(Editor's note: This commentary was adapted from a letter Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman sent to Center supporters in June 2009.)
The media drumbeat of the declining fortunes of the Republican Party stands in contrast to the recent rise of a different sort of party — the citizen-led TEA parties that stand for Taxed Enough Already.
Were you as surprised as I was on April 15 when the figurative tea kettle reached a rolling boil? Apparently without any one central organizer, hundreds of thousands of people turned up at hundreds of TEA parties around the country on the day federal income tax returns were due. The best word that describes what they did is "protest."
News reports tallied at least 30 Michigan TEA parties that drew more than 20,000 people. Based on what we saw at TEA parties where the Mackinac Center provided speakers, these "protestors" didn't fit the usual caricature. The age range was broad, weighted a bit toward the middle-aged and retired end of the spectrum. They were polite. The dozens I talked to struck me as people who work for a living, play by the rules, and pay their taxes and their mortgages.
Their signs were homemade, not handed to them as they arrived. And they came in family cars, not buses chartered by unions, political parties or other orchestrators.
They were deeply concerned about the direction of the country, especially since September, and they felt more than a little betrayed by politicians who promised to support limited government before going along with our history's biggest expansion of government. They were also the kind of folks who snatched up Mackinac Center literature by the armful.
The question I heard repeatedly was, "Where do we go from here?" Over the next several days, a number of Mackinac Center supporters called us echoing that question.
Since we're a research and educational institute, we don't organize political protests, run campaigns, lobby lawmakers or tell citizens who to vote for. But we do inform citizens about the law, about the economy, about the legislative process and about their options in a democratic republic. Those things are very much a core part of our mission.
Our answer to those who asked "What next?" is a little flier we put together called the "TEA Party Activist Toolbox." What I like about it is its "equal opportunity" flavor. The information will help any resident of any political persuasion become better informed and more involved in making his or her voice heard in Lansing.
I believe Michigan's future depends on residents waking up and regaining control of their government. That's why we operate MichiganVotes.org, the world's first online legislative database of every bill, every amendment and every vote. That's why we publish Michigan Capitol Confidential, the only Michigan news source that reports legislative activity coupled with free-market economic analysis.
And that's why everything we do is built on our foundation of solid policy research. It would be too expensive to automatically send you full copies of every study and report we provide to lawmakers, school board members and other officials. But rest assured the right people are seeing those reports. Here is some recent good news:
- Gov. Granholm recommended eight of our cost-saving ideas in her new budget. True, we compiled 101 ideas for her and the Legislature in January, and we also showed them how to save $2.2 billion. But the $100 million those eight ideas could save is welcome, even if she doesn't acknowledge who came up with the ideas first.
- The Michigan Education Association recently teamed up with the Anderson Economic Group to issue a report documenting many problems with Michigan's business tax incentives, such as the MEGA and Michigan Film Incentive programs. The MEA doesn't usually agree with us publicly, but their arguments echo those we've made since 1995, and their report cites our econometric analysis.
- Michigan charter public school officials were so eager to read our new book on labor unions and charter schools that they were calling us before we could even get it printed.
- Sidney Kardon, president of the MEA local in Royal Oak, wrote in the Oakland Press about the influence of our privatization research: "Today, the Mackinac Center embodies Reagan's ideology. And the superintendents are marching in lock step with them." More than 40 percent of public schools now privatize a noninstructional service.
I'm still in my first year as president of this great organization, so I'm especially grateful for your support and advice in these most challenging times. Please keep in touch.
Joseph G. Lehman 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.