Gov. Snyder sold himself as a fiscally responsible nerd in his campaign — a candidate who promised he wouldn’t allow the state budget to become the pork barrel of special interests. Yet, out of the gate, the newly elected governor set the tone when he pinched the School Aid Fund to pay for his corporate tax cuts, and now some GOP lawmakers are raiding the larder with equal zeal.
The Michigan Dashboard reflects the rerouting of revenues with the per capita debt up under Snyder, but it is the education numbers that are the most disturbing. School district cash reserves are being depleted as the revenue-to-expenditure ratio is widening at lightening speed. The funding gap in 2011 was $900 million, in 2012 it ballooned to $1.5 billion — that’s a 67 percent increase.
This week we learned that the K-12 budget has a special carve-out of $5 million for a pet project termed the “whole school technology” pilot program. William Nixon, the CEO of Utah-based iCampus LLC, persuaded the state to insert the funds. Nixon is the brother of state Budget Director John Nixon, who insists that he properly recused himself from the process, yet Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-75), who sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee, was kept in the dark on the potential conflict, saying “I was not aware of this at all.”
The Detroit News reports that iCampus established a lobbying presence in Michigan at about the same time the infamous “skunkworks” project was uncovered. Among the secretive group’s goals was to develop a technology program on the cheap that would be implemented at the K-12 level across the state. Rep. Dillon told the News:
“Every time Republicans in the Legislature and Snyder administration talk to IT people about education, they do it in secret.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Roger Kahn (R-32) said the notion that he should report these kinds of things to Democrats is “laughable”. Clearly GOP lawmakers don’t understand that the appearance of an impropriety erodes confidence in their integrity as surely as an actual impropriety, and if they truly believe in transparency they would take measures to avoid these kinds of professional embarrassments altogether.
In another pork barrel move discovered late last week by the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Rep. Anthony Forlini (R-24) absconded with the bulk of state funds in the 2014 budget earmarked for monitoring beaches across the state for E-coli contamination. The total budget for testing was a paltry $152,000, with much of that coming from federal funds, so communities have for years struggled to stretch the few dollars they received over the season. Forlini rerouted $100,000 for exclusive testing of a small beach in his district. (Perhaps his constituent beach-goers suffer from severe continence problems not found elsewhere in the state. Poor dears.) The Department of Environmental Quality distributed the remaining funds to a handful of other beaches, leaving 30 outstate communities to scramble for scarce grant dollars, or not test at all, giving new meaning to “swim at your own risk”.
This set-back will certainly nick the environmental numbers on the Michigan Dashboard. The water quality numbers had been improving, with a dramatic decrease in raw sewage being discharged under regular beach monitoring across the state. But, the 2014 lack of funding is just an invitation for retrograde behavior.
Pure Michigan…yeah, no.
Amy Kerr Hardin
Apologies to the adorable piglet in the barrel.