As longtime critics of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare, we were surprised when the Michigan Economic Developers Association invited us to speak at its annual conference on Aug. 20. Making our case to this group seemed like a thankless task. But when we learned that we’d be debating the issue with current mayor of Lansing and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Virg Bernero, we couldn’t resist. Michael Van Beek, director of research, took the job.

Van Beek made a strong case against taxpayer-funded economic development programs, drawing on the center’s past work. The case is simple: These programs are unfair to businesses that do not get special tax favors, and decades of economic research consistently shows that they don’t grow the economy.

Bernero used anecdotes from his experience as mayor to make his case. And, like many supporters of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare do, he stated that he must hand out select tax breaks because everyone else is doing it too.

To this Van Beek reminded the crowd of an adage they probably heard from their mothers: “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you, too?” He added that since the research shows these programs don’t work, we should let other cities and states waste their taxpayers’ money and invest in infrastructure instead.

All told, the debate was a hit.The folks at the MEDA were gracious and welcoming, and the debate moderator, Jeff Williams of Public Sector Consultants, also did a fantastic job. While the audience did not pick a winner, the experience made clear that the Mackinac Center is the leader in fighting against unfair practices in the marketplace.