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by Christopher Klaver, CIO

Do Elected Officials Really Need Raises?

Posted: April 17, 2019 12:46 PM

Members of the State Officers Compensation Commission will spend the next couple of months finding a way to make whatever recommendations they make on pay for top elected officials relevant but the current makeup of the Legislature, a supportive vote, or any vote at all, seems unlikely.

Is rejecting pay raises for those top officials the wrong move?

There are some obvious arguments in favor of pay boosts for at least some of those top officials.

For the justices, pay for lower court judges is catching up since they are now tied to pay raises for non-union state employees rather than other elected officials. Until a few years ago, judges in the Court of Appeals, circuit courts and district courts only got raises when the Supreme Court did, which meant not often.

The executive branch saw salaries for underlings surpass the boss several years ago. All of the department directors make more than the governor and lieutenant governor before the latters' expense allowances (and some with those allowances).

There is not really a parallel for legislators, though top professional staff have long made more than members in both chambers.

Workplace logic has long said that the top levels should make more than those they supervise and more than those with similar leadership positions in smaller organizations.

What, then, would be the right amount? The chief executive of a similar-sized company would see pay and benefits in the multiple millions of dollars. While the economy is pretty good and revenues relatively strong, and projected to remain there, pulling that kind of money out of various programs to pay elected officials would be political suicide for everyone currently in office (I'm not sure even the opponents would survive that).

Pay should also keep up with inflation, goes the wisdom. Work satisfaction is tied to at least being able to maintain your standard of living.

That would mean more than a 30 percent raise for everyone to cover inflation from the last raise in 2002 until the new raises would take effect in 2021 (decisions by SOCC now take effect for the next Legislature).

The backlash for the 38 percent raises for legislators in 2001, designed to catch them up for inflation, caused the current backlash against pay raises and the change in process from the Legislature having to reject the SOCC recommendations to having to approve it.

So that much is likely out.

The key driver of pay, though, is recruiting: if a business or industry cannot find enough workers to fill jobs, pay increases until people are willing to consider the job and make the investment in training to get it.

There has yet to be a vacancy in any of the statewide elected posts go uncontested. Even without pay increasing, people are willing to put up the money (sometimes their own, often others') to obtain a legislative seat, an executive office or the top court.

Obviously, the full pay and benefits package is sufficient to attract people to the jobs and to work to keep them.

Could better pay attract better candidates? Possibly, but it is hard to prove a negative and most people who run for office will say they do so to serve, not for the money.

Should SOCC recommend raises, then, for the various offices? Sure, everyone deserves an occasional pay raise as long as they are doing a good enough job.

Will the Legislature take it up? Not likely as long as there is not a crisis that drives a need for more money to those posts.

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Charges, Redactions Cause FOIA Challenges

Posted: December 26, 2018 5:24 PM

Filing, and receiving, a Freedom of Information Act request sounds simple: ask for documents, pay the copying costs and receive the copies.

In most cases, that is likely the process but sometimes things are a bit more complicated – for both sides. A recent Gongwer News Service FOIA request showed the haziness both of setting a price and of determining what can be provided.

In the wake of the Line 5 discussions and the revelations that the line has areas of its outer coating missing (a few small spots; well, maybe a lot and some are sizable), we wanted to get an idea of what some top state officials thought of pipeline owner Enbridge Energy and what kind of discussions they were having with each other and with the company.

Targeting some key dates in the process, we sought some nine months of emails to and from key players, an acknowledged tall order.

Initial estimates came back with a not unreasonable $232 from one agency and $218 from the other to copy and review the emails in question. We paid the required deposits and waited.

What came back were new estimates: $675 and more than $400, respectively. A little harder to stomach, especially without knowing what we would get in the end.

Several weeks and several rounds of appeals later, the departments agreed to provide what we had requested for essentially their original quotes. It is not clear what role our being a media organization and our copying the public information folks at the departments played in the departments agreeing to reduce their costs.

The result: 5,886 pages of emails, many (as discussed in a prior blog) representing multiple copies of messages, and some lengthy reports, as they were added to discussions.

Many hours of review at the recipient end showed what we were hoping to see, and probably much about which we did not care, was hidden behind black boxes. The departments had found much of the discussion about messaging and press releases was frank communication and so is exempt based on the departments' conclusion preserving frank communication was more important than the public value of the documents being made public (betting there were some very interesting words blacked out after administration folks found out Attorney General Bill Schuette had put out his own release on one of the reports).

Most challenging was some 10 pages where so much was redacted it was impossible to tell whether it the messages might be relevant. Several had not only the body but the subject covered.

Emails also fell to the black marker where an assistant attorney general was added to a message. Several messages were completely open until a copy was sent to the assistant attorney general. Then whole messages, including pieces previously considered open, were redacted under attorney-client privilege.

So decades into both the Freedom of Information Act and the use of email and there are still some bugs to work out. Large bugs, the size of ones found in horror films.

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Libertarians Taking Baby Steps To Major Party

Posted: November 1, 2018 3:57 PM

Right or wrong, fundraising has become a stand-in for political viability.

We here at Gongwer and other political reporters and pundits look at how much each candidate has raised to determine, in most cases, who has the greatest probability of winning. Funding is why, for instance, the Democrats have commanded so much attention in the Republican-leaning 8th and 11th U.S. House districts.

There are this year three "major" parties on the ballot: Republican, Democrat and Libertarian. Ask any reporter (or anyone but a Libertarian), though, and they will talk about the two "major" parties. The Democratic and Republican parties field the candidates who win elections. A good year for a third-party candidate would be 5 percent. On the rare occasion a minor party candidate breaks into the high single digits, it's cause for shock.

Campaign funding follows this reality. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer raised $4.5 million since the primary and Republican Bill Schuette raised $3 million. In contrast, Libertarian Bill Gelineau raised $85,509.

Mr. Gelineau's total take is a rounding error to Mr. Schuette or Ms. Whitmer.

Looked at another way, though, the party is moving toward the "major" status it earned in 2016 by collecting enough voters to qualify for primary ballot access.

Mr. Gelineau has raised five times what any Libertarian gubernatorial candidate has this century.

Gregory Creswell seemed to be a prolific fundraiser and, for the 2006 pre-general report, had $16,061. Mary Buzuma, the 2014 candidate, raised $920 by this point in the election, up from the 2010 candidate, Ken Proctor, who received a waiver for campaign reports.

What Mr. Gelineau raised will not be enough to put him in the governor's office – or even a competitive state House seat – but at least it's enough for some billboards and maybe building toward more money and votes in the years ahead.

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A Betting Person Would Back James – Really

Posted: October 10, 2018 1:36 PM

A new round of betting odds came out this week that make Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James in Michigan and Democrats nationally look really good, if I were a betting man.

But all the polls say Mr. James is behind U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), you say. And Republicans appear in good shape to hold the U.S. Senate, you say.

Exactly. All the money in betting is on the long odds and BetDSI has given Mr. James some of the longest odds in the country.

Mr. James is rated +5,000 compared to -20,000 for Ms. Stabenow.

So a $100 bet on Mr. James to win would yield $5,100 if he does. In comparison, $20,000 dropped on Ms. Stabenow would bring in $20,100.

If I were a betting man, I'd say run out and put that $100 on Mr. James. Then convince all your friends and neighbors, most of whom polls show are backing Ms. Stabenow, to vote for him and watch the money roll in on November 7.

The parties are a little closer nationally, but the Democrats taking the U.S. Senate is +355 compared to -680 for the Republicans keeping it. A bet on the Democrats is potentially much more lucrative.

As I say, if I were a betting man, I would do those things. I am not because I have much better things to do with $200 then pay it to a bookie.

Like play the slots.

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Candidate Has Money Technique For Campaigning

Posted: September 12, 2018 3:30 PM

Larry Hutchinson is not on the ballot for 2018 but he is on currency.

Mr. Hutchinson, a Lansing resident who is running a write-in campaign for governor, is using his campaign funds to spread his name around the state. Literally.

He has been writing “Elect Larry Hutchinson Governor of Michigan 11/6/2018” on bills ($1s, $2s, $20s and $100s based on the pictures on his Facebook page) since at least early June, though his June 7 post (“Back at it”) indicates that is not the first batch of bills to bear his campaign slogan.

According to his candidate Facebook page, Mr. Hutchinson has a history of running for office, unsuccessfully, and using messages on money to advertise his campaign.

“I've been doing this for fifteen years,” he says in response to a concern raised by another on his site that he is defacing currency.

His first failed campaign was for mayor of Flint in 2003. He has since run for Flint City Council, Lansing City Council, House and Senate.

The tactic could raise an interesting campaign finance question: if he circulates more than $1,000 in marked bills (his posts show he has used several $100 bills in addition to stacks of smaller denominations), would that violate his campaign finance reporting waiver?

Perhaps ironically, first among his campaign priorities is campaign finance reform, according to a statement he has pictured under a stack of bills ready for his campaign promotion line.

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Test Scores Are Out, But What Do They Mean?

Posted: September 5, 2018 12:47 PM

The results are out and we now know how many Michigan students are proficient in English, mathematics, science and social studies.

The release gave department officials the opportunity to trumpet the improvements resulting from the investment in early childhood education. The first recipients of those funds are now in fourth grade.

So what did that funding provide? The 2017-18 fourth grade class had 0.8 percentage point more students proficient in English than did the 2016-16 class and no change in math. The third grade saw a 0.3 percentage point increase in English and lost 1.1 percentage points in math.

This reporter is no statistician and those who are probably say those results are statistically significant. They are not, though, the kind of changes that are likely to excite the general populace.

One year is a pretty short period, though. Looking back further should provide a better picture. The department gives four years.

It does not, though, improve the picture. With a couple of subject/grade exceptions, the 2017-18 tests saw fewer students proficient than the 2014-15 tests. Most of the grades and subjects show not a progression but a smattering of proficiency rates up and down, all within a couple of percentage points.

Looking back further is problematic because tests have changed and, before that, cut scores changed to determine who was proficient.

What, then, can be gleaned from the test scores? Well, as Jimmy Buffett once said, “Math Suks.” Mathematics has consistently seen proficiency rates drop as children advance through school, no matter the test or the cut scores.

Otherwise, it is hard for at least the general public to glean much about the state of education from proficiency rates.

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A Strangely Timed Re-election Announcement

Posted: August 22, 2018 4:02 PM

The news release rolled into our email inboxes the other day with a curious subject line: “Jim Stamas announces for state Senate.” The first line of the release was as puzzling: “On August 21st, Sen. Jim Stamas officially announced his campaign for re-election.”

It was not strange that he officially launched his campaign. Most candidates release some kind of statement saying they are running and outlining some of their key campaign issues. For Mr. Stamas (R-Midland), those issues are job attraction and education, as well as government transparency.

So, what was so strange about Mr. Stamas’ announcement?

Normally, the official announcement of candidacy comes before the candidate stands for election. When they file to run. Which Mr. Stamas did – on March 13. Five months ago.

Further, this release came two weeks after the primary election, where Mr. Stamas ran unopposed. His name on that ballot should have given people some indication that he was running for re-election to his final term in the Senate.

The oddities of the 2018 election continue.

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Posted: August 4, 2018 3:51 PM

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MIOSHA Warns Of Hazards Of Growing Marijuana

Posted: August 1, 2018 4:39 PM

As the state moves toward industrial levels of production under the state’s medical marijuana laws (and potentially under recreational use laws), the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration wants people to know all the ways they could be hurt in the process.

MIOSHA released a fact sheet that lists potential hazards of growing marijuana and the administrative rules that could apply to the process in addition to the rules specifically aimed at the industry.

For instance, many greenhouse facilities use carbon dioxide injection to improve plant growth, which could also affect the people working there, as could the fertilizers and cleaners used in the facilities.

The sheet lists 13 health and safety rules that marijuana growing and processing facilities might need to meet, including regarding respiratory protection, maintenance of walking surfaces, fire exits and use of powered trucks.

The agency is recommending that each facility develop a safety and health management system. “Identifying and controlling workplace hazards begins with an effective SHMS,” the sheet said.

The plan should include employee involvement in identifying hazards as well as training for those employees, the agency said.

The agency is offering free assistance in developing plans and complying with the rules, but one can also anticipate there will be some additional scrutiny on what is essentially a new industry in the state.

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How Do You Open Government? Sometimes With A Little Razzing

Posted: June 27, 2018 3:10 PM

Probably few noticed, but there was another ray of sunshine brought on state government this week: the Michigan State Housing Development Authority Board is posting its meeting materials on its website.

Amazing, you might say. Wonderful, you might say. MSHDA has a board? You might say.

In any case, it means those of us who follow that board will have an easier time finding out exactly what it will do at its next meeting.

“It recently came to our attention that information important to you (board docket information) was not available to you early enough to be useful to you,” MSHDA Executive Director Earl Poleski said in the change announcement. “MSHDA’s process will now be to make public the full contents of board dockets (except privileged and otherwise exempt information) prior to the full board meeting.”

So the sunshine is not complete, since some of the information the agency holds is not public. But it is broader than some other economic development boards in the state that embargo the agenda until the meeting starts.

The way it was brought to the agency’s attention indicates such requests had been made in the past to no avail.

The initial request was made not in a direct message to Mr. Poleski or staff for the board, but in a reply to all who get copies of the agenda (a list that includes this reporter): “Can we get a copy of what is proposed” on an agenda item.

Members of the group said they would try.

“But it sure would be good if we could go back to getting the materials before the meeting,” a member of the group said.

“It would but not likely to happen,” came a reply.

“Right. G-d forbid that they act with transparency,” came another response.

But it did happen, and we are all the better informed for it.

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MAEAP Takes Its Story To Radio

Posted: June 20, 2018 4:33 PM

The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program is using some new radio spots, and a touch of fear of new regulation, to encourage farmers to get their operations verified.

A series of 10 promotional pieces produced by the Michigan Agriculture Information Network that explain what the program is and how it works. Pat Driscoll, broadcast operations director for MAIN and the primary reporter for the pieces, also works to put the fear of the regulators into those not participating.

“It puts the strength back in your hands, it cuts bad regulations off at the knee,” Mr. Driscoll said in the first broadcast.

Without programs like MAEAP, Mr. Driscoll said, farmers are at the mercy of people who don’t understand the industry but are regulating it.

“My fear is we’ve been behind this curve for so long the amount of resources it will take to get back in front so we can take some kind of regulatory independence is beyond our ability to achieve,” he said. “While we may represent a significant chunk of GDP and employment, we’re too small a percentage of society to be of consequence.”

Joe Kelpinski, director of the program in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said in the second piece that the goal of the program was to align agriculture with current concerns in society.

Mr. Kelpinski said more farmers need to participate in MAEAP because participation numbers boost the perception of agriculture with the public. “We need everyone to take a hard look at this program,” he said. “We’re in a position where we every year become a smaller segment of society yet we’re an incredibly large industry and we have very few voices talking about the good things we’re doing in agriculture.”

Chris Winslow, director of the Ohio SEA Grant, said not only would the nutrient management plans required of MAEAP participants reduce the phosphorus runoff that is fueling algae blooms in Lake Erie but it could also be a marketing option for participating farmers, similar to the current mark-up for organic foods.

Mr. Driscoll found a customer, a single parent, who said she would pay more for produce from a MAEAP-certified farm. He also has so far found two farmers who declared the process easier and cheaper than they had anticipated. The farmers also applauded the voluntary nature of the program.

“I love the carrot approach over the stick approach any day of the week,” Steve Tennes, owner of the Country Mill in Charlotte, said.

New spots are planned for the next three Mondays on stations that carry MAIN programming.

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Email Making Government Documents Less Accessible

Posted: June 13, 2018 2:25 PM

Logic would say that the move to electronic communications would make government more accessible, but some of Gongwer News Service’s recent forays into the Freedom of Information Act show otherwise.

The shift to electronic communications is instead putting FOIA out of reach of all but some large and well-funded organizations.

Electronic documents per se are more accessible. Search algorithms allow them to be sorted by date, author, recipients; they pull out documents with, or without, key terms.

Those electronic documents, though, are also easier to create. There is no putting pen to paper or getting out the typewriter to generate a document (or dictating to someone else to actually create it). In a few minutes, anyone can whip off an email to anyone else on any topic.

That means there are now vastly more documents created. Where FOIA’s designers anticipated a few dozen pages of letters or forms, a request today can easily generate thousands of pages of results to even a relatively specific request for communications.

Still, one would think it would be a simple process, in this electronic age, to put those thousands of pages onto a drive or a disc, or into a downloadable file, and send them on to the requester.

FOIA allows agencies to charge for reasonable costs for searching for and duplicating documents, so there should be costs for a few minutes of searching and then the cost of the media to store the final product.

Except that FOIA exempts some information, so a person has to read those thousands of pages of documents and, either on paper or electronically, redact information that should not be public.

A few minute search then becomes hours of reading and editing, each of which can be charged to the person requesting the documents.

A recent Gongwer FOIA request moved from an initial estimate of about $200 to a final cost of more than $2,600 for nearly 5,500 pages of documents. Time-consuming appeals eventually persuaded the agencies handling the requests to lower the cost into the low hundreds of dollars.

While an average person still has the right to request documents, unless they have a very specific request, they risk a search that generates far more pages than they can afford to purchase. And then good luck (unless you are a media outlet) trying to persuade an agency it’s under no obligation to charge you the equivalent of a year’s worth of car payments – or in some cases the purchase price of the car itself.

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Demographic Adjustments Show Michigan Students Are … Worse?

Posted: April 18, 2018 1:58 PM

Much hay has been made in recent years about poverty rates and their relation to standardized test scores. Michigan has struggled on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in recent years, and many have pointed to the state’s relative child poverty rate as a reason it is falling behind.

Critics of standardized tests have said the scores are statistically proxies for poverty rates and have consistently backed that up with data.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has issued an annual counter to the state’s top to bottom list of schools, which was largely based on scores on the state’s standardized test. The Mackinac Center’s list, which corrected for poverty, moved a number of schools from the bottom of the list to the middle or even top.

So Michigan should move up among the states if its poverty rates are taken into account, right?

Well, no, according to research from EducationNext and the Urban Institute. Matthew Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program, and Kristin Blagg, a research associate at the institute, created a database that allowed them to correct the 2017 NAEP scores for a variety of factors, including poverty rates in 2015 (the most recent available).

For some states, the adjustment helped, at least on fourth grade mathematics scores. Florida moved from one of the better states to well out in front and Texas moved from among the bottom states to second.

Michigan, though, moved backward. From about the middle of the pack to third worst.

Theoretically, then, higher-income students are substantially carrying the state and poorer students are not performing nearly as well as their counterparts across the nation.

To be fair to Michigan, only 15 states saw their average scores adjusted upward by accounting for poverty, and only a few of those by enough to really move their position among the states (Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico all moved into the middle of the pack from the bottom with the adjustment).

Michigan also did not see the biggest drop in average score by accounting for poverty. Hawaii dropped from among the top states to last, and by several points. New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming also saw big drops in their standing.

Of particular note was that adjusting for poverty brought most of the states much closer together. The unadjusted scores spread the middle group of states across about 12 points. Taking out poverty brought most states to within six points of each other.

Unfortunately, Michigan is one of the states that would fall well outside that tight grouping in the middle.

There are of course questions about how the researchers made their adjustments to the scores, and they acknowledged some shortfalls in the free and reduced lunch rates that are the proxy for poverty in school data.

Nonetheless, the study shows Michigan still has far to go to reach the target of a top 10 education state and that it must find ways to meet the needs of its poorer students to hit that target.

