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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Interview With Dennis Lennox

I first crossed paths with Dennis Lennox more than two years ago. At the time, he was a junior student at Central Michigan University. By the time I first spoke with him, he had engineered a near year long battle with the faculty at CMU over Gary Peters. At the time, Peters was running for the U.S. Congress and concurrently he was holding the distinguished Griffin Chair. (Peters eventually won his Congressional election) The Congressional district was about 400 miles from campus. If, and now when, Peters won, he would have had to give up Chairmanship. Furthermore, the Griffin Chairmanship was supposed to be non partisan and a Congressional candidate was hardly that. Subsequently, emails and other leaked correspondence showed evidence of a corrupt process in choosing Peters for the Chairmanship.

Lennox waged a battle to have Peters choose, the Chairmanship or his Congressional race. By May of 2008, Lennox had effectively won his battle and Peters was asked to resign and he did. Lennox was not unscathed from his battle. The administration threatened sanctions against Lennox on a number of occasions. Eventually, a letter of reprimand was put into Lennox' university records. In fact, the school attempted to hold a number of disciplinary hearings at which the potential punishment of Lennox could have been expulsion. At one hearing, Lennox showed up flanked by no less than six members of the media. The administration quickly cancelled that hearing and held another in secret over Spring break a couple weeks later.

After this, Lennox flirted with a run for the State Congressional seat in his home district in Michigan. He eventually settled on running for drain commissioner in his home county of Cheboygan. Lennox ran on a unique platform, "Fire Dennis". He was running not only to remove himself as drain commissioner of Cheboygan County but to remove the entire position of drain commissioner in Cheboygan County. Why would he run on such a platform? First and foremost, there are no drains in Cheboygan County. The drain commissioner of Cheboygan County was symptomatic of the problems of governance in Michigan. The state's constitution requires that all counties have the same levels of government service. So, since some counties have a drain commissioner, all counties have to have a drain commissioner, even if Cheboygan County doesn't actually have a drain to commission.

Currently, there's a bill in the committee in the House and in the Senate to change the laws and allow for Cheboygan County to remove the position of drain commissioner.

For the last year, however, Dennis Lennox has been running for the State Legislature's Michigan House Seat in his home district.

To understand Lennox platform, first everyone must understand the economic situation in Michigan. That's where I began the interview. In fact, the state of Michigan has been in a perpetual state of recession/depression since 2001. Whereas most of the rest of the country recovered and boomed in 2002-2003, the state of Michigan continued to flounder. The maufacturing sector in Michigan never recovered, lead so to speak by the automobile sector, and it has kept Michigan in a near perpetual double digit unemployment. Call this past decade it's own lost decade in Michigan.

As a result, the state has seen a max exodus out of Michigan. The state of Michigan loses one family every twelve minutes and the state has lost more than one million people since the beginning of the decade. Some of the problems are structural. The automotive sector is in a state of decline and Michigan is intertwined with that sector. The city of Youngstown was once sprawling when it hosted the steel sector. When that sector depresse, so to did Youngstown.

The problems are also structural in that the government of Michigan, municipal, county, and state, is terribly inefficient, full of red tape, and as Lennox characterized them "crippling taxes". For instance, two years ago GM was looking to build a new plant. They were deciding between Michigan and South Carolina. It turned out that South Carolina could procure the building of this plant in half the time because Michigan carried so much red tape in terms of permits and other requirements. So, GM chose South Carolina. Michigan has its own OSHA (Occupational of Safety and Health Administration). The Michigan OSHA has its own rules and regulations that are stiffer than the national rules and it makes doing business in Michigan that much more difficult. The state of Michigan, between municipal, county and state offices, has more political elected offices than any state in the country. In his home county of Cheboygan, there's one politician for every 156 people.

The overlapping and inefficient government leads to crippling taxes. The state's personal income tax stands at 4.35%, the sales tax at 6%, and the state has recently instituted a privilege of doing business tax, a pseudo corporate income tax. That tax was instituted so haphazardly that forms and instructional materials weren't prepared in time for the tax to be effective. So, not only were businesses made to pay more in taxes, according to Lennox the increase was 200-300%, but business owners were confused by what forms to fill out. In 2007, Governor Granholm instituted a $1.7 billion tax increase. At the time, she promised that this tax increase would once and for all balance the budget and lead to prosperity. It hasn't and things have only deteriorated since. In fact, Lennox scoffed when I pointed out the commercials with Jeff Daniels.

Lennox said that after spending millions on these commercials business hasn't improved in the slightest.

So, to Lennox, to save Michigan the state needs a top to bottom reform of its entire government. Let's start with his position of drain commissioner. This happens because the state requires that every county "provide the same level of services". So every county has a prosecutor, a sheriff, a drain commissioner, etc. This is silly and inefficient. It creates a drain commissioner in a county with no drains. The biggest and smallest counties each have a sheriff. This is also inefficient. By changing the laws, smaller counties can combine some of their services. Other counties can remove unneeded offices like a drain commissioner in a county with no drains.

By changing laws, and in some cases the constitution, school boards can be combined, police departments, and many other government services that are currently being provided in an inefficient manner because that's the way the law requires it. Lennox made sure to stress that he doesn't want to close any schools. Instead, he wants to remove the layers of bureaucracy that govern the schools. For instance, in his county, there are six high schools and each has its own ELECTED school board. If the laws changed, those six school boards could be combined into one and a lot of government waste could be removed.

Lennox is a small government conservative which of course means he believes in lower taxes. The only tax he's committed to cutting is the $1.7 billion tax increase instituted in 2007. He's also taken Grover Norquist's no new tax pledge because as he put it "taxes hurt not help businesses and people". Lennox is focused on reforming government and making it more efficient because he believes a leaner and efficient government leads directly to lower taxes.

As for Lennox' current job, both bills are currently stuck in committee. The Speaker of the House,Andy Dillon, pledged to give his bill an up or down vote but that hasn't yet happened. The budget battle, which happens just about every year, put most other business on hold and the bill hasn't made it out of committee yet in either chamber. Lennox pledged to me that he would continue to pursue having the position of Cheboygan County drain commissioner removed if and when he makes it into the state's legislature.

The primary is in August of 2010. The district is more than 60% Republican and so the winner would be a favorite in November of 2010.

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