The Gongwer Blog

by Elena Durnbaugh, Staff Writer

Universities, Colleges Debate Community College Guarantee

Posted: March 29, 2024 11:10 AM

Advocates for Michigan's community colleges and universities debated how Governor Gretchen Whitmer's proposed two years of free community college would affect post-secondary institutions during presentations before a House Appropriations subcommittee.

In February, Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Dan Hurley argued that by limiting the program to just community colleges, enrollment at four-year public universities would decrease.

Michigan Community College Association President Brandy Johnson said that the program wouldn't poach students but would reach those who aren't enrolling in any post-secondary education after high school.

The leaders of both groups testified before the House Appropriations Higher Education and Community Colleges Subcommittee .

Hurley celebrated the governor's commitment to making post-secondary education affordable and accessible but said his organization has concerns about the proposed Community College Guarantee.

"Holistically, we are not unilaterally opposed to free community college, but we do have some concerns," Hurley said.

"I can feel that dark cloud with the example of Tennessee's loss of revenue for those first two years," Rep. Nacy De Boer (R-Holland) said. "I can see why you would like both community colleges and universities to be included in this new plan. It's definitely unintended consequences that we need to think through as we approach this new idea."

Hurley suggested a universal two years of free tuition at a community college or university, as was proposed by the Growing Michigan Together Population Council. He also suggested one year of free tuition at a four-year university or community college.

The state could also maximize the Michigan Achievement Scholarship and make it a flat-dollar amount or increase scholarship awards for students enrolled at a public university.

There are currently about 256,000 students enrolled at Michigan's 15 public universities, and for the first time in 12 years, freshman enrollment was up 4 percent, Hurley said. He credited the Michigan Achievement Scholarship for making college more accessible.

Johnson pushed back against Hurley's assessment.

Johnson said that the proposed community college guarantee isn't likely to poach students who would be attending four-year universities, but rather the 53 percent who did not enroll anywhere after high school.

"Those students that did not enroll we posit that by making community college tuition free and sending a very clear and simple message to students that they will not have a tuition bill," she said. "That message will speak to … these students that did not go anywhere at all."

The Michigan Achievement Scholarship has already made public universities more accessible, Johnson said.

"It's a massive investment to help bring down the cost of those students attending four-year universities. We want those students to continue to enroll in four-year universities. That's good for them," she said. "That doesn't mean that this community college guarantee is not good for them."

Making the guarantee applicable to both two- and four-year institutions would be "astronomical," Johnson said, but the cost to guarantee two years at community college would be roughly $20 million.

Further, the guarantee creates a pipeline for four-year institutions, Johnson said.

Community college enrollment has increased, Johnson said. During the last full academic year, 280,453 students attended community college, which was a 3.7 percent increase in fall 2023.

"We as an association, and our individual colleges, have made significant commitments to improving our completion rates and our success rates for our students,' she said. "And we won't take our foot off the gas."

To strengthen the governor's recommendation, Johnson said community colleges would like to see a transfer guarantee for community college graduates who want to pursue a bachelor's degree at four-year colleges and universities in Michigan.

"Dr. Hurley talked about the potential loss of revenue for that first and second year but didn't address the possible huge gains and revenue in the third and fourth year for students that transfer," she said.

Johnson also recommended increasing the additional funds the plan makes available for low-income students from $1,000 to $2,000, and to convert students that enrolled in community colleges in 2023 to the new community college program so that the state wouldn't have to administer two sets of rules.

"Policy shouldn't be made based on potential inputs without looking at the outputs and outcomes," she said.

After Tennessee introduced its community college program, the number of people with a degree or certificate in the state increased, Johnson said.

"We should keep our eyes on the prize of attainment," she said.

Both Johnson and Hurley underscored the need for increased funding for maintenance and infrastructure at two-year and four-year schools.

Hurley praised the commitment to education reflected in the governor's budget but requested capital outlay authorization. Capital outlay project funding goes toward new construction on college and university campuses.

"We really want to have that recognition from the state that it's important to preserve our campus assets," Hurley said. "We did a survey a couple of years ago, and we had upwards of a $4.4 billion backlog of deferred maintenance needs."

Despite the historic levels of investment in education over the last several years, Hurley said the state is still behind.

"We've gone from 20th in ranking in per capita fiscal support for higher education to 41st," he said. "When you look at institutional operating support provided to the universities and you adjust for inflation, it shows in the current fiscal year, we are at the same level as we were in 1982."

He asked for consistency in when and how many capital outlay projects would be funded.

Johnson said community colleges, like public colleges and universities, are in need of funding for infrastructure and deferred maintenance.

"We are very appreciative and hope that the Legislature may consider dedicating funding to items in this budget," she said.

