Welcome to the spring 2009 edition of Mackinac Minutes. I’m Kathy Hoekstra.

2009 dawned with Michigan’s auto industry in financial peril, perhaps the most significant economic event in the state’s history since the industry’s rise a century ago. On the heels of massive federal government loans for the automakers, the Mackinac Center assembled a blue-ribbon panel and hosted a forum in Detroit called “Beyond the Bailout.”

Guest speakers for the Jan. 13 event at the Renaissance Center featured the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s General Counsel Sam Kazman, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Wall Street Journal Detroit Bureau Chief Paul Ingrassia, and Heritage Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Andrew Grossman. Grossman observed, “What we’re trying to do now — and I think what Mackinac has really achieved — is [make] the point that a government bailout is going to have lots of unintended consequences, and it may not be the best way to deal with the situation.” The speakers highlighted misguided regulatory and labor policies that have been particularly hard on U.S. automakers, suggesting that better public policy could prove to be the best bailout of all.

The event, moderated by Mackinac Center Senior Economist David Littmann, was cited in a Detroit News editorial and attended by Detroit television and radio station reporters. Hundreds of people also watched the forum as it was simulcast live on the web.

The very next day, Senior Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh and Mackinac Center communications personnel traveled to Lansing for the opening day of the legislative session. They met with media and legislators and handed out a Mackinac Center pamphlet called “101 Recommendations to Revitalize Michigan.” The pamphlet, compiled by McHugh and based on the Center’s past research, contains a collection of proposals to reduce state spending and invigorate the state’s economy. Publication of the “101 Recommendations” has given fresh visibility to Mackinac Center policy ideas not just in the legislature, but in the media as well, even as ideas previously promoted by the Mackinac Center have found a home in the Governor’s policy recommendations so far this year.

Among the Mackinac Center ideas embraced by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm are ending state support to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, eliminating state fair subsidies, and returning enforcement of wetland protection to the federal government.

The new year also saw the launch of a new video initiative, with the first installment in a video series called “The Scene and The Unseen: An Investigation into the Michigan Film Incentive.” The incentive is a state program that provides generous refundable tax credits to film producers who make movies in Michigan, providing net state subsidies to the movie industry. But even as the state faced another major budget deficit, state estimates of the program’s cost varied widely. When we asked the State of Michigan Film Office for estimates of the amounts movies would receive in 2008, Janet Lockwood, Film Office director, initially agreed she could provide the information, saying: “Absolutely. Why don’t you call me?”

Despite our repeated calls, the Film Office dragged its feet for more than three months before releasing even a basic estimate to the public. In the meantime, newspaper, radio and television outlets began asking their own tough questions about the cost of the program and the Film Office’s lack of transparency.

On a related front, the Mackinac Center’s government transparency project, “Show Michigan the Money,” continued to score big victories in asking public officials to show the public how taxpayer dollars are being spent. Project Director Ken Braun says that the number of school districts placing their checkbooks online is now at least two dozen, with many of them doing so in direct response to the Center’s appeals. In February, Braun publicly praised two new state lawmakers for voluntarily posting online their employees’ names and salaries. A third lawmaker joined the list in March.

The Center’s transparency efforts have generated coverage and editorial praise in major newspapers around the state, as well as radio and television coverage. For longer discussions of these Mackinac Center activities and others, including a recent event with property rights champion Susette Kelo, see the print version of Mackinac Center Impact.

Thanks for watching the Spring 2009 edition of Mackinac Minutes.