by Craig Ruff, President

This Advisor comments on the new conservative political environment in the state and nation and predicts the 1995 policy agenda in Michigan.

“Michigan’s renaissance is America’s hope,” Governor Engler said in his second inaugural message. In five words, the governor encapsulated his past policy accomplishments, the current economic prosperity of Michigan, the pressure on the federal government to change, and the continuing policy agenda in Lansing.

The State of National Conservatism

The elections of 1992 and 1994 thrust onto the center stage of the politics of this century’s last five years the very nature of how Americans govern themselves. To everyday people in everyday life, the federal government has become irrelevant, partly because we have won the Eighty Years War against communism (nothing binds people together like a common and threatening enemy), too many domestic policies have failed to solve the problems for which they were created, and competitive problem solvers such as businesses, civic groups, and local communities have outpaced those in Washington, D.C.

For the first time since the late 1920s a congressional majority been entrusted and empowered to curtail the federal government. Sixty-five years of piling on federal taxing, regulating, policy making, and spending authorities have institutionalized power in Washington, D.C. Much of that power now will be disbursed, but to where?

Political conservatives hold four different sets of opinion, each resting on a leap of faith. One view holds that any society’s genuine strength lies in the individual’s freedom and opportunities for achievement, a new libertarianism empowered by technology to decentralize power and authority to the lowest level possible. Another view vests faith in the problem-solving capacities of a larger common denominator: the community, which could be a neighborhood, locality, region, or state. If liberals and New Democrats were smart, they would build their own new political coalition around communitarianism, and President Clinton gives every appearance of doing so.

A third view holds that government retains the authority to set the moral standards of society and pronounce and enforce virtues. As Speaker Gingrich has said, he wants a smaller but more powerful government. The construct substitutes morality for economic enterprise as the partner of government. A fourth view holds that less and an amoral government is best in all cases, whether it seeks to interfere with economic market forces or bedroom etiquette.

The merchants of virtue and apostles of diminished government have hardly begun the clashing that imperils conservative unity.

Engler’s “Conservapopulism”

John Engler holds a vision of a new alignment of government responsibilities that drives his national and state policy agendas. In this vision, Washington, D.C., bucks back to the states the running of many domestic programs; the states, in turn, turn over to local governments those programs best managed by the courthouse and city and township halls. Government at all levels unleashes the private, wealth-creating sector to accomplish what government bureaucracies and redistributive fiscal policies have failed to do.

Buttressing his faith in the trickle-down of power and responsibility, Engler believes that smallness, caring, customization, self-reliance, efficiency, and the blossoming of the ordinariness of humans into extraordinary performance are all intermarried. This political and social theory is rooted in his own experience growing up in small-town America, where neighbors shared problems and joined hands to solve them. This sharply contrasts with a care-taking, plantation mentality of elites—be they business tycoons, labor barons, or liberal politicians—who believe they know better than the common man what is in a man’s best interest. Aaron Copland’s compositions served up to twentieth-century symphonic music the same political trust and adoration that Engler expresses for the ordinary American.

Political populism has deep roots in American history. In its worst form, it can be intolerant of racial, ethnic, upper class, or intellectual minorities who are viewed as pulling social mores and a coherent social fabric apart by their color, creed, greed, or contrariness. The Jack Kemps, Newt Gingriches, and John Englers of contemporary “conservapopulist” politics must guard against entrapment, either by their own words or policies or by the stigmatizing of their critics, in the streaks of intolerance of past populists like Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, and George Wallace.

John Engler is not top hat and black tie, slick and slim, urbane and polished. A child of wide open spaces and down-homeness is not about to change because Michigan’s media thrust upon him national political aspirations that, to some, still require one to look and sound like Jack Kennedy. Engler never says but every day exudes the mantra of competence over charisma and the country life over the city.

Michigan’s New and Old Policy Agendas

If you liked the last four years of state government, you will love the next four years. Dynamic conservative change in policies occurred in the last legislative session; in the 1995–96 legislative session look for consolidation of those changes as opposed to radical departures.

K–12 reform will continue its fast pace. To the conservative political leadership of Michigan, expanding parental choice and stimulating the development of charter schools will create more competitive market forces that in turn will drive enhanced quality and diversity of learning. Also seen as boosting quality is full public disclosure of schools’ performance, measured by changes in students’ test scores, classroom sizes, and other indicators found in the much-heralded but never-used report cards issued last year. Finally, state government’s leadership will turn attention to K–12 efficiencies, such as district consolidations and collective bargaining changes, that will stretch the $10+ billion expended.

