... A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government. ...
— Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 1801
Oh, what a difference a couple hundred years can make! I wonder
what Jefferson would think of the 2,306 earmarks (totaling more than $2 billion)
that Congress approved last year just within spending bills for colleges and
universities. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, those dollars went
for pet projects from "research" centers named for sitting members of Congress
to a study on odors from swine and poultry.
Maybe it’s time that we as taxpayers and voters query candidates for public office less on what they will do if elected and more on what they won’t do.
Lest you think the problem is restricted to Washington, visit
www.michiganvotes.org and browse through the 2,500 bills introduced in the
full-time Michigan Legislature last year. Mercifully, they didn’t all pass, but
about a third of them did — adding hundreds of new laws in one year alone (and
almost none were repealed). Somehow I don’t feel better governed.
The pattern here isn’t pretty. The sad fact is that today, many
legislators and lots of citizens just don’t see government as Jefferson did.
It’s not an impartial enforcer of peace assigned a few important duties and
confined to "the people’s business." No, the business of lawmakers is all too
often the dispensing of special breaks and favors to certain persons and
entities instead of all people. They also spend a lot of time in frivolous
matters, memorializing this or commemorating that, and otherwise cooking up
things for government to say or do because it’ll make somebody happy somewhere
or get their name attached to a law. I call this "government by grab bag."
Here’s a representative sample of recent goodies from the
Michigan Legislature’s grab bag:
House Bill 5866 authorizes tens of millions of dollars in new
state debt to subsidize the state’s tourism industry. Didn’t we just get whacked
with a $1.4 billion tax hike last fall? Are we now going to tax the children of
tomorrow for the recreation of today’s adults?
Senate Bill 1208 and House Bill 5904 each prescribe an "official
Scottish tartan" for Michigan. Good thing our Legislature is one of the few
"full-time" ones in the country, otherwise our lawmakers might not have time for
House Bill 4772 would impose licensure and regulation on
interior designers. The fact that in Michigan, "anyone can claim to be an
interior designer without any education or qualifications," according to the top interior design lobbyist in Lansing, "puts the public at risk." Most people hate ugly wallpaper, but is this the antidote?
A legislator from Warren introduced a resolution to urge those
in high-rises to switch their lights off at night to deter bird crashes. Arguing that it wasn’t a frivolous thing, she noted that lawmakers have also entertained the notions of declaring a Michigan cookie and a Michigan soup. I can’t tell whether the birds lobbied for this one or if the legislator just had a little time on her hands.
Ominously, the grab baggers seem intent on offering "refundable"
tax credits if people do certain things or if it would help somebody’s bottom
line. "Refundable" means that if the credit exceeds the recipient’s tax
liability, the state will cut them a check. Just since January, bills have been
introduced to enact such credits for photovoltaic energy, ethanol, movie
production, hybrid vehicle purchases and installing biomass-burning heaters.
Maybe it’s time that we as taxpayers and voters query candidates for public office less on what they will do if elected and more on what they won’t do. We need candidates who make promises like this:
"I am not running to be Santa Claus. I will not support policies that favor the well-connected if they do not truly serve the public interest, too. I will not trivialize your trust by behaving as though your government has something to say or do about everything. I will not engage in the corrupting business of higher taxes for all and special breaks for a few. If it’s not in the Constitution, it’s not my job."
Until we elect legislators who have the courage to speak and act that way, a part-time Legislature seems like a good idea.
Lawrence W. Reed 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.