When you get just about everything you want in life, you tend to focus on the little things.
You could argue that’s what business groups are doing right now in their full-court press against efforts to change Michigan’s decade-old law mandating that K-12 schools start after Labor Day.
Business groups have had a boffo run since Republicans swept into power in 2010. Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP Legislature have worked their way down lobbyists’ wish lists, starting with the $2 billion corporate tax cut (mostly paid for by a $1.4 billion tax hike on individual ratepayers like you and me).
The most well-known victory came in 2012 when Republicans launched a lame-duck blitz to make Michigan — home of the UAW — a Right to Work state.
But it didn’t end there. They’ve won reforms (i.e. cuts) to myriad business regulations, the Personal Property Tax, unemployment benefits and workers’ compensation. And they beat back efforts to beef up roads and infrastructure spending by taxing businesses. Once again, the tax and fee hikes fell to individuals.
Don’t get me wrong. As an entrepreneur, I like efforts to improve the state’s business climate. But small business owners like me with LLCs haven’t benefited much from tax changes. And the state wiping away tax credits for my kids and charitable donations has definitely stung.
Anyway, it’s truly impressive how many victories business groups have scored in Michigan in such a short time. No doubt it will serve as a blueprint for what lobbyists across the country can achieve.
In fact, the only big-ticket business agenda item left is scrapping the state’s one-of-a-kind no-fault insurance system, which has been political poison for years. Doctors and car crash victims are tough opponents, so reform efforts have still repeatedly stalled.
So now it’s on to smaller fights like a rather innocuous legislation introduced by Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) giving school districts flexibility to decide when their school year begins.
The bill is all about the conservative principle of local control. Why should the state mandate something like this with no compelling educational reason? It’s micromanaging at its finest.
On the other hand, there’s solid evidence that this bill represents good educational policy. Knollenberg argues that his bill would put Michigan on track with the rest of the country.
Back in 2011, the nonprofit Center for Michigan released an impressive report showing how hundreds of school districts fell below the typical 180-day school calendar other states have. We’re also getting lapped by other countries — whose students have higher test scores. The report noted that Korean students are in school an average of 225 days a year, while Japanese students spend 220 days in the classroom.
That, no doubt, helped prompt the Legislature to reinstate the 180-day standard for this school year.
But it’s a challenge for school districts to meet that requirement while starting after Labor Day. They currently have to apply for waiver to start in August. This legislation would eliminate red tape, which is also something conservatives usually support.
So what’s the problem? Why have business groups, led by the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce, poured $1.4 million into opposing this effort over the last five years, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network?
It comes down to a lot of hyperventilating that this will kill tourism in Michigan.
Now former Rep. Ed Gaffney (R-Grosse Pointe Farms), who sponsored the 2005 post-Labor Day start date law, said tourism wasn’t a factor for him. He just wanted “kids to be kids” and enjoy a longer break. But he acknowledges the bill only took off after business groups glommed onto it, claiming it would be a boon to tourism.
So let’s get real. If kids going back to school a few days early is enough to singlehandedly destroy the tourism industry, it’s probably pretty fragile to begin with. And last time I checked, economic conservatives believed that if industries can’t sustain themselves in the free market without a boost from the government, they don’t deserve to survive.
Coincidentally, the quasi-governmental Michigan Economic Development Corp. has dumped $261 million into the gauzy “Pure Michigan” tourism advertising campaign over the last decade. The free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy has pointed out the wastefulness and ineffectiveness of this program for years, but folks from both sides of the aisle seem enamored by the feel-good spots with soothing Tim Allen voiceovers. So nobody ever takes on this sacred cow, even though it’s a perfect example of government inefficiency and meddling.
Now my love of traveling is well-established; I write about my adventures frequently. But I love my kids getting a better education more.
So will Knollenberg’s bill single-handedly turn around Michigan’s educational system? No, and no one is claiming it will. But it’s a common-sense step in the right direction.
And it’s a real shame that supposedly conservative business groups are going after him for championing what’s a truly conservative piece of legislation.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.