Reform Starts in the States, Not in Washington

(Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of a commentary written by Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman in the January/February issue of Impact, the Center’s newsletter.) 

It’s downright discouraging to consider how hard it is to start reforming Washington. That’s why we have to remember that reform doesn’t begin in Washington at all; it begins in the states. Washington is where reform ends. 

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The Mackinac Center’s founders understood that you can’t make headway in Washington by ignoring where people in Washington come from — the states. Nearly every elected official in DC cuts his or her political teeth at the state level. They field test policies and political strategies there, accumulating legislative records that sometimes read more like rap sheets than actual accomplishments. 

State-level politicians who win elections in spite of their support for anti-taxpayer policies take their habits with them to the federal level. Free-market reformers shouldn’t then be surprised when it’s difficult to reform the federal government, because the die was cast in the states. 

Federal fallout is one big reason it’s utterly essential to study state policy and keep an eye on those who enact it. 

The Mackinac Center was one of the first free-market think tanks established outside the DC beltway. From very humble beginnings in the 1980s, institutes like ours are now in every state, and the states are where we are seeing progress. Here is some very good news from the November elections. 

  • Three former state think tank leaders were just elected to a governorship and two U. S. Senate seats in Indiana, Arizona and Texas, respectively.
  • More than 20 state governments (including Michigan’s) continue to resist the Obamacare takeover. Voters in four more states passed specific measures to limit Obamacare’s implementation.
  • Washington state voters rebuked public school employee unions by approving that state’s first charter public school law. Georgia voters also expanded charter public school options.
  • Wisconsin voters reaffirmed Gov. Scott Walker’s reform agenda by returning control of the Senate to his party and retaining his party’s majority in the Assembly.
  • This issue of Impact contains the good news about Michigan voters’ verdicts on two ballot measures that would have enshrined costly union privileges into the constitution. Two state Supreme Court justices committed to the rule of law were re-elected. And, of course, the monumental news that the Legislature got serious about a right-to-work law.

As I predicted last quarter on this page, the unions’ overreaching November ballot proposals unleashed a loud and overdue public conversation about the role of unions in our economy and government. I wrote the unions would likely lose control of the conversation they started and that is exactly what happened. The political momentum of the unions’ 15-point loss on Proposal 2 helped transform Michigan into the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.

Look for a two-year battle to defend the law from union attempts to overturn it. If the Legislature decides to keep pushing freedom-friendly reforms, look for plenty of ideas from our shop on how to do so. For both defense and offense, the Mackinac Center is needed now more than ever before.

And ask yourself, now that right-to-work is law in Michigan — of all places — then can anyone doubt it is also possible to turn around the federal government? It is possible, maybe even inevitable, as long as freedom fighters in the states keep working with your support.


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.

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