Wrong track Michigan policy

Two must-read columns.

One entitled Distractions turn dysfunction for Snyder, GOP is written by Daniel Howes, Detroit News business columnist. Writing about Michigan’s horrible k-12 student outcomes he writes:

It’s embarrassing. It’s also a harsh indictment of the recurring public-policy fights between retrograde union interests, the education establishment and a Republican agenda determined to purge organized labor from the public square — even if the price to be paid is producing a generation of dunces.

Now that’s leadership! No, it’s denial. And yet the governor, the Legislature, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation, leading business groups and some in the news media (like me) keep pushing the idea that the state can be, should be, the intellectual heart of the 21st-century, wired, connected, autonomous auto industry.

With educational achievement like that, who is everyone kidding? Not the CEOs who say Michigan can be, should be, a “top10” state; that it should build on the convergence of the auto industry and the high-tech stuff of Silicon Valley; that Michigan’s Big Three universities can be foundations for the next-generation economy.

They know better. But it’s probably not a sufficient wake-up call, either. This is the kind of place where only existential crises (think the global financial meltdown that forced the bankruptcies of two Detroit automakers in 2009, or the Chapter 9 restructuring of Detroit in 2014) produce meaningful change.

What will it take to force improvement in Michigan public education, or to inject some reality into the state’s relative competitiveness? More than another depressing survey whose results don’t comport with the priorities of interest groups and ideologues; more than seeing the state’s largest district teetering on the financial edge and waiting for it to collapse.

The other from Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson entitled Governor Snyder still can’t see that tax cuts alone create a weaker Michigan. Henderson writes:

But what’s happening to the government services that taxes fund? Education, infrastructure, support for cities and social services? They’ve all taken huge hits, and are grossly under-invested as compared to other states.

So the price of ultra-low taxes is a weaker state when it comes to the very things that make the state worth living or working in.

Snyder has cut both K-12 and higher education, and under his watch Michigan has persisted as a state that spends more on prisons than it does colleges and universities. A 2015 study by Business Leaders for Michigan shows spending on prisons grew 32% between 2004 and 2014; per-pupil spending in higher education grew only 22%. Michigan spends $45,000 a year on prisoners, according to the study, but just $5,400 on college students.

Snyder’s initial 2016 budget proposal called for a restoration of higher education support to 2010 levels – but even in that year, Michigan was woefully behind what other states spend.

Our roads, of course, are also pitifully, dangerously under-funded. Associated Press data show Michigan was second to last in per capita road spending in 2013, and that between 2008 and 2013, our road spending dropped 7%. Even the road bills passed by the Legislature last year will not yield enough to move us far up that list.

Flint is the most garish example of Michigan’s long disinvestment in cities, but there’s only a difference of degree between that city and others. Michigan has diverted more than $6 billion from cities since 2001. And census data show Michigan ranks dead last over the past 10 years in municipal revenue growth and state investment in local government. That’s how city officials wind up looking over their ledgers to try to save money on clean drinking water – and it’s also how cities all over the state struggle just to keep cops on the streets, lights on and other services flowing.

And our social services have been gutted awfully, for several years. Michigan has just 67 caseworkers to monitor more than 10,000 child care centers, and children continue to die in foster care situations that should have been flagged by overworked monitors – while no one in Lansing is talking about a budget that would make that anywhere close to a reasonable balance.

Both Henderson and Howes are exactly right. The path Michigan is on is one that will insure that Michigan remains one of the nation’s poorest state. Michigan is structurally in the mid thirties in per capita income after being one of the most prosperous states for most of the 20th Century. This with a booming auto industry.

Why? Because in an increasingly knowledge-driven economy the most prosperous states and regions are those with the highest proportion of adults with a four year degree. Michigan is consistently in the thirties in that metric too. To get the needed concentration of talent you need quality schools; communities with quality services and amenities that retain and attract talent; and 21st Century infrastructure. None of which have been on Michigan’s priority list for two decades. Not smart!

As Henderson concludes: “Snyder scoffs at the “lost decade.” But his policies, unexamined, threaten to make Michigan a different kind of failed state.”


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