Michigan legislators make pretty good money, as state lawmaker salaries go. Every one of our 148 elected representatives will be paid more than $6,600 this month. Paid that by your poor, cash-strapped Michigan, paid with our taxpayer dollars ... even though they aren't doing any more of the people's business. They've knocked off for the year, you see.
They think they need another long paid vacation. That's not to say they solved the state's problems, or even made things better. They almost completely failed to address the state's real difficulties, such as school funding or the system that produces budget deficits year after year. Most didn't care enough.
And many of them were rewarded handsomely not to do anything serious to make life better for ordinary people.
Anyone who tried to do that could be assured that Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop would block anything decent from happening. He had one small failure: the smoking ban. The Rochester Republican didn't want to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants, and for a time, prevented any vote on the issue. But in the end, part of his own caucus, led by state Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo, revolted. George is normally a right-winger, but he's also a physician who knows that second-hand smoke kills people. Outgunned, Bishop had to let the good guys win this one last spring. But it probably wasn't all that big a deal to him; the opponents of the smoking ban weren't giving him the kind of money Matty Moroun was.
Want a perfect example of the failure of our democracy? Look at what happened last week with the proposed new Detroit River International Crossing Bridge. Virtually every business, labor and corporate interest wants a new bridge. Canada offered to front Michigan's costs, meaning we wouldn't have to pay a dime.
The project, state Sen. Ray Basham of Taylor told me, would create 10,000 good-paying construction and other jobs, most of which would go to Michigan residents. Sarah Hubbard, of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said ripple effects meant the number of new jobs would expand to 35,000.
Anyone who knows how desperate people are, with unemployment running out for hundreds of thousands, knows how badly needed those jobs are. But two men were determined to prevent them from happening. Bishop, of course, but he was a mere lackey of the real bloated spider of corruption: That would be Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, who doesn't want his monopoly threatened.
Moroun, an 83-year-old billionaire and probably Detroit's worst slumlord (just think the hulking ruin of the old Michigan Central train station) sent forth his wage slaves and minions to block the new bridge. They lied, misrepresented, improperly seized city land, and most of all, got themselves the best government that their money can buy. Most of all, they showered politicians with cash contributions.
Newspaper reports indicate Moroun coughed up more than $1 million for federal and state candidates and political action committees in the last few years. More than $75,000 went to Bishop's campaign for the GOP nomination for attorney general. He didn't get it, which may prove the existence of some kind of god. What's interesting, however, is that the AG candidate is picked by party insiders, not voters. So what did Bishop need the money for? Moroun also gave at least $150,000 to committees to elect GOP Senate candidates.
Legal? Yes, thanks to our cockeyed system, which calls a billionaire's attempt to buy a legislature "free speech."
Rich Robinson of the Michigan Finance Network more accurately called it "a form of legalized bribery." But Moroun won, of course. Basham, who was also instrumental in getting the smoking ban accomplished, waged a heroic, last-ditch fight to the end.
In May, Bishop promised an up-or-down vote on the bridge, but cynically decided to break his word in November. Basham last week tried a legislative "Hail Mary pass," to get the bill to the floor. He was no match for Moroun's dollars.
That was that. Now, Moroun's activities have been written about many times before, in this column and elsewhere. The facts of the matter and the need for a new bridge were well-known. But that didn't make any difference to the lawmakers, or to an increasingly apathetic public. "Nobody cares!" said Macomb County Circuit Judge Matthew Switalski, when I ran into him at a party last weekend. The judge seemed mildly amazed. "You wrote about all these things, and people just don't care."
Yeah, well, what can you say? Everyone may be getting screwed. But hey, they can watch Hung on their DVRs any time they want to.
There was one mild bit of low comedy at the end. State Rep. Brian Calley, who will be Michigan's new lieutenant governor, is a run-of-the-mill conservative who, at the end of the session, made an impassioned plea to his fellow Republicans to require insurance coverage for autism.
Huh? Republicans never want to force insurance companies to do anything. However, Calley just happens to have an autistic child. Interesting how something like that can change your perspective. Calley was silly enough to try to persuade Mike Bishop and his pals to show signs of humanity.
"I don't think you've got a shot in hell," one wise senator correctly told him. Naturally, Bishop wouldn't allow a vote on autism either. If the new lieutenant governor wanted compassion and understanding, he'd have been better off going to Matty Moroun.
Final thoughts on Helen Thomas: Last May, the journalism legend was fired after she told a blogger with a video camera that Jews should get "the hell out" of Israel and go back to "Germany, Poland, America" or anyplace else.
Awful as those remarks were, it was possible to believe she was just having a bad day and was reacting irritably to what amounted to an ambush interview. Nor was it clear whether she was challenging Israel's right to exist, or merely saying that it should leave the territories their armies have occupied since the 1967 war.
I have known Thomas, now 90, for years, and while I knew she had long been angry about what she saw as Israeli imperialism, I had never heard her say anything clearly anti-Semitic.
Unfortunately, she confirmed everybody's worst fears this week, when she came to Dearborn and ranted that "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists." That gave Wayne State University no choice but to officially pull the plug on its annual Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award, though in fact the award had effectively been killed in May. What's tragic is that in the last years of her career, Helen, who was a trailblazer for women in the media, seems to have evolved pretty much into what the Anti-Defamation League called her: "A vulgar anti-Semite," with a "deep-seated and obsessive prejudice."
This is especially tragic because, for years, the former White House bureau chief was someone of whom Detroit and Wayne State were immensely proud. For a long time, she was almost the only journalist sharply questioning George W. Bush's false assertions on Iraq.
But sadly, Thomas would be better regarded today if she had retired a few years ago. I think there's a lesson here, and, accordingly, plan to stop writing this column in 2042.