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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Biz leaders make prison-higher ed connection

Business Leaders for Michigan, a group formerly known as Detroit Renaissance, is a major player in how state policy is shaped in Lansing these days. So when it takes a stance, it's advisable to pay attention.

And BLM on Wednesday made an important statement about prison costs -- in its bid to reinvent the state's higher education policy.

The big headlines off of Wednesday's events will be that BLM is proposing a new system by which the state invests more in universities that perform well on a series of identifiable metrics. As most Bridge readers know, Lansing in the era of Rick Snyder is all about metrics and dashboards. BLM's proposal plays right to that atmosphere, advising the linkage of state aid dollars to graduation rates, student retention rates, R&D work and the like.

Bridge coverage of the consequences to families of Michigan's college costs

But what's most interesting is how BLM is seeing beyond the higher education account to the state's budget situation as a whole.

In a press release, BLM board member Patrick Doyle, who spends his days running Domino's Pizza, stated, "This fiscal year, Michigan will spend 76 percent more general fund dollars on prisons than we will on universities. 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."

That's as direct a statement about how prison spending has distortedMichigan's priorities as we at Bridge Magazine can recall from any large faction of the business community.

At a press event to unveil its strategy, BLM head Doug Rothwell said, "Michigan needs to get back to the commitment that it had for decades, as a top 10 state in support of higher education.”

And Doyle, asked whether legislative Republicans might be hesitant to increasing funding for universities, which are often considered Democratic bastions, replied, "Economic growth is a bipartisan issue. We need more college graduates.”

For years, the Center for Michigan, as part of a larger Corrections Reform Coalition, has argued that Michigan's decision to spend almost $2 billion per year on the Corrections Department has hobbled the state's ability to address other public policy challenges. (BLM, it should be noted, is a partner in the Corrections Reform Coalition.)

On Tuesday, CFM President John Bebow testified before a Senate appropriations panel to reiterate the case for a smaller prison budget.

Bebow noted that the governor's budget plans for fiscal 2013 and 2014 actually would drive up prison spending. He urged legislative opposition to this trend, noting,

"(The) 2012-13 budget proposal accounts for 21.5 percent of the governor’s budget recommendation for 2012-13. Corrections was 17 percent of the general fund a decade ago and only 2 percent of the general fund a generation ago. In other words, prison spending continues to crowd out many other important budget priorities that are much more strategically aimed at increasing talent, quality of life, and overall prosperity in Michigan."

Michigan's general fund for this year -- the fund that handles everything from university support to the State Police to prisons to state contributions to health-care programs -- is about $8.3 billion ($8.8 billion if you count "one-time" expenditures), according to Michigan Budget Office documents. It's easy to see that if you lop off $2 billion of that just to cover corrections, there's not much left for financing other programs sought or needed by the law-abiding.

In the current political climate, anyone making the case for increased or renewed investment in anything has to do two things:

1. Outline a way to find the money without changes toMichigan's tax system.

2. Attach some kind of oversight mechanism to the spending.

BLM's higher education strategy hits those points. It argues for investment in higher education. It points at the prison budget as a place to find new dollars for higher ed. And it argues that new dollars need to come with new strings.

Further, it also recognizes the consequence of the political rules in play in Lansing right now: There really isn't anywhere else to go to find large sums of money to invest in higher education, or roads, or anything else.

Take FY12 spending for Corrections, Human Services, Community Health and universities and you have about $6.9 billion. If the idea is to hold prisons harmless and find new money for universities without raising taxes, that means a deep dive into the budgets for health and human services for children and seniors.

Alternatively, you could raise, say, $500 million from other state departments, but that would mean zeroing out the entire general fund budgets for: Attorney General's Office; Agriculture; Civil Rights; Education (the department, not schools); Environmental Quality; Governor's Office; Auditor General; Legislature; Licensing & Regulatory Affairs; the Judiciary; Military and Veteran Affairs; Natural Resources; and the Department of State. (To get a sense of the bind Michigan is in, go to the governor's budget proposal and scroll down to page C-37, which is a few pages from the bottom.)

The relative absence of acrimony over Gov. Rick Snyder's budget plan this year -- as opposed to last year -- is a consequence of the governor's apparent desire not to make major changes in spending, and to the fact that Michigan's improving economy is beginning to pump more money into state coffers.

Snyder is pretty much holding the status quo on higher ed and on prisons. BLM is signaling that it wants major change in higher education, and is OK with the idea of cutting into corrections to make it happen.

As Bridge has started reporting this month, there are key members of the Republican majorities in the Legislature ready to discuss new ways of handling corrections. Will those individuals and the voices from the business community and elsewhere be enough to move the needle?

Senior Writer Ron French and CFM President John Bebow contributed to this report.

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