This is part one of Andy Chou's interview with Dave Stafford, lobbyist for the Michigan Education Association.. Andy Chou: Mr. Stafford, Can you tell me a little bit about your job here at the MEA? What do you do on a daily basis? What does your regular day looks like?
Dave Stafford: Well, I don't think I have a specific regular day. Most of the days I am either working in the capital, discussing issues with the legislators and legislative staff, or testifying for committees, or I'm working out in our field offices with our members to try and keep them informed and to organize them to assist us in moving legislation dealing with representatives or senators, so it varies a lot from day to day. And in election time, I also spend some time working on elections. For candidates we're supporting.
Andy Chou: What did you do prior to working for MEA? How did you view MEA before you joined MEA and how have your views changed?
Dave Stafford: Well you have to keep in mind I have worked for MEA for forty years. And before that I was a teacher in Warren. MEA since I started teaching has been a union. It's the largest union of school employees in the state. And I am very staunchly pro-union. I always have been. I grew up in a union household. And unions have brought about prosperity that actually we're now losing because unions are being attacked and weakened. But I've always thought of the MEA as one of the most effective and democratic union is around. And I'm very pleased about that. And I don't think it's changed. I mean, before I got hired, or before I became a member, when I was teaching, I really didn't know much about it. But as I learned about it, it was an organization I want to be part of.
Andy Chou: Have what you've been advocating for the teachers different from all these years?
Dave Stafford: The issues changed but the basic process is the same. Different issues as we go forward in time. Some issues get resolved, other issues don't and they keep coming up. And then you get new issues that come up. It deals with school funding, with rights of employees in the schools, with school reform, with charter schools. I mean there's a wide gamut of issues. But they all are in the same general category. This year might have different issues than last year. It's the same kind of issue.
Andy Chou: You mentioned about school revenue, actually if you look at the data, the revenue for education in Michigan has not grown enough because of bad economic outlook in the long run and the short run. How does this impact the Michigan education as a whole and the Michigan teachers?
Dave Stafford: It has a very negative impact. If you adjust for inflation, you'll find that school revenue is actually going down. Proposal A was adopted by the voters in 1994 and it dedicated a whole package of taxes to funding K-12 education: part of the sales tax, part of the income tax, the real estate property tax, transfer tax, 18 million that's levied locally but it's considered part of the school aid on all non-homestead property, part of the tobacco tax. There's a 6 million property tax state wide that's part of it. And after the voters approved that, over the next six or seven years, the legislature enacted a whole series of tax cuts. Some of which affected the tax dedicated for schools. And today those tax cuts are causing the schools probably up to about a billion dollars a year that the schools are being deprived of because of those tax cuts, often for special interests or very narrow interest groups. But [those tax cuts are] knocking substantial chunks out of the school aid.
That has got us into the situation where salaries are being cut, benefits are being cut, teachers and other employees are being laid off, left and right, class sizes are going up, programs are being eliminated quite extensively in the local school districts. Because proposal A took away the right of the local community to say "we want to fund our schools". It took it completely away from them. Put it in the hands of the legislature. And the legislatures and the governors have taken often a meat cleaver to that funding. And said to the school districts "just live with it". So we are down probably a billion dollars a year in tax cuts which in turn is raising havoc with the schools and with the program kids get and the education kids get.
We're kind of going into the direction of California. Thirty years ago California had a stellar school system statewide. And they adopted a very restrictive tax reduction and funding reduction for schools. And if you look now, California schools [have] fallen, substantially, in comparison to other states. And we seem to be going in that same direction.
Andy Chou: You mentioned Proposal A takes the right of education from community to the legislatures. S: the funding. A: What do you mean?
Dave Stafford: Prior to Proposal A, school districts were allowed to levy property taxes to fund their local schools. And the state provided additional funding with some effort to equalize it. Still, you had wide disparities in the amount of funding per pupil depending on the property values in the community. A community like Farmington, where there's a lot of commercial and some industrial, but particularly a lot of commercial, or Dearborn where there's a lot of industrial property which has a high value but doesn't generate any kids. They generate a lot of money [from taxes] to educate their kids. You take strictly a bedroom community where it's all residential or an agricultural community where they don't have any commercial or industrial property use. They generated much less revenue.
