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As Michigan lawmakers wrap up the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, it’s worth looking at fiscal trends. The worst that was expected didn’t happen, and lawmakers have resources to accomplish a lot of their priorities with the extra cash they have at hand. Also, they can lower tax burdens if they want.

Student learning has taken a big hit during the pandemic, especially for kids in low-income communities. While federal officials wager that a huge influx of cash will turn things around, Michigan’s largest school district is doubling down on old spending patterns. Its approach figures to deepen future fiscal challenges more than boost academic achievement.

After a down year, Michigan school districts seek to boost enrollment. They will have to keep schoolhouse doors open, at least into October, to collect the funds that come along with students.

According to The Detroit News, leaders of the Detroit Public Schools Community District are looking to fill classroom seats with 2,000 more students than fall 2020. Months before the pandemic started, the state’s largest district registered its highest enrollment since 2011-12, only to lose students at the start of last school year.

As part of the state’s pandemic response, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer started a new program that pays for the tuition of frontline health care workers who want to go to community college. Lawmakers are also looking to create and expand other programs aimed at boosting people’s job credentials. Regardless of how much gets spent and how many programs are created, job training programs are an idea from a political well that never runs dry.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in The Hill on July 31, 2021. 

New York City, Detroit and Honolulu don’t share much in common, but all three essentially ban short-term rentals, such as those supplied through Airbnb and VRBO. In Michigan, more than a dozen cities make short-term rentals in residential zones illegal. One county in the state’s Upper Peninsula even bans short-term camping, outlawing property owners from accepting payment from someone camping on their vacant land.

Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill to authorize $300 million in additional business subsidies, which is intended to attract more companies to Michigan and compete with other states. This is the wrong way to compete, however. Lawmakers should grow the economy by improving the business climate and fostering a better quality of life in the state, not by offering the largest subsidy checks.

Some northern Michigan superintendents are upset at how federal COVID-19 dollars have been spread around, but the object of their anger is misplaced.

A recent headline in the Traverse City Record-Eagle expressed concern that “pandemic relief dollars went to for-profit cyber schools.” Cyber schools are charter public schools that provide most or all of their instruction online. Many of these schools contract with education management companies for things like curriculum and support with technology and administration.

The House and Senate held sessions but no votes this week. This report describes some recently introduced bills of general interest that have nothing to do with epidemics.

Senate Bill 454: Impose state license mandate on gun purchases

Union policy in America is the result of decisions that lawmakers made in the 1930s and 40s, and little has changed in the basic structure of unionization since. Yet things are starting to change. A number of states have passed right-to-work laws, which allow workers to opt out of financially supporting unions. Further, state and local governments frequently required their employees to support unions, but the Supreme Court prohibited the practice in its 2018 decision, Janus v. AFSCME. But on the other side, President Joe Biden has endorsed the PRO Act, which would expand compulsory unionism across the country. These conflicting views represent a fundamental disagreement about what unionization should look like as the 21st century progresses. To explore the future of unionism, I spoke with Vinnie Vernuccio, strategic advisor to the Mackinac Center, and Steve Delie, director of Workers for Opportunity at the Mackinac Center.

Remember how bad Michigan’s economy was in 2009? Shuttered factories. Mass unemployment. Wave after wave of news articles highlighting bad economic trends. It seemed everyone knew someone moving from Michigan to some place with more economic opportunities.

Most local special education funding in Michigan favors school districts over disabled students. These kids can’t enjoy the benefit of our Schools of Choice law because most local millage funds used to finance special education are padlocked away by a few local school administrators.

House Bill 4061: Restrict “Integrated Public Alert Warning System” use by governor: Passed 20 to 16 in the Senate

To prohibit officials including the governor from using an official “Integrated Public Alert Warning System” to transmit an announcement of a new law or change in government policy, and instead limit its use to emergencies involving immediate or imminent loss of life or property. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer received criticism for using this system during a 2020 state of emergency to make announcements that did not meet this standard. The system is described as a “secure network connecting all of the public alert and warning systems in the United States into a single system.” In the House six Democrats supported the bill, but the Senate vote was a party line vote.

