Editor’s note: After 11 years of service on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Democrat Jeff Irwin was elected by voters of District 53 to serve as their representative in the Michigan House of Representatives. The district covers most of Ann Arbor, plus parts of Scio, Pittsfield and Ann Arbor townships.
In each of the first two months of his term, Irwin has held meetings for constituents in local Ann Arbor coffee houses – Cafe Verde and Espresso Royale. On Saturday, Feb. 26, The Chronicle caught up with Irwin after his talk with constituents and spoke with him for about an hour. The conversation included a discussion of Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget overview. [.pdf of budget overview]
In presenting the interview below, The Chronicle’s conversation with Irwin has been reorganized and edited in some places to achieve greater coherence and focus.
Last Saturday, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-53rd District) entertained questions and concerns from constituents on a variety of topics, including local interest in the future use of the top of the underground parking structure, which is under construction on the city-owned Library Lot between Fifth and Division streets.
Three blocks east from Irwin’s conversation with constituents, a constant parade of concrete mixers on Division Street headed south across Liberty to the east edge of the Library Lot construction site. They dumped their loads into a pump, and through the course of the day, workers poured around 6,300 cubic yards of concrete. Coincidentally, in his subsequent conversation with The Chronicle, Irwin introduced images involving concrete and construction – he was drawing an analogy between teacher contracts and construction contracts.
We’ve chronicled this conversation in a Q&A format, divided into seven sections: (1) a budget bright spot in Medicaid; (2) education as an area of concern; (3) a lack of sufficient, specific goals associated with the budget; (4) labor relations in general; (5) labor relations in Washtenaw County; (6) Irwin’s relationship with former fellow county commissioner Mark Ouimet, a Republican who’s also now a state rep; and (7) a partisan imbalance in committee appointments.
Budget Bright Spot: Medicaid
AAC: In terms of sound, Espresso Royale is really poor for eavesdropping. I was just trying to hang out on the periphery [of your conversation with constituents], and I was basically just able to identify general topics.
But I did hear you say there is one bright spot in the governor’s budget. Which is?
Irwin: Oh, you didn’t hear what I said about that? Basically it’s related to Medicaid. There was a question that came up about Medicaid funding and what the direction was on that. And everything that I have seen in the governor’s budget so far is that he is not looking at hitting Medicaid – which is really good for a number of reasons.
It’s good obviously for the health care community. It’s good for the folks who are receiving the benefit, and it’s also good because every dollar we spend on Medicaid … usually Washington D.C. is sending you two or three dollars to match that. Conversely, every dollar that we cut out of Medicaid, means instead of losing one worker, we are losing three workers. …
Budget: Why Reduce Education Allocations?
Irwin: [The proposed budget] actually has more than a 15% cut [in higher education].
AAC: I thought it was 15%.
Irwin: I have heard an even bigger number recently, but the number I understand is actually 22%. The way they get to the 15% is that it’s a 15% flat cut to everybody, period. Then there is another 7% cut to add up to the total of a 22% cut. The other 7% cut is being put into a best practices thing – sort of like with the local government business. So if you do certain things at the university, you get access to that 7%.
AAC: And when you say the “local government business,” you are talking about taking the statutory state shared revenue, eliminating it, and replacing it with …
Irwin: … a competitive something that no one knows what the details are, yet. Right. And they’re doing the same thing in the university setting with that other 7%. So there is really a 22% cut. Now, the other day I heard a 26% number, but I don’t know where that comes from yet. But truth be told, I’m still trying to make sure that I understand these numbers and what they really mean, because …
AAC: … so it’s too soon to be trying to figure out, “All right, let’s not cut higher education and instead do something else”?
Irwin: Not necessarily. At the big level of talking about the concepts and not getting into the level of detail about this precise dollar, there has been some thinking put into that. … If you are going to bring in $1.5 billion in revenue – $1 billion in new taxes on pensions and another $330 million in new taxes on the working poor – then there is plenty of money to not cut education.
