The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)
July 28, 2008
“Reform” and reform
That’s not the case with our neighbors to the north, Michigan. On Election Day Michigan voters will decide (assuming the referendum isn't thrown off the ballot in the court system) the fate of a constitutional referendum that would reduce the number, salaries and benefits of elected officials, legislators and judges, reconfigure the state’s judicial system, and change election law.
On the face of the proposal, this incredibly lengthy proposal includes many seemingly worthy initiatives. The Michigan Senate would lose 10 of its 38 senators, and the Michigan House would lose 28 of its 110 representatives. Two Supreme Court justice positions and seven Court of Appeals positions would be eliminated. Pay for Michigan’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state would be cut 25 percent, judicial pay would be cut by 15 percent, and pay for legislators would be cut by the 38 percent they voted for themselves in 2002. Elected officials would have to disclose their income and assets annually. The benefits of all elected officials would be reduced to the same that Michigan state employees get (which evidently are not as luxurious as the benefits of Wisconsin state employees). Elected officials would be banned from lobbying for two years. Redistricting of legislative districts would be taken out of the legislature’s hands to an independent commission.
This seems to be working with Michigan voters, 70 percent of whom favor the proposal, including 73 percent of Republican voters and 67 percent of Democratic voters, according to its sponsor, Reform Michigan Government Now.
Michigan voters clearly want something done because their state is, well, the Edsel (for younger readers: replace "Edsel" with "Yugo") of state economies. Michigan has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs since 1999. Michigan was the only state to lose net jobs during 2007. The state's June unemployment rate was 8.5 percent (Wisconsin's was 4.9 percent), and a forecast earlier this year that Michigan's unemployment rate would hit 8.9 percent in 2009 now looks optimistic. Michigan also has one of the worst housing markets in the U.S., with, as of earlier this year, one out of every 20 mortgages either in or near foreclosure.
In such an environment, consider this: If you think Wisconsin elected officials are overpaid, consider that Michigan’s governor makes 30 percent more than Wisconsin’s, Michigan’s lieutenant governor makes 72 percent more than Wisconsin’s, Michigan legislators (who are full-time, and there are 16 more of them) make 68 percent more than Wisconsin’s (who are considered 60-percent full-time-equivalent), and Michigan’s Supreme Court makes 20 percent more than Wisconsin’s.
There is, however, a complication worthy of a potboiler novel. An intern for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, discovered, on a United Auto Workers union Web site, a PowerPoint presentation, “Governmental Reform Proposal: Changing the rules of politics in Michigan to help Democrats.” (I think this intern has just assured himself lifetime political employment.) Reading the first few slides shows that the authors of the PowerPoint basically believe Michigan’s system is broken because it didn’t produce the results the authors wanted, and is likely to produce results the authors do not want: “Labor and tort ‘reform,’ erosion of civil rights and environmental protections, budget cuts, [and] privatization.”
The PowerPoint punchline is on page 11: “In 2008, use the public’s very negative mood and high level of discouragement about state government (the worst in 25 years) to enact a ballot proposal which comprehensively reforms state government, including changing the structural obstacles to Democratic control of state government in 2012–2021.” What follows is almost exactly the Reform Michigan Government Now proposal.
This part is unintentionally amusing: The estimated $4.911 million of the campaign is estimated at “less than half the cost of trying to beat an incumbent GOP Supreme Court Justice,” more than what is “spent every four years trying to win the House and Senate, usually unsuccessfully,” and less than half of the cost of a presidential-election-year “coordinated campaign.” If Michigan voters pass this, “it will reduce the cost and increase the prospects of winning the State Legislature every cycle.”
The point about the Supreme Court bears noting. Michigan's Supreme Court ranked dead last in a University of Chicago Law School study, based on "judicial independence from political or outside influences, its numbers of published opinions, and how often the court's decisions are referenced in rulings by other courts." The Public News Service noted that Michigan's Supreme Court "seems to be especially supportive of businesses, based on how it has split on many business-related decisions." (Wisconsin's Supreme Court ranked eighth in the University of Chicago study, and 24th in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study, where Michigan ranked 33rd.)
Not surprisingly, the Mackinac Center opposes the proposal, having discerned that the PowerPoint "leaves little doubt that the Reform Michigan Government Now ballot initiative is a partisan power play. The most important features of the scheme are the redistricting commission and the removal of two Republicans from the Michigan Supreme Court. Nearly everything else in the proposal seems to be calculated to make the entire package more attractive to voters. ... While we have no objections to partisan politics as such, it is essential to call attention to partisan ploys that are presented as neutral good-government reforms."
The proposal's motives become more transparent when one notices that the proposal to reduce the size of Michigan's top two court levels is designed to weed out Republican judges. Then again, suddenly Michigan liberals have some hesitation about the proposal, one of whom is concerned that controversy over the proposal might actually affect the presidential race, as well as, interestingly, Michigan's Washington Democrats. Also noteworthy is that the PowerPoint author(s) mention the unpopularity of Michigan's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, particularly after she got a tax increase passed one year ago, and yet also mention the lack of obvious Democratic successors for Granholm.
The final irony: Legal challenges have been raised to the vote (there is apparently a reference to a nonexistent part of Michigan's Constitution), which places Michigan’s judges in the strange position of having to decide whether a referendum that would reduce their own numbers and salaries is legal.
There is a more central issue here. It came to me when I was watching "All the King's Men," the Academy Award-winning 1949 movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Penn Warren novel about a Huey Long-like politician whose interest in reform metastasizes into an interest in driving the state's political machine. Reform is never successful if reform is centered around "who," as in whom to replace. Newt Gingrich engineered the Contract with America, which gave Democrats their worst congressional defeats in 50 years. Republican control of Congress lasted just 12 years, due in large part to Republicans' emulating most of the worst abuses of Democrats during their half-century controlling Congress.
Some would argue that voters shouldn't decide to reduce their representation. I don't buy that, particularly if the voters feel they're not being represented by their elected officials. (A friend of mine who has worked extensively in politics thinks Wisconsin should go to a one-house legislature, like Nebraska.) There are some good provisions, such as reducing pay and benefits of elected officials, and an independent redistricting body, as long as it was truly independent. But merely getting rid of the bums, whether by vote (the preferred route) or by term limits (which Michigan has, and which some commentators believe are part of the problem), won't change very much. Even though Michigan's elected officials are clearly overpaid, it's not who they are or how many there are, it's what they are or are not doing. An economy in recession, which Michigan obviously is, needs tax increases like flooded land needs a rainstorm. (The simile of 2008.)
As Mackinac Center president Lawrence Reed puts it, "Ask any resident what ails Michigan, and 'we have too many judges and legislators' probably wouldn't make anybody's top-50 list. Few people are foolish enough to think that simply reducing those numbers would transform Michigan. Most people would say our taxes need cutting, the bureaucracy needs trimming, the schools need mending, the business climate needs improving, or Detroit needs reforming. But RMGN does none of that, which makes it a huge distraction from fixing the state's fundamentals."
Reform is not about replacing one politician with another, or not replacing one politician; it's about replacing bad policies with good policies. That's the case in Michigan and in Wisconsin.