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Security, Open Meetings Act Still Hitting Conflicts

Posted: April 11, 2018 4:53 PM

With the recent revelations that a certain social media site shared subscriber information with a certain presidential campaign, privacy has been in the news a lot lately.

One place personal information is supposed to be protected is at an open meeting. Unless one wants to speak (and theoretically not even then), the identities of those attending the meeting are undisclosed and definitely not recorded.

That is, assuming building security where the meeting is hosted has been properly trained. Often, those security guards are not.

This reporter hit another such improperly trained person when attending the State Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

The guard had been provided a special sign-in sheet marked clearly at the top “Open Meeting.” She dutifully collected identification from every person and wrote his or her name on that sheet.

She then copied that name to a sticker, also marked “Open Meeting.”

Notified that recording the names violated the Open Meetings Act, the security guard said she was doing as she was trained.

“In case there is a fire or an emergency, we need the names,” she said.

That is a valid concern. Without the names of everyone in the building (state employees’ badges indicate who they are), it would be more difficult to determine if the building has been evacuated in the case of an emergency.

Unfortunately, the OMA does not say, “A person shall not be required as a condition of attendance at a meeting of a public body to register or otherwise provide his or her name or other information or otherwise to fulfill a condition precedent to attendance except where there might be an emergency.

The Hannah Building, where the board meets, has another issue that makes that logic for name collection fail: tunnels. Were there to be an emergency during the board meeting, likely all of those signed in for the meeting would be in the building and on the fourth floor (unless they had to use the bathroom because the ones on the fourth floor are undergoing renovation).

At lunch, though, many of us were in the Ottawa Building, which houses the cafeteria for the complex. An evacuation of just the Hannah Building would have found us not there.

And so runs the ongoing saga of trying to mesh the OMA and the modern need for security in state buildings.

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A Calley-Schuette Subtext To 529 Fund Interpretation?

Posted: March 28, 2018 4:06 PM

With a letter from the governor last week, Lt. Governor Brian Calley has essentially been able to wash his hands of the debate over using the Michigan Education Savings Plan to pay for private school tuition and can now watch his main rival for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Attorney General Bill Schuette, grapple with it.

Under new federal rules, Section 529 plans like the MESP, named for the section of the federal Internal Revenue Code that allows the tax-free education savings plans, can be used to pay for K-12 tuition as well as college and other post-secondary programs.

The Michigan Constitution, though, prohibits any state funds from paying for instructional programs at private schools. Michigan courts have ruled in the past that “public monies” include tax credits, finding that private school tuition is not deductible (there’s some helpful background on the 529 issue and the Constitution from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan).

The language in the Michigan Constitution prohibiting the use of public money, directly or indirectly, for private K-12 schools has long been seen as airtight, and the presumption is whoever decides the 529 question will inevitably have to determine the law forbids contributions to them for nonpublic K-12 school purposes from growing free of state income tax and with the benefit of a state income tax deduction. That’s a suboptimal item for a Republican to put on a resume with a primary electorate supportive of tax breaks and private schools.

In theory, the Department of Treasury could have addressed the issue itself. Treasury spokesperson Ron Leix said the department was still analyzing the changes to the 529 plans. “We won’t have that completed until there’s a final determination on the state constitutionality of using 529 plans for private K-12 expenses,” he said.

The department did, though, issue an analysis on the effects of changes in federal income tax law without seeking a consult from the attorney general. It was the department that concluded the federal income tax law negated the Michigan income tax personal exemption. It could have issued a bulletin on this change, too.

Had Treasury handled the issue, Mr. Calley’s foes could have tied him to it by extension. Not anymore.

With Governor Rick Snyder asking for Mr. Schuette’s opinion on the constitutionality of implementing the new federal rules in Michigan, Mr. Schuette is left with three options: find they can be, find they can’t or do nothing.

No matter the legal reasoning, finding that the plans cannot be used for K-12 tuition will be a tough one to explain to the conservatives that dominate Republican primaries.

He could decide to do nothing, which would push the issue back onto the Snyder administration to determine constitutionality. But it could also still be seen as a betrayal among those key supporters because, again, he has the opportunity to move the needle in their favor and did not.

Delaying could also run the risk of landing the issue back in his own lap. Some decision will need to be made before the 2018 income tax forms are printed. Assuming he is elected governor, his administration could now be saddled with making the decision, and defending it.

Or he could decide that the plans are usable for K-12 tuition in Michigan, which would gain accolades from that key base and could be a boost in his efforts to win the Republican primary.

A Schuette opinion in favor of letting 529 plan holders deduct their contributions from their state taxes could be fodder for Democrats to use against him given the long record of the public supporting the anti-parochiaid amendment.

Legal challenges should he decide the Constitution prohibits using the plans for private schools are likely, but challenges should he decide it is legal are certain.

Mr. Calley, meanwhile, can pin everything on Mr. Schuette. To his primary voters, he can broadcast support for the idea of using the plans, but defer any decision to the attorney general. Should he make it past the primary, he can lay the blame for any defense of the plan on Mr. Schuette, then follow the polls on whether he should claim full support and pledge to defend it or acknowledge that it is unconstitutional and let it drop.

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Open Meetings Act Trumps Biosecurity

Posted: March 22, 2018 2:10 PM

So, the score is Open Meetings Act: 1, farm biosecurity: 0.

The Soybean Promotion Committee had a good idea for its March meeting, and one used by a variety of other state boards and commissions: bring the members, and the public, to a facility with ties to the industry to show off the committee’s efforts.

The committee’s purpose is to fund marketing projects and research to improve sales of soybeans grown in Michigan. A poultry farm where the beans are used makes good sense, thus plans for the March 28 meeting at Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac.

But there was a hitch. For animal farms like Herbruck’s, diseases cost money. The facility has a biosecurity agreement for visitors designed to reduce the opportunities for tracking in those diseases.

Herbruck’s was open to hosting the meeting, but all committee members, staff and visitors had to comply with the biosecurity agreement. That meant the meeting would be open to the public – except those who own birds or pigs. Those who didn’t own them, but had visited someone who did, would have to show they had cleaned their vehicle, inside and out, before coming on the property. There was a laundry list of other potential restrictions on visitors, including those who might have visited a zoo recently.

Gail Frahm, executive director of the committee, after being asked by Gongwer News Service what contingency plans the committee had for anyone not able to enter the facility, notified interested parties on Thursday morning that the meeting had been moved to the nearby Boston Township Hall.

The committee is still planning a visit to Herbruck’s, but as a field trip rather than part of the official meeting.

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Michigan: Home Of The Big Fish

Posted: March 7, 2018 4:29 PM

Michigan may not be home to some of the biggest fish in the world, but, of the fish it does have, they seem to be getting bigger.

Or at least more of the big ones are getting caught, based on the results of the 2017 Master Angler awards.

The Department of Natural Resources received 2,176 applications for the Master Angler last year, up from 1,807 the year before and a record for submissions, Lynne Thoma, head of the program, said.

Qualifying for Master Angler depends on the kind of fish caught. A bluegill, for instance, must be at least 10 inches and a largemouth bass at least 22. Hitting that mark qualifies the applicant for a patch. It also gives the fish a look for a possible state record (though that requires submitting the weight as well, Ms. Thoma said).

The increase in submissions of big fish could have several roots, Ms. Thoma said.

“A couple years ago, we did away with the weight requirement for catch and keep,” she said. “It’s all based on length only, which makes it easier.”

The prize for taking the time to fill out the form has improved. “The last three years, we improved the patches,” Ms. Thoma said, noting they now have more embroidery and each year features a different game fish. “They’ve really become collector’s items.”

The other: people are simply catching bigger fish. “I am seeing bigger fish,” she said.

Each of the last several years has also generated at least one new record, she said. There were two records in 2017: a 27-pound bigmouth buffalo caught on the River Raisin (in Monroe County) by Roy Beasley of Madison Heights and a 6.36-pound cisco (lake herring) caught in Lake Ottawa (Iron County) by Michael Lemanski of Florence, Wisconsin.

The program is also catching signs of tourism and youth interest, she said. The last two years have included submissions from 24 states and Canada.

“Either the same anglers are returning to Michigan to fish because they had such a good experience or we have new anglers coming from those states,” she said.

The 2016 applications included someone from Austria, she said.

The applications also show the next generation of anglers. “I am seeing more entries from kids under the age of 16, which I think is a really good sign because that tells me more kids are getting out fishing and I think that’s great,” Ms. Thoma said.

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Mid-Term Elections At Risk From … Communication?

Posted: February 21, 2018 11:32 AM

There is evidence that Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 elections, and leaders of that nation have already threatened to do the same in the 2018 mid-terms.

With Michigan having several of the top now-Republican seats targeted by Democrats, we could be among the targets for these operatives.

So what do we have to look forward to as the election heats up: social media posts?

Make no mistake, there are some substantial crimes listed in the indictment handed down late last week. The charges allege that Russians, not only from their country but from ours, posed as Americans and conducted political activities without disclosing who they truly were and without registering as foreign agents.

There is a legitimate state interest in prohibiting, or at least disclosing, any foreign interests conducting electioneering. We should know who is providing campaign funds and assistance to whom.

But the crux of the news coverage has been that those involved “interfered” by posting false messages in an effort to spur divisions in the electorate. One recent story said the Russian operatives coordinated rallies on both sides of a contentious issue to bring the two sides together where they could clash.

If efforts to rile up voters with false information bring the downfall of our democracy now, after more than 200 years of it, then we get what we deserve.

False, or at least questionable, assertions and allegations about political candidates, denigration and name calling have a long, proud history in our political process.

That these messages can travel further and faster through the web does not change the nature of the communication, nor each voter’s responsibility to determine the veracity of the information before acting or passing it on to others.

If voters are not going to do some of their own research on the candidates and the sources of their information, they are going to fall victim to those trying to drive election results, whether it be foreign operatives or domestic interests not necessarily aligned with their own.

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State Building Security Falls Through Automation Cracks

Posted: January 3, 2018 4:42 PM

From the time Governor Rick Snyder first announced he was running, he has promoted his ties to technology and throughout his tenure he has pushed for system improvements.

He has been able to hire some top technology people into the state service and has put a priority on upgrading the technology already there and integrating technology where it was not. The administration has overseen new systems to track welfare cases and moving State Police troopers from offices in post buildings to offices in their patrol cars.

For the general public, if you want to contact a state employee, you need only go to the state website and type in their name.

Unless you go to the front desk of one of the state office buildings. The technology there: large binders filled with pages of printed telephone directories.

Where names or numbers have changed, in many cases they have been updated by crossing out the old and writing in new. In some cases they have not.

This reporter recently made a security guard, flustered that he could not find the requested name to call for a staffer to escort the reporter elsewhere in the building, more flustered by letting him know that, if he had a terminal at the desk, the information was available with a simple internet search.

Mr. Snyder had kiosks that were installed under the prior administration removed, arguing that visitors to state buildings should be greeted by a person, but maybe there is room for some technology in that greeting process.

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OMA Requires PPP

Posted: December 18, 2017 4:34 PM

The point of the Open Meetings Act is to allow the public to interact with the boards, commissions and committees that ultimately run the government.

The theory behind the act is anyone should be able to hear the discussions and evidence that leads members to vote as they do. As members work to convince each other of the wisdom of an action, they also have the opportunity to convince the interested public.

In the converse, the law allows that public to also make its case to the public officials on the wisdom, or lack thereof, of an action.

The key element of all of this interaction: seats. Those members of the public left standing out in the hall, or outside the building, because there is no room for them cannot participate as the law intends.

So the OMA requires PPP (proper prior planning). Every board knows what its agenda will be and whether one or more items will attract a crowd. The law, at least in its spirit, then requires that board or commission to make room.

This does not mean that every board needs to plan a meeting room that will hold hundreds of people when the usual attendance is a handful.

But if a meeting will draw substantially more than the usual attendance (say the meeting after a former employee is sentenced to 60 years for sexual assault and there have been calls for the lead official the board oversees to resign), it is unacceptable for any board to not plan for that. In case it wasn’t obvious, that was the situation at Friday’s Michigan State University Board of Trustees meeting where it was discussing the Larry Nassar scandal.

For some of the local boards – school boards, city councils, township boards – a new venue that will hold more people might not be an option. They might have to rely on technology, setting up an overflow room where the meeting is broadcast and from which people can make comment.

For state-level boards and commissions, there is no excuse for anyone to be left out. In addition to state-owned facilities, there are a variety of venues in and around the Capitol Complex that can hold thousands should that be a reasonable expectation of attendance.

In the example above, the board had control over venues that would seat tens of thousands, so to have the meeting in a room that fit barely more than the board and those invited to participate seems in conflict with the OMA. Many of those venues would still have allowed board members to scuttle away at the end of the meeting as they did.

On a side note, the OMA also requires that people be allowed to attend in anonymity. The ship has long sailed on state buildings being open, as they once were, for anyone to walk in, but it should fall to the boards wanting to meet in those buildings, not the security guards, to be versed in the law and ensure people wanting to attend those meetings do not have to sign in to do so.

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State’s U.S. House Delegation To Be Dominated By Rookies

Posted: December 6, 2017 2:08 PM

Reasons aside, former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin take with them not only decades of experience, but also much of Michigan’s influence in a body where seniority weighs heavily.

Mr. Conyers (D-Detroit), when he resigned Tuesday, had nearly 53 years in Congress, making him the senior member of the body by nearly 10 years. U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), now the dean of the chamber, is nearing 45 years.

With Mr. Levin (D-Royal Oak), Michigan had two of the 10 senior members of the U.S. House. He, at nearly 35 years, is now seventh senior.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) still falls just outside the top 10 at 30 years, though he will likely move into the group of senior statespersons in 2019 with Mr. Levin’s departure.

After Mr. Upton, Michigan’s next senior member is U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) at only nine years combined time (he missed the 2009-10 term after losing his 2008 re-election bid but won back the seat in 2010). That tenure does not even put Mr. Walberg in the top 100.

The departures also mark the end of a decade-long decline in Michigan’s seniority in the chamber. There will be at least five members serving in their first or second term for the 2019-20 session, compared to only two during the 2009-10.

In addition to having one more seat in the U.S. House, the youngsters of the Michigan delegation for the 2009-10 session were then-U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer and now U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) in their first terms and U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, both serving their fourth terms.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Conyers was actually junior to U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who at the time had more than 25 terms (he started in a special election in December 1955). He would serve a total of 59 years before ceding the seat to his wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn).

The average service for the delegation going into the 2009-10 session was 18 years. For the 2019-20 session, assuming no upsets next year, that average will be 6 years.

So not only will Michigan likely lose another U.S. House seat in the next decade, it will also be at the beginning of rebuilding the seniority status that it had in the last several.

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What Would It Take For Bentivolio To Regain Congressional Seat?

Posted: October 18, 2017 3:01 PM

In short, another miracle.

Kerry Bentivolio would argue he got a raw deal from the Republican Party when he was ousted from his seat in 2014 after serving only one term, but he is not likely to convince any party leaders to see the error of their ways. So how does he win the primary?

First, he needs to hold onto nearly every vote he got in the 2014 primary. With the current field of five, he probably needs 20 percent of the vote, plus one. He pulled in about a third of the vote that year.

So far, he has shown that he can hold at least some of his base. That 33.6 percent of the 2014 primary vote was 21,252 individual voters. In the 2016 election, where he ran as an independent, he pulled in 16,610 votes. Of course, that accounted for only 4.4 percent of the general election vote, and he certainly lost some who liked him but could not bring themselves to vote other than Republican.

His struggle in retaining those votes is he ran as the outsider in both 2012 and 2014. This election, he would share that with Lena Epstein, and Ms. Epstein will be much better funded.

It is possible Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski could chip away at that vote as well. He has been out of elective office for several years and is likely to run toward the right.

His next gambit, then, is to get more people in the race. At least two, Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall (R-White Lake) and Rep. Michael McCready (R-Bloomfield Hills), are still mulling a run.

More candidates lessens the percent needed to win and brings Mr. Bentivolio’s base closer to a plurality.

Finally, he needs to hope that President Donald Trump can gain support in the district. While Mr. Trump won Oakland County, the Republicans who inhabit the 11th U.S. House District were not overly enamored with him.

Mr. Bentivolio will certainly run as a Trump Republican, and if that becomes the popular position by August 2018, can he then convince voters he is more in Mr. Trump’s mold than former Rep. Kurt Heise and Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township), who are likely among the frontrunners at this point because of their elective experience?

Again, without funds to match Ms. Epstein, a fervent Trump supporter, Mr. Bentivolio is not likely to make headway there.

It seems his best bet for taking back the seat at this point would be for all of the other candidates to hire Don Yowchuang to lead their petition drives, a strategy that has worked well for him in the past.

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Ack-Acks Coming To A Prison Near You?

Posted: October 11, 2017 4:50 PM

Unmanned aerial craft, drones, have finally come of age.

Any technology is truly considered matured when it is used by the military and criminals. For drones, check and check.

Corrections officials have said cases of drones flying near or over prisons have increased in the last couple of years, ranging from a toy that appeared to have been blown over the fence to alleged drops of contraband into facilities.

The issue is enough of a concern that the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union for corrections officers, is asking the governor’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force to include recommendations in its report next month on ways to defend prisons against overflights from the devices.

So far, drone pilots are accused of dropping cell phones, but MCO officials said there is legitimate fear that weapons could be next.

“We believe that proper defenses need to be implemented immediately to prevent future incidents from taking place and ensure the safety of institutional staff and those incarcerated,” MCO said in a statement.

The task force, though, is charged with setting rules and regulations for drone use in the state (at least within the leeway granted by the Federal Aviation Administration). So it would be able to, potentially, set a perimeter around prisons where drones are not allowed.

Rules, maybe with stiffer penalties, would be good for keeping the curious and the pranksters out (though officials have said there are already those who test the boundaries of flyover restrictions).

Those in prison, assuming that most actually are guilty, have already proven that they don’t follow rules well and often neither do their associates.

What the MCO more likely wants is some counter-drone technology. There are ways to block radio signals so drones flying in prohibited air space would either be blocked from entering or would crash just inside the protected boundary. There would have to be experiments, though, into how that might affect communications and other systems within the prisons.

Some experts have suggested allowing prison officials to shoot down the drones. Maybe the solution is appropriately sized anti-aircraft weapons. Several batteries of small ack-acks between the fences might be just the ticket to solve the increasing aerial assault on our prisons.

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PTL Backers: We Are Collecting Signatures

Posted: September 27, 2017 1:22 PM

The Clean Michigan Committee has people around the state collecting signatures to put a part-time legislature on the ballot, though more quietly than it did earlier in the year.

The group that made a splash at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in May was quiet at the Michigan Republican Party’s Leadership Conference at the same venue last week. The move in a way was not surprising given what the group spent on its first foray to collect signatures that were invalidated weeks later when the committee revised its petition language.

Part-time legislature petition circulation booth.

But in a way it was surprising since the Republican event also should have been a prime place to recover some of those signatures and to broadcast that the effort was still going strong.

A variety of sources contacted by Gongwer News Service have also seen little evidence of circulators at big events around the state over the summer.

A handful of people have reported seeing supporters gathering signatures.

Some circulators are out working, and the campaign provided evidence earlier this week.

Somewhere in the state, on September 25, there was a table with hand-made signs calling for passersby to sign the petition.

“We are everywhere…including today,” Matthew Dobler, spokesperson for the campaign, said in answer to questions about where the petitions were circulating and sent the photo above. Mr. Dobler declined to indicate how many the effort had collected and whether there was yet a planned submission date.

