News Story

'MEA Republicans' Grind Down Tea Party Reformers

In September 2009, Michigan Capitol Confidential's Ken Braun wrote a series of articles about state House Republicans who had been endorsed by the MEA teachers union blocking a fairly minor cut to the annual School Aid budget:

"The House of Representatives just attempted to approve the K-12 School Aid Fund budget with a $218 per-pupil cut. As noted ... the Michigan Education Association was attempting to influence the votes of several GOP members."

Braun went on to name names, listing 12 Republicans, many of whom are still in the House today, or were elected to the Senate last fall (see "House GOP K-12 Defectors Identified?"). The spending cut vote he was writing about ultimately failed.

Fast-forward to now, six months after a momentous November, 2010 election in which the most-discussed political dynamic was the influence of a social movement called the "Tea Party," and the extent to which GOP candidates campaigned by wrapping themselves in its emblematic Gadsden rattlesnake flag. This dynamic swept Republican politicians into control of not only the U.S. House, but also won them dominant majorities in both the Michigan House and Senate, plus the governorship.

Naturally, everything is different now in Lansing now, as Republicans newly dedicated to the virtues of smaller, less expensive government work diligently to translate their rattlesnake-flag-waving campaign speeches into binding law.

Or is it?

Yesterday, MIRS News, which covers the state Capitol for Lansing insiders, reported the following about proposed cuts to the School Aid budget for next year:

"(P)rior to the addition of $50 million in the House Appropriations Committee last week, the whip count among House Republicans came in at least 10 votes short of the 56 required for passage … School districts represent possibly the strongest and loudest constituency groups in lawmakers' districts. They have turned up the pressure and several House Republicans are apparently balking at supporting the cuts."

By "school districts" MIRS means the lobbyists hired by school boards around the state, whose members are selected in elections dominated by the school employee union. Not to mention the MEA's own platoons of savvy lobbyists.

That extra $50 million added last week was the work of freshman Rep. Peter McGregor, R-Rockford. He told MIRS his amendment "would move $50 million back into the foundation grants. This is real money. We worked very hard to find this."

McGregor was one of several Republican legislative candidates endorsed by the MEA in last year's election, as reported then by Michigan Capitol Confidential (see "Teacher Union Doubles Republican Count on Recommendation List"). 

In the Republican-controlled Senate as well, members of the majority are chipping away at school spending reductions recommended by Gov. Rick Snyder. As Michigan Capitol Confidential reported last week, the body approved per-pupil cuts of just $170 from the previous year's level, or $130 less than Gov. Snyder requested. (And even that was apparently too deep a cut for seven Republicans named in the story.)

To be sure, both the House and the Senate are passing budgets with real cuts, not phony "reductions in the rate of increase" or any of the other gimmicks politicians use to hide business-as-usual spending hikes. These reductions pose real challenges for local schools, whose ability to adjust is crippled by state laws mandating that they engage in collective bargaining with the union. (Laws which, unlike their counterparts in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, Michigan Republicans have shown little or no inclination to amend, notwithstanding an important but ultimately marginal new law dealing with fiscally failing local governments and schools.)

But they are arguably smaller cuts than Michigan needs in order to move past the troubles that have plagued the state's economy for a decade. Certainly they are less than what Gov. Snyder thinks are needed.

They are smaller for the same reason Republicans failed 18 months ago to make a modest reduction in school spending: the political power of the MEA school employee union, and more generally the incentive structure that too often causes career politicians to place "serving the political system" ahead of serving the people.

Following the election last November, some Tea Party leaders warned that the movement's work was just beginning, not finished, and requires continuously "holding the politicians' feet to the fire." These leaders knew that the status quo political system would fight reforms, grind-down reformers and use all the resources implicit in a state government establishment that spends $45 billion each year to prevent any real change.

These early votes on next year’s school budget show that grinding process in action. Whether the Tea Party movement becomes a mere footnote in future history books or equivalent to the earlier Progressive movement in its transformative effects will be determined by the outcome of this and a thousand similar legislative brushfires.

Success for the Tea Party movement requires that it change an incentive structure which rewards the political careerists who populate every legislative body for serving the system ahead of the people. These school budget votes show just how difficult a challenge this really is.


May 5 followup: The MIRS News May 4 edition adds the following details to its previous report that the union-dominated public school establishment has “turned up the pressure and several House Republicans are apparently balking at supporting the cuts"

From MIRS News, May 4, 2011

MIRS is told anywhere between eight and 12 House Republicans are reluctant to buck their local school districts by signing off on the proposed cuts to K-12 education.

Included on the unconfirmed list of fence sitters: Rep. Holly Hughes (R-Montague), Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R-Richmond), Rep. Paul Muxlow (R-Brown City) and Rep. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo).

Bumstead was non-committal when asked if he was a yes vote on the K-12 cuts.

"Am I a yes vote?" he repeated the question to buy some time to find an answer. "Can I hold off on that for another hour?"

Rep. Ken Yonker (R-Caledonia) was also on the fence, but word has it "he got something" supposedly from the Speaker's office, which moved him to the "yes" column.

Leadership is also keeping an eye on Rep. Deb Shaughnessy (R-Charlotte) and Rep. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford), MIRS is told.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.