The close of the twentieth century finds Michigan in a position that seemed impossible to doomsayers of barely a decade ago. The Great Lakes State is currently enjoying record low rates of unemployment, a thriving economy, growing educational opportunities, and a sense of accomplishment and high spirits. The overall state and local tax burden, expressed as a share of personal income, is less than its 1990 level and more in line with the average of other states. The portion of the population dependent upon public welfare has fallen to historic lows. After years of a negative, "Rust Belt" image, Michigan is now viewed favorably as a hospitable place to raise a family and start a business.
But all of this good news does not mean that all is well. Many Michigan families still struggle with high tax bills and poor schools. The current good times are no reason for the Legislature or the Governor to rest on their laurels. Indeed, good times provide some of the best opportunities to make long-term, positive changes. Though Michigan is a more prosperous place today than it was a short decade ago, much can be done to make it even better and to consolidate and extend the gains already made. Schools can get better, taxes can get lower, workers can get greater control over their paychecks, and government can get smarter at the same time that it gets smaller.
New legislative opportunities come with a House, Senate, and Governorship in the control of a single party, but so do new responsibilities. How those responsibilities are met will tell us whether the voters elected statesmen last November, or just another batch of politicians. The kind of leadership we at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy hope to see from Lansing in 1999 is defined by adherence to the principle enunciated by Thomas Jefferson with these words:
. . . a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government . . . .1
In accordance with this Jeffersonian principle, the Legislature and the Governor should evaluate each item in the state budget, asking these nine key questions:
Does the item duplicate what other state agencies or the federal government are doing in that area?
Does the item primarily benefit a single favored constituency or area rather than the state as a whole?
Does the item attempt to accomplish a task that is best left to private firms, charities, or families?
Are direct users or beneficiaries of the service paying a reasonable amount of the cost?
Does the item create or expand an "entitlement" that cannot be reasonably withdrawn if necessary or advisable in the future?
Has the item received significantly more money in recent years but not used that money in the most effective way?
Has the item been funded in the past by deceptive or inappropriate legislative or executive actions?
Does the item use taxpayer funds for political advocacy or to discriminate against racial or ethnic groups?
Does the item discourage self-help and personal independence or encourage reliance upon government unnecessarily?
In evaluating the larger picture—the proper role of state and local government and the measures necessary to improve the quality of life and enhance the liberties of Michigan citizens—the Legislature and the Governor should ask what government must do or not do in five key areas to
strengthen control over schools by the most "local" entity of all—Michigan parents;
assure that in the workplace, neither businesses nor unions take unfair advantage of workers;
strengthen the viability, independence, and responsibility of the family unit;
lighten the burden imposed upon citizens by the cost of government; and
ensure that every act of state and local government in Michigan adheres to the highest principles of sound economics, good government, and proper constitutional authority.
In the five sections to follow, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy offers dozens of specific ideas for the new Legislature and the Governor to consider. The five sections—Strengthening Property Rights Protection, Reforming Labor Law to Protect Worker Rights, Improving Education for Michigan Children, Spurring Economic Growth and Development, and Enhancing the Transportation Infrastructure—represent not the final word, but rather a good starting point for positive public policy change. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy will continue in the coming months to elaborate on these proposals for a better Michigan.