Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Michigan governor balks at her responsibility

LANSING - Here's one small example of how badly the system of government is broken in Michigan. For weeks, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been vigorously complaining about budget cuts to the schools. Then, this week, she shocked everyone.

She acted to make the situation worse. Much worse.

Out of the blue, she vetoed a portion of the school aid budget that for years has provided supplemental funding for some districts that have generally had higher funding levels.

"This is going to hit a number of districts in a way that we can't comprehend," said a shocked Mike Bishop (R., Rochester) the Senate Majority Leader and the governor's arch-foe.

The governor said the money just wasn't there. But it seemed more than likely that she was doing it as part of a high-stakes game of chicken: Raise taxes, or ruin the schools.

But as of now, her gamble doesn't seem to be working. No tax bill can pass - or even come up for a vote in the Senate - without the support of Mike Bishop, who repeated his no-tax pledge.

"She has, in my opinion, breached her responsibility to this state and the children that we represent," said Mr. Bishop.

Those children and their schools were already being set up to suffer. Michigan's budget for the current fiscal year was legally supposed to be passed no later than Sept. 30.

But the lawmakers, haggling over how to erase a staggering $2.8 billion deficit, couldn't get it done. This month, they finally passed a budget that cut state aid across the state by $165 per student. That presented a terrific problem for schools.

They are already well into their budget year, and much of the money they expected to get had been allocated and spent.

But now, dozens of districts are looking at something much worse. Solidly middle-class Royal Oak is facing a cut of $426 per student.

Harper Woods, on Detroit's east side, was hit the worst. The small district will lose nearly $500 a pupil, a staggering sum. Loraleigh Keashly, who teaches at Wayne State University, has a son there in the eighth grade. She wrote to state Rep. Timothy Bledsoe, a freshman Democrat who represents her.

"Our community and our families are working class to middle class and don't have a lot of money. We don't have the option to 'run' to other systems and the majority of us do not want to …

"How does it make sense that we are getting hit with the largest cut per student when we are such a small system?"

The state representative, also a teacher at the university, answered immediately: "I am very frustrated that our governor would take this irresponsible action that jeopardizes our community's schools. I am angry that the governor and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop would use our schools as though they were poker chips in a high-stakes political game."

Yet that is just what happened. Later in the week, Mr. Bledsoe and others tried to drum up sentiment for a two-thirds vote to override the governor's veto. Getting there seemed unlikely, at least in the House. However, there didn't seem to be a sign that Republicans were willing to provide new revenue.

The governor also apparently gave up her attempt to restore the Michigan Promise college scholarship grant. More than 96,000 students were told they were going to get as much as $1,000 this semester in tuition aid. The Legislature broke that promise, and some students are going to be hard-pressed to come up with the money.

Indeed, though mental health professionals might not approve of the term, the behavior of many of the politicians on both sides might best be described as schizophrenic.

Mr. Bledsoe, for example, said he couldn't sleep because of the education cuts. But he voted against the one serious attempt made to raise new revenue: a 3 percent tax on physicians.

Why? Well, seems there are a lot of doctors in his district, which includes the Grosse Pointes.

Governor Granholm also vetoed money the Legislature approved to help severely disadvantaged children under age 3 stay with their parents, get ready for learning, and avoid foster care. After doing that, she proclaimed, "We must invest in our children, who are going to be our work force of the future."

It is hard to avoid the thought that there is a logical disconnect here. One thing seems clear: "Next year will be worse," as Speaker of the House Andy Dillon noted.

The economy isn't expected to be much better, and the federal stimulus money will be nearly gone. Plus, it will be an election year, when politicians are even less inclined to make tough decisions. These may be the times that try Michigan voters' souls.

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.

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