Press reports about new bills before the Legislature often read as if the intent behind them is the same as what they will actually accomplish. For example, readers might see a story headlined, "Bill would increase tool-and-die jobs." Such is the hope of its sponsors. But would it actually increase such jobs? Depends on the specifics. Frequently, press reports contain no real information about the actual requirements, prohibitions or economic favors a bill would establish.

Fortunately, Michigan citizens no longer have to depend on such reports in order to monitor what their representatives in Lansing are up to.

MichiganVotes.org is a free website developed by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that provides concise, objective, plain-English descriptions of what every single bill, amendment and vote in the Michigan House and Senate would actually do. These descriptions are searchable and sortable by legislator, topic, bill number, keyword, or a combination of these.

The site is totally unique — nothing similar exists at any level of government, including Congress. It empowers citizens by allowing them to quickly create a custom "voting record guide" for any lawmaker on any issue.

It also helps to fill the information gap between what bills intend and what they do. To accomplish this, MichiganVotes.org’s bill descriptions often include some context, so that users get an accurate picture of what’s really going on. A good example is the site’s description of House Bill 5883, adopted in July of 2002, which withdrew money from the state "rainy day fund" to close a budget deficit. MichiganVotes.org explained how the withdrawal would likely cause the postponement of a scheduled phase-out of the state’s value-added tax on business, the so-called "Single Business Tax."

For that particular bill, providing context required that the description writer have extensive background information. Other times it’s enough to simply quote verbatim key provisions of a bill. In either case, MichiganVotes.org just serves up straight information about the changes a bill would make in the law. Each citizen can judge for him or herself what the outcome might be in the real world.

Does MichiganVotes.org itself actually do what its creators intend? It may be too early to tell for sure, but leaders from all sides of the political spectrum have praised the site. For example, Democratic ex-Rep. Lynn Jondahl, executive director of the avowedly liberal Michigan Prospect, a non-profit public policy institute, wrote: "MichiganVotes.org . . . makes a major contribution to political access and accountability." Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-30th, dubbed by columnist Bill Ballenger as "the most conservative state senator," said "MichiganVotes.org does a good job of presenting our record to citizens in an easy-to-use format." Ballenger himself noted that "MichiganVotes.org has made it a lot simpler to review legislators’ votes."

One thing is certain: From now on, when any Michigan citizen sees a media report that only cites what a bill’s sponsors hope it will do, he or she no longer has to wonder what the bill really does. He or she can check it out on MichiganVotes.org.

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Note: Jack McHugh is the manager for MichiganVotes.org, and legislative policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.