Mackinac Center Joins 87 Groups and Activists Calling for Federal Tax Reform

Time for a simple, efficient, sufficient and fair tax code

Last week, Americans for Tax Reform and a broad range of center-right organizations sent a letter to key policymakers in Congress and the executive branch urging passage of legislation to simplify and reduce the burden imposed by the federal tax code. The Mackinac Center was one of the signatories.

Many economists say that a virtuous tax system rests on four pillars: simplicity, efficiency, revenue sufficiency and fairness. The current federal tax code for both individuals and businesses fails on all four points.

The tax code is hard to understand and navigate, with mountains of complex rules, requirements and exceptions that impose massive compliance costs on families and businesses. Successive generations of politicians have used the tax code to deliver selective benefits to favored special interests in the form of narrowly defined credits and exemptions. Among other bad effects, this means the rest of us must pay more to make up the difference.

To paraphrase the president who signed the last genuine tax reform measure in 1986, the current tax code permits the employees of the Internal Revenue Service to treat the money we earn as if it belongs to them first. The code eschews simplicity and fairness, and is instead skewed toward complexity and favoritism.

The nation was promised tax reform by Donald Trump when he was just a candidate. On September 25, a comprehensive tax reform plan will be announced. It is expected to reduce the corporate income tax rate to 15 or 20 percent from its current rate of 38.9 percent and double the current personal exemption for individuals.

These reforms are long overdue and could have profound consequences for economic growth and prosperity in Michigan, America and ultimately the world.

To hear more about what the tax reform bill is likely to contain, watch Grover Norquist’s speech “The New Fight for the Right” at the Mackinac Center Issues and Ideas Luncheon of September 7.

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Michigan Income Tax Cuts Remain Affordable

State government is very well fed

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is content with a 4.25 percent state income tax rate, and the Legislature lacks the votes for even a small tax cut. But 2018 will be Snyder’s last year in office, and every seat in the state House and Senate will be on the ballot. Whether taxpayers get any relief, then, appears to be in the hands of voters in next year’s primary and general elections.

A modest state income tax cut should be popular. After all, state government can afford to take less, and tax relief was promised to voters by a previous class of Lansing politicians.

In 2007 then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm raised the income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent with a majority of votes in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House. Included in the law authorizing the tax hike was a scheduled rollback to the previous 3.9 percent rate.

But in 2011, Granholm and the Legislature repealed that provision, delivering instead a tax cut of a mere one-tenth of one percent, taking the rate to the current 4.25 percent.

Since then, a better economy and an array of reforms have meant a steady increase in the amount of money rolling into the state treasury. Economic growth means Michigan taxpayers are sending $6.9 billion more to Lansing than they did in 2010. That 27.3 percent increase is double the rate of inflation.

Michigan can afford an income tax cut.

A rate reduction might not even cost state government a dime, considering the projected increases in state revenue, which is expected to be $2.1 billion higher four years from now, a 9.3 percent increase. Using just half that increase would be enough to bring the income tax rate back down to 3.9 percent.

Pro-growth policies and a better economy are also pulling some people out of poverty. Fewer people are receiving government assistance, with the state’s welfare population down 75 percent in the past five years. Fewer people need food stamps, day care subsidies and related programs.

Nevertheless, Lansing politicians keep finding new ways to spend. Handouts and tax breaks for some favored corporations and developers will redistribute $884 million from Michigan taxpayers this year. There is no evidence this benefits the state, while history shows that an across-the-board cut in the income tax almost surely would stimulate growth.

Michigan families and small businesses deserve to keep more of their hard-earned income rather than keep handing it over to an already well-fed state government. Whether they get to keep more may be up to voters in 2018 when they send their messages to legislators in the August primaries and the November general election.

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Senate Bill 335, Revise campaign finance law to reflect Citizens United ruling: Passed 23 to 12 in the Senate

To revise Michigan campaign finance law provisions that violate the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The decision limited the power of congress and state legislatures to restrict election-related political speech by corporations, including non-profit groups motivated by ideological or political concerns.

