Advice for the Legislative majority
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published in The Detroit News on March 9, 2017.
Michigan Republicans own a unique moment in this state’s political history. If you are a member of the GOP, your party controls the White House, Congress, the governor’s office and the state legislature. The last time this occurred? The Hoover administration. Given this opportunity, policymakers should pursue their agenda with gusto.
Gov. Rick Snyder will finish his second term with the luxury of single-party control in the Legislature for his entire administration. During that time, he and lawmakers contributed to an impressive economic recovery, pulling the state out of a 10-year nosedive.
But the last two years have tested Republicans’ ability to achieve significant reforms. The Flint water crisis disrupted the governor’s plans and it rightfully requires his attention. In the Legislature, internecine fights over Detroit education, infrastructure spending and energy reform have at times stymied a free-market agenda.
Looking ahead to the next two years, I humbly offer this advice:
■Govern boldly. The governing party must create the future and not merely react to it. Playing not to lose is a risky proposition — just ask the Atlanta Falcons, who coughed up a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. When a party governs only to not lose a majority, it results in milquetoast achievements. If Donald Trump’s election teaches us anything, it is that one who discards political norms may give himself the best chance to win.
Governing with boldness may require lawmakers to defy political convention, as House Speaker Tom Leonard showed recently. The new speaker put a modest tax cut up for a vote, knowing he lacked the necessary votes within his own caucus. Political commentators labeled the move divisive, but time may reveal that voters appreciated the clarity the vote gave. Let’s hope the House reconsiders a tax cut for Michigan families.
■Govern for all people. Too much legislation carves out special privileges that benefit small groups of people. A more appropriate approach is to serve people broadly. Policymakers are debating bills that would give well-connected developers a generous slice of tax revenue if they develop certain blighted properties. This benefit to a few will be paid for by many. Not only are corporate giveaways unfair, they rarely work. Subsidies like this represent the triumph of hope over experience, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson.
One method of governing for all people is to build alliances with those who are troubled by the current political environment. Go to them; listen to their concerns. Many policymakers, to their credit, are doing so this year in their town hall meetings with constituents. If you go to people with an open mind, you may find priorities you can advance together. Another modest suggestion to keep politicians grounded: Serve people in a hands-on way. Hard work has a way of centering us; find opportunities to break a sweat and get dirty while serving others.
■Embrace constitutional exegesis. It is never out of season to explain what makes America great. The rule of law, opportunity, separation of powers, liberty and responsibility — each person involved in the political process should pass these values on to the next generation. An example: The right to free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment. But the right to speak is best exercised with courtesy and engagement. It does not mean that a person can expect to be free from being offended or from hearing divergent views. Are we modeling this?
■Govern for the long term. One of the consequences of partisan politics is that elected officials focus only on the next election. Laws are enacted for the immediate benefit — a press release, a headline — but not with the next decade in mind. Tackling the state’s unfunded pension liabilities would be a good start for lawmakers. Such a priority won’t earn much short-term praise but could divert the state’s course away from a pending fiscal calamity.
Govern boldly. Do so for the benefit of all people. Explain our constitutional values. And be mindful of the long-term effects of policy.
The next two years provide a perishable opportunity. What will you do with it?
Online charters already perform OK for much less money
In his 2017-18 budget, Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed reducing funding for certain types of public schools: cyber schools, which are charter schools that provide students with full-time online instruction.
Currently, all public charter schools receive the same minimum foundation allowance as most traditional districts: $7,511 per student. While all other districts and charters funded at that minimum level would receive a $100 increase in their foundation allowance, cyber school financing would drop to $6,089 per student, a 19 percent hit.
Rep. Tim Kelly, who chairs the education reform and school aid committees in the House, criticized the governor’s proposal as unfair in the Detroit News: “We fund students, not schools. So Billy and Sally shouldn’t be dinged by the choice they make for what school they go to. Why is Billy worth less than Sally simply because of the choice of schools?”
The governor’s proposed budget justifies the cut by claiming that cyber schools have “minimal facilities costs when compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.” That argument really doesn’t work though, because brick-and-mortar school districts pay for their facilities with local property tax revenue, not state funds. Cyber schools (and all other charter schools, for that matter) cannot levy taxes on local property owners to pay for their facilities like districts can. So, even if cyber schools’ costs for facilities are less, they, unlike brick-and-mortar districts, have to pay for them out of their state revenue — the same revenue Snyder plans to cut.
