(Editor's note: Jack Spencer is capitol affairs specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential and a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not necessarily represent the views of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)

Taxpayers in Michigan and across the nation are generous. They don’t mind welfare dollars being spent on the needs of the less fortunate; however, if the money were to end up being used to buy beer, cigarettes or lottery tickets, they would be justifiably outraged.

With this year’s lame duck session drawing to a close, one striking feature stands out. While lawmakers wrestled over how best to get funding to fix up and keep up Michigan’s roads, legislation to perpetuate the state’s flop-filled film subsidy program shot through the Senate and House like a hot knife through butter.

Make no mistake about it, the state’s film subsidy program is nothing more than a government-sponsored luxury; a giveaway paid for with other people’s money and — as always — those other people are the taxpayers. Over the five years of its existence the program has cost nearly half a billion dollars and there are fewer film jobs in Michigan now than before it started.

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Politicians in Lansing, who love to talk about the importance of priorities, apparently felt supremely confident that the regular news media would miss the farcical joke. It is no surprise that their confidence proved well-founded. A bill to continue film subsidies zips through the Legislature ahead of a debate involving a potential fuel tax hike; and yet the irony of it doing so attracts little news media attention — not even a few sarcastic jabs.

No mystery here

If a script were written based on why the Legislature voted to keep the film subsidy program alive, it wouldn’t qualify as a mystery.  It takes little imagination to understand the forces that were at work.

First, the Michigan Film Office was established under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and once established virtually all government agencies become virtually immortal. For government agencies, departments, commissions, etc., the goal is survival; their stated missions are a secondary concern. Whenever one of these entities is formed, what is really being created is a self-serving constituency within the halls of government dedicated to remaining in existence, getting as many dollars appropriated for its use as possible, and then — finally — taking on whatever the task is that was supposedly its primary function.

Second, it’s a sure bet that a publicity-minded industry like the “Hollywood movie-making crowd” would push all the right promotional buttons to sell the idea to lawmakers that keeping Michigan’s film subsidies intact was a politically smart thing to do. No doubt; the glamour of stars and celebrities was utilized, egos were stroked and well-timed and targeted letters and emails were sent to help secure the legislative victory.

Admittedly, another aspect of the situation that could have been a factor is that the film subsidy program might be superficially popular. Absent any publicly released polling on the topic, it is possible that when given a brief and general description of Michigan’s film subsidy program a significant percentage of voters might tend to say “that sounds OK to me.”

But the sort of polling that would be most useful would ask voters whether the $5 million, $10 million, $20 million, $50 million, or whatever the amount appropriated to the program ends up being, would be better spent for things like schools, law enforcement or roads. It seems probable that the film subsidy program would fare poorly in that kind of survey.

Don’t buy the excuses

A lot of lawmakers voted to keep the film subsidy program running through 2021; the bill passed 73 to 37 in the House and 33 to 4 in the Senate. If your local representative or senator tries to explain a “yes” vote on the bill (SB 1103) by claiming it didn’t appropriate any actual funding for the program, don’t buy it. Outside of a handful of legislators on next year’s appropriations committees, the only vote lawmakers are accountable for regarding film subsidies is the one that just took place.

Eventual funding for the film subsidies will be a line item in a bundled up appropriations spending bill. Those are the kind of bills lawmakers always explain their “yes” votes on by saying, “I didn’t agree with everything in the bill, but I couldn’t vote against the entire state’s general fund budget just because there are parts of it I didn’t like.”

Film subsidies are nothing more than a flashy brand of corporate welfare. Though dressed up to look like something else, they are on a par with allowing food stamps to be used for booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets.  At best, film subsidies are political feel-good food; a chocolate éclair dished up by government-centered chefs and served at the public’s expense in spite of the fact that as candidates a majority of legislators posture and pledge to limit the state to a lean fiscal diet.

One might have hoped the lawmakers would have at least shown enough sense of priority to tackle the main course (road funding) before indulging in their gratuitous dessert.


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