The conflagration-to-come in public school funding in Michigan was a smoking peat-bog for a generation. It sat there, slowly smoldering beneath the surface. Everyone talked about it, but no one fixed it.
Or even tried. Talk, talk, talk.
Beginning in the late 1960’s, though, as property values started to to outstrip inflation (a not insignificant achievement as the Seventies spun out), funding the local schoolhouse became a herculean task in many Michigan school districts.
Of course, salt –and then later, lye– was rubbed in the wound as one problem in school funding was slathered atop another: Teacher tenure, forced bussing, outrageous defined benefits programs, tiny mandated classes sizes, Least Restrictive Learning Environments, athletic facilities that would make Nick Sabin blush, Intermediate School Districts, administrative departments ten-fold larger in the 1980’s than they had been in the 1950’s…
Each added to the gold-plated, pearl-handled unaffordability of public education in Michigan.
Michigan Schools were bleeding to death. And, dutifully, the local school boards went hat-in-hand every spring (or, every darned month, if they could) for higher property-tax millage rates.
Soon, stories of frail, gray-haired widows forced to sell the 100-year Centennial Farms became almost trite as property-tax bills soared into the 5-figures. California, feeling the same bulging pain, offered up Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13. Michigan had Bob Tisch, and Richard Headlee.
Prop 13 worked– at least, in a metaphorical sense. Michigan’s attempts at reform only turned the school boards into obsequious, conniving vassals of the state, as they tried to simultaneously assure Grandma she wouldn’t be kicked out of her home to pay for a new Football Stadium, while signing ever-increasing labor contracts with the Michigan Education Association.
The first sign of Autumn in Michigan during those times was the picket-line of local teachers walking out of the school-house, demanding higher wages, better benefits, smaller classes, less work, etc., etc.
It famously came to a head in a tiny Northern Michigan school district, a few miles east of Traverse City in 1993: Kalkaska had pleaded, bullied, held their breath, stamped their feet for two years to get the voters of their district to increase property taxes to pay for “local schools”. FOUR TIMES the voters told them to pound sand.
Okay, then, said the school board: We have to shut down.
And they did. With two months to go in the school calendar. Kalkaska, having to choose between making mandated pension contributions, paying legally required bonded debt repayments, chose to jettison wages and maintenance– they shut the doors.
Much like the Republican Congress in 2017, the Michigan Legislature beginning 1992, was, for the first time in living memory, controlled entirely by Republicans, and John Engler, a Republican, was Governor.
The Michigan GOP had bitched, and moaned –and campaigned against– Michigan’s odious property tax system for decades. But, being in the seemingly-eternal minority, it was good for business: They could keep moaning, and bitching, and campaigning against it because, well– what on earth could a few Republican fossils in Lansing do about it?
Then, the Michigan GOP woke up in January 1993, and found –egads– the were in control!
In Michigan Politics, School Funding and it’s ultimate solution was a public policy Brigadoon. It was the stuff of long-winded legends, and maybe, just maybe, every hundred years or so, a solution might pop up in an ethereal wisp of fog, and disappear with the morning sun.
But, now, the Bug had met the Windshield in Kalkaska.
The GOP panties, as one might deduce, were all a-twist. “Quick!” said the GOP Milquetoasts, “Let’s cut Property Taxes by 20%. We’re in the Majority now, so, let’s be (Capital “B”) Bold!”
Debbie Stabenow, who was as lovely and gracious back then as the Representative of the State’s 58th District as she is today as the United States Senator from Michigan, stood up, arranged her underwear, squared her shoulders, and replied to the GOP: (I paraphrase)
“Screw that! You dip-wad Republicans have been whining about Property Taxes in this state for thirty years. Stand up like men! Why don’t you cut property taxes BY 100 PERCENT! Here’s my bill, boys! Go for it!”
…and, they did. Right then. The Michigan Legislature, egged on by the petulant Debbie Stabenow, voted to Repeal –without replacing– the major source of state revenue.
Honesty: It all happened in single afternoon. July 19, 1993. Poof. Just like that. a hundred-year-old system. Gone.
What was supposed to be a joke by the loathsome, detestable Debbie Stabenow dethroned what had been a granite cornerstone of public policy in Michigan for generations.
Of course, the obvious question –after the property tax was repealed in a sudden flaming heap, and everyone was standing around the Chamber rubbing their scalps– was “Okay: Now what?”
The amazing thing? The legislature figured it out. With the dragon breathing down their necks, they had about four months to hammer out a new system, and put it before the voters in the fall (in what eventually became Proposal “A”, which increased the state sales tax from 4 to 6%, created a homestead property tax exemption, a student “foundation grant” and number of other real, honest reforms). Twenty-five years on, it is still a more equitable formula than it was previously, although the systemic cost-drivers have never been addressed. But now, at least, everyone in the state takes it in the neck, rather than old widows with farms upon which they can’t pay the taxes.
Of course, the Michigan GOP took ten years of victory laps on that one.
But, had it not been for Debbie Stabenow –vile, poisonous, despicable First Wave Feminist Debbie Stabenow– it would have never happened.
In the end, she had more stones than… well, Paul Ryan, for example. Or Mitch McConnell.
Hey, Debbie: The GOP has been campaigning on repealing Obamacare for nearly a decade. Do us a solid, will you? Throw it up for a vote.
Just for old times sake?