Cotter addresses cost of higher education, disillusionment of young voters
It looked like a solution to road funding issues was close to being finally passed by a divided state legislature.
State House Speaker Kevin Cotter said a version of the plan passed by House Republicans last week was the closest the legislature had come to agreeing on how to raise the $1.2 billion needed to fix Michigan's crumbling infrastructure. Ultimately, the legislation didn't have the support it needed to pass in the Senate and the proposal went back to the drawing board, another example of how difficult Michigan's economic issues have become.
In his fourth year as a state representative of the 99th district, the Central Michigan University alumnus entered the political field in 2010 to combat Michigan's financial struggles.
"Finding $1.2 billion is a big stretch and we all have our own definitions of perfect," Cotter said. "I try not to focus on what has happened, instead I focus on getting it done. I think everyone for the most part, certainly the senate majority leader, myself and the governor are on the same page and that is we need to get this addressed."
Cotter told Central Michigan Life he views education, infrastructure and public safety as the three top priorities of state government, all areas of the state budget that fight for increased funding. We visited Cotter in his Lansing office to speak about the long-term affects of Gov. Rick Snyder's 15 percent cut to funding for higher education in 2011 and the burden on student dollars to feed CMU's growing budgetary needs.
Tuition is responsible for more of CMU’s budget than ever before. Student dollars comprise 57.7 percent of the operating budget this year while state appropriations funded only 16 percent. What is the state’s responsibility in funding public universities?
COTTER: I think the state has a responsibility in being a good partner in higher education and clearly in 2011 we had a tremendous challenge. That was the first year that I was here and was on the higher education appropriations subcommittee.
When I took office we knew we were coming into a $1.5 billion shortfall and there would have to be cuts. The public universities took a 15 percent cut across the board and while they didn’t want that, the universities were good partners and understood that things could have been worse.
We didn’t want to do it, but there has been an effort to restore funding. CMU is coming back well in comparison to other schools, because we have started funding universities in terms of performance. CMU has shined in that.
We have a process called capital outlay; the state spends money on construction projects for state-owned buildings and those owned by universities. CMU has done very well in that regard as well, I was happy to support a plan that provided $30 million in funding for the Biosciences Building, which I think is going to be a tremendous addition to CMU’s portfolio.
It’s important to look at the full funding picture and we’re trying to make an effort on both fronts.
CMU received $2.3 million this year from performance funding, but that is a small part of the overall appropriation. Administrators have said that the inequity of per student funding among Michigan’s universities penalizes enrollment growth and is based in historical politics. How would do you respond to that and how would you address that issue?
The history of Michigan higher education funding was purely political. If you go back before term limits, we had legislators that were here for decades and decisions were made based on influence.
What has happened since is legislators largely accepted where most universities were at and made adjustments to tuition based on a percentage. What that was doing is just compounding the unfairness that existed.
We have been trying to reduce that through things like performance funding. It’s not a situation that you can solve in just a few years because you can’t just pull the funding out from under a school and take all of their funding.
CMU is spending $73.4 million more than it did five years ago. Are there conversations you have had with our lobbyists about lowering expenses?
I’ve always taken the position that I am not an expert when it comes to running a university and so I am not well positioned to tell others how to handle the administration. One thing I do know is that CMU has taken some pretty strong steps to reduce cost.
The role I see that the legislature has — because our public universities are autonomous from the state — is to force work to be done to reduce costs through tuition restraint. What we do is say "you are eligible for additional money if you keep tuition increases below a certain number."
Some schools have disregarded that and raised tuition in huge increases. CMU has not done that and have operated very well under this system. I see that as our role is to handle it through tuition restraint instead of trying to micromanage our universities.
What opportunities are there for young graduates to stay in Michigan and grow the state and try to rebuild areas like Detroit?
Our role as a state government is to create opportunity. I think we have done that. There are some very exciting things going on in Detroit and I can see things turning around. I talk to young people that are excited to move to Detroit who a handful of years ago were probably talking about Chicago and other “cool cities.”
I think that is the government’s role, not so much (to create incentives) but doing the things that are needed to bring about the rebound of the state. It’s happening in other parts of the state as well. When I was running in 2010 the unemployment rate was over 14 percent, now it just hit 5 percent.
We just (went below) the national average for the first time in 15 years. These are the things that are very exciting and I think are needed to provide opportunity so young people will look at Michigan as an option following graduation.
How do you enfranchise voters, especially young leaders, and convince them to become involved in politics?
I think that the way that information is shared is so much more convenient, we look at social media and how stories are delivered in a form that is attractive to young people as having a big impact.
I look back at my time at CMU, it has changed so much and I see young people are plugged in a different level. I think social media has had an impact on that and that’s great.
The involvement that I see on campus in different groups is a big deal. I think the students should be engaged. A we’re talking about things like the state budget, students should be heard about that.
The decisions that we are making — not only on higher education and appropriations, but also the spending decisions and whether we are incurring or paying down debt — those are things that young people are responsible for.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the recent scandal between former representatives Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat. What affect has this had on the current generation, who is more distrusting and more disillusioned with government, in seeing public officials as professionals and able to lead?
I think the situation with former representatives Courser and Gamrat was unfortunate.
As you look at young people and people of all ages and confidence that they have in their government, I think it underscores the reason why this body had to do what it did. We had to clean house.
Those actions cannot be tolerated. Not only are they completely inappropriate, but one of the ancillary effects creates a lack of confidence in our state leaders.
We made the difficult decision to do something that has done about four times in the history of the statethat is something that I never expected to happen on my watch.