Whitmer, Dems Push State-Funded College for All HS Grads

Feb 8, 2012

State Senator Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing has a plan that she says would make Michigan’s young people the best educated in the world.  She says her “Michigan 2020” proposal would send every high school graduate in Michigan on to college without raising taxes.  

To fund the initiative, her proposed bill would eliminate at least $1.8 billion in what she labels “special interest kickbacks.”   WKAR’s Mark Bashore asked her to cite some examples of the “tax breaks and loopholes” that would pay for the plan.

SEN. GRETCHEN WHITMER:  Well, here’s the beautiful part of the plan.   Right now, we give over $38 billion away in loopholes—that means tax credits for businesses.  If you found 10 percent savings, like we have in all other areas of government and our school budgets, you’d have $3.8 billion.  And that’s $2 billion more than it takes to actually fund this.  We only need $1.8 billion.  So if we find five percent savings by saying “Special interests aren’t going to get these giveaways, you know, willy-nilly, without even any scrutiny,” we could fund this and really have a bold shot in the arm, which is what we so desperately need in the state of Michigan.

MARK BASHORE:  But is there one you could cite specifically?

WHITMER: The reason that we’ve not cited specific examples is because we don’t want to get bogged down in defending or having a fight over one little piece of the tax code.  What (we’ll) do is (we’ll)  create a non-partisan group of economists to go through all the special interest loopholes that are codified right now and say “This isn’t working. This isn’t creating jobs and it doesn’t serve a public purpose.  It’s just a special interest kickback, let’s get rid of it.”  

When people like the Mackinac Center, who we don’t often see eye-to-eye (with), endorse that kind of a process and the governor said they should come up and make their case to keep their loopholes, then we’re all in agreement on that part.  Let’s do it and use the money to ensure our kids are the best educated in the world.

BASHORE:  How do you generate consensus on these loopholes and contracts?  That’s the really heavy lifting here isn’t it?

WHITMER:  Well, it is.  But I think the goal is something that no one has said we shouldn’t be striving for, and that’s having the best-educated workforce in the country if not the world.  That’s what we so desperately need in Michigan.  Those are the types of things that Bill Gates says makes a difference when a business is trying to determine whether or not to locate in a particular state.  It’s worked in Kalamazoo.  You see property values go up, unemployment go down.  

All boats rise when you make this type of investment, and so while the devil’s always in the details, if we can agree that that is the overarching goal and we share that, I’m willing to work with anyone to figure out exactly what the terms are going to be of how we raise the money to do it.

BASHORE:  You’re calling for a non-partisan committee to determine if tax credits are indeed creating jobs as they were intended. This is an intense discussion going on right now.  It seems that you’re pretty convinced they haven’t.  Is that accurate?

WHITMER:  I think there are a lot of things on the tax code that are no longer relevant to the economy that we are currently faced with.  You know, our school budgets, our police force budgets, our higher ed. budgets are subjected every single year to scrutiny.  Why shouldn’t all these special interest tax breaks be as well?  The governor said it should be, the Mackinac Center….I say it should be too.  And you know what, if it’s just a kickback to a special interest that’s had a great lobbyist for the last 40 years, well, that’s not good enough any more.  We don’t have the type of resources to just give special interests great treatment on their tax code when everybody else is paying their fair share.

BASHORE:  One key Republican you’ll be working with on this Michigan 2020 proposal is Representative Bob Genetski, head of the House Appropriations Sub-committee on Higher Education.  I asked him about the framework of your proposal.  Here’s one concern he mentioned to me.

REP. BOB GENETSKI:   What within the plan will address university spending levels?  What’s going to prevent everybody across the state from just raising tuition, and saying “Well we’ve got our new guaranteed block of over $9,000.”

BASHORE:  Care to respond?

WHITMER:  Well, I think that’s great.  I totally agree with Representative Genetski.  And if we can agree on everything else—that being that we should ensure that our kids graduate from high school, whether it’s private, public or home school, should have the chance to go to a four-year school and get that degree—if we can agree on that, I’m willing to work out any other detail.  We want to make sure that our universities are being great stewards of our taxpayer dollars as well.  That’s a concern that we share and we can work on that language together.

BASHORE:  How much are you counting on more Democrats in the state capitol in a year?

WHITMER:  Well, the beauty of Michigan is we’re neither a red state nor a blue state, regardless of the election outcomes of 2008 and 2010. We are a state that desperately needs leadership and (that) doesn’t care what the politics and partisanship is; (We need) people who can work together and move this state forward.  I am concerned as we move forward that we have a little more give and take in the legislature.  It’s a republican governor, a republican house and senate and they’ve dominated an agenda that has really been quite partisan.  It would be nice to see checks and balances the way that the framers envisioned.

BASHORE:  Can any kind of case be made that by strengthening high school education in Michigan that the need to attend college is to any extent less important?

WHITMER:  No, I think we need to have people with advanced degrees. Lou Glazer, who is a non-partisan economist who has studied the issues, has produced much documentation on this.  Study after study shows that the higher educated places are doing better.  We want to model ourselves after Minnesota (which) has much higher per capita income and lower unemployment as opposed to Indiana (which) has just the opposite.  That is a race to the bottom if you want to compete with Indiana. We want to be like Minnesota, where businesses are thriving, individuals are thriving, per capita income is up.  That’s what we want to be and that is an education issue. 

Education is economic development and ensuring our kids are succeeding in high school has got to be a part of the puzzle, but that in and of itself doesn’t change the woes that we’ve got in Michigan.  It’s a higher education, longer-term issue.

BASHORE:  When do you expect to unveil the finished ‘Michigan 2020’ proposal?

WHITMER:  Well, we’re going to continue working on this and flushing this out.  At the moment we are going through the tax code that you’ve asked questions about earlier in the interview and we’re putting a framework together for how exactly we would prioritize, or how the economists would prioritize, an evaluation of whether or not a loophole is worth keeping or not. 

I think you’ll see some really interesting and exciting things coming in the next couple months in terms of getting young people engaged on this issue and weighing in.  Because--like the anti-bullying bill--when people (and) individuals weigh in, it can change the whole tone of what happens at the capitol and I think this is one of those issues that’ll be similar.