Republican Gov. Rick Snyder came into office as a self-styled champion of small government. How’s he holding up? Let’s take a look.
In March, the Republican majority in the state Legislature passed Public Act 4 — a law that gives Snyder the authority to declare a state of “financial emergency” in any municipality or public school district in the state. Though similar state laws have been on the books since 1988, Public Act 4 has been the source of much controversy because it significantly extends the powers given to the governor and his appointees.
Here’s how the law works.
If state lawmakers fear that a local government is under “probable financial stress,” the governor may appoint a review team to determine the severity of the situation. If the governor confirms the existence of a financial emergency, he may unilaterally appoint an emergency manager to take charge of the local government.
Now here’s the best part. According to the Michigan Department of Treasury’s summary of Public Act 4, elected officials of the local government in question “are prohibited from exercising any of their powers of offices without written approval of the Emergency Manager, and their compensation and benefits are eliminated.” And that’s not all. “In addition to other powers, an Emergency Manager may reject, modify or terminate collective bargaining agreements, recommend consolidation or dissolution of units of local government, and recommend bankruptcy proceedings.” An emergency manager stays in power until removed by the governor, the state Legislature or “until the financial emergency is rectified,” which, essentially, is left up to the emergency manager to decide for himself.
Snyder hasn’t shied away from exercising the unprecedented powers given to him under Public Act 4. Already, he’s appointed financial emergency managers to Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse and the Detroit Public School district. Flint recently became the latest municipality to be slapped with the mark of “financial emergency,” which resulted in Snyder’s appointment of a new emergency manager there last week as well. What were the appointee’s first actions as Flint’s new leader? Firing locally elected officials, of course.
What a victory for small government. I’m sure our Founding Fathers would be proud of the state of our democracy.
The debate has taken on a new urgency over the last several days as Snyder readies a team to review Detroit’s finances, spurring many to speculate that the Motor City may be the Governor’s next target for emergency management. In response, Rep. John Conyers (D — Mich), whose congressional district includes Detroit, has sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the constitutionality of Snyder’s takeovers. Some critics have framed the implementation of Public Act 4 as an affront to civil rights victories of the mid-20th century. (All of the municipalities to which Snyder has appointed emergency managers have large African-American communities.)
Snyder and his supporters justify Public Act 4 on the grounds of accountability. (After all, the law is titled “Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act.”) They cite excessive spending on the part of locally elected government officials as the primary threat facing the state of Michigan.
I beg to differ.
Yes, we can all agree that accountability is vital to a functioning democracy. But in usurping the democratic process, replacing the elected with the unelected, telling citizens that their votes are dispensable and consolidating power in the hands of the few in the name of stability, all these principles fly in the face of what today’s GOP so often preaches. The hypocrisy is astounding.
I’m surprised and slightly disappointed at how little attention all this has received, both on campus and in the media. I challenge anyone who cares about democracy, Detroit or both to follow this story as it develops over the coming weeks. Don’t let it fall by the wayside. More importantly, don’t let Snyder dismantle local governments on the grounds of an “emergency.”
Daniel Chardell can be reached at email@example.com.