Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 6, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Past vs. future

BY JACK LESSENBERRY, Columnist
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---- — Few may have noticed, but there was a skirmish in the Michigan Senate last week that was likely the opening volley in what promises to be a long war over the state's future.

And, just maybe, the next campaign for governor.

The battle lines are drawn, and the issue clear: Do we spend money to make sure high school students get the higher education they will need for the jobs of the future — or do we give a business property tax cut to men whose ideas were formed in the past?

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, who has suddenly been finding her voice as the main Democratic leader of the opposition, thinks it essential that we have a workforce trained for the jobs of the future.

She told members of the state senate finance committee, "Now, more than ever, we need an action plan. Studies have shown that by 2025, Michigan will need an additional 1 million (college graduates)." As a result, her minority Democrats are pushing what they call their "Michigan 2020 Plan," to offer every state high school graduate free college tuition. They would do that, they say, by closing various tax loopholes, a move that would provide an extra $1.8 billion a year.

Surprisingly, majority Republicans don't quarrel with that figure — and themselves aren't opposed to closing the loopholes. But though they slashed the state's business tax rate by two-thirds last year, they are insisting on yet another business tax cut, this time on the so-called personal property tax for businesses.

"I don't think we can afford both," Senate Finance Committee Chair Jack Brandenburg told the Gongwer News Service, making it clear that for him, tax cuts were more important than education.

Testifying on the other side, however, was Lou Glazer, president of the non-partisan think tank, Michigan Future.

"Today, education has surpassed other resources as the engine of economic growth," he said. "The folks that have income in this economy, increasingly, are college-educated folks."

Nobody seriously disputes that Michigan badly needs a better-educated work force. A smaller percentage of its young adults have college degrees than is the case in surrounding states.

The knowledge that Michigan needs a better-educated workforce isn't new. Eight years ago, then-Lt. Gov. John Cherry presided over a panel looking into Michigan's higher education needs.

That group produced a comprehensive report that concluded that if Michigan were to remain economically competitive, it would have to double the number of students earning bachelor's degrees within a decade. But then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature proceeded to cut higher education budgets.

That sent tuition spiraling, and made it harder for some students to stay in school. Next, with revenue dropping during the Great Recession, the politicians broke their promise to the state's young people and canceled the Michigan Promise scholarships.

Needless to say, the number of students with degrees is unlikely to come anywhere close to the Cherry Commission targets. That's what's behind the Democrats' push to fund higher education. Michigan, once one of the nation's richer states, is now a sad 39th in per-capita income — and 36th in proportion of adults without college degrees. If the state is ever to regain prosperity, it will have to do so by attracting high-tech, new-economy jobs.

You can't do that, experts agree, without a highly educated workforce. But 60-year-old Jack Brandenburg doesn't see that. Though he did earn a business degree from Ohio's small Ashland University, he essentially built an industrial supply company from scratch.

The senator said he thought giving business the break was more important.

"Myself, I think that what we have to do here in Michigan is create an economy and get this economy working. And (then) our kids will stay here."

But what the former industrial supply salesman may not realize is how much the economy is radically changing. And though he has complained about how much it cost to send his four kids to Michigan colleges, Brandenburg doesn't seem to realize that many other kids are having grave difficulty affording college at all.

Democrats have no chance of winning this battle this year. They have less than a third of the seats in the Michigan Senate; not enough to even stop any bill from taking immediate effect. Yet the Senate Minority Leader made it clear that she is focused on the future, while Republicans seem wedded to making those in the present richer by following the policies of the past.

What played out in the Senate Finance Committee just might have been the opening round of the next campaign for governor, a race in which Gretchen Whitmer is the early favorite to be the Democratic nominee. But in any event, the argument over education funding vs. business tax cuts was likely just the opening skirmish in what promises to be a very long and very important war.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.