Ah, federalism, laboratory of democracy, in which states learn from each other.
For instance, take two Midwestern lab partners, each with state budget standoffs. Taking its cure, Michigan collapsed, convulsed, foamed a bit, then sprang back up with steamed citizens and a $1.5 billion tax increase.
To which some Wisconsinites, 13 weeks into their slo-mo crisis, said, "We want some of that!"
The governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle, is one of them. He's been beating the drum for some $1.74 billion in new taxes — on oil, on hospital stays, on cigarettes, on home sales, on music downloads, even on paying other taxes non-electronically — for about a year. A Democrat, he faces a split legislature, and Republicans controlling the lower house have staked their fortunes on allowing no tax increases.
Which is similar to Michigan, where Governor Granholm, also a Democrat, faced a split Legislature in which Republicans were unwilling to pass $760 million in income tax increases and a $725 million expansion of the sales tax.
Here's where they differ: When Michigan's budget expired October 1, the state lost the power to spend money. Rangers shooed campers out of state parks and Ms. Granholm laid off 35,000 employees for a few hours until enough Republican senators came round to her way of thinking.
"The opposition blinked," fiscal analyst of the free-market Mackinac Center, Mike LaFaive, says. It was a cave-in, head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance and a former lawmaker, Leon Drolet, says, in part because of weak Republican spines and in part because the shutdown threat strengthened Ms. Granholm's hand. House minority leader Craig DeRoche agrees with the last part: "I don't think [Granholm] would have been successful if we'd have been able to continue."
The lesson isn't lost on Wisconsin's Governor Doyle. In 23 states, budgets expire catastrophically as Michigan's does. Not in Wisconsin, where after the budget expired on July 1, the state simply rolled on under the old appropriation numbers. This won't do at all, says Mr. Doyle, who points out that state employees' raises have already kicked in. Then again, the state's due to bring in $1.2 billion more in revenue under its present taxes because of a growing economy. The governor is arguing the $1.74 billion in new taxes atop that are for necessary additional government — or, perhaps, $1.44 billion, since Mr. Doyle Tuesday offered to drop $300 million in new taxes.
"It isn't like there's anything more to debate on this budget," he said earlier, though half the Legislature disagrees. What Mr. Doyle lacks is Ms. Granholm's means of cutting off the debate.
"Maybe it's time for us to think about going back to that," he mused the other day of Michigan's example.
Mr. DeRoche feels the shutdown threat generally strengthens the hand of a governor. If so, that would be one more extraordinary power in Wisconsin, where governors can and do veto individual words, even figures, to rewrite anything the Legislature passes.
One is left wondering, however, whether another dynamic is at work, that of finding a big enough hissy fit to fend off a fundamentally popular proposition, holding the line on taxes.
This would be especially critical in a high-tax state. Michigan's tax increases take it from the 14th most heavily taxed state as reckoned by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation to the 11th, quite a leap from 30th place as recently as 2001. It's worse in Wisconsin, seventh most heavily taxed state.
The states got this way because their voters' representatives made them so. Yet they're up against new pressures. Michigan is hemorrhaging population and is in what amounts to a one-state recession. Wisconsin has seen a taxpayer revolt overturn county government in Milwaukee, and this year, more than a quarter of the Legislature's lower house have signed pledges not to raise taxes.
The really radical proposition remains restraint. You don't break the top 10 as a tax hell without a jones for always-bigger government. If that is to stay the pattern — if state government is to go on always gaining clients and heft — then the notion that tax rates can be left where they are to grow naturally for a while must be made to look unreasonable. A shutdown is perfect for this. Liberals have long contended that conservatives have it in for government. Nothing so dramatizes this as seeing the state parks shut down when Republicans won't agree to raise taxes. There's another lesson in Michigan as well. The tax increases have incensed swaths of the state. Mr. Drolet was getting an e-mail every 1.4 minutes asking for recall petitions. The local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses was joining the recall talk.
Recalls are difficult. But, Mr. Drolet notes, Michigan's last general tax-rate increase was in the early 1980s, and it was followed by the recall of two lawmakers. Just two, but the specter was enough to scare the rest out of the idea for two decades.
"You just need more ghosts to wail around the Capitol," he says.
About which it's worth noting: While shutdowns can panic legislators into agreeing to raise taxes, they also focus the attention of citizens on the matter — including more than a few ready to collect signatures. And, says Mr. Drolet, the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance has been helped by some five recall workshops run by the same group, Citizens for Responsible Government, that has managed successful recalls of local officials in Wisconsin.
Which is to say that there's no telling what you'll learn in the democracy lab.
Mr. McIlheran is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.