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Higher ed leaders and lobbyists don't usually act with the quick strike tactics of a team of Navy SEALs. But a group of Michigan university presidents came about as close as you'll see this week in response to what one president called an "existential threat:" a state legislator's proposal to end the state's income tax.

House Bill 4001, introduced in Michigan's Legislature last month and approved by a committee last week, would slowly phase out Michigan's personal income tax over the next 40 years, steadily slashing the amount of money the state government would have to allocate to programs and services.

When that happens, public colleges and universities often bear the brunt of the cuts that inevitably ensue, because legislators view the institutions as having another major source of revenue (tuition dollars) that many other public agencies and services do not. (Of course, when colleges respond to budget cuts by raising tuitions, state legislators, on behalf of their constituents, often cry foul.)

"The potential impact ranges from very significant to existential," said Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan.

Legislators in the House put the bill on a fast track, scheduling a vote in the full House for Tuesday, immediately on the heels of a holiday weekend in which legislators were out of pocket.

The Michigan Association of State Universities, whose board of directors includes the presidents and chancellors of the state's 15 public institutions, was previously scheduled to have its winter meeting across the street from the state capitol on Tuesday, as the legislature resumed work after the Presidents' Day holiday. 

With lawmakers moving fast, Michigan's public higher ed leaders felt they needed to, too. So over about a 24-hour span, they hatched a plan to turn their triennial meeting into an impromptu lobbying day.

"Given the extreme magnitude of the potential impact on higher education if the state income tax cut were to be passed, we felt it was important that we make a show of force of it," said Daniel J. Hurley, chief executive officer of the Michigan association.

About two-thirds of the association's presidents were in Lansing for the meeting, and they walked as a group over to the statehouse where they met with legislators and then held a news conference to make their case.

While the presidents are concerned first and foremost about protecting their own institutions' budgets, as one might expect, "that's not a winning argument," Schlissel acknowledged.

So they focused their conversations with legislators largely on other topics. The presidents first urged lawmakers to slow down; this group of House members, which includes 42 brand-new legislators, had been in session for all of four weeks, and "we encouraged them to be more deliberative in looking at the longer-term ramifications of completely disrupting the state’s budget," Hurley said.

The higher ed leaders also encouraged legislators to think about the broad ways in which a tax cut of this magnitude would impair the state's ability to "invest in our common future," Schlissel said.

After many years of economic turmoil in the late 1990s, Michigan's economy has strengthened in recent years, and draining Michigan's general fund would undermine the state's ability to spend money on infrastructure, education and other important priorities that drive the economy.

It's impossible to say for sure what impact the presidents had, but after a day of deliberations Tuesday -- the planned vote was delayed because advocates for the legislation didn't have sufficient support -- the bill's sponsors put forward a revision that would cut the tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent in a series of small steps over several years. That cut alone would drain more than $1 billion from state coffers. And late Wednesday night, the alternative measure failed, too.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who has proposed a sizable increase in higher education spending designed to get state support for the public universities back to the levels that preceded a 15 percent cut Snyder implemented in 2011, had opposed the income tax cut.

Asked whether he expected Michigan's university leaders to make a habit of their SWAT-team-like response, Hurley laughed. "Let's just say the timing coincided perfectly," he said, given that the presidents had previously planned to meet across the street from the legislature. "But I feel comfortable saying that the lawmakers took notice of this show in person."


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