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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Political Posturing

February 24, 2017

LEVERING, MI – State Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), the author of a new bill that would destroy Michigan government as we’ve known it, has lived pretty much his entire life in this tiny community, the home of the Levering Cafe, a family-style restaurant in an old red building with a huge plastic chicken in an Uncle Sam suit poised over the door.

His bill originally would have slashed the state income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent – and cut it by another tenth of a percent every year, till it disappears entirely in 2057. This week, House negotiators dropped the idea of eliminating the tax entirely, and are discussing phasing in the drop to 3.9 percent.

But when that is complete, it would still blow a $1.1 billion hole in the state’s general fund next year, a deficit that would continue to get steadily larger. Now, this may sound like one of the many silly bills introduced every year by various lawmakers, sometimes to appease their constituents. Such bills are given a number, sent to some committee, and usually never heard from again.

But that’s not the case here. This bill has the full support of new Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), who proclaimed that “this is simply the right thing to do for Michigan’s families,” and would return “hundreds of millions of dollars back to the people who earned them.”

And though Gov. Rick Snyder has strong reservations, the tax-slashing bill is also backed by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running an all-but-announced campaign for the GOP nomination for governor next year.

Yet what none of this bill’s backers have said is how the state could do this –and pay for schools, roads and prisons, among all the other things modern government does.

Chatfield himself, who is just 28, may trust in the Lord to provide. He has spent his life in a nearly all-white, fundamentalist Christian world that differs markedly from most of the state. He did attend Northland International University, a short-lived and now-defunct Baptist college in northern Wisconsin, before returning home to teach, coach and be the athletic director at nearby Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake, where he himself went to high school.

Back in his hometown, there are no black residents among the 215 residents of Levering, according to CityData.com; just two Hispanics and nine Native Americans.

Years ago, Chatfield, who was just elected to his second term, likely would have been a little-known back bencher. But thanks to term limits, no one can stay in the lower house nowadays longer than six years.

That means lawmakers can become instant, if fleeting, stars. Chatfield attracted notice even before he arrived when, in 2014, he defeated incumbent Republican State Rep. Frank Foster in a legislative primary.

He challenged him because the otherwise conservative Foster supported expanding Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen civil rights law to protect gays and lesbians.

The young teacher was also angry over Common Core education standards, and because Foster supported the expanded Medicaid coverage that made it possible for 600,000 formerly uncovered Michiganders to have health insurance.

Michigan’s August primary is historically known for tiny turnouts of mainly ideologically-driven voters, and enough of them showed up to give Chatfield the nomination, which virtually guaranteed election in this safe Republican seat.

Now, their representative is vowing to give state voters a tax break. But economic analysts say that if the tax is slashed from 4.25 to 3.9 percent, the average family will get very little.

Michigan has a flat, not a graduated tax rate, meaning that barmaids and billionaires pay the same percentage. Rachel Richards, the legislative coordinator for the non-partisan and nonprofit Michigan League for Public Policy, crunched the numbers, and came up with these figures:

The average Michigan household income is about $51,000, according to state statistics. (Levering is just slightly higher, at $52,580) Such a taxpayer would get a cut of about $82 a year, spread over all of his or her paycheck.

That would be virtually unnoticeable; $1.58 a week. Even as a lump sum, that wouldn’t pay for one college credit hour, or one pothole-destroyed tire.

The poorest taxpayers – those making less than $22,000 – would get annual savings averaging a mere $16. Taxpayers making $300,000 a year, in the other hand, would get $821.

Millionaires would get thousands back. Democrats seem unanimously opposed to Chatfield’s bill, but don’t have nearly enough votes to stop it on their own.

But State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) doubts that this will ever become law. “I think it’s politics,” political posturing, he said. “I think the House knows the Senate probably wouldn’t do it, and the governor would veto it.”

He doesn’t rule out, however, some lesser tax cut. Cutting taxes is almost always a politically popular idea. But Michigan is a state that currently doesn’t have enough revenue to repair its crumbling roads and bridges or adequately fund other needs.

Lawmakers might want to take a hard look at what is going on now in solidly Republican Kansas. There, lawmakers slashed state income taxes in 2012 and 2013. But that failed as an economic stimulus and state services declined dramatically.

Now, both houses of their legislature have voted to once again increase state income taxes – and a dozen of those pushing the earlier tax cuts lost their seats last November.

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said in a famous dissenting opinion. He, too, was a Republican.

And most of the time, he was right.

 (Editor’s note: This column was written before a stunning revolt by House Republicans rejected the proposed tax cut in the wee hours Thursday. Whether there will be another effort to pass it is not clear.)

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 23, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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