Politics and the Race for Michigan Governor

The following article originally appeared in the Aug. 16 edition of the MIRS Newsletter, in answer to the question: “Thus far, has the race to serve as Michigan’s next governor raised any new policy proposals or solutions, or just shown more of the same?”

Have you ever noticed that the most overused word in the political lexicon is “reform”? It doesn’t matter what the issue is, almost every politician is proposing to “reform” it.

Education reform. Health care reform. You name it, they want to reform it. This constant need to reform something (if not everything) is usually an implicit admission that they didn’t get it right the first fifty times. Moreover, it’s quite often a warning that taxpayers should prepare to be fleeced again, and a sign that sound logic, history, and economics are about to be ignored as the politicians scratch some special interest’s particular itch.

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Such is the nature of politics—a world of endless promises made and far fewer actually kept; a world of slogans, bumper stickers, and one-liners that confuse, construe or contort more often than they inform; a world where superficial attacks on opponents are daily fare because that’s what guarantees press coverage. It just isn’t a world where deep thought is the rule. Why should it be an issue where a candidate grew up, for example? Voters want to know who would make the best governor, period. Personally, if I thought somebody born in Timbuktu and raised in Kuala Lumpur offers the best solutions to Michigan’s problems, I wouldn’t hesitate a second to vote for him. But at least we have elections, not coronations. Whether or not we want what we get, we do ultimately get the government we deserve. If campaigns are frequently exercises in vapidity, perhaps the electorate is at least as much to blame as are the candidates.

So I begin this essay with a sobering, cautionary note to readers. Don’t expect more from the political process than it is likely to deliver. Remember that with few exceptions, politicians do their thing within the framework of the climate of public opinion. They usually don’t push or shape public opinion so much as they reflect it. In the long run, what’s most important are the ideas that motivate the electorate. And just as important as ideas are the actual steps that individuals take in their own lives to help themselves and their families. Our society is weakened to the extent we abandon our responsibilities as parents, neighbors and citizens and expect the politicians and their bureaucracies to assume those responsibilities for us.

Moreover, ideas don’t have to be “new” to be good. There are plenty of old but tried-and-true policy proposals and solutions that represent our best options today. And there are plenty of “new” ideas that don’t deserve a second look and when you dig beneath the surface, they’re not really new either. Two critically important areas that are sure to dominate the fall campaign are education and the budget. As in the primary election, the campaign this fall will showcase lots of meaningless generalities on both sides, as well as genuinely good ideas and genuinely bad ones. The voters should press the candidates for specifics.

Both Democrat Jennifer Granholm and Republican Dick Posthumus support ending social promotion in our schools. That’s not a new idea, but it’s a good one—though one better suited to local action than state mandates. Students should move on from one grade to another for one reason alone: they’ve mastered the material. Other areas within education elicit very different views from the two candidates.

I’ll let the reader decide for himself which candidate best reflects the following perspective but I offer it as one that makes eminently good sense: Improving education starts with what research and experience strongly advise. That means recognizing that Michigan schools are well-funded (per pupil spending increases since 1994 have been substantial and well in excess of inflation). It means recognizing that greater choice, competition and accountability offer far more promise for improving education than does the tired, old, self-serving “more money” refrain of the teacher unions.

It means recognizing that schools must get more bang for the bucks they already get. Exempting Michigan schools from the archaic 1965 “Prevailing Wage Law” would save at least $150 million per year for use in the classroom. Any candidate for Governor who favors keeping that special interest law on the books and at the same says he or she is thinking of the kids first is talking nonsense. Much more detail on this and other education issues can be found at www.mackinac.org.

The state budget is reeling from two years of a soft economy and a weak stock market, but so are the budgets of many of Michigan’s hard-working taxpayers. Michigan’s overall tax burden is still well above the average among the states, with at least 30 states enjoying lower burdens than we have—suggesting strongly that Michigan needs to make considerably more progress toward a more reasonable tax load.

Raising taxes to cover state spending is both an old idea and a bad one. Prioritizing state spending just as Michigan families must do at home is a much better one. It’s becoming clear in their platforms which one of the two candidates is far more likely than the other to go the higher tax route, but both would do us a service by talking more specifically about where the state could reduce its expenditures. As a guide, I offer 10 key questions they should ask about every item in the state budget:

  1. Does it weaken communities by assuming a responsibility best left to private families, charities, or firms?

  2. Does it duplicate what other state agencies or the federal government are doing in that area?

  3. Does it primarily benefit a single favored constituency or region rather than the state as a whole?

  4. Are direct users or beneficiaries of the service paying a reasonable amount of the cost?

  5. Does it create or expand an “entitlement” that cannot be reasonably withdrawn if necessary or advisable in the future?

  6. Has it received significantly more money in recent years but not used that money in the most effective way?

  7. Has it been funded in the past by deceptive or inappropriate legislative or executive actions?

  8. Does it use taxpayer funds for political advocacy or to discriminate against racial or ethnic groups?

  9. Does it discourage self-help and personal independence unnecessarily and encourage excessive reliance upon government?

  10. Does it yield benefits commensurate with costs?

Here’s a particularly troubling violation of the spirit and intent of question #3: Hours after capturing the Democratic nomination for governor on August 6, Attorney General Granholm said this year’s election is about “taking it [the state] back for the AFL-CIO, UAW, Teamsters, the MEA . . . and seeing that the people’s interests are brought back to the table.” There’s nothing new about certain politicians kowtowing to the agendas of organized labor’s hierarchy, an agenda that is quite often at variance with the wishes of both the rank-and-file and the majority of citizens in the state. Granholm could reassure Michigan citizens that she’s not a puppet of Big Labor if she were to disavow that statement.

Likewise, Lt. Gov. Posthumus would serve his instincts well and elevate the debate if he distanced himself from much of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s policy of corporate welfare. His past record in the Legislature exhibited a strong distaste for discriminatory tax breaks and especially for outright handouts to businesses. Reinforcing that view now would go a long way to affirming his independence from special interests and his commitment to “a fair field and no favors” for everybody. His stance in support of the more broad-based tax reductions and spending restraint of the Engler years may sound like “old news” to some, but it resonates with Michigan citizens who remember the old days when sky-high tax burdens were driving people and businesses elsewhere in droves.

The kind of leadership I would like to see from Lansing in 2002 and beyond is defined by adherence to the principle enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address:

. . . 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 . . . .

That doesn’t qualify as “new” advice, but it sure beats the endless “new” schemes of so many politicians these days.

Michigan citizens should have a reasonably clear choice in November on the broad but important question of the size and scope of state government, whether the actual campaign ends up dealing substantively with particular issues or not. And that’s good news for our system of government.

"Politicians' constant need to reform everything is usually an implicit admission that they didn’t get it right the first fifty times."