Newspapers Editorialize on Ballot Proposals — Did They Do Their Homework?

As newspaper editorial boards across the country do their appointed duty to weigh-in on political endorsements and share informed opinions on various ballot questions, let’s hope they take the time to do a little homework first. Unengaged voters rely on their local paper to provide guidance, particularly on down-ticket races and proposals.

In Michigan, we find six ballot proposals for consideration this November, with the first being a referendum on the Emergency Manager Law, Public Act-4 of 2011.

This law allows for the outright suspension of democracy in municipalities and school districts that are at risk for a financial crisis. Elected officials are locked-out of their offices as a “local dictator” is appointed by the governor and given carte blanche to do as they please with that public entity, its assets and employees. Their powers are absolute, and all notions of public “accountability” are, by fiat, a mere afterthought — there exists no real-time transparency requirement in this retrograde law.

Although PA-4 itself is facially neutral as to race, it disproportionately effects communities of color, and can easily be construed as a violation of both the civil rights and the voter rights acts, not to mention its multiple constitutional difficulties. 

It is deeply troubling when editorial boards take-up the disturbingly flawed argument, as did recently the Daily News claiming emergency managers are somehow a necessary evil. They, with the support of Governor Snyder, contend there is no other conceivable way to solve the fiscal troubles of our public bodies…often going further to assert that their financial woes are the direct result of poor leadership and bad policy.

The sole basis for their argument here is “expediency”.

Not only does that demonstrate a lack of knowledge and imagination, it indicates a corporate bias through the naive rendering of an opinion that has no underpinning in practice.

Last week, a guest opinion piece found in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, (not the paper’s official opinion) authored by Stephen M. Kircher, echoed the above argument with the additional twist of directly blaming Michigan’s governance for the economic downturn. (As if Flint Firefighters — Local 352 are in someway responsible for a global crisis caused by corporate greed.)

On what authority does the writer base his learned opinion? Mr. Kircher is president of Boyne Resorts’ Eastern Operations, a ski lodge holding company. Among his credentials, Kircher additionally sites membership in “Business Leaders for Michigan”, a group comprised of an assortment of top-tier state corporate executives, that are in favor of retaining the Emergency Manager Law. Mr. Kircher was simply parroting their words to do their bidding.

Did he personally engage in any scholarly research in the rendering of his wizened opinion?

Not likely.

Nor can we trust that all those editorial boards across the state will take a few minutes to Google some facts and seek the opinion of experts. Far too many will make the case for “expediency” as justification for an unconstitutional law that violates civil rights and voter rights.

Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s set aside the Constitution and federal law to examine the viability of the expediency case on its own merit. Suspend your academic considerations and good judgement for a moment, to address the nuts and bolts of PA-4… 

Those that take the position that emergency managers are “necessary” do so by making two erroneous assumptions:

1. Emergency Managers are the best/only way to resolve a fiscal crisis.

2. Emergency Managers actually fix long-term systemic and structural problems.

(Experts on this issue find those claims rather dubious…read on…)

The new emergency manager law itself, the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act, was hatched and written months prior to Governor Snyder’s election. It is a long-winded and exhaustive piece of legislation carefully designed as a legal drag-net to cover all possible contingencies to insure the absolute authority of an Emergency Manager. It is loophole-free — a rarity in this age of slap-dash legislation crafted so often by lobbyists and special interests on the backs of cocktail napkins. Indeed, other than those troublesome foundational constitutional questions and federal law violations, the Emergency Manager law is bullet-proof.

The bulk of the language found therein is designed to corral all fiscal variables into a one-size-fits-all solution: Cut-Back Management. It’s pretty much the only tool in the emergency manager’s kit — and it’s a sledgehammer at that. Emergency managers epitomize that maxim: “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. 

Cut-Back Management is easy to explain — it’s a private sector short-term budget trick–a slash and burn technique employed in the corporate world during an economic downturn targeted to specific industries and their market forces. It’s designed to give them time to retool with a new business model that more readily capitalizes on rapidly changing market factors. It’s not subtle or nuanced in the least — it hits hard and fast.

Cut-back Management is a quick-time reactionary response to the unstable reverberations of market conditions which are not, and never should be, a consideration in long-term public sector planning and governance. Contrary to claims of its proponents, it does not create a viable path out of a crisis for municipalities and schools because their market conditions do not significantly change over time. Schools and cities are not the same as The GAP or Burger King. 

This fiscal bludgeon does not address the unavoidable underlying broader systemic issues — those problems that stem from a larger economic crisis that disproportionately targets those communities that were already teetering on the brink. This law punishes poverty, and conversely creates a self-congratulatory air for those communities not affected, even though their leadership has engaged in the same practices, good or bad, as their less fortunate neighbors.

Emergency Managers are all smoke and mirrors, creating the illusion of solvency in the same way corporations window dress their short-term financials for investor confidence.

The need to provide core services: brick and mortar schools with qualified teachers, competent police and fire protection, libraries, paved and maintained roads and the basic infrastructures that are expected of a civilized form of government — all of this simply can not be achieved through savage budget cuts and privatization. To use a word conservatives generally disdain: this law does not create sustainable solutions. Forget the private sector war on unions and their campaign to privatize everything in sight, including the air we breathe…put all that aside — this new law just doesn’t get the job done. 

Even the MSU economics professor, Eric Scorsone, who created the emergency manager training program, readily concedes that there exist no expeditious solutions which address the full complexity of a fiscal crisis. He further said that the efficacy of this administration’s statewide fiscal policy, with $1.8 billion in corporate tax cuts under Gov. Snyder’s budget, coupled with drastic cuts and restrictions in revenue sharing to cities and schools, has no basis in fact — Scorsone himself admits there is no research to support this path as viable. The Snyder plan quite possibly lacks the fiscal horsepower to create enough jobs to steer the state away from the financial cliff.

In full disclosure, I have been a strong opponent the emergency manager law and worked hard to put it to referendum. Being among the few that can speak with authority on this issue, it is disturbing to know that newspaper voices that claim that same level of knowledge will put to print so very many uninformed opinions for public consumption this election season.  

Very few media outlets have engaged this issue in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. Among that rarefied group we find Michigan Public Radio, who have dedicated several thoughtful pieces to the subject, including this in-depth set of interviews earlier this year. 

Can you rely on your local paper to do its homework?

If you are a Michigan resident, now would be a good time to remind the editorial board of your local paper they should at least do a little research before making broad pronouncements on the efficacy of PA-4 as reason to allow blatant consitiutional and federal law violations in the name of fiscal expediency.

Amy Kerr Hardin






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