budget likely will grow only about 1 percent next year.

Omnibus spending bills jell too late for lawmakers to read them before voting. Besides, the code essentially is "I won't vote against yours if you don't vote against mine."

A partial solution: Give presidents, who now have to veto or accept an entire spending bill, the line-item veto-a power granted to governors of Michigan and elsewhere to zap specific projects.

But would a president, seeking the electoral vote of pivotal Ohio, actually veto funds for Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Land Conservation Movement

From Humbug Marsh on the Lower Detroit River to the Crystal River in Leelanau County, private/public conflicts over globally rare land have been resolved to the benefit of future generations thanks in large part to the expanding land conservation movement working with such federal officials as Stupak.

All over Michigan-urban and rural-privately funded groups are working with public agencies to broker good deals that would not otherwise happen.

In September, the Trust for Public Land, working with U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, facilitated the purchase of 410 acres of marsh and upland land that will be run by the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service as part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano called it "a successful milestone" for all "who will be able to enjoy this protected treasure."

Over the years, the trust has acquired and conveyed more than 55,000 acres to help communities protect land for parks, greenways and open space. It facilitated creation of the Southeast Michigan Greenway Trail, spanning the Clinton River Trail and the Macomb Orchard Trail.

Now comes the Leelanau Convervancy, also working with Capitol Hill and a federal agency, with last week's complicated, remarkable $8.5 million deal to transfer 104 acres and 6,300 feet of frontage along the Crystal River owned by The Homestead resort to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

It's a strikingly happy solution to controversy that has simmered, and occasionally flared, since the resort sought in 1986 to build a golf course on the land. Environmentalists protested, and assorted public agencies balked, at that and a proposed land swap.

"A long struggle over the river's future has ended and we are pleased to be able to usher this beautiful, ecologically fragile resource into the protective domain of the National Park Service," says Executive Director Brian Price of the 2,600-member conservancy that already has preserved more than 4,000 acres in Leelanau County.

"We're proud to be a part of a solution that works for everyone and are very grateful to The Homestead and the National Park Service for their patience and willingness to participate in this very complex transition."

Complex indeed. It started in November when the Lakeshore bought 22 acres with $1.62 million that Congress previously appropriated at urging of Stupak and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland.

Coming soon: purchase of 23 acres with $1.5 million in an omnibus spending bill signed by President Bush, pushed by Camp and Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.

The deal-clincher: the Leelanau Conservancy agreed to borrow $4.85 million to temporarily purchase the remaining 59 acres to hold for sale to the park service as federal funds become available, probably over a three-year period.

Lakeshore Superintendent Dusty Shultz praised the conservancy, The Homestead--and, of course, Congress and the Bush Administration, for protecting a river "which is so near and dear to the hearts of many."

It's a possible financial risk for the conservancy--if federal funds dry up-and a setback of sorts for a resort that doesn't get its golf course. But Homestead President Robert Kuras says: "We've always felt that the best alternative to our initial plan for the use of the property was preservation."

It is said that you can't fight city hall. It can be harder still, if you are a resort developer, to fight state and federal agencies when environmental questions and community emotions are involved.

In the end, it was win-win for all interests. Vice President Vik Theiss of Friends of the Crystal River, a group that long fought The Homestead, said: "It's a fitting resolution and a wonderful ending to a very divisive situation."

Across Michigan, there is a loose confederation of about 40 land conservation groups. Some are on the process of forming a more formal organization, the Heart of the Lakes Center, along the lines of Wisconsin's highly effective Gathering Waters grouping.

As made crystal clear in Leelanau County, such groups can succeed where others fail.

Family of Hungry Hollow

Early in the 20th century, in tar-papered homes on Sheridan Street in Petoskey, between US-131 and the Bear River, there lived the impoverished Indians of Hungry Hollow.

It was so named "simply because the name fit," recalls Bill Dunlop, 75, who grew up there in the 1930s when "we missed more meals than most. We were the last hired and the first fired. …As a young boy, I thought being Indian meant struggling to survive."

Fast-forward to the early 21st century, where on US-131 west of the Hollow the sports-theme Victories Casino of the Little River Bands of Odawa Indians makes for better times for the first people of the region

Victory was achieved for Indian casinos Nov. 2 when voters, over objections of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, overwhelmingly approved Proposal 1 to require statewide and local voter approval for expansion of gambling. Tribes, as sovereign nations who negotiate compacts with the state, are exempt.

After a recent Petoskey visit, I read The Indians of Hungry Hollow, a collaborative effort of Ottawa oral storyteller Dunlop and Chippewa writer Marcia Fountain-Blacklidge, published by the University of Michigan Press.

That it is a culturally and historically significant book is reflected by the merit award it just received from the Historical Society of Michigan.

