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The price of revenue

*As bills make their way through both houses of the Legislature, it is becoming clear what kinds of "reform" measures the Republican caucuses in both houses will demand in return for allowing a vote on new or increased taxes.* In the House, a bill is set to come to the floor which would limit health care plans offered to teachers by local districts, pegging them to the plans offered to the non-unionized civil service. In the Senate, a package of bills would encourage public employers, including schools, to band together into large pools to negotiate for health insurance. The Senate plan has attracted bipartisan support as well as support from public sector unions, with the notable exception of the MEA(Michigan Education Association). ("See our earlier coverage.":http://www.miparentsforschools.org/node/76) Changes to the teacher's retirement system just recently passed the Senate ("see earlier story":http://www.miparentsforschools.org/node/85). Some other bills recently introduced in the House make it clear that the effort to score political points will not end soon. The House measure on health care, "HB 4803":http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2007-HB-4803 introduced by Lorence Wenke (R-Richland), would bar school districts from offering employee health benefits that were more expensive (to the district) than equivalent coverage offered to state civil service employees not covered by collective bargaining agreements. About 30 percent of civil service workers fall into that category, with their benefits set by the Civil Service Employee Relations Board. This measure would result in an effective cap on the cost of health care to districts, though districts could continue to offer a range of plans with the extra cost being borne by teachers. No figures are available for how much this measure might save school districts in health costs. The Senate health care measures ("SB 418 and companion bills":http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2007-SB-0418 introduced by Sen. Mark Jansen, Republican from suburban Grand Rapids, and colleagues) take a different approach, setting up a system for health insurance pools for public and school employees. The rationale for the measure is to enable school districts and local governments to create insurance risk pools large enough to negotiate for lower rates from health care providers. While supported by several public-sector unions, the measure has been opposed by the MEA and its affiliate MESSA(Michigan Education Special Services Association), which currently provides health coverage to about half Michigan's teachers. The real sticking point is the requirement that health plans release their claims and cost data for each employee group for which they have offered coverage. The sponsors of the plan say it would allow the new insurance pools to solicit lower bids for health coverage. MESSA argues that it would allow private carriers to "cherry-pick" the least costly groups, leaving MESSA covering the employee populations who use their insurance more (and are thus more expensive to cover). Amendments to prevent such cherry-picking were stripped from the bill on the floor of the Senate, and its precise future is uncertain. The real issue behind the debate on this bill is the history of attempts by Republicans in the legislature to undercut the influence of the teacher's union, the MEA, by going after its non-profit affiliate, MESSA. Forcing MESSA to release claims data would make it easier for other providers to compete for teacher health care contracts, potentially lowering costs (proponents argue that the savings might be as much as $220 million per year). But some lawmakers clearly hope that reducing the impact of MESSA will undercut the strength of the MEA by diluting the value of the benefits it offers to teachers. Finally, several bills introduced after the FY07 budget agreement was reached show that there are still points to be scored. One measure, HB 4867 introduced by Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) and a host of Republican colleagues, would require that any mid-year proration of school payments occur before March 1st - shortfalls found after that date would be covered by a transfer from the state general fund. Clearly, lawmakers found potential cuts to education so late in the year more dangerous than calls to cut general state spending. Another measure (HB 4857), introduced by Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, Republican from suburban Kalamazoo, requires school districts to expend at least 65% of their operating budget on pupil instruction, and certify this to the state Superintendent of Education. Finally, Rep. Fran Amos (R-Waterford) just introduced a bill (HB 4980) that would prohibit a school district or ISD(Intermediate School Districts) from using public funds to hire a lobbyist or to engage in lobbying, on pain of losing 5% of its state aid for the year. Clearly, the feeling is that teachers and school officials should be seen in the classroom, but not heard in Lansing.
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