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Published: Wednesday, 10/7/2009

Failure in Lansing

THE primary duty of any state legislature is to create and pass a balanced budget. In Michigan, this is required annually by the state constitution. For the last year, with revenues plunging and expenses increasing as auto industry sales withered, legislative leaders grappled with budget problems. Michigan's fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and the law specifies that the lawmakers have to adopt a budget that is balanced, at least on paper, by that date.

For weeks, the leadership in Lansing met behind closed doors, trying to close about a $2.8 billion deficit. In a startling development, Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, a Democrat, decided to accept a Republican budget that called for no new revenue, but closed the gap entirely with spending cuts, plus a billion or so of remaining federal stimulus money.

Yet at the last minute, lawmakers of both parties balked at passing an education budget calling for draconian cuts of $218 per public school student, which would severely impact the quality of education and perhaps send more districts into receivership.

When the deadline to pass a budget came and went, the Legislature hastily passed a one-month "continuation budget" to give themselves time to quickly work out a solution. But days later, there has been no progress. The problem is one of simple arithmetic. The formula that once produced enough revenue for Michigan to pay its bills no longer does, and, thanks to the permanent downsizing of the auto industry, won't, ever again.

Lawmakers face a choice. If they want to provide residents with the services they have in the past, they must come up with new money, which mean taxes and fees. Or they can tell residents to get used to substandard schools and roads.

Survey after survey has shown that nothing is more important to Michigan than a better-educated work force, and that unless the level of higher education drastically improves, Michigan can kiss most of its hopes for jobs of the future good-bye. However, lawmakers seem politically traumatized at the thought of new taxes or fees. That is a remarkably short-sighted attitude.

The idea that Michigan is a high-tax state has been shown to be a myth. Lansing now spends more money on prisons than on higher education, but hasn't adjusted the tax on beer since 1966. Lawmakers owe it to the state to do their jobs and balance the budget as soon as possible, in a way that, even in bad times, makes it possible for their children to have a future.

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