MICHIGAN TAXPAYERS ALLIANCE: PERKS, PROPERTY TAXES AND MORE
"What if local politicians were prohibited from providing benefits to government employees that exceed the cost of benefits in the private sector? In other words, what if there was a cap on the amount that government employee benefits could cost?"
This is the question being posed by Leon Drolet, head of the Michigan Taxpayers' Alliance. Dubbed "Rescue Michigan" on the MTA Web site, the idea is to amend the Michigan Constitution so as to cap the cost of public-sector employee benefits at no more than that paid for the benefits provided to private-sector workers. Using data from an August article written by James Hohman, Mackinac Center fiscal policy analyst, Drolet projects that enactment of his proposal could save Michigan taxpayers as much as $5.7 billion per year. Drolet notes that this savings would be enough to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax and cut the state income tax in half.
Getting such a proposal on the ballot for the Nov. 2, 2010, general election will require collecting 380,126 valid signatures from Michigan voters and submitting them to the state Bureau of Elections by July 5, 2010. Drolet estimates a $1 million cost for this phase of the project and is searching for funding. A former state representative from Macomb County, he has experience with ballot drives to amend the State Constitution, having been the chair of the successful Michigan Civil Rights Initiative that banned the use of race preferences in government hiring and university admissions.
"Rescue Michigan" will be one of the subjects discussed at a "Taxpayer Summit" that the MTA is hosting on Jan. 30, 2010. Also on the agenda will be sessions teaching attendees how to appeal their property taxes and exploring state and local government spending reform. Drolet will also provide a seminar on "Effective Activism," wherein he will teach attendees how to "understand the mind of a politician" so that they can more effectively communicate with elected officials.
The event is scheduled to take place at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 30, in the auditorium of Macomb Community College's Center Campus at 4475 Garfield Road in Clinton Township. The event is free to the first 200 attendees who contact MTA at www.mitaxpayers.org.
Communicating with politicians — or at least getting under the skin of those who raise taxes — has been a staple of the MTA's mission since its founding in 2007.
The infamous vote on Oct. 1, 2007, that hiked state taxes by $1.4 billion was rumored to be imminent as early as the third week of May that same year. But throughout the period, Drolet was loudly proclaiming that his membership would consider recalling from office any politician who supported a tax increase. Both his detractors and supporters credit the MTA with delaying the vote. (See related stories in previous issues of Michigan Capitol Confidential: www.mackinac.org/9334 and www.mackinac.org/9932.)
Bloggers at MichiganLiberal.com were then agitating in favor of the tax hike and dubbed Drolet "Pig Man," in reference to the MTA's mascot, "Mr. Perks," an eight-foot-tall foam pig mounted on a truck trailer. Drolet and MTA activists towed Perks through the districts of lawmakers from both parties suspected of favoring a tax hike. Perks was also camped outside the Capitol building during several session days when tax hikes were rumored to be imminent - while Drolet blogged updates to supporters and the media.
After the tax hikes passed, Drolet spent much of 2008 attempting to recall House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford, for the politician's leading role in pushing through the tax increases. Drolet's initial plan to put the question on the August election ballot was thwarted by a lawsuit and other evasive tactics deployed by the opposition, forcing the Dillon recall onto the November election ballot, where it failed. (Drolet's team produced a humorous video describing some of the challenges thrown at them: http://dillonsthugs.com/?p=5.)
Undaunted, Drolet redirected the MTA toward a very successful series of seminars around the state advising taxpayers how to appeal their property taxes. Hundreds showed up at several events, in one case forcing a second session at the same location later in the day. This fall, the MTA teamed up with WJR-760 AM to host a debate between the Republican candidates for governor regarding how to fix the Michigan economy.
MICHIGAN TOO COSTLY FOR CALIFORNIA CONVICTS
In August, California Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate rejected an offer to house some of that state's surplus inmate population at a maximum security prison in Standish, Mich., telling the Michigan Department of Corrections that its daily fee was "significantly higher" than the cost being charged by other states. Cate also noted that the Standish facility, while considered "maximum-security" by the MDOC, is not secure enough to accommodate California's maximum security prisoners. As an alternative to a proposed closing of the Standish prison, which opened in 1990, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is proposing to other states that they hire the MDOC to take care of their surplus convict populations.
While less expensive than California, Michigan's annual operating cost per inmate is $4,867 above the national average and $5,447 above the average of Midwest states, according to 2005 data provided in "Public Safety, Public Spending," a 2008 report from the Pew Charitable Trust project on Public Safety Performance (www.pewcenteronthestates.org). Only a dozen states spend more per prisoner than Michigan, according to Pew, so it would appear that California may indeed have many options that are more economical.
With approximately 50,000 inmates, if Michigan's cost per prisoner were merely reduced to what Pew states is the national average, this could translate into an annual savings to Michigan taxpayers of more than $243 million. The state corrections budget for 2008 was $2.1 billion.
Perhaps one factor leading to Michigan's additional per-prisoner cost is the compensation paid to its corrections employees. According to a 2008 report from the Citizen's Research Council of Michigan, using 2005 data, the "Average Corrections Salary" in Michigan is $53,268, compared to a national average of $44,487 (a href="http://www.crcmich.org">www.crcmich.org).
"We have great facilities and great employees and we can provide a better business case for most states," the governor told the MIRS Capitol Capsule newsletter following the rejection from California. "I believe we will find another use for that facility and keep those jobs" (www.mirsnews.com — subscription required). The MIRS reporter characterized the governor's remarks as an attempt to downplay "any insinuation Michigan's prisons weren't good enough for California."
The Lowdown is written by Ken Braun, senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. He may be reached at email@example.com.