The following article originally appeared in the Lansing State Journal Jan. 31, 2002.
In his Jan. 27 commentary, "By shielding tax cuts, state hurts its children," Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins argued for delaying the scheduled modest reductions this year in the state's personal income and single business taxes. I disagree. The best policy would be for the state to emulate what responsible families all over Michigan are doing—reprioritizing budgets and cutting back on the least important items in a difficult economy.
The tax reductions would reduce state revenues by about $300 million, amounting to perhaps a quarter or less of the projected budget deficit. Superintendent Watkins offers a list of things on which the state could spend that money. It would be more honest, however, if he offered a list of $300 million in items that he wants Michigan families to do without. How is it that $300 million is a pittance if it's in the pockets of Michigan families, but a bonanza if the government can have it instead?
At least 33 states tax less per capita than does Michigan. Our state must continue reducing its overall burden to compete effectively for people, businesses, and economic growth. Over the long term, a healthy, competitive Michigan economy will do more for education and state services than short-term and short-sighted gimmicks like delaying tax cuts.
Public education in Michigan has hardly been starved. Revenues for public schools since 1995 have increased by more than 50 percent per student, or double the inflation rate. Even the National Education Association admits that Michigan outspends 43 other states for public education. The problem is that less of it actually gets into the classroom in Michigan than in almost any other state.
There is a way to test our superintendent's commitment to education. He would pass that test with flying colors by endorsing the following reasonable positions instead of echoing the tired, old refrain of "send more money."
Exempt K-12 education from costly "prevailing wage" requirements, which unnecessarily boost construction and renovation costs for Michigan public schools by at least $150 million per year. Neighboring Ohio did precisely that in 1997 and while organized labor squealed, Ohio schools have saved hundreds of millions of dollars.
Encourage schools to engage in more cost-saving competitive bidding for ancillary services such as food, custodial and transportation—a concept strongly endorsed by the Michigan School Board Leaders Association. Millions could be saved if more schools had the courage and the tools to get realistic teacher health insurance in an open market, instead of being captive to high-cost insurance administered by a subsidiary of the MEA union. Pontiac, for example, has saved half a million per year since it privatized busing in 1994.
Liberate schools and teachers from dubious mandates, liberalize certification to relieve teacher shortages, and introduce broader parental choice as a means to encouraging higher performance by our schools.
Real leadership and clamoring for more cash from the taxpayer are not synonymous. Michiganians have a right to expect much more of their leaders.