Michigan Panel OKs Prison Cuts; No Deal On Teacher Pensions

Jun 7, 2017

Michigan would cut spending at all but one of its 30 prisons under a legislative compromise reached Wednesday without the support of Gov. Rick Snyder's administration, which Republican leaders have excluded from key budget decisions because of Snyder's opposition to closing the pension system to new school employees.

A House-Senate conference committee voted 5-1 for a nearly $2 billion corrections budget, which includes a $10 million operations cut across 29 state facilities to reflect a declining inmate population. That is far less than the $41.6 million reduction proposed by the Senate, which the corrections director had warned would lead to hundreds of officer layoffs and unsafe staffing levels because prisoner numbers have not fallen enough to justify closing a prison.

Michigan Department of Corrections officials are just seeing the plan and will review it, department spokesman Chris Gautz said after the committee vote.

"There are a lot of issues," Gautz said. "We already have close to 600 officer vacancies around the state, so there's a lot of other programs that we want to make sure we can maintain."

The Republican-led Legislature is advancing individual budgets out of conference panels after setting "target" spending without Snyder. The impasse over teacher pensions could prolong enactment of the budget beyond June for the first time in years. The fiscal year starts in October.

Snyder and GOP legislative leaders met Wednesday for the first time in two weeks to discuss pensions, with all sides reporting progress but no deal. Afterward, Speaker Tom Leonard said the full House will pass the entire budget next week, but he did not say if leaders will actually send the $55 billion plan to Snyder's desk.

"We had a very productive conversation, and I expect those conversations to resume," Leonard, a Republican from DeWitt, said.

Saying Michigan must stop accumulating debt, Republicans have set aside $475 million to cover first-year transition costs of making new workers eligible for a 401(k)-only retirement plan instead of a current hybrid pension-401(k) benefit in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. It is money that Snyder has proposed to either add to the state's savings account or to spend on other priorities in the next budget. He says the blended plan set up in 2010 is working and is different from a pension-only legacy system that is facing $29 billion in unfunded liabilities, and that it would be too costly to switch.

"These are not easy questions," Snyder said. "You're talking questions that actuaries normally deal with. So a lot of this work is making sure we have the same assumptions, we're working on the same ideas and we have the same understanding of what they mean."

House Minority Leader Sam Singh echoed Snyder's previous comments that the budget should be completed this month because schools and local governments that receive state funding have fiscal years that begin in July.

"There's not the votes that we can see at this point in time for closing down MPSERS. So why do we continue to do this when our citizens are asking for us to put more money back into the classrooms and into the roads?" said Singh, an East Lansing Democrat.

Meanwhile, budget committees will keep approving individual budget bills Thursday, setting the stage for more action next week.

The corrections panel on Wednesday agreed to Snyder's request for nearly $4.4 million to train 177 new officers. It blocked his proposal to spend $1.5 million to expand an alternative sentencing program for probation violators to 13 counties in western Michigan.