The Taxpayers Speak

(Editor’s note: Michigan Capitol Confidential Daily, the Mackinac Center’s online legislative news service, recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. The following is an edited version of a speech given by Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman upon accepting the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance’s “Voice of the Taxpayer Award” on Dec. 17, 2010.)

The Mackinac Center gratefully accepts this Voice of the Taxpayer Award for our news service, Michigan Capitol Confidential. It’s a pleasure to share the stage with Representative McMillin and star blogger Jason Gillman tonight. And it’s an honor to be deemed the Voice of the Taxpayer by the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, the organization that gives some muscle to the taxpayer!

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At the risk of disqualifying ourselves for the award, I’ll confess we never set out to be the voice of the taxpayer when we created Capitol Confidential, which we affectionately call CapCon. Nor do I really think CapCon has become the voice of the taxpayer.

When my colleague Ken Braun approached me more than three years ago with his CapCon idea, he pitched it as a way to inform the voices of taxpayers and embolden them, not to speak for them. There’s a big difference.

Ken’s formula was simple and powerful. Identify the citizens who seem most interested in free-market public policy, tell them how their elected representatives actually voted on the most interesting and revealing bills, add a dash of free-market analysis, repeat.

We started CapCon as a snail mail publication because that was the easiest way to reach the right people. Once we built a critical mass of subscribers, we began a daily online version.

Twenty-three thousand unique visitors read our stories every month and 13,000 specifically request the snail mail version. Readership grows daily, and our number of Facebook fans is closing in on that of the Detroit Free Press, which had a 176-year head start on us.

We don’t tell readers who to support. We don’t tell lawmakers how to vote. We leave that up to their constituents. Taxpayers find their own voice to tell elected representatives what they think about the bills they support.

We know this because lawmakers complete our feedback loop when they tell us their constituents are reading CapCon. Their constituents sometimes call lawmakers to complain about the bills they vote for. Some of the calls we subsequently get from lawmakers are less friendly than others.

Some come from Congressional representatives, some from state legislators. Some lawmakers go on to develop a stronger bond with their constituents, like Representative McMillin here tonight, who is a model for how to respond to a CapCon story. Some of them bitterly tell us that if they lose their next election, it will somehow be our fault. All because we describe bills and publish voting records.

One interesting tidbit is that it’s the Republicans who call us the most by far. Apparently they are the ones whose constituents most closely compare campaign speeches to the actual voting records we publish in CapCon.

So we are not really the taxpayers’ voice, but we very much provide important information to the taxpayers so they can use their own voices as they see fit. This is all the more important in a world where the old-line, legacy media is collapsing, especially in the way it covers public policy. The state capital news bureaus are a shadow of their former selves, but their decline created just the right opening for us.

CapCon was Ken Braun’s brainchild. In a just world, Ken would be up here receiving the award instead of me. So I’d like Ken to stand, and I hope you’ll give him the applause he deserves.

It seems everyone has a lobbyist in Lansing and Washington except the taxpayers. We don’t claim to be anybody’s lobbyist, but we do make it easier for regular citizens to know what their lawmakers are doing compared to what they promised to do.

Perhaps this has never been more important than it is right now. Republicans are still better at campaigning on free-market ideas than their Democrat counterparts. But recent history shows us that Republican victories don’t automatically translate into less government spending.

To paraphrase Milton Friedman, it’s not enough to elect the right people if you don’t change the incentives. Because if you don’t change the incentives, even the right people will do the wrong thing. But if you do change the incentives, the right people will do the right thing, and so will some of the “wrong” people.

Better informed and more actively engaged citizens are changing the incentives. We are growing CapCon as fast as we can so voters know how well this new Legislature and Congress are staying true to the principles they campaigned on.

If you don’t already subscribe to the daily CapCon e-mail, I invite you to check out Michigan Capitol Confidential online.

Let me close with my thanks to the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. From the Mackinac Center’s beginning, we’ve known it would take more than just good studies and reports to change public policy. We’ve waited for a social movement to arise behind the idea of limited government.

President Obama has told his supporters: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  But the ones WE’VE been waiting for at the Mackinac Center are those who embody the best elements of the Tea Party movement.  And the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance can take pride in being for Tea Party principles before the Tea Party was cool.

Thank you for recognizing the Mackinac Center and Michigan Capitol Confidential. We couldn’t be more proud to receive your Voice of the Taxpayer Award. We look forward to working with you to advance the principles of individual liberty and limited government.


Joseph G. Lehman 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.

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