Drunken Sailors

Apr 15, 2011

I’ve been following the Michigan legislature’s attempts to approve various sections of the state budget, and the cliché that first came to my mind this morning was the wrong one. I was tempted to tell you that they have been behaving like drunken sailors.

But that wouldn’t be fair. Fair to the sailors. Having worked as a police reporter long ago in a town on the St. Lawrence Seaway, I can tell you that there is a certain rationality to the behavior of drinking sailors. They know what they want to do and how they want to do it, and they generally get it done, even at a brutal cost.

You cannot, however, accuse our lawmakers of behavior that is either rational or consistent. The media pay far too little attention to the legislature, given the enormous effect its decisions have on our lives. Most of what attention it got yesterday centered on the Republicans’ doomed effort to end domestic partner benefits.

But behind the scenes, a variety of bizarre decisions were being made, especially involving education funding. Every tragedy must have a hero, and today’s is a freshman Republican state rep from Mount Pleasant named Kevin Cotter.

He suggested that once the budget is finally done, we should examine how we are going about funding schools and higher education in Michigan because, he said, quote “I cannot find rhyme or reason for how it is done now.”

Well, Mr. Cotter, that’s because there isn’t any. Everybody knows Michigan needs a better educated work force if we want to win the jobs of the future. Nevertheless the governor wants to cut higher education by fifteen percent or more, and also cut the public schools by several hundred dollars a student.

However, he wanted to leave appropriations for community colleges untouched. Those institutions are providing invaluable and essential education to both those who later get four-year degrees, and those who are after certificate and skilled vocational training.

Yet yesterday a Michigan house education subcommittee recommended slashing community college spending by fifteen percent. Macomb Community College, the state’s largest and arguably best, would lose almost five million. This could have devastating social and economic consequences. In what they apparently thought would help make up for this, the house also voted to end an at-risk student success program and toss that money at the colleges. So much for the at-risk students.

Meanwhile, however, Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, wanted to save the taxpayers  $1.4 million dollars. He wanted to eliminate a department which is so obscure I’d never heard of it, something called the Office of School Reform and Redesign. But guess what. The lawmakers said no.

They are going to fund it anyway. Of course, they are going to cut libraries by more than forty percent. Elsewhere, another house panel wants to turn its back on the money Canada is offering for a new bridge, preferring to cut under-funded bus systems instead.

And I haven’t even started talking about the prison system. There are times when I wonder whether we really might be better off sending a couple buses to the docks, and arranging to have these decisions made by my drunken sailor friends.