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New Conservation Officers Ready For Year Of Training

Posted: August 30, 2017 3:17 PM

Want a job where you spend the day driving through the woods and fields in a company-provided pickup truck checking out the scenery? Maybe being a conservation officer is for you.

Just imagine a beautiful late morning, basking in the sun as you stroll through a field, and you are getting paid to be there. Oh, then there is the deer carcass with a bullet hole in it and you have to figure out when and maybe where it was killed, and by whom. You are getting paid for that, too.

You get the opportunity to meet some of the greatest folks in the state. And also some of the biggest idiots. And most of them are carrying a weapon of some kind.

Still interested? Then you are ready to jump it. It will only take 23 weeks in the academy, which includes law enforcement training. And then there are weeks of additional training on various aspects of the job, with the rest of the year spent essentially on a ride-along with experienced COs.

But you will get to meet the governor.

The latest class of recruits, 17 men and seven women, saw both the deer carcass and the governor Tuesday during their seventh week of training. The class demonstrated for the governor the procedures for inspecting a potential poaching scene before getting pictures and going back to work.

Mr. Snyder, in addressing the class, praised them, but only after Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh had put the future of the state on their shoulders.

“The breadth of what you do is incredible,” Mr. Snyder said of the COs.

“They do outstanding work throughout our state in terms of protecting citizens and protecting natural resources,” Mr. Snyder said after meeting with the trainees.

“We succeed and we fail every day on what you do,” Mr. Creagh said. “Your responsibility is very large and your room for error is very small.”

But the sound of the class marching down the hall is enough to make you check your wallet for that valid fishing license.

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MDE, You Got Some ‘Splainin’ To Do

Posted: August 9, 2017 4:02 PM

When Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston and his staff put together the state’s plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, he said they put the state’s needs first and actual compliance with the federal law second, a strategy that could now overcome the goal of filing the plan early to have it approved before the 2017-18 school year.

Mr. Whiston and others have already spent time on the phone with the U.S. Department of Education, and it sounds like there could be more phone and email time before federal officials understand what Michigan is trying to do with the flexibility provided under the new law.

Michigan is not alone in having to answer questions. Nearly every state that has submitted an ESSA plan received an “interim feedback letter” with a page or two of points where federal reviewers did not see the connection between the federal law and what the state submitted.

The one point where Michigan does appear to be alone is in having overall questions about its accountability system. Several states had questions about individual points in their system. New Jersey, for instance, appears to want to exempt all of its eighth grade students from its mathematics assessment.

Federal reviewers failed to see, however, how Michigan’s transparency dashboard and the indicators on it meet the federal requirement of a state accountability system.

Mr. Whiston and others have acknowledged that it could be a struggle to show how the dashboard provides a method to differentiate school performance and highlight schools in need of assistance, but he has also remained steadfast that the dashboard would replace the current top-to-bottom list for identifying, among other things, the bottom 5 percent of schools.

The challenge could be increased with the State Board of Education’s overwhelming support for eliminating any grading of schools on the dashboard. Once the site is in place, parents and others will be able to see comparisons between their school and the state as a whole and potentially some other schools on the various measures, but they will not see an overall grade or even a rating on those measures.

Discussions with USED are likely made even more interesting by having to explain that the dashboard on which the accountability system will be based is still under development. A presentation at the board’s meeting Tuesday showed there is still much work to be done before the system launches later this year.

Federal reviewers have also indicated that, as they see the state’s initial plan, some pieces might have to go back for peer review before approval, which could mean missing the 120-day deadline for reviewing the plan and pushing any implementation even further into the school year.

But it is also still unclear how much flexibility USED will actually give states. The prior administration had indicated it would give fairly wide leeway, but the current administration has been somewhat tightlipped on its expectations, at least in public comments. No state has yet been approved or rejected, so there is apparently still room for discussion and negotiation on what constitutes compliance.

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Trump Misses The Point Of Scouting In Address To Jamboree

Posted: July 26, 2017 4:27 PM

For those who have not done it, being a leader in Boy Scouts is hard work.

President Donald Trump took pride in addressing the National Jamboree on Tuesday as honorary president of Boy Scouts of America, as he should. Unfortunately, his address showed he has no concept of what it means to be a scout leader.

Our charge is to develop youth into good citizens using the Oath, the Law and the Motto. The central theme of all of those is service: the skills you learn in Scouting are ultimately so you can contribute to the greater good.

There is a duty to self among the three points of the Scout Oath, but it follows, and supports, the duty to God and country and the duty to others. One who is “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight” has the tools to provide for the needs of others.

Young people naturally think about themselves first. They have been taken care of and provided for up to this point. They have been the center of everyone’s attention.

Our job as leaders is to get them to see the broader world, to understand that there are other people in that world, and that, as leaders, it is their job to provide for and lift up those others.

Mr. Trump’s address, though, was all about self.

Pundits, of course, picked up on the politics that laced the address. And that was a prime target for them considering that BSA had asked him to avoid it and he himself said he would.

“Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” he said among his opening comments.

First: really? How can we tell the youth to avoid coarse language when the president of the United States is using it in an address to them.

Second, how can we expect the youth to be trustworthy (the first point of the Scout Law) and keep their word when a key figure they should be able to look up to can only manage it for a few minutes?

Most importantly, though, the political discussions fit with the theme of his address, which was all about self and self-importance. It was about how he had won despite the unfairness around him.

Mr. Trump’s address was about success. His definition: lots of money.

He is right that many scouts have decided on their career based on a merit badge they earned or an experience they had in Scouting.

And he did have good advice: “Persevere. Never, ever quit.” Also: “You have to find out what makes you excited. What makes you want to get up every morning and go to work.”

If you do that, he goes on to say, you will make a lot of money, buy a yacht and party all the time. If you were to lose all that money, as the person in his story does, you will be ostracized by everyone who matters. He describes the man as “the once great William Levitt”.

Mr. Trump does mention the duty to others, but never ties that into his primary message. Instead, he uses it to segue back to his political messages and the power of his administration.

“If you do these things and if you refuse to give in to doubt and fear, you will help to make America great again,” he said.

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DNR, MDOT, High Schoolers Team Up On Falcon Nesting

Posted: July 5, 2017 1:18 PM

Some of the Department of Transportation’s larger bridges provide not only transportation for people and goods, but also an opportunity for the endangered peregrine falcon to recover.

This year and next year, the falcons nesting on the Portage Lake Lift Bridge between Houghton and Hancock will have options for some new housing thanks to a partnership between MDOT, the Department of Natural Resources and students at Baraga Area Schools.

The bridge had nesting boxes installed in 2012, but DNR officials last year found the boxes were beginning to deteriorate.

Baraga schools industrial arts teacher John Filpus, contacted by DNR officials for help, put his students on the project last school year to build two new boxes for the bridge.

"There were a few classes that participated in the design and construction of the nest box," Mr. Filpus said in the announcement of the new boxes. "Our AutoCADD class worked developing a blueprint for the design of the box based on pictures of others built. Some students in Baraga's wood shop and construction trades class built the box."

In addition to being stronger than the old boxes, the new nesting areas include a lid to prevent the chicks from falling out while DNR officials band them.

The first of the new boxes was installed this spring just before the pair returned to the area and the second is to be installed before the 2018 nesting season.

The Copper Country Audubon Club has also joined the effort, installing webcams on the boxes that can be viewed at The club provided the cameras;, a local internet service, provided equipment, and the departments assisted with installation.

Officials said the pair that nests on the bridge have produced 12 chicks since the initial boxes were installed, including three this year that were banded on June 19.

The Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge also provides nesting sites for a pair of falcons, which this year produced four chicks. The bridge has seen 24 falcon chicks since 2010 when nesting boxes were installed, officials said, but had been home to falcon pairs before that.

Though the birds are not on the federal endangered list, they are still designated as endangered in Michigan. Officials said there are about 40 nesting pairs statewide and that two new pairs are added every year.

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Leaving Paris Accord Means … Maybe Not Much

Posted: June 2, 2017 1:31 PM

Make no mistake, President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord will have lasting effects: it is one more indicator that Mr. Trump does not feel obliged to maintain agreements reached by his predecessors and leaving other world leaders questioning where the United States stands in the world order.

But that is, at best, an eight-year legacy of the decision.

The longer-term legacy of the decision is not necessarily the climate risk that many posited Thursday when Mr. Trump announced it.

First, the emissions reductions to which the prior administration agreed were not pulled out of a hat. There is general agreement that power production is the top source of carbon emissions and, even if they did not all publicly support the agreement, the heads of the nations’ power companies had input into those numbers and said they could come close to meeting those standards.

Given the time needed to plan and build a base load power plant, it is not likely too many utilities are going to shift gears now that most new power plants will use natural gas and change fuels just because the accord is no longer driving decisions.

Michigan utilities could have joined the push against former President Barack Obama’s clean power initiatives, especially after federal courts overturned parts of them. Instead, Consumers and DTE both said they were already on track to meet those standards and had no plans to change course.

Second, economics are shifting. While credit can be given to subsidies and regulations that might not survive Mr. Trump’s administration, cleaner energy sources than coal are also now less expensive than coal. Minus a subsidy in the other direction, those price advantages appear to be growing and coal seems unlikely to regain its foothold as the dominant fuel for power and industry.

The move to natural gas for power production could be a boon for Michigan, which not only has apparently abundant supplies (leaving the fracking controversy for another day), but also abundant storage to allow utilities and others to buy low and stockpile.

Michigan is also playing some key roles in developing new power sources. Researchers at Michigan State University, for instance, developed new clear solar panels that could be used in vehicles and other applications where it could be an advantage to have both a window and an electric generator.

Finally, public sentiment is shifting. A relatively conservative Michigan legislature just approved an increase to the state’s renewable power mandate. That would not have happened without some pressure on both legislative leaders and utilities, whether economic or social, to do the right thing for the environment.

And this writer can’t help but feeling there is a bit of history rewriting involved in the president’s push to change this and other treaties, something in line with the ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s practice of chiseling off the stories extolling their predecessors and replacing them with tales of their own glories.

Mr. Trump has yet to say, on the Paris accord, NATO or the North American Free Trade Agreement, that the U.S. is out and never going back. Rather, he wants to renegotiate, put his stamp on the agreements. Like with his apartments, offices and hotels, he wants to see his name blazoned on the documents.

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MDE Adopts Cyber Education For School Improvement

Posted: May 17, 2017 4:14 PM

While various education groups are debating the value of cyber schools, the Department of Education has adopted online learning for part of its school improvement program.

The department has developed an Innovation Council that gathers department staff, local officials and some private experts to guide schools in developing new programs.

As part of the council’s work, it has begun a series of monthly “office hours” conducted via online meeting.

The office hours for May, scheduled for tomorrow at 3 p.m., will feature Brian Ciloski from the Office of School Aid and School Finance to discuss virtual learning as it relates to seat time waivers. Members of the council will also be available to discuss the subject.

Prior office hours have featured innovative programs going on at school districts and guidance on developing a program.

The council’s website allows school officials to submit plans for programs and ask assistance of the council in developing and implementing those plans.

Council members could also be showing up to legislative hearings. Among the council’s purposes is proposing legislative changes that could make implementing a new program easier.

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What Will New Road Funding Get Us? Not Much

Posted: May 3, 2017 4:05 PM

January 1 began a steady climb in fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees headed to the roads and bridges around the state, so those cracks and potholes should begin to fade.

Well, maybe not.

The Transportation Asset Management Council took that new funding, and new federal funds, into account in laying out the projections in its annual report out this week. The report had a lot of graphs with downhill slopes.

The new funding package is projected to add $453 million in transportation funds for the current fiscal year and more for the coming year. Those are also the last two years the council predicts the state will have more roads in good or fair condition than in poor condition.

The council still predicts more than half of the state’s roads will be in poor condition by 2020.

For bridges, the picture is a little better, but only because the declining slopes are a little shallower. Currently, about 90 percent of the state’s bridges are in good or fair condition, and the council predicts that will hold until about 2020, when the slide begins toward about 88 percent in 2026.

That is still better than the 85 percent good or fair in 2004.

The bridge numbers are also pessimistic, the report said. Since neither the state nor the federal government earmarked any of the new money for bridge work, the report assumes there will be no new money.

“Taken together, and given the current conditions of Michigan’s roads and bridges, these influxes of new funds are still not sufficient to improve Michigan’s road and bridge problems,” the report said of the new state and federal funds.

Given the heartburn involved in passing the current transportation package, the question for future leaders will be how to sell further increases when, if the projections hold, motorists will see little result for the extra money they are already spending.

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Is There A Path To Pay Raises For Elected Officials?

Posted: April 5, 2017 12:40 PM

The economy is growing and much of the state workforce has begun to claw back income lost to pay cuts and furlough days imposed during the recession.

Legislators and other elected officials, though, have been held to pre-2001 wages. That was the last year the Legislature accepted the State Officers Compensation Commission’s recommendation for a pay increase.

It also had to then endure the ire of voters for the 36 percent pay hike it gave itself. Supporters justified the increase by showing legislators were behind other state officials in pay increases (the Legislature at the time could simply not act and let the increase go through, which the Senate did). Voters saw it as an affront, especially with the state’s economy, and their wages, beginning to stagnate.

Since then, the only pay change the Legislature has accepted (it now has to act affirmatively) has been a 10 percent cut in 2011.

Two recommendations for increase to the Supreme Court were rejected, and the impetus behind those proposals is now gone, as lower court judges are tied to state employee salaries instead of to the justices’.

Unlike all those prior years, economists have been optimistic about the state’s economy for some time. State revenues have continued to grow. Unemployment is up, but largely because more people are looking for work.

But the state is also not back to the job quantity or income levels it saw pre-2001.

And there is substantial push in the House at least for a tax cut. It could be hard for leadership there to sell a pay increase for themselves and their fellow elected officials and a cut to the revenues that would supply those salaries.

As the SOCC begins its hearings next week, it will be interesting to see what evidence it can gather, if any, that will support a shift from the status quo.

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Media Moved To A New Home In Capitol

Posted: March 29, 2017 3:58 PM

For those few who are still looking, the Edward Augenstein Room has moved again.

With the move across the hall, the media retained Mr. Augenstein’s ever-present picture, his signed pitch table and our mailboxes. And we have exchanged a few working cubicles for an automated teller machine (though Gideon D’Assandro, spokesperson for House Speaker Tom Leonard, said the latter was going and the former coming back).

The move represents a combination of changing needs for the Capitol and changing needs for the media.

When this reporter started, the House press room was a hub of information. Those same mailboxes found in the current room were often the source of breaking news, as press releases were dropped there long before they would come in the mail. Not email, mind you, but good ol’ U.S. Mail.

The media room was also frequented by legislators, lobbyists and other sources because that was the place to find the key reporters. Several outlets, including UPI, had permanent offices in that space, but there were also work spaces and telephones for more transient media and those of us who had our own offices outside the Capitol.

That room also boasted a full-time staff person to distribute releases and help track down information. Mr. Augenstein held that position for many years, earning his name on the room.

As the House expanded its technology, those media offices were annexed, leaving only the temporary work spaces and a part-time overseer.

But the room was still a hub for activity as those mail boxes remained a key source of news releases. Indeed, a regular part of any news organization’s workday covering the Capitol until about the year 2000, when virtually all news releases moved via email, was sending a reporter at least twice a day to “check the box” – the cubby for each news organization for any news releases, reports or other newsworthy information.

With House staffing, budget and technology changes, the room was moved a couple of times before landing at its most recent site on the north side of the west wing ground floor.

Those moves have also seen changes in the Capitol press corps and its needs for the room.

Mr. Augenstein’s table has not seen a game of pitch in many years (likely most current reporters, yours truly included, don’t even know how to play) and only a few media outlets regularly used the space for their daily reporting tasks.

The mailboxes have been moved from room to room, but it is not uncommon now that the releases in them, if there are any, are several days old. The information likely came in an email long before the paper releases were delivered.

While the room is smaller and its uses have changed, it is good to know that the media still has a place in the Capitol should anyone want a rousing game of pitch.

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Will We Ever Fail To Fail Our Children?

Posted: February 15, 2017 5:06 PM

What we are doing is not working and we have students who are not achieving where we need them to be, so we are going to change…

That phrase, or something like it, has been said or written by innumerable people innumerable times in at least the last 30 years.

Both the Legislature and the State Board of Education added to those counts over the last couple of days with discussions over the development of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act and efforts to rescind the Common Core State Standards.

In all of those discussions, there is something the state, or school districts, or schools, or teachers, or parents are doing wrong that is causing our children to fall short of our educational goals for them.

As part of the ESSA discussion, Department of Education officials said they had been aiming assistance in recent years to the wrong level. Since schools are part of a district, that higher level is the right target since providing assistance directly to schools has not worked.

Under the last round of school reforms, experts moved the assistance to the building level because the assistance provided at the district level was not always making its way to the building or the classroom.

Some legislators want to move Michigan to the standards Massachusetts had in place for its 2008-09 school year because those gave that state the best student performance. They argue that the Common Core State Standards now in place (which Massachusetts adopted in 2010), among other things, don’t have the test scores to show they are working.

Supporters of the standards said they really have only been in place for three or four school years and have not been given time to work. The state board adopted them in 2010, but school districts really did not follow until the 2013-14 school year.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Education’s website, that is about how long the standards legislators want to adopt had been in place in that state to provide the 2008-09 test scores that are so lauded.

There are ample, reasonable, arguments favoring all of the changes being considered. And each change will take time to implement and make its way into the classroom.

Meanwhile, each child has no more than 13 years in school to learn what we think they should learn, many less than that if no one can reach them and bring them along.

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Charlotte, Dowagiac, Lahser And Other Michigan Tongue-Twisters

Posted: January 24, 2017 4:52 PM

Ever irked by someone who doesn’t know how to pronounce that nearby town or landmark? Or worse, ever the target of, “That’s not how we say that here”?

The state is here to help.

The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, through its Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, has launched a website, You Say it How in Michigan?, to explain all those pronunciations.

The site has more than 2,200 names that you might hear mispronounced by visitors to the state, or to a region of the state.

“We initially developed the ‘You Say it How in Michigan?’ guide for narrators across the country during audio book production to get Michigan name and place pronunciations right,” Susan Chinault, manager Michigan Braille and Talking Book Library, where the guide was developed, said in the statement announcing its launch. “Actually the guide is invaluable for anyone, especially since Michigan has so many unique names that can be mispronounced.”

And if you can’t read the pronunciation guides, each word has an audio file with it being said properly.

For those newbies, Charlotte is pronounced “shar-LOT”. The emphasis is on the second syllable.

We’ll avoid a phonetic spelling for Gratiot (as in the county, avenue or Fort Gratiot Township) for, um, obvious reasons. If you’re not sure how it’s pronounced, look it up.

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Concerned Optimism Highlights State View Of Trump Transition

Posted: December 29, 2016 2:12 PM

While none have actually used the phrase, “concerned optimism” seems to describe how members of Governor Rick Snyder’s leadership team are viewing the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

The optimism is easy to understand. A Republican state administration is looking forward to a Republican federal administration. Many of the areas where Republicans have argued President Barack Obama overstepped the bounds of states’ rights they now hope to be reversed.

In interviews with Snyder administration officials, there have been a number of comments not only that the administration is looking forward to working with the new federal government, but that they are looking forward to seeing some additional powers come back their way. On a variety of fronts, state departments are expecting to see a number of regulatory powers passed down from federal agencies, or at least opened to give the state the option of taking the authority.

But the new federal administration also seems to be raising substantial concerns. As consistent a theme among Mr. Snyder’s leadership is that they are entirely unsure what to expect come January 20.

