The Gongwer Blog

A Century Of Wonky Love

By John Lindstrom
Posted: April 14, 2016 3:12 PM

If anyone could write a love letter to a wonkish organization, well, this would be the letter.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan has celebrated its 100th anniversary this week, and the nearly 10 million souls in this state are lucky for that. The CRC has been an organization willing to wade into the murky, weed-choked ponds of public policy and made them a little clearer for the citizens to ingest. In so doing, it has helped change this state.

Granted, not many people ingest the CRC’s findings. Which is a shame. One does not read CRC reports, papers and now blogs for their poetic prose, their masterful character descriptions, their facility at turning a plot. No, one reads CRC publications because these are people who know what they are talking about.

If you are serious about policy in Michigan you rely on the CRC to help outline all the nuances, the context and potential effects of budget issues, tax proposals and major policy issues in Michigan. If you do not follow the CRC, then you cannot seriously claim to be serious about policy in Michigan.

The CRC’s research is first-rate and if it is somehow possible to have a status higher than first-rate then the CRC’s analysis has summited that peak.

Just over a decade ago, Tom Clay, the late Tom Clay, Michigan’s former budget overseer who joined the CRC when he retired and who loved numbers and golf with equal passion, did an analysis of the state’s budget and warned that it was unsustainable and would go into deficit unless changes were made. The power of that analysis, which he would refine as time passed, led him to hold some 400 presentations across the state talking about the budget.

Folks, if someone holds 400 presentations on the state budget – the state budget, mind you, not legislative sex scandals – that someone has written a pretty damn good analysis.

And go back to the early 1960s when the state wrote, argued over, voted on and adopted a new Constitution. CRC’s work on the Constitution was without peer, from a massive analysis and comparison of Michigan’s then 1908 Constitution to a document that outlined what the new constitution would do, and which included a 100-question quiz (example of the questions: “Temporary state borrowing is permitted to a limit that is now equal to about how much?” Well…your answer?) A total of 250,000 copies of that document were printed. Given by how narrow a vote the Constitution was approved, it is very likely those 250,000 copies played an outsized role in the Constitution’s victory.

Even if reading about budgets and tax schemes is not one’s interest, there is one set of documents the CRC prepares that all voters should read: its analysis on ballot issues. Ballot issues are often arcane. The CRC’s explanations are exactly the tonic needed to help understand what a ballot issue will do. Even reporters who follow this stuff for a living make use of the CRC’s analysis. Whatever is on the ballot in 2016, watch for the analysis the CRC will provide.

While praising the CRC one also has to praise those who made it possible. On that budget analysis document are listed the names of men (they were all men more than 50 years ago) whose names are synonymous with the history of the state. There listed are Henry Bodman, Prentiss Brown, Joseph Hudson, Lynn Townsend and George Romney among several dozen others. They and their predecessors in 1916 were elites – well-to-do, educated, socially involved – but they were the kind of elite who in some ways thought everyone needed a shot to join the elite club. To reach that club, they understood the public needed some of the advantages they had.

And one of the biggest advantages an elite has is information. Information is the currency that pays for good decisions.

The CRC is a critical link in providing needed information about the issues that affect us now and will affect us. It provides all Michiganders with a big advantage, and we are lucky, and we should be very grateful for that century of superlative work.

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