Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Logo Mackinac Center.jpg
Established 1987
Chairman Joseph Olson
President Joseph G. Lehman
Budget Revenue: $5,593,469
Expenses: $4,339,266
(FYE December 2013)[1]
Location Midland, Michigan
Address 140 West Main Street, P.O. Box 568, Midland, Michigan 48640

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is an American non-profit free market think tank headquartered in Midland, Michigan.[2][3][4] It is the largest state-based free market think tank in the United States.[5] The Center states that it is "dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan residents by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions."[6]

The Mackinac Center conducts policy research on a range of public policy issues. It also conducts educational programs such as workshops for high school debate students and sponsors, an online legislative voting record database. Mackinac Center scholars generally recommend lower taxes, reduced regulatory authority for state agencies, right-to-work laws, school choice, and enhanced protection of individual property rights.[7]


Mackinac Center building in Midland, Mich.

According to the Mackinac Center, the organization was founded in 1987 by a group of citizens who met on Mackinac Island and shared an interest in making Michigan a better place to live and work. The organization is named after Mackinac Island.[8] The Center began operations in 1987 with no office or full-time staff. It formally opened offices in Midland in 1988 with its first president, Lawrence W. Reed, an economist, writer, and speaker who had chaired the economics department at Northwood University. The Lansing-based Cornerstone Foundation provided early direction and some funding.[9] The Center's first annual budget under Reed was $80,000. In 1997, the Mackinac Center moved from rented offices to its current headquarters after having raised $2.4 million to renovate a former Woolworth’s department store on Midland’s Main Street.[10] Reed served as president from the Center’s founding until September 2008, when he assumed the title President Emeritus and also became the president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Former Chief Operating Officer Joseph G. Lehman was named the Mackinac Center’s president on September 1, 2008.[11]

The Mackinac Center is a member of the State Policy Network,[12] an umbrella organization of conservative and libertarian think tanks operating at the state level. In November 2006 the New York Times published a two-part series about state based free market think tanks that described how the Mackinac Center trained think tank executives from 42 countries and nearly every US state. New York Times reported that, “When the Mackinac Center was founded in 1987, there were just three other conservative state-level policy institutes. Now there are 48, in 42 states."[13]

In a 2011 interview, founder Joe Olson said that the Center was first conceived in a Lansing, Michigan bar at a meeting between Olson, fellow insurance company executive Tom Hoeg, Richard McLellan and then-Senator John Engler. Olson said the founders wanted an organization that would focus on research, writing, speaking, issuing press releases and looking at public policy from a free-market point of view.[14]

Budget and finances[edit]

The Mackinac Center is classified as a 501(c)(3) organization under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.[15] In 2004, the Michigan Court of Appeals threw out a lawsuit filed against the Mackinac Center by the Michigan Education Association in which one of the remedies sought by the union was a list identifying the Center’s donors. The court ruling was based on the MEA's failure to show actual malice. It did not reach the question of whether the Mackinac Center's donor lists should be made public.[16]

When asked by Detroit’s Metro Times in 1996, the Center’s President Lawrence Reed said: "Our funding sources are primarily foundations … with the rest coming from corporations and individuals," but that "… revealing our contributors would be a tremendous diversion…"[17]


Although it is sometimes called “conservative,"[18] the Mackinac Center characterizes the label as inaccurate, pointing out that it does not address social issues usually identified with modern conservatism including abortion, censorship, and gambling, and that “free market” is a more useful shorthand description of its policy expressions.[19] The Center writes that its ideology is most accurately characterized as flowing from the "classical liberal tradition: socially tolerant, economically sophisticated, desiring little government intervention in either their personal or economic affairs."[20]

Public policy research[edit]

Education policy[edit]

Mackinac Center studies and reports have promoted Universal Tuition Tax Credits[21] and charter schools as forms of school choice, and the privatization of non-instructional services such as transportation, custodial, and food service. Center analysts have been critical of what they conclude to be excessive influence in school governance of school employee unions, including the Michigan Education Association. In 1993 it published a study on the Michigan Education Special Services Association (MESSA), a school health insurance administrator created by the MEA, characterizing the entity as the “MEA’s money machine.”[22] Following publication of the study a state statute was adopted prohibiting unions from making the selection of health insurance providers a bargaining issue. Another new law made privatization of non-instructional services a prohibited subject of collective bargaining in public schools.

