Aug. 18 2010 12:00 AM

A talk with Sharon Parks on aiding low-income citizens


Sharon Parks will retire soon as president and CEO of the Michigan League of Human Services, where she started 33 years as a policy analyst. The League is an advocacy group for low-income residents. Kyle Melinn and Berl Schwartz interviewed her last week on City Pulse’s radio show, which airs weekly at 7 p.m. on 88.9 FM. Here are excerpts.

Q: Have the last several years at the League been more difficult than any other time prior?

A: It absolutely has. Clearly, a decade of budget difficulties has really made it worse. We’ve got a structural deficit. It started before the economy nationwide turned bad, it started before the auto industry dislocation and then everything fell apart, so we don’t have 10 cents to spare and that makes everything difficult. But I think really the other culprit is term limits. I think it’s been just devastating for the effective functioning of state government. We just don’t see lawmakers with a lot of institutional history, with a lot of experience under their belts, in particular areas like the budget, for example, and complex tax policy. And there’s not time for them to really build relationships and trust, and I think that’s had a damaging impact.

Q: Do you think today’s term-limited legislators truly understand what “cuts to the budget” mean — and we’re talking about Medicaid budget and Department of Human Services budget — do you think they really get what a cut to a certain line item means?

A: I think very few of them have any understanding. It’s so easy to come in and say, “I think we should cut X,” only to find out that that is a tiny bit of money or that it’s federal money or that in cutting that you give up a federal match. So there are mechanics like that that they don’t understand. And then they have an unfamiliarity with the programs and the populations they serve and what a particular cut will mean in terms of the lives of real people and real communities.

Q: Can you give us an example?

A: Mental health issues. Mental health services are not a luxury. We’re not talking about “the walking well,” or whatever the phrase is, where you just need to go see a counselor to help you feel better. We’re talking about people with some serious mental disorders, and when they go untreated it’s just a downward spiral for folks. So then we see people in jail and prison instead of receiving good mental health care, we see people who aren’t functioning well, they’re just dysfunction al and it’s not a criminal behavior, it’s a mental health issue. So much of the poverty we have — there are all kinds of reasons that people are in poverty and one of them is mental health, where you’re just not able to get or maintain a job because of these issues.

Q: You’ve watched several budgets now where tax hikes were cleared off the table and it was “restructuring government,” allegedly, but mostly it was cutting government and cutting government services. Do you think there is a strategy that legislators could use or some kind of talking points that would be more effective in convincing people that, “Hey, listen, we actually do need a little more revenue here because the least among us are really struggling?”

A: Here at the League, we talk in terms of modernizing our tax structure and not “we need more money,” “we need to raise taxes.” The fact is that we have an antiquated tax structure and it’s based on the production of goods, not services; in terms of income, it was designed at a time when income disparity was not at all like it is now; it was designed at a time before we were even thinking about the baby boomers aging. So I think we need a comprehensive look at our tax structure and we need a tax structure for the 21st century, really.

Q: If John Engler were still governor and let’s say we had a Democratic legislature, do you think that it would be different? I mean, if we had more experienced hands on deck?

A: Experience makes all the difference. I really believe that. You know, John Engler was governor when we managed to do the Proposal A measure and at the time it was such a drastic thing to eliminate all local property taxes for school funding. I mean, we/they/the Michigan legislature created a hole larger than our whole general fund but we had a committed and experienced legislature, and I’m proud to say that our board chair (former state Rep. Lynn Jondahl, D-East Lansing) really led the effort to come up with a way to fill that hole and make sure that our schools were funded. He worked with others who also were experienced and with whom he had relationships. People worked across the aisle and took to the voters two plans: one that would take effect statutorily if the ballet proposal passed and the other, of course, was the ballot proposal that did pass. So our schools were funded and we averted a disaster. I don’t know that that can happen today.

Q: You’ve worked here in Lansing under four different governors. Who do you think has been the best advocate for the poor?

A: Looking back on it, I think Governor Milliken. And one of the reasons I say that is our office moved recently and we found a lot of old reports, and Governor Milliken had a blue-ribbon commission on welfare reform. Instead of a commission that came up with recommendations to cut back and be more strict and more punishing to poor people, if you will, his commission recommended the establishment of the state’s general assistance program that served single adults, that we got rid of under Governor Engler. His commission recommended a whole range of changes that made the system so much better for low-income people and really recognized their needs. He took that on as a governor, and a good part of those recommendations were implemented, and I think that is a real step, a real indication of leadership in terms of what the low-income people of Michigan need. I don’t think Blanchard had a steady commission—the report never saw the light of day—and Engler, of course, dismantled a lot of those programs, and Governor Granholm just hasn’t had any money to do anything with.

Q: As we look at the gubernatorial candidates, what are some of the things that people who care about these issues should be looking for as they try to make up their minds whether to support Bernero or Snyder?

A: I hope voters become educated on what their tax dollars are funding in terms of the critical services that people need and also the public services that we all enjoy, like our parks, our roads, our public schools. So when candidates talk about cutting services, they should say, what do you want me to do without? What do you want our friends and neighbors to do without? What do you want my family members to do without? I think new and innovative solutions— if the only proposals are more tax cuts, we’ve been cutting taxes, and I think voters should be wary of more of the same. I think voters should demand that legislators be accountable to the people of Michigan and that their job is to be a steward and a leader in Lansing and not be thinking about, “What am I going to do after my second term, once I’m termlimited?” And I think that’s what’s really lacking today, is just sort of the whole feeling of stewardship. I think before terms limits we had legislators on both sides of the aisle who really considered themselves stewards of the state.