"States' rights" Republicans killing democracy, state by state

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Major assaults on democracy are underway on the local level in dozens of states.

The irony, people in the labor movement and their allies note, is that the assaults are being mounted by newly-elected Republican governors and state legislators who campaigned on platforms supporting "states' rights" over the "encroachment of the feds" and calling for greater local autonomy and control.

One of the most dramatic reversals of long-standing democratic procedures is being pushed in Michigan where a new bill allows the Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to declare a "financial emergency" in a city or school district and install a czar with the power to fire local elected officials, cancel contracts, seize and sell assets, eliminate services and even dissolve entire cities and school districts with no public input.

Unions expect that the sharpest edge of this undemocratic sword will be reserved for the labor movement itself. According to Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the bill "empowers this czar with the governor's approval to force a municipality into bankruptcy, a power that will surely be used to extract further concessions from hard-working public sector workers."

While demonstrations against attacks on collective bargaining were getting major attention in Wisconsin and Indiana last week less attention was given to the 1,000-plus people who crowded into Michigan's Lansing Capitol building to protest the governor's draconian bill.

"I'm here to tell the governor that he has to stop this attack on working-class citizens. Removing the people that we put into office without any check or balance is completely undemocratic," said Ken Bower, a United Steelworker Local 2-21 member from Escanaba, Mich., who protested at the capitol while the state senate debated the anti-democratic measure.

Unions note that conservative governors in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere all seek to place the burden of deficit reduction on state employees, students and workers. They also note that the efforts by the governors are accompanied by attacks on democratic procedures of all types.

They note that Michigan's governor, who has proposed ending Michigan's Earned Income Tax Credit, cutting a $600 per child tax credit, is behind what could be one of the biggest assaults on democracy in the states.

The governor would also cut funding for school districts by eight to ten percent and, at the same time, slash business taxes by 86 percent from an estimated $2.1 billion in 2011 to $292.7 million in 2013.

Snyder is not the only GOP governor having some real problems with what democracy looks like on the local level.

In Ohio, March 14, reporters were told they were not allowed to broadcast sound and images from the release that day of Republican Gov. John Kasich's budget plan.

Connie Werkamp, the governor's spokesperson, told journalists they could bring only pads and pens to the briefing. Reporters went crazy, lodging all kinds of protests that fell on deaf ears because later that night the governor held an "invitation-only" town hall meeting that was broadcast on government television.

Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan state AFL-CIO said the actions of the new governors border on "tyrannical."

Describing the governor's power grab in his state, Gaffney said, "It takes every decision in a city or school district and puts it in the hands of the governor's czar, from when the streets get plowed to who plows them and how much they are paid. In schools the czar decides on academics or if you have athletics. This is a takeover by the right wing and it's an assault on democracy like I've never seen."

The idea, labor and its allies note, is to first propose a budget that starves a city and creates a fiscal emergency and then to invoke that emergency to undo local elections or any other local democratic procedures that may be bothersome. "Is that not an assault on democracy?" Gaffney asked.

Photo: Wisconsin solidarity, March 5. John Bachtell/PW Flickr