That is an engaging, lyrical tale is indicated by the William Morris Agency's study of it for a possible Hollywood screenplay.

Dunlop tells of when "an epidemic of some kind spread through Petoskey like fire. Many people died because medicine was in short supply and expensive." But wealthy folk on the bluff northeast of Petoskey "had the money to buy what medicine did exist."

Poorer folk nicknamed the neighborhood "Pill Hill"--best known now as Bay View.

Dunlop tells of the John Kewaygoshkum family that lost their home in the Hollow to fire. John concluded: "We gotta go back to the blanket"--take blankets into the woods; cut poles and birch bark; make a lodge.

Today, his grandson, Robert Kewaygoshkum, is chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians--celebrating its 20th year of gaming.

"We are proud of this achievement, and proud of how Indian Gaming has helped improve the lives of our tribal members, employees and citizens throughout northern Michigan," he said in a full-page ad in the Traverse City Record-Eagle for Proposal 1

Dunlop tells of when John Kewaygoshkum's family was squatting on state land after the fire, a deputy ordered them to move. He said: "You'll have to put us all in jail, deputy, 'cause we don't have any other place to be." The deputy left, never came back.

His grandson's tribe since 1995 has, under its revenue sharing compact, sent more than $14 million to local schools, governments and community organizations.

Quite a story for a family of Hungry Hollow.

It's a story heard in the Upper Peninsula in communities where there is a presence of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Chippewa Indian Community.

Land Conservation Movement

From Humbug Marsh on the Lower Detroit River to the Crystal River in Leelanau County, private/public conflicts over globally rare land have been resolved to the benefit of future generations thanks in large part to the expanding land conservation movement working with such federal officials as U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee..

All over Michigan-urban and rural-privately funded groups are working with public agencies to broker good deals that would not otherwise happen.

In September, the Trust for Public Land, working with U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, facilitated the purchase of 410 acres of marsh and upland land that will be run by the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service as part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano called it "a successful milestone" for all "who will be able to enjoy this protected treasure."

Over the years, the trust has acquired and conveyed more than 55,000 acres to help communities protect land for parks, greenways and open space. It facilitated creation of the Southeast Michigan Greenway Trail, spanning the Clinton River Trail and the Macomb Orchard Trail.

Now comes the Leelanau Convervancy, also working with Capitol Hill and a federal agency, with last week's complicated, remarkable $8.5 million deal to transfer 104 acres and 6,300 feet of frontage along the Crystal River owned by The Homestead resort to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

It's a strikingly happy solution to controversy that has simmered, and occasionally flared, since the resort sought in 1986 to build a golf course on the land. Environmentalists protested, and assorted public agencies balked, at that and a proposed land swap.

"A long struggle over the river's future has ended and we are pleased to be able to usher this beautiful, ecologically fragile resource into the protective domain of the National Park Service," says Executive Director Brian Price of the 2,600-member conservancy that already has preserved more than 4,000 acres in Leelanau County.

"We're proud to be a part of a solution that works for everyone and are very grateful to The Homestead and the National Park Service for their patience and willingness to participate in this very complex transition."

Complex indeed. It started in November when the Lakeshore bought 22 acres with $1.62 million that Congress previously appropriated at urging of Stupak and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland.

Coming soon: purchase of 23 acres with $1.5 million in an omnibus spending bill signed by President Bush, pushed by Camp and Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.

The deal-clincher: the Leelanau Conservancy agreed to borrow $4.85 million to temporarily purchase the remaining 59 acres to hold for sale to the park service as federal funds become available, probably over a three-year period..

Lakeshore Superintendent Dusty Shultz praised the conservancy, The Homestead-and, of course, Congress and the Bush Administration, for protecting a river "which is so near and dear to the hearts of many."

It's a possible financial risk for the conservancy-if federal funds dry up-and a setback of sorts for a resort that doesn't get its golf course. But Homestead President Robert Kuras says: "We've always felt that the best alternative to our initial plan for the use of the property was preservation."

It is said that you can't fight city hall. It can be harder still, if you are a resort developer, to fight state and federal agencies when environmental questions and community emotions are involved.

In the end, it was win-win for all interests. Vice President Vik Theiss of Friends of the Crystal River, a group that long fought The Homestead, said: "It's a fitting resolution and a wonderful ending to a very divisive situation."

Across Michigan, there is a loose confederation of about 40 land conservation groups. Some are on the process of forming a more formal organization, the Heart of the Lakes Center, along the lines of Wisconsin's highly effective Gathering Waters grouping.

As made crystal clear in Leelanau County, such groups can succeed where others fail.

George Weeks is the political columnist for The Detroit News and is syndicated by Superior Features.

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