The higher education appropriation can only be understood in the
context of the ongoing state budget crisis. Although the state
budget in Michigan is one that rises and falls with the fortunes of
the auto industry, the deficits that we are now experiencing will
not go away, even if the economy improves dramatically in the near
future. During the 1990s, the previous administration and
Legislature cut taxes continuously, culminating in the 0.5 percent
cut in the income tax, which goes into effect fully by the end of
this year. This cut alone will cost $800 million a year, which is a
large proportion of the total deficit that we have experienced
annually. Thus revenues have been cut below the level needed to
supply existing services.

I voted against this tax cut in 1999 because I was concerned
about the effect it would have on education, health care, the
social-service safety net, environmental protection and other vital
programs. The tax cut is not even that beneficial to most Michigan
families. A family with an income of $50,000 will save about $250
per year with this tax cut but will pay much more in increased
tuition costs to send a child to a public college or
university.

I am also concerned about the way in which we are appropriating
our increasingly scarce resources. In recent years, one out of five
of our general fund dollars has gone to corrections, which is about
the same amount we are spending on higher education. But the
corrections budget has far outpaced the higher education budget in
growth. The Justice Policy Institute shows that between 1985 and
2000, the spending for higher education increased by 27 percent,
while the corrections budget grew by 227 percent. In the 2003-04
fiscal year, higher education funding decreased by 11.2 percent,
while corrections spending increased. It makes much more sense to
invest in our young people through early childhood, K-12 and higher
education, than to warehouse nonviolent people who have ended up in
prison because of substance abuse or mental illness. The Michigan
Senate recently took a step in the right direction in this regard,
adopting drug court legislation that would allow drug users to be
diverted to treatment programs.

Investing in higher education makes good economic sense. A study
commissioned by the Michigan Economic Development Council and the
Presidents Council found that every dollar the state invests in
higher education yields $26 in economic benefits in the community.
Michigan has the dubious distinction of being a state that one
young person is leaving every 40 minutes, and Gov. Jennifer
Granholm has set a goal of fostering “cool cities” to
help stem this exodus. Meanwhile, 79 percent of those graduating in
high-tech fields will stay in Michigan, so why not put our money
into these programs?

The University of Michigan is our flagship public university.
Students from all over the state, the nation and the world come to
study in Ann Arbor, and many of them will stay in Michigan, adding
to its economy, diversity and overall quality of life. All of our
public universities are a vital part of the health of this state,
and I will continue to seek better funding for higher education. If
you come from a Michigan community and would like to help, contact
your legislators and let them know what state funding for higher
education means to you.

Brater (D-Ann Arbor) is a Michigan state senator representing
the 18th district.

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