education funding

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The amount of money Michigan has to spend in its general fund for everything from prisons to health care dropped by nearly 25 percent over the past four fiscal years amid the recession and shrinking tax revenues. Yet the state's school aid fund remained relatively healthy, protected by earmarks for public schools.

State budget director John Nixon thinks those earmarks merit another look.

"It's not that I'm saying we need to cut the school aid fund ... (but) a lot of this stuff was put in place 15, 20 years ago when Michigan looked totally different," he said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. "We just need to strip things down and say, `This is the money we're bringing in, this is where it's going. Is it lining up appropriately?"'

Nearly three-quarters of the sales tax collected annually goes to the $13.3 billion school aid fund, as well as nearly a fourth of the income tax revenue, 42 percent of cigarette tax revenue and a third of the money raised by the use tax and the Michigan Business Tax. The school aid fund also receives all of the money raised through a statewide 6-mill education property tax, the real estate transfer tax, the state casino wagering tax and the net proceeds from lottery sales.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Kids still enjoy the playground at Stocking Elementary School. The school in Grand Rapids was closed last year to save money. State Representative Roy Schmidt used the shuttered school as a backdrop while telling people Michigan’s fund for K-through-12 schools had a surplus this year.

“We had the money, it just got switched somewhere else.”

Matthileo / Flicker

It appears a deal was struck between Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate in order for Governor Rick Snyder’s tax overhaul to be voted on yesterday by Democratic state Senators. Chris Christoff, Lansing Bureau Chief for the Detroit Free Press, reports:

A quiet deal from Senate Republicans to give public schools an extra $150 million next year helped smooth the way Thursday for the 20-19 Senate vote to cut business taxes by $1.7 billion, tax pensions and do away with many tax exemptions.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, confirmed the GOP's offer. It came in exchange for all Democrats going on the record with their votes. If any had not voted, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley couldn't have voted to break a 19-19 tie. A 19-19 tie (the Senate has 38 members) is the only circumstance under which a lieutenant governor can vote…

The deal would lessen a Senate-approved cut to K-12 schools from $225 per pupil less than this year, to $75 per pupil less than this year.

In a piece yesterday on Mlive.com, Peter Luke also mentions a deal:

Preserving the 19-19 vote that allowed Calley to break the tie required all 12 Democrats to vote "no." If one had declined to vote, there's no tie and the measure would have failed.

Democrats agreed to all vote in exchange for a promise that a good chunk of the extra tax revenue anticipated for FY 2012 will mitigate cuts in K-12 education.

A lot of people are uneasy about Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal to cut aid to education at all levels in order to balance the budget and give business a huge tax break. Even some of those in favor of cutting business taxes have problems with this.

They reason that no matter what happens, there aren’t going to be any jobs in the future for unskilled, undereducated workers -- and certainly not any good-paying ones. Our young adults are undereducated as it is, and cutting education won’t help.

So yesterday, we were alerted that the Michigan Senate Democrats were going to offer an alternate proposal. I was very interested to see what it would be. And frankly, I was hoping it would be an alternative I could support.

That’s because I am convinced that better education and training, more than anything else, is the key to Michigan’s future.

Well, I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the Democrats -- or in Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a charismatic and intelligent figure who may be their best hope for the future.

The minority leader called for a state constitutional amendment that would prevent the governor from taking money out of the school aid fund in the future.  In practical terms, this is the equivalent of my calling for an amendment requiring it to be seventy degrees so I don’t freeze when I walk the dog in the morning. 

First of all, this does nothing to address this year’s problems. Even if the legislature thought this was a good idea, they’d have to agree to put it on a statewide ballot so people could vote on it.

That wouldn’t happen until long after this budget has been passed. But the legislature isn’t going to do any such thing. Republicans control both chambers. Democrats are especially weak in the Senate, where Gretchen Whitmer’s party has less than a third of the seats, and by themselves are powerless to do anything.

That’s not the worst part of her proposal, however. When she presented it to the media yesterday, she was asked this sensible question: If her proposal became law, how would Democrats then propose to fill the resulting deficit hole in the general fund?

The Senate minority leader refused to offer an answer -- other than to say the tax code should be “re-examined.”

This is precisely what has been wrong with Michigan government for the past decade, and what got the Democrats tossed out of office last fall. This is also why Governor Snyder’s plan is likely to be enacted. The governor has made a comprehensive proposal for changing the way things are done.

His numbers add up.

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