The reason why the governor’s budget has to cut so deeply in education, even with all that new tax increase, is because he also wants to give a huge tax increase to the corporate community.
So what I would say … my initial counterproposal is: How will that we fix the Michigan Business Tax in a revenue-neutral way? How do we make it a simpler tax – that’s a good idea. But let’s do it in a way that is revenue neutral. That way we don’t have to pay for it with a $1.5 billion tax cut for the corporate community, and we can use that money to invest in what is really going to drive economic development and jobs in Michigan, which is education. … [Gov. Snyder] campaigned on the idea that we want to create a climate for economic growth, we want Michigan to be a more prosperous place …
AAC: … Michigan is open for business …
Irwin: … right. We want to create this fertile environment for people to be prosperous, right? And then his first major proposal is to cut the heart out of what is the single most important element of prosperity and economic growth, which is a good education system!
Nobody wants to move to a place, and nobody wants to bring their company to a place, where they are not going to be able to attract talented workers, and where they are not going to have their kids be able to go to good schools and that sort of thing, right?
Now, that’s not true of every industry. There are some industries where a lower tax rate is the only thing. And there are some industries for whom recruiting top talent is the most important thing. Interestingly, I would say that we as a state, our strategy should be to go after as many of those business development and economic opportunities at the end of the scale where top talent is their priority. Because those are the best jobs, and the longest-lasting jobs, and jobs that really relate to the knowledge-based economy and all that kind of stuff, right?
Whereas some of these folks, who care only about what your tax rate is, those are the lowest paying jobs, with the least economic spinoff, without the health benefits – it’s like mining or something where they just want to be able to suck that rock out of the ground at the lowest possible rate, pay the lowest possible royalties, and the lowest possible taxes, and then head back to wherever Rio Tinto’s [a mining company] headquarters is.
AAC: At the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s economic development committee meeting last week on Wednesday, Jennifer Owens from Ann Arbor SPARK gave a presentation to the committee, giving them an overview of what SPARK does. And one of the things they do is they make recruiting visits to convince companies to expand their operations to Ann Arbor.
[Note: In 2010 four such trips were made, which resulted in four companies deciding to expand operations to the Ann Arbor area, which translates into 170 jobs, according to Owens. In addition to the four expansions due to recruitment trips, SPARK also counts an additional 10 expansions to the Ann Arbor area as a part of its recruitment program. ]
And someone asked her, “What is the thing that is the tipping point? What cinches the deal for Ann Arbor, when we manage to cinch a deal?” Her answer was: availability of talent.
But Ann Arbor is way different than the rest of Michigan. … I’m just trying to suggest that perhaps what is self-evidently a good public [education] policy for the Ann Arbor region may not be the best public policy for the entire state.
Irwin: I totally disagree, and here’s why. Because it’s not just about higher ed and universities, it’s also about K-12. People want to live somewhere where they know their kids are going to go to good schools. The decline of Detroit is all wrapped up in racial acrimony and other issues, industrial disinvestment and all that stuff – there’s a lot of things going on in the decline of the city of Detroit. But one of the big things is as you try to attract young professionals back into the city, it’s really hard, because if they want to ever have kids, they don’t want to send their kids to a school district that has the worst statistics in terms of achievement.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the gentleman named Myron Orfield, who was a Minneapolis state senator … he did some groundbreaking research about 20 years ago. He wrote this book called “Metro Politics” about the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, and he tried to make the argument – very successfully, I think –that schools drive economic development. I think that’s true for K-12, and K-12 is all over the state.
And the other thing is, we’re talking about macroeconomics right now, right? And the goal of the state on one level should be to try to create this macroeconomic climate for growth in Michigan and help everybody be more prosperous, maximize our gross state product – I mean, that is a macroeconomic statement.
But there’s also the microeconomic side of it, right? The state is supposed to be working for the people of the state of Michigan, all of the people of the state of Michigan, and if we provide the people of the state of Michigan individually with education that gives them the training and the skills and knowledge to be successful individually in their lives – both in the job environment and in the home environment, and in every other environment in which they may seek to operate – that’s a benefit to those people individually. … So that’s my argument.
