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House bill would send retirement savings to schools, but it's not the final word

Main gallery of the Michigan House of Representatives
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

The Michigan House of Representatives adopted a bill Tuesday that would reduce the amount of money the state puts into the public school teacher retirement fund and allow it to go back to school districts.

Democrats say the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System is on track to having its obligations fully funded and the state has what’s essentially a windfall worth hundreds of millions of dollars that can be turned to other education-related purposes.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to further invest in Michigan’s kids,” said Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), a former teacher who chairs the House Education Committee. “We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.”

The bill passed but with the minimum number of votes required to clear the House.

Representative Sarah Lightner (R-Springport), the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said the move is short-sighted.

“We must continue to pay down the debt in the system in order to keep our commitment to our teachers, ease the burden on our local school districts and free up more resources to put into our classrooms,” she said.

There is also a Senate bill that has a similar intention. But there is a split, even among Democrats, about how to use the money if it does not go into the teacher retirement fund.

In her budget proposal, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, called for the money to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, a major policy priority in her effort to create a free statewide education system that goes from pre-school to at least two years of community college.

But Koleszar said that is not part of his bill.

“That’s a conversation I know the governor’s been having,” he said.” I know that hasn’t necessarily been worked out yet. This just simply returns money to schools.”

The Legislature plans to wrap up work this week on budget bills and send them to Whitmer’s desk before beginning its summer recess.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.