Opinion | Enough is enough – don’t fix Michigan's roads with classroom dollars

Chris Wigent is executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators and Don Wotruba is executive director of Michigan Association of School Boards.

Rumors continue to swirl that Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, plans to offer the idea to securitize the state’s pension funds or delay the repayment of debt to find dollars for the state’s roads.

This isn’t a real solution. If adopted, this idea would not only push back the date of full debt repayment for the state, but it would also add billions of dollars to our state’s debt, all on the backs of Michigan educators and public servants. 

During the past few weeks, lawmakers have proposed cuts to school revenues, and raided the School Aid Fund (SAF) to find funding to restore our roads. Shirkey’s idea is another short-term solution that may not even generate enough revenue to get our roads to where they need to be. While those funds might be readily available now, the state would have to start paying back the debt it accrues eventually, putting us back in the same position – scrambling to find funding. 

Illinois is in a similar position. The state’s teacher retirement system is tens of billions of dollars short to pay promised pensions. Our Legislature should look to them as a warning of the situation these lawmakers would be creating for future legislatures. Our current lawmakers won’t be around when the money runs out, so they won’t be held responsible for their poor decision making.

While we agree that something needs to be done to take care of our state’s roads, securitizing the pension system is not an answer. Former Gov. Rick Snyder worked to reduce state debt, calculating a pay-off date of 2038. This latest scheme would extend that date by many more years. New sources of revenue are needed to pay for the state’s need and public services – we can’t just repurpose existing funds. The state is still catching up on underfunding of the past. This will put us farther behind.

Leveraging school resources for roads is not a real solution. A comprehensive infrastructure plan shouldn’t come in the form of massive cuts to Michigan schools or gambles with the pension system that educators have worked hard to earn. But the proposals out of the Legislature for road funding keep including these cuts on the backs of students and educators. Investing in our infrastructure this way will be worth very little if our school system suffers and more of our educators leave the state or profession. This move would continue to eat at payroll costs, which will ultimately limit teacher wage increases in the future. Why would you take a job where you can’t get a raise to at least keep up with the cost of living? 

The Legislature needs to find a sustainable, long-term option to invest in the infrastructure, not steal from the funds that taxpayers have earned.

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Mon, 08/12/2019 - 9:30am

The opinion headline says classrooms but the body talks about pension benefits. How about doing what is being talked about many other similar benefits such as social security or other pension funds. Decrease the payout to 80%. It’s that or declare bankruptcy and get nothing.

Jim Pearson
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 11:05am

Illegal. School employee pensions are expressly protected from reduction in the Michigan constitution. That prohibition was put there decades ago to assure that political leaders would keep their promises to educators who dedicate their lives to serve the children, the families, and the businesses of Michigan.

Jim tomlinson
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 6:09pm

The benefits you refer to are either prepaid insurance or legal contracts entered into. Bottom line right wingers doing what they can to hurt the public’s pocket books. Stop cutting taxes for corps and the wealthy.

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 9:38am

Would have been nice if this piece included a recommendation for how to raise the needed revenue for roads rather than merely criticize one idea that's floating around. Makes sense that public school officials don't want the money coming from their pot, but whose pot would they prefer it come from instead?

Jim tomlinson
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 6:11pm

Easy - corps and the wealthy

Diane Deacon
Tue, 08/20/2019 - 9:39am

I know taxes are never popular, but the people who use the roads should pay the taxes--an additional gas tax makes perfect sense.

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 9:49am

Like it or not, all financial considerations and solutions for public schools breakdown into ones impacting personnel. Since 85% of all school budget monies are ultimately employee expenses there is no way around this fact except through productivity. Given the hostility toward productivity enhancing approaches there's not much hope for a way around this with our given structures so we end up seeing these less than ideal proposals.

If it's ok to use taxes on fuels to fund schools why not "classroom" funds to fix roads? If monies are to be segregated in such ways?

