State budget could be hit or helped if ballot proposals pass

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Capital News Service
LANSING — On Nov. 5, Michigan voters will decide on four ballot proposals that would affect the state’s budget for better or worse.
Three of the issues in the proposals are ultracontroversial — tobacco money spending and binding arbitration for state employees because of their impact on the budget, and straight-ticket voting because it would change the voting process.
The fourth proposal would provide local governments money for sewage and water pollution projects.
According to the Secretary of State, the tobacco proposal would require that 90 percent of the $300 million a year in tobacco settlement money go to health programs.
Currently, about 25 percent of the settlement is spent on health and the majority is spent on the Michigan Merit Award Program. This program awards scholarships to students who do well on their MEAP tests. The scholarship would be eliminated if the proposal passed and if another source of funding isn’t used.
Between 2000 and 2002, Crawford AuSable schools had 170 students take advantage of the Merit scholarship program, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.
“The bottom line of the tobacco initiative is: Is the money going to go where they say it’s going to go,” said Gary Henderson, chief of staff for Sen. George McManus, R-Traverse City.
Henderson said that because most of the health organizations are private, they wouldn’t be subject to oversight by a governmental body or freedom of information rules, and therefore, could spend the money any way they chose and nothing could be done about it.
He added that by changing the state constitution, voters would be ensuring the same amount of money for health care every year, even if the costs or needs for health care decreased.
“I can’t anticipate that health care needs and costs aren’t going to continue to rise,” said Stephanie Riemer-Matuzak, Chief Executive Officer of Mercy Hospital of Grayling.
Riemer-Matuzak said that as even as the cost of treating smoking related illness increases, the amount the hospital is reimbursed by insurance has gone down.
That leaves the hospital to foot the bill for much of the treatment costs, she said.
Michigan currently spends $28 million a year on smoking cessation and prevention programs, said David Waymire, member of People Protecting Kids and the Constitution, an organization chaired by Sen. Joe Schwartz, R-Battle Creek.
Waymire said he opposes this proposal because “it hands over money to special- interest groups to spend as they see fit.”
According to a memo from the Senate Fiscal Agency, the binding arbitration proposal would create a constitutional right for state employees to bargain as a group, for pay increases or other compensation issues. The agreement reached would be binding without the approval of the Civil Service Commission.
Right now, contracts are negotiated between the Office of the State Employer, the chief hiring agency in Michigan, and the union, said Mary Ettinger, president of UAW Local 6000 in Lansing.
She explained that in the event of a disagreement, an independent party, the arbitrator, is called upon to resolve differences. The contract then goes to the Civil Service Commission for approval.
Under the current constitutional provisions, the commission can choose to agree with the arbitrator or make changes to the contract. The union then has no way of rejecting changes made by the commission and this is what they are seeking to change, Ettinger said.
The Senate Fiscal Agency has estimated that the proposal could result in $30 million to $60 million in additional salary costs each year.
Matt Resch, deputy press secretary for Gov. John Engler, said the proposal would take the ability to sign contracts out of the hands of an elected civil servant, and put it into the hands of someone who’s only priority is the contract — not other financial obligations the state has to meet.
The result is over-generous contracts that cost the state a lot of money in salary increases, he contended.
Ettinger said she believes the proposal could save the state money because it could allow state workers to get contracts that would otherwise go to private companies, and state workers could do the same jobs at a lower cost.
The straight-party ticket proposal would eliminate the option to cast a vote for one party only on the ballot.
Rep. Ken Bradstreet, R-Grayling, said that straight-party ticket voting should be eliminated to encourage voters to take their time and look over the entire ballot.
He added that many voters cast a straight-party vote and skip the nonpartisan section, which includes judicial candidates and ballot proposals.
Ben Kohrman, director of communications for the Michigan Democratic Party, said that approval of the proposal would cause long lines at the polls because the ballot would take longer to read over.
He added that he thinks fewer people will vote on the bottom, nonpartisan section of the ballot because they will have taken too much time at the top.
The sewage and water pollution proposal, already signed by the governor, would require the state to borrow up to $1 billion to be put into a fund. Communities would then apply for low-interest loans from the fund to fix sewers and clean up their bodies of water. They would pay off the loans and the money would go back into the revolving fund.
That proposal would have no impact on state spending next year and could cost each Michigan taxpayer an average of $334, or $11 per year over a period of 30 years, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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