The other day, suitably fitted with required jacket and necktie, I made my way to the Detroit Athletic Club for the 95th annual meeting of the best-respected -- and least-known -- institutions in our state: the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
CRC is one of Michigan’s crown jewels. If you aren’t familiar with it, you should be. A privately funded, not-for-profit public policy research organization, CRC has had the same mission since its founding in 1916: To promote well-informed public policy by delivering factual, unbiased analyses of the most important issues facing our state.
Everyone in this state who has taken a serious look at any public policy issue has learned to rely on CRC’s work as thorough, timely, scrupulously nonpartisan and legendarily accurate. The national Governmental Research Association in 2010 awarded CRC its Most Distinguished Research Award -- for the third year in a row.
Nor is its excellence anything new. For years, CRC analysis has helped establish and support the foundations for most important policy discussions in Michigan. For example, CRC’s work demonstrated more than a decade ago that Michigan’s general fund budget was chronically and structurally unbalanced. That is, unless we make drastic changes in the state’s expenditures and/or income, our state budget would remain irremediably out of whack -- by more than $1 billion each year
That research drove lawmakers inLansingto struggle, year after year, with our unbalanced budget, a struggle that now appears to have been resolved by legislative approval of Gov. Rick Snyder’s reforms.
CRC showed that Michigan’s prison system was gobbling up all the available money from other parts of the budget, such as higher education, aid to cities and roads and bridges. The council’s research showed Michigan’s prisons consume more money than the state spends on all public universities and colleges. What’s more, our prisons are expensive compared to those in other states; if we spent per inmate the average of our neighboring states, we’d be spending $400 million less per year than the $2 billion-plus we do now.
So, together with 200 or so others, I was looking forward to the program. (Full Disclosure: I’m a non-paid member of CRC’s Board of Trustees.)
Nor was I disappointed. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, now in his second term, produced a dire warning about howMichigan communities needed to avoid a “race to the bottom,” both in the services provided to their citizens and in the compensation given their public servants.
He described a “Transformation Investment” fund in his city, and how it allocated a portion of a recently passed millage to tightly focused investments meant to make over Grand Rapids. The first step: Converting property tax statements from paper to digital, saving millions.
Nor was he alone. Joyce Parker is the state appointed emergency manager for the city of Ecorse. She described a city initially in denial about its financial condition, with its accumulated deficit larger than its budget, a history of late (and critical) audit reports and a mayor unwilling even to provide her with an office.
Parker described how she took drastic steps to bring the city to financial reality: A new controller (the accounting firm of Plante Moran); a temporary special tax assessment; and sharply reduced spending on city contracts by outsourcing.
In so doing, Parker made a convincing case for the emergency manager legislation passed by the Legislature earlier this year. She presented it as a useful device to help communities in dire trouble manage their way out of it.
Mark Docherty, in addition to 17 years on the street as a firefighter inSterling Heights, is the president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union. Instead of “flaming” his mostly management-oriented audience, he made lots of sense.
"The (public sector) unions that were there three or four years ago are simply not there today. We know there’s no money. We get it. So we’re changing the ways we do things,” he said.
Docherty discussed how essential it is to develop a trusting, open relationship with city managers and councils in order for both sides to understand the realities each faces. He worried about safety; “In Jackson, we’ve gone from 54 firefighters to 15, and that simply isn’t safe … either for citizens or our men.”
The state’s top fireman is respected in Lansingas one of the new breed of public sector union leaders who are helping to bring sensible consensus to the long-standing problem of how to manage contract disputes between cities and their public sector employees.
The CRC program was crisp and illuminating. The occasion was heartening. After all, they‘ve been around longer than General Motors. How many organizations get to hold a 95th annual meeting?
As always, I came away having learned many new things. One of which was that the entire day was an admirable example of the tremendous value the Citizens Research Council brings our state.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.