Nick Ciaramitaro
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 12:24pm

The fact of the matter is that Michigan needs to raise additional money to cover the essential costs of services demanded by the public. The conservative Headlee Amendment to the State Constitution caps state taxes at the percent of personal income that the State was consuming in 1978. Michigan is currently below that cap by about $10 billion, roughly the same amount as the entire State General Fund. But who should pay is just as important as how much should be paid. The state business community received more than $2 billion in tax cuts in 2011. Some months the combined MBT/SBT/CIT tax is actually negative. The wealthy businesses should pay their fair share. They use the roads too. We should also require lower truck weights, better construction materials and enforcement of warranties.

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 12:27pm

I would like to know WHO is paying for the repair of I 696 from I 75 to I 94 what was JUST REBUILT LAST YEAR???? I email OUR new closet republican governor over a month ago>>>>> NO REPLY!!!!!!

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 9:04pm

I know exactly what you are talking about. I have complained about the same thing. It’s like they are going over the existing crap pavement that’s bad with tar and chip! They never fixed the problem! What I want to know is who is overseeing this kind of halfass work ? Totally disgusting!

Kevin Grand
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 12:32pm

The authors.do.make one good point.

Detroit tried to "borrow" their way to balancing their budget several years ago.

It didn't work out very well back then. And nothing much has changed since.

Ruth Lezotte
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 4:27pm

It would help if the R's could find a face-saving way around/out of that stupid "no new taxes EVER" pledge. Taxes are not evil, they're necessary to fund Whitmer's promise to fix the damn roads.

Bill Hannson
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 8:34pm

So 60 B is just not enough?

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 11:00am

If it was, would we be having this conversation?

Bill Hannson
Mon, 08/12/2019 - 8:34pm

So 60 B is just not enough?

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 9:25pm

This is the dumbest idea yet, to from these people. Always robbing Peter to pay Paul. Never any real solutions just raise taxes or take it from somewhere else. Just once let’s try cutting spending across the board, seriously deep cuts are what is needed or there isn’t going to be anyone left here to pay for anything.

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 12:07pm

What we need is a legitimate government. Any problem needs to be solved by identifying the root cause. The root cause in MI is our government has been held hostage by Republicans since 2010 and the illegal redistricting that was done. This has ensured a stranglehold on MI government all this time, which has led to the mess we have today.

Government is there to provide basic services to its citizens. Do we need business here. YES, but they need to pay their fair share. The simplistic "cut taxes to businesses" has led to a massive decline in all quality of life indicators for MI.

Truly it is only a balanced approach that will get us there, but when you don't have to worry about reelection, you can do whatever you want and stranglehold government. The backlash is going to be severe and the citizens in this state recognize the change must come from the bottom up.

Mary Fox
Fri, 08/30/2019 - 8:56pm

Yes, Republicans are financially irresponsible. They stole from the pension fund and have away money to business and want to RIP off workers pensions. Get the money buy taxing business.

Mary Fox
Fri, 08/30/2019 - 8:56pm

Yes, Republicans are financially irresponsible. They stole from the pension fund and have away money to business and want to RIP off workers pensions. Get the money buy taxing business.

Linda M Turner
Tue, 08/13/2019 - 7:01pm

Don't even mess with my pension to fix roads. Use your education provided by teachers to come up with other solutions.

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 7:49pm

Hiw about governor whitmar put the roads $$ back into the roads account that was already budgeted & extra revenue from 2018 that former governor snyder already had set aside. Governor whitmar took roads $$ and put it other places.

Sun, 08/18/2019 - 10:18am

Folks, NOTHING in life is guaranteed. Some say pension benefits are guaranteed by the state constitution, but the constitution can be changed. Some say raise taxes to a level that is necessary to support what has been promised, but there is a limit on what people will tolerate (look at the folks in Boston in the 1770’s). Bottom line is that the accumulated wants exceed the available resources. Time to look at the wants and determine what are truly needs. Yes, it will be tough, but absent that, an alternative may be to scrap everything and start over.