For months, while many of us have been understandably obsessed with Detroit, something else has been going on in Lansing, mostly overlooked by the press and people alike.
A development, that is, with far-reaching and potentially ominous consequences for everyone in this state: the imposition of a fanatical right-wing agenda by the ideologues now in control of the Michigan Legislature. They are passing legislation meant to hurt science and cripple education. They couldn't care less about academic freedom, and they regard public employees as worthless scum who deserve neither decent salaries, benefits nor the freedom to organize.
These legislators largely fear and distrust public education. They have no sympathy for the poor, and have been contemptuously saying no to even Gov. Rick Snyder's feeble attempts to help the downtrodden. What's terrible is that the governor, who was thought to be a moderate, is signing pretty much anything that ends up on his desk. Some of this should be tossed as unconstitutional.
That doesn't matter, however, because the disgracefully partisan GOP majority on the Michigan Supreme Court can be counted on to approve whatever their fellow Republicans want them to. Case in point: Democrats were in charge of local redistricting in Oakland County. Republicans didn't want to play fair.
So they rushed through a bill in Lansing changing the process so they could keep control. This was pretty clearly unconstitutional interference with local authority. The Supreme Court should have slapped the Legislature down. But the GOP majority slavishly voted to uphold what their party had done
Far worse is happening. More and more, the Republican legislators have made it clear they couldn't care less about fairness, the rules or the Michigan Constitution. For example: Under that constitution, any bill passed and signed by the governor doesn't take effect till 90 days after the end of the current legislative session. The Legislature can vote to give a bill immediate effect, but only if a two-thirds majority in each chamber votes to do so.
The Democrats still have more than a third of the House, and should be able to stop any bill from taking effect immediately.
But last month, the GOP majority decided to ignore that law, and ignored Democratic demands to hold a vote on immediate effect. This was in the case of the bill Republicans rushed through forbidding graduate students to unionize.
Democrats had to go to court to ask a circuit judge to tell the partisans to obey their own rules. The legislative Republicans are clearly an incredibly mean-spirited lot. The governor, to his credit, wanted to budget $5 million to put at-risk youth in crime-riddled cities to work for the Department of Natural Resources this summer, something like the famous Civilian Conservation Corps.
Sneering Republican lawmakers in both chambers contemptuously rejected that. Last week, they did the same to the governor's proposals to expand children's dental coverage.
And now they are expanding their right-wing agenda to the state universities, which are supposed to be autonomous.
The House Higher Education Committee voted to take $6.7 million away from Michigan State University unless the school drops its sensible policy of requiring every student to have health insurance, something good for both students and the school.
Additionally, to please the religious right, they voted to withhold $4.7 million from the University of Michigan unless it explains — in the manner the lawmakers want — what stem cell research it is conducting. Such research is fully legal now, by the way; four years ago, the citizens voted to legalize it in all forms.
But the religious nuts have never accepted that, and want to have a chilling effect on embryonic stem cell work. Ironically, Bob Genetski, the subcommittee chair, has a lot in common with some of the less responsible students at Michigan State: He has a problem with drinking and driving. Starting April 7, he will have to have someone drive him to Lansing, because a judge took his license away.
That's your leadership in action.
So what can we do about this? Make your voices heard, especially by the governor, who has to run for re-election in two years. There are three seats up on the Michigan Supreme Court; if Democrats win two, that will end the reign of the rubber-stamp court. But the fastest way to restore balance in Lansing would be for the Democrats to gain nine House seats in this November's election.
That won't be easy; the GOP majority has drawn new lines to give themselves maximum advantage. But they've tried that before and still lost control. The lower house has been volatile; the Repubs gained 20 seats two years ago, the Dems nine the time before that.
If ever there was a case where better checks and balances were badly needed, Michigan today is it.
Tragedy and farce: For years, the government has required everyone riding in a car to wear seatbelts. They do this because it saves thousands of lives every year. What's even clearer is that it is essential that motorcycle riders wear helmets. Michigan has had a law for years requiring them to do so, and those who ride motorcycles have been screaming like spoiled toddlers ever since, demanding the right to splatter their brains on the highway.
Letting them ride without helmets makes no sense. The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning forecasts that without the helmet law, there will be an average of an additional 30 deaths and 127 incapacitating injuries every year.
The deaths aren't the big problem for the rest of us; the injuries are. Some survivors will rack up millions of dollars in health care costs.
Even if you never go near a motorcycle, you will pay in terms of higher health care costs. The insurance industry pleaded with the Legislature not to repeal the helmet law.
Normally, the lawmakers do double backflips to please insurers. But this time, they had to answer to a higher power: the liquor lobby. Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said the helmet law was bad because helmetless bikers from other states wouldn't roar across our borders to buy booze, and, even worse, "Michigan's own cyclists leave the state and take their business elsewhere."
Well, I imagine encouraging helmetless riders to buy and consume alcohol as they drive might be pleasing to Zero Population Growth. Few of the completely brain-dead produce children.
But it is poor public policy. Nevertheless, the lawmakers rolled over for the liquor lobby, which, I'm sure by pure coincidence, contributes a lot to their campaigns. They repealed the helmet law.
The Senate at first voted to require helmetless riders to buy $100,000 in extra insurance. Twice. Then, under pressure, they changed their vote. They did, however, require them to purchase an extra $20,000. If the Republicans carefully considered this, they would realize they just did exactly what they say is outrageous about President Obama's health plan: Mandating someone to buy insurance!
Gerry Hoffmann of Kalamazoo used to ride a motorcycle, and hated and protested the helmet law. That is, till he woke up in the middle of a highway, his bike destroyed, his helmet chipped up, but his brains intact. He wrote to the governor last week:
"Please do not sign the helmet law. The only thing that saved my life was that helmet. If you sign the helmet law, you will be signing the death warrant of many, many bikers," Hoffmann wrote.
Snyder was left with a choice. Save lives or please the liquor lobby. How he decides will tell us a lot about him.
Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org