She highlighted that community colleges have been underfunded by the state, with contributions decreasing over the last 25 years.

"With proper state support, community colleges will have more resources to accomplish our shared goals to increase enrollment, support students through completion and reach the state's goal of getting 60 percent of our workforce able to attain a post-secondary certificate or degree by 2030," she said. "Sustainable state investment will ensure community colleges have the resources they need to keep up with rising costs while maintain affordable and high-quality programs."

Johnson said that by increasing state funding for community college operations by 10 percent for four years, the institution's funding sources would be in line with what they were originally intended to be, an equal balance between tuition dollars, property tax and state support.

Robert LaFevre, president of the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities, also testified and raised concerns about eliminating the Michigan Tuition Grant in favor of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. He said several of the institutions within his organization have been able to create a tuition-free offering by combining both programs.

"The elimination of the tuition grants on the table, it has stopped our ability to package students in its tracks," he said. "We are just dead in the water, and this is going to have, we think, a detrimental impact … on applications and enrollment."

The subcommittee ran out of time for additional questions from lawmakers but work on the higher education budget will continue.

Whitmer Doesn't Like Siphoned SOAR Funds; Tate Talks Transparency

Posted: March 22, 2024 3:39 PM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer is hoping to iron out some details of the economic development package passed by the Senate this week once it gets to the House.

Whitmer said that she did not agree with the Senate's decision to move half of the funding designated for the Strategic Outreach Attraction Reserve program to the Michigan 360 fund (See Gongwer Michigan Report March 19, 2024) in a conversation with reporters following a separate event on Thursday.

"We had an ongoing dialogue," she said. "That was something we had not thoroughly discussed, and so I'm confident that as the bills movie into the House, we'll be able to have a little more thoughtful dialogue on that front."

The governor was pleased that the Senate voted on the package before the Legislature left on its spring break.

"I think that's real progress," she said. "Now, we've got an opportunity to make them better."

On Wednesday, the governor's office provided a statement vaguely praising the bills sent to the House, but not directly addressing the shift in SOAR funds (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 20, 2024).

House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said his chamber was ready to work with the governor and the Senate to make Michigan as competitive as possible.

"Last year, we did an R&D Tax Credit package, as well as some other economic development tools that we sent over to the Senate," he said. "I think there's a big appetite around that, because we want to be very competitive, and I know that's the governor's vision as well."

Tate also addressed the transparency bills introduced by members of his caucus last week (See Gongwer Michigan Report March 13, 2024) saying he thought there were some items in the package the House could address, but he fell short of committing to any specific aspects of the legislation.

"We're going to go through committee, it's going to be a deliberation process," he said. "There are items that we can, and we will, look at. I think this is something that has been a part of our values as House Dems, and we're going to continue to do that work."

Greene Attempts Work Around To Get A Hearing On School Safety Bills

Posted: March 8, 2024 1:04 PM

The School Safety Package wobbles on a bipartisan knife's edge as Republicans continue to push for movement on the legislation.

Last week, Rep. Jaime Greene sent a letter to fellow members of the House Education Committee attempting to work around the committee chair and call for a hearing.

"Per House rules, if seven of us agree to call for a committee hearing, we can notify the clerk of our intent to do so," Greene said in the letter. "Due to the importance of these bills, we would be asking the clerk to post the hearing for March 5th."

The move, which Greene (R-Richmond) said was born of frustration because HBs 4088-4100 aren't advancing, was met with frustration on the Democratic side.

"I find this nauseating and appalling," said Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi), one of the main sponsors on the bill package. "(Rep. Luke Meerman) and I have been working diligently together. Nobody on the right has lifted a finger in support of school safety except to vote 'no' on a school budget that will do more to help kids than ever before. Not one of them, whether on the bill package or not, has inquired on the status or contacted a stakeholder, or done a damn thing to show they care."

Greene said that other members would have helped with the legislation, but they don't know what's happening with it.

"If there have been things being worked on, I have not been aware of this, nor have any other of the committee members been made aware of this," she said. "We have complete communication breakdown, and it is unfortunate that this is happening, but this is not political. This is actually safety."

The chances of a hearing being scheduled by anyone other than Koleszar are negligible.

"I know that members on my side of the aisle were pretty put off on it," Koleszar said. "They have faith in the committee process and the way that we've been handling each issue and know that we're giving everything due diligence."

Meerman (R-Coopersville) is the main Republican working on the package. He said he was unaware that Greene sent a letter attempting to organize a committee hearing.

"I'm still 100 percent with Breen. I appreciate her heart in all of this," he said.

Still, he said he did want to see committee hearings on the legislation sooner rather than later.

