Cap Con Daily: Online and On-Message

(Editor's note: The following is an edited version of a letter Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman recently sent to supporters.)

Apparently not content with the publicity we generate ourselves, the Michigan Education Association occasionally produces its own articles and reports about the Mackinac Center. Most of them try to discredit us while simultaneously decrying our influence. Their most recent one, a 14-pager, concluded woefully, "[T]he Mackinac Center has become the Fox News of Michigan public policy."

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Teachers who attend 90-minute MEA training sessions about the Mackinac Center (yes, really) tell us the "Fox" remark is meant as an insult. Not everyone likes Fox's offerings, but it has attracted the largest audience among its rivals. So to the extent Lansing's most powerful union likens our reach to that of the nation's leading cable news channel, I'll accept the comparison with pride.

And I'd like to know what they think about our brand-new service, Michigan Capitol Confidential Daily. Michigan's newest source of public policy news and information launched Feb. 4 with comprehensive coverage of the "State of the Citizen" TEA Party rally outside the Capitol and Gov. Jennifer Granholm's State of the State address occurring at the same time inside the Capitol. CapCon Daily (as we affectionately call it) builds on the success of the bimonthly Capitol Confidential, which was until now primarily a print publication that attracted more than 10,000 subscribers.

A daily news service devoted to Michigan public policy is needed now. The quality and quantity of policy reporting in Lansing (and most other state capitals) is, quite frankly, impoverished. The old business models for news no longer support fully staffed capital bureaus. I'd be surprised if there are half as many reporters covering a Lansing beat as there were when the Mackinac Center opened its doors in 1987. Michiganders are more concerned about state policy than perhaps at any time in the past two decades, yet the amount of solid news coverage is at its lowest point. We aim to fix that.

Daily capital news reporting is a natural addition to our portfolio. Our analysts have always produced studies and they always will. But readers often need mere information as much as they need analysis. Fifteen years ago, we launched Michigan Privatization Report, a journal of news and analysis for municipal and school officials. We followed that with the Michigan Education Report newspaper aimed at parents, educators and policymakers. To that we added the weekly Michigan Education Digest. A decade ago, we created, the first online database anywhere that reported every vote of every lawmaker on every bill and every amendment. We started the lively Capitol Confidential newspaper two years ago. We promise CapCon Daily will bring you news for which the corporate media lack either the resources or inclination to cover.

While our correspondents are reporting news, their research colleagues are making it. Among the first research we released in 2010 was an analysis of Michigan teacher health insurance. Looking at costs in 95 percent of Michigan public school districts, Director of Education Policy Mike Van Beek found that unionized teachers typically pay just 4.2 percent of the $15,786 average annual premium. And in more than 300 separate plans, teachers pay nothing at all toward their own coverage. Those who work outside Michigan's tax-funded school system pay an average of 22 percent of a premium that costs on average $11,321.

This finding was explosive. At least 2,500 people immediately came to our Web site to search our teacher insurance database. I did not see a single online newspaper story about our report that failed to generate fewer than 50 reader comments. Political pressure is building to bring the pay and benefits of government employees back in line with those in the private sector.

At the same time, those who benefit the most from generous government compensation are doing all they can to raise taxes instead of cutting state spending. One doesn't need a crystal ball to see that the groundwork is being laid for a major tax increase that will likely be called a "tax restructuring" that's "revenue neutral." 

State officials project they will create yet another huge ($1.6 billion this time) budget overspending crisis. Perceptive people will ask, "What good is revenue-neutral tax restructuring if the state still spends $1.6 billion more than it takes in?" We think a good policy starting point is "no tax restructuring until spending is under control."

But here's a warning. As long as lawmakers believe it's politically easier to get people to accept a tax hike than it is to get government unions and other special interests to accept spending cuts, we'll get the tax hike.

My colleague James Hohman continues to do excellent work showing, surprisingly, that Michigan's tax structure is already more resilient to economic downturns than most states'. The tax structure isn't the problem. It's the spending.

As I mentioned in my last letter, we're still working with the Michigan State Police to obtain public information on millions of dollars in Homeland Security spending. Thank you for your support of the Mackinac Center and economic freedom in Michigan.


Joseph G. Lehman 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.