The bill would authorize “independent expenditure committee” (dubbed "super-PACs") that could advocate for a candidate but not contribute to or coordinate with a candidate. Committees would be subject to campaign finance filings but would not have to disclose the identity of donors, and there would be no cap on spending or contributions, which could come from corporations and unions.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 100, Ease restrictions on cost and fee awards in lawsuits against the state

To ease restrictions on a person who successfully sues the state also collecting costs and fees in addition to any court-ordered damage awards, with some exceptions. Under current law, the winning plaintiff must prove a state agency's position was "frivolous" to collect costs and fees. The bill would instead require the state provide clear and convincing evidence that its position was justifiable. It would also remove a cap on attorney fees that may be reimbursed.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4892, Fix and sanction city candidate filing deadline errors: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To provide an exemption to state-imposed city election candidacy filing deadlines for several cities that gave prospective candidates bad information on this, causing some to miss the filing deadline for elections this November. The bill would require these cities to put these candidates on the ballot. It would also require more training and oversight for these cities' election officials, and impose $2,500 fines. Starting in 2018 cities that do this would be subject to $5,000 fine.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4716, Remove child from parents for female genital mutilation: Passed 89 to 16 in the House

To take away the parental rights of a parent who subjects a child to female genital mutilation. This would be in the same section of law that terminates parental rights for severe child abuse and molestation.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

SOURCE:, 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

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Proposed Law Would Allow MDOC to Hire Felons

Bill opens another avenue to former offenders seeking employment

People who commit crimes should be punished. But in most cases, the punishment shouldn’t hang over the offender’s head for the rest of his life. The Legislature has made progress on a bill amending the law that prohibits felons from working for the Department of Corrections. The Corrections Code currently forbids the department from employing anyone who has a felony conviction or felony charges pending. The bill, sponsored by Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, would change that. It would remove the blanket prohibition and require the department to establish a policy for hiring some ex-offenders.

The bill has passed the House with nearly unanimous support and has received favorable treatment in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate should pass the bill and send it on to Gov. Rick Snyder for final approval.

This proposed legislation would not require the department to hire people with felony records or charges. It would simply set up a procedure for making those hiring decisions possible. The bill requires that the hiring policy include an extensive background check and the written approval of the department director for each hire; if the legislation passes, the final policy may be even more stringent.

The Senate has already introduced and passed broad reforms to the criminal justice system in Michigan this year. The conversation around those reforms confirmed the bipartisan commitment to ensuring that our state protects public safety while maximizing the number of productive people in our communities. The governor also reiterated his commitment to effective criminal justice and offender re-entry policies, noting that employment is key to helping offenders reintegrate successfully into society.

Moreover, this proposal is in keeping with a recurring theme in Michigan criminal justice reform: solving problems. Liberals and conservatives agree that our justice system must do more than warehouse people in prisons. It must also focus on rehabilitation and creating long-term solutions that enable offenders to get themselves back on track. This has resulted in the department starting to train prisoners in high-demand trades and issue certificates of employability to help them find work when they re-enter society. Both data and intuition confirm that being able to work is a key to successful reintegration.

When people with a criminal record reform themselves, it isn’t just good for them. It’s good for all of us. This bill is one way to make that more likely.

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Senate Bill 409, Facilitate private home Great Lakes harbor leases: Passed 26 to 12 in the Senate

To authorize 50 year "bottomland" leases to owners of single-family homes on Great Lakes shorelines who want to create a private, non-commercial, recreational harbor formed by a breakwater. Owners would have to pay 1 percent of their home's state equalized property value in an up-front lump sum payment every 25 years. The money would go into a segregated account that pays for parts of the Department of Environmental Quality's operations.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 404, Give veterans free state identification cards: Passed 38 to 0 in the Senate

To exempt veterans from having to pay the usual fee to get a state identification card.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4892, Correct some cities' candidate filing deadline errors: Passed 92 to 13 in the House

To provide an exemption to state-imposed city election candidacy filing deadlines for several cities that gave prospective candidates bad information on this, causing some to miss being on the ballot this November. The bill would require these cities to put these candidates on the ballot. It would also require more training and oversight for these cities' election officials, and impose $2,500 fines.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

SOURCE:, 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

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Flatten the Tax Code

Select tax breaks aren’t the answer to our tax problems

In 2014, Michigan Congressman Dave Camp rolled out a major tax reform proposal. It hit all of the main pillars that economists across the political spectrum thought would spur economic growth – it lowered rates, expanded the base, was revenue neutral and eliminated many company and industry favors.