Better Budget Metrics
Irwin: What I think [Snyder] should have done as governor would be to say: “I’ve analyzed the situation in the state of Michigan, and here are our goals, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish, here’s what we think success looks like for the state of Michigan. So as we measure all these metrics that I like to talk about, here’s what’s that is all supposed to add up to.”
He didn’t do that. And I think that if he had done that, he would have been forced to reckon with the value of education in driving prosperity and the value of things like arts and culture.
ACC: When you say “goals,” what are some examples of the kind of goals you mean?
Irwin: … We want to graduate X-percent of our people from high school, we’d like to graduate this percent from college and we would like them when they graduate from high school to have this level of proficiency in these basic areas.
AAC: Hasn’t he done that with this budget proposal? Every section has metrics and scores, right?
[Irwin pulls out the budget proposal document. Leafing through it, AAC and Irwin identify the kind of pages mentioned by AAC. Irwin clarifies that 1,2,3 in the lefthand column are not scores, but rather keys to the types of measures: 1 = effectiveness measure; 2 = efficiency measure; 3 = quality measure. The trend arrows indicate a measure that is stable (horizontal, double-ended arrow), going the opposite of the desired direction (downward arrow), or improving (upward arrow).]
So for each of these items … for the things that are headed in the right direction, I think that implicit in this proposal is that we want to keep those things headed in the same direction. For anything that has performance stable, the goal is to make it better, and for those areas where performance is going down, the goal is to reverse that trend, like this – average cost per prisoner per year, $34,600 …
… so didn’t he already do what you are saying he should have done?
Irwin: What’s missing here is the number of people who are incarcerated. What’s missing here is the number of violent crimes going down. I feel that [Gov. Snyder] picked just a few things for these gigantic issue areas. There could be 200 metrics on this page, easily.
Of course he’s got to pick less than that, because that’s just insane, so he cherry-picked ones that he thinks are going to be easy to demonstrate progress with, rather than picking the important ones. Are these really the most important metrics for prison operations? I don’t think so. Cost is going to be one of the top ones … that’s one of the core ones. But … we’re talking about .07 escapes per 1,000 prisoners? This is not one of the top-line metrics for state government, in my opinion.
[reading aloud] “Prisoners past their earliest release dates who are on waiting lists for assaultive or sex offender therapy programs.” I guess that’s a fine metric, but is that the only quality measure that we’re going to look at?
Maybe they picked this one, because it’s a negative trend and they think they can turn it around by focusing on sex offender therapy programs, which is a tiny part of the budget. We should be talking about reducing recidivism. Reducing recidivism – I mean, that is the game in corrections. The reason why our corrections costs are insane, blowing the budget, is because we have two big problems – it’s not that there’s more crime, it’s not that there’s more violent crime, it’s not that there’s more people entering the criminal justice system. It’s that people stay in the system longer – average length of stay is way up – and the recidivism rate is way up.
So we have the same people revolving through and through for longer and longer. That is the core problem, and it’s not even recognized on his metrics – that’s what I’m talking about. And I think the same thing is true in a number of other areas.
… The metrics that, to me, are the most important in terms of effectiveness in education should be about student achievement, student graduation, class sizes, quality of teachers – if there’s a good way to measure that. Those are the kinds of things we need to measure.
And when you look at his proposal, I don’t see any result – given the money that’s being appropriated to K-12 – other than larger class sizes, and less attention being given to individual students. It’s been proven in study after study that the most important input to student achievement that the government has influence over is the quality of the teachers.
And the Republicans are in open warfare on teachers, across the board.
So this budget proposal is just one manifestation of that. I think that’s backwards. I think the state should be trying to work with teachers, lock arms with them and say, “How can we work together on making our kids be more educated and more successful people as they grow up?”
From Teachers to Labor in General …
AAC: When you say “open warfare on teachers,” what do you mean specifically?
Irwin: There are a number of things. One is gigantic cuts to education, which is going to mean more teachers will lose their jobs.