In 2001, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) created a new organization called the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. Remarks by union president Luigi Battaglieri at the press conference announcing the entity suggested that at least in part it was formed to serve as a counter to the Mackinac Center’s influence in Michigan education policy.[23] In a subsequent fundraising letter the Mackinac Center quoted Battaglieri as saying “Frankly I admire what they [The Mackinac Center] have done.” The MEA filed a lawsuit against the Mackinac Center, which alleged that it had “misappropriated likenesses” from the union and its president.[24] In 2004 the Michigan Court of Appeals threw out the lawsuit, and the union chose not to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Fiscal policy[edit]

The Center's Fiscal Policy Initiative is described on the Center’s website as working to “limit taxation, champion broad-based, private sector economic development, and reduce government outlays through privatization and spending cuts.” In 2007 Mackinac Center analysts were active in making the case against a $1.4 billion tax increase proposed by the Granholm administration, publishing studies and op-eds, and making numerous radio appearances arguing that state government should restructure itself to eliminate the need for tax hikes. On the issue of targeted tax incentives, a 2005 Mackinac Center study showed that in its first 10 years Michigan’s “flagship” economic development program, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority (MEGA) created by former Gov. John Engler and continued by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, did not generate any overall increase in employment or personal income in counties that had MEGA projects compared to ones that did not.[25] In 1996, 2002 and 2004 studies were published analyzing the state budget line-item by line-item and recommending privatization or elimination of many government activities.[26][27][28] The Initiative publishes an annual survey of privatization of non-instructional services in Michigan’s 552 school districts, and also publishes a biannual journal, the Michigan Privatization Report, which is sent to Michigan municipal officials and approximately 4,200 public school board members.

Labor policy[edit]

The first article on the Mackinac Center website recommending that Michigan become a right-to-work state is dated 1996, which is the year former National Labor Relations Board member Robert Hunter joined the Center.[29] In 2002 the Labor Policy Initiative published a study presenting evidence that states with right-to-work laws have enjoyed faster economic growth than states which allow employers to make union membership a condition of employment.[30] The Center has also been critical of state and federal “prevailing wage” and minimum wage laws, and has argued for more financial and political activity disclosures by unions, including stronger “paycheck protection” laws protecting the rights of employees working under union contracts to pay only those union dues or fees necessary to cover the costs of a union's employee representation duties.[31]

Legal Studies Project[edit]

According to the Mackinac Center Web site the Project “produces legal analysis of state and national policy issues in order to better inform policymakers, the media and the public,” and in strategic cases at both the state and federal levels the initiative writes and submits amicus curiae briefs that “explore the broader constitutional, statutory and public policy considerations at stake.”

Science, Environment, and Technology Initiative[edit]

This Initiative’s stated mission is to promote “scientifically sound and market-based polices” that “enhance environmental protection and public health, and maximizes the benefits of new technologies.” It publishes studies and the quarterly Michigan Science magazine and sponsors student essay contests.[32]

Educational programs[edit]

Students for a Free Economy[edit]

A campus outreach project and blog, SFE visits Michigan colleges and universities “taking policy ideas to students . . . who may be unfamiliar with the ways that markets affect their lives and the issues they care about.”[33] It also sponsors writing, research and art contests with cash prizes, internship and scholarship opportunities.[34]

Property Rights Network[edit]

The Network’s stated mission is "preserving and expanding private property rights in Michigan by elevating public awareness of these rights and how to protect them; encouraging policymakers to respect property rights when crafting laws and regulations; and identifying, organizing and supporting concerned property owners, thereby establishing an effective statewide property-rights coalition.” In 2006 initiative scholars “educated legislators who drafted the Proposal 4 ballot measure that prevents Kelo-type takings in Michigan.” The network has held citizen meetings around the state raising consciousness regarding both physical taking of private property via the government’s power of eminent domain and by regulatory taking.[edit]

Also called the "Show Michigan the Money Project”, this initiative uses press releases and Freedom of Information Act requests to encourage governments to meet their “obligation to disclose their actions and expenditures” and to “make their checkbook spending directly available to the public.“[35] The website contains links to the Center’s own school finance database and to various government sites disclosing spending details, and other information sources.[edit] is a free legislative database that, since 2001, has provided descriptions of every bill, amendment and vote in the Michigan state House and Senate. Voting records and bills are searchable and sortable by legislator, issue category, keyword, date range, or a combination of these. It also contains a “missed votes report” that allows users to see how many and which votes each legislator has missed within a user-selected date range.

High school debate workshops and essay contests[edit]

Each year the Mackinac Center sponsors a series of one-day high school debate workshops at locations around the state, at which students from different schools are provided with speakers, news and research material related to the annual national debate topic.[36] In recent years the Center has offered a $1,000 scholarship to one student at each debate workshop location who wins a panel-judged essay contest. Another contest offered a $500 prize to a student in grades 6 through 12 who “explores a scientific fact or exposes a scientific fallacy in a book, movie, song or other pop culture medium.”[37] In 2007 the Center announced a “Freedom in Fiction Prize” competition offering 10 cash prizes of $10,000 to authors who write a new book with “. . . characters that demonstrate an appreciation for liberty, free markets and/or explicitly or symbolically oppose government oppression or restraints on their freedom . . .” and which does not “...advance themes or characters who promote government-sponsored solutions; vilify entrepreneurship; degrade personal initiative, self-reliance and responsibility, or regurgitate discredited myths and misconceptions about liberty and free enterprise.”[38]


In addition to policy studies, the Center publishes a number of periodicals including Michigan Education Report, Michigan Privatization Report, Michigan Science, Michigan Capitol Confidential, Impact and 'Michigan Education Digest.

