K-12 Budget Laden With $300M+ In Projects
Democrats, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer, during the era of Republican control would often slam this type of funding and urge it instead be placed in the foundation allowance that each district receives per pupil for operations or be used to weight funding to districts to account for their numbers of special education, at-risk and English language learning students.
Instead, the first all-Democratic government in 40 years, combined with the previous Republican Legislature leaving billions in unspent one-time surplus revenues unused last year, produced an avalanche of spending on items like school pools, new school buildings, funds for career and technical centers and a slew of nonprofits doing work in the education space.
Some of the School Aid Fund surplus also went outside of K-12 for projects: $30 million was appropriated to Michigan State University for an engineering and digital innovation center, for example.
In total, a Gongwer News Service analysis of the education omnibus budget (SB 173 ) showed $335.4 million in School Aid Fund monies spent on 77 different earmarked items not generally designed to be available to most or all K-12 school districts. If those funds were placed into the foundation allowance, it would translate to another $241 per pupil.
Of course, there was great concern about building one-time money into ongoing programming, which the foundation allowance is, creating an unsustainable ongoing budget.
SB 173 has not yet been enrolled and presented to the governor. Once presented, Whitmer will have 14 days to sign it and issue any line-item vetoes. While line-item vetoes are possible, they would seem far less likely than they were from 2019-22, when Republicans led the budget process in the Legislature.
"We are still in the reviewing stage and it would be preliminary to discuss what may or not be vetoed at this point," said Lauren Leeds, spokesperson for the State Budget Office, when asked about the possibility of line-item vetoes and the unseen number of individual earmarks in the budget.
An email Whitmer sent out Friday about the K-12 budget focused the more overall investments in the budget like expanding the Great Start Readiness Program, opening up free breakfast and lunch to all public school students, a new high in per pupil funding and more money for mental health and growing the teacher workforce. It did not mention the earmarked funds.
"Our goal is to help anyone ‘make it’ in Michigan by investing in education at every level, bringing home good-paying jobs, and making communities across our state more attractive places to live and work," the governor said.
Another aspect of the final version of the bill is the volume of projects and money that materialized for the first time during the conference committee process. Of the $335.4 million in total funding tracked by Gongwer, $96.35 million appeared for the first time at conference committee. It was not proposed by the governor, nor did the House or Senate pass the funds in their originated budgets.
In fact, in a handful of cases, the governor had proposed eliminating all prior year funding for the program, and the House and Senate concurred, meaning the proverbial corpse winked back to life at conference.
Leaders of various public school groups voiced some surprise at the scope of the earmarked funds but did not criticize the spending.
"A lot of it was a surprise to all of us looking through it but I think what you’re seeing is this is the first time the Democrats have the pen in terms of writing the budget. This is the first time they’ve been able to directly deliver some of these dollars to their own districts. They wanted to do that," said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which represents superintendents in Genesee, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties. "I think this is probably a one-off in terms of a budget. We’re not going to have these one-time, free to spend on whatever (dollars) in the budget next year. We’re looking at this as a one time event and particularly the Democrats having control for the first time on where those dollars (go), I get it. I understand what their rationale was."
Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, which represents 28 largely urban and inner ring suburban school districts, also pointed to pent-up priorities among Democratic lawmakers now in the majority and the one-time nature of the funds.
"This does not solve our long-term problem or need when it comes to an ongoing stream of revenue, but it does help address some of the greatest needs in communities across the state," he said. "However, we are going to continue to advocate for new revenues to ensure that the ongoing expenses like the opportunity index and special ed funding can continue to be a reality and grow to serve our students with the greatest needs."
Asked if the spending concerned him, Spadafore said his biggest concern was the continued use of the School Aid Fund to prop up budgets that once were mainly funded with the General Fund and not the School Aid Fund.
He did not name the budgets, but they are the ones for higher education and community colleges.
"It’s something that three administrations have done," stating that former Governors Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder also turned to the School Aid Fund to support those two budgets prior to Whitmer. "We’ve advocated against. We’ll continue to speak out, but we might be losing this battle."
Another positive, Spadafore said, is the budget was done before the July 1 deadline.
School districts have long pleaded with the Legislature and governor to complete at least the K-12 budget before July 1 since school districts run on July 1-June 30 fiscal years.
"And we have finally seen what I call aspirational funding levels toward a weighted foundation allowance," he said of the first real effort to more robustly fund those districts with greater numbers of special education, at risk and English language learner students. "This budget is the first one that puts pen to paper on that concept."
Among some of the specific infrastructure earmarks:
$3 million for the Waverly Community Schools to renovate its high school auditorium;
$3 million for a program called Zero Eyes, described in a House Fiscal Agency document as providing grants for districts and intermediate school districts to obtain "a firearm detection software that integrates into existing security cameras";
There were a couple of surprises considering the Democratic takeover in January.
