Reflections on Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for our next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1...
It’s beginning to look as though Snyder is thinking of his time in office in two main blocks. The first, from taking office in 2011 through this November’s vote, has been about restructuring the financial underpinnings of the state: Fixing the business tax, getting balanced state budgets adopted on time, and so forth.
The second, assuming voters give him another four years, will be about rebuilding Michigan’s seriously frayed economic infrastructure. Snyder’s emphasis on investing in education is at the core of his budget message, delivered last week. He wants a 6.1 percent increase for public universities, 2.8 percent for elementary and high schools and another $65 million for his pre-kindergarten Great Start Readiness Programs (GSRP).
The budget is both largely sensible on its face and politically shrewd, since it looks as though spending on schools will be a big part of this year’s political argument. The governor’s budget proposal is obviously designed to counter claims he’s shortchanging education.
Without any doubt, higher education in Michigan has been irresponsibly savaged over the years: Seven straight cuts since 2000, including a 15 percent drop during Snyder’s first year, made our state nearly first in the nation at cutting support for colleges.
While it will certainly help if Snyder can get the legislature to add his requested $76.9 million for higher education, Michigan still should be greatly embarrassed that it spends more on warehousing criminals in state prisons ($ 2 billion) than on public universities ($1.5 billion).
Along with the increases, the governor is emphasizing university tuition restraint by capping allowable increases at 3.2 per cent. (Universities that go over that figure will lose some of their state aid package.)
For years, polls have suggested the main concern of Michigan voters is jobs and unemployment. But I’ve seen some new numbers that suggest public attitudes are changing. Concern about college affordability has been increasing as families begin to realize how much college debt they’re run up over the past decade. Keeping the lid on tuition hikes is also good politically, although universities have a legitimate point that tuition increases over the last decade have been provoked by matching cuts in state support.
The state’s early childhood initiative, the Great Start Readiness Program, has been a great success on almost all counts. Last year, after Bridge Magazine found that 30,000 poor and vulnerable 4-year-olds eligible for the program couldn’t get in because enough slots hadn’t been funded, the governor endorsed and the legislature adopted a $65 million increase.
The Michigan Department of Education eventually calculated that the extra state money resulted in another 16,000 4-year-olds getting a head start toward success in school.
For once, Michigan wound up looking good by leading the nation in increasing support for early childhood programs, and Snyder is keeping up the momentum by fulfilling his pledge for a second round of increases for GSRP. The hope is that this increased funding will eliminate the waiting list, although it is a challenge to reach the poorest and most vulnerable families who need such programs most.
Expanding this program is critically important. Advocates for both early childhood and higher education all point out that Michigan’s economy is helped over the long run by increased state support for what might be called programs to add to our stock of “human capital” – the sum total of skills and talent in our workforce. The state’s Great Start Readiness Program has an excellent record of success in helping kids graduate, go on to post-high school programs and become skilled workers. Our universities are also contributing to Michigan’s economic growth, although we need to develop ways to encourage graduates to stay here rather than move to Chicago or California.
One idea Snyder and the legislature might want to look at comes from Tennessee, where Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in his budget message last week proposed making free two years of community college or technical school to all students who graduate from high school, without regard to academic credentials or financial need.
“We just need to change the culture of expectations in our state,” Haslam told the New York Times. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive workforce.”
Tennessee estimates this would cost the state around $34 million each year, paid for by diverting revenue from the state lottery. Since Michigan (population 9.9 million) is bigger than Tennessee (population 6.4 million), such a program here would likely cost more – but not much more.
It’s generally accepted that the higher the percentage of post-high school credentialed people in the workforce, the better a state’s economy.
Nationwide, 37 per cent of the workforce holds either a two- or four-year degree; Michigan is just a shade behind, at 36 percent; in Tennessee, it is under 30 percent. The Cherry Commission, convened by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, recommended doubling the percentage of college graduates in the Michigan workforce within a decade, but it didn’t happen.
Business Groups, including Business Leaders for Michigan, have been calling for years for increased support for state universities to provide a stream of workers with degrees. Many in the business community say they could fill immediately something like 60,000 jobs if they could find workers with the required skills.
Without being as radical as those of his Tennessee counterpart, Snyder’s budget proposals represent a move in the right direction. Although the state legislature (surprise!) likes the idea of reducing taxes in an election year, here’s hoping the governor is able to keep investments in human capital high on the state’s priority list.