Matthileo / Flickr

Every Wednesday, we get a dose of state politics from Michigan Radio's Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry. On tap for this morning: state lawmakers are back in Lansing for the fall session, there's a good chance 'right to work' legislation will make its way to the state Legislature, and the latest round of musical chairs in the state's 2012 Congressional election.

Subterranean / Wikipedia Commons

Scores of seniors upset the state will tax some of their public pensions for the first time are expected to pack the courtroom when the Michigan Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the law.

The hearing begins Wednesday morning in the Hall of Justice.

The case is a major test of sweeping tax changes put in place earlier this year by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

He wants a Supreme Court advisory opinion that would effectively pre-empt any court challenge on the law filed by opponents such as public employee unions, who say the state constitution protects their pensions from being taxed.

Starting Jan. 1, pensions and some retirement income that previously was partially exempt would be taxed as regular income for those born after 1945.

dailyinvention / creative commons

Not only will there be way more Michigan apples this year, they’ll probably be bigger and better looking too.

According to estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture, Michigan apple growers are likely to produce 26.1 million bushels this season. The 5 year average is 19.5 million bushels. Only Washington and New York state grow more.

Denise Donohue is the Executive Director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

“This is the 5th year on the rollercoaster for Michigan. It’s been an up and down thing for the last three years in particular.”

DTE Energy says about 12,000 customers were still without power on Tuesday, after Saturday’s strong storms.  Many were clustered in southeast Oakland County, especially in the Detroit suburbs of Ferndale and Oak Park.

The utility had restored power to about 90%  of its customers who saw it knocked out during the weekend storms.

A fight is brewing at the state Capitol over whether Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law should be changed.

Backers of the legislation want drivers to be able to opt out of coverage that provides unlimited lifetime benefits for the most severely injured accident victims.

Pete Kuhnmuench, with the Insurance Institute of Michigan, says the option would save people money:

"We think putting more money back in the pockets of the consumers we think now is the right time to do that, given our economics," says Kuhnmuench.

A study commissioned by the measure’s opponents says most drivers would choose to underinsure themselves to save money.

The study says that would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Governor Rick Snyder has signed legislation that would end cash assistance welfare benefits after a family has been receiving payments for 48 months or more. 

About 12,600 cases, many of them families with children, will close and lose their benefits when the law takes effect on October 1.

In a statement, Governor Snyder says four years should be long enough for people to become self-sufficient and some people have been getting cash assistance for as long as 14 years.

Critics of the new limits say many of the people who will lose assistance are families with children, and many of the people who lose the benefits are adults who can’t find a job in a bad economy.

Governor Snyder’s administration says caseworkers will still make sure families who lose benefits will continue to get Medicaid coverage, food assistance, and help with training and job searches.

The savings to taxpayers is pegged at $65 million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year.

Republican state lawmakers say this won’t be the final word this year on changes in the welfare system.

The State House could vote as soon as this week on more limits to public assistance, including making sure automatic teller machines in casinos cannot accept Bridge Cards to make cash withdrawals, and canceling the cards of people with outstanding warrants.

USDA.gov

A new United States Department of Agriculture program will provide free lunches and breakfasts to all K-12 students in the Detroit Public School system and the Flint School District.

The free meal service, known as the "Community Eligibility Option," is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act singed into law by President Obama in December of 2010.

From the USDA:

[The] universal free meal service option...makes it easier for low-income children to receive meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The "Community Eligibility Option" will allow schools in high-poverty areas to eliminate the use of applications and provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

In a statement, Mark Schrupp, DPS Chief Operating Officer, said the program is aimed at eliminating stigma:

"One of the primary goals of this program is to eliminate the stigma that students feel when they get a free lunch, as opposed to paying cash," said Schrupp. "Some students would skip important meals to avoid being identified as low-income. Now, all students will walk through a lunch line and not have to pay. Low-income students will not be easily identifiable and will be less likely to skip meals."

Blake Thorne reports in the Flint Journal that a district has to meet certain criteria to be eligible for the new "lunch for all" program:

The program evaluates the economic eligibility of an entire school or district, rather than individual students, and if 40 percent of the school or district’s students qualify for free lunches, all students get them...

Last year, 81 percent of Flint students qualified for free lunches, according to Michigan Department of Education data from last fall, the most recent figures available.

Education Department figures show about 41 percent of the state’s 1.57 million students qualify for the meals.

The program is in its pilot phase this year and only a limited number of states can participate.

Once a district signs on, they're required to participate in the program for 4 successive school years.

The Community Eligibility Option will be available to all states beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.

