Saturday, March 26, 2005

Michigan budget compromise symbolizes distorted priorities

Thursday's announcement that Governor Granholm and Michigan's Republican legislature had reached a budget compromise offering the state's universities a ray of hope that the upcoming $30 million cut might end up being less if the economy picks up seems increasingly like a pipe dream.

First, a disclaimer. I teach at Michigan State (go Spartans), so I have an obvious bias in favor of wanting our universities to thrive. But when I look at what the children of Michigan will need to know in order to compete, I also know that we all have a vested interest in a healthy future for Michigan’s colleges and universities.

It was heartening to think that the Republican legislature would roll back the drastic $30 million proposed cut, which stung even more because it betrayed a promise not to make higher ed take the budget hits if the universities did their part by reining in tuition hikes. But a closer look shows that the new compromise offers little real hope but instead combines an empty public relations gesture with a new jobs program.

The plan offers universities an olive branch by suggesting that universities may end up suffering less of a cut if the economy picks up and more tax dollars flow into state coffers. But, despite years of striving for greater economic diversity, Michigan's fortunes are still inextricably tied to the health of Detroit's automakers and GM's current "cold" seems headed into pneumonia.

Despite Bob Lutz’ reassuring words in the company’s GMFastLane blog, Slate's Mickey Kaus worries that GM's decision to drop entire lines signals the company’s inability to compete effectively in today's market. He quotes Garsten's article in USA Today But he {Lutz} pulled the plug on the North America models after determining the vehicles could not be engineered and assembled to sell at prices competitive with the popular Chrysler 300C, Ford Mustang and other models, without sacrificing quality and content. Kaus goes on to argue that if GM cannot compete with the other Detroit automakers, how can the company expect to tackle Toyota?

The idea that Michigan will restore some of those lost funds not only seems to defy reality, remember that the colleges and universities must cut their budgets now no matter whether any money might be restored later.

The other part of the fig leaf offered higher ed is that the state will offset the damage done by the $30 million cut by floating $200 million in bonds for a new campus building boom. How happy would you be with a plan to cut your household budget by $10,000 next year but we might be willing to build you a new driveway to make you feel better? It may be good news for the folks who get jobs building the driveway, but it does nothing to pay the heat bill next winter.

While it is encouraging to see $19 million cut from the corrections budget, the disparity between the cuts suffered by higher ed and by corrections underscores the distorted priorities that have resulted from our misguided War on Drugs. Like many states, Michigan went on an orgy of prison building that has left our country with the highest incarceration rate in the world – and with the highest rates of violence of any country like ours.

There have been encouraging signs that Michigan is pulling back from the draconian drugs laws that filled our jails and prisons, but the cuts must be made deeper and faster. Please please please protect me from rapists and murderers by keeping them behind bars. But please please please don’t waste our tax dollars on non-violent offenders while we fall further behind in our attempts to give kids the education they need to live decent lives on the straight and narrow.

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