Members of Michigan’s 94th Legislature will soon be arriving in Lansing. Will Rogers might caution that we should reach for our wallets before they do, but let’s not be so cynical. Instead, let’s assume the best.
In the spirit of helping each legislator get off on the right foot, I offer some unsolicited advice, beginning with this: Don’t make your time in office needlessly difficult. You may be tempted to fill your heads with a litany of notions and proposals that conflict with each other. You might feel some strange compulsion to one-up each other with the sheer number of bills you can concoct. Forget it. Keep your feet on the ground, and remember that not only is government not rocket science; you may not be a rocket scientist.
I know that’s humbling, but you’ve heard the old, tried-and-true adage about the beginning of wisdom being the awareness that there are things we don’t know. What one observer termed "the arrogance of officialdom" has been proven more than once. A majority of legislators, for instance, thought they were smarter than the marketplace when they voted to create a state broadband authority to enhance public access to the Internet, only to discover (beaucoup bucks later) it had become "one of the biggest flops in state government," in the words of one legislator who had originally supported the plan.
Understand that a few solid principles can go a long way to make life easier not only for you, but for the constituents you serve as well. If you are completely adrift without an intellectual rudder in the stormy sea of politics, you will waste time and resources foundering in waters you should have avoided in the first place. That means standing for something more than what the citizenry will fall for. It means having a core set of beliefs that act as a compass — making it easier to stay on course and escape shipwreck. It means being thorough in your thinking, not fanciful or myopic. You may find our "Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy" helpful in this regard.
Knowing what your core principles are, and how to effectively implement and defend them, should be very helpful in any debate on any issue. That may be especially true now that the clock is ticking on revenues from the soon-to-expire Single Business Tax. To supplement the above-referenced seven principles, here are a few more:
Michigan needs better, smarter and less government, not simply more of it. We’re not losing people and businesses because we feel undergoverned, and most of those who are leaving aren’t headed for places where they’ll get to keep even less of what they earn.
Business as usual is unacceptable in any department. Government ought to deploy the same critical, ongoing self-examination that most successful enterprises do.
Repeal something. The Governor and the last Legislature stuffed some 800 new laws into our voluminous law books. Does anyone really believe that every one of those 800 — and thousands upon thousands of others — are all needed, productive or even enforced?
Incentives usually achieve better results than mandates. North Korea relies on mandates. South Korea uses incentives. Look at a satellite photo taken of the two countries at night and tell me where the lights are on.
Michigan residents are their state government’s customers and bill-payers, not captives or guinea pigs. Ronald Reagan put it well when he said, "We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around."
No state is an island. We compete with other states and countries. We can’t pass laws and impose burdens as if we’re somehow insulated from those who pass better laws and impose fewer burdens.
Break the entitlement mentality. No agency of government, including our schools and universities, should assume they’re so good they’re entitled to receive ever more of other people’s money.
Taxes take many forms. Don’t fall for the claim that Michigan’s tax burden is average. Think about the especially heavy taxes the state imposes where it hurts the most — business and job creation — and don’t ignore the many other high barriers the state has erected in the form of costly regulations and special privileges.
No gimmicks. Fix the fundamentals. If you’re a legislator, think of Michigan as a giant restaurant hemorrhaging customers. On the one hand, you can offer discounts to a handful of customers if only they’ll stay and eat your bad food. A better option would be to improve the menu and cut the prices for everybody. Forget the photo ops. Just be a leader and do the right thing.
A year from now, who knows — maybe we can look back and say our state finally got its act together. We can certainly hope.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.