In the Detroit News, Michael Van Beek of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, questioned whether the new program is a good use of taxpayer money:

"Under this program, it appears we would be subsidizing school lunches and meals to students who currently don't qualify under the federal program."

Van Beek said there are more creative solutions than giving away meals to everyone at a school where less than half of the students may qualify.

The news reports that "the federal government spent $338 million on free and reduced school meals" in the state in fiscal year 2010.

Photograph courtesy of Senator Whitmer's office

The Michigan Legislature is back in session this week, so we took some time to speak with state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-23rd) about what she would like to see happen in the state legislature this fall.

Wisconsin Historical Society

What’s different about our factories? How are things changing in the Midwest, from the way people are trained to what’s being produced?

This month, Changing Gears’ regular Wednesday reports will be devoted to the future of manufacturing.

The days are long gone when all you had to do to get a factory job was know someone. These are not the same places your dad or mom or grandfather worked in. And the expectations of what employers need from you have changed, as well.

We’ll kick the series off tomorrow with a report from Dan Bobkoff. Meanwhile, we’d like to pick your brain.

What kind of factories do you think we’ll be seeing in the Midwest? Which industry will be next to catch hold here?

We’re looking forward to exploring our manufacturing future with you.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A rally is scheduled Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol protesting proposed changes to the state's medical marijuana law.

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Association president and other speakers during the rally in Lansing are expected to discuss the law and treatment patients and caregivers have received from law enforcement. The event starts at noon.

Michigan voters in 2008 approved use of marijuana to relieve pain and other chronic ailments. About 100,000 people have state-issued cards letting them have 2.5 ounces of "usable" pot and up to 12 plants. Registered caregivers also can grow marijuana for five people.

Michigan's Appeals Court has ruled some sales at dispensaries illegal.

Changes proposed by some Michigan legislators requiring stricter doctor-patient relationships before a patient could get authorization to use the drug.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This Wednesday, Flint City Council will consider whether consolidation could be in the city's future.

The Flint Journal reports that a council committee will take up a resolution this Wednesday, with a final decision from council coming next Monday:

Government consolidation in Michigan has been a hot topic since Gov. Rick Snyder told local communities that they would lose out on additional state aid unless they showed a commitment to share services with others to save taxpayer dollars.

Snyder set a Jan. 1 deadline for governments to submit consolidation plans if they want to receive a share of a $200-million pool of funds.

Several local communities, including Burton, Clio, Davison and Davison Township, have already joined the initiative.

The consolidation initiative is known as Future Genesee  and the Journal reports it includes the communities of Burton, Clio, Davison and Davison Township.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder is ready to launch a new series of fall initiatives, including measures to improve Michigan residents' health, fix crumbling roads and sewer systems and train
more people for available jobs.

He could unveil his health and wellness initiatives as early as next week. The Republican governor plans to lay out a roads plan in October and a way to better tap Michigan workers' talents in
November.

Snyder has been focused on "reinventing" Michigan since he took office in January, and doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.

But he could be distracted this fall by a flurry of bills being pushed by fellow Republicans, such as making Michigan a right-to-work state and outlawing a late-term abortion procedure that's already illegal through a federal law.

New research from the University of Michigan reinforces why it’s important to keep kids from being exposed to lead.

It’s long been known that relatively high blood lead levels can negatively affect children’s IQ.

This study finds it can also affect a child’s motor skills.

Dr. Howard Hu, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, studied children between the ages of three and seven in Chennai, India. Half the children studied had relatively high levels of lead in their blood. Those children tested significantly lower on motor skill tests… like using peg boards and copying pictures… than children with far less exposure to lead.

Dr. Hu says the Indian children’s blood lead levels are about two to three times that of American children. Lead is still a problem in Michigan, with children still being exposed to aging lead paint in homes, lead in pipes, and lead contamination in soil.

screen grab from YouTube video

Yesterday, President Barack Obama told a crowd of around 13,000 in Detroit that the country will rise and fall together:

"Anyone who doesn’t believe it should come here to Detroit," said Obama. "It’s like the commercial says:  This is a city that’s been to heck and back. And while there are still a lot of challenges here, I see a city that’s coming back."

Obama said the nation "cannot have a strong growing economy without a strong growing middle class and without a strong labor movement."

At the event, Obama was previewing his jobs speech, which will be given in front of a joint session of Congress this Thursday (September 8).

"I don't want to give everything away right here, because I want ya'll to tune in on Thursday," Obama said.

"But I'll give you just a little bit.

We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding.

We’ve got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building.

We’ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now. 

There is work to be done and there are workers ready to do it.  Labor is on board.  Business is on board. 

We just need Congress to get on board.  Let’s put America back to work."

