For Democrats in the Michigan Legislature, the reaction to the 3.4% increase to the School Aid Fund budget that advanced Thursday ranged from calling it a “good first step” to complaints that it was a continuation of the status quo that underfunds education in the state.
The biggest change in the $15.2 billion Fiscal Year 2020 budget for K-12 education stands as a $30 million boost for special education, which was added in following an unusual deal reached not between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who said it didn’t go far enough — and Republican leaders, but state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and House Minority Leader Christine Grieg (D-Farmington Hills).
That deal brought the School Aid Fund Conference Committee back on Thursday morning, one week after the panel advanced a conference report with objections from Democrats.
The increase in special education dollars is one-time money from the state’s General Fund that was leftover on the balance sheet, according to House Republican spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.
While the conference report advanced on Thursday added additional money, it still led to considerable consternation for Democrats, particularly in the Senate where the party was united in opposition.
The House passed the budget by a vote of 91-18, with only Democrats voting in opposition; the Senate approved by vote of 21-17, with Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) joining all the Democratic senators.
The legislation now heads to Whitmer’s desk.
This also exposed deep rifts among House Democrats, most notably with state Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton Twp.), who voted to advance the conference report out of committee on Thursday morning, calling it “step in the right direction.” She added that she had never seen a conference committee reconvene to strengthen a budget, as happened on Thursday.
Then, less than two hours later, however, she was one of 18 House Democrats to vote against the bill in the full chamber. Pagan declined to comment on her decision to flip votes.
Other House Democrats offered their reluctant support.
“For me, this package is not everything we want but it certainly is better than some of what we’ve seen,” said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), a former Detroit public school teacher.
Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s biggest teacher’s unions, offered a similar assessment.
“While this budget isn’t everything we had hoped for, it is a good first step to ending the decades-long underfunding of public education,” Herbart said in a statement.
“But it is only a step. It addresses only a fraction of the $2,000 gap in per-pupil funding schools face,” she continued. “It doesn’t eliminate the effects of 25 years of last-in-the-nation education funding increases. For us to truly invest in the success of every student, lawmakers need to make a long-term commitment to addressing these issues.
State Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), who serves as minority vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee was highly critical of the K-12 deal and even posted a photo on Twitter of former House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford), who was known for tangling with another Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, during the 2007 and 2009 budget battles that led to brief shutdowns.
“At the end of the day, if we’re trying to solve the educational crisis and become a top 10 state, this budget is far from getting us there,” Hertel said. “I don’t think it was worth compromising on.”
— Senator Curtis Hertel (@CurtisHertelJr) September 19, 2019
However, Hertel dismissed any notion that Senate Democrats’ opposition serves as a preview that they plan to oppose every other conference report.
It’s not clear what Whitmer will do on the budget, as her spokeswoman, Tiffany Brown, declined to answer whether Whitmer was considering a veto of the budget.
“While the school aid budget passed by the legislature includes some additional funding, it is still nowhere near what the governor proposed in the executive budget, and far short of what our children deserve,” Brown wrote in an email, referring to the $500 million boost the governor proposed in March. “While Republicans waste more time on partisan politics, the governor will stay focused on doing her job and working for the people.”
For their part, Republican leaders say they’re ready to negotiate with the governor on the remainder of the budget and have made those attempts in recent days.
“I’m very proud of the work that we just did in this Legislature and the bipartisan reforms and budget that we just passed for our schools,” Chatfield told reporters. “I’ve been saying for the past couple of weeks that I believe our current impasse on this budget is silly. And we need to come together, we need to show leadership and we need to get a budget passed.”
Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said he reached out to the governor in hopes of renewing talks, which have been stalled for more than a week, but had not heard back by the afternoon on Thursday, he told the Advance.
While the School Aid Fund budget seems to have exposed significant rifts among legislative Democrats, one top official in the state denied that the party was split.
On a conference call Thursday, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes was asked if the House Democrats were working from a different playbook than the governor on the K-12 budget, and she responded that Democrats are united and there is “one playbook, one family.”
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed reporting.