With every budget fight that has taken place in Lansing over the past few years, there has been a debate about the state’s role in financing higher education. At the end of each debate, higher education has emerged the loser, as legislators in Lansing slash funding to temporarily address the state’s fiscal challenges. Last year, a deal was struck between the state and many of its universities, including the University: In exchange for the partial restitution of slashed funds, universities agreed to check tuition increases to the rate of inflation. However, while many universities — including this one — held up their end of the deal, Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently submitted a budget, via executive order, that would force a $30 million cut upon the state’s 15 public colleges and universities.
In an odd turn of events, this budget cut was defeated last week by Republicans by a 10-5 party-line vote in the state Senate’s appropriations committee. In voting to reject Granholm’s cuts, Republicans argued they were merely upholding a promise made in good faith. Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Shirley Johnson (R-Royal Oak) said, “We believe so strongly in that commitment that we placed the language in the budget to protect the promise.”
It is disturbing that all but one of the Democrats on the committee chose to vote with Granholm against keeping the state’s promise to colleges. The partisan nature of the vote should be cause for concern — higher education should not be a political issue. There is already a consensus among Democrats and Republicans that higher education is vital for the long-term economic health of this state. Electoral concerns and party loyalty should not keep legislators from coming together to adequately support higher education.
Unfortunately, stop-gap revenue enhancements, such as property tax schedule shifts and sin tax increases have been unable to adequately plug the state’s persistent budget deficit. Because Lansing is constitutionally obligated to pass a balanced budget for each fiscal year, recent years have been characterized by widespread budget cuts to a number of state programs.
If Republicans intend to stand by their pledge to prevent Granholm from cutting higher education appropriations further, they should be prepared to find $30 million to cover the promise. Unless they can squeeze an additional $30 million from the budget — without cutting other sensitive entitlements such as Medicare — their efforts to defend higher education will fall flat. Because the state budget has already been cut to the bones, it seems unlikely that this money will materialize. There is a risk that, after making a loud public stand in defense of higher education funding, Republicans will acquiesce to fiscal reality and quietly retreat from their pledge. Indeed, the Republicans have yet to present an alternative to Granholm’s budget proposal.
Considering that her State of the State address stressed the value of education in revitalizing Michigan’s economy, it was surprising that Granholm felt it appropriate to cut higher education funding. Years of cuts have weakened Michigan’s public university system, and further cuts must be avoided if Michigan’s public universities are to be able to train the skilled workforce necessary for Michigan’s economy to be competitive in the future. If Granholm is honestly committed to revitalizing Michigan’s economy, she must work with state legislators and follow through on her promises to fund public higher education.