Budget creates responsibility especially for legislators

February 20, 2012
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The Michigan Legislature has some work to do before Michigan’s 2012-2013 budgets can be considered “done,” even as Gov. Rick Snyder pushes for early approval and implementation long before the October deadline.

One impediment is Snyder’s decision to provide two Executive Budget bills, one for education and one for all other departments. In presenting the spending documents Feb. 9, Snyder gave greater decision making to individual state departments based on overall funding to each, rather than specific line items for each.

Even as the governor considers his “dashboards” of accomplishments to offer transparency, this tactic is at odds with the stated goal. Some state senators correctly note that such a practice is a shift in power from the legislative to the executive branch, giving the governor autonomy to move funds throughout the year without legislative oversight — or public input and notification to affected constituencies.

The “education budget,” in fact, includes early education spending, K-12 spending, another budget for community colleges and another for colleges and higher education, and it is the latter to which comment is directed this week.

State funding for Michigan’s public colleges and universities have the past 11 years been cut by more than 33 percent. The governor this year proposes a 3 percent increase, tied to — continued — improvements in graduation measures and to degree programs in high employer demand areas. Michigan’s continued bottom rank for public investment in higher education is deplorable, especially as one considers the significance of an educated work force, retention of those graduates and the increasing difficulties employers face in hiring.

Grand Rapids Business Journal lauds the immediacy of Business Leaders for Michigan’s protest in regard to such a plan. Members of the group last week testified before the Michigan Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Higher Education, urging lawmakers to end the trend of “disinvesting” in higher education. The group, represented by board member and Domino’s Pizza President and CEO Patrick Doyle and BLM President and CEO Doug Rothwell, emphasized higher education as “one of Michigan’s greatest assets for driving job, economic and personal growth income.”

The contrast used by Business Leaders for Michigan (and one which is very likely to fuel outrage by college and university presidents) is the corrections budget allocating 76 percent more general fund dollars for prison spending. “Our public universities are a major driver of Michigan’s economy, yet we are spending more on prisons than we are to help a Michigan student go to college. This investment strategy is upside down if we want to attract business investment and good paying jobs,” Doyle said.

Prison spending has continued to escalate, as it did under governors Jennifer Granholm and John Engler. Most important, these increases in funding continue to occur even as the prison population decreases and the often-discussed reforms in prisoner sentencing are unattended.

The situation is grave and the disinvestment in higher education is nothing less than appalling. Legislators have much work to do.

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