Commentary

More Budget Reform Ideas for 2019

Plenty of useless spending can be cut this year

In a previous article I listed more than $261 million worth of spending cuts and reforms to the state’s corporate welfare complex. Savings could be redirected to better uses — I suggested road funding due to past and coming debates over how to spend more on Michigan’s transportation infrastructure. To that end, I now offer additional budget reform ideas worth up to $291 million in General Fund savings, which are based on fiscal 2019 appropriations.

Eliminate most if not all general fund dollars to the University of Michigan’s main campus. Savings: $212 million. The Mackinac Center first recommended this cut in 2004. The University of Michigan is wealthy enough to pay its own way. It is worth mentioning that this appropriation from the General Fund is not the only source of state funding for the university. It also receives dollars from the School Aid Fund, which could also be redirected to some higher priority.

The university could afford this cut, as the subsidy is only a small part of its operating budget, and it’s small in comparison to its wealth. In addition, equity calls for a cut. According to a 2017 New York Times article, the median family income of the university’s students is $154,000, and two-thirds of them come from families in the top 20 percent of income earners. It is actually unfair that state taxpayers must subsidize students and families who could pay full freight.

Eliminate “AgBioResearch” funding to Michigan State University. Savings: $34.6 million.This line item is an extra appropriation to MSU for its agricultural-related research. The university is, of course, free to continue funding it from its existing appropriation if it chooses. And some of its research may indeed qualify as a true public good, but that does not necessarily justify special treatment in the state budget.

At a minimum, the state should strip from this line item any funding that explicitly supports research designed to benefit the private, for-profit agricultural industry. An obvious starting point is the $5.6 million dedicated to Project GREEEN, or “Generating Research and Extension to Meet Environmental and Economic Needs.” GREEEN dollars are appropriated, in the words of the program’s coordinator, to “solve problems and create opportunities for Michigan’s growers.” In other words, it funds research that the industry itself should be funding.

Eliminate Michigan State University Extension. Savings: $29.9 million. Much of what the extension office offers is nice, but it is far from necessary in a civil society that is full of private individual and for-profit and nonprofit services, including those offered by the university in other programs. Some advice and information offered by MSU through its extension programs truly smacks of nanny state interference in our lives.

This appropriation funds information and education programs for private industry and a broader population, including participants of 4-H. Extension program services are fairly extensive, from a veterinary science camp for kids to “Bull Breeding Soundness Clinics” and a gardening hotline to help gardeners “make wise decisions about their garden. …” One can also attend the “Relax: Alternatives to Anger” class — if you can locate one near you — if you need to find “ways to forgive and let go of the past.”

Eliminate all subsidies for preferences to cultural or ethnic interests, which are unfair. General Fund savings: $14.7 million. The activities these subsidies support include but are not limited to multicultural integration services and various commissions for Hispanic, Asian-Pacific and Middle Eastern populations ($551,000).

Multicultural integration services subsidize social service groups, a Chaldean Council, the Arab Community Center, the Jewish Federation and the Inter-Tribal Council. Why stop there? What about atheist Russian emigres or Greek Orthodox groups?

Eliminate programs that subsidize the encouragement of particular careers over others. The Morris Hood Jr. Educator Development Program ($148,600) and Future Farmers of America ($80,000) appropriations are good places to start. The Morris Hood program is for “academically or economically disadvantaged students” to finish a teacher training program at a four-year college or university. It doesn’t seem logical or fair to subsidize future teachers or farmers at the expense of future auto mechanics or accountants.

This essay presented a small list of ideas for budget reforms worth as much as $291 million. There are potentially hundreds of budget reform ideas that could be adopted or adapted to help finance the road transportation infrastructure needs of our beloved state, or other priorities, such as across-the-board personal income tax cuts.