As Center Senior Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh frequently observes, lawmakers are rewarded in many ways for "serving the system" rather than serving the people. So McHugh is enthusiastic about the launch of "Transparency 2.0," which will change those incentives and give new muscle to MichiganVotes.org and the Center's policy initiatives.
Launched in 2001, MichiganVotes.org was the Mackinac Center's first venture in "Transparency 1.0," the posting of large amounts of searchable, sortable information about government operations on a free Web site. This pioneer effort actually went beyond subsequent transparency projects (like posting government "check registers" online) by also "translating" complex legislation into objective (but often brutally honest) plain-English terms.
The site quickly became an institution among political activists, insiders and journalists. For example, its descriptions of votes and bills often appear in press reports as if they are the bill text itself. Annual reports using the site's database to expose the "missed votes" of local lawmakers have become a staple of newspapers and broadcast news departments across the state. The latest such report, at the end of 2009, was highlighted by The Detroit News, The Grand Rapids Press, The Flint Journal, The Saginaw News, Ludington Daily News, AnnArbor.com, The Muskegon Chronicle, the Observer & Eccentric newspaper chain in metro Detroit and WILX in Lansing, among others.
AnnArbor.com said of MichiganVotes.org: "It's a remarkably detailed collection of information, and it's all searchable."
On occasion, the site has exposed information about bills that the Legislature's own analysts missed or obscured, such as exposing the tax-hike potential of a school "sinking fund" bill in 2001, and a recent Senate-passed amendment expanding a pernicious "binding arbitration" law to multigovernment public safety authorities.
Working with the Mackinac Center Blog, Michigan Capitol Confidential, Facebook, Twitter and Tea Party and blogger outreach efforts, MichiganVotes. org will raise the salience of key information from the site by "pushing" it out to "where people live."
An example was our exposure last fall of Senate Bill 731, which would give statutory cover to a "stealth unionization" scheme like the subject of the Center's recent lawsuit (see related story, "Union Day Care Story Goes National"). We created a buzz by publishing the plain-English MichiganVotes description in Capitol Confidential and on The MC, and helped it go viral on Facebook networks and in the blogosphere. This helped change the atmosphere so that legislators are now rushing to introduce bills banning stealth unionization.