Mr. Trump had a few consistent themes during his campaign: repeal Obamacare, cut regulations and cut taxes.

If he cuts federal taxes, what might that mean to a state like Michigan where some substantial portions of its budget are federal funds?

And moving more regulation to the state level likely means more work for state officials. What might that cost and who will provide the funds?

Nearly all involved appear to agree now that the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, cannot simply be repealed, but there is substantial uncertainty what the replacement might be and where that might shift costs and responsibilities.

Trade seems a particular bug-a-boo. Mr. Trump has been consistently critical of China’s trade practices, and yet several agencies within the Snyder administration have put substantial efforts into increasing trade with the Asian power. While Snyder administration officials have been outwardly positive on the issue, there has also been an undertone of concern that, at a minimum, there will be some effort in educating the incoming administration on the value of that trade.

Mr. Snyder has not directly opposed Mr. Trump’s call for a tariff on goods entering the United States from Mexico without a rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but he has openly worried about a trade war.

So, while the Snyder administration is welcoming in a Republican federal administration, many are still holding their breath to see how the change will affect the state.

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An Election That Should Serve As An Ongoing Example

Posted: November 18, 2016 3:30 PM

Elections can be nasty, dirty affairs.

Despite the constant chorus from pundits that negative campaigning doesn’t work, candidates continue to malign, impugn and degrade each other to win votes.

This most recent election, though, deserves a special place in history for its tone, language and aftermath, particularly as they affected our nation’s youth.

This reporter has now been a scoutmaster through three presidential elections. Teenage boys are interested in politics and they pay attention. So it has not been uncommon to hear the half-truths, and less, generated by the above-mentioned tactics repeated at meetings and events.

But this is the first time I have had boys fearful both for the outcome of the election and of their classmates when it was done. This from a group where their parents were fairly evenly split between the two candidates.

Language and actions from both camps gave supporters, even those too young to vote, license to behave abominably to one another and at least a portion of our teenagers have taken that license and run with it.

The blame falls to both sides. It is hard to dispute that President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters raised particularly racial issues in a way that was easily translated into a rally cry that those who were “not us” need to be sent back and kept on the other side of the wall.

But it is also indisputable that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made similar attacks, saying that Trump supporters who were racist were in a “basket of deplorables,” a comment that many incorrectly said was to apply to all Trump supporters.

Television pundits were little better. While there was much legitimate commentary on the race, there were also numerous calls for action against candidates and their supporters, particularly from certain late night hosts, most of whom supported Ms. Clinton.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, with a single tweet posted Tuesday, managed to both highlight another key place of responsibility for the recent school events and continue the atmosphere that encouraged them: “To the parents of all the children currently initiating civil unrest (in the name of free speech), please come pick up your brats.”

Response to Mr. Bishop’s post highlighted not that he continued inflammatory language, but the view that his comment was aimed solely at those protesting against Mr. Trump, with many comments indicating support for the children’s actions.

Mr. Bishop did not respond directly to any of the responses to his initial post, but followed with a series of tweets that made clear he was focused on the violence involved, and not on any of the political statements involved.

“Riots, property damage, assaultive behavior is not protected speech. I don't care what side you’re on,” he said in one of those later posts.

Both sides have rightly called for healing and unity, but it is also time for campaign operatives to take a long look at their tactics. Yes, it is important for your candidate to win, but can that really come at any cost? There are numerous factors involved in the spate of bullying that has hit our nation’s schools, but those in charge of messaging for the presidential campaigns need to accept their share of that blame.

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The Top Of The Ticket And The Statewide Education Boards

Posted: November 2, 2016 11:23 AM

With the four elected education boards typically following the top of the ticket, a strong turnout by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump could give his party control of one board and shared power on the other three.

With a few exceptions where the top of the ticket split (2014, where a Democrat won the U.S. Senate, a Republican won governor and the MSU board seats split), the State Board of Education, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, the University of Michigan Board of Regents and the Wayne State University Board of Governors have seen new or returning board members nominated by the party of the winning presidential, gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidate.

With the state having supported the Democratic presidential nominee for the past several decades, the incumbents up for election this presidential year are all Democrats. So those board seats are Hillary Clinton’s to lose.

If the race goes as most pollsters expect and Ms. Clinton takes the state, the only changes will be on the State Board of Education, where long-time board member Kathleen Straus (D-Detroit) has finally been allowed to retire (she talked about it eight years ago but was convinced to run again), and on the Wayne State board, where Paul Massaron and Gary Pollard have both decided not to run again.

The boards would retain 6-2 Democratic majorities except the MSU board, currently split 5-3.

If Mr. Trump could engineer a rout, those boards could be pushed to 4-4, except MSU, which would see a 5-3 Republican majority.

In a tight finish, a win by Ms. Clinton likely leaves the boards as they are, with straight-ticket Democratic votes prevailing.

But a close win by Mr. Trump leaves a number of scenarios. Democratic straight-ticket voters could still carry, as those who don’t check the party at the top of the ballot often do not read through to the bottom. That’s what happened in 2014. Or maybe Republicans can get enough voters to finish the ballot to turn the seats.

A close Trump win could also allow the gender bias of Michigan voters to play, which would give some advantage to Nicolette Snyder for the State Board of Education and Kim Shmina for the WSU board. The MSU incumbents are both women, giving them the advantage there, and all four U-M candidates are men, leaving no clear advantage.

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An Unusual, And Dubious, Claim Of Election Rigging

Posted: October 26, 2016 3:53 PM

Peter Bormuth lost the Democratic primary in the 64th House District in Jackson County by a wide margin because the Christians in the race and in the elections system conspired against him, or so he alleged in a now mostly dismissed federal lawsuit.

Mr. Bormuth, a Pagan Druid, said the local Democratic Party recruited Ron Brooks, a Christian minister, because the Christian-led party did not want him to win the primary unopposed.

Poll workers also at least showed their disapproval of Mr. Bormuth by humming “Jesus is Lord” while he was receiving his ballot.

Rep. Earl Poleski (R-Jackson), who is term limited out of the seat, allegedly filed a campaign finance complaint against Mr. Bormuth because the incumbent, a Christian, did not agree with the message in the television advertisements Mr. Bormuth claimed.

The same “Pagan pro-abortion/pro-environment anti-[C]hristian television political ads” (a quote from his complaint) were the reason Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (another Christian, as Mr. Bormuth points out) denied his petition for a recount.

Mr. Bormuth cited unsubstantiated studies (maybe “studies” in scare quotes is more appropriate) that the voting systems used in Jackson County are susceptible to tampering, as well as his vote total, in alleging “the possibility of fraud” that led him to seek the recount of a single precinct. He said he wanted that recount to check the accuracy of the voting machines.

The 420 votes he got in the primary was an indicator that someone had tampered with the votes, he said. The number is slang for marijuana, for which he supports legalization.

Ms. Johnson, for her part, argued the recall petition was rejected because checking the totals in one precinct was not likely to erase his 819-vote deficit.

Judge Nancy Edmunds, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, did agree with Mr. Bormuth that his claim was not moot, as the state had argued, because the deadline for filing a recount had passed. He said, and she agreed, that the lawsuit fell into an exception for actions that could not be addressed in the time allotted but that addressed an issue that could come up again, like should he again seek public office.

It was his claim of fraud that she said was the problem. Ms. Edmunds dismissed the case because Mr. Bormuth did not cite any actual fraud that occurred to affect the outcome of the election. “To the contrary, he claimed to be ‘aggrieved over the possibility of fraud,’” she said.

She also rejected his argument that the Legislature had intended all candidates to have a right to a recount. While she agreed state law provides that votes “shall” be subject to recount, “Bormuth omits the last few words of this provision: ‘as provided in chapter 33 of this act.’”

Ms. Edmunds also agreed that Mr. Bormuth alleged a number of facts that could show he was treated with hostility by leaders of both parties and by poll workers.

“But notably absent from Bormuth’s complaint are allegations of fact which link any such improper conduct to the individual against whom he is seeking injunctive relief: Michigan Secretary of State Defendant Johnson,” she said.

Attorney General Bill Schuette was merely dismissed from the case. While Mr. Bormuth named him as a party, he made no allegations against him in the complaint.

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Open Meetings Act v. Security: Who Will Prevail?

Posted: September 21, 2016 11:48 AM

“A person shall not be required as a condition of attendance at a meeting of a public body to register or otherwise provide his or her name or other information or otherwise to fulfill a condition precedent to attendance.”

Unless the security guard at the state building in question tells you to sign in and asks for your identification.

Once upon a time, there was no question on that top quote from the Michigan Open Meetings Act. One could sneak in and out of public meetings, often with little notice.

Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and government workers at all levels asked, reasonably so, for more security on their buildings. For the state, that meant putting in barriers and posting a security guard at open entrances.

But, on questioning from Gongwer News Service (See Gongwer Michigan Report, September 15, 2005), state officials acknowledged you could not ask people to sign into the building and have that not be considered signing into the meeting.

The review led to a variety of changes, including moving some meetings to avoid state building security.

In the Capitol Complex buildings, that has meant (usually) getting a badge that says “Public Meeting” before being escorted to the meeting room (after which, meeting attendees often have free roam of the building, but that is for another blog).

So, problem solved, right?

Well, yes, as long as the security person at the building in question has been trained. It was some time after the full review that this reporter attended a Liquor Control Commission meeting where he had to show ID and sign in at the building door, and then sign in again meeting room door, and neither appeared optional.

At a meeting earlier this week, this reporter had to sign into the building, though not show ID.

And many of the boards and commissions continue a practice of asking everyone to introduce themselves, a friendly gesture, but still technically a violation. No one wants to be that person who has to awkwardly pass their turn to stand up and say their name.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem signing in or saying my name. It leaves a paper trail to show that I was in fact, working.

But is it time to revisit the OMA, state security, or both?

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A New Ballot Proposal To Raise Taxes?

Posted: September 7, 2016 3:27 PM

It appears likely that voters will have another chance to increase their taxes on the 2018 ballot, or maybe before.

Local governments, led by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, are mounting a big push for tax changes that would give them more opportunity to dig out from the Great Recession. As argued at an event Wednesday, one of several Mr. Evans has sponsored across the state, the current tax system keeps locals from bouncing back as the economy does after a dip.

There are likely some valid arguments for change. Courts have ruled that the limits under both Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment apply, capping growth for long-time owners and limiting the increase for new owners. Revenue growth, then, can only come from new construction.

Cities argue that means for them to see growth, under current law, someone has to tear something down and build new or make an existing structure bigger. Renovating the inside might improve the value, but does not constitute sufficient change to trigger an assessment change for the existing owner.

Someone, then, will have to sign on to argue that voters should amend the Constitution to tax themselves more. We all saw how well that went last time with Proposal 1 of 2015 on roads.

Lots of arguments could be made why the road funding plan failed, but they boil down to voters did not understand why they should have to pay more.

The same task lies before whoever takes on this new plan: explaining to voters why they should allow their property taxes to increase for a nebulous “better services”.

Nothing is impossible. The right message in the right climate could win over the populous. But given the ongoing projections of less than stellar economic growth in the state, that is going to be a gargantuan lift.

Mr. Evans clearly is interested in the topic, but as Proposal 1 showed, even a big coalition of supporting organizations and elected officials is not enough.

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The Art Of Looking Presidential

Posted: July 27, 2016 3:23 PM

This election cycle has brought the regular spate of attacks and counters among the candidates and their supporters across the ballot, but one relatively new allegation has been levied against Republican nominee Donald Trump: that he does not look or act “presidential”.

In recent history, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama had that “presidential” aura. They looked and spoke and acted as one would expect of a president. They had a demeanor and charisma that projected leadership ability.

Mr. Trump is certainly outspoken and quick with off-the-cuff comments, though arguably not the orators those presidents were and are, but does that make him unfit for the presidency?

President Dwight Eisenhower, historian David McCullough said in an interview regarding Mr. Trump, listed four key qualities of a good leader: “Character, ability, responsibility and experience. Donald Trump fails to qualify on all four counts.”

But is that what voters are thinking when they are looking for someone “presidential”? And would they necessarily agree that Mr. Trump fails on all those measures?

Ted Koppel, in a recent interview with Mr. Trump, said the candidate had said in prior interviews that he could be “so presidential”. “I haven’t seen it yet,” Mr. Koppel said.

But what exactly was Mr. Koppel, and those others (from both parties) who have made the argument, looking for? What exactly is that badge or sign that says, “I am presidential material”?

Apparently, based on Mr. Koppel’s follow-up, he is looking for someone more conciliatory. His next questions (and comments) are about Mr. Trump’s attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (which are not been much different in tenor than his attacks on his key primary opponents earlier this year).

“I still see that flare of temper. I still see that Donald Trump who likes to jab people in the ribs when he feels he has to,” Mr. Koppel says.

How is that different from any other presidential candidate in recent memory? Even among those better-spoken candidates, political campaigns up and down the ballot have been heavy with personal attacks, some on legitimate issues and some manufactured.

If Ms. Clinton launches such attacks on Mr. Trump, couldn’t she then accused of being not presidential?

For that matter, how does Ms. Clinton change the notion of being presidential? Until her nomination, all of the measures of “presidential” had been male. Until Mr. Obama, those measures had always been assessed against while males.

President Franklin Roosevelt, until later in his administration, refused to be seen or photographed in his wheelchair because he was afraid his disability would make him look unpresidential. Would such a disability, which would be harder to hide in today’s media circus campaigns, still be a demerit against a candidate?

Times change and so do voters’ views of the best qualities of a national leader. Let’s be honest, if voters did not see Mr. Trump, or Ms. Clinton, as being “presidential”, they would not be the party’s nominee for president?

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Community Colleges Struggling To Get Students Through

Posted: July 20, 2016 3:42 PM

It was not exactly news, given that college and university graduation rates have been a topic of discussion in higher education appropriations committees for several years, but a report from the Center for Educational Performance and Information showing particularly community colleges getting fewer than half of their students to their goal is likely to put a new twist on those talks when the next round of budgets come through.

Community college officials have argued for some time that degree granting rates are not a fair measure, given the number of students who aim for either a certificate or a transfer to a university. But the report, using data provided by colleges and universities, shows even including those measures, colleges are seeing less than half of their students achieve their goal.

The report, the first based on a new database CEPI and the colleges and universities created that allows tracking students from high school through any of the state’s higher education institutions, showed the comprehensive completion rates on average below 40 percent in 2015 for all students who entered a community college between 2009 and 2013.

Of that 2009 cohort, only 37 percent had completed, meaning had earned an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree or a certificate or transferred to a four-year institution. That was only slightly more than the 35 percent who completed an associate’s or transferred.

As might be expected, that average completion rate slid as students had fewer years in school, with only 13 percent of those who entered in 2013 having completed under the comprehensive definition.

There were a few outliers in the numbers. Of the students who entered Kellogg Community College in 2009, 70 percent had completed, as had 51 percent of those who entered that school in 2011. And 52 percent of those who enrolled in Kirtland Community College in 2013 completed in that two years.

On the other end, only 24 percent of Wayne County Community College’s 2009 cohort had completed by 2015.

Overall, though, the colleges were close, with 2009 cohort numbers between 30 percent and 45 percent. Again with some outliers, the completion rates for the 2013 cohort stood largely in the teens.

The universities fared a bit better, but still showed completion rates that would earn a high school a potential review. The comprehensive completion for the four-year institutions included a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree or a certificate, and 67 percent of those who entered in 2009 achieved that. Only 40 percent of the 2011 cohort had completed.

Again, there were some outliers: both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan got more than half of their students to completion in all three cohorts. For the 2009 cohort, they graduated 84 percent and 89 percent respectively.

Eastern Michigan University, Saginaw Valley State University, U-M Flint and Wayne State University never crossed 50 percent for any of the three cohorts studied.

Ferris State University and Michigan Technological University are not included because they had not completed all of their records for 2015 in time for the report.

As with the K-12 system, the reasons for these completion rates are likely many and varied and there are likely many factors outside the control of the schools. But it is also likely that legislators providing money to these programs are going to want better explanations and plans to move those numbers up.

Unlike the K-12 system, the state cannot, particularly for the universities, simply step in and take control. The universities have constitutional autonomy and the colleges, while receiving state funds, are largely controlled by their local boards and funded with tuition and local taxes. Legislators may have some less leverage, but one can anticipate they use what they can to push change.

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Democrats Put Hopes In Candidate-In-Waiting

Posted: July 13, 2016 4:58 PM

Democrats are parading a new rising star in Suzanna Shkreli.

The latest boon for Ms. Shkreli’s campaign is being named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Emerging Races list. As part of the national committee’s Red-to-Blue program, she can expect some organizing assistance and, should she perform as hoped, some funding and advertising.

The listing also draws attention to her efforts in the 8th U.S. House District among Democrats nationally, which alone can boost her fundraising efforts.

Ms. Shkreli has already see more than usual support from the Michigan Democratic Party for a new candidate, with the state party taking charge of her announcement tour and at least her initial media.

The party seems almost more bullish on Ms. Shkreli than they were on actress Melissa Gilbert.

And she appears to be a great candidate on paper. In addition to being relatively young, she has most recently been a prosecutor on child physical and sexual abuse crimes. That Macomb County, where she works, is not in the district is probably not a big hit.

What could be a big hit to her campaign? Ms. Gilbert, whose name could be difficult to scrub from the ballot.

At this point, Ms. Gilbert will appear on the August ballot. State elections officials have said they have not received any request from her to be removed and have no intention at this point of changing the primary slate.

There is more time to address the November ballot, which is good, because the courts will need that time. State election law does have a provision allowing candidates to withdraw after the deadline for health reasons, but Elections Director Christopher Thomas has noted on multiple occasions that the provision has seldom, if ever, been invoked. There is no process in place for examining a claim, much less a form for submitting such a claim.

As with most new elections processes, the Supreme Court will likely be the final arbiter of Ms. Gilbert’s claim.

Once the ballot issues are addressed, there remains the question of ongoing state and national support. The 8th District has seen a number of recruited or highly regarded candidates who were given strong praise at the beginning of the race but, in the end, saw the DCCC move its efforts to greener pastures. The district has some Democratic strongholds, but on balance leans Republican. Ms. Shkreli will likely need some substantial backing, monetary and otherwise, to swing that balance.

But if the DCCC’s Emerging Races list is an indication, the party is expecting a banner year. The 8th District has been a perennial Emerging Race, and the 1st District and 7th District have wavered between Emerging and full Red-to-Blue support, which they have this year for Lon Johnson and Rep. Gretchen Driskell, respectively.

The Republicans have mocked the DCCC’s Emerging Races program for some time as having produced minimal results.

They would surely have a field day if Ms. Shkreli never even makes it on the ballot.

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Lies, Damn Lies And School Funding

Posted: June 29, 2016 2:32 PM

With the adequacy study released Tuesday, state policy makers now know exactly what it costs to educate a student in the state.

Well, not exactly.

The report’s recommendation of $8,667 per student is based on average expenditures per student in particular districts. But according to its own definitions, the revenue contributing to that included local, state and federal funds. There is little indication what proportion of that spending came from which source.

The recommendation could be for an increase in state funds, or it could be simply a different way of looking at the funds that are already there.

The report also provides recommendations on spending for at-risk and English language learners. It calls for state and local funding to add the 30 percent for at-risk and 40 percent for ELL. But it does not recommend how to distribute those funds and does not indicate how those funds would interact with federal Title I.

