Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Earlier this month the Michigan Legislature passed, and Governor Snyder signed, Public Act 5 of 2015, diverting approximately $167 million from the state’s School Aid Fund to cover community college operational expenses. Public Act 5 replaced an existing law that had required payment of these community college expenses from the state’s General Fund. Until recent years, community colleges rarely received financial support from the School Aid Fund.
As James Madison wrote more than 200 years ago in The Federalist No. 62, “[i]t will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so . . . incoherent that they cannot be understood.” For our system of government to work as intended, the people must be able to understand the meaning of the words that make up our laws. It is therefore fundamental that, unless otherwise defined, constitutional terms must be interpreted according to their common and ordinary meanings.
Article IX, section 11 of the Michigan Constitution specifies that the School Aid Fund “shall be used exclusively” for aid to elementary and secondary schools, institutions of higher education, and school employees’ retirement systems. What does the word “exclusively” mean to you?
Webster’s College Dictionary defines the word “exclusive” as “not admitting of something else; incompatible” and “limited to that which is designated.” It necessarily follows, then, that the permissible uses of the School Aid Fund are limited to those designated in the Michigan Constitution—namely elementary and secondary education, higher education, and school employees’ retirement systems. According to the clear constitutional text, the School Aid Fund may not be used for any other purpose.
In Michigan law, the term “higher education” has a unique meaning and does not include community colleges. Article XIII of the Michigan Constitution expressly differentiates between institutions of “higher education,” identified as four-year state universities with the authority to grant bachelor’s degrees, and “community and junior colleges.” These two types of institutions possess dissimilar constitutional powers, have different organizational structures, and are treated separately and distinctly for purposes of funding. Likewise, the Michigan Legislature has routinely recognized that community colleges are not institutions of higher education. See, e.g., MCL 15.243a; MCL 421.42(8)(a). Indeed, Public Act 5, itself, clearly distinguishes “community colleges” from “higher education.”
Despite this settled difference between community colleges and institutions of higher education, however, the Michigan Legislature has chosen to raid the School Aid Fund surplus to finance community colleges for the present fiscal year. This it may not do. Quite simply, Michigan’s Constitution does not permit the Legislature to appropriate School Aid Fund monies for community college operations. Period.
It is not my intent to detract from the importance of community colleges in any way. Community colleges provide excellent, cost-effective education and training for thousands of Michigan students. They are a crucial part of our educational system and should certainly be supported financially.
Nevertheless, the Michigan Constitution must be interpreted and applied as written. The language of Article IX limits the expenditure of School Aid Fund money to three specifically enumerated purposes. Community college operations are not included on this list. While Proposal 1 would amend the permissible uses of the School Aid Fund by adding community colleges, such institutions are not yet included within the constitutional text.
We have no way of knowing whether Proposal 1 will pass in May. But even if it does, the Michigan Constitution currently prohibits the Legislature and Governor from using School Aid Fund revenue to finance community college operations. Public Act 5 consequently embodies an unconstitutional appropriation. The $167 million illegally taken from the School Aid Fund should be returned and either (1) put to a constitutionally permissible use or (2) saved for a rainy day.
If we do not stand up and challenge this unconstitutional appropriation, the Legislature and Governor will be emboldened to divert more money from the School Aid Fund in the future to plug more unanticipated holes in the General Fund budget. This could be just the beginning. We cannot let that happen.