But it died. Getting rid of loopholes is a great idea, but when proposed, the beneficiaries of select tax treatment come out in hordes to defend their privilege. Farmers, realtors, energy groups, municipal governments – all came out to defend the tax breaks.

Republicans have been talking tax reform for years and now that the party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, leaders are putting together another plan. Unfortunately, many of the same groups (and more) are out in force against these plans. Corporations are treated differently by the current code and those who have an advantage don’t want to lose it.

Michigan is going through a similar fight. After several years of lowering business taxes by flattening the tax code, a bipartisan majority of the Legislature is pushing back. Previously swearing off special tax credits (after racking up billions of dollars owed) and eliminating a number of other preferences in the tax code, the Legislature has passed two packages this year favoring select businesses. Proposals to expand property tax write-offs, give special privilege to pension income and favor people who regularly trade in to purchase new vehicles are all gaining ground.

A better tax system has a broad base and low rates. It’s not a good idea for legislators to favor some companies, some industries and some people over others.

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Public Service Commission actions threaten electric choice in Michigan

MPSC intends to restrict access to out-of-state markets

Michigan’s Public Service Commission and the monopoly utilities it regulates appear committed to imposing an in-state generation mandate on Michigan’s electricity choice providers. But the Commission’s own lawyers say the plan would harm the reliability of the electric system, push electricity costs up and even contradict federal policy.

Last December, lawmakers’ plans to pass significant new electricity legislation – Public Acts 341 and 342 – were delayed when some legislators opposed including a “local clearing requirement” in the law. The requirement, which would essentially mandate that electricity sold in Michigan be produced in Michigan, would hit alternative energy suppliers (AES) the hardest. Those suppliers, which compete with the two big utility companies — Consumers Energy and DTE — are an essential part of Michigan’s electricity choice market.

A part of the new law (Section 6w) requires electricity suppliers to show the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) that they can meet the energy needs of their customers. The Commission, in turn, says that any electricity sold in Michigan needs to be generated in Michigan. But currently federal policy – set by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) — allows electricity suppliers to buy the electricity they sell to customers from the open market, which could mean turning to out-of-state sources. That policy is consistent with the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause, which allows for goods and services to cross state lines freely.

No problems have been reported with alternative electric suppliers purchasing electricity from outside Michigan. But the state’s monopoly utilities, DTE and Consumers Energy, argue that an in-state requirement is essential to maintaining a stable electricity system.

In an emailed comment, DTE’s media relations office said that “With Michigan’s unique geography and the physical constraints of electricity, nearly 95 percent of Michigan’s electric supply must be generated within Lower Michigan. … Holding all energy suppliers responsible for their own customers’ needs is fundamental to reliability and the 2016 energy law.”

Electricity choice suppliers argue that no mandate is required; they must meet their customer’s needs if they want to stay in business. Further, they say, DTE and Consumers Energy own and operate the vast majority of Michigan’s generation facilities. So the in-state requirement would force them to build redundant and expensive facilities to generate electricity, or to rely on their competitors for their electricity supply.

It is just this sort of tension that stopped the voting on electricity legislation in December. As long as the in-state requirement remained in the draft legislation, House leaders couldn’t cobble together enough votes to pass the bills. Many Republican House members, who supported electricity choice in Michigan, recognized that leaving an in-state generation requirement in the law would effectively kill off Michigan’s choice market. Therefore, they opposed leaving it in the final bill.

Only after the language requiring in-state generation was removed in the final hours of the final evening of debate did enough Republicans agree to vote “yes.” By waiting until the requirement was removed from the bills, Michigan’s elected representatives sent a clear statement that using the legislative process to kill off electricity choice was a nonstarter.

Despite that clear legislative intent, the MPSC stated in a June 15, 2017, order that it planned to resurrect the same in-state generation requirement that legislators had openly rejected just six months earlier. Not surprisingly, the MPSC’s plans are injecting back into the discussion all the concerns first raised by advocates of choice.

An August 21 letter by House Energy Policy Committee chair, Gary Glenn, blistered Sally Talberg, chair of the MPSC, for “imposing such a damaging policy on (Michigan’s) economy.” In his comments, Glenn referred to a May 26, 2017, letter, written by three assistant attorneys general who were assigned to provide guidance to the Commission. That letter clearly “advises against introducing a new [in-state] requirement in 2018.”