It completely ignores (and its arguments for this may not be unreasonable) the cost of special education, which, under a series of lawsuits, the state is supposed to be covering at least most of, but many argue is still falling short. The myriad ways that is handled across the state, and sometimes within a single intermediate school district, do make it difficult to track exactly what is being spent on each child and how those services are provided.

As some noted during interviews for stories Tuesday, the report does not even mention career and technical education, which also is addressed in a variety of ways across the state and, under some recent policy pushes, is an increasingly important element of the K-12 system.

Some supporters of change to Proposal A of 1994 will see solace in the recommendation that, rather than the current system of the state making up the shortfall in local revenue to bring districts to their foundation, the state provide a base level and allow districts to levy local taxes to supplement that.

It recommends, though, that the supplemental funding be equalized, meaning creating a not uncomplicated formula for determining the relative property value of each district and restricting income of property rich districts to not exceed values of poorer districts.

So far few districts have seen defeat of their non-homestead property tax renewal, but that could change if the local tax is seen as supplemental to, rather than part of, the district’s base funding. If voters in a district with high need, essentially the urban and rural districts with high levels of poverty and generally lower property values, chose not to approve that supplemental funding, at what point might the state have to step in?

The proposal also ignores charter schools. Much as some would like, those are not going away, and they do not have a property base from which to assess the supplemental funds. Charter supporters cry foul now because they have to take building costs out of their foundation while traditional districts can levy a bond millage. They would, and reasonably so, scream if they were not provided some opportunity to tap into this supplemental funding.

Building construction and renovation costs, arguably the most inequitable part of the state’s school funding system, remain so under the recommendation. The study did not find a relationship between student success and capital costs or debt service. The study looked at the value of bonds passed and noted that the bond value per student appeared an indicator of the ability to pass a bond, but did not mention that relative property values have, in many communities, been a limiting factor on funds available for construction and renovation.

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Obama Must Have Future Political Plans

Posted: June 22, 2016 1:20 PM

Elected officials regularly endorse each other for office, and a member of Congress couldn’t usually ask for a better endorsement than from the president.

President Barack Obama’s nod to U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Detroit) should be a boost, particularly since he could be facing one of his tougher opponents in recent years in Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey.

Mr. Obama, as is common in such endorsements, lets voters know that Mr. Conyers has been a key ally and will remain so in the coming term.

"Congressman John Conyers has been a champion for jobs, justice, and peace over his career in Congress, and I am proud to endorse him for reelection today," Mr. Obama said in a statement. "I need John by my side as we fight to create good jobs and build an economy that works for everyone. I'm asking you and everyone in the 13th Congressional District to turn out and vote for John Conyers in the August Democratic primary."

But one wonders what Mr. Obama will be doing, come the 2017-18 congressional term, that he will need Mr. Conyers by his side. Unless Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are mistaken, Mr. Obama will not be in the White House to seek Mr. Conyers’ help, other than the brief overlap between the time the new congressional term begins in early January and when the president leaves office at noon January 20.

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I Was Endorsed (Along With Everybody Else)

Posted: June 15, 2016 4:14 PM

Primary election endorsement season is upon us, and with it comes the inevitable blanket endorsements and the also inevitable announcements from candidates that ignore that their endorsement does not make them special, at least compared to their opponents.

Interest group endorsements are just like a test in school: if you get the right grade, you pass. And usually everyone who passes gets the endorsement.

But one would usually never know that from the press releases from the candidates.

As each group finishes its scoring and releases its grades, the candidate releases will trickle out.

So candidate A is first out with a release saying, “I was endorsed by my base’s favorite group,” and one thinks, “Ah, that will give him or her a huge leg up in the race.”

But a few minutes or hours later, candidate B will issue essentially the same release: “I am so proud to be endorsed by this group that will drive your decision in the election.”

Now, the race seems to be evening up again between the two lead candidates.

Then come the releases from candidates C, D, E and F.


So essentially this coveted interest group is saying: “We don’t really care who you vote for. They are all fine with us.”

That was the case this week with Right to Life of Michigan in the 1st U.S. House District Republican primary. Being anti-abortion is considered a litmus test for many Republican voters, and RTL’s backing can bring with it substantial support at the polls.

Each of the three candidates in that primary, then, issued his release announcing that endorsement. And each neglected to mention that both of his opponents also got the nod.

Not to pick on these candidates because this happens every two years in many races, but would it really be so politically crippling to include a line somewhere in the announcement that Organization Y also endorsed other candidates in the race?

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Libertarians Thinking Next Year Is Now

Posted: June 1, 2016 2:33 PM

The two major party presidential candidates have one key thing in common this year, or so the pollsters tell us: they are not very well liked.

Approval ratings for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have remained low even as they have all but clinched their respective party nominations. Both also face some potentially strong negatives as they look toward the general election.

The Libertarian Party, among some other minor parties, is seeing the current electoral climate as its perfect opportunity to join, if not displace, one of those major parties. But it could be a steep climb from the 11 percent party officials argue they are polling now to the 15 percent needed to qualify for most of the national debates, much less the plurality needed to win the election.

First, the party has to have credible candidates for its top of the ticket, which it appears to have this year in two former governors, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld.

But the slate, two former Republican governors, might not serve the goal Libertarian Party of Michigan Chair Bill Gelineau said the party has of drawing from the center.

Mr. Gelineau said in recent Michigan elections, his party’s nominee was instrumental in defeating a Republican House candidate and a Democratic U.S. House candidate.

“So we’re equal opportunity offenders,” he said.

Libertarians, he said, align with Republicans on fiscal issues and Democrats on social issues. And he said, based on those alignments, some 23 percent of the populace agrees more with his party than with either of the major parties.

Getting that message out will be the next step, he said. Again, the party has made strides there.

Mr. Gelineau reached out to Gongwer News Service about the party filing its candidates this year, a drastic improvement from some past elections where reaching Libertarian candidates or officials has been, at best, difficult. Those reached were often wary of the media.

A huge piece, of course, will be funding. The two-party system is admittedly so ingrained into not only the electorate but the media that the party will need to do something to insert itself into that discussion.

The last successful effort (inserting himself into the conversation, not winning) from a candidate not nominated by one of the two major parties was Ross Perot in 1992. Mr. Perot used his own funds to elevate himself, and the Reform Party that formed around him, into the spotlight by buying half-hour prime time infomercials to sell his proposals to the public.

That effort worked, gaining Mr. Perot enough support to get a spot in the national debates. But, despite the Reform Party’s protestations on its website, that surge collapsed when Mr. Perot proved to be at best a questionable candidate and later withdrew his money from the party. The Michigan party was one of the first to fall, as it fractured over the presidential nominations, with two different factions trying to file candidates and both being rejected.

While the Reform Party is not an entirely apt example, the Libertarian Party being a relatively venerable institution, it shows the effort needed to bring a new party into the limelight and the effort needed to retain that place.

For the Libertarian Party to rise, either in the state or nationally, it needs to not only be able to capitalize on the current strife within the major parties, but to develop a base that will allow it to keep any ground it gains. It has a long ways to go when a “good” performance in an election is the 9 percent Lorence Wenke pulled in the 20th Senate District in 2014 (36 percentage points behind the winner). Mr. Gelineau seemed to think the current Libertarian leaders are up to that task.

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Right-To-Work Fallout Continues

Posted: May 19, 2016 12:31 PM

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Michigan Education Association have been trading barbs, and legal complaints, for some time, and it appears that a ruling that the union has to allow members to resign any time they want was not the end of those exchanges.

The Mackinac Center announced another Employment Relations Commission complaint against the union Wednesday, arguing it still was not allowing members to resign.

Ronald Robinson, a science teacher at Pioneer High School, said he submitted his resignation letter, and even during the August resignation period that MERC has ruled violates the state’s new right-to-work law, but is still being sent bills for agency fees by his local union.

This time, the test is what constitutes a new contract. The unions, both MEA and the Ann Arbor Education Association, argue that the provision requiring members to remain members of the union or to pay an agency fee to cover bargaining costs remained in place until January, when the contract expired. The law allowed the so-called union security provision to remain until the contract expired.

But Mackinac Center is arguing, on Mr. Robinson’s behalf, that the contract was revised enough in 2014 and 2015 that it counts as a new agreement, making the union security provision unenforceable.

So the MERC can once again expect to hear the two sides arguing.

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Threatening The State Board Of Education

Posted: May 11, 2016 4:06 PM

Republicans are furious with the State Board of Education for its proposed guidance to schools allowing transgender children to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify, not their biological gender.

But while they have huffed and puffed, is there really any way to blow down the Democratic majority on the board?

The spat stems from a suggested policy intended to address particularly transgender youth in schools. Under the plan, school officials would be encouraged to call children by their chosen name and the gender with which they identify, and students would be able to use the facilities aligned with that gender, if the district chooses to adopt the policy.

The argument in favor is that transgender students will have higher self-esteem if we acknowledge and support them.

Opponents of the idea say they fear a male pretending to be transgender so he can enter a restroom and harass/ogle girls.

It is unclear, given some recent exchanges between board members, whether they will be able to find some middle ground on the issue and yet still provide some meaningful guidance for the school officials trying to address the issue. But it is clear that, come August, the board will adopt some kind of policy.

Rep. Philip Potvin (R-Cadillac) slapped the board on the hand by taking away, in his budget, the board’s per diem. Pulling the funding from state programs tends to bring them in line or make them go away.

The board members, however, are not likely to flinch at losing their meager paychecks. None of them are so poorly off personally that they rely on the few dollars they get for their positions on the board.

There have also been suggestions that the Legislature could prohibit the board from adopting policies addressing LGBTQ students. At a minimum, the proposal would pad the pockets of attorneys from both sides. It is not likely to do much more.

Unlike prior efforts to strip the board of authority, the plan would not move any programs, so it would not fall under anyone’s power to restructure government.

Rather, it would likely fall squarely on infringing on the board’s oversight and general supervision of education, a power the Constitution grants solely to the board.

There were threats Tuesday that, should the board continue with its efforts on the policy, voters would throw the bums out, and it is possible that Republicans will oust the two Democrats up for re-election in November. But the odds that it has anything to do with the LGBTQ policy are slim at best.

In general, the anonymous members – to the electorate – of the State Board of Education as well as the three elected university governing board win or lose depending on the prevailing political winds of the election year. Issues involving those boards generally have nothing to do with the outcome.

If the groups involved decided to make the board races a referendum on the issue and poured millions into television advertising, that could change the dynamic. But no one is going to put the millions of dollars that would be needed to launch an effective statewide campaign into races that, in the grand scheme, mean little.

The one unknown this year is how the end of the ability to select a political party’s slate of candidates with one selection on the ballot will affect the board races.

If Republicans are going to win the two board seats this year, the only real shot is for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to carry the state by a solid margin. It is Mr. Trump versus the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, that will determine what happens with board elections, not this issue, no matter how much it has caught fire.

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Brunner, MAPSA Clash Over Charter Deficit Plan

Posted: April 6, 2016 4:41 PM

Rep. Charles Brunner aired his frustration Tuesday that the Department of Education had approved the deficit elimination plan for a charter school in his district, but the Michigan Association of Public School Academies said Wednesday that Mr. Brunner went too far in his protestations and owed at least the staff at the school an apology.

The school at issue is Bay City Academy, which is running a $1.3 million deficit. The school was founded by Steven Ingersoll, who has been convicted of tax evasion related to his operation of that school and Grand Traverse Academy near Traverse City.

The department has approved a plan for the Bay City school to eliminate its deficit over the next five years.

But Mr. Brunner (D-Bay City) argued in a release that the school should simply have been closed, or at least needed to ensure it cut all ties with Mr. Ingersoll and anyone who had supported him.

“The Bay City Academy has objectively failed both academically and financially in recent years,” Mr. Brunner said. “Nothing in the deficit elimination plan offered by the Bay City Academy has given me faith that the academy is serious about educating the students attending their sorry excuse for a school.”

He argued the approval of the plan was evidence of the need for a package by House Democrats to create more oversight of charters.

“It is unconscionable that the individuals who have so assiduously shirked responsibility for their past performance have continued to be involved in the operation of the academy and even in some cases promoted. I will not stop advocating for the children of Bay County and will not rest until every student has access to a financially stable and academically enriching school environment,” he said. “I am calling on my colleagues in the House and Senate to pass sensible reforms to our charter school laws to hold schools like the Bay City Academy accountable, Lake Superior State to take responsibility for the academic performance of the school it permits to operate under its auspices, and the Department of Treasury and the Attorney General to do their jobs and ensure that Michigan taxpayers are not having their hard-earned dollars be abused and misused by a corrupt school board.”


But Dan Quisenberry, MAPSA president, said Mr. Brunner went too far in addressing the school’s issues and its ties to Mr. Ingersoll.

“In an obvious effort to score political points with his backers, Rep. Charles Brunner issued an outrageous and totally ill-informed attack on Bay City Academy and Michigan’s entire charter school community,” Mr. Quisenberry said. “For him to call Bay City Academy a ‘sorry excuse for a school’ is beyond the pale. It’s untrue and beyond offensive, and he owes an apology to every student, parent and staff member at that school. Rep. Brunner should be ashamed of himself.”

Mr. Quisenberry then defended the state’s charter school structure.

“Rep. Brunner has no idea what he’s talking about,” Quisenberry said in response to Mr. Brunner’s assertion about ”the outrageously lax charter school laws in this state”. “Michigan is, in fact, a national model of how charter school accountability and oversight are supposed to work, and the Bay City Academy situation is the textbook example of that. The problems were dealt with quickly because the right oversight was in place. Contrast that with other recent news stories of alleged criminal misdeeds that have happened in traditional public schools in Michigan.”

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DPS Fraud Defies Management Structure

Posted: March 29, 2016 4:41 PM

Federal charges filed today served only to reinforce the image of Detroit Public Schools as a mire of fraud and wasted funds.

If the charges prove true, 13 DPS officials submitted $2.7 million in fraudulent invoices in exchange for their share of nearly $1 million in kickbacks from a school supply vendor.

At first blush, the charges also appear another indictment of the emergency manager system. According to the information provided Tuesday by federal prosecutors, the scheme was going on until just recently, and eight of the 13 DPS administrators involved were current employees.

The primary goal of the emergency manager, under its current and all prior iterations, is to bring the local unit’s budget back in balance. Part of that effort, it would seem, is rooting out waste and fraud, particularly at this level.

The issue instead was found during a broad federal investigation into operations at the district. And was the second batch of charges brought under that investigation.

To be fair, the first set of charges, and the investigation itself, were brought as the result of district leadership reporting audit irregularities in the Educational Achievement Authority, which operates the 15 lowest-performing schools in DPS. The state then reported the situation to federal authorities.

But still, the scheme is alleged to have been going on under the nose of the EM for a long time with no one noticing.

DPS school board Vice President Ida Short, who under the emergency manager law has no power, made exactly that point to The Detroit News after the press conference announcing the charges.

“We have a czar over the district. ...We would ordinarily not have principals approving this level of contract. It’s too much money. It’s too easy for people to get greedy as you see,” Ms. Short told the News. She said the board, prior to the EM, approved all such contracts.

But wait. The emergency manager has only been in place since December 2008, so about seven-and-a-half years.

Prosecutors alleged the kick-back scheme had been going on for 13 years.

That means, according to Ms. Short’s recollection, the board would have at some point approved this contract, or at least had the opportunity to correct it. The board resumed control of the district at the end of 2004.

The lesson from the two sets of charges is that, no matter the style of governance over the last couple of decades, the district left itself open for employees and others to skim from the taxpayers’ till with little likelihood of being caught.

That makes the task in front of the district’s parents, teachers and principals, as well as legislators, the governor and whoever runs the district long-term, much more complicated than statutory and regulatory changes.

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State Breaking Loose From Federal Education Hold

Posted: February 3, 2016 2:33 PM

A few words at a committee hearing Tuesday could indicate a sea change in how the state relates to the U.S. Department of Education as it develops student testing and school accountability systems.

For the past decade, state education reforms have been designed with an eye to how they would be viewed by federal officials.

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston, to the Senate education policy and appropriations committee members, said his plans will consider Michigan first.

“I’m not as worried about the federal law,” Mr. Whiston said. “Let’s do what’s right for Michigan.”

That stands in stark contrast to much of the state’s current education legislation, which was designed to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act designed by former President George W. Bush and to grab a piece of the “Race to the Top” funding implemented by President Barack Obama.

And there is still some residue from that thinking. Mr. Whiston’s comment was spurred by concerns from one of the members that the state’s changes would not put RTTT funding at risk.

What Mr. Whiston did not say is the state has so far seen precious little of that funding, despite not only all its efforts to comply with the federal requirements for the grants, but Detroit being held out by then Education Secretary Arnie Duncan as the poster child for the need for the federal grants.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act does appear to give states a bit more leeway than its predecessor did in designing accountability systems, but Mr. Whiston also appears poised to look more to what state education officials say are needed to improve schools and less to what federal regulations say.

Not that the reforms he said he would be proposing next month will completely ignore federal requirements, because neither the state, nor any of the local districts, could afford to lose the federal funds attached to them.

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DPS Battle Could Turn On Opening, Closing Schools

Posted: January 20, 2016 3:11 PM

While headlines for years have been on Detroit Public Schools’ debt and academic performance, the real battleground over a reform plan might be the ease with which one can add and remove school desks in the city.

At a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, there was much discussion about the financial state of the district and how it came to be.

But the most heated exchanges came over the number of schools in the city and whether there should be any control over that number.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, essentially argued that opening the city to any and all possible options would ensure a quality education for Detroit students.

Dan Varner, chief executive officer of Excellent Schools Detroit, countered there are already some 30,000 more choices in the city than there are students to make them.

Mr. Varner, who had also been a member of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said the Detroit Education Commission that was a part of both that group’s and Governor Rick Snyder’s plan to address education in the city was necessary to begin to control the number of excess schools.

The commission, as envisioned in both plans, would have the authority to close underperforming schools as well as control opening and location of new schools within the city.

Mr. Naeyaert, though, said the commission had one goal: “It’s only goal is to suppress charter enrollment and prop up DPS 2.0 enrollment,” he said, referring to Mr. Snyder’s plan to split the district and separate current debt from operations. “There’s no reason to have a different set of rules on one side of Eight Mile than another.”

Mr. Varner said, as a charter supporter, “I have never heard more rubbish in my … f---ing life. … There are amazing charter schools in this country and we could have some in Detroit. That’s the point of this thing. I’m tired of lies controlling this debate”

Mr. Naeyaert said that no charters had opened in the current school year was proof that the market was controlling itself, to which Mr. Varner replied there were three scheduled to open in the upcoming school year.

An angry reply from one of the university officials corrected him that only one was scheduled to open (“That one we don’t need,” Mr. Varner said) and that the city needed more quality schools.

Mr. Naeyaert admitted that many of the charter schools currently in the city are poor quality.

But he also said charters should not be the only schools to close. “We’re waiting for the first traditional public school to close for poor performance,” he said.

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Cher Calls For Criminal Sanctions On Snyder For Flint Water Crisis

Posted: January 6, 2016 1:36 PM

Democrats have been taking Governor Rick Snyder to task for several months over the revelation that some Flint residents are being exposed to excessive levels of lead, but singer Cher urged Tuesday that he be taken to prison, or worse.

Cher said in posts Tuesday evening that Mr. Snyder should face criminal prosecution for the water crisis.

Well, technically, she stepped past the prosecution and recommended sentences.

In a first post, she called for “#JAILFORRICK”. The charges that would be the basis of that sentence: “GOV. OF MICHIGAN IS A MURDER.”

Later in the evening, Cher increased the sentence with the hashtag “#FIRINGSQUADWORKSFORME”.