"It's past time to have hearings," he said. "That's often what can really trigger momentum on these things. … That gets everyone at the table and getting their amendments in there and ready to go."

Koleszar said that the bills are still waiting on some stakeholder feedback, including school districts that he wants to have engaged in the process.

"You don't want to haphazardly put bills out there without making sure they're properly done, especially in terms of student safety and school safety," he said. "And in what I thought was a very reckless move, the minority leader decided he was just going to discharge them on the floor out of nowhere, which in my estimation, he is trying to score some political points, and it really disrupted the work that was being done."

Earlier this month, Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Township) included the bill package in a list of legislation his caucus was willing to vote on while the House is split 54-54 and attempted to discharge the bills from committee for a vote.

In a letter sent to Breen, Hall called attempts to impugn his motives shocking and disappointing.

"The Republican caucus has demonstrated our willingness to advance this package of bills. That's why we included them in our initial bill requests before the term started and happily shared them with you when you weren't prepared to introduce them," he wrote. "We understood the importance of this being a bipartisan effort then, and that continues today."

Greene said she admired the work that Breen and Meerman have done on the package, but she hasn't seen evidence that it's a priority for the Education Committee.

"We've repealed 3rd grade reading. We repealed A through F. We've adjusted the pension system. Yesterday, we even had a hearing on something that is completely controlled by the school boards," she said. "What we haven't done is, if there is this workgroup that exists, and I actually have a bill on this package, why have we not worked on it for over a year and a couple months now?"

Waiting for perfection won't get anything done, Greene said.

"We've done so much other legislation that was not perfected," she said. "We haven't perfected anything that we've passed in the last year."

Greene said she was at a loss for what else to do.

"I'm just doing everything that I can to bring this to the forefront, because those Oxford kids? Some of them do live in my district. Those teachers? They live in my district," she said. "There are things that we should be able to put in place a lot sooner than later. Let's start workshopping them through the committee process, but instead, we have focused on so many other things…and it's disappointing, and I'm tired."

Koleszar said that he planned to start moving some of the bills in the package soon, and that the scheduled committee hearing on mental health, while it's not part of the school safety package, ties into the goal safer schools.

"We'll do them in chunks as they're ready," he said. "I'm not going to let political games get in the way of what's best for Michigan schools and Michigan students."

Meerman said that this legislation was the only priority he submitted to Hall and House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit).

"I think they can have some effect on making our schools safer. They're not going to make it so that nothing ever happens again, but I think they'll help," he said. "I believe in them."

Meerman said he understood why Breen and Koleszar were frustrated, and that he was frustrated, too.

"It is the political season, and it's amazing what things can get caught up in it and what can grind to a halt over frustrations, and yet at the same time, this is extremely bipartisan," he said. "I am frustrated, too, that they haven't moved already. … I just have concerns that something will happen because people are getting so mad at each other."

This package is one of the only truly bipartisan bill packages introduced in the last year, Meerman said.

"This was a huge change for Lansing, to have the trifecta of Democratic control, and I don't think Lansing was quite ready for it," he said. "It was hard, it was tough, and everything becomes political when us Republicans can say everything was the Democrats fault the whole way."

Because of that, Meerman said he and Breen have centered bipartisan work.

"But if we don't have the hearings, I think it's going to be a Republican issue all the way through the election cycle," he said. "But honestly, let's just get some hearings going, and this will really start going away."

Bezotte, Morse Won't Run For Reelection In '24

Posted: January 29, 2024 10:05 AM

Two more House members have announced they aren't seeking reelection in 2024.

Rep. Bob Bezotte (R-Howell), 73, won't run again for his seat representing the 50th House District in rural Livingston County, and Rep. Christine Morse (D-Texas Township) won't seek a third term in the 40th District in the western Kalamazoo suburbs.

Instead, Bezotte has endorsed Jason Woolford, who announced his campaign for the seat on Tuesday. Woolford ran for the 48th District in 2022 but lost to Rep. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor). The 48th District is a highly competitive district. The 50th District is solidly Republican.

"As a United States Marine Veteran, businessman, minister and president of a non-profit organization, I believe we need to re-employ and re-engage the fundamentals that made this country great into Michigan," Woolford said in a statement. "I am a versatile candidate with a background in many areas that face the good people of the 50th District and I plan to use my experience to better our community."

Bezotte was elected to the House in 2020 and won a second term in 2022. His office did not return a request for comment prior to publication. He was the longtime Livingston County sheriff prior to serving in the House.

Earlier this month, Morse, 50, announced that she would not run in a letter sent to her supporters.

"After much deliberation, I have decided to return to the practice of law at the end of my term. I will have additional news on next steps soon, but for now please know that this was by no means an easy decision," Morse said in the letter. "It is the right one for me both personally and professionally."

