Is Equity Still on the Table?

At the beginning of the current budget process, we laid out some of our expectations for the Governor and Legislators to help guide their deliberations.  We’ve shared those expectations through the last four months of conversation.  Now, here we are at the homestretch and the part of the budget process that is often most frustrating.

We adjust our understanding of how much money we have to spend.  Revenue estimating happened this week, and the news is good – nearly ½ a billion dollars more in the state’s coffers are predicted for the state’s fiscal year beginning this October.

Some priorities have already been decided – agreed on by members of the Michigan House and Senate.  The Governor is the only remaining player for those decisions, since he is still able to cut anything from the budget that he’d like at this point (though he can’t ADD anything that he’d like), with very little chance of enough Legislators banning together (they need a full 2/3 of the group) to over-ride his veto.

Some of the decisions already made will negatively impact equity.  There was again no acknowledgement of the need for stronger programs that support the very poorest families and children in our state to offset a decade of cuts and a decade of economic difficulty.  Specifically, we’ve retained the devastating cut to the state Earned Income Tax Credit; and despite evidence of their current inadequacy to serve everyone who needs them at a level that assists, failed to increase the state’s subsidy or quality in the child care program and removed further infrastructure from the Family Independence Program.

A small (VERY small) group of people get to hash out the state’s remaining priorities – those where there is still some disagreement about funding levels and program content.  There is quite a bit left to decide that impacts equity, including:

  1. Health promotion programs.  There is some disagreement about expanding support for several initiatives designed to prevent further problems and costs for the state’s children, youth and families, including:  infant mortality reduction, lead abatement programs, the Healthy Kids Dental Program, Mental Health Innovations, and many public health programs designed to improve health outcomes through the Health and Wellness Initiative.
  2. Pre-school expansion.  The good news=everybody wants to expand the Great Start Readiness Program – Michigan’s 4 year-old preschool program.  The devil is in the details, and several of those details have yet to be worked out.  Do we change the group who is eligible to this program in ways that serve the most challenged families?  Do we increase the amount that we pay providers for the program or require a higher level of quality so that they can continue to build the best classrooms for young children?
  3. Support for the most struggling learners.  With so much discussion about education reform, there is little in this budget to support proven strategies promoting educational equity.  But, there are a few.  The Senate included a very small pilot program serving foster kids over age 18 in the city of Detroit to help them reach a high school credential; and they included what they call a “placeholder” – no $$, but ensuring some conversation about possible support to build and strengthen school-community partnerships, a proven equity strategy.  The Governor and the House maintained some funding and language around what they term “best practice grants” for schools.  Some of these practices can improve the outcomes for the most challenged young people – dual enrollment and online or blended learning opportunities, and expanded physical and health education.  Districts around the state should be encouraged (and funded) to utilize them to build equity in their outcomes.

In a bit of a category by itself is health access expansion.  The Governor’s suggestion that we take advantage of new federal resources to expand Medicaid coverage to extremely poor adults, including parents and young people who are or will soon be parents, has not been supported by the Legislature so far.   There are a couple of avenues still open for that conversation, but it is definitely not a sure thing at this point.

It is still important to talk to your legislators and have them talk to their colleagues about these and other critical issues.  Improved revenue projections should translate into investment decisions that improve equity in our state.  And there is no time like the present to talk with them about the priorities that you expect for the next budget year.  No rest for the advocate!

Check out our latest Budget Basics publication on how the different budget proposals will impact equity.

-Michele Corey