The MC: The Mackinac Center Blog

September 19, 2014, MichiganVotes Weekly Report

Expand forfeiture & court costs, auto “protectionism," “right to try”

House Bill 5785, Expand permissible criminal court cost levies: Passed 95 to 14 in the House

To expand the costs that can be imposed on an individual convicted in a criminal case. The bill would authorize imposing assessments covering a share of court employee salaries and benefits, of "goods and services” used in operating the court, and of court building “operation and maintenance" costs. In addition, it would establish that a court has no duty to provide a “calculation of the costs involved in a particular case.” The bill reverses a state Supreme Court case that limited charges to those specifically allowed in a particular statute; its provisions would expire in 27 months, presumably to allow the legislature to rationalize these impositions for all courts across the state.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 5233, Expand scope of criminal property seizure law: Passed 93 to 13 in the House

To expand the reach of the state's criminal forfeiture law by making the property of an owner deemed "willfully blind" to illegal activity taking place on the premises subject to forfeiture. The bill would also allow the seizure of real or personal property that had been transferred to a new owner after the crime in some cases, let the government wait up to 28 days before giving notice that property is being seized (under current law this is seven days), and authorize forfeiture for home invasion, rape and other serious sex crimes. The state criminal forfeiture law allows the government to seize property used in a crime or acquired with the proceeds of a crime, with the net proceeds from its sale turned over to the agencies that are “substantially involved in effecting the forfeiture."

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 5391, Cap wage garnishment amounts: Passed 102 to 7 in the House

To revise the law that authorizes a court-ordered garnishment of an individual’s wages to satisfy an obligation. The bill would cap the amount of a garnishment at 15 percent of the "gross wages" earned by the employee, but not if this would reduce the pay to less than the "minimum wage" mandated by the state or federal government.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 616, Revise Medicaid funding sources: Passed 78 to 31 in the House

To shift Medicaid fund sources to reflect the transition from a 1 percent "health insurance claims tax" to the imposition of the 6 percent "use tax" on Medicaid managed care health care providers (hospitals). These levies are designed to “game” the federal Medicaid program in ways that result in higher federal payments to Michigan’s medical welfare establishment (including those same hospitals).

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 5649, Recognize terminal patients’ “right to try” unapproved treatments: Passed 109 to 0 in the House

To prohibit state officials and licensing boards from sanctioning health care providers who participate in providing non-FDA approved experimental drugs and treatments to terminal patients in accordance with the conditions specified in the “right to try” law proposed by Senate Bill 991. (SB 991 was passed by the Senate in August but has yet been voted on in the House.)

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 5606, Expand "protectionist" auto dealer provision: Passed 106 to 3 in the House

To prohibit vehicle makers from preventing a dealer from tacking on extra fees that are permitted by a law that empowers the state to enforce exclusive new car dealer “territories” and regulate the terms of commercial relationships between dealers and manufacturers.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

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.

Senate Approves 'Talk Like a Pirate' Resolution

Good thing they have all the important stuff solved

For the second year in a row, the Michigan Senate has approved a resolution supporting Sept. 19 — today — as “International Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

Fiscal Policy Director Michael LaFaive wrote about this very issue last year, noting that such meaningless resolutions are the best evidence yet that Michigan should have a part-time Legislature.

Scots Say 'Yes' to Independence

Seven centuries ago

In light of the historic “no” vote for Scottish independence Thursday, we revisit this essay by President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed about a time when Scotland did win its independence from Britain.

Feeling Fine About the End of the World

Book review of Kevin Williamson's latest effort

[A review of “The End Is Near, and It’s Going To Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure” by Kevin Williamson; Broadside Books, 2013, $27.99 hardcover/$15.99 eBook; 198 pp.]

Back in the days of classic British humor, a comic impersonating an unctuous variety host proclaimed: “Ladies and gentlemen, Petula Clark sings!” To which another comic responds sotto voce, “Yes, we know that.” I was reminded of this bit while reading Kevin Williamson’s “The End Is Near, and It’s Going To Be Awesome.” Those familiar with Williamson’s prodigious output neither will be surprised by the title’s first clause nor the glib nature of the second. Simply put, ladies and gentlemen: Kevin Williamson is apocalyptically anarchistic. But most readers knew that already.

Williamson, who recently discussed his book at a Mackinac Center Legacy Society luncheon, presents mounting evidence the United States is nearing a reckoning both financial and behavioral, but waits until the last pages to explain why this might be awesome. Like Petula Clark, readers know that she sings, but we’re left wondering whether she’ll perform “Downtown” or “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” Williamson presents the same quandary vis a vis the awesome part.