In 2011, the Center concluded that "each Chevy Volt sold thus far may have as much as $250,000 in state and federal dollars in incentives behind it...".[39]

Notable Mackinac Center personnel[edit]

Policy staff members[edit]

Adjunct scholars[edit]

Board of directors[edit]

Board members[edit]

Former members[edit]

  • William Rosenberg, Bush Presidential Campaign, Reagan Administration, Michigan Gov. William Milliken and Gov. John Engler administrations
  • Robert Teeter, RNC Chairman, Pollster for Nixon, Ford, Bush campaign
  • Dick DeVos, Amway, Republican Candidate for Governor


  1. ^ "Charity Rating". Charity Navigator.  Also see "Quickview data" (PDF). GuideStar. 
  2. ^ IRS Data: EIN 38-2701547 (Public Charity)
  3. ^ The Mackinac Center: ID Number 71871; Domestic Nonprofit Corporation Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs
  4. ^ Heinlein, Gary; Livengood, Chad (March 4, 2015). "Worker says ending film incentives will cost Mich. jobs". Detroit News. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  5. ^ New York Times "Right-of-Center Guru Goes Wide With the Gospel of Small Government", Nov. 17, 2006
  6. ^ "About the Mackinac Center". Mackinac Center. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  7. ^ Gardner, Greg (September 1, 2013). "After firestorm, Michigan right-to-work law has had little spark". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  8. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, "What Is the Mackinac Center?"
  9. ^ "Behind John Engler: The Big Mac Attack, The Metro Times, March 1996
  10. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, "Mackinac Center to Build $2.4 Million Headquarters", March 23, 1998
  11. ^ Midland Daily News, ‘’Lehman succeeding Reed as Mackinac Center president’’, July 21, 2008
  12. ^ "Directory SPN Members". State Policy Network. Retrieved March 23, 2015. 
  13. ^ New York Times Right-of-Center Guru Goes Wide With the Gospel of Small Government", Nov. 17, 2006
  14. ^ "Genoa resident one of the founders of Mackinac Center", Oct 19, 2011
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Ibid."
  17. ^ Link inactive on Aug. 14, 2008:
  18. ^ New York Times, Right-of-Center Guru Goes Wide With the Gospel of Small Government Nov. 17, 2006
  19. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, “Is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy Liberal? Libertarian? Conservative?”
  20. ^ "Is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy Liberal? Libertarian? Conservative?". Mackinac Center. Retrieved 6 March 2015. 
  21. ^ Mr. Patrick L. Anderson, Richard D. McLellan, Joseph P. Overton and Gary L. Wolfram, "The Universal Tuition Tax Credit: A Proposal to Advance Parental Choice in Education", Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 1997
  22. ^ Joseph P. Overton and Andrew Bockleman, "Michigan Education Special Services Association: The MEA's Money Machine", Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Nov. 1, 1993
  23. ^ Institute for Justice, “Ligation Backgrounder,” "The Michigan Education Association Tries to Take the “Free Out of ‘Free Speech’"
  24. ^ Michigan Court of Appeals, March 18, 2004, Luigi Battaglieri and Michigan Education Association v. Mackinac Center for Public Policy
  25. ^ Michael D. LaFaive and Dr. Michael J. Hicks, "MEGA: A Retrospective Assessment", Mackinac Center for Public Policy, April 12, 2005
  26. ^ Joseph P. Overton and Aaron Steelman, "Advancing Civil Society: A State Budget to Strengthen Michigan Culture"
  27. ^ Michael D. LaFaive, "Recommendations to Strengthen Civil Society and Balance Michigan’s State Budget"
  28. ^ Michael D. LaFaive, "Recommendations to Strengthen Civil Society and Balance Michigan’s State Budget — 2nd Edition"
  29. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, "Should Michigan Become a Right-to-Work State?"
  30. ^ Dr. William T. Wilson, "The Effect of Right-to-Work Laws on Economic Development", Mackinac Center for Public Policy, June 5, 2002
  31. ^ Robert P. Hunter, "Paycheck Protection in Michigan", Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Sept.1, 1999
  32. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, "Science, Environment and Technology"
  33. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, Mackinac Center Launches University Campus Project
  34. ^ Students for a Free Economy Web site About SFE
  35. ^
  36. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, High School Debate Workshops Overview
  37. ^ Michigan Science Magazine No. 3
  38. ^ Mackinac Center Web site, Freedom in Fiction Prize
  39. ^ Michigan Capitol Confidential Chevy Volt Costing Taxpayers Up to $250K Per Vehicle December 21, 2011
  40. ^ MCPP Board page, MCPP website page for current board members, and individual members' pages linked to the Board page. Retrieved 2010-07-08.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 43°36′49″N 84°14′46″W / 43.6137°N 84.2460°W / 43.6137; -84.2460