State House and Senate at odds over right-to-work penalty that would affect University of Michigan
Michigan's House and Senate Republicans disagree about just how involved legislators should be in the inner workings of the state's 15 public universities.
House and Senate committees have preliminarily agreed on budgets that would increase state higher education funding by more than $31 million to $1.43 billion. The two bodies, however, don't seem to agree on the extent to which the Legislature should be involved in college affairs.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee in a 19-10 vote passed a draft higher education bill that, in addition to increasing overall funding, threatens to ax 15 percent of a university's appropriations if it reached labor agreements in advance of the right-to-work legislation but didn't achieve 10 percent cost savings. The budget also attempts to regulate universities' domestic partner benefits and require reports on stem cell use and college counseling.
The penalties put $74 million in funding at risk for Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, which would otherwise receive $184 million and $279 million from the state, respectively.
U-M settled 5 contracts in the three months prior to right to work taking effect.
MLive file photo
Republicans in the state Senate say their colleagues in the House have gone too far.
A draft education bill passed in a 2-1 vote by a Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations Tuesday doesn't penalize universities for their labor involvement or include language relating to benefits, stem cells or counseling. It does, however, agree to a $31 million higher education funding increase.
Senator Roger Kahn, R- 32nd district, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Senate leadership doesn't support the right-to-work penalty and is composing a letter to House leadership saying just that.
"We will not be supporting the penalties," Kahn said in an interview. "The law allowed 90 days for parties affected by this to decide whether they wanted to renegotiate and some of them did. That seems part-and-parcel of why the law didn't have immediate effect."
Right to work was passed in December, but didn't take effect until March 28. Some unions wanted to open contracts early so they could avoid any negative effects of right-to-work legislation and some schools agreed because they had leverage over unions, resulting in more concessions.
"I believe it is the role of the legislature to provide oversight and make sure the dollars are spent wisely," Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, said during the Tuesday committee meeting. Pscholka chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on higher education and has championed the budget and accompanying boiler plate language.
Pscholka and his House Republican colleagues were unhappy about unions avoiding right to work and warned universities that reopening contracts could be justified only if there were sufficient cost savings. In a March 27 interview with AnnArbor.com, Pscholka said U-M's labor agreements are likely in violation of the right-to-work stipulation because although they slowed cost inflation, they allowed costs —such as salaries— to rise.
Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R- 20th District, who chairs the Senate's higher education subcommittee, said the Senate is focused on funding and performance metrics, and not political issues.
"The constitution clearly lays out that universities are semi-autonomous. The concern of our subcommittee is that higher education really needs to be an economic driver," she said, adding that it's "not necessarily the state's duty to get in and negotiate every contract out there." With right-to-work, Schuitmaker said "freedom to choose is what needs to be the focus and not hurting students."
Booth file photo
Kahn said he doesn't think the right-to-work penalty will remain in the final version of the budget, but Schuitmaker said that while she doesn't want the stipulation "everything is negotiable" until the final budget passes.
"There's three legs to the stool," she said. "I don't want to pin myself in a corner."
Cynthia Wilbanks, head of government relations for U-M, said she is optimistic the right-to-work penalty won't be included in the final budget. She noted that there's at least six more weeks of legislative negotiating ahead.
The Legislature wants to pass the final budget by June 1.
"There are numerous points along the way where differences are reviewed and ironed out," she said. "It's hard for me to predict what number of provisions will continue to be retained."
The right-to-work stipulation is just one example, albeit the largest, of the House trying to impose restrictions on universities.
The House committee's higher ed budget also includes boiler plate language that tells universities not to offer benefits to employees' domestic partners, instructs schools to only purchase cars that have been assembled in the U.S., and requires schools to report on their embryonic stem cell use (U-M is the only school that conducts research using such cells). The bill mandates that schools report on how they're accommodating religious beliefs in school counseling programs and requires schools to publicly disclose salary, performance and financial data. Those mandates are not tied to funding.
Gov. Rick Snyder is against all but the transparency requirement.
Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St.Clair Shores, said she found "it very disappointing and frankly appalling" that Republican legislators want to punish universities for acting "within their full rights as a business."
"To meddle in their business I think is a large overreach of this legislature," she said during the Tuesday meeting.
House Appropriations Committee chair Joe Haveman, R- Holland, said the legislators "actually do have a responsibility to meddle, if you want to call it that."
Most issues highlighted in the boiler plate language harken to political debates that took place in Lansing. For example, the Legislature banned state entities from offering domestic partner benefits in 2012, but universities were exempt from the ban because of their constitutional autonomy.
"It's just the nature of the legislative process and frankly the interest of individual legislators," said Wilbanks.
Although voters in 2008 approved a constitutional amendment that allows researchers to create embryonic stem cell cultures and use them in medical research, U-M's stem cell research has long been a controversial issue among Republican lawmakers in Lansing.
When drafting this year's budget, House Republicans tried, but failed, to require the school to disclose information about its stem cell research or lose funding. The language made it in the final version of this year's budget, but the requirement is not tied to funding. Similar language appears in the proposed fiscal 2014 budget.
"The validity of [U-M's stem cell use] should be discussed with scientists, not politicians," said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor.
As a part of a formula funding model introduced last year, funding increases are tied to performance. The definition of performance could be evolving. Last year's metrics judged schools on the number of technical degrees they produced, improvements in graduation rates and the number of Pell Grant recipients enrolled. This year the House appropriations committee suggested rewarding schools for high-levels of resident undergraduate enrollment. The Senate subcommittee suggested reweighing the metrics.
Last year tuition increases were capped at 4 percent if universities wanted to receive full funding. The House committee has reduced the cap to 3 percent in its draft budget. The Senate subcommittee suggested capping tuition increases at 3.5 percent.
The full House will vote on the budget later this spring and it is likely that the Senate Appropriations Committee will approve its subcommittee's draft budget.