Williamson abjures the approaches normally taken for a book of this sort. While chock-a-block with political science, history both distant and recent, law and economics, “The End Is Near” is literary in its approach. This shouldn’t surprise those familiar with Williamson, who arrived on the scene with an English degree, and freely alludes to works by John Milton and T.S. Eliot (not to mention Jewel and “Who Moved My Cheese”). Every movement needs its poets, after all. As Percy B. Shelley recognized, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and Williamson is one such specimen. It is because of this approach that this fellow student of literature recommends the book.

Williamson seemingly enjoys placing counterintuitive theories in the middle of his texts. For example, he writes “failure is what makes us rich.” Alluding to the concept of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction, he explains:

We’d all be a lot worse off if corporations such as U.S. Steel did in fact live forever. Obvious counterexamples include Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service, two institutions that would have failed long ago if not for government support – subsidies for Amtrak, the government-chartered monopoly on letter delivery for the postal service. The cost of their corporate immortality is not only the waste associated with maintaining them, but the fact that their continued existence prevents the emergence of superior alternatives.

Compare this with McDonald’s and iPhones. Both, writes Williamson, are products…

…of evolution, highly refined by countless tiny revisions through dozens of iterations moving toward a more perfect expression of its ineffable … ethos – by no means moving in a straight line, but guided by the gift of failure in the direction of less wrong. Over time, less wrong looks pretty good: Look in your pocket. Look in the mirror: You’re a big improvement on Homo erectus.

After showing the wide differences between public boondoggles and private enterprise, the author goes in for the philosophical coup de grace:

The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong. It is as a practical matter impossible to design a national health-care policy that can be tweaked and improved every quarter, or on-the-fly in real time as problems are discovered, as software is. It is nearly impossible to imagine political institutions creating something like a software-update feature for Social Security or the War on Drugs. Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business – despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.

Politics is a kind of island in the evolutionary stream—isolated, unchanging, incapable of learning because it is insulated against going extinct. Politics is the last monopoly, the Immortal Corporation. You’ll never see a capitol building with a GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign hanging out front—even genuinely bankrupt, undeniable insolvent political regimes from Argentina to Greece for the most part go on about their business, even after defaulting on their financial obligations.

We have better phones, better cars and other consumer goods than in the past, says Williamson, but we’ve nothing to look forward to but politics as we’ve always known it. Or worse.

Williamson goes to great lengths to show how increasingly militarized our government agencies have become. He notes the U.S. Dept. of Education recently purchased “a few dozen Remington 12-gauge shotguns with 14-inch barrels.” These sawed-off shotguns were deployed by a DOE tactical unit against a single father with three children in a 2011 attempt to arrest the man’s ex-wife regarding a student-aid issue. The benign-sounding Social Security Administration trumped the Department of Education by purchasing 174,000 .357 hollow-point pistol rounds. Dodge your taxes and you might end up with a prison sentence double the average amount of those convicted of homicide (5.5 years is the national average). Government, Williamson reminds us, is never less than the threat of violence and oftentimes more.

“They got the guns/but we got the numbers,” sang Jim Morrison of The Doors, and Williamson echoes the sentiment. The “awesome” of the book’s title is the 300-million-strong U.S. population that might, in part, tire of ever-growing Leviathan enough to say … well … “Enough.” He ponders what would happen if, say, one-tenth of the U.S. population refused to pay their taxes, or performed any other coordinated act of community civil disobedience. The time is approaching he says, when the End in which we find ourselves might justify such extraordinary means. 

Happy Constitution Day

Recognizing the importance of Sept. 17

Today, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day, which the Mackinac Center commemorates in this piece by President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed.

Michigan Education Digest

How many districts have self-created overspending crises?

This week’s Michigan Education Digest is now available online. Topics include the retirement of the Detroit Federation of Teachers president, a school district saving $737,000 by dropping union insurance and the number of districts that have self-created overspending crises.

Government Transparency Bill Stalled in Senate

Michigan House passed bill six months ago

It’s been six months since the Michigan House passed House Bill 4001, but the Senate has taken no action on it apart from referring the bill to the Government Operations Committee.

The bill, which drew bipartisan support in the House, promotes government transparency and accountability by modernizing the state’s Freedom of Information Act. This law enables residents and journalists to request and obtain government records. The Mackinac Center relies on FOIA to conduct its public policy research and to promote government accountability; each year we file hundreds of FOIA requests.

A common complaint about the public records law is the cost imposed on individuals who request records. Agencies charge a per-page copying fee, as well as a search fee for a public employee to locate and copy the record. Stories of agencies charging exorbitant fees are common; the Mackinac Center holds the distinction of receiving a $6.8 million bill from the Michigan State Police for one FOIA request. (We chose to forego obtaining the records in order to avoid incurring a cost that exceeds our annual budget.)

