OPINION: Kevin Cotter’s open container conviction doesn’t matter — but his higher education record does

By John Irwin

Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter

It’s par for the course in American politics to dig up some sort of controversy, no matter how insignificant to a person’s ability to perform in office, from a candidate’s past as campaign season reaches its peak.

It’s a tactic as old as American politics itself. Take a look at the infamous 1828 presidential campaign, for instance. President John Quincy Adams’ campaign attacked Democratic nominee Andrew Jackson’s ailing wife as a “bigamist.” This was largely true, but it clearly had nothing to do with Jackson’s ability as a potential president.

Despite the personal attacks, voters decided to elect Jackson anyway.

Fast-forward nearly 200 years later, and Mt. Pleasant voters are facing down another personal yet mostly insignificant controversy. It’s not nearly as dramatic as Adams’ attacks on Jackson’s wife, but they might be just as irrelevant.

State Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, was pulled over 14 years ago as a 22-year-old and ticketed for transporting open intoxicants in a vehicle, a misdemeanor.

When Cotter, who paid the $255 fine for the ticket via mail, filled out a questionnaire for MLive earlier this year asking if he had ever been convicted of a crime, he said “no.” A minor controversy involving the two-term representative running for re-election ensued, and Cotter explained the discrepancy to MLive:

Cotter admits he was caught driving with an open container of alcohol in his vehicle 14 years ago. The state lawmaker said he does not believe the offense, categorized as a misdemeanor in state law, would be considered a “crime” for the purposes of the questionnaire.

“This situation is not a new development,” he said. “I owned up to this very situation four years ago.”

Cotter said he said he pleaded guilty to the offense in an article published by the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun around the time of his first election to state office. Cotter said he was told the crime was merely a civil infraction during the background check process that occurred before he attended law school.

“My understanding is that it is not a misdemeanor,” he said. “I could be incorrect.”

Section 257.624a of the Michigan Vehicle Code, under which Cotter was charged in Gratiot County’s 65B District Court, defines the offense as a misdemeanor.

Cotter said he had no intention to hide anything and believed the correct answer to the question about committing a crime, for him, was “no.”

“I guess it comes down to how you define a crime,” he said.

It’s somewhat comical and a bit concerning that Cotter, a graduate of Central Michigan University and Cooley Law School, apparently did not know his open container conviction was considered a crime.

But it’s not a legitimate reason to vote against him.

It was a relatively minor ticket from Cotter’s days as a college student, and he has come clean about it.

Mount Pleasant voters, especially CMU students, would be better served by largely ignoring this minor controversy and instead looking at Cotter’s record as a state representative.

One of the first major votes Cotter, the vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, made as a state representative in 2011 was in favor of Gov. Rick Snyder’s first budget, which cut higher education funding by 15 percent.

CMU Insider has detailed the consequences of that major cut, and others before it, on CMU. It’s left students footing more of the bill for higher education costs than ever before. Thousands of students at CMU and throughout the state are deeper in debt thanks to the cut.

Cotter, Snyder and the other Republicans who advocated for the cut in 2011 as a cost-saving measure have since incrementally increased higher education funding, including a 6.1-percent increase this year. But CMU students still find themselves receiving much less help in the form of state appropriations than they had in the past.

The goal, Snyder, Cotter and others say, is to slowly increase higher education funding back to pre-cut levels by the end of the governor’s second term in office.

That sounds all well and good (and any increase would be welcome in a heavily politicized climate), but restoring higher education funding to pre-2011 levels would require serious reinvestment.

Michigan’s 15 public universities received $1.42 billion in total appropriations from the state for the 2010-11 fiscal year. After being slashed by 15 percent to $1.2 billion the next year, higher education funding has since increased to $1.34 billion this year.

Higher education funding would need to increase by about $80 million, or 6 percent, from this year to reach 2010-level funding.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

That $1.42 billion or so would not have the same buying power this year as it did in 2010.

In today’s dollars, state appropriations equaled about $1.55 billion in 2010. That would mean if Snyder, Cotter and co. decided to increase higher education funding to the 2010 levels after adjusting for inflation next year, they would need to raise appropriation levels by 15.7 percent, or by around $200 million.

It’s hard to understate just how drastic that original 15-percent cut to higher education was, and it’s going to take a lot from Cotter, Snyder and other lawmakers to truly restore funding, as they say they will. And they need to be pressed as to whether they will be able to follow through on their promises from constituents and journalists.

Discussing a relatively minor misdemeanor from 14 years ago does nothing but distract voters.

John Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.

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