But the bulk of the revenue came locally. And the People could decide "We're willing to pay an additional two million or five million in local property tax to fund our local schools." Proposal A took that right away from them. It eliminated probably about twenty or twenty five million of local property tax on individual homes. But it's said, "You, the school district voters cannot vote to tax yourselves anymore to fund your schools. We're going to take the money in Lansing and we're going to dole it out to you, from Lansing," which is what we've done. And since that went into effect in 1994, the legislatures have been very irresponsible in cutting those taxes. Now the local community can't say we want to levy some but the state has been cutting the taxes. And they say we don't have the money. Well, we don't have the money because we cut the taxes.
Andy Chou: So you mean Proposal A has changed the revenue source from a part from community and mostly state revenue. Because the change of the source of funding, the local has lost its right to decide how much funding they can have.
Dave Stafford: Right, the local. It absolutely took away the right of the local community to increase local taxes to pay for schools. It set a whole package of taxes that are dedicated to the school aid fund but then the legislatures have cut those taxes over the years. But the schools have to live with whatever goes in the school aid fund. It gets doled out to the local schools. Prior to Proposal A, funding was predominately local with some state support. Now it's exclusively in the hands of the state and the local community has no say over. That has had a devastating effect on local control, and it's had an overall very negative effect on schools.
Andy Chou: Some say our current tax system produces unstable revenues for education and propose to change it. Do you think our current tax system is good enough as a stable revenue source to fund our education? If not, is there a better system?
Dave Stafford: I think we've demonstrated now for fifteen years that the current system isn't adequately funding schools. We still have a wide disparity, although it's not as wide as it's used to be. But we still have a wide disparity in how much revenue per pupil goes into a school. [It can be] anywhere from $7,400 per pupil up to about $14,000.
But you also had a number of very devastating tax cuts that have destabilized it. The concept of the system is not unstable. What makes it unstable is legislative enactments of tax cuts. Some of them are very broad based tax cuts. Some of them are narrow. And they've just devastated the funding. They just really destabilized it.
As a general concept, we would propose a low-rate, broad-based tax on individuals and the same thing, on businesses. Our business taxes are a mess largely because they are targeted to some special interest businesses and they don't apply a uniform, reasonable rate that is a pro-business rate. Some would say businesses shouldn't pay any taxes which probably isn't a tenable position. But there has to be a way to come up with a relatively stable, broad based, low rate tax system. I don't know if there's the political will to do it.
And really you talk about school funding; the general fund has been hit harder than the schools by all the tax cuts. If you look at the general fund, the state's general fund probably has down by about the same revenue as it did in 1990. And if you adjust it for inflation, you probably have to go back to about 1970 to get the inflation-adjusted revenue to where it was about then. And again, it's largely because of tax cuts. And just aside what's really funny is most people think we're a high tax state. If you look at the data, we're a moderately low tax state. And that's because of the changes in the last fifteen, twenty years.
Andy Chou: Recently there have been talks about expanding sales tax to services. Would you agree on that?
Dave Stafford: That might be one way to do it. I heard an analogy once it hardly seem fair to somebody that somebody of some means in one day in his life, he went and got a haircut in a high end salon, paid $40 or $50 for haircut and no tax on that. They went to pay a couple hundred dollars on a round of golf at an exclusive golf course and no tax on that. But a single mother with three or four kids with $20,000 went to the grocery store and spent $200 and paid tax on part of it but not all of it but then want to buy school clothes for kids and spent $100 and paid tax on that. And somehow, he doesn't think it's quite fair. And that's part of what you get into whether or not you tax services. But it would certainly be one way. It would probably make it possible to lower the tax rate. But again, you're spreading it evenly to everyone.