VIII. Miscellaneous Recommendations

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 drugs involved.

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 limit.

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 time.

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 landslide.

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 part-time Legislature.

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 part-time Legislature.

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 it).

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. Constitution.

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.