Legislature OKs school budget, readies $770M bump for roads

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A $15.2 billion school aid budget is headed for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk after the Legislature approved the plan Thursday, while Republican legislative leaders prepared a budget proposal for a $770 million increase in road funding.

The school plan included about $60 million for special education, $30 million more than was initially approved last week. The overall boost to K-12 classroom funding of $304 million would remain the same from what was approved last week, a total that averaged to an additional $120 to $240 per pupil.

The GOP-controlled House approved the education funding bill 91-18 with substantial Democratic support, while the Senate approved the budget bill 21-17, largely along party lines. But it is uncertain whether the Democratic governor will sign the school aid bill after Whitmer's office criticized the proposal as not doing enough. 

Legislative conference committees advanced 11 department budget plans Thursday for votes next week in the House and Senate. The biggest move was a transportation funding plan that includes more than a $700 million hike in road funding using mostly one-time money — a move that Republican leaders say continues fixing the state's crumbling infrastructure while a long-term funding solution is negotiated. 

But the transportation plan proved GOP lawmakers were “unserious about passing a long-term solution” for roads, Whitmer said. The one-time funding is enough to fix four of the 1,000 state and local bridges rated in poor condition in Michigan, she added. 

The education budget isn't perfect, House Democratic Leader Christine Greig said in a Thursday statement, but it is better than earlier versions. 

"With new revenue sources off the table, we fought extremely hard to get the best budget for our schools with the options made available to us, and in the end developed something that is truly bipartisan," the Farmington Hills Democrat said. 

The amount of bipartisan House support for the school budget was surprising, said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., an East Lansing Democrat who called the budget "status quo."

"If we're trying to solve the educational crisis in this state and trying to become a top 10 state, this budget was far from getting us there and I don't think it was worth compromising on," Hertel said.

The bipartisan support for the House education funding bill and any continuing consensus on other department budgets put the governor "in a tough spot," said David Dulio, a political science professor and director of Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement. 

The negotiations in Michigan parallel those at the federal level, where the executive and legislative branches each try to avoid blame for a breakdown in negotiations that leads to a shutdown. 

"I think if the Legislature passes budgets that show bipartisanship, show Democratic support, show increases in certain funding priorities and the governor chooses not to sign those, it could all fall on her," Dulio said. "And it's all over this gas tax increase that even the Democrats don’t support.”

He is referring to Whitmer's proposed 45-cents-per-gallon increase in Michigan's 26.3-cent fuel tax, a more than 170% hike.

According to analyses of national testing data, Michigan students are performing among the bottom 10% of states. According to 2017 results from National Assessment of Educational Progress, Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. It's also 43rd in school funding equity.

Last month, 55% of Michigan third-graders — or 55,336 students — scored less than proficient on the English language arts portion of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress.

The results add to an increasingly dire educational outlook for Michigan, which has spent more than $100 million in early literacy support since the current tested set of third-graders entered kindergarten.

'Good first step'

On Thursday, the Michigan Education Association called the education budget "a good first step," but emphasized the need for long-term higher funding with a formula that focuses on which students they money is spent. The teachers union emphasized the need for more funding for at-risk, special education and English language learners. 

The K-12 budget "addresses only a fraction of the $2,000 gap in per-pupil funding schools face," said MEA President Paula Herbart. "It doesn’t eliminate the effects of 25 years of last-in-the-nation education funding increases. For us to truly invest in the success of every student, lawmakers need to make a long-term commitment to addressing these issues."

The additional increase to special education would be a one-time infusion dipping into a projected General Fund surplus, potentially pulling from the $500 million the GOP-led Senate has targeted from the surplus as additional one-time funding for roads. The total $60.2 million increase for special education constitutes a 2% increase. 

Other changes to the K-12 budget include no longer requiring closures or reconstitutions at troubled schools that fail to comply with a district’s signed partnership agreement. The wording change switches from a “must” mandate to a “may” allowance, giving school districts more discretion.

The new K-12 budget would delete a requirement that districts use a proportion of their at-risk funds for tutoring if schools fail to meet certain benchmarks for growth. The budget deletes changes related to audit requirements for shared time. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Greig told reporters they wanted the educational funding bill to be on its way to the governor before the weekend. Both noted that schools funding should be the last budget priority that is politicized.

Chatfield said Thursday he hopes to find consensus with House Democrats on other budgets. He said he is confident the full budget will be completed by Sept. 30.

“My hope is that the governor will also show bipartisan effort to meet with us and negotiate with us in good faith,” Chatfield said. “The time for political games is over, the time for political rhetoric is over. It's now time for leadership.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey voiced similar confidence and said he reached out Thursday to speak with Whitmer. 

"The last time we had a shutdown, the Legislature and governor at that time was dealing with a very dramatic, huge deficit," said Shirkey, R-Clarklake. "We don't have a deficit now. We have a surplus. We don't have an emergency. We have differences of opinion. We don't have to shut down government to resolve a difference of opinion."

House Republicans appear to have "outmaneuvered" the governor in gaining the support of Democrats, said John Sellek with Lansing-based public relations firm Harbor Strategic and a former staffer for Republican ex-Attorney General Bill Schuette. A government shutdown would hurt House Democrats running for re-election in 2020 more than Whitmer, who has more time to make good on her campaign pledge to "fix the damn roads."

"The big question is how the governor and the Senate Democrats let the House Democrats slip away from them," Sellek said. "What happened to fracture that unity? In the end, it looked like pragmatism won over the House Democrats.”

In her five years in the House, the scheduling of a second conference committee on the same budget is "unprecedented," said Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton Township.

"For me, this is a step in the right direction so I will be supporting this budget as is," said Pagan, who later voted against the budget during the full House vote. 

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, said Thursday she was encouraged by the changes, but remained unconvinced the new budget did enough.

“This budget still does not make the fundamental required changes that we need to make as we move forward,” said Bayer, a member of the conference committee.

Likewise, Whitmer’s administration was not sold on the new budget.

"We understand the House is putting an additional $30 million in one-time funds toward special education," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Wednesday. "That’s a move in the right direction, but still nowhere near what the governor proposed in the executive budget, and far short of what our children deserve."

The $120 to $240 per pupil allowance increase is larger than the $120 to $180 increase proposed by Whitmer, but her budget included millions more for at-risk, special education, economically disadvantaged and career tech students, moving the state more aggressively toward a weighted funding formula.

Other spending plans

Legislators added $400 million in one-time General Fund money toward roads on top of a $372 million increase from current year-to-date spending. The added spending runs counter to Whitmer’s plan to create a longtime revenue source. 

The general government conference committee reports appear to have killed some of the more extreme cuts initially proposed for the Attorney General and Secretary of State offices. But the legislative committees kept reporting and funding plans for the departments led by Democratic elected officials. 

The spending plan would require the independent redistricting commission to deliver quarterly spending and activity reports to the Legislature instead of the Secretary of State's office. Republican lawmakers also want to reduce commission funding from Whitmer's proposed $4.6 million to $3.4 million. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel will be required to submit reports to the Legislature on her activities, including those about the cost of certain investigations, lawsuit settlements above $5 million, lawsuit settlement proceeds and the status of the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund. The plan also mandates Nessel to appear before the Legislature within 14 days of filing a lawsuit against the federal government.

The corrections conference committee plan included boiler plate language that disqualifies counties from getting jail reimbursements from the state if they have any policies that prevent law enforcement or county employees from communicating with federal officials about the immigration status of an individual. It was unclear how much state money might be affected.