In private discussions this week, Democrat House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) will wrestle once again with the state’s fiscal problems in hopes of finalizing a 2008 budget before the end of September. The two men have maintained an ongoing, civil dialogue as a reportedly detached, globe-trotting Gov. Jennifer Granholm appears almost marginalized in the process. Kudos to both men for talking, even though that’s the one thing at which government at all levels seems to excel.

But my hopes rest largely on Bishop, whose substance and leadership style has caught the attention of many Michiganians who see the need for fundamental change. Bishop could have had an easy job over the last few months, but instead he has been demanding meaningful reforms in the face of a political establishment that thinks the "solution" to the state’s dilemma is to lift an additional one or two billion dollars from taxpayers.

Surrendering to the status quo would have meant more hours with his family, fewer headaches and warm praise from many in the media. So-called "moderates" who think there’s inherent virtue in splitting the baby instead of doing the right thing would sing hosannas about how he has "grown in office." Instead, he endures denunciations from past and present politicos who accuse him of "playing politics" rather than "working with the governor." They would prefer he not rock the boat and just forget all this nonsense about fixing old problems that other "leaders" have papered over. Here are two examples of his "uncooperative" views:

  • He wants $109 million in wage concessions from Department of Corrections’ employees in the hope of bringing their compensation into line with industry standards. Recent testimony in the Senate indicated that Michigan’s cost per prisoner is as much as $6,000 higher than neighboring states, and according to reports by the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s prison employees are paid significantly more than the national average.

  • He wants to repeal the mandatory union-sponsored "prevailing wage" that must be paid on government-funded construction projects. As documented in Mackinac Center studies, this archaic mandate inflates construction costs in Michigan by at least $200 million a year.

Pure politics explains the charge that Bishop does not "work with the governor." While he repeatedly leads the Senate to pass pro-taxpayer solutions to fiscal problems, he has negotiated compromises with the status-quo spending interests after these Senate solutions have been rejected.

Confronted with a deficit in the fiscal 2007 budget, he led the Senate to pass a $250 million package of cuts and reforms to numerous state programs, such as public transit and arts grants. After the House of Representatives rejected these cuts, he then agreed, however reluctantly, to an unpleasant compromise that borrowed more than $400 million from future state revenues.

Likewise, when replacing the Single Business Tax, the Bishop-led Senate passed a $400 million annual net tax cut. But the governor and House of Representatives refused to consider it, despite the fact that the law repealing the SBT explicitly called for a tax that was "less costly." Again, he compromised, accepting a replacement tax that is supposed to be "revenue-neutral."

These compromises frustrate the hopes of reformers who want real and lasting solutions that scale back the costly reach of government. But Bishop cannot dictate terms to both a House of Representatives and a governor with an opposing agenda. He will need the help of the taxpayers to push these other politicians toward making the Senate’s reforms into Michigan’s reforms.

One of his most significant suggestions involves going directly to the people for help in making Michigan a "right-to-work" state. A proven job-creator in the 22 states that have it, right-to-work would change state law so that no Michigan resident could be compelled to join or pay fees to a labor organization as a condition of employment. He correctly told a radio audience in July that this would be a major step forward in attracting entrepreneurs and fixing the Michigan economy. He believes the voters would approve of such a proposal if there were a broad-based, well-funded and well-managed effort to put it on the November 2008 general election ballot.

Bishop sees the big picture: Michigan’s economy needs to grow and its government needs to shrink. If these objectives get accomplished in the near term, it will be due in some measure to his insistence that problems not be handled in the easy, business-as-usual fashion. How things go in talks this week and in September could be a defining test of his tenure as Senate Majority Leader.

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Lawrence W. Reed 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.

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