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Published: Thursday, 10/25/2007

Michigan budget talks progressing


LANSING - Michigan's next government budget began to take shape yesterday as lawmakers inched closer to agreements on spending plans for education and several state departments.

A lot of work remains to be done as an Oct. 31 deadline to adopt a new budget nears, but work was progressing with numerous conference committee meetings scheduled for today.

Both Democrats and Republicans appear optimistic that a deal will be reached without a repeat of the partial government shutdown that disrupted state services for more than four hours early Oct. 1 as lawmakers struggled to raise taxes and reach a temporary budget extension.

"It seems like we're making good progress," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. George Cushingberry Jr. (D., Detroit) told committee members yesterday. "I expect we will all have some good news by the end of the week."

A spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop of Rochester agreed with Mr. Cushingberry's assessment.

Some of the budget details emerged from a House Appropriations Committee meeting and conference committees.

As expected, schools would get roughly a 1 percent increase in their per-pupil allowances from the state, but the amounts would vary.

All districts would get at least $7,204 per pupil, up $96 from the current minimum. But the state's highest-funded districts that already get more than the minimum would get only $48 more per student in an effort to bridge the gap between rich and poor districts, which exceeds $5,000 in some cases.

Some lawmakers warned the increase actually will leave school districts further behind.

"It still amounts to a cut - inflation, gas, everything has gone up more than that," Rep. Matt Gillard (D., Alpena) said.

Universities and community colleges are expected to get 1 percent more than last fiscal year, although they also should get the state aid payments that were delayed last fiscal year.

Democrats said the community college proposal would vary the size of increases by school, but the specifics weren't released.

Lawmakers haven't been able to come up with an additional $7 million that was planned to boost nursing programs at community colleges. Supporters had argued that expanding nursing education programs would help Michigan fill a growing gap in its health-care industry and perhaps boost the economy, but it appears the state's tight finances means the money isn't there.

While the prison system's overall spending is expected to rise, the Department of Corrections will save some money because two prisons, a camp, and a housing unit have closed or are closing.

The department also could get 500 more Global Positioning System units to track parolees, usually sex offenders, spokesman Russ Marlan said. About 170 offenders currently are being monitored by GPS.

Some Republicans have proposed ending Medicaid coverage for 19 and 20-year-olds and for adults who get coverage because they take care of children eligible for Medicaid, a federal-state health care program for low-income people.

House Democrats appeared optimistic that coverage won't end, but didn't detail what other methods would be used to cut $52 million from the Department of Community Health budget.

Mr. Marsden said cutting off some people from Medicaid "is still a viable option" among some Republican lawmakers.

The state is operating under a month-long extension of the last budget, which ended Sept. 30. Lawmakers need to cut more than $430 million from departmental spending to balance the new budget.

The Legislature has yet to pass any departmental spending plans for next year. The state can't operate anything but essential services without a spending plan in place.

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