The estimated cyber school spending reduction of $16 million is not the governor’s only pushback on a nontraditional educational choice. He also wants to significantly reduce funding to districts that offer “shared time” services for private school students or homeschool partnership programs — from $115 million this year to $60 million in 2018.
These cuts would be more than offset elsewhere in Snyder’s K-12 budget plan. The governor proposes an additional $150 million for current and newly designated at-risk students, along with an extra $22 million to boost funding for high schools.
While the relatively new mode of virtual learning may not prove a good fit for most students, some families have found online schooling to be a lifesaver. A 2012 state law raised the cap on cyber schools, but Michigan still limits the number of schools to 15 and the number of students served to 2 percent of all public school students statewide. Currently, 13 charter cyber schools operate in Michigan, four of which opened their doors in 2016.
The Detroit News’ Jonathan Oosting reported that cyber schools “are consistently underperforming their peers.” Yet on the Mackinac Center’s recent Public High School Context and Performance Report Card, which factors in student poverty rates when grading schools, five of the seven cyber schools serving high schoolers performed on level with most of their peers. One performed slightly below average but another, Michigan Connections Academy, did better than 90 percent of public high schools in the state and earned an A.
Cyber schools get these results with less money already. The foundation allowance provides a minimum guarantee, but schools have access to other sources of local, state and federal funding. In 2015-16 cyber schools overall spent $9,039 per student — less than 99 percent of conventional school districts and even less than most other charter schools. The state’s per pupil spending averaged $12,243 last year.
Critics say that these online education programs can absorb the cuts because they don’t have to fund student transportation, food service and certain infrastructure costs. Yet even when you factor those costs out, cyber schools still spend over $2,000 less per pupil. Meanwhile, 68 percent of cyber school operational spending paid for teachers and other instructional costs, compared to 58 percent for all schools. So, even if cyber schools spend less on brick-and-mortar costs, they appear to use those savings to fund teaching and learning. Isn’t that what taxpayers want?
If there’s evidence to support the governor’s view that the cyber-school funding disparity should be widened even further, he should bring it forward. Because Kelly is right about the current plan: It just treats students differently based on the choices they have made.
March 10, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report
Senate Bill 129, Regulate small copper mines different than big ones: Passed 24 to 11 in the Senate
To establish a separate and more streamlined regulatory regime over small ("native") copper mining operations.
Senate Bill 19, Cut off parole absconders from welfare: Passed 101 to 6 in the House
To cut off cash welfare or food stamp benefits given to an individual who absconds from parole. This and the next few votes are part of a large Senate probation and parole reform package the House approved this week (except for one bill that would give subsidies to employers who hire ex-convicts).
Senate Bill 13, Cap penalties for technical parole violations: Passed 99 to 8 in the House
To cap at 30 days in jail the penalty for probationers who commit technical probation violations, except for multiple offenses.
Senate Bill 12, Facilitate release of medically frail prisoners: Passed 107 to 0 in the House
To authorize expedited prisoner commutation hearings and procedures if this is requested by the governor for a particular prisoner, and the request is based in part on the individual’s medical condition.
Senate Bill 22, Create new rules for housing young prisoners: Passed 107 to 0 in the House
To require the Department of Corrections to develop rehabilitation plans for inmates aged 18 to 22, and provide programming designed for that age group. This is a change from the Senate-passed version of the bill, which required young prisoners to be housed together and separated from older prisoners. Prison officials criticized this, warning of “gladiator schools.”
House Bill 4208, Ban expelled legislator from running in replacement election: Passed 72 to 36 in the House
To revise a procedural detail related to when legislators are expelled or resign. The bill would require a resignation letter or expulsion resolution to explicitly cover the full balance of the term (rather than be temporary).
SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit http://www.MichiganVotes.org.
After four long years of debate, change has finally arrived
It seemed everyone was ready to tackle criminal justice reforms after the Council of State Governments released its study of Michigan in 2013.
The Legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Supreme Court issued a joint invitation to the CSG to observe Michigan’s criminal justice system, and the House of Representatives introduced several proposals the following year based on the council’s findings.
But disagreement over presumptive parole — which would automatically put some prisoners out on parole after serving their minimum sentence — held up the reform process. The 2014 legislative session ended before any criminal justice bills passed.
House Republicans tried again in 2015, to no avail. The opposition to presumptive parole remained strong. But the heat had been turned up on the debate, and Snyder issued a statement calling for lawmakers to pass reforms within the next six months.
