Commentary

It’s Never Enough: Government Beneficiaries Always Want More

Michigan budget goes up; groups receiving funds still complain

The budget proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is $61.9 billion, a record high for the state of Michigan. The state budget in the Great Lakes State has risen by nearly $15 billion in the past decade (or $11 billion when you don’t count federal funds). In percentage terms, that’s more than double the rate of inflation.

In the governor’s budget, and in most budgets for the better part of a decade, nearly every area of government is seeing increases. K-12 education, Medicare, prisons, colleges, preschools, local governments. For many beneficiaries, though, it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

Here is a compilation of comments from groups reliant on public spending, gathered from the Lansing political news service Gongwer. Bear in mind that all of them are commenting on a budget in which they receive a funding increase.

  • “Our schools are struggling after years of being an afterthought during these budget discussions in Lansing and it's time that our kids and our classrooms become a priority once again,” said Riverview Schools Superintendent Russell Pickell. “We appreciate Governor Whitmer putting a plan on the table that moves us forward as the status-quo is simply not acceptable for our schools or our students anymore.”

  • “By any measure, the state of Michigan continues to underfund education, so we are pleased to see students and teachers front and center in the 2021 budget proposal,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

  • Michigan Municipal League Executive Director Dan Gilmartin said the proposed increase is welcome. But, he added, communities are still $700 million behind full funding levels under the statutory formula, which he said is “repeatedly ignored” and provides $50 million less than it did nine years ago. “Michigan's cities are battling to provide the vital services needed to retain our talent, create jobs and attract new residents and businesses to Michigan,” Gilmartin said. “This budget and our overall state and local revenue picture continues to need work so that we can stem the population losses Michigan is experiencing when compared to other states.”

  • Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, had a mixed reaction. “We are certainly appreciative as a set of 15 public universities of the governor's recommendation of 2.5 percent, we appreciate that it's above the expected rate of inflation.” Mr. Hurley said. "That is [an] important step in turning around what has been a multi-decade trend of state disinvestment in higher education."

  • Sean McBrearty, policy and legislative director of Clean Water Action: “Governor Whitmer's proposal to include $20 million from the General Fund to create an EGLE Rapid Response Team for contaminated site prioritization and cleanup is a good step towards addressing … contaminated sites across our state. But more action is needed.”

  • Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association: “It's slightly more than inflation, and we're always looking for something that provides not only an inflationary increase, but an ability to then also develop and offer the programs that are of most use to students and employers to make sure we're connecting students with the jobs that are available in the skill sets that employers are looking for.”

Comments like these are not new. In all the modern history of Michigan education spending, for example, the unions and school groups involved always give the same answer to the question of how much the state should pay for public schools: “More.” And so it is with other government programs.

Note that in their calls for more money, the spending interests do not say where the money should come from or which areas of the budget ought to be less of a priority than their own.

The Mackinac Center’s director of fiscal policy, James Hohman, has noted a phenomenon he calls the “Trough Truce.” “The people who receive government money in one area,” he said, “simply don’t complain about other areas of government spending.” That is, these interest groups in Lansing will always advocate for more money but rarely — if ever — ask for it to come from other government programs. Instead, they usually argue that the additional revenue for them should come from taxpayers.

Of course, these groups are just looking out for their own best interest, which is understandable. But their perpetual complaints about resources drives a false narrative about state finances. Whether this strategy makes sense to groups calling for more in government spending makes no difference to voters, who should look elsewhere for a more accurate picture of how their tax dollars are being used.