POLITICS

A roundup of recent Michigan newspaper editorials

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The Mining Journal (Marquette). May 13.

Using kids in drug stings not a good idea

A downstate lawmaker's plans to introduce legislation barring the use of minors in drug stings seems a lot like common sense to us.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, says he will introduce the bill as early as this month. He has stated publicly that he wants to set a minimum age for use of persons in drug stings or as confidential informants.

It's worth noting that some other states have similar laws.

The Associated Press reported that all of this comes after Detroit police used a 14-year-old in a drug sting in mid March. AP stated in a recent story that the sting came to light after a parolee was arrested for trying to sell marijuana in a Lake Orion park.

Edward Watkins is charged with selling drugs to a person under the age of 18, a felony punishable by up to 8 years in prison. Watkins' criminal history dates to at least 1992, with convictions for larceny, assault with a dangerous weapon and receiving and concealing a stolen motor vehicle, AP reported.

Detroit police have defended the decision to use the child but others, including prosecutors and Kowall, have been critical. We have to agree.

Getting kids involved in these kinds of dangerous activities seems like an unreasonable risk, even though the potential rewards might make it seem worthwhile.

We hope the bill, whenever it's introduced, finds favor and is approved.

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Detroit Free Press. May 15.

An attack on the press is an attack against us all

It's hard to think of any justification for the Justice Department to have snatched up thousands of phone records from the Associated Press, but there had better be a forthright explanation coming.

From Attorney General Eric Holder, and from President Barack Obama, who should probably be dusting off résumés of Holder's potential replacements.

This is government intrusion at a level that goes far beyond the issue of press protections. If federal law enforcement feels empowered to rifle through journalists' private phone records, ostensibly looking for evidence of a government leak, then nothing would restrain similar action against other citizens.

Nothing.

And that's not a comforting feeling in a nation whose bedrock principles have been tested and stressed by new debates over the balance between security and liberty. The Patriot Act. Secret federal courts. Endless detentions of American citizens who are deemed — outside a court of law — to be "enemies." None of it is consistent with the most basic notions of freedom or the proper limitations on government.

The question now has to be whether a new culture of hyper-aggressive attention to national security is green-lighting constitutionally spurious behavior, even at the top levels of our government.

A few things to keep in mind as the investigation unfolds here: This kind of "drag-netting" is legal, but requires a subpoena. And where news organizations are involved, federal regulations also require that the attorney general sign off on it. Holder has a lot to answer for, one way or another. If he signed off on it, why? If — and right now this is unimaginable — he didn't, how on earth did it happen?

It's also true that this kind of broad sweep — a fishing expedition that reportedly included personal phones of AP staffers — is supposed to have a specific focus that justifies the extraordinary breadth of the records searched. Holder confirmed Tuesday that investigators were searching for the source of a "serious leak" of information that led to reports about a failed bombing attempt in Yemen. But it would seem that unless this action halted an emergent situation — like a pending terrorist attack — there's an important incongruity.

This issue surfaces alongside other indications that the Obama administration hasn't practiced the kind of care you would expect from those who wield tremendous government power. The issue with IRS officials singling out conservative groups for extra nonprofit scrutiny goes part and parcel with the Justice Department sweep of AP phone records.

Of course, some conservatives have leapt to an illogical conclusion: that Obama is President Richard Nixon, whose abuse of government power was his undoing.

That's absurd, but so would any suggestion that these transgressions don't warrant serious inquiry, and serious consequences for those guilty of over-stepping their bounds.

Congress will be doing its job (welcome back to work, folks) by pursuing that inquiry. Meanwhile, the Obama administration needs to be forthcoming and cooperative, and ought to do some bigger soul-searching about the proper bounds and conduct of our federal government.

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Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell). May 16.

Michigan must be frugal with budget surplus

The state of Michigan has been figuring out how large of a budget surplus it will have for the 2014 fiscal year. This is a relatively unusual position for a state government that spent much of the last decade weighed down by a structural deficit of well more than $1 billion.

The surplus comes as a combination of revised estimates for how the current fiscal year will turn out, combined with revised revenue estimates for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. Three state entities — the House, the Senate and the Department of Treasury — all make estimates, and their projections vary from a few hundred million to as high as $700 million.

The estimates are regularly updated, but the number officially agreed upon this week will play a significant role in the assumptions used to craft the fiscal 2014 budget that Gov. Rick Snyder wants adopted by June.

