Members of the Growing Michigan Together council seem to agree that the state needs to spend more money to grow the state's population.
But they’re only debating whether the state needs to raise taxes to do it. The council has given little attention to improving existing public services, which is odd coming from a group that views government as vitally important, even to population growth.
This is an obvious failure to anyone outside the Lansing bubble. People on all sides want their governments to do better. Taking more money from people to give to governments is more controversial than asking government to do better with the money it already gets. The public clearly benefits when its servants do more with less.
Public education is a prime example.
Schooling is one of the most expensive services provided by Michigan’s state and local governments. The public would benefit from better schools, yet decades of research shows that more funding does not automatically result in better schools.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true because there is a disconnect between how much money goes into a school and how well it performs. Public schools receive funding no matter how good of a service they provide students. While some do terrific work, there is no incentive for schools to perform, much less improve.
It would be nice if the public could buy better education. But school governance, teacher quality, workplace operations and basic management do more to determine school quality than how much money administrators get. These are difficult things to improve, but it’s what gives the public better schools.
Taxpayers aren’t likely to hear this from the people who manage public schools. School interest groups are united in efforts to demand more money and downplay whether they can do better with what they have.
In other words, the people who operate public schools — who are paid by taxpayers — are not interested in providing better public services. Citizens should hope for something different from a government that is supposed to be run for the public’s benefit. Improving public services is called progress, and the public should demand more of it.
People also expect progress in other parts of their lives. They expect the private sector to improve their services. People want better products and services at lower costs. If one business isn’t going to deliver on that premise, then another one will — and earn the profits that come with finding ways to put the resources of the world to better use.
This kind of competition is too often absent in the public sector. Governments are not competing with each other over who can provide the best services at the best price.
But it is not completely without competition. People do reveal their preferences when they move from one place to another. But the decisions about where to move often have to do with family and work opportunities more than government services and costs.
Public servants don’t sound like they want to compete over quality, either. Citizens hear little about that, but are regularly told how wonderful a public service could be if taxpayers would only give government officials more money.
There is also an obvious reason why public servants ask for more rather than better. Their lives are easier with more. It’s easier to balance a budget and easier to please your employees. An expectation that they would do better makes their lives harder.
Part of this is because of a strategy that spending interests use.
There is an implicit agreement between the people who receive government funding to join together to call for more money. They keep a united front in an attempt to grow the pot of money they all share. Plus, they hesitate to criticize the activities of other spending interests, lest skepticism about one area be turned towards another. The refusal to try to figure out how to do things better is part of this trough truce.
There are already enough people asking for governments to get more money without the state’s population council. There are reasons behind the ongoing calls for more. But we’d all be better off if more people focused on how to do government better.
James M. Hohman is director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.
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