A growing number of local health departments are forcing children to wear masks in schools. Health officials, such as those in Kent, Ottawa and Oakland counties, as well as in northwest Michigan, justify this action by raising the specter of an increasing number of children being hospitalized with COVID-19. While some children have been hospitalized with this disease, a broader look shows that COVID-19 accounts for just a small fraction of all pediatric hospitalizations in Michigan.

With vaccines having been widely available to adults for months, people concerned about their vulnerability to COVID-19 can protect themselves. This should mean that requiring children to wear masks in schools to protect adults is no longer necessary. In fact, earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared, “[Y]ounger children are not major sources of transmission — either to their peers or to adults.” But today’s proponents of mask mandates in schools are now arguing they are needed to keep children themselves safe.

Throughout the pandemic, the public has heard charges and counter charges by Democrats and Republicans that the other team doesn’t use science in its decisions about masking and some other public health mandates. If most politicians cared as much about the science surrounding our economic health, taxpayers could worry less about being fleeced by for-profit, multinational conglomerates. Senate Bill 615 is a case in point.

In 2020, while a pandemic swept across the country and left many struggling to make ends meet, Consumers Energy requested state permission to raise its rates by a total of $224 million. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel intervened in a case that cut the request by 60%, leaving Consumers Energy with a $90.2 million rate increase. Now, the regional monopoly is asking for a rate increase of $225 million, which would make residential rates go up 9%. Nessel has again opposed the company’s request. In a news release, she wrote, “Families should not have to choose between paying exorbitant utility bills or paying for their rent, medicine, food, clothing and for other essential things.” She added that she would “scrutinize this request to determine whether the proposed benefits truly justify the costs to Michigan consumers.”

House Bill 4837: Restrict outside groups’ access to state voter database: Passed 75 to 33 in the House

To restrict access to the state's qualified voter file (QVF) database to the Secretary of State office, other election officials it authorizes, local and county election clerks, and state employees or vendors who do maintenance and security work on the QVF. The bill would remove a provision authorizing access by a “designated voter registration agency.” Twenty Democrats joined all Republicans in voting 'yes' on this and House Bill 4838.

State lawmakers find themselves bound by constitutional rules that require them to balance their budgets each year, allowing them to pledge to spend no more than their revenues. And lawmakers often interpret this rule to mean that they’re going to spend every last dollar of revenue each year, when they don’t have to. I spoke with Vance Ginn of the Texas Public Policy Foundation about his work to encourage lawmakers in Texas to restrict their spending each year by adopting his proposal, which he calls the Conservative Texas Budget.

In 2015, Indiana lawmakers repealed the state’s Common Construction Wage law — more readily known as a prevailing wage. These laws, which are in place in about half the states, mandate that government entities (state, cities, counties, public schools) pay union wages on their construction projects.

The state economy isn’t back to where it was before the pandemic. It’s down 321,600 jobs, a 7.2% loss — the 8th-worst in the country. There are 207,800 fewer people in the labor force. Total economic production hasn’t fully recovered and lags the nation. Despite all of the losses, tax revenues continue to increase, and the state budget continues to grow.

Michigan’s Schools of Choice law allows students to transfer to any public school district that has room for them. But that law doesn’t apply to all special education students; many disabled pupils are restricted in ways their fully abled peers aren’t.

Great lakes salmon have been a staple of Michigan sport and recreational fishing for over 50 years. Originally introduced by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to curb the problem of an exploding alewife population, salmon have lived comfortably in the Great Lakes ever since the early 1970s. But that level of comfort now appears to be in a state of flux, and decreasing salmon stocks could mean the state needs other options.

Looking ahead to another fall of pandemic-related disruptions, Michigan has entrusted local education officials with the responsibility to decide COVID-19 policies and how to spend the bulk of federal COVID-19 relief funds. While school districts have yet to spend most of these large sums, many parents are left unsupported and searching for suitable learning options.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in The Hill on July 24, 2021.

Americans have had a shared frustration for decades with the lack of transparency and ever-increasing costs in health care. Count me among them.

The House and Senate remain on summer break, so rather than votes this report contains a selection of K-12 education related bills introduced in the current Legislature. None of these bills have received a vote at this time.

Senate Bill 56: Eliminate student outcomes in annual school teacher effectiveness assessments