Two, the emergency financial manager bill, which has the effect of allowing the state to take over a school district, cancel all the union contracts, carte blanche.
Item number three is they’re trying to obviate the collective bargaining agreements, by legislatively requiring public employees in certain areas, including schools, to make certain contributions to their health care or their pension.
For instance, here’s a scenario for you. You and I are teachers. We have negotiated with the Ann Arbor Public Schools district for a certain rate, total compensation that includes benefits, wages, and all the fringes, work conditions, etc. And say it’s on a five-year contract. And then one year into the contract, the state legislature comes along and says, “Sorry, Dave and Jeff, we’ve determined outside of the collective bargaining agreement – that you just hammered out with your local school district – that you’re going to make an additional 20% contribution to your health care costs, because we think your health care costs are too high.”
That’s not a conversation that should be taking place in that way. It’s pulling the rug out from underneath collective bargaining agreements.
The analog to that would be to say if the state had a construction contract with Clark Construction to build a new building and they were submitting receipts to us, right? They build this building for us, and they finish, and they’ve got $1 million in outstanding receipts. And we say, “We don’t really think that concrete was worth $1 million. We think that concrete was worth $800,000, so that’s what we’re paying you, because we just passed a law after you built the building.”
AAC: That would save us a lot of money. [laugh]
Irwin: Wouldn’t it! But no one would ever think of doing that. Because breaking a contract in a private industry kind of relationship, that’s unthinkable.
AAC: … but as I understand the proposal, it’s to go into a collective bargaining contract and say, Okay from this point forward now, you’ll be paying more.
Irwin: Okay, the rest of your contract is void, we’ve replaced it, so a better analogy is …
AAC: … you go in and you say to Clark Construction, “Oh, the concrete you’ve already poured for $100 per yard, you will get paid for that. But for future yards of concrete that you pour, you get $80 a yard.” And Clark could say, “You know what? Screw that. I don’t want to be in this business anymore, or I’ll go pour my concrete someplace else in some other state.”
Irwin: We’ve already promised to pay them the same rate for the rest of the concrete, and we change the deal in the middle of the work?
AAC: Right. So that’s a better analogy than the one you sketched out. It’s one I think I can imagine people at least maybe arguing about, whereas the one you sketched out, you really just can’t argue about.
Irwin: Well, your analogy is better, so let’s use yours. We have a contract with Clark and it’s to pay them $100 per yard of concrete … I still think that there’s a strong analogy there. If we have a contract for $1 million to pour concrete, and they pour half the concrete, and then for the second half we say, “We’re only going to pay you $400,000 for that. You can stop in the middle if you want??”
AAC: Well, that’s not the way contract law works, as I understand it.
Irwin: No, of course not. But that’s what the Republicans are doing.
… and to Labor Relations in Washtenaw County
AAC: Okay, maybe that’s a knuckleheaded way of approaching it. But in the final analysis, the unions do need to make concessions, not just for the health of their unions, but for the health of the communities where they work.
Irwin: And they agree. And they do. Time and time again. That happened at [Washtenaw County when I was a commissioner]. And part of the reason that happened was that we had a respectful management-labor relationship and we said, “Look, the money situation has changed, so we need you to come to the table and renegotiate.” And you know what the unions do? They come to the table and they renegotiate. But when you tell them …
AAC: … in the county, perhaps they do. But in the city of Ann Arbor, I don’t know if you’re familiar with what they’re doing.
What the city is calling it – and I think it’s a fair label to put on their strategy – is to “align the budget strategy with the labor strategy.” They’ve said, “Here’s what we need. We need our open contracts to settle with no wage increases and with an additional contribution to the benefit plan, the same benefit plan that our non-union workers are on – and the same plan that some of our other unions have actually adopted. So we’re not asking you firefighters and police to adopt anything that others haven’t already accepted at the city. … So on that scenario, we still have a 2.5% reduction target.” So every department, their first task is to identify 2.5% in reductions. For departments that have workers not on the new city plan – which has increased contributions from workers to their health care – those departments are given an extra task, possibly up to a 4.0% reduction target. So police and fire … their reduction target is effectively 4.0%.
