The pursuit of freedom has been marked by the ebb and flow of governments that alternatively embrace, ignore or stifle the liberties of the governed. One of the objectives of think tanks like the Mackinac Center is to keep liberty-oriented principles alive when policymakers are hostile to them. Then, when the ideological climate changes, ideas that seemed out of vogue can suddenly gain new currency.
At the beginning of 2011, the tide of new leaders at all levels of state government brought new receptivity to Mackinac Center ideas. Beginning in the transition period, the offices of the new governor, attorney general and other high-ranking officials called upon Center analysts for their expertise on issues ranging from regulation to education.
This receptivity was also apparent during the Jan. 12 swearing-in ceremony for the new Legislature. Senior Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh, Michigan Capitol Confidential Managing Editor Ken Braun and Vice President for Communications Michael Jahr spoke with numerous legislators, legislative staff and reporters, and disseminated a “Policy Blueprint for Michigan” — a collection of recent and reform-oriented Center publications.
“Having attended previous swearing-in ceremonies, it was clear this year that there was a heightened awareness of and enthusiasm for Mackinac Center ideas,” said Jahr. “Legislators recognized that Michigan would not recover without transformational policy changes.”
Communications Specialist Kathy Hoekstra set up a camera near the Rotunda and recorded interviews with a number of legislators, capturing their priorities and views on key issues. Highlights were featured in a video for the Michigan Capitol Confidential website.
Specific Mackinac Center recommendations were put forward by Gov. Rick Snyder during his State of the State address on Jan. 19 and as part of his budget presentation on Feb. 17. Among his proposals were the replacement of the Michigan business tax and surcharge with a flat corporate tax; the elimination or reduction of several targeted corporate tax credits, including the Michigan Economic Growth Authority and the Michigan film incentive; the end of the item pricing law, which requires Michigan retailers to place a price tag on every item they sell; state employee concessions; incentives to local governments to enact employment benefit reforms; the use of student aid fund money for community colleges; and decreased retiree health care costs in state pension funds.
The Snyder administration even made policy improvements simply by ending policies of the previous administration. On March 1, Michigan Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan announced that the DHS would stop diverting to unions state money intended for child care for low-income children. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation had sued the DHS to stop this diversion and free home-based day care providers who had been shanghaied into a government-sector union (see "Victory: Day Care Owners Freed From So-Called Union!").
Long-recommended Mackinac Center policies were also reflected in numerous bills introduced in the Legislature, including legislation that would:
- Increase emergency financial managers’ authority and give them more opportunity to reform union agreements (now signed into law)
- Repeal the prevailing wage
- Eliminate binding arbitration
- Abolish the charter schools cap
- Repeal teacher tenure
- Require schools to post health insurance expenses and withheld union dues online
- Modify the tenure act to make it easier for districts to remove ineffective teachers
- Give farmers a defense against environmental complaints (now signed into law)
- Prohibit rules more stringent than federal rules
- Shorten the time for approval of state regulatory permits
- Require state departments to compare standards in nearby states and perform a cost-benefit analysis when proposing new rules
- Prohibit forced unionization
- Eliminate the Michigan Home Based Child Care
Council to free day care owners from a so-called union (see "Victory: Day Care Owners Freed From So-Called Union!").
Center expertise was also sought by legislative committees. On Feb. 9, Braun proposed a series of government reforms before the Senate Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing Committee. Later that same day, Fiscal Policy Director Michael LaFaive testified at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the Michigan business tax. LaFaive told the committee that eliminating the MBT and offsetting it with spending cuts would create at least 120,000 jobs by 2016.
Another hearing and a legislative resolution were generated by a Mackinac Center Issues & Ideas Forum on Jan. 20 where environmental attorney Peter Glaser, a Mackinac Center adjunct scholar, discussed the EPA’s war on energy (see "Protecting Living Standards From ‘Undead’ Regulation"). Sen. Tom Casperson, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, attended the forum and invited Glaser to testify on Feb. 10. Casperson and Rep. Aric Nesbitt introduced non-binding resolutions asking Congress to ban the EPA from unilaterally imposing greenhouse gas regulations. Both resolutions passed easily.
On Feb. 16, Education Policy Director Michael Van Beek testified to the House Education Committee, pointing out Michigan’s national rankings of high teacher salaries and low student achievement. But the best attended hearing was Labor Policy Director Paul Kersey’s testimony before the House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee regarding Michigan’s prevailing wage law. Hundreds of unionized construction workers chanted in protest, but Kersey’s voice was heard.
Further evidence that Center ideas had shifted the window of political possibility in the right direction emerged when House Speaker Jase Bolger on Jan. 12 said publicly that Michigan has to “have a conversation about right-to-work” legislation. Bolger is the highest-ranking state official to call for this long-recommended Center policy.
One of the most revealing indications that Lansing had experienced a sea change was signified by what was taking place outside the corridors of power. “It’s now tax USERS holding angry demonstrations in front of the Capitol, rather than tax PAYERS,” observed Braun. “What a difference a year can make.”