The attorneys explained that imposing the in-state mandate on electricity choice markets “would not improve reliability in Michigan and could potentially be a detriment to customers.” They argued the mandate would “make it extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for alternative electricity suppliers to find enough electricity for their customers.

The attorneys also said that the in-state requirement would “actually compromise reliability for some specific Michigan customers.” They warned it would work against the rules established by MISO, the regional operator for the Midwest and overseer of Michigan’s electric grid. In contrast, they stated, “if the status quo is kept for 2018,” alternative electricity suppliers “could continue to serve the capacity requirements of their customers” by getting the electricity they need from outside the state.

In another statement, Glenn stated his clear intent to step up his resistance to the Public Service Commission:

I will recommend that the Legislature itself go to court, if necessary, to reassert that energy policy in Michigan will be set by the Legislature, who are elected by and accountable to the people, and not by an appointed bureaucracy that seems intent on advancing the financial self-interests of two corporate monopolies at the expense of Michigan ratepayers and our economy.

When Michigan citizens elect their representatives, they expect them to have a say in the policies that affect their lives. When those representatives make a clear statement of intent on a key policy issue, it seems eminently reasonable to expect Michigan’s government employees to pay attention. When those government employees seek further legal advice on how to respond, and that advice agrees with the clearly stated intention of the Legislature, it seems odd that they would ignore it. If the Commission is going to ignore the Legislature and its own lawyers, and push forward with its plan for an in-state mandate, one has to ask why they bothered with the regulatory review process in the first place.

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Giving More Taxpayer Dollars to Universities Won’t Make Michigan More Educated

No link between state spending and educational attainment

Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz. Image via Michigan Tech University.

In The Detroit News, Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz argues for more taxpayer spending on state universities. Students that get degrees, he explains, earn more than those without them. But he never says that giving state universities more taxpayers dollars will result in more students earning degrees. It won’t.

State universities charge tuition to their students, but the institutions also receive direct taxpayer dollars. Some states spend spend more taxpayer dollars on their universities than Michigan does. And there are states that have a more credentialed population than Michigan. There isn’t a connection between the two.

This can be seen on a chart. This looks at a state’s spending on universities and the percentage of its adult population that holds a college degree.

Wyoming and Alaska are the two states that spend a lot on higher education and have middling levels of educational attainment.

Michigan lawmakers are already taking $1.6 billion from taxpayers to give to state universities. They ask little in return for it. Residents should be asking lawmakers to dial back that spending if it has been sold as a promise to get more graduates in Michigan.

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Post Labor Day Weekend Good Time for Tourism Talk

Lots to discuss with unofficial end of summer season

There have been some recent developments and debates on the tourism front. They involve empty criticism of the Mackinac Center’s tourism study; an Auditor General investigation into a Pure Michigan consultant’s reports and the announcement that the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will again bid out the right to calculate a return on investment for the Pure Michigan program. They are worth sharing with the public.

Last November, the Mackinac Center released a study of state tourism promotion efforts. It found for every $1 million increase in state spending on tourism promotion, there is a bump in economic activity of just $20,000 in the average state’s accommodations industry. Michigan is average. Other sectors of the tourism economy actually fared worse. Our study has been met with some criticism for which we have offered rejoinders.

The most technical criticism leveled at our paper was posted without fanfare in late March and later republished on June 26 with additional commentary. It zeroed in on our statistical model. The short critique was posted on the for-profit Oxford Economics website. The tiresome talking points presented in the memo suggested the reviewer(s) had not even read our actual paper or related work. The Mackinac Center’s full rejoinder, “A Response to Oxford Economics," was written by my co-author Michael Hicks.

Oxford Economics, incidentally, has an economic dog in the fight. A company it owns, Tourism Economics, has been one of Michigan’s no-bid tourism contractors. In 2015, the president of Tourism Economics wrote an email to the MEDC about a Mackinac Center study he knew would soon be released. In the email, Adam Sacks offered to write a critique. Sacks claimed it wasn’t possible to estimate an impact from ongoing advertising with our techniques, saying econometrics is a “blunt tool” for such a thing.

If that were true, however, top academic journals would not publish papers that employ econometrics. We cited several studies in our own report that use econometric measuring techniques, and one was even of United States-specific, taxpayer-funded tourism promotion programs. That study, titled “Are State Expenditures to Promote Tourism Effective?” was published in the Journal of Travel Research, once ranked the third-most influential journal in the field by one accounting.

