Democracy in Michigan Has Been Poisoned Along with Flint’s Drinking Water

The problem in Flint, Michigan that now has a lead-poisoned water system; and in Highland Park, Michigan where the for-profit Leona Group, a charter management organization, was brought in by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the public schools but went broke instead; and in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, where the for-profit Mosaica Education, a charter management organization, was brought in by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the public schools but went broke instead, is that Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts can, under a 2012 law, be taken over by the state and operated by an emergency fiscal manager appointed by the governor. And the current governor does not have a background in public service, reports Amber Phillips of  the Washington Post: “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), (was) a tech venture capitalist who was elected in 2010 on a platform to fix the state’s ‘disaster’ economy….”

Claire Groden, writing for Fortune, explains Michigan’s abrogation of democracy under the current governor: “(A)t the time that Flint flipped the switch in April 2014 to send the river’s highly corrosive water through lead pipes, the predominantly African-American city didn’t have a working local government… Five years ago Snyder signed legislation that expanded the reasons why the state could choose to appoint a municipal emergency manager, then granted those appointees almost complete power over their assigned municipalities. Under Public Act 4, as it was called, state-appointed emergency managers could break collective bargaining agreements, fire elected officials and determine their salaries, and privatize or sell public assets… Emergency management is a way to short-circuit democracy when a city faces financial insolvency, with the idea that a leader free from accountability to voters can make unpopular but necessary decisions.  But Michigan voters rejected that law in a state-wide referendum… A month later, the state legislature passed a replacement law that made minor adjustments and one major one: an appropriation banning a referendum on the new law.  That was 2012.  By 2013, six Michigan cities—and almost half of the state’s African-American population—were under emergency management.  In many of these cities, public services were pared down to the minimum.  Pontiac’s emergency manager whittled the city’s employees to around 10% of their previous number.” (Here is what happened in Pontiac.)

State emergency managers can override not only elected city councils but also be imposed on public school districts where they can overrule the elected local school board.  In Detroit, where the schools have been operated by an emergency fiscal manager for some years, neither have the bills been paid, nor have required contributions been made to the state teachers’ pension fund, nor have the school buildings been maintained, nor has class size been controlled.  Even the finances—the specific thing emergency fiscal managers are supposed to take care of—have been mismanaged. Short-term borrowing has been regularly turned into long-term obligations that now total $3.5 billion.

Emergency managers in Michigan are limited to terms of 18 months under the 2012 law, which might curtail the damage any one of them could possibly impose, but Governor Rick Snyder has found a way to skirt that provision of the law.  After an emergency manager has served for 17 months and twenty-nine days, that manager resigns and another is appointed.  Snyder has continued to shuffle around the same people.  Darnell Earley, the emergency manager responsible for the lead poisoning of Flint’s water, is currently serving as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

Here is a review from yesterday’s NY Times of what happened in Flint: “From 2011 to 2015, Flint was in state receivership…. Flint, led at the time by an emergency manager who was appointed by the state to help solve the city’s fiscal woes, switched water supplies in April 2014—in part to save money, which… amounted to $1 million to $2 million a year.” State agencies repeatedly lied about the poisoning of Flint’s water, but local leaders lacked the power to expose the statewide cover-up, and the children continued to drink contaminated water.  The ultimate result has neither saved Flint nor the state of Michigan any money. The Washington Post’s Phillips reports: “In October, the state paid $12 million to switch Flint back to Detroit’s water system.”  Unfortunately the failure over a period of many months to add anti-corrosives to the water leaves the system vulnerable to the continued leaching of lead into the water even after the switch back to Detroit’s system.

Austerity, not structural reform, has been the operating model for the emergency managers in Michigan’s poor cities and school districts.  Fortune‘s Claire Groden explains: “Critics of the emergency manager law have long protested that the appointees cut services to realize short-term savings, with little eye to the long-term structural problems the cities face. ‘ The assertion is that these are cities that are running deficits because the elected governments are not capable of keeping spending under control.  The problem from my perspecteive is that these really are structural deficits… it’s almost impossible for anyone to solve these problems,’  says Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University…. Structural problems like the fact that 40% of Flint’s residents live in poverty—presenting an impossible tax base for the city to draw upon—go unanswered.”

Yesterday, Julie Bosman reported for the NY Times on the impact of years’ of emergency management of Detroit’s schools, where the teachers have been staging rolling sick-outs to try to bring attention to the conditions in the buildings where they work: “Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse.  On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools… Things have become so bad, district officials say, that the Detroit public school system could be insolvent by April.”

The stories of Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts demonstrate our society’s willingness to impose austerity instead of addressing our collective failure through federal and state government to provide financial support when local communities and school districts, segregated by race and poverty, utterly lack the capacity to fund essential services. We are further willing to disenfranchise and disempower the citizens of these cities and school districts by destroying the democratic institutions designed to protect their votes and their voices.

