Mackinac Center Adjunct Scholar Theodore Bolema was invited by the Michigan Society of Association Executives to serve on a panel at a recent conference regarding a presentation by Peter Hutchinson, co-author of the book "The Price of Government." The book outlines a method of drawing up state government budgets, and it has been embraced by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, and Speaker of the House Craig DeRoche. (For a longer review of the book by Mackinac Center Senior Economist David L. Littmann, go to http://www.mackinac.org/6984).
Legislative committees have taken the first steps toward implementing the process described by Hutchinson. What follows is an edited version of Bolema's comments as a member of this panel.
I’m here representing the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an organization that has consistently advocated limited government. In his book, Peter Hutchinson is apparently advocating a vision of a much larger government. So we would appear to have rather major differences in philosophy about the proper role of government.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of common ground here. And that is exciting.
The reason that there is much for advocates of limited government to like is because Messrs. Osborne and Hutchinson have turned their spotlight on the process of funding, rather than on what gets funded. I’m sure I would have strong disagreements with Peter Hutchinson on what should be funded, and yet I can endorse much of what he proposes about the process of funding and how it can be improved. We can quibble about the details, but the broad approaches in Parts Two, Three and Four are ones that can be very helpful and hopefully draw broad-based support.
In essence, what I find most exciting is that Mr. Hutchinson is proposing a change in how the game is played. When the process is one in which all budget cuts have to be justified, then the game is rigged in favor of continued government growth.
But if the process were one in which government programs have to be justified, then we can start talking about Mr. Hutchinson’s themes, such as right-sizing, putting customers first, buying services competitively, etc. And by doing this, we have a much better chance of finding areas of common ground.
Those who want to preserve and maybe even expand programs and those who want to eliminate or downsize programs could find common ground in some of these areas, without immediately turning the discussion into one over budget cuts and the bad motives of those on the other side of the debate. This would allow us to get away from this rigged game of those advocating less government having to defend "budget cuts," while those defending continued programs pretty much get a free pass.
Nonetheless, what I have said so far really skirts the bigger issue: What is the proper role of government in our state? This is the area in which I part company with Mr. Hutchinson. Part One of his book, and in particular Chapter 3, lays out a process of using polling, focus groups, town hall sessions and other mechanisms for determining what citizens really want. That’s interesting, but there is another, more traditional mechanism available that generally works pretty well when it is used. That mechanism is called "leadership."
Let’s take a bill that was introduced recently in the Michigan Legislature. House Bill 4071, sponsored by Rep. Dave Hildenbrand, would establish a state program to collect donations of legally taken game from licensed hunters and distribute it (or other food) to people in need.
That sounds nice. It would be a government program that wouldn't cost much to administer and would get food to the needy that might otherwise be wasted. I bet that would garner strong support from a focus group.
What would happen to these private programs if the government stepped in? Government officials have a political incentive to create a sense that a problem is being solved, which often leads citizens and private organizations to disengage. Government involvement also typically comes with onerous rules and regulations that end up impeding private efforts to deal with societal problems, and government guidelines usually result in a one-size-fits-all approach that is less efficient than what could be otherwise achieved.
So while I applaud Mr. Hutchinson for proposing new and generally better rules for playing the budgeting game, I worry that he is giving political leaders a chance to avoid the hard decisions of determining the appropriate scope of government activities. Political leadership and a better budgeting process are not mutually exclusive.
Theodore R. Bolema is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Bolema is also an attorney in the Finance and Law Department of Central Michigan University’s College of Business Administration. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.