When it comes to Michigan’s 46 governors, few have had a memorable impact. In the 19th century, Austin Blair led the state through the Civil War. Then came Henry Crapo, who fixed the state’s finances and stood foursquare against government subsidies to private businesses. In the 20th century, Alexander Groesbeck built a state highway system and beat back two attempts to ban private education; and G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, ran an activist but remarkably clean administration and built the Mackinac Bridge.
These high-impact governors are now joined by one more: Gov. John Engler. No one with more than a passing grasp of Michigan history can claim that Engler hasn’t made a difference, or that he doesn’t rank among the most important of the state’s chief executives. In many respects, the state of Michigan will feel his impact for years and perhaps decades to come.
Engler met an inherited budget deficit head-on. Rather than increase taxes, he slashed spending in his first year. Twelve years later, the state’s General Fund is lower in real terms than it was in the final year of the previous administration of James Blanchard — a rare and remarkable example of sustained fiscal discipline. (The total state budget doubled, but much of that was due to increased infusions of cash from the federal government or the shift in education funding from local to state government.)
President Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers who struck illegally in 1981 set a tone that shaped policy for a decade. Likewise, Engler’s move to abolish the General Assistance program laid the foundation for a new way of thinking about public assistance. At the center of the Engler welfare reforms, which helped spur dramatic changes at the federal level, was the idea that welfare recipients have a responsibility to get their lives in order, regard public assistance as a temporary help, and do their utmost to work their way off the dole.
Under Engler, Michigan also became one of the foremost states in education reform. He led a charter-school revolution that is alive and well today; created a more equitable per-pupil school funding formula that dramatically reduced property taxes, and pushed a public-school-choice program that provides incentive for schools to compete for students. He supported legislation that put teeth in Michigan’s anti-teacher strike law and gave school boards more freedom to competitively contract for school support services.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy helped to craft or advance many Engler initiatives, but we also had our disagreements. We wish he had cut even more deeply into state spending and done more to reform labor laws to make unions more accountable to their members. Most importantly, we regret the second term’s turn toward discriminatory tax abatements and subsidies to business, and the creation of the semi-public Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Rather than allowing the state to pick economic winners and losers, we would have preferred more substantial cuts in everyone’s taxes.
But even on that score the governor should have substantial credit. No governor in recent Michigan history has done more to lighten the state tax burden than John Engler. Michigan made more progress in this regard than any other major industrial state, though we remain a relatively high-tax one. The governor’s fiscal restraint assured Michigan a top-drawer bond rating.
The judicial branch of state government will reflect Engler’s impact for years to come. The governor believes that judges and courts should interpret the law, not manufacture it, and he appointed many thoughtful and capable strict-constructionists to the bench. Michigan’s current Supreme Court, in which five of the seven justices are committed to this view of the law, may be the finest in the nation. This is, in great measure, because of Engler’s influence.
Gov. Engler earns high marks for many other achievements. He took state government out of the workers compensation business by selling off the Accident Fund. He kept a lid on the growth of the state-employee workforce. And he boldly exerted executive authority to reorganize state agencies and departments to make them more accountable and efficient.
All in all, a pretty good run. Gov. Granholm would do well to recognize the achievements of the Engler era and work to build upon and extend them, not undo them.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. The Center’s Web site contains a wealth of commentary about policy in the Engler years, at www.mackinac.org.)