In the second post, she said Mr. Snyder was not the only politician deserving of sanctions. “WTF IS GOING ON W/POWER MAD,GREED DRIVEN,KILLER, INCOMPETENT,POLITICIANS?THEY R CRIMNALS‼” she said.

And she does, according to documents on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, make one point: “CHILDREN WILL’NEVER’ RECOVER.”

Once the story began taking off on social media today, Cher began responding. One person retweeted an article about Cher calling for Mr. Snyder’s execution and asked her if she realized what awaited her in the afterlife when she faces judgment.



All of these tweets are sic, by the way; the misspellings, and bulk use of all caps, are hers, not mine. Only the emojis did not make the transition to this blog.

We at Gongwer tried to have some fun with this and asked Mr. Snyder’s press office if Mr. Snyder was a fan of Cher and if he and wife Sue were now burning their copies of “Heart of Stone” – Cher’s multiplatinum 1989 album with the No. 1 song “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

Snyder press secretary Dave Murray played it straight though.

“It's unfortunate that someone would use such rhetoric at a time when Governor Snyder is working so closely with Flint's leaders on coordinated efforts to protect the health and welfare of people in the city and across our state,” he said.

Speaking of that song, there were plenty of “If I Could Turn Back Time” jokes making the rounds – the lyrics include, “If I could turn back time, if I could find a way, I’d take back those words that hurt you…”

Cher, however, does not seem interested in doing so. She has not deleted her firing squad tweet.

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Perception Of Joblessness in Detroit Prompts Senate Committee Tiff

Posted: December 9, 2015 2:34 PM

Detroit continues to lag the rest of the state as the economy improves, but differing impressions of how bad the conditions in the city are generated a dispute Wednesday between members of the Senate Education Committee during a discussion of the Education Achievement Authority.

The committee has been exploring struggling schools for the past several weeks, and that discussion already has generated backlash against Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) on the sources of those struggles. Mr. Knollenberg came under heavy criticism for saying after a committee presentation last week regarding most struggling schools having a largely minority population that there was no way to “fix” the situation by making African-American white.

Wednesday, a new clash over words came during committee, after Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton Township) urged EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme to consider work-study programs in the high schools. Mr. Colbeck said he had seen such programs improve academic performance in other schools and getting the students into a work situation could teach them some additional skills, like the need for punctuality.

“A lot of these kids, if they had a job, would be the only one in that family or in that household with a job in a lot of cases,” he said.

To which Sen David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights), whose district includes some EAA schools, all of which are in Detroit, took issue.

After Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-Saint Clair), chair of the committee, declined to allow Mr. Knezek to ask Mr. Colbeck for the source of his statistics (he said the two could talk about it after committee), Mr. Knezek put out his own statistics.

“The unemployment rate in Detroit is 10.1 percent,” he said. “So in 89.9 percent of the cases, you would be wrong. Maybe we can dispel some myths that we keep perpetuating in this committee.”

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New Group Promotes Detroit Voice In Charter Discussions

Posted: December 2, 2015 12:54 PM

The new Metro Detroit Charter Center barnstormed Lansing on Wednesday, meeting with media and various power brokers with the message that Detroit’s charter schools need a voice in the discussion on upcoming reforms to the city’s education system.

The group comes with a slightly different message from what charters have broadcast so far: the centralized registration system and quality oversight proposed by Governor Rick Snyder and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren would be good for Detroit charters.

Charter schools in the city are simply not delivering the quality needed, but they are also not being served well by the current governance structure in the city, Karey Reed, founder of the group, said at a media roundtable.

“We’re not happy with the current status quo,” Ms. Reed said. “There’s a lot of flux, a lot of instability.”

“The message that needs to come out of Detroit is we need better choices,” James Henderson, vice president of the center, said.

Ms. Reed said the center is embracing the idea that, at least in Detroit, there needs to be some central set of standards for schools to meet. She and Mr. Henderson said the authorizers are not providing the needed consistency.

The charters also need the centralized enrollment system, both so they can attract students and they can plan for their enrollment, they said.

Ms. Reed said she hoped the central registration system would help to hold students in a school longer. She said it is not unheard of for parents to move their children between schools several times in a year, which she said puts both the child and the school at a disadvantage because both are continually having to redevelop relationships.

And yet the center itself faces some difficulties. First and foremost is its stand essentially in opposition to other charter advocates, who have largely raised concerns about an added layer of bureaucracy from a Detroit quality oversight system and about controlling growth of charters through the centralized registration and other pieces of the proposed reforms.

And the center is carrying that message on the backs of two relative unknowns in Lansing. Ms. Reed most recently worked for a charter management company and Mr. Henderson has been principal and superintendent at a charter. Neither have been lobbyists or otherwise walked in Lansing circles.

They also do not bring with them any such connections. Ms. Reed said there are no substantial corporate or foundation backers to their 501(c)3. It is just the two of them and some board members.

The center is also not structured to attract a membership base to use as policy leverage.

“We partner with the schools and the school boards,” Ms. Reed said. “The grassroots is there with the board, with the leaders.”

On their source of authority in coming discussions: “We say that we have experience and a track record working with schools,” Mr. Henderson said. “You can’t deny education experience and a passion to have success.”

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Trails Expanding, But Still Lacking Some Key Amenities

Posted: November 18, 2015 3:05 PM

The Department of Natural Resources has been working feverishly to meet Governor Rick Snyder’s goal of expanding trail systems in the state, particularly the Iron Belle Trail that he has pushed from early in his tenure.

One of the goals of the trail, from Belle Isle to Ironwood, is to interconnect the communities around the state with trails. Under the plan, one could hike, or bicycle, from any community to any other, and then hike or bike around that community on the local trails.

As an avid hiker and sometime cyclist, I applaud the idea. Whole new areas of the state are opened up to safe travel for those not behind the wheel.

But, as an avid hiker, I also know that a key to a good trip is to stay hydrated.

The state and communities have done a good job planning the travel part of the equation, but are still lacking in addressing the two ends of the hydration cycle. And the latter end can be of particular concern.

While it would be helpful to have more drinking water sources along many of the trails, there are multiple ways for hikers to bring the water they should need with them. And even the longer trails at some point pass through parks that usually have a water source.

The other end of the cycle, though, can be a point of consternation.

One might think, “What’s the problem? Just find a tree.” And that works in the more rural stretches of trails.

But many of the new trails have been built along old railroad beds. Even in some of the rural areas, that puts the trails along people’s back yards. I can imagine (I have not tried it) that many living along the trails would not appreciate looking out their window to see a person answering the call. There are areas a hiker might have to walk a mile, or substantially more, to find a secluded relief spot.

Where the trails pass through small business areas, one might think, would be a possible point of reprieve, until one spots all the “bathrooms for customers only” signs. If you are just passing through, you are not welcome in the loo.

What’s the big deal if you get caught passing those excess fluids along the edge of the trail? The scouts in my troop asked that question last summer as we hiked the Lansing River Trail during one of our outings.

The big deal, unfortunately, is an invitation to join the state’s sex offender registry (indecent exposure) and, in my case, the end of my term as scoutmaster.

I have seen improvements in the last year, particularly. I have seen portable toilets popping up in a number of communities. But those facilities will need to grow as the state and local communities work to expand their trail networks and the numbers of people using them.

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About That Poll On Central Registration For Schools In Detroit…

Posted: November 6, 2015 4:14 PM

Charter school proponents have raised concerns about Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal for a centralized school registration system in Detroit and touted a poll this week showing Detroit residents have those same concerns.

But, given the questions asked, that Detroit residents backed the charter proponents’ position was really no surprise.

Mr. Snyder had proposed the central system as a way to simplify school registration in the city and to show parents their potential options, but school choice folks have argued the system could be a way to funnel kids to select schools.

The poll made clear there were only two options: the current system or loss of choice.

“Would you prefer: Continuing as is, where parents have a vast number of choices, OR implementation of a centralized system that streamlines choices but controls parents' access to any school?” respondents were asked.

Some 81.7 percent of Detroit residents polled wanted keep things as they are, with parents having multiple choices. Only 4.3 percent wanted a centralized system.

Not exactly a shocking result.

A total of 74.6 percent also wanted more options than those already available in the city, while only 13.5 percent said there were already too many choices and some should be taken away.

While charter supporters will use the poll results to push against the centralized registration system, the poll questions beg a further question: are the current system and a restrictive centralized system the only options. Mr. Snyder has agreed with those who say there might be too many school buildings operating within the city of Detroit, but he has not indicated an intention to force any of those to shutter outside a finding of poor performance or to try to direct parents to certain schools or programs.

MAPSA is far, far from the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to commission a poll that – surprise! – shows survey data supporting its position. Seemingly not a week goes by in this town without someone – be it an association, public relations firm or lobbying entity – trying to make a big splash with a poll it paid for on an issue in which it has a vested interest.

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New Lottery Ticket Honors Fallen Veterans

Posted: October 28, 2015 3:03 PM

Charities can now raise money and honor fallen veterans with the latest charity tickets from the Michigan Lottery.

The tickets, Never Forgotten, feature images traditionally tied to soldiers killed in action, including the helmet on the rifle butt standing next to the empty boots. The American flag waves in the background.

In addition to honoring fallen veterans, charities can earn $180 for each roll of 2,400 tickets. The Lottery gets $120, and each purchaser of a 50-cent ticket has the chance at part of $900 in prizes.

The game is the latest of now 23 charity ticket selections and the second to honor members of the military. The Veterans in Arms tickets honor Purple Heart recipients, prisoners of war and those missing in action. They sell for $1 a ticket and offer $360 profit per 2,400 roll.

The tickets are available to any charity with a license from the Lottery and can be sold at locations such as bingo halls, veterans halls and licensed gaming events.

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DNR Video Shows You How To Process A Deer; It’s Probably A PG Film

Posted: October 23, 2015 2:36 PM

The Department of Natural Resources has been expanding its video library by leaps and bounds in recent months, with most geared toward general audiences.

But the department veered into parental guidance suggested territory with its latest production. Don’t say we didn’t warn you: they’re cutting meat in this video.

With deer season underway, the DNR posted a video on rough butchering your take. Follow the narrated instructions and a hunter is left with a hide, four quarters and some other meat cuts.

The video deals with the butchering after the animal has been field dressed, so the innards are already removed. But for those with an aversion to blood, the video could still be a bit disturbing. It would probably be best avoided if you don’t care to know where your meat comes from (or get it from the grocery store where no animals are harmed, to quote the urban legend).

For others (this writer included), the video removes one more point of concern with what to do after getting that first deer. And it definitely reinforces the idea to not wear your best clothing deer hunting or during the processes afterwards.

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Whiston, The Parliamentarian

Posted: October 14, 2015 3:42 PM

The State Board of Education has in recent years been a collegial body, but its discussions have also been somewhat loose.

That may be coming to an end.

Board meetings before were far from a free-for-all. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan kept some control over the proceedings and generally kept members to a speakers list. But those with something to add to the discussion often chimed right in.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston, though, appears to want more control yet over the meetings, with members actually needing his permission as chair to speak. Members on several occasions at Tuesday’s meeting started to speak, only to haul themselves up short and look to him for permission (which he invariably gave).

Mr. Whiston also appeared a bit flummoxed on a couple of occasions with the board’s process for drafting resolution language at the table. His suggestion to withdraw a motion to allow the language to be refined was quickly rejected in favor of a series of friendly amendments (and some requiring votes).

What the future holds is, as always, unknown. Can the board be further reined into order, or will Mr. Whiston concede to free-flowing discussions?

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Joey Gamrat Video: Mom ‘Not Here To Play Games And Attend Cocktail Parties’

Posted: October 7, 2015 3:24 PM

In the latest chapter in the scandal that won’t seem to go away, Joey Gamrat posted a video Wednesday to illustrate how the Lansing power structure trampled his mother, and how she is fighting back.

The video, entitled “Comeback” and set to dramatic (and somewhat loud) music, is a montage of television and radio news reports of former Rep. Cindy Gamrat’s expulsion from the House, and then the “surprise announcement” (to quote a news cast) that she would run to fill her own vacated seat.

As young Mr. Gamrat describes his video: “One woman standing up to Lansing, telling them she is not here to play games and attend cocktail parties, but to represent the district that elected her and only the District that elected her. The story of how Lansing tried to hush one of its loudest threats, and how it did not work.”

Following clips of news coverage regarding her expulsion, and shots of Rep. Tom Leonard III (R-DeWitt) ordering sergeants to remove her from the floor, the video cuts to a radio interview of Ms. Gamrat saying the media distorted the proceedings.

“There has been such a tremendous amount of negative media, the negative attention that really distorts, paints a distorted picture of what this last eight months has been about,” Ms. Gamrat said.

What was it about? That we don’t learn from the video.

But she says toward the end of the video that the process made her a better person.

She also credits her son and his two siblings for keeping her in her seat to the bitter end. “They didn’t want me to resign, and I said ‘let’s just take it day by day,’” she said in another interview.

And she urges voters to remember that she did it all for them. “Whether you decide to cast your vote for me on November 3rd or not, it is important to me that you know you were not forgotten,” she is quoted on the final image.

The video was purely Mr. Gamrat’s compilation, not that of Ms. Gamrat’s campaign committee. Only the vote in November will tell if it was enough.

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A Commission By Any Other Name …

Posted: September 30, 2015 10:35 AM

To find the legal name of a board or commission, one could look to the statute or executive order that created it.

Or, apparently, one would be better to ask the members of the commission.

Governor Rick Snyder addressed the opening meeting Tuesday of the Commission of Middle Eastern American Affairs, in a way an impossibility, because he never created such a commission.

Rather, with Executive Order 2015-6, he created the Middle-Eastern American Affairs Commission.

But officials with the Department of Civil Rights, which houses the new commission, said executives and members of the commission decided the alternative name sounded better.

And so the name is officially changed from this day forth.

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Hold Onto Your Glasses

Posted: September 28, 2015 12:52 PM

The state owns at least a portion of the four of the Great Lakes and most of the harbors connected to them.

But that does not, apparently, mean the state is responsible for everything that falls into the Great Lakes.

Terry Andrzejewski was harbored in Port Austin on May 24 when his boat lost power overnight. When he awoke in the morning, he went to investigate. While checking his main breakers and the cable connections on the swim platform, he hit his glasses against one of the cables and dropped them in the drink.

The harbormaster allowed Mr. Andrzejewski use of a magnet, nets and an underwater camera, but was not able to find the specs.

As they were new glasses and the state owned the port and the electrical cables, Mr. Andrzejewksi reasoned that the state should pay for them.

He apparently reasoned incorrectly. The Administrative Board is expected this week to follow the recommendation by the Department of Natural Resources and reject Mr. Andrzejewski’s $654.99 claim.

As explanation, the state claimed not only did its electrical connections meet code (they were renovated in 2014), but the electrical failure apparently was in Mr. Andrzejewski’s boat.

“Also, items not attached to the vessel or dock structure, when bumped, fall into the water when the activity is above the water,” the state said in its explanation. “This situation is totally outside the State of Michigan’s control. We engineer our facilities to be as safe as possible, but the Department cannot control the dexterity of our guests.”

So boater beware.

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Carson Walks Back On Muslim Comments, Sort Of

Posted: September 23, 2015 5:57 PM

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and supporters said he has walked back his controversial statement that a Muslim should not be president.

But based on comments at a rally and a press event Wednesday, he appears to have not really walked away from them..

Mr. Carson did not repeat his comments from Sunday that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this country.”

He has said since that anyone of any religion could be president. And his campaign aides have said the American public would not accept a Muslim as president.

And at a media availability Wednesday, he said his comments on a Muslim in the White House were taken out of context.

“We have an American culture and an American Constitution and anybody who’s going to occupy the White House should be living in the pattern that is consistent with our Constitution and with our culture,” he said.

But, speaking at a rally at Spring Arbor University, a Christian institution (the university’s president made that very clear in opening for Mr. Carson), he said in not so many words that the United States is a Christian nation.

“Even though our president says we’re not a Judeo-Christion nation, he doesn’t get to decide who we are,” he said.

And he said it was clear from history, passages he said had been removed from our school books, that God played a key role in the rapid development of the United States.

It is not unusual for a politician to get a little over-zealous about a position and then have to back-pedal from a statement, but one could ask if in today’s comments Mr. Carson is doing a little backpedal from his backpedaling..

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Funding Study Another Piece For Education Reform

Posted: September 9, 2015 3:15 PM

New Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston just finished the first public input phase of his effort to develop policies that will make Michigan a top 10 state for education within the next 10 years, but maybe the key piece of that plan is yet to come: the study of what it costs to educate a child in the state.

Pending any appeals and final approval by the Administrative Board, the state has awarded a contract to complete the cost study that was required in the current budget. That study is designed to answer a question that has been asked for many years, but so far has gotten only one answer from the schools: more.

But that nebulous idea of what it costs to educate a child also leaves the state open to reforms. Because the only cost information is what the state provides for education funding and how school districts spread those funds within their budgets, it is easy to tell school districts to make a change and, as long as it is not clearly a new function (which would, under the Headlee Amendment, require additional funding), require that they cover it under current funding.

Once the study is completed, which is likely at this point to happen before Mr. Whiston’s process is likely to generate any clear product, reforms could potentially be more limited.

Particularly with the current makeup of the Legislature, any reforms receiving consensus from interest groups and support from the State Board of Education would also have to prove at worst cost-neutral. It will be difficult, particularly with the demands to increase funding for roads, that lawmakers will be able to assent to additional funding for schools as well beyond the inflationary-type increases of recent years.

On the flip side, the process used to develop the coming cost study could also provide a process for both determining the cost of any proposed reform and the ammunition to convince lawmakers that the additional money is well-spent.

In either case, money is likely to play an even larger role in school reform once the study is completed.

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State Employee’s Prosecution Looms Over Courser, Gamrat

Posted: September 2, 2015 4:11 PM

As Werner Noll prepares for the possibility of being bound over for trial on criminal charges for misuse of state time and resources, his case takes on new importance given the scandal surrounding Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat.

For those who don’t remember Mr. Noll, he was an elevator inspector for the state who now faces felony false pretenses charges for playing golf on state time (and using a state vehicle to travel to and from the links).

Attorney General Bill Schuette appeared to make an example of Mr. Noll in filing the three felony charges not only for his personal use of state time, but for his attempts to cover it up by disguising that he was driving a state vehicle to the course.

"At all levels of government, taxpayers deserve honesty and accountability from those who work on their behalf," Mr. Schuette said of Mr. Noll in a statement at the time. "Scam artists who aim to take advantage of state resources will face justice."

Given the allegations surrounding Mr. Courser (R-Silverwood) and Ms. Gamrat (R-Plainwell) – carrying on their affair during state time and using their official staff for political and possibly personal use – one wonders if that portends legal trouble for the two lawmakers.

Mr. Schuette has said little so far regarding Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat, but the precedent in charging Mr. Noll criminally for misusing state time and state resources will raise questions about inconsistency if his office declines to examine the possibility of similar action against the lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) has asked the Department of Attorney General to investigate, but the department has said only that it will read the House Business Office report.

There is the complicating factor that the Department of Attorney General generally is not an investigatory body. Its prosecutors usually review investigations conducted by other agencies and decide whether to pursue charges.

However, in the Noll case, the department, according to its statement, jointly conducted the investigation with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

There also remains the possibility that the judge in Mr. Noll’s case will find will find no probable cause that Mr. Noll committed a crime and refuse to bind him over for trial. If that happens, it would reduce the pressure on Mr. Schuette to consider the same charges for Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat.

