House representative defends bill that would fine University for contracts

By Ben Atlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 27, 2013

Last week, state Rep. Al Pscholka (R–Stevensville), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, proposed a higher-education budget bill that would increase funding by $31 million, though the University would lose 15 percent of state funding.

College administrators have been vocal against the measure because it penalizes universities that agree to union contracts before the so-called right-to-work law takes effect, though Pscholka says the universities who do so are being unfair to students.

“What’s really unfair is that U of M students and parents have paid a 90-percent increase in tuition over the last 10 years,” Pscholka said. “My bill includes a $31-million increase in higher education. Some universities have chosen to participate in that increase, others have taken the choice not to participate.”

The bill stipulates that if any higher education institution signed or extended a new union contract before unions are banned from requiring all members of a workplace to pay union dues, it would be ineligible for the state’s “performance funding” unless the contract saves at least 10 percent in costs. This portion of funding would amount to $41 million for the University for the 2013-2014 academic year.

The University, along with several other higher-education institutions in the state, renewed several union contracts within the last week before right to work takes effect Thursday. Collective bargaining units representing University workers announced that union members from five different labor groups have ratified new tentative agreements with the University over the last few weeks: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Graduate Employees’ Organization; the House Officers Association; the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and the Michigan Nurses Association. Together, these five unions represent about 11,000 University employees.

The recently ratified agreements — which will last four to five years, depending on the organization — don’t fulfill Pscholka’s 10-percent cut threshold.

“While it’s not completely clear how the 10 percent would be measured, we do not believe 10 percent savings is achievable,” University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in an email.

Pscholka believes the University could reduce tuition costs by spending some of its $8-billion endowment on scholarships and by spending some of its “unencumbered reserves.”

“Cost-saving measures are a good thing that can help you save tuition dollars and still have a good, high-quality education,” Pscholka said. “Chances are your parents aren’t getting five- and eight-year contract extensions with guaranteed raises."

Though some feel universities are being attacked by the bill, Pscholka said he is simply standing up for his constituents.

“If some universities choose not to participate in the (spending) increase, that’s their choice, not mine, and they should be held accountable for it,” Pscholka said. “It seems everybody has a lobbyist (in Lansing) except students and parents and taxpayers. So I plan to be a lobbyist for students, parents and taxpayers.”

Pscholka questioned the University’s motives for getting a contract done earlier this month, considering the impending change to union’s rights in the state.

Negotiations for the LEO contract began back in November, before the right-to-work legislation was passed. Fitzgerald said such a timeframe is typical for these negotiations.

“I would just point out that legislation doesn’t take effect until (Thursday), and that’s what the legislature approved,” Fitzgerald said.

Pscholka emphasized that the government and the public should act with a greater sense of urgency in dealing with tuition costs and other fiscal issues, noting that the country is in $78 to $90 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities.

“I’m not trying to go after unions, not trying to screw anybody,” Pscholka said. “I’m very concerned about the fiscal condition of the nation and the state. I’m not going to spend money I don’t have, and I’m not going to put more debt on the next generation.”

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said ratifying LEO’s new contract was not just about combating right to work, but also “about trying to make up for a chronic issue of underpaying lecturers.” Pscholka claimed that old labor contracts for University employees compensated them fairly.

Irwin said he also felt that the motives for Pscholka’s bill were different than those that he had expressed.

“(Republicans) want to hamper the effectiveness of labor unions because it serves their political interests,” Irwin said. “The reason Republicans passed right to work is because they wanted to weaken the Democratic Party. It’s all about politics — it has nothing to do with good public policy.”