In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson faced a challenge to the honor of our fledgling nation that is remembered today more for a few famous words than for the event itself.
Jefferson refused to pay tribute, or protection money, to the rulers of the outlaw states of the North African coast as had been the earlier custom. Instead, he sent in the U.S. Navy to protect American merchant shipping and to deal with the pirates of Tripoli. In defending his decision, he echoed a slogan of his day, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!"
In a different and more benign context, those words are good advice for the Michigan legislature. Annually, it spends public funds on the preparation of resolutions of tribute to a wide array of individuals and organizations. Certainly, those individuals and organizations aren't foreign pirates and what they get isn't quite protection money, but there are two similarities to the tributes of Jefferson's day: politicians pay them to curry favor with the recipients, and the taxpayers pick up the tab.
Any member of the Michigan Senate or House of Representatives can request, as often as he or she wishes, that a resolution of tribute be prepared in honor of some individual, organization, or event. Some members do this frequently, some not at all. The pertinent information is given to members of a drafting staff in the Legislative Service Bureau (LSB), who then compose the wording.
After the tribute has been drafted, it is printed on a 12-by-18-inch sheet. The printing job is elaborate. Framed in wood and glass, the finished document looks rather like a stock certificate-in red ink if it's from the Senate, blue ink if it's from the House. The requesting legislator then arranges for some formal presentation to the recipient.
Paying tribute to people is a pleasant gesture, but it isn't free.
Adding up all the costs involved from drafting through framing, each resolution of tribute costs about $84.55. According to figures obtained by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the LSB prepared 2,597 tributes in 1993, for a total tab of $219,576.
In the state's general fund budget of some $8 billion, this is a small sum, but why shouldn't every questionable use of funds be challenged, no matter how small? For $219,576, a school could buy 100 computers, for example.
Most tributes are for individuals from the sponsoring legislator's district who have done something of note, such as one honoring "the countless individuals who contribute to the success of snowmobiling in Michigan." Sometimes, however, they are for famous people not known-at least personally-to the legislator at all. In the 1993-94 session, for example, tributes have been put forward for Colin Powell, Cesar Chavez, Gerald Ford, Maya Angelou, Emperor Akihito of Japan, and Lani Guinier.
Organizations and events on which legislators have bestowed tributes this session include the Garden Club of Greater Lansing, the National Council of La Raza Conference, "What My Home Means To Me" Week, Paczki Day, the 171st Fighter Squadron, the Lansing Matinee Musicale, the National Precision Team Ice Skating Championship, Chicano History Week, Women's History Month, and Amateur Radio Weekend.
Many citizens of Michigan who are unaware of this practice feel that they already pay quite enough for the things state government does both for and to them. It's probably a good bet that if asked how much state government should spend on tributes, they would respond as did people from Jefferson's era: "Not one cent!"
If the legislature is disinclined to end tributes altogether, here's a second-best recommendation: require that the money to pay for them come out of the sponsoring legislator's office budget. Currently, the money comes out of the Legislative Service Bureau's budget, which means that it's "free" to the legislator; he or she has little direct and obvious incentive to economize.
"No one spends someone else's money as carefully as he spends his own." Jefferson didn't say that; economist Milton Friedman did. In the case of public spending on tributes in the Michigan legislature, it's a truth that surely applies.