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Published: Friday, 10/9/2009

Michigan lawmakers need courage, political will

LANSING - Every economist agrees that Michigan badly needs a better-educated work force. Yet if the Legislature's actions in this year's budget battles are any indication, Lansing seems determined to not only fail to solve that problem, but to make it worse.

A little background: As the domestic auto industry has shriveled, development officials have scrambled to attract so-called "new economy" jobs to the state.

But perhaps the biggest strike against the state is the education gap. Michigan has a smaller percentage of young adults with college degrees than the national average, or any surrounding states.

The reasons are obvious. For nearly a century, Michigan had a brawn-based economy. Young men could graduate from high school, and the next day get a good-paying job on the assembly line. Those jobs, however, have vanished.

Five years ago, Lt. Gov. John Cherry chaired a special commission that found that Michigan needed to double the number of college degrees it was issuing within the next decade. Yet since then, the state has cut spending for higher education more than has any surrounding state.

In order to make it possible for more students to attend college, Gov. Jennifer Granholm pushed through the Michigan Promise grant, which was supposed to guarantee students who go to in-state colleges up to $4,000.

This year, facing a budget deficit, the Legislature eliminated the grant, in spite of a new study showing that 321,000 young adults have some college but no degree, the largest percentage for any industrial state. Another study found that many "stop-outs" would like to finish their degrees if they could afford to, and would be more employable if they did.

The lawmakers are also close to inflicting major cuts on elementary and high school education. Earlier, leaders of both parties agreed to cut the state school aid grant by a staggering $218 per student. But rank-and-file legislators refused to agree.

The lawmakers, who were obligated to finished the budget by Sept. 30, then hastily passed a 30-day continuation budget, largely to solve the education question. But nothing was solved in the first week.

Meanwhile, things got worse for Michigan school districts. The lack of a final budget meant the U.S. Department of Education was not able to issue $11 million in aid to Michigan schools. That was bad; what may be worse is the state's next scheduled school aid payment, due Oct. 20. Unless the Legislature passes a continuation budget for the schools by Monday, the state will be unable to disburse $43 million in payments to the districts.

That, everyone knows, could be disastrous. There is an alternative, Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard noted.

If the Legislature raised the state income tax from the current 4.35 percent to 5.1 percent, the budget could be balanced without significant spending cuts.

But Senate Majority Mike Bishop (R., Rochester) has vowed to fight tax increases. Today's Michigan, everyone agrees, lacks money.

But the state's leaders may lack something bigger: Courage and political will.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com

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