Symbolic Victories?

The Michigan Legislature is facing a variety of challenges – poor economic growth, budget deficits, a stifling business climate and a major city whose public schools are failing its children. Yet no fewer than 11 new bills have been introduced to deal with comparatively trifling matters: new state symbols.

Thank goodness we have a full-time legislature.

The current bills, if approved, would nearly double the number of state symbols. The proposals include promoting the ruffed grouse to the "state game bird" (presumably to accompany the current "state game mammal," the white-tailed deer). The Legislature is deliberating another state song: Douglas Malloch’s 1902 version of "Michigan, My Michigan," not to be confused with either Winifred Lee Brent’s 1862 version of "Michigan, My Michigan" or a current state song entitled “My Michigan.” (You know the words.) The tune is a minor variation on "O Christmas Tree," itself taken from "O Tannenbaum."

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Even the apparently serious proposals leave you scratching your head. For instance, there’s a bill that would make the marbled salamander Michigan’s "state amphibian." Supporters of the bill argue that this salamander is a threatened species in Michigan and that awareness of its status could help prevent the man-made changes that are destroying its habitat.

But the marbled salamander lives in at least 28 other states in the South and East, including Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and New York, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Nor is it clear that much can be done about the salamander’s scarcity in Michigan: The state Department of Natural Resources observes that "since shallow woodland ponds often freeze completely during typical winters, it is likely that the fall breeding habits of this species are not well adapted to Michigan’s present climate."

In fact, the DNR notes that the salamander has "not been reported in Michigan for many years, and may be extirpated." So the marbled salamander hardly seems like a natural state symbol: It is neither numerous in Michigan nor unique to the state.

A related question arises with the bill to make milk an official state beverage. Michigan farmers obviously sell milk, but they’re scarcely unique in doing so. One might think that Frankenmuth Beer, St. Julian’s wine, or Absopure water would make a better state beverage, since they are made by companies located in Michigan.

Alternatively, Vernors could claim a unique Michigan connection, even though it is no longer manufactured here. In 1866 James Vernor, a Michigan native, developed the beverage that became the world’s first carbonated soft drink. Governor Granholm even recognized Vernors’ significance to Michigan by sending Governor Schwarzenegger a package that included the drink as part of a friendly wager on the NBA Finals.

Some proposals for state symbols appear politically motivated, such as the resolution to make the mourning dove Michigan’s "bird of peace." This was introduced in response to a bill that made it legal to hunt mourning doves in Michigan. Politics of the moment aside, Michigan doesn’t have much more claim to the species than any other of the 48 contiguous states, as the birds live in each of them.

And, after all, What’s in a state symbol? Many in Michigan hold the robin to be our state bird. But the robin is not to be found in the clauses of the Michigan Compiled Laws, along with our other officially recognized symbols. There was a lowly legislative resolution passed in 1931 claiming the robin as our state bird, and the current bill officially elevating the Kirtland’s warbler to state bird is unlikely to pre-empt the robin in people’s minds.

Despite government decrees, people tend to develop their own symbols for Michigan. Those of us who enjoy catching brook trout, or smile at the beauty of the apple blossom, or take pleasure in combing Michigan’s beaches for Petoskey stones are unaffected by official designations. Proposals for a state insect (the monarch butterfly), nickname (the "Great Lakes State"), dialect ("Yooper"), fruit (the cherry) and cookie (the "Michigan Treasure Cookie") are not likely to change people’s minds, either.

Perhaps the best explanation for all of these bills is that our Legislature has too much time on its hands. Making Michigan’s Legislature part-time would help focus our representatives on the business of good government, instead of pointless, feel-good issues like state symbols.

In the meantime, however, the Legislature could consider one more symbol: designating itself the official "State Busybody."

Current Bills