Behind closed doors

With the release of the governor’s budget earlier this month, lawmakers are tackling what is arguably their most important work—deciding how to carve up the state’s resources to fund important state services such as income supports for low-income children; child abuse and neglect prevention; early childhood, K-12 and higher education; and police and fire protection.

Never has there been a stronger need for Michigan residents to have their voices heard as the state budget is set. (more…)

What about the low-skilled workers?

When we read the term “workforce development,’’ we usually think of robotics, green energy or other training programs in emerging industries. But a new report looks at a key segment of the workforce that must not be forgotten – low-skilled workers.

We often do not think of workers who have difficulty in basic skill areas such as writing, mathematics or English as a second language — skills one is assumed to have mastered in order to graduate from high school. Such workers need to become part of that labor pool for the in-demand jobs. (more…)

The cost of ignorance

This week the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232-190 to eliminate all funding for the American Community Survey — the bedrock of a substantial body of information about child well-being, as well as overall population characteristics for every place in the country.

Five of the 10 key indicators monitored annually by the national KIDS COUNT project to evaluate child well-being in the states come from this survey. The survey collects data about poverty, employment, education, family status — many of the indicators used by communities to evaluate social and economic well-being. This information would no longer be available to track outcomes, guide public policy and assess community needs. (more…)

Voting with blinders on

This week, the House Tax Policy Committee approved 32 tax bills despite the fact that copies of the bills were only made available just before the committee convened to vote on the bills. Some of these tax changes may have significant consequences as the tax code is complex, even though the committee agenda described some bills as “clean up. ” (more…)

It’s hard to see transparency in governor’s budget

It’s Sunshine Week, a week set aside to observe the importance of openness in government and freedom of information. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been too sunny in Lansing lately. Though Gov. Snyder has promised transparency, the consequence, perhaps unintended, of his “rolled up” budget is less transparency.
 
The reduction in budgeted line item appropriations in the FY 2012 Executive Recommendation hinders our capacity to analyze budget changes that impact human service programs. For example, in FY 2011, the Family Independence Program appropriated line item was $428.8 million.  In the FY 12 Governor’s recommendation, FIP is rolled into one huge $4.5 billion line item along with many other assistance programs. This practice of rolling up budgeted line items means the administration can transfer funds around within a huge pot of funds for DHS public assistance programs without oversight from the public. This practice needs to be reversed for Michigan’s good government practices to continue.  
 
Another example is that both the Senate and House are scheduling committee meetings for the same department’s budget at nearly the same time of day making it almost impossible to attend both meetings. In previous years, meetings occurred in an orderly process. That allowed time for analysis within one house first, and then, after passage, they were reviewed by the second house. 
 
Given the massive number of program cuts, totalling $1.4 billion, and the tax shift of $1.7 billion, not enough time is being allotted by committees to adequately cover the issues. Those testifying have a very short window to present their viewpoint and legislators are also limited to a very small number of brief questions, usually two questions per presenter. 
 
The handouts at appropriations meetings give far less information than before.  Only a very limited number of handouts are provided, generally far less than the number attending. So, most times these handouts are gone very quickly. Handouts provided by the fiscal agencies are usually available on the web, but state department handouts are not typically posted on the web. This may be the only time one has access to the data provided by the department. Compared with the extensive handouts provided in the past, today’s budget presentations by state departments are characterized as skeletal with a very limited description of the budget changes and little data to evaluate the program impact from budget changes.
 
The verdict so far on the governor’s budget? More clouds than sunshine.

– Joanne Bump

State budget demystified?

I’ll be the first to admit that visual guides paint a clearer picture for hard-to-digest information, especially in reference to the state’s budget. It can be difficult to hold our elected officials accountable if we can’t even understand what all the numbers they are throwing around mean in terms of available services, taxes we may or may not have to pay, and the ability to find a living wage job.

This is also a concern for Gov. Rick Snyder, who will release his first executive budget Thursday.

The governor has already started his term by trying to demystify the budget, and how state and local governments spend our money with a booklet called the Citizen’s Guide to Michigan’s Financial Health. The guide was presented at the Leadership Summit, held by the Business Leaders for Michigan, to inform citizens about the challenges we face and the opportunities ahead. Rising pension costs, public employee salaries, the corrections budget, and tax expenditures were all on the list for an in-depth review. The guide does a good job of explaining the budget deficit in plain language but has been criticized for its basis of comparison regarding public and private employee salaries.

In addition to the guide, the governor has implemented MiDashboard, indicators for every government entity to ensure “value for money.” The overarching dashboard includes following the progress of some key indicators that the League believes is essential to securing the health and prosperity of Michigan’s residents, including infant mortality rates, third graders reading at grade level, and child poverty. This is good news.

The Citizen’s Guide and the MiDashboard are both new ways to engage the public through easy-to-understand methods about the state’s current fiscal situation. This is critical because state leaders are faced with tough choices ahead with the looming $1.8 billion budget deficit.   

The governor is moving in the right direction, starting with demystifying the state budget. Now let’s hope he keeps moving forward when the FY 2012 budget is revealed and his priorities are made clear. If the governor is asking citizens to all sacrifice, it’s important that we at least have the tools provided to understand what our expenditures and revenues look like to hold him accountable.