In Michigan, earmarks are not cricket

District handouts in 2024 Michigan budget blow through previous spending levels

The 2024 Michigan budget contains a lot of pork. There are more than 400 different earmarks that commit money to a particular legislator’s district. This is not how legislators are supposed to budget.

They are supposed to keep the state’s best interests in mind, not their narrow political interests.

“The state can have no favorites,” Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley wrote in an 1871 opinion on the use of state funds. “Its business is to protect the industry of all, and to give all the benefit of equal law.” It is playing favorites for elected officials to earmark money for particular projects in their districts or at their discretion.

Legislators can take a broad view of the public’s interest. They can fund splash pads or cricket fields or disc golf courses if they think the public can use more of them. They could fund a grant program with criteria to determine which project serves the public interest best — that is, it would serve the most people or require the least amount of state support to get built.

This is not what legislators did with their district projects in the 2024 budget. They put projects they wanted at the head of the line, regardless of merit. They did so for their own interests. They have favorites and want to show that they are doing something for their constituents.

The people of Michigan will spend $900,000 in 2024 for a grant program to fund cricket fields. And it may be that a cricket field at Raintree Park in the city of Troy would have been the best applicant for that money — if lawmakers set aside money to a cricket-funding program. But the way to discover the best project is through open legislation and a competitive application process. Earmarks do the opposite. Legislators put in a $900,000 grant for a cricket field in Troy, not because it was the best potential cricket project, but because some politician asked for it.

They are not acting like the statesmen Cooley thought legislators ought to be. When early 20th century newspaperman H.L. Mencken said government was “a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods,” he was referring to this kind of behavior among politicians of that time.

Michigan’s constitutional drafters added rules to discourage legislators from acting this way. Two-thirds of legislators in both chambers must approve spending that benefits a particular legislator’s district or any private interest.

Legislators try to use a loophole to avoid this requirement. They don’t state the beneficiary in the legislation itself, but rather use criteria where only one person or entity qualifies. For instance, one earmark spends $100,000 on a “nonprofit volunteer service organization” to “support positive community outreach and young engagement activities” in a city with a population between 45,000 and 49,000 in a county with a population between 800,000 and 900,000. Only Roseville in Macomb County fits the population criteria, and the people at the House Fiscal Agency identified the recipient as the Roseville Optimist Club.

These district projects add up to real money. Michigan taxpayers will spend $1.8 billion on earmarks in 2024. Legislators could have lowered the income tax from 4.05% to 3.5% for the same amount of money, but they decided to take money from taxpayers and spend it around their districts instead.

The expansion of district projects is one of the reasons why the state budget is growing at unsustainable levels.

This level of pork has not been seen for a long time. While district projects are a perennial issue in Michigan and elsewhere, they’re usually not at this volume. The fiscal year 2016-17 budget contained just $12 million in “special grants.”

Gov. Whitmer could get rid of any or all of these projects by herself if she wanted. She has the ability to veto particular pieces of the budget while still allowing the bills to be signed into law. This is unlikely to happen. She’s approved of lots of these types of projects in the past.

Perhaps the volume of legislatively directed spending was necessary to get enough votes for approval. Or perhaps the governor and legislators believe that district grants really are the best way to spend money, regardless of established criteria and processes to select the best projects. If so, these district projects ought to be a bigger part of the budget process instead of being added to the budget at the last minute.

Michigan residents will be stuck having to pay more in taxes so that legislators can transfer cash to preferred constituents in a nontransparent process and without criteria to ensure that projects advance public interests. They should hope that legislators try something better next year.

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.