Voters need to be wary of pitches

Guest Editorial
For voters grappling with the host of state and local ballot issues to be decided Nov. 6, here’s a cautionary tale about weighing motives against rhetoric and the reality of spin.

Back in 2011 the Legislature passed the “Shopping Reform and Modernization Act” (a name that should automatically put consumers on alert) which repealed Michigan’s longtime item pricing law.

The new law allowed stores to put prices on shelves and not individual items; it was touted as a labor-saving issue that would help retailers cut costs and consumers save money.

Supporters of the repeal, including Gov. Rick Snyder, had estimated Michigan residents would save more than $2 billion as a result of the repeal of the individual-item requirement. In his January 2011 State of the State address, Snyder called the item pricing law an “undue burden on retailers (that) costs Michigan’s economy over $2 billion dollars a year.”

As reported by the Detroit News, Michigan Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group, began tracking prices at nine stores around the state and found that, as of April, prices continued to rise on more than 150 items at those stores. It laid out its findings in a recent report.

According to state labor statistics cited by the group, in the fourth quarter of 2011, the months immediately following the start of the law, grocery store wages dropped 3.5 percent from $346 million to $334 million when compared to the fourth quarter of 2010.

The Michigan Retailers Association said the Citizen Action study did not weigh findings of another report that said “eliminating item pricing would provide savings that could take many forms …” That may be, but Snyder and others were talking $2 billion, not the “better customer service,” an Anderson Economic Group analysis said consumers could see.

So where is the $2 billion (which works out to about $100 per Michigan resident)? Though the Michigan Retailers Association and the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank, both criticized the Michigan Citizen Action report for various failings, neither one contested the fact that not only have consumers not saved $2 billion, they appear to be paying more while retailers are saving on labor costs.

As a hamburger chain once famously asked, “Where’s the beef?”

So when you see an ad touting Proposal 5 or assailing the folks behind Proposal 2, keep in mind that everyone has motives, and rhetoric can burn a little hotter than it should in service to a cause — or in service to the folks paying a spinner’s salary.