Last year saw more reforms introduced, this time from both legislative chambers. The Senate proposed 21 wide-ranging reforms, while the House passed four more targeted ones. Although there was bipartisan support for all of the bills, only one — the repeal of the “successor judge veto” — ended up making it into law.
Senate Republicans wasted no time getting their proposals back on the table in early 2017, and, under the leadership of Speaker Tom Leonard, the House has finally approved the Senate’s sweeping reforms.
The final bills underwent a few changes in the House, but the Senate has concurred with the amendments and the whole package is now on its way to Snyder for his signature.
This is a big moment. The bills include many commonsense measures to enhance public safety and save taxpayer dollars at the same time. They include directing the flow of state funds to probation and parole programs that rely on proven best practices, cutting off welfare benefits to people who abscond from parole and creating special rehabilitative plans for younger inmates. They also include requiring the state to collect data about the corrections system and establishing special problem-solving courts that will help parolees re-enter society.
If all goes well, Michigan may be on the path to becoming a national model for modern and effective administration of criminal justice.
Massive expansion after sensible regulations passed
We’ve written a lot about ridesharing over the last year, explaining why services that use smartphone apps to link people who have cars with people who need rides are good for Michigan.
Two companies stand out in the ridesharing business in Michigan: Uber and Lyft. When we started talking to drivers a year ago, Uber was operating in six cities (metro Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo). Lyft was operating in only two (metro Detroit and Ann Arbor), although it expanded in summer 2016 to include the Lansing and Grand Rapids areas.
But these companies, and more importantly, the people who drove for them, were operating in a legal gray area. Michigan law didn’t have a place to put ridesharing, and some drivers received tickets for lacking a license they didn’t explicitly need. The companies were slow to expand, or not expanding at all, because of the uncertainty surrounding regulations.
Ridesharing provides jobs and a safe ride home. It correlates with safer roads and less crime. Allowing these companies to continue operating in a gray area jeopardized their future expansion and innovation in Michigan. Some drivers warned that passing the wrong rules and regulations for ridesharing could force the companies to pull out of the state completely.
Fortunately, late last year the Legislature created a sensible, statewide framework for ridesharing companies, and streamlined taxis and limousine regulations, too. Less than three months later, that move is already paying off. Over the last few weeks, Lyft has added services in six new cities: Flint, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Midland, Mount Pleasant and Saginaw. Uber has followed suit, announcing launches in Jackson, Midland, Bay City and Saginaw.
Thousands of additional Michiganders can now take advantage of cheap, easy transportation through ridesharing as a result of last year’s changes. Hopefully, even more will have access soon as the companies expand into new markets. It’s another example of the positive impact sensible regulations can have on a state.
Plenty of middle ground, even in a divisive political climate
Although the current political climate is fraught and divided, there are a handful of ideas that people and groups across the spectrum can and should be able to agree on.
Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Michael Reitz recently wrote an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press describing a few potential consensus-building ideas for Michigan: licensing reform, a better school ranking system, criminal justice reform, an income tax cut and FOIA reform.
Proposals that are proven to increase government efficiency and economic prosperity should be embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. On criminal justice reform, Reitz writes:
An effective criminal justice system achieves public safety while maximizing resources. Michigan incarcerates more than 43,000 people and spends $2 billion each year on corrections. Prison sentences and prison stays here, which exceed national averages in length, consume ever more money. The state could improve how it collects and manages data to help researchers and policymakers better understand rehabilitation, prisoner re-entry and recidivism; bills in the Senate will do this.
In addition to reviewing practices within the justice system, Reitz pointed out that legislators on both sides of the aisle have found common ground in the past and could do so again, including on civil asset forfeiture and overcriminalization.
Education is often a divisive issue, but Reitz notes one area most people agree could use some improvement in Michigan — the state’s method for ranking schools:
In January, the Michigan School Reform Office announced that 38 academically struggling schools could face closure after three straight years of low achievement. This announcement understandably ignited concerns.
While accountability is critically important, the manner of evaluating schools could be improved. The state’s Top-to-Bottom ranking merely assesses schools based on average student test scores. It fails to take student poverty into account. As a result, schools that are demonstrating growth in spite of socioeconomic hurdles can be unfairly penalized.
A better ranking system would allow high-performing schools to shine and give families a better tool for choosing among and improving their educational options.
Read the full list of Reitz’s ideas for reforms in the Detroit Free Press.
Expanding FOIA to include Legislature and Governor
Today the Michigan House Competitiveness Committee considers legislation (House Bills 4148-57) that would expand the requirement to disclose public records to both the Legislature and the Governor. We applaud this move; Mackinac Center experts have long recommended an expansion of public records law. We also offered several comments to improve the current legislation.
It’s uncertain whether these bills will reach the governor’s desk; the House passed similar legislation last year, but the Senate failed to take it up. During Gov. Rick Snyder’s first campaign he supported the idea of applying the Freedom of Information Act to the office of the governor. Just this year Lt. Gov. Brian Calley voiced support for the current bill package.
The Mackinac Center's full recommendations are available here.
Forfeiture is a big issue in Michigan
The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear a case on whether government should be able to receive forfeited property without a criminal conviction. But that hasn’t stopped Justice Clarence Thomas from taking a big swipe at civil forfeiture laws across the nation.
In most states, including Michigan, law enforcement officials can transfer property to the government, even if the rightful owner has not been convicted of a crime. (In fact, the owner may not even have to be charged with a crime.) That’s because forfeiture involves charging the property, not a person, with a crime. Justice Thomas calls this a legal “fiction.”
This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights. In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.
These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.
Michigan has its share of horror stories as well (read about them and how the forfeiture system works in the Great Lakes State here). And since up to 100 percent of the funds from assets being forfeited go back to local law enforcement, there are misplaced incentives that cause innocent people to lose their property.
The answer to this problem is for Michigan to join New Mexico, North Carolina and Nebraska in ending civil forfeiture and permit law enforcement to seize assets only from people who have been convicted of a crime. Learn more at www.mackinac.org/forfeiture.
Bills would subject legislators, governor to FOIA and require salaries be made public
Next week is “Sunshine Week,” and some Michigan legislators are celebrating by introducing transparency bills.
Almost the entire Michigan House has signaled support for a package of bills that would subject legislators and the governor to open record laws. While there may need to be some loopholes — for some legislative discussions and people sharing personal information with elected officials — these bills would, if enacted, put Michigan on par with most of the states.
Another proposed law, House Bill 4301 from Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo, would require the state to make public the name, position, and salary of every state employee. This would add on to a bill from 2016 requiring the state to list organizational charts, as well as a bill from a few years ago mandating that school districts make public their contracts, budget, superintendent’s salary and more.
Broad-based transparency laws will often need a few exceptions. But governments should be as open and transparent as possible in how they spend money, and these bills are a few more steps in that direction.
SEIU Healthcare Michigan has a history of problems
The union responsible for skimming tens of millions of dollars from home caregivers has been placed under an emergency trusteeship to investigate alleged financial malpractice. It‘s just another issue in the ongoing saga surrounding SEIU Healthcare Michigan.
This union is not new to scandals. SEIU Healthcare Michigan secretly unionized tens of thousands of home caregivers, most of whom were taking care of their relatives, in order to, in President Marge Faville's words, ”make sure Democrats get [elected].” The “dues skim” took $34 million of state aid meant for the poor and disabled and was ultimately ended by the Legislature.
But the union didn’t quit: It orchestrated a ballot proposal that would have given them a constitutional right to force private citizens into a government union so it could collect their “dues.” In the process of running this proposal, the union broke campaign finance laws and paid one of the largest fines in Michigan history. The ballot proposal failed 56-44, and after caregivers could no longer be forced to belong to the union, SEIU Healthcare Michigan membership dropped 80 percent.
Real health care workers in Michigan have been breaking away from the SEIU and repeatedly alleging corruption and nepotism on the part of Faville, the union head. One local union of about 200 members split with an almost unanimous vote, claiming SEIU Healthcare Michigan was spending little on bargaining while blowing money on parties and a brand-new SUV for Faville. Members also said the union was paying for her apartment.
There was an attempt to remove Faville from office, but she held the election by mail, which helped her as the incumbent. Union members who worked at hospitals were increasingly upset about the union’s scheme to “fake represent” home caregivers, most of whom did not know they were unionized or received any benefits from the union. The election fight got nasty with allegations of people losing their jobs for opposing Faville. Three different ballots were sent out, and one Middle Eastern union member compared the SEIU Healthcare Michigan election to Bashar Assad getting "elected" again and again in Syria. Ultimately, Faville prevailed and still heads the union today.
Most of the problems mentioned above took place before Michigan became a right-to-work state. So this tale is just another example of the positive side of the worker freedom law: Nobody should be forced to give financial support to an organization as riddled with problems as SEIU Healthcare Michigan.