So now the Noll case could mean much more than just resolving allegations against one state employee.

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A Look At State Employment In Aftermath Of Right-To-Work

Posted: August 26, 2015 12:59 PM

As the state and the unions representing the majority of its employees wrap up negotiations on the first contract where covered employees are not required to at least pay a bargaining fee to those unions, how might state employment change over the next three years?

Much of the change will likely depend on state employees and how much they actually support their unions.

Though there are some organizations that would like to see it (you know who you are), it is unlikely that state employee unions will disappear. As the teacher unions have experienced, they are likely to lose some members, but, also as the teacher unions have experienced, they are likely to retain enough members to remain forces in setting wages and benefits for employees.

First, will unions continue as the sole representative for any given employment area? If membership losses are small enough, that might be the easiest route for both the unions and the state. Both sides would be able to continue dealing with known quantities in overall negotiations and in resolving grievances.

Unions might, though, be able to craft the next round of contracts to put those employees who do not want to join on their own: they can negotiate their own pay and benefits and they can resolve their own grievances. This seems highly unlikely, however. Unions have long feared that management in any employer-employee dynamic would reward those workers operating outside the union.

And experience with the state suggests that management is not likely to be open to individual negotiations. One need look only to the non-exclusively represented state employees. Theoretically, these managers would already be in a position to negotiate compensation packages based on their performance and experience, but in reality, they get the same pay increases and benefits as the union employees, if that.

The state could develop a way to allow for such one-on-one negotiations, but it would require pushing authority for those decisions substantially further down the food chain and additional oversight by those above to be sure any pay increases are in line with the budget, the ultimate driver of those pay decisions.

Opening the grievance process could have some mixed results.

State managers and union grievance representatives already have relationships built, so each side has some idea what to expect from the other that can make the process go more smoothly.

A fresh face in the process, though, would bring a new, unknown dynamic.

The current process is also largely free to employees: they are required to use a union representative and that person is paid through union dues for most issues. Taking employees out of the union grievance process might also mean taking more money out of their pockets should they have an employment issue.

The idea of employees shopping through the unions, as some have promoted as an argument for right-to-work, is probably not viable. First, it is not likely, given the relationships between them, that the various unions are simply going to open themselves to any state employee who wants to join (though they have not in the past been above lobbying to take over each other’s bargaining units).

There are some positions in state government that require a simple knowledge of employment law and the state budget process to represent. There are many, though, that require specialized knowledge of the job and the work environment that a union not representing that post (outside that note above) is unlikely to put in the resources to learn.

Ultimately, the question of change will depend on how many state employees are clamoring to get out of paying unions dues. If that number is significant, there will likely be changes in the state employment process. If it is not, it is likely those few resigning from the unions will be written off as acceptable costs of doing business for the unions and things will go on as they are.

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Zombies Come To Ballot Access Process

Posted: August 19, 2015 4:21 PM

Ballot access in Michigan is generally a straightforward process: someone finds a provision of law to change, drafts language to make that change, creates a ballot committee to support the language and submits a petition for review.

Then there is Ballot Committee Z (anything with Z in it *must* be about zombies, like the movie “World War Z”).

But this ballot committee is obviously not dead. In fact, it was just created last week.

But it is not quite alive, as it does not have a proposal, or potentially even a subject, to support.

Rather, the zombie ballot committee appears to be lying in wait for its creators to come up with a subject about which they are passionate enough to seek voter support.

The treasurer, John Hanieski, was inscrutable when asked the reason behind the name and the purpose of the ballot committee, providing no information.

All Mr. Hanieski would say is that he created the ballot committee so that he and others had a committee ready if necessary.

“I put this thing together so we’ve got a slot if we need it,” he said.

Asked what topic the committee might tackle with a proposal, Mr. Hanieski would only say it is early.

“When we got something to say, we’ll say it,” he said. “I understand your position. You’re trying to do a story. There isn’t one yet.”

But there is a story that the chair of the Delta Township (Eaton County) Economic Corporation board has his heart set on pushing a ballot issue sometime soon. It remains to be seen what that story is.

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Whiston Lands In Testing Morass

Posted: July 29, 2015 11:38 AM

When new Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston was being interviewed for the job, he said a key focus for him would be testing, and a good thing since that will likely be a key focus for the department and legislators, at least tangentially for the coming legislative term.

Mr. Whiston’s primary effort will be on shorter tests. He said several times during his interviews, and since, that schools are spending too much time on testing. A number of school officials complained, particularly during the most recent round of testing, about both the actual number of hours required for the testing and about the disruption to the school to meet the requirements.

Department officials have said some of that will be addressed, at least for high schools, with the change to the SAT, which will more closely meet Michigan standards and so will require less added content.

But that also leaves Mr. Whiston dealing with a brand new test next year. And not just new to Michigan. College Board is developing a new exam due out in March 2016 and giving Michigan input on the process.

Much of Mr. Whiston’s first year, then, will be working with high school leaders and teachers assuring them there will be no hitches in the change.

He can also expect to spend some substantial time answering concerns from colleges and universities about having to change their admissions policies. Many have used the ACT, which had been the college entrance portion of the high school test, as their admissions standard for decades (this reporter had to submit his scores to Michigan State University back when the Michigan Educational Assessment Program was not a high stakes test).

Questioning from legislators on the issue is also likely not done, as they prohibited using the Smarter Balanced Consortium test only to have much of that content incorporated into the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. There are also likely to be questions if Mr. Whiston upholds his predecessor’s ruling that new priority (low-performing) and focus (too much gap between high- and low-performing) schools will not be added to those lists until 2018 because there have been too many changes in the tests to compare the results.

If he does not uphold that ruling, there will likely be much crying and gnashing of teeth by school officials.

Testing will also play into the ongoing effort for statewide teacher and administrator evaluations. Part of those ratings were supposed to come from student growth as measured by the state tests, but, in addition to the ongoing battle over what the correct percentage should be versus observation of their teaching and leadership practices, there are always lingering concerns whether the tests accurately measure student growth.

The swirling of all these issues on testing will surely put Mr. Whiston, ahem, to the test in the coming months.

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Road Funding Appears Moving Away From Pure User Fee

Posted: July 22, 2015 3:28 PM

It used to be that the budget for the Department of Transportation was a relatively simple effort: predict how much would come in fuel tax and registration fees and apply the formula to distribute those funds.

Discussions on increasing funding for road repairs and construction show that budget in the future could be more complex, at least in the short term. Both the House and Senate Republican plans call for an eventual $700 million General Fund commitment to roads.

And to think that years ago, the chair of the House subcommittee for the Department of Transportation budget once beat back any attempts to amend the budget with General Fund to pay for specific projects by reminding her colleagues that the Transportation budget had not one dime of General Fund in it.

The complexity comes from the dissonance between a user-paid service and a general governmental obligation. Road funding used to be the former but appears to be moving toward the latter.

In a recent opinion piece, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy pushed for the idea of the user fee. “It’s simple: Those who drive should pay more,” the think tank said. It argued, among other things, experimenting with technology that would charge motorists by the weight of their vehicle and the miles they drive.

But the group also said the state needs to find cuts in current programs before increasing taxes. “Imposing new road taxes without budgetary offsets should be a last resort as long as lower-priority spending remains untouched,” the statement said.

While the Mackinac Center did not specify the cuts should come from non-transportation programs, some legislators have.

Even Proposal 15-1 blurred the lines a bit between user-paid and general obligation in shifting funds around, but simply moving funds from General Fund programs into road repair would cross it.

A legitimate argument could be made that all residents (and visitors) benefit from a quality transportation system and so should contribute directly to it, rather than putting the burden on those who explicitly use it.

That thinking, though, might engender a different starting point for road funding discussions. Rather than trying to figure out how to get more money directly from motorists, maybe transportation should be thrown into the overall budget discussion and directly balanced against all programs to determine its relative weight and funding.

Changing transportation from a user-paid system to a general obligation of the state to support could also expand the sources of revenue available to cover the acknowledged $1.2 billion shortfall in funding for roads.

In any case, an agreement on user-paid versus general obligation might be the first step in reaching a funding plan with broadest support.

It also is the reason that advocates for the many programs that rely upon the General Fund – health care, human services, higher education, corrections and others – are very nervous.

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In Case There Was Any Question How People Feel About Wolf Hunting

Posted: November 20, 2014 1:38 PM

Voters in the state do not approve of wolf hunting and they really do not approve allowing the Natural Resources Commission to be the arbiter of game species in the state.

And we know this because voters defeated Proposal 14-1 to allow wolf hunting, 45 percent supporting a hunting season for the animal and 55 percent against, and Proposal 14-2 to give the NRC authority over naming game species 36 percent in favor and 64 percent against, right?

Well, no, actually we know this because Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the group that put the two laws on the ballot and successfully pushed for their defeat, polled voters the weekend after the election.

The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners November 8-11, found 85 percent of voters agree (71 percent strongly) that “Michigan voters should keep their right to vote on wildlife issues and should not hand over that power to an unelected, politically appointed commission.”

Wolf hunting itself saw a bit more support, with 65 percent agreeing, “The Legislature and the Natural Resources Commission should listen to the will of the voters, and should not authorize a wolf hunting season.”

“It’s rare to get such overwhelming agreement on any issue, but Michigan Republicans, Democrats, and independents are united in their view that the people have spoken on wolf hunting and the decision makers must respect the will of the voters,” Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, said in a statement announcing the poll results. “Voters want to be able to have their voices heard on wildlife protection issues, and reject the idea of politicians or bureaucrats at the NRC deciding for them.”

What the release does not explain is the need for the poll, given the overwhelming opposition to both proposals at the ballot box just days before.

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Atheists: Trott ‘Best’ Bet Among Republicans

Posted: September 25, 2014 1:25 PM

If you are an atheist, agnostic or humanist, but are looking to vote Republican for Congress, the 11th U.S. House District seems the place to be.

In voter guides released this week by the Secular Coalition for America, Republican David Trott was the only of the Republicans analyzed among three who did not score an F. This is not to say the coalition liked him, he just didn’t get an F.

In fact, it appeared Mr. Trott largely stayed away from issues of religion at all. The only score he received out of the six questions asked was an F, and that was on the question: “Does the candidate support scientifically based regulations including science surrounding reproduction, stem cell research, climate change and other issues?”

Mr. Trott’s Democratic opponent, Bobby McKenzie, scored a B on that item. But he, like Mr. Trott, scored N/A on the other five questions. That meant Mr. Trott got an N/A overall. So did Mr. McKenzie.

The Democrats in the other two races reviewed, Dean Vanderstelt in the 2nd U.S. House District and Pam Byrnes in the 7th U.S. House District, also received scores of N/A. Ms. Byrnes had one grade, an A, for support of science-based curriculum and opposition to public funding for religious schools. Mr. Vanderstelt had not yet stated his positions on any of the six topics.

The Republican incumbents in both of those races, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland and U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton (a former minister), both scored Fs across the board.

But the guides showed the coalition put questionable science into developing its guides. The three races were among the “50 Secular Races to Watch”. But there will only be something to watch in two of those, and the group missed some that will have something to watch.

Ms. Byrnes is putting up a tough campaign against Mr. Walberg and could have the best shot a Democrat has had against Mr. Walberg since 2008. Mr. McKenzie could also have a shot at defeating Mr. Trott, though it is a long one given the partisan leaning of the district and differences in funding levels between the campaigns.

There is nothing to watch, though, in the 2nd. Mr. Vanderstelt would have to be an amazing candidate with amazing levels of funding, which he is not and does not have, and Mr. Huizenga would have to be ascandal-ridden, which he is not, for Democrats to pull off a win in that seat.

And the group totally ignored the 6th U.S. House District, where Democrat Paul Clements, a Western Michigan University professor (though in political science, not one of the natural sciences) is putting up the strongest campaign the Democrats have seen in that district in many years, even launching several television commercials. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) will still be a tough nut to crack, but there is at least a race there.

The 1st U.S. House District and the 8th U.S. House District could also have more to watch, the former particularly because Democrat Jerry Cannon is picking up some national support to unseat U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls).

In the 8th, Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing has a shot against Republican former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, but he will have to have money and come out swinging soon to have any hope of an upset (the next finance reports will show whether he is keeping his powder dry to the end or has no powder to use).

If the goal of a voter guide --even one from the religiously skeptical -- is to change some minds and affect the outcome of an election, history will likely show that the Secular Coalition did not do its research before weighing in.

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8th Congressional Creates Fight Between “Right Conservative,” Tea Party

Posted: April 10, 2014 2:47 PM

With the field starting to gel, it appears that replacing U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers will mean bringing the right conservative bona fides to the table.

It is also showing how fickle the tea party can be in lending its support.

Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop would seem to have the lead among the Republicans, coming in with not only his background of electoral politics in Oakland County (the key source of Republican votes in the new district) but also the anointing by the incumbent.

Mr. Rogers said he was “the right conservative” for the district.

He appears, though, to have lost his status as darling of the tea party since its backing of his run for attorney general failed to put him ahead of Attorney General Bill Schuette at the 2010 convention. Tea party activists recently derided him instead as “the epitome of the blue-blood Republican establishment."

But Republican Rep. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills is hoping to carry the mantel of the tea party into the race, telling Gongwer News Service Thursday that the race needed at least one candidate with a true conservative voting record.

The question is whether the tea party backing will bring the resources needed to get that most conservative message to the voters outside of Oakland County, who are less likely to have heard of Mr. McMillin.

The wildcard so far is Mr. McMillin’s mayor, Bryan Barnett, the first announced candidate for the race, who is running on his success as mayor over the past five years. Mr. Barnett also brings some powerhouse backing, including Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson and business leaders from his community.

And that battle at this point looks to be the deciding factor in the race. Democrats at this point are giving Republicans a bye run.

Former state demographer Ken Darga and Central Michigan University professor Susan Grettenberger are both still seeking the Democratic nomination, but neither brings the kind of money or organization needed to succeed.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum’s decision not to run appears to have been the death knell for a party switch in the seat. Though Democratic analysts have said she received support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other key backers in a recent trip to Washington, one would assume that she, having taken the effort to travel to Washington to gauge support, would have jumped in if that support was going to come with dollar signs attached.

The DCCC at this point appears to have put all of its eggs in the 1st U.S. House District and 7th U.S. House District baskets as the mostly likely seats to pick up.

If U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Milford) survives his primary against David Trott in the 11th U.S. House District, the DCCC could shift some of its efforts there, but neither of those scenarios is likely unless Mr. Bentivolio can attract some substantial tea party funds relatively soon. His own fundraising has to date been meager considering the wealth of the district (and of his opponent).

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Conservation Officer Job A Mixed Blessing

Posted: April 3, 2014 5:18 PM

For those of us who love the outdoors, being a conservation officer sounds like it could be a dream job.

You spend your days, and some nights, wandering the most remote and beautiful natural areas in the state. Through talking with people, you find the best hunting and fishing areas in the state.

And you get paid for all of it and provided a vehicle to get there.

Once there, though, you apparently run into some who are not exactly MENSA candidates, and some of them have guns.

The department releases a bi-weekly report of conservation officer activities and, at least for those not in the situation, it can provide for some interesting reading.

You have the ice fishing shanty owner who removed the identification from his shanty so he couldn’t be cited for leaving it out past the deadline, then walked directly back to his house in the snow. Or the guys making a day of drinking and shooting squirrels, both while driving down the road.

Or the rapper filming a music video of himself being arrested, without bothering to tell the business owner of the parking lot where he was filming. When COs on Belle Isle responded to the call that the business was about to be robbed by masked men in the parking lot, the rapper got his shot because he was arrested for outstanding warrants.

In another Belle Isle situation, one poor girl had to finish her birthday tour of the island by herself after her boyfriend, who was stopped for speeding, and father were both arrested for outstanding warrants (the boyfriend had 34).

They have to deal with the numerous excuses for not having licenses (the excuse that there was not time to purchase one before heading out into the field that day might have flown had a companion not had a license purchased that morning).

The report showed some COs can also be excessively cruel (sarcasm alert). Two COs found a group of teenagers fishing. When the teens saw the officers coming, they quickly retrieved the whiskey bottle they had cooling in the river and threw it out into the dam spillway. The officers could have ticketed the boys for littering, but chose the harsher penalty of calling the oldest boy’s mother (“The mother was very upset and said she would handle the situation.”).

The reports also show officers performing small and big acts of help, like assisting an angler find his lost keys (they were in one of his fishing buckets) or providing first aid to a girl who was trying to commit suicide (officers worked to stop the bleeding on the wrist she had cut until medical help arrived).

Apparently for most officers, the surroundings balance out the human element enough for them to remain on the job.

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Strategic Fund Board An Outlier On Waiting To Release Its Agenda

Posted: February 25, 2014 10:59 AM

The Open Meetings Act requires only that a public body post its meeting date, time and location, not what it plans to do at a given meeting.

But it is rare, at least among state boards and commissions, that some kind of agenda is not available in advance of meetings. It gives those who might have an interest in the board a head’s up of what might be discussed and voted upon.

For the Michigan Strategic Fund Board, though, it appears only the board members, staff, those who have an item on the agenda and a few members of the media can know what the board will be discussing in advance. However, it is provided to the media under an embargo that the agenda not be made public until the meeting begins.

Once upon a time, the MSF agendas, and public portions of the board packets, were available a day ahead of time. That practice apparently led to media coverage (not by Gongwer News Service) that negatively affected the subject of an agenda item.

That led, for some time, to the board not providing agendas until the morning of the meeting, if at all.

We are once again seeing the agendas the day before, but only under the condition of an embargo that means we can’t allow our subscribers to see them until after the meeting starts. Gongwer News Service, in its daily calendar that includes agency meetings like the MSF board, includes copies of agendas for every major board and commission (and for many minor ones as well). The Strategic Fund board is the lone major agency board or commission that does not want to reveal its agenda in advance.

Those with an interest in projects before the board have the right to attend the meetings and comment, but under current practice, they will have to attend every meeting until an item they are monitoring comes up because, unless they are a party to the project, they have no way to know until the meeting starts whether that project might be considered.

Granted, there are times when items are added to or dropped from a meeting agenda, so anyone who does not attend every meeting is going to miss something. But for most boards and commissions that will be the exception rather than the rule.

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Governor In The Dark?

Posted: December 26, 2013 3:07 PM

As any good leader would, one can expect Governor Rick Snyder has been personally affected by the stories of his constituents dealing with the power outages that struck much of the middle and southeast corner of the state after last weekend’s ice storm.

But those constituents may never know if he was also shivering in the dark as he heard those stories.

The Lansing-area blackout did hit the neighborhood where the official governor’s residence is located, and that was one of the areas that remained without power Thursday despite some assurances that all Lansing Board of Water and Light customers would have service restored by the end of Christmas Day.

For the past 40-some years, that would have affected the governor because he or she lived in that residence. But Mr. Snyder has chosen to commute to Lansing from his homes in Ann Arbor and Gun Lake.

Since there were no events planned at the residence, spokesperson Dave Murray said the state of power supply at the residence had not been disseminated among the staff. The building is only staffed when there are events there.

But asked to research the issue, Mr. Murray said there would not be an answer, at least not an official one, to whether the governor, or his official residence, experienced the power outage.

“That would be a security issue and we don’t talk about security issues,” Mr. Murray said.

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Planning Ahead Sometimes Doesn’t Pay

Posted: December 13, 2013 5:11 PM

Be Prepared. The Boy Scout motto and a good way to live. Be ready for what will likely happen so you are not scrambling to catch up.