The final budget preserved $1 million for nonpublic schools to reimburse them for the costs of complying with health, safety and welfare state requirements. Public schools lost a challenge in court during the Snyder administration to that funding, and Whitmer again sought to eliminate it in her budget. The House also omitted it from its original budget, but the Senate kept current-year funding intact.
Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools, said he is as confident as he can be the funding will survive the signing/veto process. He praised Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township), chair of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, for quickly restoring the funds.
"I think it’s kind of a recognition that the nonpublic schools have expenses that are not covered by state funding with regard to health and safety mandates placed on them," he said. "We were pleased that the Senate put it in, and I don’t anticipate it would be line-item vetoed by the governor. It wasn’t last year anyway."
Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said the Democratic-led budget was hypocritical.
Last year, Whitmer vetoed a Republican-backed program, backed by GLEP and Betsy DeVos, who founded GLEP, to set up scholarships mainly for nonpublic school students to use, with an accompanying tax credit for donors to scholarship funds.
Democrats castigated the program as ripping away money from public schools, though as an income tax credit it would have put more pressure on General Fund programming, not the School Aid Fund.
Still, DeShone said Democrats siphoned away hundreds of millions from school operations with their budget.
"School dollars should be spent on our kids, not lining the pockets of Democrats’ campaign donors," she said. "Let’s cut through all of the caucus messaging. The same politicians who said we couldn’t afford reading scholarships for kids the governor locked out of the classroom quietly turned around and spent that education cash – by the hundreds of millions of dollars – to do favors for the donors and activists that helped get them elected. That’s the kind of politics that kills trust in our institutions but worse than that they’ve slapped away the hands of struggling kids who’ve been reaching for a lifeline."
McCann said going forward, this style of budget is not what the School Finance Research Collaborative would recommend because there are winners and losers.
That said, McCann said the money is going to good use and spread across the state.
"It’s all going to public education," he said. "For a first-year budget and particularly a budget that’s still spending a lot of one-time money, it is what it is. I don’t have any real critique of it in that sense."
Budget Gives Detroit $30M For License Plate Reading Cameras
"We had shootings and shot-fired incidents and crimes occurring on the freeway and found that it is very difficult to identify the suspects in those types of crimes…people are traveling at a high rate of speed, something happens (and) they’re not thinking about getting a license plate (number)," David LeVALLEY, the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD’s) assistant chief, told MIRS. "Somebody can quickly escape the area without being detected."
According to numbers relayed by Fox 2 Detroit, the Michigan State Police (MSP) recorded that 59 freeway shootings occurred in 2021 and 12 took place in the first five months of 2022.
In the FY ’24 omnibus budget bill, HB 4437, which awaits the Governor’s signature, the $30 million appropriation was part of a $171.1 million one-time public safety grant program, paid for by the General Fund.
The freeway camera – or automatic license plate reader – investment for the DPD was one of 208 preselected projects to be awarded a total of $764.6 million in grant money within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s (LEO’s) incoming budget.
"The freeways are pretty large in the city of Detroit…there’s a lot of freeways, a lot of miles of freeways, a lot of entrance and exit ramps…so it just gives us the ability to tackle that area where we didn’t have the funding available from the city to be able to do that," LeValley said. "Now that we know that there’s money that’s been allocated to it, we can get more into the next step of specifics on exactly where we’ll start and what our rollout plan will be."
LeValley anticipates that the camera purchases will be subjected to the city’s Community Input Over Government Surveillance (CIOGS) ordinance, requiring technology acquisitions to be approved by the Detroit City Council and for a specification report to be made publicly available.
The city council would be expected to hold a public hearing about its decision to authorize an acquisition, although the ordinance’s language does permit the use of "unapproved surveillance technology in exigent circumstances."
"We report to the city council the various types of surveillance equipment that we use and where we deploy it," LeValley said, adding that information gathered through the department’s preexisting surveillance technology can be held onto for 30 to 60 days.
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have raised concerns over automatic license plate readers. The ACLU specifically published a July 2013 report titled: "You Are Being Tracked," finding that for every 1 million plates read in Maryland, 47 were possibly affiliated with more serious crimes, such as a wanted person, a stolen vehicle or a violent gang or terrorist organization.
Knowing the automatic license plate readers would have footage deleted over a specific period of time, as well as that a facial recognition feature would not be included, helped Sen. Mary Cavanagh with becoming more comfortable with the appropriation.
"We’re not going to go after immigration or traffic violations, and that’s just not the premise of why we all agree – or why people agree – to these cameras," said Cavanagh, chair of the Senate Appropriations LEO subcommittee. "We also need to understand that a lot of the things that we do are already being tracked, and I know that’s not the best argument, but everyone that has MapQuest or their phone…there is technology that is kind of keeping an eye on everybody."
Cavanagh said she doesn’t want to be a Big Brother, but if taking advantage of pre-existing technology helps to save one life, one missing child or a family experiencing a crisis due to a domestic issue, "I think it’s really worth it."
LeValley said his department isn’t going to sit around watching the cameras to see who’s speeding or committing a misdemeanor on the freeway.
"This is about making people aware that there is this technology out there, so if they’re thinking about firing a gun at somebody who’s driving on the freeway, they might think twice," LeValley said, explaining that after contacting police chiefs throughout Southeast Michigan, "I didn’t talk to any of them that didn’t support it…so I could see this just being the starting point and then eventually, it expands."
Former lawmaker Adam Hollier, a Detroit Democrat, called for legislators to consider funding highway surveillance cameras in Fall 2022 after having a gun pointed directly at him while driving on I-94.
LeValley mentioned that, in the area close to the sporting stadiums in downtown Detroit, a bicyclist was hit by a car and severely injured. Meanwhile, the driver of the vehicle turned right and got onto the expressway.
"There’s no telling where they went. They could have gone 20-30 miles away and you know, the reality is (that) we’ll never solve that crime," LeValley said. "Had there been license plate readers or cameras on the freeways, we would have been able to get the information we needed to likely lead us to the individual."
PSC To Investigate Consumers Energy After Customer Complaints on Meters
In a Friday release, the PSC said many of the complaints stem from a period in which the utility was working to upgrade its advanced metering infrastructure from older, obsolete 3G cell phone technology to 4G.
Customers in many complaints stated that their meters were experiencing malfunctions and not displaying the amounts of electricity used. Because of this, there were customer concerns over possibly being billed excessively due to a lack of accurate meter readings.
In 2019 the commission issued Consumers a waiver from technical standards and also provided approval for alternative testing procedures for its meters that were being removed from service and upgraded to 4G technology.
PSC staff while investigating customer complaints from Consumers learned that the utility had been estimating bills for many of its customers that still had 3G meters even prior to cell phone companies discontinuing 3G service in January 2023. The meters were found not to be working and were showing blank screens. Due to this, the utility was unable to gather readings from the meters.
Consumers had been aware of the malfunctioning meters, the PSC staff said. The utility had blamed the malfunctions on battery contamination that could cause the screens to be blank.
The issues cited by Consumers dated back to 2020, with it effecting an estimated 900,000 meters.
In a release the PSC added that Consumers was aware of the issues when it pursued the meter testing waiver it was granted.
PSC staff also stated that Consumers could be in violation of multiple sections of the commission’s Consumer Standards and Billing Practices for Electric and Natural Gas Service. These include rules governing the replacement of failed metering equipment, limits on the number of months bills can be calculated by estimates and the inability to gather accurate readings from broken meters.
Between January 1, 2022, and May 1, 2023, the commission received 177 complaints regarding Consumers, citing an inability to meet Service Quality and Reliability Standards requirements that 90 percent of new service installations must be completed within 15 business days.
Consumers has until August 4 to provide the PSC with several sets of data related to the complaints, with which the PSC will issue recommendations for addressing issues identified through the utility’s data by September 29.
The utility is being directed to explain its performance history from 2020 to present on meter reading. This information must include reasons for why customer bills were estimated, who was held accountable for estimated readings, and who from Consumers or its contractor provided employees to read broken meters.
An explanation was also ordered of how it communicated with customers about estimated meter readings, how many complaints the utility received and whether customers were provided information on how to read their meters.
Information was also ordered from Consumers to explain what it was doing with write-offs stemming from extended periods of estimated billings, including where write-offs might show up in a rate case.
Consumers is also being ordered to provide an explanation for why in the meter testing waiver case that was previously before the PSC they did not disclose how many meters were malfunctioning at that time as well as an explanation why they did not inform the PSC that customers would be receiving estimated meter readings until new meters were installed.
Data must be provided on how many 3G and 4G meters may have been affected by contaminated batteries from 2020-23 and how many of each type of meter have been affected by other problems that prevented them from displaying meter readings.
The utility must also provide information on its process for completing the steps required to provide new electric and natural gas service along with information on the average number of days it took to complete installations from 2019 to 2023.
Consumers must then explain why it was unable to complete new installations within 15 business days and what it will be doing to address this for future compliance.
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Senator Mat joined State Representatives Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) and Mike Harris (R-Clarkston) at the Clarkston Independence Day Parade on July 4th.
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