Promises to Keep? Not in Government

Promises to Keep? Not in Government
Thursday, September 24, 2009

OK, so maybe it wasn't such a great idea to call it a Promise grant.

Maybe, back in the days when Michigan had so much money that legislators could afford to hand out some of it to middle-class students (even after paying off the insurance companies, cable TV operators and beer and wine distributors who were first in line), the folks who dreamed up the idea of funding a scholarship program in which virtually every high school junior with a pulse would be eligible should have called it the While-Supplies-Last Grant.

At the very least, lawmakers should have made it clear that, while education is Michigan's Highest Priority and youth its Greatest Natural Resource, the ideal of guaranteeing every high school graduate access to a college education might have to give a little if it ever came into conflict with the other priorities, such as keeping chewing tobacco and teen slasher movies affordable.

That is, after all, what a committee of lawmakers trying to reconcile differences between the House and Senate prescriptions for balancing Michigan's budget did Wednesday in voting 4-2 to suspend the so-called Michigan Promise program that some 96,000 students enrolled in Michigan colleges and universities were counting on to shave up to $4,000 from their tuition costs.


A dubious distinction
Predictably, many of those students and their parents now are screaming bloody murder, the consensus among them being that the commitment lawmakers made to help young people pay for college tuition is something altogether more sacred than the commitments they made to fund early childhood education, help communities bear the cost of police and fire protection and protect the state's natural resources. (Although there are some who might argue that those were promises, too, even if legislators who appropriated the money for them weren't stupid enough to say so explicitly.)

This is, of course, a stretch. The Michigan Promise was, from its outset, more a marketing concept than a contractual obligation.And an ill-advised one, at that: Even back in 2005, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed the initiative as part of her plan to boost the number of college graduates in the state, many reputable economists who were not running for re-election warned that Michigan was making long-term commitments it could not afford to honor.

Now, with virtually every source of state revenue in a free fall, legislators are poised to adopt a budget that reneges on the state's commitment to groups ranging from preschool children to crime victims.

Those who take seriously the Michigan Constitution's decree that legislators "shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state" also are likely to be left high and dry.

The self-preservation promise
I never thought it made sense to subsidize students who already had every intention of going to college and sufficient means to pay their tuition -- a description that encompasses a substantial percentage of Promise grant recipients. And I'm not persuaded that college-bound students should be the last to feel the scourge of austerity just because somebody decided to call their slice of the entitlement pie a promise instead of a tax credit.

But I do think students are getting a valuable lesson in the difference between giving lip service to Michigan's Highest Priority and finding the money to pay for it. As long as raising taxes on movie tickets or bottled water or beer is considered more dishonorable than stranding 96,000 college students at the bursar's office, most of Michigan's promises are likely to be empty ones.

Contact BRIAN DICKERSON: 313-222-6584 or

Posted on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 (Archive on Wednesday, November 11, 2015)
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