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House acts in late session; now the horsetrading begins

In a late night session so tense that it degenerated into 'trash talking,' the state House voted last night not to make per pupil cuts to public schools. While the vote on school aid was unusually bi-partisan, other bills considered last night - aimed at closing the State's general fund deficit - were voted up or down on nearly straight party lines and occasioned the verbal tussling. Passing no-cuts bill largely symbolic The House first defeated, and then passed an amended version of Senate Bill 221, which contained the Senate's attempt to close the School Aid Fund deficit without using new or changed taxes. The Senate's plan would have taken back $34 per pupil in state funding for local districts, as well as a portion of the funding originally granted to intermediate school districts, to meet the estimated school aid deficit calculated in January. The House version passed last night removed those cuts. Because state officials have recently warned that they expect the final deficit to be between $100 and $150 million larger than originally forecast, the House move was mostly symbolic. Whether the Senate's original cuts had been passed or not, they would not cover the growing deficit as it stands now. The House version retained other measures passed by the Senate that narrowed the deficit by some $328 million without cutting current funding. These included accounting changes at the state teacher retirement fund, refinancing some debt, savings from a decline in the number of students state wide, and cuts in some focused, "categorical," programs. Now the fun begins Senate Republican leaders, who control the Senate, have indicated that they might accept tax increases as part of a package to cover the ballooning state and school aid deficits. But precisely what they will ask in return, in the form of spending cuts and "reforms," is unclear. The House has been struggling with the question of new taxes as well, and few solid proposals have emerged. Those that have are not specifically aimed at school funding. Last night, the House passed bills that closed part of the general budget deficit with cuts - including large cuts to universities - and an increase in the state fee for dumping trash. The House declined to follow the Senate in cutting state Medicaid spending, local revenue sharing, and other programs. Besides the increased tipping fees, and House Speaker Andy Dillon's (D-Redford) proposal to increase taxes on utilities (in exchange for ending competition), other tax measures that have been mooted include a smaller version of the Governor's 2-cent services tax, and temporary or permanent increases to the income tax. Other changes to the taxes that support K-12 education would be very difficult, as they would require either a ballot proposal to amend the state Constitution or the approval of three-quarters of both houses of the Legislature. A short-term fix for school funding is likely to be part of a larger proposal to cover the general fund deficit, but long term change will require a great deal of political will.
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