Legislators and pundits generally agree that one of former Michigan Gov. John Engler’s greatest accomplishments during his 12-year tenure was the passage of Proposal A, which equalized K-12 education funding across the state. But the remainder of Engler’s legacy, including his environmental and economic policies, remains a source of debate.

Paul Wong
Michigan Gov. John Engler speaks Friday, Dec. 27, 2002, in Lansing, Mich., during his final scheduled news conference after 12 years in office.

Voters chose Engler, a Republican from Beal City, as Michigan’s 46th governor in 1990 over the incumbent Gov. James Blanchard, a democrat. Engler was then reelected twice before term limits forced him to step down, paving the way for Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm to succeed him.

Voters also almost unanimously supported Proposal A in 1994, which adjusted the bulk of education funding from local property taxes to the state sales tax. This resulted in poorer districts with lower property tax revenues receiving as much funding as richer districts said Bill Rustem, senior vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based think tank.

“The quality of education in districts that are poor has improved,” he said. “There is no question about that.”

Before the proposal’s approval, some schools were receiving more than twice as much funding as other schools in the same county, and some had computer labs while others did not, state Sen. Patricia Birkholz (R-Saugatuck) said.

“It brought the lower funded schools up and closed that gap,” state Rep. Gene DeRossett (R-Freedom Twp.) said. “When you look at education in general … the grades have proven that students are doing better.”

Rustem said higher scores on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests in poor districts have also provided proof of Proposal A’s success.

Schools have also been more successful at preparing students for the job world since the passing of the proposal, Birkholz said.

Engler also encouraged the creation of charter schools and used money the state won from lawsuits with tobacco companies to set up the Michigan Merit Award, a $2,500 scholarship to a Michigan college for any student who tests proficient on the MEAP test.

In addition to education, Engler spent a lot of time creating programs to diversify Michigan’s economy and bring more jobs to the state. DeRossett said before Engler took office, Michigan’s economy depended on the auto industry and companies producing complimentary parts.

The former governor set aside a billion dollars of funding for the creation of a life sciences corridor across the state, and his NextEnergy proposal created a commercial zone for alternative energy companies specializing in products such as hydrogen fuel cells.

“The next 500,000 jobs in the state will be created by technology,” DeRossett said.

The former governor also attempted to attract businesses to the state, especially the Upper Peninsula, by lowering their operating costs, Sen. Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau) said.

“This governor in the last 10 years made it more enticing to come here,” McManus said.

Although such reforms led to a record low for state unemployment – 3.4 percent in 2000 – critics claim that Engler’s economic legacy will be tarnished because he turned a large budget surplus into a deficit.

“The proof to me is in the $1.8 billion deficit,” Rep. Andy Meisner (D-Ferndale) said. “The end result has been a fiscal disaster and a situation where middle- and low-income families have been short-shifted.”

Engler supporters answer that the current national economic recession has left many states facing budget deficits, some larger than Michigan’s. “We’re all going to have to make some tough decisions, but you can’t blame the governor for that,” Birkholz said.

But Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) said Engler’s annual tax cuts are primarily to blame for the state’s budget problems. During his tenure the former governor signed 32 tax cuts, including the elimination of the state inheritance and capital gains taxes, and annual reductions on taxes to businesses and income.

“About 30 percent of the deficit can be attributed to cyclical factors, but about 70 percent of the problem is a structural deficit, which means we’ve reduced revenues below the level needed to provide services,” Brater said.

Rustem said both the recession and Engler’s fiscal policies are responsible for the budget deficit. If the economy had not run into problems after Sept. 11, or if the government had not adopted all of the tax cuts, the budget would be in much better shape, he said.

Engler’s environmental policies have also been the subject of heated debate between his supporters and critics. Engler passed the Clean Michigan Initiative, which was meant to set aside funds to fix state parks, improve water quality and clean contaminated sites. DeRossett said the act “put everyone at ease that the governor and legislature and people of Michigan are concerned about the water we have.”

Yet Dan Farough, political director of Michigan’s Sierra Club chapter, said many of the initiative’s funds have not been released, and instead of funding the cleanup of polluted sites, Engler lowered their contamination standards.

Brater said under Engler, legislation was passed requiring sites to be cleaned only to the point where contaminants present caused cancer in one out of every 100,000 people instead of the previous level of one in every million people.

Rustem said because of his focus on educational and economic policies, Engler did not pass many environmental laws and state standards remained largely unchanged.

McManus said while Engler was one of the first governors to speak against the diversion of the Great Lakes’ water while serving as chairman of the National Governors Association in 2001, but Farough said he did not pursue the issue aggressively though he opposed it only when facing pressure from voters.

Engler also closed several mental health facilities throughout the state. Rustem said the hospitals were closed because Engler, as well as many legislators and constituents, believed patients should be treated by their families instead of being institutionalized.

Many of these patients are now homeless or incarcerated, Meisner said.

The primary reason is that “the money and resources didn’t follow people from the hospitals to the community,” Brater said.

Rustem said the question of whether Engler allocated sufficient funds to treating such mental patients could be debated.

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