Morse currently chairs the House Health and Humans Services Appropriations Subcommittee. She was first elected to the House in 2020 and flipped the seat from Republican to Democratic hands. Morse won a landslide reelection in 2022 with 58 percent of the vote as the Kalamazoo suburbs continue to shift Democratic.

Morse was the best recruit Democrats had ever fielded for the seat, having just won a seat on the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners. Although the seat is likely a tough pickup for Republicans, it's not impossible, particularly if Democrats struggle to find someone as strong as Morse to run.

Morse didn't return a request for comment prior to publication.

There are now at least four open seats in the House. Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale) previously announced he was forgoing reelection to run for the Supreme Court. And Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Onsted) cannot seek reelection because of term limits.

Tate: Redistricting Process Could Have Been Better

Posted: January 16, 2024 9:08 PM

The legislative redistricting process wasn't perfect, House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said.

"With the Independent Redistricting Commission, it was the first time that they went through it. It wasn't a perfect process," Tate said on the "MichMash" podcast, a collaboration between Gongwer News Service and WDET Detroit Public Radio. He was asked whether he agreed that the districts as drawn disenfranchised Detroiters.

Last month, a panel of federal judges ordered the commission to redraw 13 House and Senate districts because race was used as a predominant factor in drawing them, which violated the Equal Protection rights of Detroit voters. The lawsuit was brought forward by Detroit residents who argued the districts, as drawn, disenfranchised them.

The House has elections this year, and its seven districts must be redrawn before February 2.

The districts, as drawn by the commission, changed the landscape of Michigan politics, and that shouldn't be overlooked, Tate said.

"Looking at the landscape of the outcomes that came out of it, I think that's something that we should also be looking at," he said. "I'm the first Black speaker in Michigan's history, and part of that, you can argue, was because the lines were drawn by an independent redistricting commission versus a partisan legislature."

The Senate also got its first female Senate majority leaders in the state's history, Tate noted. The Democratic caucus became more diverse through the 2022 elections, Tate said, and that's because the maps were fairer.

"Through that, I think you've seen policies that will have a significant impact on diverse communities across the state, including Detroit," he said.

Tate said he didn't expect that the court-ordered redrawing would hurt the Democratic majority, nor did he see a serious problem with looping together pieces of Detroit with suburbs in Oakland and Macomb Counties.

The commission has taken criticism for districts that drew together places like Birmingham with Detroit that don't appear to match the idea of a community of interest.

Tate pointed to places like Oak Park and Southfield, which have large Black populations, as suburbs north of 8 Mile Road where it could make sense to connect to Detroit in a district.

"I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility," he said. "Prior to representing House District 10, it was House District 2 … I had the lower east side of Detroit, so the majority of the African American working-class families, and then Grosse Pointe, and that was in some ways opposite, but in some ways, there are a lot of commonalities. But if you look at the different parts of Metro Detroit, I don't think it's out of the question when you look at the historical trends and the movement of population."

Tate also discussed his hopes for the 2024 session, saying he was hopeful that there would be opportunities for bipartisan cooperation while the House is split 54-54, but that Democratic leadership hadn't gotten any indication from Republican leadership about what policy issues their caucus would be willing to tackle.

For their part, Democrats are having conversations around paid family leave, expanding access to child care and changes to the no-fault auto insurance laws, Tate said. Economic development will also be important.

"Economic development is going to play a big role," he said. "Going back to some of the work that we have done in the House last year, around the R&D tax credit and some other items that we had, including the budget."

Looking ahead to this year's elections, Tate said that the Democratic Party wasn't focused on the chaos within the MIGOP.

"For my colleagues, my caucus colleagues, I think us being able to tell our story in terms of what we've done this past year for Michigan residents and families is something that we want to continue to communicate," he said. "Our focus is going to be how are we going to continue to govern, at the end of the day."

Polls commissioned of Michigan voters by The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press in recent weeks have shown President Joe Biden trailing former President Donald Trump. Tate said he fully supported President Joe Biden when asked his confidence about Biden heading the Democratic ticket in 2024.

"In terms of what he's been able to do for this country, and the way he's shown leadership, has certainly (been) a positive," Tate said. "For our country and Michigan in particular, just in terms of the work that he's been able to do."

At the state level, Tate said people have every reason to trust that the Democratic Party is working for them.

"What we've been able to do as a House Democratic caucus and the legislation that we've been able to pass – I mean, significant pieces of legislation, whether it's around putting more money in people's pockets or gun violence reduction, something that we haven't been able to do in over a decade – really resonates with people," Tate said. "Michigan residents trust Democrats, and I think that is something that we'll see as we get closer to November."

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