So that’s where it sits. And if I had to guess, those contracts would not be settled and signed before the city completes its budget process this year, and it’ll be settled by Act 312 arbitration.
AAC: What’s the difference between the city and the county? Did [recently retired county administrator] Bob Guenzel have a magic wand? And if so, did he hand it off to Verna McDaniel [the current county administrator]?
Irwin: Time will tell on that second question. Did he have a magic wand? No, but I mean, you probably know that before he was county administrator, he was corporation counsel and the lead person on labor negotiations. And before that he was a private attorney who was hired to do labor negotiations for various entities. So Bob came into the role of administrator keenly aware of the benefits of a positive labor-management relationship. And he worked very hard at that for 15 years in maintaining it.
Now will Verna be able to have the relationship with the union leaders? I think there’s a high likelihood of that. That was one of the biggest pluses that she brought to the table – that she had been human resources director, before she was deputy administrator, and she had a lot of experience with the labor-management piece and the human resources piece of the organization. And Washtenaw County, I think, has always had – at least the whole time I was there – a strong ethic of we’re-all-in-this-together, management and labor all work together to serve the people, and transparency and mutual respect.
When you maintain that transparency and mutual respect, when it’s real and not just stated, it makes a difference. Then when you go to a union and you say, “Our revenues are way down, we’re in a tough spot. There’s only so many answers – here’s what we think are the answers. Do you have any other potential answers you’d like to add to the list of answers? Because we’re eventually going to have to pick one of these, and neither of us really love any of these. So let’s work together.” … And after several months of doing that, sometimes you actually get to an amicable solution.
How Do You Have a Conversation?
AAC: So back to the budget, you’ve got 109 other [representatives in the state House] that you’ve got to have a conversation with, if you can. One of those is somebody you served on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners with. How many years were you and Mark Ouimet on the same board?
AAC: So six out of the 12 years you were on the board?
Irwin: I was there for 11, actually. I came in on an odd year, in ’99. And Mark came along, I believe, in 2004.
AAC: So you have six years of experience working with him.
Irwin: And he’s right next door to me, too.
AAC: When you say “next door,” you mean …?
Irwin: Our offices in the House office building. They start out one, two, three all the way up to 110. So…
AAC: … so it goes 52 [Ouimet's district number], 53 [Irwin's district number] …
Irwin: … so we are right next to each other, yeah.
AAC: So if you need to talk to a Republican, there is one right next door, who will actually answer the door when you knock.
Irwin: Yes, he’s willing to have a conversation with me, usually.
AAC: Usually? [laugh]
Irwin: Well, yeah, I mean, sometimes people are busy!
AAC: So Mark is obviously not like an inside man for you in the Republican Party, but he is somebody who is a Republican. And if there are bridges to be built or foundations to be built on, he would be a logical choice, yes?
Irwin: Yes, of course. Mark is a friend and he is willing to talk with me about these issues and that is valuable. That relationship has value to me.
AAC: Have you seen any ways in which that relationship has benefited citizens of Michigan already?
Irwin: That relationship? I’m not entirely sure, because it’s hard to evaluate, particularly this early. But there have definitely been some issues that we have talked about, where I have expressed some concerns about maybe the process, where I’ve expressed concerns about the details of certain bills that have been going through.
Did that alter his thinking about them? I’m not entirely sure – it’s hard for me to know exactly. But it certainly may have. And I think that one of the things that Mark brings to the table regardless of how he votes on issues and everything is sort of a culture of civility and decency to the loyal opposition. I don’t know for a fact, but I think that internal to his caucus, he’s probably saying, “Well, you know, we want to vanquish our enemies, but we do not need to burn down their villages and take their women.”
AAC: So on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, he was the loyal opposition. [When Ouimet and Irwin served, Ouimet was one of two Republicans on the 11-member board.]
