Susan J. Demas: After years of cutting Michigan to the bone, Republicans cry crocodile tears over Whitmer’s vetoes

Protest of Gov. Rick Snyder at Benton Harbor Blossomtime Parade, 2011 | Brett Jelinek via Flickr CC BY--ND 2.0

In 2011, I was having dinner with a big media executive on a day that teachers were protesting GOP then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget cuts in Lansing.

As everyone seems to have forgotten, Snyder — who was supposed to be some sort of moderate — took a hatchet to Michigan’s public education system and safety net all in the name of giving corporations a $2 billion annual tax cut.

He also probably raised your taxes along the way, between the pension tax and axing tax breaks for kids, college tuition, charitable contributions and more.

Snyder’s first budget was something out of Charles Dickens’ novel, with schools receiving the lowest foundation allowance from the state seeing a $526 per-pupil cut, public universities being whacked by 15%, and the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families seeing a massive cut from 20% to 6% of the federal level. State employees also were told they’d have to swallow cuts during the next contract negotiation.

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Things were so nasty that at one point, a GOP-controlled House panel even chopped a $10 million program that provided clothes to orphans. And all this was years before the horrors of the Flint water crisis.

Naturally, Snyder’s budget was hailed as visionary by Very Serious People, who solemnly agreed that poor people, schoolchildren and college students would all have to sacrifice for the greater good of fattening big corporations’ bottom lines. All hail Michigan’s “comeback!”

The fact that ungrateful teachers had the nerve to refuse to lay down for corporatist “progress” was deeply offensive to the media bigwig.

“You lost; get over it,” he laughed as he took a swig of whiskey.

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I didn’t agree with that glib assessment then or now, which is one reason why I am a terrible fit for corporate journalism. I’m just not into clickbait headlines and I’ve never been the reporter management could railroad into writing stories about their particular hobby horse.

Eight years later, I have to say it’s pretty weird to watch so many conservatives and opinion leaders suddenly decrying budget cuts handed down by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Some are pretty hard to defend, like $700,000 to a shady anti-abortion program that can’t seem to prove it actually did much in Michigan, or $35 million for charter schools whose advocates apparently thought busing kids in to chant, “Money!” outside Whitmer’s office this week really drove the point home that it’s all about the children.

There have been plenty of stories about cuts to some favored programs, particularly for the Autism Alliance, whose board features heavy hitters like Snyder’s former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley turned Small Business Association of Michigan president and Ron Fournier, a former prominent journalist who’s now president of the Truscott Rossman PR juggernaut.

The irony hasn’t been lost on some of us who have been around awhile that Republicans have glommed onto that one after so many grumbled that the former LG’s autism insurance mandate was “Calleycare” (a callback to the much-despised Obamacare).

Anti-abortion group with troubled history earns Whitmer veto

And there’s the broader irony of Republicans crying crocodile tears over $1 billion in budget cuts, when they’ve been whining for years that it’s crammed with too much pork.

Suddenly all the right-wingers who swear up and down that money doesn’t make any difference for public schools are singing a very different tune when it comes to programs for rural districts and private colleges. And what happened to all those rugged individualists who told us we could easily slash $2 billion or more to fix the damn roads, no tax hike required?

You can’t blame lobbyists for doing their jobs and advocating for their clients. And they’ve certainly had success, given the host of outraged stories, like one on Whitmer breaking ground on an opioid clinic and then cutting its funding.

Of course, the GOP-passed budget — which leaders disdainfully tossed on Whitmer’s desk without negotiation — contained plenty of cuts. Our state’s 15 public universities and 28 community colleges received below-inflationary increases (i.e. a net cut), which Moody’s noted is a “credit negative.”

Susan J. Demas: It took a Democratic governor to ax pork-barrel spending in Michigan

So, in the interest of fairness — both sides, if you will — shouldn’t there be plenty of those stories? Picture this: State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) received an award from Jackson College back in April and then (insert dramatic musical score) turned around and cut its budget.

Of course, there’s a natural impulse for news outlets to go with a new take. Stories on budget cuts impacting perennial whipping boys, like public schools writ large and vulnerable people, don’t seem as fresh as the program nobody had heard of up until now suddenly getting the ax. And many of those groups are just trying to stave off more damage after years of being on the firing line, so their spokespeople often don’t provide hot fire quotes — like those from groups used to being shielded by Republicans — which reporters can’t resist.

The bottom line is this is all part of the dance over what priorities will win out in the budget (which may never really be done until the next one). It’s a good sign for everyone that Democrats and Republicans have both laid out supplemental proposals and are talking things out.

But Whitmer certainly isn’t the only one who’s played hardball — Republicans have made it clear they believe they should have carte blanche and the governor’s only duty is to sign whatever they send her way like a good little girl. Any takes that suggest otherwise are disingenuous at best, and just complete Mackinac horse fudge at worst.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I take exception to the cuts to charter school funding. In Michigan charter schools are public schools. The students are public school students. Sadly, Michigan’s public charter schools have been denigrated by those opposed with negative information about charter schools in other states. Yes, Michigan’s charter schools can hire a private for profit organization to supply accounting, curriculum, staff and, yes, space; all of that controlled by an appointed board that takes the same oath of office as elected public school boards and are subject to the same law as public school boards. (FOIA, Open Meetings, Financial Reporting) Public Law 451 of 1976 governs both public charter schools and traditional public schools. Yes, Michigan’s public charter schools receive start up grants since they are prohibited from assessing taxes on their parent districts citizens. These one time grants pale in comparison to the outstanding debt and ongoing assessments accruing to traditional public schools. It is unfortunate that conservative special interests and organizations (DeVos et al) that are affiliated with some public charter schools attempt to promote vouchers and religion in the public charter school universe. Fortunately our conservative legislature and these special interests have been held at bay by the public; nevertheless they continue to use public charter schools as cover for their privatization activities. Teacher union leadership oppose charters since they are not well represented in the charter sector that represents less than 10% of the student population and school funding in Michigan, instead of calling out and taking on continued actions reducing public education funding (with the goal of destroying public education). Bottom line, context matters, and those who oppose Michigan’s public charter schools would do well to focus on long term post graduation learning outcomes; to promote collaboration between teachers in both educational universes; to end the tyranny of standardized testing and the dated structure (Ken Robinson, “Paradigms”) of our system of public education. Focus on children learning, not political squabbling.

  2. I wrote my Senator that none of this passed “the smell test.” I received an invitation to explain more what I meant by that; thus the core of the situation we are in.

    Your article is accurate and clear. I “lived” the foundation cut you describe and have seen the fallout from the repeated “kicking the proverbial shin” of education for the past decade.

    It has not worked out so well, in my view, with the shortage of teachers and the over-testing of our students being near the top of some very real structural problems that no one seems able to address.

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