Most days, the work of the Citizens Research Council is serious, focused and quiet. One night a year, though, we celebrate.
This year, our annual Policy Dinner fundraiser was held in Lansing, and attracted a crowd of around 300, including board members, funders, legislators, lobbyists, and others with an interest in supporting nonpartisan, fact-based research into Michigan’s policy issues, now in our 103rd year.
In recent years, we’ve used the occasion to give the Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. Public Service Award, named for our longtime board member, supporter, businessman and Michigan public servant. This year’s recipient, former state treasurer Doug Roberts, came with children and grandchildren in tow and told stories about what it’s like to collect a paycheck made out to yourself, carrying your own signature.
Roberts was far more than state treasurer, of course, a position he filled in Gov. John Engler’s administration. On his way to serving under five successive governors from Gov. William Miliken to Gov. Rick Snyder, he also held posts as director of the Senate Fiscal Agency, deputy superintendent of the Department of Education and deputy director of the Department of Management and Budget, among others. Along the way, he also ran the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, and played a role in the development of Proposal A, which reformed school funding.
His son John Roberts followed in his footsteps, serving as state budget director under Gov. Rick Snyder.
He recalled when, serving as deputy budget director under Gov. William Milliken, he entered the office of his boss, Jerry Miller, and announced: “We have a problem with the budget.”
“I did not hire you to bring problems, but rather solutions,” Miller replied. “Come back when you got one.” He took the lesson to heart, and never raised problems again without at least a potential solution – not always taken, but always offered.
Roberts gave way to the keynote speaker of the evening, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Benson spoke mainly about the full plate she has before her, with three main objectives – to reduce waiting times in Secretary of State offices to 30 minutes or less; to implement Proposal 3 of 2018, the “promote the vote” petition; and to oversee the formation of an independent citizens redistricting commission, the “voters not politicians” ballot question approved by voters last year as Proposal 2. The commission will draw up new congressional and state legislative districts.
All three are big jobs. Benson said she has visited all SoS branch offices in the state in her first year, and has some ideas to improve the experience for state residents.
The government could “bring the Secretary of State to people and not make them come to government,” she said, via technology and reorganizing or rethinking systems and procedures. SoS offices could operate in grocery stores, or the office could try multi-year auto registrations, to reduce visits altogether.
As to Proposal 3, “same-day registration is already up and running and working,” she said, and was used in May elections. Over 400 voters took the option, most of them younger, casting ballots for the first time.
Proposal 2 is probably the biggest job (and is being challenged in court). Benson said she is “focused on citizen participation at every phase” of the build-out of this brand-new part of state government. Her office is currently developing the application for the 13 commissioners that will be seated following the 2020 Census; we should be seeing it before the end of the year.
After her talk, Benson sat with Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson for a conversation and questions from the audience. One addressed a worry all over the country: “Are Michigan’s elections safe?” Benson said they were, but the state must remain vigilant, protecting against intrusion by hackers foreign and domestic. There are three opportunities for meddling, she said: In voter registration files, in voting machines at polling places and in the transmission of ballot counts to clerks’ offices. Her office has employed a new staff person whose sole job it is to provide protections against online meddling.
Michigan’s 2018 statewide elections were historic, in that the top executive offices in state government were turned over to women — governor, secretary of state and attorney general. Benson was asked what advice she might have for women considering running for office, and her answer was simple: