Congress has chance to help Michigan families

September 14, 2010

Congress is returning from its Labor Day break this week with a number of key issues before it. In the coming days, Congress will make decisions on tax credits, child nutrition and cash assistance for needy families—votes that will directly impact families in Michigan.

In the midst of mid-term elections, the issue of which tax credits should be extended is receiving a great deal of attention. There are two tax credits directed at low- and middle-income families that were expanded under the Recovery Act to provide further tax relief.  

Without action by Congress to extend these tax credits, many families in Michigan will receive smaller refunds during these difficult economic times.

Twenty-five organizations here in Michigan have called on our congressional delegation to extend the Recovery Act changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Making these credits permanent will encourage work and will help low- and middle-income families.

The U.S. House is also facing a vote on Child Nutrition Reauthorization.   A bill pending before the House includes many important improvements to food programs for our children. These programs are a critical part of the safety net and provide vital resources to address child hunger.

A letter sent by 15 Michigan children’s advocates organizations calls on House members to support the House version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The ill-advised Senate version funds the Child Nutrition Reauthorization with a future cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to low-income households. Raiding one food assistance program to fund another is not acceptable.

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund was created in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. It has provided additional support to families here in Michigan during these challenging economic times. The fund, and its benefits, will expire at the end of September without action by Congress.

Understanding the ongoing need for the TANF Emergency Fund here in Michigan, 44 organizations have called on our Senators and our House members to extend this fund and its critically important benefits.

In the coming month, in particular, we will be looking to the Michigan Congressional Delegation to support policy and programs that will continue to assist Michigan families and will also help local and state economies.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill

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Big Band-Aid over budget hole

September 9, 2010

Sharon Parks

It appears that House and Senate leadership and the administration have hammered out a budget deal that will avert a third state shutdown in four years.

I suppose we should all be relieved but somehow the whole thing leaves some of us feeling pretty frustrated. The final budget resolution seems to be a very large Band-Aid over a gaping hole.

Included among the budget “fixes” are proposals for tax amnesty ($61.8 million), state employee retirements ($60 million), use taxes on Health Maintenance Organizations ($377.3 million), various liquor reforms ($9 million), and a shift of $208 million from the School Aid Fund to the General Fund to avoid further cuts to community colleges.

The budget deal also includes more cuts in state spending—3 percent to all departments and reductions of $50 million each in the departments of Human Services, Community Health and Corrections.

It’s too early to know how $150 million will be squeezed out of these departments, on top of reductions that have been made since 2004 and continued in each subsequent year’s budget. (Notable exceptions are the optional Medicaid services that were eliminated in the 2010 budget but restored in the 2011 budget deal.)

Thank goodness for the federal Recovery Act money that is spread throughout the budget, and for the recent extenstion of the enhanced Medicaid match.  Those dollars helped avoid deeper cuts than are being made—for now. 

Finally, there is wide acknowledgement that the root of our problem extends beyond the current economic firestorm. Yet, what’s missing in this budget deal is any serious attempt to address the state’s structural deficit. It’s a “get out of Dodge” budget that dumps the problem squarely in the laps of the next administration and Legislature. 

Maybe the newcomers will be the breath of fresh air that is needed.  Maybe they will be full of good ideas, resolve and the leadership that is needed to turn Michigan in the right direction. Or, they may come to Lansing and waste valuable time as they learn their assumptions were faulty and their stereotypes untrue. 

I hope it’s not the latter. This train is headed for the cliff, as billions of federal Recovery Act funds end and our own state revenues continue to drop in response to the decline in personal income in Michigan.

— Sharon Parks


Helping kids feel good about themselves

August 20, 2010
Photo of Judy Putnam

Judy Putnam

With the start of school just a few weeks away, many families are planning shopping trips to get the right outfits for that important first day of school.

Thanks to a state program, some 157,000 children in Michigan’s poorest families will be able to join the annual back-to-school shopping ritual.

Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed announced Thursday that children in families receiving cash assistance (FIP grants) will receive $79 per child the first week of September for the children’s clothing allowance.

“It’s designed to help children feel good about themselves in going back to school,’’ Ahmed said at a press conference.