Will Michigan find a way to restore democracy for its poorest citizens?

In a commentary published on Monday in the Detroit Free Press, Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU of Michigan, presses for the repeal of Michigan’s law that grants the governor power to impose appointed overseers on Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts: “Little has been said… about… a law that gives a political appointee unfettered power to make decisions that will affect a community, without democratic accountability.  This lack of checks and balances on government is a civil rights issue.  The law does not require that an emergency manager have any expertise outside the financial arena and, to that end, allowed him (in Flint) to elevate the financial bottom line above all else. It enabled a revolving door of emergency managers in Flint with no ties to that community and yet unfettered power to make decisions that affect them.”

This blog has covered the theft of democracy by Michigan’s emergency fiscal managers two other times this week, here and here.

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Politicians Create Fiscal Crises As Excuse to Cut Essential Services

In a recent NY Times column, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman describes the Republican budgets recently proposed in both houses of Congress: “Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar ‘magic asterisk’—a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from…  And the question we should ask is why. One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue…. But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation… What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class…. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer…  Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence.  But please try.”

Budget proposals at the federal and state level are really abstract promises, and by the time they don’t work out as promised, months or sometimes years have passed.  Apart from keeping up the outrage, it’s hard for most of us even to remember what was promised by whom, and how the math was supposed to work out.  What we are left with is cuts in our local schools, which we are likely to blame on the local school board because these folks we know are easier to blame.  The fact is, however, that austerity budgeting through the federal sequester—which will be coming up again this year—and through state budget cuts is causing us to lose the services we value in our communities.

Krugman, for example, points out in that same column that the Republican budget proposals now in Congress result in, “savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies.  Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance.”  And as this blog frequently reminds you about public school funding, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit.” “Adding to states’ struggles, federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I — the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools — is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.”

To understand how this is working out in practice, you have only to look at Kansas, a fiscal disaster in process where Governor Sam Brownback has created a fiscal crisis by slashing taxes.  Because public education funding is always a big line in the state budget (State constitutions make states responsible for what is usually about half of public education funding.), when state budgets collapse, public schools are inevitably hurt.  Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week‘s “State EdWatch” columnist, describes what just happened in Kansas: “The Kansas Legislature has approved a plan to end the state’s current K-12 funding formula and replace it with block grants, a move that would also cut general state aid to public schools…. That would mean Kansas spending on schools would no longer take into account districts’ enrollment, demographics, or transportation needs.  The idea to shift K-12 spending into block grants was initially proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who is dealing with one of the more serious budget crises in the nation.  At the start of the year, the state faced a $280 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year (fiscal 2015) and a $436 million shortfall for fiscal 2016, after the governor signed significant tax cuts into law earlier in his tenure.  Brownback advertised the block-grant proposal as a way to increase spending flexibility for districts, although local K-12 officials are not pleased with the $51 million in expected state aid that they would lose for fiscal 2016 under the plan.”

Ujifusa adds that the situation in Kansas is complicated by the finding of a lower court last December that the state’s K-12 school funding was already (before the new block grant reduction) “inadequate from any rational perspective.”  The 3rd Judicial District Court ordered the state to increase spending per-pupil from $3,852 to $4,654, which would add $548 million in state aid as a remedy for long-standing inadequate school funding.

Don Hineman, a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives notes in his legislative update that although the school funding formula is scheduled to be rewritten during a two year period while the block grants are in place, “During the floor debate on the bill I observed that we were being asked to tear the school funding formula out of the statute book, crumple it up, throw it away, and replace it with a blank sheet of paper which someone will fill in later. In my opinion that is a tremendous gamble.  It is a gamble for rural schools which may never again see weightings for low enrollment or transportation.  It is a gamble for schools with large numbers of students in poverty if the at-risk weighting ceases to exist.  And it is a gamble for districts with large numbers of non-English-speaking students if that weighting goes away.  The bill was put on a very fast track which I frankly view as an abuse of the legislative process…  It is revealing that the only proponents of this bill in the committee hearing were the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and Kansans for Liberty.  These are the same groups who have testified this session against any proposals to raise taxes to fill the state’s fiscal deficit, claiming that any hole in the budget should be filled via budget cuts.”

It is reassuring that on March 17, Kansas’ Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed an appeal asking the Kansas Supreme Court to review December’s lower court ruling that Kansas’ level of state funding for public education was, prior to being cut again by $51 million in the new block grant law, already unconstitutionally low.

You very likely do not have children in the public schools of the state of Kansas, but Kansas is an emblem of what is being proposed in budget after budget across the states and by Republicans in budgets already proposed in both houses of Congress. Conservatives always say tax cuts will pay for themselves, but when they inevitably don’t pay for themselves, the solution is always reducing essential services rather than restoring taxes—which may have been the intention from the beginning.  As Paul Krugman asked in his recent column: “Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence.  But please try.”