It’s tough to get your arms around a city, county, or state budget. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy recently released a study that lets citizens and officials examine the current budget for the state of Michigan to identify ways to help state government better serve the people.

The Center viewed the state budget through the lens of civil society. In a civil society, needs are met by a full range of private institutions, plus government, each acting in their most effective role. A civil society does not tend to rely solely on government to meet needs.

The Center study recommended program changes and spending reductions of over $2.1 billion, or 7.5 percent of the total budget.

The report, Advancing Civil Society: A State Budget to Strengthen Michigan Culture, examines nearly every department of state government. Many of the recommendations involve eliminating programs or subsidies, or privatizing services. Below are some of the highlights of the study and the amount appropriated for select programs in FY 1995-96.

Boiler and Elevator Inspection Programs ($2.8 million). Approximately 45 percent of Michigan’s 68,000 registered boilers are already inspected privately by insurance companies. The state currently inspects uninsured boilers, while insurance companies inspect insured boilers. The Center’s report recommends that boiler owners be responsible for their own insurance and inspections.

MacMullan Conference Center ($1.1 million). This hotel/lodge located on Higgins Lake is used by a wide range of governmental agencies for overnight training sessions and conferences. The Michigan Department of Management and Budget has recommended that this facility be sold to the private sector.

Michigan Wine Country Magazine (exact appropriation unknown). This publication of the Michigan Department of Agriculture promotes the Michigan wine industry. The study recommends the immediate elimination of the Department of Agriculture’s "press and public affairs division," which publishes the magazine, for a total savings of $466,200.

Fish Production ($6.8 million). Several states contract for the operation of fish hatcheries. Other states neither own nor operate hatcheries, relying instead on private hatcheries. The study recommends selling all state-owned hatcheries, and using the savings to purchase fish from private providers.

State Fair, Upper Peninsula State Fair ($5.3 million). The Mackinac Center study recommends that these popular events become fully independent, self-supporting programs.

Liquor Merchandising and Warehousing ($25.5 million). The state operates three liquor warehouses and 76 state stores selling spirits to retail licensees. This program has been cited for elimination by analysts and legislators for many years. The function may be eliminated entirely, allowing spirits to be distributed through private channels as are other commodities, or the management of the system may be contracted out.

Letting business merchandise and warehouse their own liquor would save the state budget over $25 million annually.

Michigan Library Historical Center ($2 million). The Mackinac Center report recommends that the Historical Center, a museum housed inside the Library of Michigan, be transferred to a university, foundation, or other private owner.

Natural Resources Magazine ($52,200). The printing of this Department of Natural Resources publication is now done privately; the study recommends that the publication be sold to the private sector.

Freight Property Management ($2.6 million). The state of Michigan owns more than 700 miles of operational railroad track, which requires over $2.6 million each year to manage. The Mackinac Center recommends that the track be sold to private firms, which the Michigan Department of Transportation now plans to do.

State sponsorship of the preceding programs shows that Michigan asks government to do many things that could be done by the private sector. Michigan has faced this situation before. After the costly failures of state-owned railroad and canal companies in the early 1800s, Michigan citizens actually amended the state constitution in 1850 to explicitly prohibit the state from assuming any ownership of any "company, association, or corporation," and from being involved in "internal improvement" projects. With state government limited to its core roles, Michigan’s citizens made the Great Lakes State a world-class industrial powerhouse.

Today Michigan is dominated by political institutions on which its citizens have become increasingly reliant, but which have failed to strengthen our culture, especially in our inner cities.

For decades, Michigan has advanced a more politicized, government-focused society at the expense of its civil society. Today Michigan is dominated by political institutions on which its citizens have become increasingly reliant, but which have failed to strengthen our culture, especially in our inner cities.

Michigan’s state budget is not just about numbers and money, it is about people and how their society is organized to meet needs. It is time for Michigan leaders to consider a flourishing civil, rather than a stifling political, society.