Don’t tap stimulus to balance budget

Give Gov. Jennifer Grannholm credit: Her budget outline for next year begins to give Michigan residents a leaner state government. Her 2010 budget would eliminate 1,500 positions, shrink state government spending by $300 million and cut subsidies to the arts and the horse-racing industry.


These painful-yet-sensible cuts are necessary due to the national recession and Michigan’s own decade-long economic meltdown. The governor — traditionally, a fan of fiscal gimmicks — is almost out of budget-balancing tricks. It is time for government to grow smaller.


This is necessary, although Gov. Jennifer Granholm has given lawmakers little choice politically but to grab federal stimulus money for schools and universities.


We note that Granholm is almost, but not completely, out of tricks because she is not quite done with the sleight of hand.


The governor calls for reducing state aid for public schools to the tune of $59 a student, and to universities, by $100 million. But left unclear — intentionally, it appears — is whether Granholm and lawmakers will use money from the federal stimulus to patch over those unpopular cuts.


What’s going on here? A bit of political gamesmanship. Consider the options for lawmakers:


1. Refuse to divert money from the stimulus for schools and universities, and insist the state use it for its intended purpose: creating jobs. Of course, anyone with the backbone to do that risks being labeled an enemy of education.


2. Tap into that money to spare the schools and universities. Lawmakers do not catch flak — even though no jobs are created, no one demands education reforms and the clock begins ticking on the next education budget crisis.


There is no doubting the challenge that Granholm faced in crafting this budget. Still, one has to view her proposed cuts to education cynically because they contradict her past statements. The governor believes that education represents an essential investment in this state’s work force and, indeed, its very future.


So, why not fund them as much as possible, and suggest deeper budget cuts elsewhere? Because she is banking on fellow Democrats in the Legislature to restore that funding by raiding Michigan’s share of the federal stimulus.


Democrats no doubt will receive encouragement from education interests. Already, Michigan State University is warning of layoffs and a tuition increase if state aid decreases. This from a school with a $1.2 billion endowment. Public school boards and superintendents, meanwhile, will complain about a cut in student aid that is less than 1 percent.


So, what happens if the Legislature grabs federal-stimulus money for education? That means less money for local communities to build and repair roads — to put people to work, as the stimulus is supposed to do. The Michigan Municipal League has put together a list of 1,200 projects worth $3.3 billion. It is doubtful that more than a sliver of that work will be funded.


Granholm and lawmakers in Lansing are steering Michigan government toward reform. A task force will look at consolidating 18 state departments into eight. The governor is suggesting many meaningful cuts in state spending.


A real test of whether state government can shrink will come in the next few months, as Michigan receives its stimulus money. Granholm and lawmakers should pump that cash into the state economy on “shovel-ready” projects that will put people to work and improve our infrastructure.


And if they feel education should be spared the budget ax, that’s fine. Just find the money elsewhere within state government.