Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 27, 2013

Gov. talks schools, right-to-work

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com and GLENN PUIT gpuit@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Gov. Rick Snyder said he didn’t know about a secretive education reform work group that included state employees until after news reports of its existence surfaced.

The self-dubbed “skunk works” group included top Snyder aides, business officials from technology and software companies, and Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, who led past controversial plans to give school funding directly to students. The group contends they worked to develop a low-cost, technology-centered charter school model that would lower operating costs to $5,000 per student, annually. Michigan currently allocates just shy of $7,000 per student annually.

Snyder, speaking at a Record-Eagle editorial board meeting Friday, voiced concerns about the group’s secretive nature and the “skunk works” title.

“From my perspective I’m trying to walk that balance to say these choices probably weren’t so hot,” Snyder said. “They should have known better ... At the same time I want people to know I’m always open to innovation whether it be anyone in state government or anyone walking on the street.”

Snyder identified ballooning retirement costs as the biggest single school funding issue. He said his administration set aside roughly $250 per pupil statewide toward helping districts pay-down retirement costs.

But local district officials pointed out that Snyder’s funding plans allocate more of this money to districts with the highest payroll costs, exacerbating inequitable funding across the state.

“The percentage of payroll model is not a great model for what we have today,” Snyder said. “In a perfect world if you would have redone it, it should have been done differently.”

TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins said state officials could begin to address both retirement cost problems and inequity between districts by sending the lowest-funded districts twice as much money for retirement costs as the highest-funded districts.

“If they did it that way, they would be making up some of the inequity that exists by how we pay into the retirement system,” Cousins said.

Snyder addressed the right to work controversy, acknowledging the decision to approve a new law prohibiting the requirement of workers to pay union dues has changed his public perception among some.

“It does make life more difficult when you have more controversy versus less controversy,” he said. “It makes life more complicated, and would I rather have less complications? Yeah, but as a fact of the matter, that’s part of the job.”

Snyder said organized labor officials deserve blame for prompting legislators to embrace and enact the right to work law during last year’s lame duck session. Labor pushing last year’s Proposal 2, which sought to guarantee public and private-sector employees the right to organize and collectively bargain. Voters soundly defeated the measure in November.

“I wasn’t looking for it,” Snyder said of right to work legislation. “I didn’t propose it as a topic. It became a consequence of Proposal 2. That was a counter-reaction to Proposal 2 when Proposal 2 failed. I’m sincere in my decision ... I made the decision. I live with that and I think it was the appropriate one because it will bring jobs to our state.”

Snyder wants to address early childhood education, funding for roads, and Medicaid expansion. Snyder said he doesn’t know if the Legislature will approve of the Medicaid expansion, which has drawn the scorn of Republican legislators unwilling to accept Medicaid money under the new federal health care law.

“I hope it happens because it’s good for our citizens,” Snyder said. “I appreciate people having strong feelings on both sides of the issue. You have to look at the cost to society in my view to analyze it appropriately.

“Right now we have a system of unmanaged (health) care and uncontrolled costs for many citizens … they are using the emergency room as their primary medical care facility,” Snyder said. “That’s not a smart answer either in terms of the care they need or the costs to society.”

Snyder also spoke to his proposal to raise $1.2 billion to pay for fixes to Michigan roads. He supports hikes to the gas tax and vehicle registrations, both of which have been unpopular with the public and legislators. He said he’s tracking discussions to take the retail sales tax from gasoline and devote it to roads.

“Again, how do you replace that because a lot of that (money) went to school aid,” Snyder said. “That’s where you see some discussion about raising the sales tax 1 percent.”