If Michigan is to have a debate about retention, extension, or elimination of term limits, it should engage in a simultaneous debate about restoring a part-time Legislature.
74. Revise mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Across the nation, state legislators are grappling with tough questions related
to sentencing. At issue are harsh mandatory sentencing laws that remove
discretion from judges and dramatically lengthen prison sentences through
special provisions such as consecutive sentencing. These automatic sentences
impose "one-size-fits-all justice," usually based solely on the weight of the
Legislators intended to target "drug kingpins" and to deter drug use when they
enacted mandatory sentencing laws. But the laws backfired. States are filling
their prisons with low-level, often first-time offenders, while the drug
kingpins exchange information and assets for lighter sentences. As for
deterrence, drugs are purer, cheaper, and more easily obtainable than ever. And
the cost of warehousing drug offenders is straining many state budgets to the
Those runaway prison costs, as well as a rising skepticism about the efficacy of
the current approach to combating drug abuse, are leading many states to quietly
reconsider their drug penalties. Recently, Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana,
Iowa, Mississippi, California, and North Dakota rolled back mandatory drug
sentences. Massachusetts, New York, Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, and Idaho are
all considering revising their drug laws.
In 1998, the Michigan Legislature became a leader in this reform movement when
it voted to relax the "650 Lifer Law." This law had mandated life without parole
for sales of 650 grams of heroin or cocaine, even for first-time offenders, and
was the harshest drug law in the nation. Unfortunately, the 1998 reform left
some of the draconian sentencing structure in place.
Legislators need to finish the job by giving judges back the ability to fit the
punishment to the crime and to the individual offender. All the tools are in
place. Michigan has sentencing guidelines that allow judges to base sentences on
all the relevant factors in a case. The guidelines allow judges to impose
appropriate sentences from within the range, but prevent sentencing extremes.
In addition, a statewide drug court and drug treatment movement, which has the
enthusiastic backing of many county prosecutors and law enforcement officials,
is proving that lives can be turned around. Such programs enhance public safety
and restore families at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.
National and statewide polls indicate that citizens overwhelmingly support
cost-effective treatment and carefully supervised alternatives to incarceration
for many low-level drug offenders. That's not being soft, but being smart, on
crime-and in these difficult economic times, Michigan's taxpayers also will
thank their legislators for finding the courage to do the right thing.
75. Don't be quick to revise term limits; generate a genuine debate about
restoring a part-time Legislature.
By an overwhelming vote in 1992, Michigan citizens approved limitations on the
terms of the governor (two four-year terms), members of the Michigan House
(three two-year terms), and members of the Michigan Senate (two four-year
terms). Given that this year Michigan has the first major turnover since 1992 in
the governorship and the Senate, it is rather early in the term limits
experiment to draw sweeping conclusions about their effectiveness and any
necessity for adjustments.
Nonetheless, a movement is afoot in Lansing to revise and extend the term
limits provision of the Michigan Constitution. It is not a grassroots movement
broadly based around the state, but rather is focused among longtime Lansing
politicians, lobbyists, and pundits. Perhaps a strong case someday will be made
that term limits do not serve the cause of good government, or have somehow
actually harmed Michigan, but it doesn't help the cause of reform that so many
of its leaders and advocates have a vested interest in returning to the old
days. That was when politicians, lobbyists, and pundits didn't have to worry
much about lots of fresh new faces in the Legislature; once they made a friend
in a particular legislator, they often had him or her on their side for a long
Those leading the effort to dilute the 1992 term limits amendment have not yet
made a powerful case for change. They speak of inexperience in the Legislature
and the inordinate influence of the governor and the permanent bureaucracy. But
what's so far been missing in their arguments is a "smoking gun"-actual
legislation signed into law that shouldn't have seen the light of day and that
wouldn't have seen the light of day in the pre-term limits age. Pork barrel
bills still pass, just as before. Tough decisions are being made, just as
before. And by one measure-overall restraint of government spending, there has
actually been more of that in the last decade than in the free-spending decade
that preceded 1992.
Proponents of revising term limits are wasting their time if the example of
California is predictive. In March 2002, voters there were faced with a
proposition to circumvent the state's term limitations, which are identical to
Michigan's and were adopted two years before. The forces supporting the proposed
revision outspent their opponents by a ratio of 10-1 but were defeated in a
Vague promises of better government if only the term limits provision were
altered are not enough reason for a change, especially this early in the term
limits era. Those now eager for an extension of term limits should at least be
offering Michiganians something real in exchange, such as re-introduction of a
Michigan was not poorly governed before its Legislature became full-time less
than 40 years ago. More than 40 states, including many much greater in
population than Michigan, get by just fine with part-time Legislatures. Indeed,
the composition of those part-time bodies is at least as diverse as Michigan's,
and their members tend to focus more on the most important business of state
government and less on cooking up dubious schemes for its expansion.