Introduced by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, HB 4001 received careful consideration in the House and incorporated feedback from multiple organizations. The version passed by the House is designed to control how much agencies can charge the public for turning over public records. The bill also increases penalties that can be imposed on agencies that improperly withhold records.

Transparency shouldn’t be viewed as an extra cost or burden borne by public agencies; rather, it should be seen as a vital function of government. HB 4001 helps accomplish this worthy priority.  

CapCon Takes Former Clinton Official to Task

Robert Reich ignores facts in Free Press op-ed

Michigan Capitol Confidential today exposes several flaws in a Detroit Free Press opinion piece written by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich that accuses “mostly white” Oakland County for Detroit’s financial problems.

Grasping At Taxes to Pay for Pensions

Schools, municipalities get creative

Steve Malanga at Public Sector Inc. reports on Pennsylvania governments increasing taxes in order to pay increased pension requirements.

Malanga follows tax increases in Scranton, York City, and in a number of school districts. He also notes that districts are looking to challenge property assessments in search of more revenue.

The Warrior Run School District in Union and Northumberland counties has a different idea on how to raise revenues. Last week the school district sent registered letters to dozens of property owners advising them that it is challenging the assessments of their properties, asking for a higher value and tax bill. With health and pension costs creating a $1 million deficit, the district is looking to generate $600,000 from the unusual reassessment move.

Some of this is happening in Michigan. New assessing rules have meant more inspections and after the housing bubble, cities are desperate to recognize increasing home values. Cities are also challenging previously exempt nonprofits to pay property taxes.

While Michigan has not seen the volume of tax hikes that Pennsylvania has, it may be around the corner. Allen Park, currently in emergency management, passed a public safety millage that will partially go to shore up underfunded police and fire pension systems. The increased contributions required by the pension system is one of the reasons that the city is under emergency management in the first place.

We are not likely to see such tactics in Michigan school districts, however. Most districts already charge the maximum amounts they can for operating purposes. So the increased retirement contributions must come out of their additional state contributions, through operating efficiencies, or through reductions.

The need for operating efficiencies is one reason why so many districts have contracted out support services.

September 12, 2014, MichiganVotes Weekly Report

Business tax, "bad driver" tax & more "shadow government"

Senate Bill 156, Reverse effect of Supreme Court business tax ruling: Passed 34 to 3 in the Senate

To clarify the intent of provisions in the Michigan Business Tax enacted in 2007, so as to reverse the effect of a recent state Supreme Court ruling (IBM v. Treasury) that reportedly would force the state to refund more than $1 billion to many companies headquartered outside this state. The case involved the interaction of MBT provisions with a separate multistate Tax Compact entered in 2006. (The MBT was repealed in 2011 but is still in effect for certain companies awarded state subsidies and tax breaks under its provisions).

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 633, Allow community service to cover some “bad driver” fees: Passed 110 to 0 in the House

To allow a person to do 10 hours of “community service” in lieu of paying a state “bad driver fee” for certain offences, including driving without a license and failing to have or produce proof of insurance. The fees for these particular offences were repealed by a 2011 law, so the bill would apply only to individuals who incurred and failed to pay them in the past. These very high, revenue-raising fees were originally imposed in 2003 to avoid spending cuts in that year’s and subsequent state government budgets. A law enacted earlier in 2014 would gradually phase out the fees imposed for additional offenses.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 758, Authorize more stringent sanctions for delinquent hotel tax: Passed 97 to 13 in the House

To empower counties that choose to impose a tax of up to 5 percent on hotel and motel room charges to enforce the tax with the more stringent sanctions authorized for delinquent “special assessment” levies, which include forfeiture and foreclosure. Under current law, a delinquent owner is liable for a penalty of 25 percent of the amount in arrears plus interest, and up to 90 days in jail.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4783, Expand a corporate/developer subsidy regime: Passed 83 to 27 in the House

To authorize creation of a seventh “Next Michigan Development Corporation,” which is a government agency that gives tax breaks and subsidies to particular corporations or developers selected by political appointees on the entity's board, for projects meeting extremely broad "multi-modal commerce" criteria (basically, any form of goods-related commerce). Reportedly the new entity will probably be in Detroit. In December, 2013 the legislature enacted a law authorizing a sixth such entity, this in the Upper Peninsula.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 156, Reverse effect of Supreme Court business tax ruling: Passed 100 to 10 in the House

The House vote on the bill described above.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

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.