Emergency Financial Manager

MI Dems to Benton Harbor: You’re on Your Own

Eclectablog, who has been doing solid reporting on the takeover of Benton Harbor by an Emergency Financial Manager, has been wondering why MI’s Democratic Party hasn’t been more vociferous in supporting Benton Harbor. Today, he reported that MI Dems Chair Mark Brewer told Berrien County’s Dems that the MDP would not help them.

The occasion was the monthly meeting of the South County Democratic Club in Berrien County. Commissioner Dennis Knowles was in attendance. According to Commissioner Knowles, with whom I have spoken, Chair Brewer informed him that the MDP “could not help Benton Harbor” though he encouraged their recall effort of Rep. Al Pscholka. The MDP, however, will not assist in any way. In other words, Benton Harbor is on their own.

Now, while I don’t always agree with Brewer’s tactics, I respect his pragmatism, so I suspect part of what’s going on is driven by funding and/or a sense of the viability of recall efforts (the Snyder recall, in particular, would be really difficult to pull off because of the way our recall law is written).

But I also suspect something else is going on. Remember, Democrats in MI have themselves supported the concept of Emergency Financial Managers. In fact Jennifer Granholm’s administration put Pontiac and Benton Harbor itself into EFM status. So while Dems might be happy to knock off some Republican State Reps, they apparently remain committed to a city-based approach to financial stability. And that, it seems, stems at least partly from the way race has played out in this state.

As I noted before, one of the key factors contributing to Benton Harbor’s awful state is racism. Ditto Detroit, the schools of which are widely assumed to be the next target for Snyder’s EFM law. In both cases, a long history of segregation has resulted in the loss of the tax base of the city as more affluent whites left. The proper financial solution to that problem should have been more regionalized funding, but that wasn’t politically viable. Remember–MI is the home of the Reagan Democrats, the working class whites whom Reagan persuaded to put social  issues ahead of their own class interest.

The thing is, it probably could be today. Or could have been just after the 2008 election. Here’s what Stan Greenberg said at that point when he claimed–prematurely, given the rise of the TeaPartiers–the Reagan Democrats were dead.

For more than 20 years, the non-college-educated white voters in Macomb County have been considered a “national political barometer,” as Ronald Brownstein of National Journal described them during the Democratic convention in August. After Ronald Reagan won the county by a 2-to-1 margin in 1984, Mr. Brownstein noted, I conducted focus groups that “found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African-Americans.” So what do we think when Barack Obama, an African-American Democrat, wins Macomb County by eight points?

I conducted a survey of 750 Macomb County residents who voted Tuesday, and their responses put their votes in context. Before the Democratic convention, barely 40 percent of Macomb County voters were “comfortable” with the idea of Mr. Obama as president, far below the number who were comfortable with a nameless Democrat. But on Election Day, nearly 60 percent said they were “comfortable” with Mr. Obama. About the same number said Mr. Obama “shares your values” and “has what it takes to be president.”

Given Macomb’s history, this story helps illustrate America’s evolving relationship with race. These voters, like voters elsewhere, watched Mr. Obama intently and became confident he would work for all Americans and be the steady leader the times required.

For a brief period in 2008, MI (which is a pretty damned segregated state) put aside its legacy of racism in hopes a black President could bring benefits for all Americans. (Then Republicans used Obama’s imperfect effort to do that–in the form of health care–to stoke that racism again.)

It seems to me, Democrats need to finally, enthusiastically embrace a model that puts collective well-being at the center of a plan to respond to globalization, rather than letting black cities suffer the twin plights of racism and globalization. And that ought to include not only some political support for Benton Harbor’s fight for democracy, but also some creative solutions that don’t amount to starving cash strapped cities all in the name of short term–and short-sighted–fiscal responsibility.

Some Context on MI’s Emergency Financial Manager Law

On Saturday, I described how the democratically-elected government of Benton Harbor, a poor, segregated MI city about an hour south of me, lost its power to the city’s Emergency Financial Manager.

There are two parts of the story that I didn’t explain, which this post from wizardkitten does well. First, the EFM law goes back some years in MI and EFMs already had a great deal of power.

The idea of the state appointing an Emergency Financial Manager for local governments in distress actually dates as far back as 1988, and that led to Public Act 72 of 1990 (Blanchard did it!). Basically, it said that in order for the state to protect it’s own credit and fiscal operations, any city or school district that was on the verge of bankruptcy would receive a review of their finances from a state-appointed team, and, if that panel found that the city or school district did not have an adequate plan to get out of trouble, a manager would then come in and help clean up the mess.

The manager could hire staff and direct existing staff. They did not need public approval for a new fiscal plan. They could do anything they wanted with the outstanding financial obligations (i.e., the bills). They could renegotiate labor contracts, but they could not abrogate those contracts. They could eliminate positions except of those of elected officials, cut pay and benefits even for elected officials, sell property, review payroll – anything but touch retirement. They could not raise taxes. They also had the ability to start Chapter 9 bankruptcy if all else had failed.

Michigan’s initial muted response to Governor Rick Snyder’s move to increase EFM powers derives, IMO, from our familiarity with the concept and the fact so many are at a loss to figure out what to do with cities gutted by globalization. We’re the frogs in the boiling water of globalization, I guess, and we didn’t notice the heat going up on democracy itself.

The other really important part of Snyder’s new empowerment of EFMs has to do with the real target: teachers. Specifically, the teachers in Detroit’s public schools.

I believe this is a warm-up for Detroit, and perhaps the 150 other school districts that Snyder’s budget cuts are going to put closer to bankruptcy. DPS EMF Robert Bobb has indicated that he “planned to exercise his power as emergency manager to unilaterally modify the district’s collective bargaining agreement”, and by law the school district has now sent out 5,466 layoff notices to its union employees, and 250 pink slips to their administrators as well. (that is nearly a yearly occurrence anyway lately – but this time it takes on a new urgency.)

Bobb, under order by law to produce a plan to balance the books, came up with closing half of Detroit’s schools by 2014, 70 to be exact. He doesn’t want to do this, as class size is expected to swell to 60 and parents would flee the district costing the schools even more money – but the state has given the order. Some schools may turn to charters, and a GM-style bankruptcy that separates the bad debt has been talked about. Whatever happens, it’s going to be seismic.

As far as the city goes, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is asking for benefit concessions from city employees and a new tax on casinos to help balance a budget that has a $155 million deficit and could grow to $1.2 billion by 2015, and his plan is already meeting resistance. Bing claims that, “If we are unable or unwilling to make these changes, an emergency financial manager will be appointed by the state to make them for us” – a bit of leverage, given what is going on with the Detroit Public Schools, and now this takeover in Benton Harbor. The heat is getting turned up fast in Motown, and it should reach a boiling point soon.

One other reason, I think, why we boiling froggies haven’t reacted sooner: the UAW. What EFMs have in store for teachers really matches what the auto companies accomplished with UAW’s workers even before the 2009 bailout. The UAW willingly accepted a two-tier system of wages (effectively meaning starting UAW workers make less than workers at transplant factories in other states), and took on the costs of retiree health care.

In other words, one of our state’s unions has already been gutted in the face of harsh threats. The threat of EFMs will make it easier to do so with the public unions too.

It’s all about turning MI from a state with a solid middle class into one with desperate workers willing to make huge sacrifices just to keep their jobs.

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