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Public sector

$152 million, and not even a T-shirt?

For $152 million, you could buy dinner and a cocktail for every Michigan voter who cast a ballot in the Nov. 6 election.

Or you could give every man, woman and child in Michigan their very own Chia Obama or Chia Romney, depending, of course, on their political persuasions.

Or you could have spent that money to coax Michigan’s voters on how to decide the six proposals – including five constitutional amendments – on this year’s ballot.

The various interest groups battling it out in the proposal section of the ballot raised and spent an estimated $152 million this year, says the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan coalition concerned about the influence of money on politics.

The amount spent on political issues and candidates has increased dramatically in Michigan and nationally, said Rich Robinson, executive director of MCFN, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which said the First Amendment bars the government from limiting political expenditures by corporations and unions.

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“I think if you’re talking about politics and you’re not talking about money, then you’re not talking about politics,” Robinson said.

John Helmholdt, director of communications and external affairs for the Grand Rapids Public Schools and former co-owner of a campaign consulting firm, has seen the interaction of money and politics from both sides. He was particularly concerned about the misinformation spread by backers of Proposal 5, which would have required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, and Proposal 6, which would have forced a statewide vote to build a bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

“The voters did their homework,” he said. “Hopefully, that will send a message to the special interest groups that Michigan voters saw through this.”

The $152 million spent on this year’s ballot proposals is “nearly the equivalent of our entire operating budget,” said Helmholdt, noting that Grand Rapids schools will spend a little more than $201 million on operations this year.

For $152 million, Michigan’s public schools could pay a year’s salaries and benefits for 1,520 teachers, he said. “That would go a long way toward hiring more teachers, more tutors, more academic support,” Helmholdt added.

What else does $152 million buy? Any one of the following:

* A $32.24 check to each of the 4,714,239 Michigan voters who cast ballots in the presidential election.

* A doubling of the number of 4-year-olds served by the Great Start preschool program.

* Enrollment of high school students in more than 540,000 online courses through Michigan Virtual University.

* iPads for 375,000 students.

* A year’s tuition, fees, room and board for 7,170 Michigan State University freshmen — or one year’s tuition and fees for more than 59,000 community college students.

* Rehabilitation of some 80 lane-miles of Michigan’s bumpy roads and preventive maintenance on another 360 lane-miles.

* A year’s worth of health insurance for more than 62,000 of Michigan’s uninsured residents.

* A year’s worth of operations for the legislative branch, or the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

* Salaries and benefits for 2,300 police officers for a year.

The last option would nearly restore the total number of police officers to the 22,000 employed by the state and municipalities a decade ago, said Ed Jacques, member services director for the Police Officers Association of Michigan.

As it is, the $152 million spent on the ballot proposals “didn’t do any good,” he said, noting that voters rejected all five constitutional amendments (while also repealing the 2011 emergency manager law via Proposal 1).

“I just shake my head,” he said. “The radio and TV stations made out like bandits.”

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

9 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Jim Zielske

    152 million…Please add my 400$. $316 for 3 ads in the local paper and , $84 for 100 home made signs against Proposal 2. Best investment I have ever made….are you listening….MEA!!!!!!!!

    1. Joe

      Yea! Teachers and their union are the problem with education. Student success has nothing to do with families, poverty, race or resources. Who hires those terrible teachers, it’s the MEA…right? ‘Just think of the money we can save if we can force teachers to accept minimum wage in this competitive environment. Let’s leave the police and fire unions alone as Governor Snyder did. The teachers had their pensions taxed but police and fire fighters vote Republican so they were exempt. They protect us but teachers only educate our children. Now, onward to right-to-work and lower wages to energize our economy!

      1. Rick


        Your seems to be inaccurate and uninformed. Teachers and their union are not a problem. Are there bad teachers, yes, but there are bad police officers as well. I was a DARE Officer during my career and I personally worked alongside them in the classroom. They were amazing and very dedicated to their students. The struggles they face today are unbelievable. In some cases they have become babysitters because of the poor behavior of the children. I don’t blame the children, but instead our society and poor parenting. You will get what you pay for and if you pay them minimum wage (after paying for four or more years of college). Do unions cause more problems sometimes, yes, but they deserve to be represented just any other profession. Don’t you think the same union issues occur in other professions?

        Governor Snyder did NOT leave the police and fire unions alone. I just retired after 25 years of service and my pension is taxed. I didn’t even have a chance to prepare for this immediate reduction in my pension. In fact, I will receive a severely reduced (or nothing) Social Security benefit despite the fact I had 48 quarters paying into Social Security prior to my work in public safety. Read up on it. It is called the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and the the other is the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). I knew this when I became an officer, and I was OK with it, but now, weeks before I retired, I’m now paying pension taxes. Not only did I lose the benefit of receiving Social Security (even though I worked the required 40 quarters to be eligible, I’m now receiving roughly 4.35% less in my pension because of the changes made by the politicians and the Govenor. Police Officers and Firefighters pensions were NOT left alone with the exception of the State Police because their pensions cannot be taxed because it is in our State Constitution. I’m not knocking the State Police at all, but is it fair?

        OK, pay less in wages and there will be NO middle income anymore. We will have less people searching for jobs because our government will take care of them.

        I say this with full respect to your opinion.

    2. Mike

      I have to agree with Joe.

      it is a lot easier to blame teachers than parents and circumstance.

      Why not spend that $400 on educational tools for your kids?

      Teachers, in a six hour slot 180 days out of the year cannot overcome the poor habits ingrained in students at home

  2. Themotivator

    For every dollar wasted a tree should be planted

  3. T. W. Donnelly

    It would be helpful to list the groups who ran the various ads and the amount that each group spent. This way consumers could decide if their own financial support of these groups is worth continuing.

    I am in full agreement that these dollars could have been better spent on human needs than overkill advertising that was both incorrect and in some cases vile and despicable. I was particularly distressed about the ads maligning teachers and bus drivers as pedophiles and drunks because they had access to collective bargaining.
    Proposal 2 was a response to the ALEC driven legislation in Michigan that caused so much harm in teacher negotiations. The Koch brothers and other billionaires craft legislation, spread around lots of cash as campaign contributions, and then watch as their puppets in House and Senate do their bidding.

    Michigan needs strong and effective leadership in government without the scapegoating of public employees as the bad guys wasting public resources. The chorus of those finger- pointers should be made public, so we can know exactly who is spending dollars on these garbage ads and thus boycott their products and services.

    1. Paul

      Right on T.W.! Apparently half the people and most politicians of MI and the entire nation like having their strings yanked by corporate AmeriKa and it’s mouthpiece ALEC.

  4. Michele Strasz

    $152,000,000 could also fund 434 school-based health centers across the entire state of Michigan. It is all about priorities!

  5. Tom Emmott

    For starters they could turn the street lights back on in Highland Park and Detroit. This is a no brainer–education, law enforcement and firefighters. And then, build the damn bridge for the purpose of commerce, economy, taxes and jobs.

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