In the name of economic competitiveness, look for GOP assaults on the single business tax and unemployment and workers’ compensation systems and environmental regulations. In the belief that business owners locate first and foremost in states with low tax burdens, conservatives will seek tax cuts to make Michigan more competitive. Reviewing the single business tax, long the bane of small proprietors, could lead to (a) reducing its overall tax rate, (b) increasing credits and deductions for certain business expenses, (c) exempting a greater number of small businesses from liability, (d) throwing it out altogether and substituting a new business tax scheme, or (e) keeping it as it is because no consensus within the business community can be found for any of the alternatives. In addition to tax law changes, look for regulatory relief to hasten permitting, licensing, and land reclamation.

Taxes in general will be scrutinized. With the booming economy, state revenues are coming in so fast that we are approaching if not exceeding the constitutional limitation on the percentage of the state’s gross income that Lansing can collect. We also have built up the largest rainy day fund in history. Some taxes may have to be cut. Shall it be expanded income tax credits for charitable gifts or income tax deductions for families’ children, or lower income tax rates? Should we cut taxes even more than the constitution requires to allow for a long overdue gas tax hike earmarked for road improvements?

Health care reform may be dead as a doornail in Washington, D.C., but it is alive and well in the statehouses. Look for calls for greater portability of employer-provided insurance coverage, including guaranteed renewability of insurance. In the same vein, people will try to invent incentives for small businesses to form buying pools and presumably achieve discounted health care benefits’ options. Physicians will seek rights to join health maintenance and other managed care plans (the so-called any willing provider clause). Similar to the conservatives’ view that more information leads to smarter consumption of K–12 education, expect an emphasis on creating and publicizing cost and other data on health care. Pushing Medicaid enrollees into managed care programs, with fixed, capitated budgets, is likely.

Michigan is an archetype among states for welfare reform. But much of welfare policy, such as setting Medicaid, AFDC, and food stamp eligibility standards and benefit levels, is controlled by the federal government; hence, most sweeping, new changes at the state level will have to await national reform. Lansing’s policy will continue to vest with families greater rights and responsibilities for life-nurturing support, prod recipients to learn and use workplace skills, and limit the duration of benefits.

By twice defeating comprehensive auto insurance reforms at the ballot box, voters did not necessarily tell politicians that all is right. Sources of high premium levels—be they industry profits, investment rates of return, auto repair and medical benefit costs, and litigation costs—will receive legislative attention. After the voters’ rejection of comprehensive plans, look for the legislature to deal with these and related issues serially rather than as a group. Political necessities sometimes dictate incremental change and KISS (keep it simple, stupid) answers.

Casino gambling has many layers. Which communities want what; to what extent does it threaten competing gambling activities such as horse tracks and the state lottery; is it moral; does it help nearby restaurants and retail stores; and what are its consequences on crime? It seems unlikely that the legislature, by the end of 1995, can deal with all these questions and adopt one statewide policy that a majority of people and communities can support. Moving the issue to a statewide referendum, where voters can express their opinion, makes considerable sense.

Outside of Detroit, few people really care about the Detroit Tiger Stadium, but that does not mean that the state’s role, if any, in helping to finance a new structure will not be debated. Look for either a concrete plan to come out of the legislature with the governor’s leadership by June 30 or a decision that Lansing will not help.

Coming out of the Secchia Commission’s report will be a host of opportunities to streamline state services and create a new customer-service attitude among state employees. Look for considerable executive branch reorganization and legislative action on some recommendations, for example, wetlands banking.

For longer than most people care to remember, court funding has plagued both the legislature and judiciary. State and local governments share costs of funding probate, district, and circuit judges’ salaries, and the locals pick up the tab for administrative costs. In key Wayne County courts the state contributes to administrative expenses and pays all salaries. Many legislators and attorneys believe that the time has come to join the issues of full state financing of courts, including uniform salaries for judges, with making courts more efficient (i.e., swifter justice and shorter waits for resolution.) This could be the year for its accomplishment. The Michigan Supreme Court and State Bar of Michigan are wading into the issue along with some powerful legislators, but the price tag of full state funding, which could approach $500 million, may require a go-slow approach.

If legislators and the governor have any time left in 1995, they also might peer into mental health recodification, state construction code reform, juvenile justice and housing juvenile offenders, assisted suicide standards or prohibition, and relaxing environmental cleanup standards and correcting liability issues particularly in cities (Public Act 307 sites).

Prospects

We will know much more about the 1995 policy agenda in Lansing when Governor Engler gives his State of the State message on January 17. As a probable lame duck, with national responsibilities coming up as chair of the Republican Governors Association, with a 1996 presidential election already gearing up, and with three infants at home who will never be the same tender, nurture-needing age again, the governor may go after nearly all that he seeks to accomplish during his second term in the first six months of 1995.

Change can be measured quantitatively or qualitatively. I look for more and speedier legislation in 1995 than in most years, but most actions will tinker with and build upon policy changes already under way than break new ground.

The timeline below charts Michigan’s policy agenda for 1995. It may be helpful to you as the whirlwind of legislative action proceeds.

Copyright © 1995

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