By MAUREEN O’HARA
Capital News Service
LANSING — Despite a proposed $200 increase in per-pupil state spending, school officials are still focused on pressuring lawmakers to limit scrambling when the economy goes sour.
Margaret Trimer-Hartley, director of communications of the Michigan Education Association, contends that increased urgency on school spending will help ensure that the planned boost is a “done deal.”
“We have won the short-term battle, but we don’t want to find ourselves in this situation again,” Trimer-Hartley said. “In tough economic times, we need more education, not less.”
Only a few weeks before the announcement, state Budget Director Don Gilmer warned those in K-12 education to be advised of cutbacks.
“We’re telling them they’re lucky where they are,” he said. “We don’t have a pot of gold sitting around here that we haven’t allocated yet.”
In an “unprecedented gathering of education leaders”, Gov. John Engler proposed an additional tax collection modification that will provide taxpayers with $266 million in one-time relief while increasing the per-pupil spending from $6,500 to $6,700.
“This is good news for kids,” said MEA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Cook. “Teachers can stop worrying and get back to teaching.”
Bob Markey, director of finance for Midland Public Schools, said that despite the proposal, parents and teachers should remain skeptical about funding.
“It’s too early to tell,” Markey said. “We still have economic woes that have not gone away and people ought to view this announcement with caution.”
Although the state’s current economic status foreshadows cutbacks in other areas, the state spending for the school aid budget is almost $11.5 billion. That is more money than it spends on the entire general budget for non-earmarked programs.
Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow, R-Port Huron, applauded Engler for his commitment to prioritizing education.
“He’s been a friend of young people for the last 12 years,” DeGrow said. “Every parent should be thankful.”
The $200 increase will cost the state $337 million, but the total state and local funding for schools will total nearly $14.5 billion. That loyalty to education puts children first, according to Rep. Tom Meyer, R-Bad Axe, vice chair of the House Education Committee.
“Making that commitment to education during a time when just about every other area is being looked at for reductions shows Michigan puts a high priority on our children and their future,” he said.
While Engler’s proposal concentrates on the increase in per-pupil spending, he won’t guarantee that there won’t be cutbacks in other area categories.
“We focus on what we are able to do, not what we aren’t,” he said.
The $500 million in estimated revenue that the plan would create stems from a change in the time of collection. Beginning in July 2003, taxpayers would no longer pay state property taxes for education in July and December, but one time in the summer instead.
To lessen the impact of collecting taxes all at one time, the current millage rate of 6 mills would be reduced to 5 for 2003, generating a tax cut of $266 million.
In a Capital News Service interview, former Democratic Gov. James J. Blanchard said he foresees trouble in the ways Engler is collecting the tax relief.
“It’s the kind of bookkeeping that got Enron in very serious trouble,” Blanchard said. “We don’t need to Enron-ize Michigan’s budget. While it’s admirable to give to education, it does postpone the problem to the next governor.”
Blanchard, who’s running for governor again, is careful of the future and the effects Engler’s new proposal will have on the 2004 budget.
“A Democrat would say he’s unable to manage the budget so he’s borrowing from the future and passing the buck,” he said. “A Republican would say he’s being creative.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By MAUREEN O’HARA