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Article of Interest - Budget

LOCAL COMMENT: Kids shouldn't have to pay price to clean up budget mess

by Tom Watkins, Detroit Free Press, June 20, 2002

Do we really want to balance the state's budget on the backs of our children, communities and families?

The most recent budget balancing antics include cuts that affect many critical areas, such as school readiness, adult education, fire safety and health programs. These cuts are over and above the $100 million in cuts already made by the Legislature in areas of school readiness, parental involvement and summer school programming.

Legislators have made a considerable effort to preserve the state's per-pupil increase for schools for next year, from $6,500 to $6,700. Now, we need that same commitment to preserve crucial services for communities, families and children. After we balance the budget for this fiscal year, there is a bigger monster that needs to be slayed.

These immediate cuts and one time solutions don't even begin to address the structural deficit problems that remain within the state's budget. According to April 2002 estimates cited by the Citizens Research Council, a respected nonpartisan watchdog group, the state will need to sustain 6 percent annual growth until the year 2008 simply to break even on its budget. More information can be found on this issue at the council's Web site,

There is a choice on the table. We can either choose to reduce taxes and cut services to communities, families and children, or we can choose to re-evaluate our critical needs in light of our economic reality and act accordingly.

The state faces an $800-million shortfall in the next couple of years. I once again urge the Legislature to consider hitting the pause button on the state's 0.1-percent income tax reduction to preserve almost $200 million. If we truly say everything is on the table when it comes to fixing the problems with the budget, why not consider hitting the pause button? It can help minimize the pain at a cost to the average taxpayer of a Diet Coke per week.

But don't just take my word for it. Forward-thinking legislators, such as Sen. Harry Gast, R-St. Joseph, recently said, "My common sense, good fiscal judgment and 32 years of experience in the Legislature lead me to believe that the only way to solve the budget problems are to suspend the reductions in the Single Business Tax and Income Tax."

Gast's comments and experience should ring true with all of us. Even maintaining the state's budget in the face of declining revenues will be next to impossible for the next governor, regardless of his or her political party. Facts are facts and deficits are deficits.

The Legislature also recently approved a $1-billion package that supported improving the state's sewer infrastructure, but partisanship hung up another promised $1 billion for addressing school infrastructure. I believe clean, modern safe schools are just as important as clean and modern sewers.

Whose children shall we send to schools with crumbling infrastructure? Mine? Yours?

We have schools in Michigan that are state of the art and others that are a disgrace. Believe it or not, we have schools that leak, are heated with coal and have limited access to technology. In Hamtramck, for instance, the newest school was built in 1930. Our children deserve better. Our children deserve our best effort -- and at least as much attention as waste treatment.

Budgets are expressions of our priorities. In these onerous budgetary times, it is important for all of us to hold our legislators accountable for their actions -- simply watch their hips instead of reading their lips. Join me in asking Gov. John Engler and our legislators to put our soundest economic development investment -- children -- above election year rhetoric.

No one can campaign as a friend of communities, families, children and our neighborhood public schools while simultaneously gutting needed state services.

TOM WATKINS is Michigan's superintendent of public instruction. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.

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