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Thursday, Mar 17, 2011, 8:11 am

In Michigan, Democracy Enters State of Emergency

By Miles Kampf-Lassin

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Today, the threat of tyranny in America no longer stems from a distant monarch or cowboy president, but rather from the corporate state. Nowhere is this threat more palpable than in an "emergency" law signed yesterday by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The law, swiftly shepherded through the Michigan House and Senate, allows the Governor to declare any city, town or school district to be in a "financial emergency" requiring an "emergency manager" to take over the area's finances. This appointed "emergency manager" would be granted the ability to "suspend or dismiss elected officials" and even "disincorporate or dissolve city governments" all in the name of rescuing the area from a financial catastrophe. Not only could this "emergency manager" come from a corporate rather than public service background, but they could also in fact be a corporation.

This law is an affront to our democracy. Without any representation, residents are stripped of their power to influence the actions of their government. A basic tenet of citizenship in a democratic society is thrown into question. What this really amounts to is a transfer of township incorporation from the state to a corporate entity. Whereas in recent years, there has been acceleration in public service privatization across the country, from education to highways, power systems and even water, this law would actually privatize governance.

While Gov. Snyder insists that the law is a necessary response to the budget difficulties faced by the state of Michigan, the financial havoc being wreaked upon towns and municipalities in the state has been greatly exacerbated by the cuts he and his Republican colleagues have made to aid for districts and social service programs alongside huge tax cuts for businesses. This is crony capitalism at its finest: corporations fund campaigns and receive tax cuts while working people struggle and public services fail. But now corporations are, in return, provided the jurisdiction to make their own laws.

This is not happening in a vacuum. The unionbusting bills in Wisconsin, Ohio, Tennessee and elsewhere similarly use the pretext of budget gaps and deficits as a rationale to suspend the right to organize and cut working peoples' pay and benefits while providing enormous tax breaks for corporations. As Dennis Kucinich passionately exclaimed at the huge rally in Madison last Saturday, corporate America believes in government "of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation."

Although Gov. Snyder has said that he is not interested in attacking unions and believes in collective bargaining, his proposed law could actually be more of a threat to unions than the one signed by Gov. Walker in Wisconsin. This is because the Michigan law allows the "emergency managers" to "reject, modify, or terminate the terms of an existing contract...including collective bargaining agreements." This means that an unaccountable corporate body could dissolve all union contracts in an "emergency" area, lay off the unionized workforce, and outsource the jobs elsewhere if it deemed doing so more financially sound i.e. profitable. It should come as no surprise then that the UAW, Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, Michigan AFSCME, AFL-CIO and the Michigan Education Association have all come out publicly against the bill.

Absent from this "bold action" is any proposal to raise corporate taxes as a solution to the budget crisis. As David Sirota noted in a recent column, cities and states can never really go bankrupt as they always retain the ability to raise revenue by increasing taxes. By eschewing any discussion of this as an option, Snyder and his like attempt to disappear the concept from the public's mind, instead focusing on budget cuts as the only possible source of income for the state.

This is not to say that Gov. Snyder is an anti-tax zealot: he is perfectly willing to raise taxes when they do not affect his corporate backers. He is just more comfortable taking higher taxes from those that have not done enough to "share the sacrifice": the elderly and the poor. Along with this emergency law, Snyder has also put forward a plan to tax pensions and other retirement income as well as eliminate the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit, a program almost 800,000 people rely on every year.

The threat is real. What Snyder, Walker, and many others across the country hope to institute is unencumbered corporatism (fueled by Citizens United), free of any and all binds created by labor, the state, or democracy. But this power grab has already been met with resistance. Protesters have been demonstrating in the capitol of Lansing for over a week. On Tuesday, dozens of protesters held a sit-in in the capitol for hours. Larger protests are planned for today.

Unfortunately, while there has been some reporting on this story as it has developed, the Michigan legislature sped the bill through votes so fast that the public in Michigan and around the country has in large part not yet been made aware of the gravity of its implications. Once these implications are realized, there will likely be much more noise in the Great Lakes State.


Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. @MilesKLassin

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