As Michigan begins its lengthy budgeting process, it appears as though school funding is once again being put at risk. Last week, a subcommittee in the Michigan legislature proposed further potential cuts to Michigan universities. The Republican-controlled subcommittee passed penalties in response to recent contracts between universities and labor unions that aim to skirt Michigan’s new right-to-work law before it takes effect. If penalized, the University could lose as much as $47 million between the campuses. Despite general indignation against enormous education cuts in the past, the Republican proposal plays petty politics with devastating effects to education.
In December 2012, Michigan hurriedly passed legislation that prohibits unions from forcing its members to pay union dues as a condition of hiring. The law doesn’t go into effect until March 28. During this brief intermediate period, the University, Wayne State University and other public school districts have or have already negotiated contracts that would be unaffected by right-to-work laws. To counter this, the Republican subcommittee has proposed that unless state universities show that these contracts achieve “10 percent or greater savings,” they will lose 15 percent of their state funding. If penalized, the University’s Ann Arbor campus’ $278 million state aid will be cut by $47 million. Wayne State stands to lose $27.5 million.
This proposal solidifies that the state legislature is not committed to education, plain and simple. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder made unprecedented double-digit cuts to higher education funding. The 2011 budget also cut community college funding by four percent and cut K-12 state aid at a rate of $300 per student. Since then, Michigan legislature has failed to significantly replace these cuts. Now, the Michigan subcommittee is irresponsibly looking to take a substantial sum for the sake of frivolous political tactics.
The right-to-work law itself is a point of contention and its logic is still being questioned. The passage of the law in December of last year was highly contested and was surrounded by controversy. While Michigan legislation processed the right-to-work bill, hundreds of people lined up outside of the Capitol in protest. Opponents of the bill argued that right-to-work would cripple the bargaining power of unions and stymie Michigan’s economic recovery. Snyder’s endorsement of right to work was especially controversial after he ran and was elected as a candidate opposed to such legislation. In addition to discontent over the policy itself, many Michigan residents were upset at the manner in which it was legalized. As Michigan’s lame duck legislature hastily pushed through a number of controversial laws, critics pointed out that the Republican congress failed to include public discussion and awareness of the legislation’s passage. Experts are still at odds over the economic effects of the law.
While Michigan Republicans argue that the signing of these union contracts is unprincipled, it’s irrefutably legal. Furthermore, both the schools and their staffs have amicably agreed to the terms of the contract. Bonnie Halloran, the president of the University’s Lecturers’ Employee Organization, has said, “As far as I can see it’s bullying from the legislature. Nothing illegal is being done.” Allan Gilmour, Wayne State University president, has said the union contracts are a “result of hard work towards an agreement that is mutually satisfactory. ” Ironically, the Republican claim that these contracts are dishonest could be similarly applied to the manner in which the right-to-work law itself was passed. This new proposal to penalize these legal agreements is a strategy that prioritizes silly politics over education.