If Michigan is to have a debate about retention, extension, or elimination of
term limits, it should engage in a simultaneous debate about restoring a
76. Create a market for "vanity" license plates.
Like many states, Michigan offers "vanity plates," a specific combination of
numbers and letters for an extra fee. (Specialty plate designs to benefit
certain causes or institutions, such as universities, are also available.) These
plates are popular because Michigan drivers like having more choices to express
themselves and the state likes the revenue thus raised.
How does the present vanity-plate assignment system work? The state uses a
simple first-come, first-served system to assign vanity letter combinations. In
other words, one could request the "BIGIDEA" vanity plate. But if someone
already has taken it, then no matter how much money one might be willing to pay
the state, there is no way for that person to get "BIGIDEA" (and the state of
Michigan will continue to collect only the original flat $35 "asking price" for
The problem with the present system is that it is actually an overlooked golden
opportunity to raise more transportation dollars that could be used to fix
Michigan roads. The present system is inefficient because it ignores the
market-based reality that many letter combinations are desirable to a number of
people and companies.
That's opportunity knocking. The Legislature should direct the Secretary of
State to set up an online auction system so that any Michiganian can bid on any
letter combination, with each one going to the highest bidder each year. How
would it work? The state could begin by setting the minimum bid at the current
vanity plate surcharge of $35 to make the revenue raised even with current
levels for plates that only one person wants.
But some combinations will attract many bidders because they can be quite
valuable to businesses, groups, or individuals, and each one is unique. For
example, letter combinations for passions (such as #1 M FAN, GO BLUE, SPARTAN,
GOFISHN, QUILTER, TEACHER) are fun and could make great gifts. Combinations for
professions (EYE DOC, ATTORNY, CPA, SALES, PLUMBER, SURGEON, and TV/radio
station call letters) would also be popular.
Auctions ensure a fair market price-the price a willing buyer will pay to have
that unique combination. Bidding would open on the Internet for two weeks, with
the winner getting rights to the plate for a year, after which it would go to
auction again before the current license expires. Michigan already has attracted
national attention for its online auctions of surplus property. Extending that
idea to include license plate combinations is not a big leap. Public computer
terminals in state licensing offices would ensure that no one is excluded from
the online bidding process.
77. Abolish Michigan's archaic prohibition on Internet wine sales.
It's been nearly seven decades since the national war against alcohol during
America's Prohibition period (1920-33) came to an end with the repeal of the
18th Amendment. But 29 states including Michigan still prosecute a kind of
mini-Prohibition of their own: They forbid consumers from buying alcoholic
beverages from other states unless the products are shipped through a
state-licensed liquor authority.
The Michigan law is a relic from 1934, when states took over the regulation of
alcohol sales after Prohibition was repealed. The thought then was that states
that want to discourage drinking should have the power to determine the sources
of legal beer, wine, and spirits. Whether that made sense then or not, the law
today does little more than bestow a monopoly privilege on domestic sellers,
raise prices, and limit choices for Michigan consumers.
Undoubtedly, people who ignore the law transport lots of illegal alcohol from
other states into Michigan. Short of searching every car and truck at the
borders, the state can't possibly expect to stop the flow. The primary effect of
the law is probably to restrict sales over the Internet. Anyone who has ever
attempted to purchase wine from one of hundreds of web sites of wineries in
other states is familiar with a reply similar to this from all but perhaps a
handful of wineries: "Sorry, Michigan is not a ship-to state. We can't sell to
you." The few exceptions are those that agree to comply with state regulations
that do nothing more than jack up the price by about 25 percent.
Of course, Michigan wineries that have web pages can and do sell wine legally
over the Internet to Michigan residents. Thousands of Michigan citizens who
don't abuse alcohol and who would simply like to get an occasional bottle from a
favorite out-of-state winery wonder what makes the state think its law does any
good. Nonetheless, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission does make an
enforcement effort. In a state of nearly 10 million residents, the commission
seized more than a hundred packages of illegally shipped beer, wine, and liquor
in 2000. And it's been fighting a lawsuit filed by Michigan residents who claim
the law is unfair and violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S.
Michigan legislators don't need to wait for the courts to work this out. They
should recognize the futility of this throwback to Prohibition, strike a blow
for freedom of choice and competition, and repeal the 1934 law.