Sacks was not the first person to criticize our work. The first was brief and from the MEDC’s secretive consultant. He claimed in a newspaper interview that the Center’s study did not take into account such things as the economy or weather. These charges were in error and we said as much in our written rejoinder, “Tourism Promotion Study Criticism Absurd, Ironic.”

The second criticism came from a former tourism marketing boss in Florida. At the time, Visit Florida, that state’s equivalent of Pure Michigan, was under fire and under threat of being defunded. The Mackinac Center’s report was cited publicly in the Sunshine State during this debate. We defended our research in a piece titled “Studies of Government-funded Tourism Promotion Withstand Criticism.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the Pure Michigan program, has in the past hired a contractor on a no-bid basis to estimate the program’s alleged return on investment. That consultant’s conclusions are wildly different from the Mackinac Center’s. His report claims a credulity-straining $8.00-plus in tax revenue returned for every dollar spent. Unfortunately, he refuses to precisely explain how the ROI is derived. He and the MEDC are basically saying, “You’ll just have to take our word for it.” We have never done so and are skeptical for a number of reasons.

Several lawmakers may be as well, as two have asked the Auditor General of Michigan to review the current consultant’s reports and the office has agreed. This new investigation made headlines in July. Around the same time, other news reports indicated that the MEDC was going to seek competitive bids for contractors to estimate the return-on-investment estimates, placing its current, secretive consultant in the position of needing to compete for the right to provide this service.

The Mackinac Center’s study on tourism promotion remains a defensible, scholarly work. Its methodology is 100 percent transparent and its data set is comprised of publicly available information. The state’s secretive consultant can’t make the same claim and neither can the MEDC or other apologists for subsidized promotional activities for the tourism industry.

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A “Not Welcome” Sign for Special-Needs Students

Nonresidents denied local special education dollars in 21 ISDs

A recent Bridge Magazine headline proclaimed: “Michigan failing its special needs children, parents and studies say.” Yet the reporting remarkably omitted a key player from the conversation: intermediate school districts.

The article says that, on average, Michigan students with disabilities trail their peers in other states. Test scores are lower, dropout rates are higher, and many more special-needs students are diverted from mainstream classrooms into segregated environments.

Bridge correctly observes that “where a child lives in Michigan can dictate what services they receive.” The state’s 56 ISDs play a prominent role in this by producing administrative plans to fund and deliver special education services in their respective regions. In seeking to address the diverse and complex needs of local schools’ disabled populations, these agencies greatly shape students’ experiences with special education.

Michigan’s ISDs can do so because they have a lot of money to spend, receiving state and federal money for special education. Together, ISDs also take in nearly a billion dollars from local special education millages.

Every ISD, which taxes local business and homeowners, has a different tax base and its own tax rates. This creates a wide gap in how much local funding an ISD has. In 2016, local special education millages collected for each special-needs student anywhere from about $1,200 to $9,700. Statewide, ISDs collect an average of $4,650 in special education tax revenue for each student who has a federally required Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

The inequity doesn’t end there. Twenty-one of the 56 administrative plans in place specifically keep local millage dollars from helping a student who attends school in the district through Schools of Choice. Washtenaw ISD collected more than $8,800 in local taxes per special education student in 2016, but families who live outside the boundary lines couldn’t see a penny of it spent for their child.

Other ISDs that send an unwelcoming message to neighboring special-needs kids cover Oakland and Macomb counties, Kalamazoo and the Traverse Bay region. In all, more than $455 million raised in ISD special education tax money can’t be used to help nonresident pupils. While one might argue that an ISD should spend the money it raises from a tax only on students who live within its boundaries, a few are even more restricting. They also deny the extra state dollars they receive to students who live across the boundary line but could use their services.

ISDs don’t have to take such a restrictive posture. In fact, most of their special education plans don’t allow a child’s home address to determine whether local tax dollars can help them.

Two other large ISDs, Ingham and Kent, occupy unique ground. In addition to serving students within their own boundaries, they also make their combined $118 million in local special education dollars available to students who live within a neighboring ISD. But their plans also govern services in five charter cyber schools that can serve students from across the state. Ingham and Kent effectively make cyber school options look less appealing for those who need special education services.

While Michigan has made strides toward more equitable student-based funding in general education, special education lags behind. It’s time to take the padlock off dollars that could help students with special needs, regardless of where they live.