That is a little less than last year ($84 per child) but it will go a long way in buying shoes, underwear, and new or used clothes for the new school year.

The League has advocated for the clothing allowance for many years. We agree that all kids deserve a good start at the beginning of the school year. Many of us can recall the excitement that accompanied the new outfit, new shoes and a spanking new pack of Crayolas.  

It’s important that all children get to partake in that excitement, but it’s especially true for disadvantaged kids, who are at high risk of falling behind and dropping out.

As the Legislature and governor try to finalize the budget for the year starting Oct. 1, such items as the clothing allowance are in ongoing jeopardy. The governor called for unspecified cuts of $50 million in next year’s Department of Human Services budget to try and balance the budget. That came after the Legislature resisted her ideas for new revenue, including a reasonable plan to reduce the sales tax but expand it to services.

The state budget is a complicated document that’s developed in a complicated process but sometimes our choices become clear and simple, such as making sure that all kids have a good start and decent clothes as the new school year commences.

— Judy Putnam


Surprise! Voters supported taxes

August 16, 2010

Sharon Parks

The August 3 primary election said a great deal about what voters care about, in addition to their preferred candidates for office. The election results sent a clear message that voters value public services, and they are willing to pay for those services.

While this shouldn’t come as a surprise to some of us optimists, an analysis by The Center for Michigan shows that voters overwhelmingly stepped up to the plate to pay for good roads, fire and police protection, services for seniors and libraries. 

According to one analyst, “People are finally starting to really feel the effect of government cutbacks.”

The Center for Michigan’s analysis showed the following: 

  • Voters approved 86 percent of the 623 ballot proposals affecting how much they would pay in taxes or fees.
  • Voters approved 96 percent of the requests to either renew taxes or restore rates that had previously been reduced.
  • Voters supported 69 percent of the proposals that were flat-out tax increases. 

These election results counter the noise from the Tea Party folks that the electorate is fed up, doesn’t value government, and is not willing to pay a dime more for government services. 

Our citizens aren’t stupid. They know what they need; they know what they value.  By in large, they want essential services continued in their communities even though the state will no longer pick up the tab.

There are other services, equally important, which have been cut and are likely to be cut further. The General Fund budget, with a deficit of at least a half-billion dollars or more, depending on whose numbers are used, is not yet resolved. Many more services are likely to be cut if the Legislature can’t agree on revenue solutions.

At that point, voters will be looking at cuts in higher education as they attempt to send kids to college, and cuts in Medicaid as they attempt to deal with their own medical issues or those of parents or grandparents.

There’s more — the state licenses and inspects day care facilities where our children and grandchildren spend time each week; they also license and inspect nursing homes where many of our family members reside. Those of us who eat out occasionally or often should take comfort in the fact that restaurants are also inspected. The parks and forests that we all enjoy are maintained at government expense — taxpayer dollars. 

Considering The Center for Michigan’s analysis, candidates should welcome the opportunity to talk taxes with voters. Let the voters know what’s at stake and ask whether they want to go without the services they are used to having. The answers may surprise more than a few hopeful candidates for state office. 

— Sharon Parks


Income tax drop is elephant in the room

August 11, 2010

Joanne Bump

An elephant sits in the room but few are talking about it. As Michigan’s legislative leaders grapple with the upcoming year’s budget gap, a scheduled income tax rate reduction is going to further increase budget pressures.  

As noted in the League’s new fact sheet Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop?, the decrease in the income tax rate will result in over $1 billion of lost revenue over three years, starting in fiscal year 2012.  

 In 2007, the Legislature increased the state income tax rate to address a budget gap. At the time, lawmakers wanted to ensure that the law was temporary so they included a reversal in the tax rate from 4.35 percent back to 3.9 percent. The income tax rate will be reduced by 0.1 percent each October 1, beginning in 2011, until the rate returns to 3.9 percent.

The Michigan revenue picture is even worse now than when the rate increase was passed. Undoubtedly no one could have guessed in 2007 how bad things would get here in Michigan. As unemployment soared and personal income plummeted, state revenues have fallen dramatically.

