News Story

Bottom Line Will Tell How Effective House Republicans are at Limiting Government

A committee of the Republican-controlled House eliminates the proposed appropriation for film subsidies, slashing it from $38 million to zero. The same panel cuts the proposed budget for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation by 13 percent, which would save the state another $16.7 million.

It is the early stage of the state budget process, a time of year when we can expect headlines and news accounts about House Republicans cutting big-government spending down to size. The regular news media have little choice in covering the budget. Articles and reports pretty much need to be presented with a “just what happened today” storyline. But to observers who watch the budget process year in and year out, that myopic “what’s happening at the moment” approach is getting a bit stale.

Watching the Legislature shift into budget-making mode is becoming reminiscent of viewing the opening scenes of a new movie and quickly sensing it might just be a remake of one you’ve seen previously. When the air outside remains chilly, the ground is brown and barren and the trees are still leafless, House Republicans dare to take a few bold votes that edge toward actually putting the interests of the taxpayers first. This seems impressive until one recalls how the budget drama has consistently played out over the previous three years of Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure in office. That’s when an uncomfortable feeling sets in: Most or all of those early charges against government growth will end in retreat.

If the past is prologue, when spring comes to full blossom in May and June the budget-cutting plans will appear to have been put back on the shelf. Questions about the wisdom of dollars for film subsidies will give way to line items nearly lost amid row upon row of other appropriations printed on the pages of huge omnibus budget bills. At that point, most of the line items in those bills will have been reset to higher spending levels a lot closer to what Lansing special interest groups had in mind.

Determining the degree to which House Republicans are really committed to a leaner, more taxpayer-friendly budget would require psychoanalysis, not political analysis. But it is safe to say most of them already suspect that few if any of the lower spending figures they vote for at the start of the budget process have any chance of surviving. That’s the sobering fact average folks should remember when evaluating the significance of House Republicans seemingly reining in some of state government’s more egregious spending habits.

In recent years, after House Republican budget-trimming efforts were stymied, members of the caucus have been accused of caving in, chickening out or backing down instead of fighting for the spending cuts they were championing early in the session. That assessment is not accurate. It would be more constructive to recognize that the stances taken by House Republicans in March and April are no more than opening bids in a game wherein most of the cards are stacked against them.

House Republicans represent only one of three and a half elements at the budget bargaining table. There is the governor, who is usually positioned to the left of the House Republicans; there are the Senate Republicans, who won’t have to face the voters again until 2018; and representing the remaining half an element (considering the extent of GOP dominance), are the Legislature's Democrats, who generally weigh in when they see a chance to push the budget toward greater spending.

Under the actual dynamics of Michigan’s current single-party budget-making process, the Senate Republicans seem to hold most of the trump cards. It is generally conceded that the newly elected House Republican majority is more fiscally conservative than was the case in prior sessions. But even if that assessment proves to be true, its impact on the budget will probably depend on whether the newly elected Senate Republican majority has moved in that direction, too.

If the Senate Republicans have moved toward more spending restraint, the final act of the budget drama in midsummer can have a different ending than what we’ve come to expect. If that change hasn’t occurred — well, we’ve seen that movie before.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.