That includes writing press releases and news stories. Press agents try to foresee big events and have their bosses’ statements ready to release as soon as the event happens, the same way we reporters often try to have as much of a story written as possible before the event. Throw in a couple last minute quotes and you’re ready.

Except when something goes awry. That happened to U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Detroit) media staff last night.

As soon as the U.S. House had voted on the new federal budget, his public affairs office released his statement criticizing its shortfalls, but applauding the bipartisan effort that generated it. “It is for these reasons that I believe the good outweighs the bad budgetary items, and I cast a vote in favor of the comprehensive measure,” Mr. Conyers was quoted as saying in the statement. And this reporter dutifully began working that, and some other quotes into his story about the event.

All was well until a quick check of the roll call to verify the split in the state’s delegation turned up the name “Conyers” in an unexpected place: the “Nos” column.

That set off a scramble both here (“he said he voted aye; is this the right roll call”) and apparently in Mr. Conyers’ office to get out the right statement (“CORRECTION: Conyers Votes Against Budget Deal, Calls for Congress to Immediately Pass Extension of Jobless Aid” with the CORRECTION in red bold.).

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to plan ahead when the outcome is less certain than originally expected.

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Trott Strategy: Vote For Me, People You Supported Support Me

Posted: November 5, 2013 9:57 AM

U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio came into office on a message that he was nothing like the incumbent, but it appears David Trott is working to unseat him with the opposite message: I am exactly like the prior incumbent.

Most candidates at some point release lists of endorsements. And at some point they ask those endorsing them to attend an even or otherwise speak on their behalf.

Mr. Trott has run several such releases since announcing his candidacy, with lists of current and former elected officials backing his bid.

That he has lists of the who’s who of Oakland County politics is no surprise. That group attempted to head off Mr. Bentivolio’s (R-Milford) election in the first place with an unsuccessful write-in candidate in the primary after former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter lost his ballot spot to a petition gather scandal.

But it appears one of Mr. Trott’s key strategies will be continually reminding voters that they have already elected people who are now supporting him.

Mr. Trott released another list of endorsements Monday, but, unlike the usual such lists, this was not new endorsements. Most of the 26 names on the list had been released previously. But all are current or former elected officials now backing his campaign.

Key among the list is Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who had backed Mr. Bentivolio after the 2012 primary only as a way to urge Republicans to coalesce around their standard-bearer, rather than sitting out or, even worse, supporting the Democrat.

Wayne County Commissioner Laura Cox is on the latest list. Mr. Trott was a big supporter of her husband, Mike, in his run for attorney general, and during his eight years in that post.

A number of names once heard around Lansing are on the list, like former Oakland County Clerk Bill Bullard, Canton Township Supervisor Phil LaJoy and Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Taub.

The effort draws a strong contrast to Mr. Bentivolio, who struggled to put together such a list two years ago and has likely seen that list dwindle since Mr. Trott entered the race.

The question remains, has Mr. Bentivolio been able to develop a list of national power brokers during his two years in office to offset the local powers backing Mr. Trott.

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Bentivolio’s Math In Story About Government Fails To Add Up

Posted: August 21, 2013 12:55 PM

U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Milford) is getting some attention for a video that surfaced Monday evening in which he talked with constituents of his desire to impeach President Barack Obama, but besides that topic, he also discussed his concerns about government finance.

Let’s stipulate that, it’s not hard, particularly at the federal level, to find questionable uses of tax dollars. Auditors highlight them all the time.

Mr. Bentivolio pulled a number of those examples at the recent constituent event, but also told a story that might not teach the lesson he intended about government accounting.

“Out of control government, that’s what we’re dealing with, and we’re doing our job,” he said. “I’m enjoying going after the IRS.”

Among the things he, and others, are going after the federal tax collection agency for are the recent conference and training videos that came to light earlier in the year.

“They’re starting to get organized and cut some of that fat out of some of these government programs like no more million dollar conferences, no more $50,000 videos about some Star Trek spoof for some department,” he said.

But he then told a story to show how the government gets a piece of every transaction.

Three men are walking in a rainstorm. Having $10 each, they decide to pool their money to get a room for the night. After they pay their $30 and go up to the room, the manager realizes he overcharged them for the room, so he gives the bellhop $5 to return to the men. On the way to the room, the bellhop takes out $2, then gives each man a $1 refund.

“Three times 9 is (27, responds an audience member), plus two in the bellhop’s pocket, where’s the other dollar?” he said, getting the expected response, “The government.”

“Government accounting, it’s how you tell the story,” he said.

The apparent lesson: the government managed to pull a dollar out of the men’s pockets when they weren’t looking.

But there was no dollar missing.

The three men paid $10 each. They got $1 back, so they each paid $9. So the total bill was $27. If you add in the $2 “tip” for the bellhop you do get $29.

But the $2 the bellhop, let’s face it, stole, was already accounted for in the $27. There is no dollar missing; Mr. Bentivolio counted the $2 twice.

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So What Is The Best Way To Reach The Public?

Posted: August 7, 2013 2:50 PM

It wasn’t that long ago that reaching the public, for state and local governments, meant a legal notice in the local newspaper. Those options have now expanded to websites, social media, text messages, but there is still some question what is the appropriate way to notify the public of an event or pending ruling.

For instance, the Department of Environmental Quality recently moved its notices of determination regarding oil and gas wells to its monthly calendar from traditional legal notices. Officials said the move was in part a way to save money. But some environmental groups questioned whether the change would be sufficient notice to those who might be interested in the closure of the well.

David Gard with the Michigan Environmental Council noted that one would have to be aware the DEQ Calendar even exists and check it regularly to catch a relevant notice.

But the same could be argued of posting in a local newspaper. A substantial number of the wells covered under the notice were owned by a single company and located in St. Clair County. DEQ officials said the company had discontinued production on the wells and had not capped them within a year, as required by law.

Which paper would best reach any investors in those wells who might not be connected to the company? Would a Facebook post, or a tweet reach the right people?

The same is happening with public meeting notices. The law merely requires that the meeting announcement be posted in a place accessible to the public outside its principal office.

With 18 hours’ notice required for a meeting, that would mean one would have to go by that location daily to see if the body had posted a meeting.

For convenience, some boards and commissions developed mailing lists, sending notices and agendas to those interested in their proceedings. But with 18 hours’ notice required, that means sometimes (for some boards often) receiving notice minutes before, or hours after, the meeting is scheduled to start.

A number of public bodies have moved to email lists or website postings from mail, largely to reduce costs, but with the benefit of quicker notice. Those interested can have nearly 18 hours of notice of the meeting, assuming a few minutes for the message to move through the various email servers.

But the email lists still go only to those interested enough to be on those lists, and the website posts only reach those who know where to look.

Maybe the DEQ should have a Facebook page dedicated to notices of determination regarding oil wells. Maybe all boards and commissions should be required to tweet that they have a new meeting posted.

In the end, though, every method of communication will miss someone who might be interested in what the government is doing, and using all possible methods is not likely a reasonable request, particularly given budget, and related staffing, limits.

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With A Clipboard They, Ahem, All Look The Same

Posted: August 2, 2013 2:30 PM

So, were people with clipboards wandering the Hillsdale College campus more than a decade ago? And if they were, what or who were they counting? And from where did they come?

The questions stem from a controversial comment Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn made earlier this week that officials from the Department of Education were on campus in 2000 to count “dark ones” among the student body.

Mr. Arnn, through a spokesperson, apologized for his terminology in referring to minority students, but did not retract his assertion that state officials are perpetuating racial divides by tracking the diversity of students in higher education.

“Racial polarization is increasing rather than decreasing in our nation today, and Dr. Arnn believes that the solution to this destructive trend is a return to the first principles of the nation, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to the idea of a colorblind Constitution based on those principles,” a statement issued by the college on his behalf said.

If people were wandering Hillsdale with clipboards, maybe Mr. Arnn should be cut some slack for thinking they were from the state department. But that’s the question: Did the state have anyone actually counting anything on campus?

Mr. Arnn’s testimony this week dealt with the Common Core State Standards, adopted by the State Board of Education but now being reconsidered by the Legislature, saying they were a way to force school districts to adopt liberal philosophies and to place them more under the control of the state and federal government.

He said he did not trust the state because it had cited the college for not tracking its minority registration (the college does not keep such statistics) and claimed it had sent officials out to make that count for the college.

Except that the state is saying it didn’t conduct such a study.

State officials would not rule out such a visit, but only because no one remembered back 13 years to be able to definitively deny it.

The state normally, though, collects that data only through reports submitted by the colleges and universities, an official said. And the only use for that data state officials could determine was for federal student loans, which, under Title IX, require a university show it is not discriminating. Hillsdale’s failure to collect data on students’ race ran afoul of that requirement in the late 1970s, but courts upheld its right to not collect the data (they said the federal government could, however, refuse to grant to students because the data was not available). The college has its own scholarship system and does not participate in state and federal financial aid programs.

As Mr. Arnn has not been available for comment since his committee testimony this week, even to the department, it remains unclear whence the clipboards, if there were any, came.

THURSDAY ADDENDUM: No matter the desires of either party, the next set of state employee contracts will not last more than three years. Sources pointed Gongwer News Service to Chapter 6 of the Civil Service rules, which prohibits contracts longer than three years, as well as any provisions that simply roll over from a prior contract without a new agreement.

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Right To Work Will Be Unspoken Factor In State Contracts

Posted: August 1, 2013 3:41 PM

As the state and UAW Local 6000 launched negotiations Wednesday on the latest state employee contracts, both sides insisted that right to work was in the courts and so would not enter into the talks, but, as the Bard wrote: methinks they doth protest too much.

It is true that the courts will decide the issue of whether RTW affects state workers, and not likely before the end of the year, when the administration needs these contracts buttoned up to begin the 2014-15 budget development. But a decision will likely come before the contracts now under discussion expire.

So now is the only opportunity for either party to draw up a contract not affected by right to work.

The unions potentially have the most at risk in the courts. A decision by the Supreme Court that the Legislature can impose right to work on state employees, not out of the realm of possibility given the 5-2 Republican majority on the court, could see them shedding members once the final contract requiring a closed shop expires.

So, while they are convinced that only the Civil Service Commission has the authority to convert the state to an open shop, union officials have to be trying to figure out how long of a contract they can win to maintain the status quo.

The administration, on the other hand, has several incentives to keep the next contract shorter.

First and foremost, it would be hypocritical to argue that employees should have the right to decide whether they want to join unions, but then sign a contract that keeps them in those unions well past any court decision allowing them that choice (should that be what the courts eventually rule). Governor Rick Snyder has faced some struggles with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party already, and a lengthy, closed shop contract would be the opposite of a way to ingratiate himself with that faction.

There are also fiscal concerns. The governor has been big on not spending money the state doesn’t have, and a lengthy contract would mean committing revenues for pay and benefits when that revenue might not be there.

The question is: Where do those to interests meet at the bargaining table? Needless to say, it is not likely State Employer Jan Winters would sign off on an 8-year or 10-year contract like some school districts, colleges and universities did. But would she be willing to accept a six-year contract, taking the agreement past the end of a second Snyder administration and giving the next governor the opportunity to negotiate a fresh contract?

And how much would unions be willing to give up to get such a contract? UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada said one of the goals of the negotiations was to keep state workers at a middle class income level. But how far toward the bottom of that range, with smaller pay increases and benefit cuts, would she be willing to let them slide to keep them paying dues for those extra few years?

State revenues have been climbing. There could be room in Budget Director John Nixon’s budget projections to get union agreement to a shorter contract, maybe two years like the current one or even back to the once tradition three years. The latter could be particularly beneficial because the governor could declare the state back to where it once was economically.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in both sides’ strategy sessions.

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Mackinac Island Dilemma: Can’t Drive It, Can’t Tow It Behind Horses

Posted: May 30, 2013 2:29 PM

MACKINAC ISLAND -- Mackinac Island allows operation of motorized vehicles under very limited circumstances, and display of the car driven by a NASCAR champion is not one of them.

Since the racer couldn’t be driven to its display at the Grand Hotel tea garden (because of the ban and because display cars don’t have engines), the only option was to tow it behind horses, the same way other motorized vehicles are moved around the island.

But in this case, there was a hitch: Brad Keselowski is sponsored by Miller. Pictures of the car being towed behind a team of horses (mascot of rival Budweiser) were out of the question.

So the car was snuck in under heavy cover and made its way back to the ferry docks the same way.

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Teacher Of The Year Not Well Kept Secret

Posted: May 23, 2013 2:00 PM

Gary Abud Jr., a science teacher at Grosse Pointe North High School, was named teacher of the year Thursday.

Announcement of the teacher of the year is supposed to be a surprise, but in the age of information, it’s a really hard secret to keep, unless there are two teachers from the same school nominated.

How would the winner find out early? Let’s see. It’s May. The state has named the teacher of the year in May every year for the past several.

The announcement is always made at a rally at the school attended by the state superintendent of public instruction, members of the State Board of Education, members of the local school board and other various dignitaries.

Wednesday, the Department of Education announced Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan would be visiting Gross Pointe North High “for one of his monthly scheduled school visits.”

That would normally not raise flags. Mr. Flanagan, as the release said, conducts such visits monthly. He does not, however, announce them to the media every month, nor does he announce that state board members and others will be tagging along.

One might say, “OK, the regular education media then could figure out what was going on.” But those releases now go out to a public distribution list. Anyone can ask to get them, including nominees and those who nominated them.

If the new teacher of the year is to remain in the dark until the announcement next year, it might be time for the department and the board to develop a new ruse. In the end, however, it probably matters little to Mr. Abud and future winners who get to enjoy the annual honor.

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Let Me Check My Notes

Posted: May 22, 2013 2:49 PM

For those who have been around the Capitol for a while, Wednesday’s Board of State Canvassers meeting included a familiar sight: John Pirich, attorney with Honigman Miller Schwarz and Cohn, and Michael Hodge, attorney with Miller Canfield, sitting at the witness table taking opposite sides of an election issue.

The two are among the top election lawyers in the state and are often pitted against each other on key issues, and some routine issues, before the board and the courts.

The scene has apparently become so routine that Mr. Hodge briefly lost track of which case he was arguing. It took him a few seconds looking through his notes to tell the board that he was working on behalf of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.

It did not take any further looks through his notes, however, to argue that the board should approve the group’s petitions, which it did over Mr. Pirich’s challenge.

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Law Books Could Still Use Some Cleaning

Posted: May 6, 2013 4:15 PM

A few years back, the Legislature embarked on a substantial housecleaning of the Michigan Compiled Laws, repealing a bunch of old laws that were no longer enforceable or no longer funded, but it looks like they still missed a few.

For instance, a look at one’s law books, without a concomitant look at one’s Court of Appeals rulings, would show, as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy pointed out, affixing a Detroit Tigers bumper sticker to one’s vehicle without actually being a member of the team violates the state’s vehicle code.

While the Mackinac Center concentrated on bumper stickers, it raised the question whether the state’s fundraising license plates, which carry the logo of the intended donation recipient, would violate this provision. That seemed logical, since it would ban bumper stickers.

But calls to the departments of Attorney General and State with that question returned a unanimous response: the plates would not violate the law because the law, enacted in 1929, was overturned by the Court of Appeals in 1979.

The court found, as one now would expect, that the law was overly broad. “The statute does not limit its application to attempts to defraud or gain improper advantage from use of an organization's emblem or insignia,” Judge Thomas Burns wrote in the opinion, which overturned a ticket issued to a motorist with a Police Officers Association of Michigan sticker who was not a police officer (the opinion did not say, and the law did not specify, what the penalty was for having the sticker).

Of import to the fundraising plate discussion, Mr. Burns noted the law could apply to someone who had a Boy Scouts emblem who was not himself a scout.

Beyond the amazement that it took 50 years for the courts to overturn what most now would see as an obvious First Amendment violation, it has been nearly 33 years since the decision, and the law is still on the books.

There is movement on one of the laws pointed out by the Mackinac Center, still in effect, that requires the county sheriff to kill all unlicensed dogs. The bill (HB 4168) to end that unenforced requirement, however, predates the Mackinac Center piece.

Other laws pointed out there, and likely some missed there, are still around awaiting another spring cleaning.

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Nugent: Pure Michigan Is Shooting Things

Posted: April 25, 2013 2:43 PM

The Motor City Madman has seen the state’s Pure Michigan campaign, and he is saddened by what it promotes, or more importantly doesn’t.

Holland officials might be surprised to hear what Ted Nugent believes: people don’t come to Michigan to visit their upcoming Tulip Time Festival; they come to hunt and fish.

“The Pure Michigan campaign basically is a façade when we know that the number one tourism attraction in Michigan is Cabella’s and the great outdoors hunting, fishing and trapping lifestyle,” Mr. Nugent said Thursday on Michigan’s Big Show with Michael Patrick Shiels. “How dare the Pure Michigan campaign not even mention any of that because there’s still some Hash Bash hippy in charge of Michigan’s promotional campaign who’s afraid to put a dead salmon or a dead grouse or a dead deer on the tourist brochure but will put paragliding or tulip festivals on that brochure when nobody’s going to come to Michigan to hang glide or go to the tulip festival.”

While some might take issue with his assertion that no one comes to the state for the tulip festival, Mr. Nugent may have a point that the state has avoided displaying dead animals on its television ads. Even a spot called “Gone Fishing in Michigan” has only about two seconds of footage that has anything to do with fishing. “Michigan Fresh Water: Find Your Perfect Spot”, however, dedicates nearly a full 30 seconds to the sport. No dead salmon, though.

A quick online perusal of Pure Michigan ads showed none dedicated to hunting.

Golf shots, however, do take a substantial amount of the time in Pure Michigan ads. Even in “Gone Fishing” there are golf scenes.

And those hunters who do come here, or who live here, will find that desk jockeys have been given control of the state’s natural resources, or so says Mr. Nugent. “When you have a beaver problem in Michigan, it’s destroying your driveway and destroying the environment, you’ve got to get a permit to do the right thing,” he said. “And then you’re not even allowed to do the right thing by shooting the beaver, you’ve got to catch the beaver in an authorized trap.”

The state also has made preparing for legal hunts a hardship for some. “We have friends in Michigan that are just heartbroken that we can’t sight our shotguns in before opening day from the front end of a four-wheeler because you’re not allowed to have a loaded weapon on a motorized vehicle when in every other state you can use that motorized vehicle as a bench rest without any problem,” he said.

The Pure Michigan campaign, he said, is a symbol of the political correctness “scourge” that has taken the state.

“They have really destroyed the work ethic. They brainwashed too many Michiganiacs to be takers instead of producers,” he said of former Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Detroit mayors Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick, who he said should all be in jail for that. Of course, Mr. Young died more than a decade ago. Mr. Kilpatrick is facing jail, but not for any hunting related issues.

“The overall direction of Michigan is very sad and Governor Snyder has not reversed it like Governor Scott Walker has in Wisconsin,” Mr. Nugent said.

One wonders how much further Mr. Nugent’s view of Michigan will fall if, as expected, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal activists are able to challenge and defeat the state’s new wolf hunt at the ballot.

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When Political Position Drives Malapropism

Posted: February 5, 2013 4:27 PM

Language drives message, and a person’s position on an issue often drives what hot-button words they use.

So it appears a political stance came out in a malapropism at a committee hearing Tuesday.

Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), a staunch opponent of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and any state efforts to implement that act, wanted still to be sure the state was using its health care funds efficiently not duplicating federal reform efforts.

He asked of Community Health Director James Haveman “where we’re duplicitous of what the federal government’s doing and where we might be in contention with what federal government’s doing.”

Mr. Haveman seemed a bit uncertain how to answer, but soldiered on with a policy-based response.

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