Outside job: Alma Wheeler Smith taking new approach to reforming Michigan government
After finishing a 14-year career in the Michigan Legislature, Alma Wheeler Smith is finding time for those things she's neglected — like getting that knee surgery she's been putting off for years because she didn't want to take time away from her job.
"Everything is going well following knee surgery, and the recovery process has been pain free," she said this week. "I'm very ready to start work on my next project."
The next project for Smith, a Democrat who lives in Washtenaw County's Salem Township, promises to rock the boat in Lansing as the state's new Republican leaders assume control.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Smith, who was term-limited from running for re-election to her 54th District state House seat and launched an unsuccessful bid for governor last year, plans to push forward an aggressive grassroots campaign over the next two years to reform state government.
It's possible she could accomplish more from the outside looking in than she ever did in the Legislature as she sets her sights on two issues: a graduated income tax and a compromise on term limits.
Smith is in the early stages of forming a grassroots action agency that will work to put those two issues on the ballot in November 2012.
AnnArbor.com: Tell me about the work you're doing now.
Smith: Having been frustrated through six years in the Michigan House about the Legislature's inability to take some pretty concrete action to eliminate our structural deficit, there are a number of think tanks that have talked about what needs to happen for Michigan — how that should be structured — and nothing happened. Not at the legislative level and not at the grassroots level. So my hope is to set up a 'do tank' that gets some things done, and work with the grassroots to make sure we have good support for a couple of initiatives that will help us fill the deep hole that threatens the state's ability to provide programs and services.
AnnArbor.com: OK, so this is going to be a 'do tank,' which implies you're actually going to get some things done.
Smith: That's right.
AnnArbor.com: How are you going to go about that?
Smith: I don't believe in government by initiative necessarily. The initiatives that I've seen in the past five or six years have been against something, have been short-sighted and have taken away rights and opportunities. I think many of the initiatives, including the term-limits initiative, were introduced by people who had no sense of what the responsibilities of state government are and how state government works. I will be, however — with the do tank — looking at a couple of initiatives. One of them would be a graduated income tax, which polls suggest that 60 percent or more of the population support. And we will do a lot of focus groups and polling to see if there is some adjustment to term limits that the citizens can get behind.
AnnArbor.com: So when you say 'adjustment,' you're not talking about getting rid of term limits, you're talking about finding a compromise?
Smith: I would love to get rid of term limits, but in order to get something passed, it will have to be a compromise. The citizens seem to believe still that limiting people in office gives them a little bit more control. We always had control. It was called the ballot and people lose. And people leave office after they feel they've done what they can in service. The average length of service for people in the Legislature prior to term limits was 14 years, so it was unnecessary. So it's time to revisit that and I realize we have to compromise.
AnnArbor.com: How many citizen signatures do you need to get an initiative on the ballot?
Smith: It's all based on a formula for the number of votes cast for the governor in the most recent election. That would be the 2010 election. But I would imagine 350,000. I haven't actually sat down to do the number calculation yet. We're working on the dollars to set up the organization. We have an initial $300,000. We're going to work on getting that matched through a couple of sources and see if we can't create a little organization that will work with the think tanks of the state that have already been out doing citizen education on some of these issues.
AnnArbor.com: So you already have $300,000?
Smith: Yes, I have a line on $300,000. I don't have it in my hand.
AnnArbor.com: What's the source of the funding?
Smith: It's a foundation. We'll be releasing that when we're set up.
AnnArbor: So it's not officially set up yet?
Smith: That's right. We're not official at all. $300,000 gets a few people working, but it doesn't get the kind of monetary commitment we need to get an initiative mounted. So when those dollars are in hand, I'm ready to roll. But there are think tanks in existence that we would be working with. I'm interested in having a conversation with Phil Power (the Center for Michigan) and Progress Michigan. I don't intend to recreate the wheel. There are organizations that already do very effective work in certain areas. I will try to build on theirs and coordinate with them, so that we have a really coherent strategy going into an initiative election in 2012.
AnnArbor.com: Let's go back to the graduated income tax. You said that's going to be the first thing you're going to push. Why is that?
Smith: Well, because it really addresses a change in the economics in the state of Michigan. We have over the last eight years, 10 years, seen a greater stratification of income. The graduated income tax is a fairer tax and it looks at the people's ability to pay. And it has the potential of generating the kind of revenue that we need to fill the hole that has been structural to the state's budget for a long time. The graduated income tax has been before us a number of times. People's acceptance of it has increased over time. People seem to get this, that the state can't continue to go on cutting programs and services, that we need the resources to fund education, health care and human services, and people are willing to pay taxes if they know how those dollars are going to be spent.
AnnArbor.com: Is it possible that you'll actually achieve greater structural change in state government outside of the Legislature than you did in the Legislature?
Smith: It's quite possible. When you have to work through a democratic process where there is a tremendous amount of compromise, thwarting of progress by special interest groups, things get bogged down and don't happen. So it's quite possible that we at least have a shot of making greater structural change from the outside than I did from the inside.
AnnArbor.com: The fact that you're going this initiative route, is that in some way a demonstration of lack of faith that the leadership that's in Lansing now will do the things that need to be done to turn our state around?
Smith: Well, when I hear the leaders of the Legislature saying that we can continue to run state government and balance our budgets with cuts, my answer is I have little hope that the Legislature will work cooperatively with the governor if he thinks we have to do something different than cuts to get that job done. I know that Randy Richardville, who is the majority leader in the Senate, has been talking about a reform in the business tax. Snyder himself talked about a reform in the business tax, but his proposal that he floated during his campaign is going to cost the state more money or it would deepen the shortfall that we already had.
AnnArbor.com: Is your proposal essentially a tax increase?
Smith: No, it isn't. About 80 percent of the citizens would see a tax the same or less than the 4.35 percent they're already paying on their income. 15 to 20 percent of the population would see an increase in the tax that they are paying, but those are folks at the higher income level.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.