By ELIZABETH DANEFF
Capital News Service
LANSING — Should he be elected, former Gov. James J. Blanchard has big plans for the first week he returns to the Statehouse: completely reorganize state government.
In an exclusive interview with the Capital News Service, Blanchard said most state departments are out of touch with Michigan citizens.
“In my first week in office, I will totally reorganize our state government,” Blanchard said. This was the first time his restructuring plan was made public.
Matt Resch, deputy press secretary for Gov. John Engler, said Blanchard thinks Michigan citizens have a short memory. “These are ideas he tried before that didn’t work. I think the facts are clear that when Blanchard left office, the state of Michigan was a mess.”
Blanchard said his top priorities would include separate commerce and labor departments, a new public health department and a new mental health department. These agencies were separate departments before Engler was elected.
“I think the current administration substituted renaming departments and reorganization for innovation,” Blanchard said. “They didn’t know what to do, so they shuffled things around.”
According to Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, Engler has made it easy for his successor to make changes to state government.
“Let’s put it this way,” Ballenger said. “One thing Engler has done for him, or anyone who will be elected, is strengthen the power to restructure state government as he or she sees fit.”
Blanchard said state offices are poorly managed, and if he has his way, there will be major department head changes.
Specifically, he wants to improve management within the department of transportation. He would also like to build a new department of Great Lakes and Water Quality and renew the Governor’s Conference on Tourism.
“A lot of things have been neglected including the health of automobiles, manufacturing and tourism,” Blanchard said. “We need to modernize our state.”
Ballenger said Blanchard never took advantage of making changes to state government during his term as governor. “He was no where near as aggressive as Engler was in reshaping the executive branch.”
Top concerns of Blanchard’s also include the state of mental and public health in Michigan. He said both are big problems the Engler administration has yet to address.
“We’ll no longer have this huge bureaucracy of mental health that doesn’t do anything,” Blanchard said. “The rate of immunization in Detroit is worse than any other metropolitan area in the nation.”
Resch said Michigan’s mental health services are community-based, allowing patients to remain close to their homes.
“It’s certainly a challenge for families with relatives suffering from mental illness,” said Resch. “Engler has put into place a system that lets patients receive care from within their community. Jim Blanchard wants to go back to an era that didn’t work.”
The early retirement plan Engler offered to state employees Wednesday also came under fire by Blanchard.
“State employees are being treated as pawns for budget problems created by state government,” Blanchard said. “I think we’re going to have to renew the civil service in a way that keeps talent, attracts talent and treats workers with respect.”
As part of the state’s 2003 budget, the Early Retirement Program would allow employees who meet an 80-and-out eligibility requirement (age and number of years combined) to retire.
According to Blanchard, the program is a ploy to get older, experienced workers who make more money out of state government.
Resch said the plan is an opportunity for older employees to spend more time with families, but that it will also save the state money. According to reports, more than 8,000 employees are eligible for the plan.
“All Engler did was put the plan out there,” Ballenger said. “It’s out there to help the employee and the state. Early retirement isn’t a gun to someone’s head. Employees can choose what they want to do.”
“He’s trying to borrow money from the future,” Blanchard said. “In my point of view, he already stole it from the past.
“A Democrat would say he’s not able to manage the budget so he’s passing the buck. It’s the kind of bookkeeping that got Enron in some very serious trouble.”
© 2001, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ELIZABETH DANEFF