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Left Behind

Worker retraining program fails to measure up

"No Worker Left Behind" is a taxpayer-financed, "free" tuition program created to retrain Michigan residents who have been laid off or whose jobs have been terminated. According to a July 6, 2009, New York Times profile, NWLB is just one of many comparable programs nationwide that are being criticized by researchers as ineffective because — despite the cost to taxpayers — they fail to measurably improve the job and earnings prospects for the retrained workers. A decision by state politicians to increase funding for NWLB was the subject of "Wasteful and Wrongheaded," the top story in the September/October 2008 edition of Michigan Capitol Confidential. MCC noted that a 59.9 percent general fund spending increase for the 2009 Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth budget had been approved and signed by the governor, and that more than half of the increase was due to additional funding for NWLB.

One woman selected job training for a field expected to experience “robust growth.” After graduating with a 3.45 grade-point average, she eventually secured part-time work — driving a school bus.

Despite assertions by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and many Lansing politicians that state spending has been "cut to the bone," NWLB is a relatively new spending creation, having been first proposed by the governor during her 2007 State of the State Address. Shortly thereafter, in her 2008 executive budget, the governor recommended spending $77 million for the first year of NWLB, proposing that $37 million would come from federal dollars and $40 million would be taken from the state's general fund (i.e., directly from Michigan taxpayers).

That year, the Legislature was unwilling to appropriate the $40 million portion, leaving the program with only the $37 million in federal spending. Through a spokesperson, Sen. Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, noted that creating a new program such as NWLB "just shows again that the state doesn't have a taxing problem, it has a spending problem." State Rep. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Twp., was more direct: "I truly believe this program should be left behind."

But after a $1.4 billion tax hike was approved for 2008, and after passing the largest state budget in Michigan history for that same year, the Legislature became more agreeable toward NWLB when it was time to write the 2009 state budget. The governor again requested the full $40 million state general fund contribution, and the Legislature compromised with her and agreed to commit Michigan taxpayers to paying $15 million as part of the aforementioned 59.9 percent general fund spending increase.

Dozens of lawmakers — 34 in the House and three in the Senate — still voted against the 2009 DELEG budget, some of them specifically because of the NWLB funding. One of them, state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, R-Portage, called the program "wasteful and wrongheaded." Suggesting that cutting taxes and regulatory burdens was a clearer path to prosperity than increasing government spending, he observed that funding NWLB was like "trimming the front hedges while the house is on fire."

There is much to confirm Rep. Hoogendyk's assertion in the recent New York Times article titled "Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes." The Times noted a recent study released by the U.S. Department of Labor that found the benefits of programs like NWLB were "small or nonexistent." The newspaper did its own survey by looking at 36 laid-off Michigan workers who completed NWLB retraining at Macomb Community College between May and August of 2008. At least 60 percent "appeared to be not working or in jobs unrelated to their training."

One, a 58-year-old laid-off auto engineer, was on his second attempt at NWLB job retraining. The first effort, in which he completed a program for computer-aided design, failed to lead to work in that field, despite its being what the DELEG calls a "demand occupation." Though NWLB is supposed to be offered on a "one time only" basis, the man's wife wrote to Gov. Granholm about his continued unemployment and he was eventually re-admitted to the program for another try.

A 55-year-old woman attending the courses examined in the article selected job training for a field expected to experience "robust growth." The Times reports that this is a requirement if a student hopes to get the $10,000 maximum in tuition assistance from Michigan's NWLB program. After graduating with an associate degree and a 3.45 grade-point average, she eventually secured part-time work — driving a school bus.

Training workers for fields where there may not be jobs would appear to be a too-frequent problem. The Times story says that the case workers at a career center in Michigan are often left mystified and scratching their heads over what the state's labor market experts define as "high growth" occupations. One of the authors of the U.S. Department of Labor report mentioned above, an economist from the University of Kentucky, confirmed to the reporter that such ignorance is baked into the system: "I can't tell you with any degree of certainty, and I've been doing it for 20 years, what the hot jobs are going to be."

But in Michigan, the biggest problem is probably what Rep. Hoogendyk was getting at when he asserted that "hundreds of thousands" of jobs would be created if the state overhauled its tax and regulatory burden, rather than produced new programs to spend tax dollars on. At the time he said this, Michigan had already lost more than 300,000 jobs during the previous decade. "Job training," said the Times article, paraphrasing concerns expressed by several economists interviewed for the story, "is also ineffective without job creation."

The MichiganVotes.org vote tally for the 2009 DELEG budget that included the $15 million Michigan taxpayer subsidy for NWLB is below. This vote took place during 2008, and several lawmakers listed are no longer serving in the Michigan Legislature. Those still serving are noted in red. The contact information for all lawmakers now serving is here. Some of those no longer serving have moved on to other elected offices or are announced candidates for the same. Official Web sites and campaign Web sites that could be located for these politicians are provided below.

“Left Behind”: Lawmakers who voted to finance 
“No Worker Left Behind” with a 59.9 percent increase in general fund spending in the 2009 DELEG budget - click to enlarge


Available Web sites for politicians who cast a vote regarding this issue but are no longer serving in the Legislature:

Former state Rep. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, is running for Secretary of State: www.judyemmons.com.

Former state Rep. Joe Hune, R-Fowlerville, is running for state Senate: www.joehune.com.

Former state Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, is running for Congress: www.huizengaforcongress.com.

Former state Rep. Andy Meisner, D-Ferndale, is the Oakland County Treasurer: www.oakgov.com/treasurer/.

Former state Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, is running for state Senate: www.moolenaarforsenate.com.

Former state Rep. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, is running for state Senate: www.mikenofs.com.

Former state Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, is now a member of Congress: www.schauer.house.gov.

Ken Braun is the senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. He may be reached at author@mackinac.org. For additional information and an opportunity to comment on the legislation mentioned in this article, please see www.mackinac.org/10762.

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