In January, Michigan state government will experience a significant change in leadership, with a new governor and many new legislators. They will quickly learn that laws passed by a previous Legislature are going to lower future revenue streams and create additional budget gaps.

The League’s fact sheet points out that in the past when the income tax rate has been increased during difficult economic times, it has not been reduced until the unemployment rate has fallen and the economy is stronger.

It’s hard to imagine that by October 2011 the state economy will be recovered enough that we should be cutting revenues that are needed to support basic needs for people in our state.

— Joanne Bump


Michigan Is Ours!

July 19, 2010

Jan Hudson

The League of Women Voters of Michigan recently completed a project called Michigan Is Ours! that documents the loss of state dollars to fund public services over the last 10 years, in part due to tax policies that reduce taxes. The group is advocating for a reversal of this trend.

In its background information, the League of Women Voters cites the negative consequences  to state services  because of the dramatic decline in state revenues, including:

  • the reduction in state workforce– 18 percent, over the last seven years.
  • the dramatic decline in public safety funding– $3 billion, since September 11, 2001.
  • the astonishing decline in state investments in higher education.

The group’s members believe that the “T” word is not a terrible word, but is a necessary word if we are going to have quality public services.  They further believe voters are concerned about such services as education, public safety, social services, health care, employment services, safe food and water, parks, libraries, and roads, and are willing to pay for them. 

As part of this project, the League of Women Voters has created a series of postcards on specific public services to be sent to legislators. These postcards have a simple message: they affirm the voter’s support for a specific public service and further affirm the voter’s willingness to pay more taxes to support it.  They encourage legislators to pursue tax changes to increase state revenues to support these essential public services.

The Michigan League for Human Services also advocates for tax policy changes to increase state revenues to support key public services.  Numerous options are available to policymakers.  Please see our Facts Matter report for more information. 

If you think a change in direction is in order, and support public services, including adequate taxes to pay for them, let your legislators know.  You can contact Jackie Benson at the Michigan League for Human Services, Jbenson@michleagueforhumansvs.org, for a supply of postcards.

Thanks to the League of Women Voters for creating such an easy way for us to communicate our priorities and willingness to pay more taxes for public services to our legislators.

— Jan Hudson


Getting health reform right the first time

June 29, 2010

Jan Hudson

Policymakers in Michigan will soon have key decisions to make as health reform implementation progresses. Will they choose to do it right the first time, or follow their current strategy of remedial public policy?

When programs require a financial investment, policymakers say the state has no money to invest, and yet there are always funds to cover remedial services. Will the current approach of cutting programs in the name of fiscal restraint only to fund those necessary services in higher-cost settings be their guide?

For example, children are eligible for Medicaid or MIChild, but are not aware or enrolled because outreach funds and efforts have been eliminated. They are then treated in hospital emergency rooms instead of doctors offices. Or, Medicaid services are eliminated “to save funds” and untreated illnesses become life-threatening, resulting in intensive care stays that could have been avoided.

Early childhood and education programs have been cut or weakened through continued state disinvestment. A Casey Foundation report ranks Michigan ranks 34th among the 50 states in children who are proficient at reading by the end of third grade. Colleges then spend considerable time and cost on remedial education to correct the deficiencies.

Community mental health services are inadequately funded and were severely cut in this budget year. This means services are not provided until a crisis occurs, resulting at times with a person entering the corrections system. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy recently called for more aggressive mental health, preschool and drug treatment funding.

Federal health care reform presents the opportunity to make dramatic changes in the health care system and the way it’s delivered, defined and funded. A key question is: Will policymakers take advantage of these opportunities — pass needed legislation, and provide the necessary funding and staff for a successful implementation, or will they try to “do more with less” and skate by on the cheap?

If policymakers choose the short-sighted approach in the name of fiscal restraint  then we cannot expect to see the full potential of improvements to the current systems and health outcomes. It is critical that they acknowledge the need for additional resources and supporting public policy so that health reform implementation can be done right the first time.

We can pay now, we can pay later – or both. Will health care reform be more of the same, or will it be implemented right the first time?

— Jan Hudson