Tales from the Road: Gov’t in Turmoil Across Three States

Last week on vacation, I traveled across three states before spending time with friends and family on a lake in Michigan. While the great majority of my time, of course, was spent kayaking, canoeing, swimming, sightseeing, and eating much more than I should have, it was still hard to avoid the way residents of each state (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) are being fed messages by political influencers in these three states.

Minnesota, as most of you know, has been in “shutdown” mode since July 1. While there is apparently a deal in the works to resolve the situation this week (I’ll believe it when I see it), it already stands as the state’s longest shutdown in history. All of the rest areas in Minnesota are closed and the ramps are blocked off. All state parks are shut, and even the lights that usually shine on the “Welcome to Minnesota” entry marker on Interstate 94 near Woodbury are turned off.

As a Minnesota resident, I’ve heard plenty from both “sides” of this $1.4-billion dispute since it started. They say distance can give you perspective, so it was interesting to see from afar how both the governor (a Democrat) and the legislative leadership (Republicans in both chambers) were playing politics – and in some cases, not playing very nicely with each other. They are now both declaring victory and posturing for the next election cycle.

Meanwhile, when you cross the border into Wisconsin, there’s a sign that says “Open for Business” – a clear slap at the Gopher State across the Mississippi. But life is far from normal in the Badger State. As you have probably heard, the state is undergoing a number of recall elections against Republican legislators who voted in favor of Governor Scott Walker’s “cut to the bone” budget earlier this year.

Regardless of how you feel about Walker or the recall candidates, it has been true political theater with nasty campaign ads, mailings, phone calls, emails, bumper stickers, and rallies at the capitol building in Madison. I saw a number of bumper stickers while on the road, demanding the recall of the governor, (as well as some supporting Walker). And while in Wisconsin earlier this year, I noticed the airwaves were clogged with ads on both sides of the issue.

So, when we crossed into Michigan, I thought that maybe, just maybe, we would be spared some of the political signage and sentiment we found in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Think again. While it’s no secret that Michigan has suffered economically for years (even before the Great Recession), I hadn’t heard much about any specific issues.

That all changed when we pulled over to buy some cherries at a roadside stand. We were greeted by a billboard sponsored by the Michigan Education Association (MEA) claiming that education cuts had funded large tax breaks for corporations.

Perhaps the moral of the story here is that no matter where you live, or travel, this is not a particularly harmonious year for those involved in government.

Whether you’re a state legislator, governor, union member, special interest group, association or resident (remember them?), the mood is ugly and the “solutions” range from bad to worse.

I would wager that no one out there with authority over, or input into, such budgets will remember 2011 with fondness.

And this was not supposed to be an election year, which are always more acrimonious. Imagine what will happen in 2012 when legislators at the state and federal levels are up for election (in addition to the presidential contest).

Have you been on vacation this summer and noticed political advertising? Have you been to a state that has cut back on services (or even shut everything down – Minnesota)? I’d love to hear about it!

Editor’s note: I highly recommend northern Michigan for your next vacation. And make sure you go during cherry season!

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Chris Poirier

Like most things in government: Question: “How do you take something that’s already in bad shape and make it worse?” Answer: “Ask your elected politician to fix it.”
Sadly, this seems to be more so the case than just cynicism these days. Where have the days of true representation gone? Most elected officials seem more interested in the sound bites and headlines then actually doing the work of those who have elected them to office. We are in drastic need of a reboot on this political system as we have obviously gone astray from where our Founding Fathers truly felt we should be as a republic.

Tom Bullington

Great comment, Chris.

The only way we will ever reform representative politics in this country is by taking the money out of it. The efforts by a few brave politicians to shake up campaign finance regulations have either been halted by the courts or stopped cold by other elected officials who are hooked on political contributions.

Until we take money out of the equation (and seriously consider eliminating political parties, which squash all independent thoughts our representatives might have), we will continue to have the same corruption and inefficiency we are currently experiencing at the state and federal levels.

Shortening the election campaign cycle is another concept worthy of serious consideration. It seems someone is always running for president, and when the election is finally decided, the first thing in the news is “who will run next time?” Enough already.

No other country has this fascination with election campaigns – it does little but completely turn off people to politics and discourages them from getting more involved in their communities.