My friend Judith Browne-Dianis, who runs the Advancement Project, just turned me on to this evil mechanism that allows governors to take over local decision making. On the heels of Wisconsin’s move to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, Michigan has taken things to the next level: stripping cities of self-governance.
Last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act. Now he can declare any city or district in financial emergency, appoint an emergency manager (at county, city, district or township level) and give that person the power to control budgets, sell off assets, bypass city councils and boards of education, take over school systems, de-certify public unions, and even to dissolve the city itself as an entity. This is corporate martial law—it won’t be the military taking over, but business interests that constitute an authoritarian regime.
The idea is that the state will punish localities where incompetent public officials and administrators are wasting money. This is the punishment angle on the master narrative that Republican governors across the country are taking up—“balancing the budget requires sacrifice.” Of course it only requires sacrifice from the people who have already cut to the bone. Simultaneously, Snyder, supposedly a moderate Republican, proposes a state budget that includes a 60 percent cut in corporate taxes, along with plans to tax pensions and kill the earned income tax credit.
Browne-Dianis points out that of the four Michigan cities and school districts (Benton Harbor, Detroit Public Schools, Pontiac and Ecorse) with this status right now, three are majority black. She says, “I believe this is the waterfront and Detroit bill. This is how Detroit will become gentrified. This is how corporate interests and developers will get to have wholesale control of our towns, our land and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The editors of Central Michigan Life note that financial emergency is broadly defined: “There is nothing stopping Snyder from declaring financial emergencies in municipalities whose officials he has a problem with, appointing his friends from corporate circles as the emergency managers who would then run the municipality in the way most profitable to themselves.”
The way the law came into effect holds an important lesson for progressives. In Detroit, the school board won a legal case they filed to stop the city’s financial manager from making dictatorial decisions about everything, including curriculum. To get around the court decision, the state then codified that dictatorship into law. When we win, we have to be prepared to keep fighting, because there will be a backlash. We can choose to see the backlash, as awful as it might be, as a sign of our progress, rather than as a reason not to have the fight in the first place. That’s something the people of Michigan clearly know, given the huge protests they’ve been carrying out. And this outrageous mess definitely requires a fight back.