Irwin: I think that is maybe part of it too, that he knows what it’s like to be in the minority. And he knows that sometimes when you’re in the minority, but you have valid points to make, and when the majority actually listens to you and maybe takes some of those valid points, then maybe it’s good for the world, it’s good for public policy. Mark told me that when I was chair of the [Washtenaw County] board, he felt welcomed into the conversation and I certainly worked hard to welcome him into the conversation. Because I think that’s what a good leader does.
Do we still have that relationship? Yeah. Is the shoe on the other foot now? Yeah. Could the goodwill and a good relationship that I have built up with him be somehow helpful on a public policy concern? I certainly hope so. Has it already? I’m not sure that it has. But we have talked about some things.
AAC: Have any of those things been about the budget?
Irwin: No, we haven’t talked about the budget. That budget bomb dropped a week ago now. You know, the numbers themselves didn’t come out until midweek this week … I have not talked to Mark about it at all. I may have talked to him about it in passing, you know, “Holy Cow, the governor is really taking it out on education isn’t he?!” Maybe like the kind of passing shot like that, but no real conversation about that yet.
Stacking the Appropriations Committee
AAC: What is the breakdown of Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee?
Irwin: This is one of the dirty little secrets hasn’t really been talked about statewide…
AAC: … you can talk about it right now.
Irwin: That’s what I’m going to do! When the Republican Speaker [James "Jase" Bolger] assumed the power to populate the committees structure in this latest session …
AAC: … but, to be clear, this is an ordinary power, right? He’s not grabbing power, when he came into this role – it’s the power that anybody as Speaker has …
Irwin: … precisely. This is the normal role of the Speaker, to choose how many Democrats and Republicans are on each committee. And what the Speaker did was he pushed the envelope – further than I have ever seen it, at least, and further than the last Democratic speaker – pushed it in terms of what the balance of Democrats versus Republicans is going to be on all these committees.
So even though there are 47 Democrats and 63 Republicans in the House of Representatives – meaning that the ratio is not even 1.5:1 – the ratio of Republicans to Democrats on the committees across the board is much greater than that – they are often 2:1. So he pushed the partisan makeup of the committees, both in appropriations and elsewhere, to be even more heavily Republican than the actual body itself is.
AAC: But he could appoint only Republicans if he wanted to.
Irwin: I think he could. But I think that would look so bad that they wouldn’t do that. There may be something in the House rules that says you have to have at least one member – I mean, I have read the rules but I don’t remember all the details.
AAC: What is the breakdown [of Democrats to Republicans] for appropriations?
Irwin: The breakdown for the appropriations committee – I don’t know the total breakdown, we would have to look that up. I don’t know off the top of my head. [Note: For the 27-member appropriations committee, the breakdown is 17 Republicans to 10 Democrats. By way of another example, the agriculture committee consists of 10 Republicans and six Democrats. .pdf of all standing committee assignments]
But on some of the subcommittees, the ones that are smaller, there will be only one Democrat, and usually three Republicans on some of the subcommittees. Now on some of the bigger subcommittees – like school aid, for instance – I think there’s probably like five Republicans and two Democrats, or like six and three, maybe.
But for the most part, Speaker Bolger pushed the envelope on partisanship with respect to committee assignments, and did almost a 2:1 partisan majority for Republicans on the policy committees and the appropriations committee – when really it should’ve been close to 1.5:1. It’s a huge difference, really.
And the other thing that they are saying very publicly: “If you Democrats want to make amendments, you’ve got to do it in committee. We’re not interested in hearing amendments on the floor – that’s too late. Introduce or amend in committees, that’s the way this process is supposed to work – where we have even a greater part of the majority and we can squelch your amendments even more easily!”
AAC: So the budget is essentially chopped apart at the subcommittee level in appropriations, which in a lot of ways makes it bite-sized chunks…
Irwin: … if your mouth really big…. They are still huge. The school aid budget is $14 billion or something like that.
AAC: But it’s a way of dividing things so that people can focus on, say, one or two or three issues as opposed to 12.