Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson offered proven policy prescriptions for Michigan's next governor.
Leading up to
the general election, it was clear that the next governor of Michigan would
face tremendous opportunities and entrenched obstacles. Whether the next state
executive would be Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder or Lansing Mayor Virg
Bernero (Snyder ultimately prevailed), the winner would have to act decisively
if he was serious about improving Michigan’s economic fortunes and subduing
Over the last several
years, the current governor and other state officials blamed many of the
state’s problems on “globalization,” distress in the auto industry and other
vaguely defined trends that were implicitly beyond their ability to control.
Michigan, lawmakers told us, was a victim of circumstances. The justification
for many bad policies — from tax increases to expanding failed economic
development programs — was rooted in this mindset.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese and Center President Joseph G. Lehman talk with Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.
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But there was a gaping hole in the victimization argument.
Oakland County, a locale that experienced all the same externalities as the
rest of the state, had a balanced budget, earned a triple-A bond rating and
attracted new enterprise. If Oakland County could be well-managed during these
trying economic times, why couldn’t the state?
The Mackinac Center
invited Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to answer this and other
questions at a public event at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham on Oct. 14.
What policies had the county pursued that might be applicable at the state
level? What advice would Patterson offer to the incoming governor for leading
Michigan out of its economic malaise?
More than 300 people — both longtime Center supporters and
new friends — turned out to hear Patterson’s insights. During the reception,
guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and rubbed shoulders with the likes of former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese.
The event, which was simulcast live on the home pages of
the Mackinac Center and The Oakland Press, was kicked off by Center President
Joseph G. Lehman. Lehman reminded the audience that when Republicans took over
Congress in 1994 and gained the White House in 2000, “the policy
accomplishments didn’t quite match the campaign promises. Government did not
shrink. We did not become more free overall. … By the time Republicans were
growing government as fast as the Democrats that they’d campaigned against, the
voters put them out on their ears.”
Lehman explained how the Mackinac Center was employing new
tools to increase transparency and hold politicians accountable.
MichiganVotes.org, Michigan Capitol Confidential and investigative videos can
equip the “people who are the most civically engaged” because they “have
disproportionate influence over policy.
Lehman also introduced a video of Bill Ballenger, editor
of the political newsletter “Inside Michigan Politics.” Ballenger delivered an
exclusive, detailed preview of the election, full of history, trivia and
Patterson was introduced by Mackinac Center Senior
Economist David Littmann. “Our next governor and indeed all of Michigan
government could learn a lot from reviewing the budgeting process and the
market-oriented policies of L. Brooks Patterson and Oakland County over the
last 18 years,” Littmann told the audience.
were laced with self-effacing humor, praise for his leadership team and
personal anecdotes, as well as recommendations for Michigan’s next governor.
One part of Oakland County’s success, he said, is the practice of looking
forward. Most governments, he noted, look at revenues and expenditures only one
year at a time.
“Oakland County is the only county in America that has a
three-year rolling budget,” Patterson said.
Looking forward allows the county to foresee and prepare
for problems. For instance, the county expects a significant shortfall in
revenues in 2014. “We’re already working on 2014 so when that year rolls up to
us, what was a cliff … is going to be a molehill.”
In 1987, the county began
addressing the liabilities associated with retirees’ health care. Now
Oakland County is the only county in America to have completely paid off
its health care debt, according to Patterson. “We’re out of the business. We
don’t have a debt. When people come to work for Oakland County, they don’t get
a promise of health care in retirement, they get a health savings account. … We
don’t have those multibillion dollar legacy costs looming, because we started
back in ’87.”
Other changes to employee
benefits saved the county additional tens of millions of dollars over the
years, Patterson added, and elected officials in the county more than once
voluntarily rolled back their own pay. He also challenged department heads from
both parties to cut their budgets. And they did.
Oakland County’s success in the face of a shrinking auto
industry, a decade-long statewide recession, decreasing population and lost
revenues provide a clear example to the next governor — and other elected
officials — of how Michigan can succeed. They must be willing to look beyond
the immediate, find savings within government and establish a friendly
environment for job creation. To do otherwise — to claim that circumstances are
beyond our control — is to guarantee that things will only get worse.