Commentary: Budget Follies

May 24, 2012

There is something to be said for one party controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government. This year, for the second year in a row, the state budget will apparently be passed by the beginning of June. That’s a big change from a few years ago.

Twice during the Granholm years, the parties were still squabbling over the books when the fiscal year expired at the end of September. And bad last-minute choices were made.

That’s not going to happen this year, but something silly IS about to happen. We are apparently going to be given a tax cut so small that we won’t notice it. This will have an overall negative impact on the state of ninety million dollars.
But none of us will get enough money to matter. It isn’t clear whether the Republicans are doing this for political or ideological reasons; members of the house are up for election -- for ideological reasons -- or both. Nor is it quite clear what form the tax cut will take. What they may do is speed up a tiny reduction in the state income tax rate, which is now four point three five percent.

On New Year’s Day, that is supposed to drop to four point two five percent. Now, they are talking about speeding the reduction up to July first. Someone asked sarcastically if we are supposed to use that to buy a weekly pack of gum.

The answer is that you probably can’t, since the average taxpayer will get less than a dollar more a week. We ought to use that ninety million instead to fund at least a few college scholarships.

Personally, I think the entire concept of a tax cut is wrong-headed, and that those of us who are working should be paying more. I would cheerfully see my taxes raised to five point five percent if they used the money to fix roads and bridges and higher education.

When I looked at the details of the proposed state budget for next year, one thing really slapped me in the face. The state proposes to spend nearly two billion dollars on prisons next year, and barely one point one billion on higher education.

That’s a bleak image of what we are becoming. Our budget priorities seem to indicate we see our future as a penal colony, when our only hope for prosperity is in a better educated work force.

That’s not to say that this budget is all bad. Our spending priorities are designed in part to win back a better credit rating for the state, which is vitally important. There’s some more money for community health, and for home heating assistance for the poor. And there is more work to be done. The legislature needs to drop this silly idea of financially punishing the U of M for not reporting stem cell research, or punishing Michigan State for sensibly requiring students to have health insurance.

Lawmakers need to figure out whether to close the prison in Ionia, now that we have eight thousand fewer inmates than before.

But most of all, the budget planners need to shape their priorities with a vision of our future in mind. Otherwise, we may never get a Michigan better than the one we have now.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.