Lansing — House Republicans set off a new right-to-work fight Tuesday, proposing to slash state funding for public universities, community colleges and school districts that ratify union contracts circumventing Michigan's new labor law.
Many GOP lawmakers object to new college or school district contracts, or extensions that range from five to 10 years, meaning union members couldn't opt out of paying dues when the right-to-work law takes effect March 28.
Universities and school districts have argued they are doing collective bargaining in good faith and, in at least one instance in Taylor, are trading longer contracts for financial concessions. The school officials also question whether the legislative move is constitutional.
It is unclear whether the proposals will gain support from the GOP-run Senate or Gov. Rick Snyder.
Wayne State University and the University of Michigan could lose $27.4 million and $47.1 million, respectively, under a budget plan a House panel approved Tuesday. The proposal cuts the schools' state funding by 15 percent if they sign long-term labor contracts between Dec. 10, the day before Snyder signed the bill, and March 28, when right to work goes into effect.
State Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, said Republicans are trying to send "a pretty serious message" with the threat of less state aid.
"The message is: Protect taxpayers. If you're going to do contracts, make sure that you come up with real taxpayer savings. We haven't seen any yet," said Pscholka, chairman of the House higher education appropriations subcommittee.
The universities could escape the GOP budget ax if they could prove the new pacts saved 10 percent in employee costs. Democrats said the proposed provisions seek to intimidate school officials and labor unions from exercising their right to collectively bargain.
"This is all about furthering an ideological agenda rather than trying to improve education," said state Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids.
Other schools at risk
Macomb Community College and other two-year institutions also could face 15 percent cuts for adopting new contracts under a plan a House community college appropriations subcommittee will consider Thursday.
MCC's board Tuesday night approved four union contracts, which range in length from three to five years, for faculty and administration, and clerical and support staff.
Another House committee that appropriates K-12 funding approved a similar dictate Tuesday that would block school districts that extend contracts before right to work takes effect from getting up to $100 per student in performance grants for the 2013-14 school year.
The Taylor and Warren school boards recently approved lengthy teacher union contracts.
Republican lawmakers have threatened for weeks to penalize schools for signing labor contracts that get around the right-to-work law, causing officials at Ferris State University to cease contract negotiations with its faculty that began before the Legislature fast-tracked the bills to the governor's desk in December.
The higher education funding bill targets Wayne State's agreement on an eight-year contract for faculty and U-M's agreement to a five-year extension for its lecturers, both of which would be exempted from right-to-work rules prohibiting financial support of labor unions as a condition of employment.
Eastern Michigan University also could lose 15 percent of its state funding, or $9.9 million, after ratifying earlier this year a new contract with its lecturers.
Republicans and conservative groups said schools and universities should only agree to let unions circumvent right to work if they get cuts in wages and benefits that save taxpayers money.
Snyder has said he would support long-term contracts that generate "significant" savings, but if there is little or no benefit to schools, "then it's fair to bring up questions and concerns," spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said.
"If the universities didn't get anything in return, then this was just a favor to the unions," said Derk Wilcox, senior attorney for the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. The center has sued Taylor schools on behalf of three teachers over a 10-year contract protecting the teacher union's ability to collect mandatory dues.
University, school and union lobbyists vowed to fight the unprecedented proposed cuts.Mike Boulus, executive director of the President's Council of the State Universities of Michigan, said: "(The universities) haven't circumvented any law because there's no law in effect."
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was noncommittal Tuesday about the budget proposals. "We have a couple of weeks before we visit these budgets in the Senate … and we'll continue to discuss it," said Richardville, R-Monroe.
'Punishment' for university
Wayne State's Board of Governors is scheduled to vote today on a proposed eight-year contract for professors that would allow the faculty union to keep collecting dues or agency fees.
The tentative agreement would give professors a $1,000 bonus this year, a raise of up to 2.75 percent next year and raises up to 2.5 percent in the subsequent six years — a 19 percent salary increase over eight years.
"I would hope that they would look at the action today" and reconsider, Pscholka said.
Wayne State spokesman Matt Lockwood lashed out at the proposed cut Tuesday, saying it was "punishment" for the university negotiating with its union and that it would lead to higher tuition bills for students.
U-M's Lecturers' Employee Organization is trying to ratify a new five-year contract by Thursday for 1,500 non-tenure track instructors on U-M's campuses in Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn.
Bonnie Halloran, president of the lecturers' organization, said the proposed reduction is "outrageous" since the union was in talks with the university before the right-to-work law was passed.
"The logic behind it is unbelievable; it's unthinkable," Halloran said. "For the state Legislature to come in and threaten the universities for doing something that's totally legal and working with their employees so they have good relations on the campus and peace in the classroom, is outrageous."
Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president of government relations for U-M, said university officials would try to get lawmakers to reconsider the proposed cuts.
"I think it's fair to say we have a lot more work to do," she said.
Under the budget proposal, Wayne State and U-M's lost funds would be redirected. About $2.2 million would go to Michigan State University's AgBioResearch and Extension service and $7 million would be applied to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System to cover costs for seven universities with employees in the pension fund.
The remaining money would go to other universities that meet certain performance standards, including restricting tuition increases to 3 percent next year.
Staff Writers Tony Briscoe, Kim Kozlowski and Gary Heinlein contributed.