Every year, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy tallies up the policy recommendations made by Michigan's governor in his or her State of the State address, sorting them into two categories: Proposals to expand government vs. proposals to limit it.
Over the years this interesting (if unscientific) exercise has offered insights into the attitudes toward government of each governor. As Gov. Rick Snyder enters the final year of what he hopes will be his first term, the average number of government expansions vs. limitations in his four State of the State speeches is within the range established by the past five Michigan governors during their first full term* (though Gov. Jennifer Granholm was an expansion "outlier"):
- Gov. William Milliken: 4.75 proposed expansions, 3.75 proposed limitations
- Gov. James Blanchard: 6.75 proposed expansions, 3 proposed limitations
- Gov. John Engler: 6.5 proposed expansions, 3.25 proposed limitations
- Gov. Granholm: 15.5 proposed expansions, 2.25 proposed limitations
- Gov. Snyder: 7 proposed expansions, 2 proposed limitations.
Some observations: Gov. Snyder has used State of the State addresses less than the past several governors to debut his policy proposals, many of which have come instead in the form of "special messages" sprinkled throughout the year. We focus on this speech because it is an event all governors have in common.
Also, not all expansions and limitations are equal in magnitude. For example, Gov. Snyder's proposal to create a state "Office of New Americans" will hardly rock the foundations of the republic, but it does reveal a tendency toward activist government, given that countless immigrants have enriched this nation and state without a special government bureau to guide them.
Like previous governors' speeches, this one contained a measure of puffery and spin. For example, a "sales taxes on the difference" law he signed a few weeks ago gives vehicle buyers a tax break based on the value of their trade-in, if any. People who sell their old car themselves get no tax break. What the governor neglected to add is that the tax cut will be phased in over 24 years. A speech outline shared with reporters called this lengthy phase-in "fiscally responsible for state."
One would like to see the same approach applied to tax increase proposals from this and future governors — but don't hold your breath.
Also, one of the governor's applause lines involved encouraging sportsmen and women to enjoy bagging some game and catching fish in Michigan's great outdoors thanks to a simplified licensing structure. He did not mention that just last year he and the Legislature greatly increased hunting and fishing license prices, some by as much as 100 percent.
Other new or increased fees in this year's budget will extract more than $80 million from Michigan families and businesses, and that means many people will have less time and ability to get out into the field.
In critiquing the past year of Michigan governance — on balance not a good one for proponents of a more limited and frugal government — we should not ignore the magnificent achievements of Gov. Snyder's first two years in office, including some potentially transformational reforms enacted in 2011 and 2012. In addition, unlike his predecessors for 40 years, Gov. Snyder declined to kick the can of Detroit's fiscal malpractice down the road.
But let's also recognize other traits, too. This speech revealed a technocratic governor who appears to revel in trying to fine-tune government operations and efficiency.
Unfortunately, in pursuit of optimization there also is a tendency and seeming lack of hesitation to also expand the scope of government. One hopes this tendency will not undo the good work done in the first two years of this administration.
*Gov. Milliken first served as governor for two years, moving up to the role from the lieutenant governorship, when Gov. George Romney resigned to join the cabinet of President Richard Nixon. He was elected to his first full term in 1970.
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