As might be expected, there are a lot of claims for the surplus. Senate Democrats say the money should be returned to school districts, which have been hit hard by the Republican budget-balancing strategy. In particular, they say some money should be directed to distressed school districts such as Buena Vista near Saginaw, which had to shut its doors this month.

Snyder would rather pay down debt and perhaps toss some money toward roads, especially if the Legislature turns thumbs-down on his proposed tax-and-fee hikes to fund transportation projects.

Lansing would do well to rein in the impulse to spend the money. It is not financially responsible to fund ongoing expenditures with uncertain or one-time revenue spikes. Michigan's recovery is at best modest. It would be unwise to return to unsustainable budget practices.

The state's first goal should be to provide essential services, but that must be accomplished through prioritized spending, not by writing checks just because a little money has been socked away. Analysts say one reason for higher revenues is that investors cashed in on stocks prior to last year's "fiscal cliff" fiasco. That produced revenue from capital gains that will not be repeated.

Although there is a surplus, the state revenue is actually still in decline. Part of that is because the state's unemployment rate is still too high to be described as a recovery able to support increased spending. But some of the decline is self-induced, as Snyder and his fellow Republicans pushed through reduced taxes on Michigan businesses.

There's the rub for Democrats who say that a balanced budget is small justification for policies that choke revenue, reduce payments to public schools and fail to provide adequate safety nets for social services. Further, even some Republicans in Livingston County chafe at a state that boasts of fiscal stability while slashing spending to local municipalities.

But the competing needs must be met within the confines of existing revenue, not by returning to the era of budget deficits. Fix some roads if possible, but otherwise bank the surplus.

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The Detroit News. May 16.

IRS scandal raises serious questions

That the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative political organizations is well established — the agency admits it, and the mound of evidence to support that admission grows by the day. Who did what and why, and who knew about it are then next questions.

Fortunately, the notion of the IRS exercising its enormous power for political purposes is so egregious that for the moment it has united Washington in a common purpose. Michigan Reps. Dave Camp, a Midland Republican, and Sander Levin, an Oakland County Democrat, who serve as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Ways and Means Committee, announced jointly they will launch an investigation. The Justice Department has dispatched the FBI to start asking questions. And President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised a thorough investigation and fired the acting IRS commissioner. That's a good start.

It is essential that Washington remain outraged and committed to uncovering the whole truth, no matter who is harmed by the findings. The American system rests on the trust of the people; that trust is placed at extreme jeopardy when the levers of government are manipulated to subdue political dissent or give one party an advantage over the other. That is clearly what happened here.

Lois Lerner, a top IRS official, admitted last week that for 27 months, groups whose names included the words "Tea Party," ''Patriots," or described their goal as "making America a better place" or advocated for debt and deficit reduction were given extra scrutiny and their requests for tax exempt status held up. Those groups and others, including some pro-Israel organizations, were asked highly intrusive questions other applicants were not subjected to, questions that were outside of IRS policy and perhaps outside the law. That's one of the things the FBI is checking.

Conservative groups were asked about the past careers and future political ambitions of their directors and their relationships with other political activists. The questioning was an affront to the Constitutional right to free political association, and gives the appearance that the agency was assembling an enemies list.

Meanwhile, liberal organizations were routinely approved for non-profit status during this period without being asked those questions. All of this was happening in advance of the 2012 presidential election.

Lerner blamed low level agents in the Cincinnati office for the abuse. But reporting this week indicates agency officials in Washington were aware of what was going as early as 2011. And yet IRS Commissioner Douglas Shuman, a Bush appointee whose term expires soon, testified before the House Oversight Committee in March 2012 that "There's absolutely no targeting." Misleading Congress is serious business.

Congressional investigators must determine if the IRS abuses had any intent to influence the 2012 election. The online journalism organization Pro-Publica reported this week that the IRS gave it information on 31 conservative groups in response to a pre-election Freedom of Information request, including details that by law should not have been released.

Colorado businessman Frank VanderSloot was publicly called out by the Obama campaign as a mega-donor to Republican Mitt Romney's presidential bid. Over the next three months, he and his company were audited three times by the IRS.

Conservative groups and individuals complain their confidential IRS information has been leaked to those who oppose them. An attorney for the billionaire Koch brothers, who fund conservative candidates and causes, said senior White House adviser Austan Goolsbee shared confidential tax information about Koch Industries with reporters.

The IRS is supposed to be an independent, non-partisan agency. And yet it has operated with a political agenda, practicing techniques of harassment and intimidation more commonly associated with Third World dictatorships than with a nation devoted to civil liberties.

Camp, Levin and crew must not stop digging until they get to the bottom of this manure pile.

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