Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
I feel compelled to respond to Matt Gillard’s recent guest column in The Detroit News (“Pass Prop 1, for the children”), in which he claimed that “Prop 1 will . . . provide additional stability to schools . . . through new revenues.” Neither Mr. Gillard nor anyone else knows whether this statement will hold true.
My mother was a public school teacher in Michigan for 41 years; my grandmother was a public school teacher for 35 years. I am a strong supporter of public schools and an advocate for improved public-education funding. Proposal 1, however, is not the way to accomplish this objective.
In order to understand what Proposal 1 would really do, it is necessary to read between the lines and cut through the misinformation. Contrary to Mr. Gillard’s claim, Proposal 1, if adopted, will constitutionally deprioritize the funding of primary and secondary education in Michigan.
For starters, Proposal 1 would force primary and secondary schools to compete for funding with three brand new School Aid Fund uses. Since 1963, the money in the School Aid Fund has been available for three purposes only: “school districts,” “higher education,” and “school employees’ retirement systems.” Under the Michigan Constitution, the term “school districts” refers exclusively to primary and secondary school districts, and the term “higher education” refers exclusively to four-year state universities that grant baccalaureate degrees.
If Proposal 1 is adopted on May 5, the list of constitutionally permissible School Aid Fund uses will expand to include not only “school districts” and “school employees’ retirement systems,” but also “public community colleges,” “public career and technical education programs,” and scholarships for certain students. At the same time, Proposal 1 would remove “higher education” from the list of constitutionally enumerated uses. In other words, whereas the money in the School Aid Fund may presently be spent on three uses, the money in the fund will be available for five different uses if Proposal 1 passes.
Since three of these uses will be entirely new (as explained, "higher education" does not include community colleges), there is no formula in place to predict how much School Aid Fund money will be spent on each of them; nor are there any past data to guide us in this calculus. What do we actually know? If Proposal 1 passes, the allocation of dollars among the five School Aid Fund uses will be left entirely to the whims and uncertainties of the legislative appropriations process. The Michigan Constitution will have nothing to say about the manner in which the money will be divvied up.
As an aside, the phrase “public career and technical education programs” is particularly troubling. This phrase, which would be a new addition to the Michigan Constitution, has never been interpreted by the courts. It is entirely possible that the addition of “public career and technical education programs” as a constitutional School Aid Fund use would permit the expenditure of School Aid Fund dollars on private enterprise. After all, public career and technical education programs in other states often consist of partnerships between public schools or community colleges and private businesses that train students as apprentices in the building trades and other useful occupations.
What else do we know? Most higher-education funding currently originates from Michigan’s General Fund, not the School Aid Fund. Last year, for example, higher education received only about $200 million from the School Aid Fund. So eliminating higher education from the list of constitutionally permissible uses will not result in any great savings for the fund. This is especially true given that community colleges receive an annual state appropriation for operations of about $300 million. This annual community college appropriation will therefore consume the full $200 million saved by eliminating higher education, as well as about one-third of the additional $300 million that Mr. Gillard mentions. And at least a portion of the remaining, additional $200 million each year would be earmarked for career and technical education programs and scholarships—the other new uses. After all, the Michigan Legislature would not have included these new uses in the proposed constitutional language if it did not intend to support them with School Aid Fund dollars.
Even less understood is the fact that the proposed constitutional amendment would not guarantee any additional sales-tax revenue for the School Aid Fund at all. In fact, the amendment would allow the Michigan Legislature to deposit less sales-tax revenue into the fund than it does today. The Michigan Constitution presently requires the Legislature to dedicate 60 percent of all sales taxes imposed “at a rate of 4%,” and 100 percent of all sales taxes imposed “at the additional rate of 2%,” to the School Aid Fund. But the new constitutional text, if adopted on May 5, would require the Legislature to dedicate 60 percent of sales taxes imposed “at a rate of not more than 5%,” and 100 percent of all sales taxes imposed “at the additional rate of 2%,” to the School Aid Fund. Naturally, the phrase “a rate of not more than 5%” would encompass a rate of 4%, 3%, 2%, 1%, or even 0%. Hence, rather than requiring the Legislature to raise the sales tax by one percent and dedicate a portion of the resulting additional revenue to the School Aid Fund, the new constitutional language would actually remove the 4% sales-tax guarantee presently set forth in the second sentence of Article 9, section 11, and allow the Legislature to decrease or eliminate School Aid Fund revenue derived from sales taxes other than that generated through the additional 2% approved by the voters as part of Proposal A in 1994.
I fully acknowledge that one of the ten public acts tied to the outcome of the May 5 vote would raise the sales tax from six to seven percent. However, because this sales-tax increase would be purely statutory, and not constitutionally mandated, the Legislature would be perfectly free to reverse it at any time in the future. Indeed, any of the ten public acts could be immediately altered or repealed following the passage of Proposal 1.
As a strong supporter of K-12 funding, I am particularly concerned by these proposed constitutional changes. The Michigan Constitution is the fundamental charter of our state government. It is the sacred, organic document that gives Michigan life. In my opinion, it should not be amended without very good reason.
It may be that the Legislature has all the best intentions in the world, and would never think of varying from the promises that have been made. But trusting the Legislature to follow the constitution when money is involved is like trusting the proverbial kid in a candy store. Quite simply, Proposal 1 would eliminate constitutional protections for Michigan’s K-12 schools. Sometimes it’s better to stick with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.