It’s not that we’re overtaxed, despite what you may have read in other, less sensible publications. Really, we don’t pay enough in taxes, not if we want to keep having nice things.
And that’s a bit of a sticky wicket, given that our infrastructure is deteriorating, that too many of our cities are struggling to fund police and fire protection or pay for pensions, that our schools are struggling, and that our Legislature is allergic to anything resembling a tax increase.
The plain fact of the matter is that Michigan, as it stands, just doesn’t spend enough, not if we want the comfortable standard of living most of us believe Americans ought to have — good schools, clean water, safe roads.
And that brings us to the state’s biannual revenue estimating conference, held recently in Lansing, an event, at which economists forecast the state’s financial future. The consensus from the Legislature’s fiscal agencies are what Gov. Rick Snyder will use to establish the next year’s budget.
Michigan’s economy is expected to continue to grow, albeit slowly, analysts say. We’re not adding many new jobs, but existing jobs should pay more, thanks largely to a short supply of workers and a Republican tax cut.
But that growth won’t yield a significant influx of tax dollars. Economists don’t anticipate much growth in the general fund, the main bank account the state uses to pay for roads, state police, colleges and universities. What little revenue growth analysts anticipate is already pledged to pay for costly policy promises, like tax cuts for businesses and repairs for Michigan’s horrible roads.
On top of that, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council is warning that the state isn’t prepared for another recession — and there will always be another recession. Michigan’s rainy day fund may not have the capacity to buffer the state through another downturn, and funding for key economy-boosting programs, like the state’s Medicaid expansion, is in jeopardy.
There’s also a budget shortfall looming, the CRC notes: The roads deal approved by the state Legislature a few years takes road-repair dollars from the general fund, and it will take significant economic growth to offset the impact of that siphoning on other state services (see above, re: slow, steady growth).
We’ve got a lot of problems, here, and it seems we only get serious about repairing our deficiencies when there’s an opportunity on the horizon (like Amazon’s request for bids for a second headquarters site, prompting promises to get cracking on transit and schools) or a looming crisis. This crisis, I guess, is only quasi-looming.
So our lawmakers will probably continue to ignore it.
And our continued lack of investment in the stuff that makes a state successful will continue to make Michigan the kind of place that not only doesn’t attract big business, but drives away existing residents.
Of all Michigan’s pressing needs, schools are perhaps the most urgent.
Measured against national averages, Michigan’s test scores show continued, persistent decline, and it’s not true that struggling urban districts are dragging state averages down. Because our state is so profoundly segregated, it’s fair to use race as a stand-in for geography: In 2003, Michigan’s white students were 13th in the nation in both fourth-grade math and reading. In 2015, white Michigan kids’ math scores ranked 49th. For reading, it was 47th.
There’s no real lack of consensus about how to improve education: Hire and support highly qualified teachers, who educate kids to reasonable standards with proven materials. Nor is there conflict about how to get there — report after report suggests that more money spent per pupil would improve educational outcomes.
Where’s that money coming from? Better ask the Legislature.
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