After letting Michigan’s deficit balloon to $802 million, you would think that the state’s lawmakers had finally done their worst. Well, think again. In one of its most irresponsible and incompetent acts yet, the state legislature slashed $179 million of that deficit on Friday by either postponing or cutting funding to state universities and community colleges. Quite literally, it borrowed from Michigan’s future.

Angela Cesere

For the past three months, Michigan’s Democrats and Republicans have squabbled like children over how to balance the state’s budget. But instead of reaching a long-term agreement that combines tax increases with spending cuts, the state legislature continued to argue while the deficit grew to the embarrassingly large number of $802 million. Friday’s deal was an act of desperation to fix the problem they created.

Of the total $316 million cut from the deficit, the legislature took some from the supposedly restricted 21st Century Jobs Fund and borrowed against the state’s future tobacco settlements, among other cuts. However, the majority came at the expense of Michigan’s higher education system. By “postponing” $140 million in payments to the state’s universities until the next fiscal year, cutting outright $26 million from state universities and “postponing” another $13 million in payments to community colleges, the legislature gave the illusion of solving the budget problem. In actuality, it just dumped its burden onto the universities.

At best, the deal temporarily pushes Michigan’s budgetary troubles back a few months until the next fiscal year while causing a fiscal nightmare for the state’s universities. At worst, the deal slashes more than 10 percent from the universities’ 2007 funding, raising tuition by double digits and crippling the only institutions that have kept Michigan attractive as its manufacturing-based economy crumbles.

Because the state legislature has repeatedly proven incompetent on handling the budget, we’re inclined to believe the latter. The reality of the situation is that Michigan’s universities will never see that money again.

While it may be good that the legislature passed something by June 1, which was the deadline before per-pupil funding for public schools would have been cut by $122 a student and Medicaid costs would have increased by 6 percent, this situation is just as devastating. If Michigan hopes to ever break out of its slump and compete in the 21st century, it will need an intelligent workforce that attracts competitive jobs. We can’t achieve that goal by slashing funding to the point that students are hit with double-digit tuition hikes.

As much as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s vow to double the number of college graduates in the next 10 years was a laudable goal, the actions of the state lawmakers are encouraging exactly the opposite. Lansing has probably done more to double the number of college students that will leave the state after they graduate than anything else – provided they stay here to study in the first place.

Friday was a sad day for Michigan and for the University. Rather than providing Michigan residents with the long-term solutions that they need, Lansing opted for a quick fix that does anything but inspire confidence.

Let’s hope that in the next few months Michigan’s leaders can correct their mistakes and finally pass the tax increases necessary to balance the budget. Until then, Michigan’s residents need to speak up and tell their lawmakers that their irresponsible behavior is unacceptable.

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