Emergency financial managers are being put in place by democratically elected governors throughout the country.
-By Sarah Jaffe
June 26, 2011- The onslaught of radical policies from the wave of Tea Party-supported right-wing state politicians swept in in the 2010 elections has been nearly overwhelming. Nearly every state that saw a Republican takeover of the statehouse or legislature has faced attacks on collective bargaining, immigration, reproductive freedoms, or health care. New power grabs have popped up constantly, and copycat bills have sprung up in their wake as if an official playbook has been passed around the country.
But one of the nastiest moves has been the institution, by Michigan governor Rick Snyder, of an “emergency manager” over several cities in his state, as well as the Detroit public school system. This manager has the unilateral authority to fire officials, close schools, void union contracts, and assume total control over areas declared to be in a financial state of emergency by the state.
And it looks like the idea is spreading.
In March, the Michigan legislature passed an update to state law that gave emergency financial managers expanded powers over cities and school districts facing financial distress. The provision drew protests immediately, with thousands converging on the capitol on March 16, the day the law was signed. Unions and community organizations recognized the law as a threat, not just in the cities where emergency financial managers were imposed, but around the state, where unions would be pressured to make concessions in order to keep a financial manager from being imposed on them. Since financial managers have the power to wipe away a union contract with a pen stroke, the unions are left with an impossible choice—concede great chunks of hard-won benefits and wages, or risk losing it all.
Ed Brayton at the Michigan Messenger wrote:
“While opponents of the law were organizing their efforts, the Emergency Managers already in place wasted no time in putting their newly gained powers to use. Robert Bobb, who was at the time the Emergency Manager for the Detroit Public Schools, announced on April 15 that he would use his authority to void union contracts and his office immediately sent layoff notices to all 5,466 members of the teachers union. The very same day Joseph Harris, the emergency manager in charge of the city of Benton Harbor, issued an order stripping all authority from elected boards in that city, including the city council. That order would provoke massive opposition and bring the attention of the national media to the realities of the new law.”
Benton Harbor is 92 percent African American and 42 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Helping those people doesn't seem to be in the job description of the financial manager, who has cut off support for an innovative local gardening program that helped the city's food-insecure residents sustain themselves. Apparently food isn't one of the “core services” that Snyder's spokeswoman told the Lansing State Journal were being preserved by the emergency managers.
As for the schools, the claim is that “failing” schools will be fixed by allowing for-profit charter companies to take them over. But that claim doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Recently, the Rachel Maddow show highlighted one Detroit school that was far from failing. Young mothers were not only graduating, but graduating with honors and going on to college from the Catherine Ferguson Academy, yet the emergency manager targeted the school for closure anyway. News that it would remain open as a charter school was bittersweet at best, since the for-profit company taking over the school specializes in "strict discipline academies" for students with legal problems. Teachers have already been informed that their wages will be cut.
Innovative public education programs like the Ferguson Academy aren't profitable, but they are an example of the good that public education can do. And the local food program, which promoted community self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship, was far less costly than tax breaks for big business. That these programs help people do exactly what conservatives want them to do—pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a better life for themselves and their families—is further evidence that the ideals of "success” and “efficiency” touted by the new radical right are actually just cover for their real agenda: consolidating their own power.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday, June 22 challenges the emergency manager law. Again, from the Michigan Messenger:
“This is an infringement on basic democracy,” said plaintiffs attorney John Philo of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. “It really is an experiment in a new form of government — one person rule.”
The complaint alleges that the law, “violates the rights of local voters by attempting to delegate law-making power and the power to adopt local acts to unelected emergency mangers, by suspending the rights of local electors to establish charters and to elect local officials, and by imposing substantial new costs and expenses upon local municipalities without providing new revenue.”