Here's President Obama's Labor Day Speech:

During the speech, Obama recounted a conversation he had with Michigan Senator Carl Levin:

You know, I was on the plane flying over here, and Carl Levin was with me, and he showed me a speech that Harry Truman had given on Labor Day 63 years ago, right here in Detroit -- 63 years ago.  And just to show that things haven't changed much, he talked about how Americans had voted in some folks into Congress who weren’t very friendly to labor.  And he pointed out that some working folks and even some union members voted these folks in.  And now they were learning their lesson.  And he pointed out that -- and I'm quoting here -- 'the gains of labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the nation.  Labor’s gains contributed to the nation’s general prosperity.'"

Source: Toniht at Wikimedia Commons

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. They’re used in all kinds of consumer products including flooring, cars and cosmetics.

A new study published today finds a significant link between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and negative impacts on their children’s development.

Robin Whyatt is a professor in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and she’s the lead author of the study. She and her team have an ongoing study of more than 700 mothers and their children that began in 1998.

For this particular study, they looked at about half of those mother-child pairs. They measured phthalate levels in the mothers’ urine and compared those levels to several developmental tests on their children, who are now three years old.

“As levels in the mothers' urine went up, the child’s motor development went down significantly.”

She says the types of phthalates they studied appear to affect the babies’ brain development while they’re still in utero.

“Three of the phthalates were significantly associated with behavioral disorders, or behavioral problems: anxious, depressed behaviors, emotionally reactive behaviors, withdrawn behavior.”

Whyatt says they controlled for a long list of factors. They looked at tobacco smoke, lead, pesticides, and other toxic substances.

“We controlled for race and ethnicity, gestational age. We looked at marital status, we looked at a number of different indicators of poverty and also how much hardship a woman was going through.”

And she says still, there was a significant link between the mothers’ phthalate levels and their children’s development.

“Our findings are concerning because saw a two to three fold increase in the odds that the child would have motor delays and or behavioral problems.”

But she says more research is needed. And parents should keep in mind that any individual child’s risk is low.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Today’s the first day of school for most children in Michigan.   In Lansing, this is also the beginning of the final year on the job for the district’s  school superintendent.  

As the public address system blared instructions for which classroom or auditorium they should go to, hundreds of students found their way around Lansing’s STEM Academy this morning.  District Superintendent T.C. Wallace was there to help them find their way.  

Once upon a time, it was an enormous deal whenever a President came to town. I know a woman who was a little girl of six in Pontiac sixty-three years ago, when President Harry Truman came to make a Labor Day speech in Detroit. There was a motorcade along Woodward, and she still has a vivid memory of standing along the curb and hoping for a glimpse of the President on his car.

Incidentally, her parents were Republicans. They didn’t vote for Truman that fall, when he won re-election in a stunning upset. But that didn’t matter. He was the President of the United States, and if you had a chance to see him, you took it.

These days, however, presidents are always on the move. Mr. Obama visited a battery factory in Ottawa County barely three weeks ago. True, an estimated 12,000 people braved crowds and traffic to pack into a parking lot on Detroit’s riverfront to see President Obama yesterday. But 42,000 had come downtown the night before, to pay money see the Detroit Tigers annihilate Obama’s Chicago White Sox.

The comparison isn’t fair, in a way. These days, almost everybody had the ability to watch the President on TV or the internet, which certainly wasn’t true in the days of Harry Truman.

However, Truman started something that Labor Day long ago that still continues today: The tradition that Democrats running for election or reelection as President kick off their campaigns with a Labor Day speech in Detroit. Campaigns start a lot earlier these days, and that was part of what was going on here.

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Obama Speaks in Detroit

President Obama spoke to union members and supporters at a Labor Day rally in Detroit yesterday. As Sarah Cwiek reports, the President says his biggest concern is to “fully restore” the country’s middle class:

The President will outline a jobs agenda to Congress on Thursday. He drew a disbelieving groan from the crowd when he said he still believes “both parties can work together.” But Mr. Obama also said he “won’t wait around for” Republicans in Congress.  “We’re going to see if Congressional Republicans will put country before party. We’ll give ‘em a plan, and then we’ll say: do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work re-building America.” The President says he’ll urge spending on infrastructure, growing export markets, and renewing a payroll tax cut for workers.

Snyder to Sign Welfare Cap

Governor Snyder is expected to sign the state’s new 48-month cap on welfare benefits into law this week. The state legislature approved the measure last month. “The new limits are expected to immediately reduce the cash assistance caseloads by 15 percent. About 12,600 people have been on cash assistance for 48 months or more, and payments to those families will end when the state’s new fiscal year begins October 1st,” Rick Pluta reports. It’s estimated the new limits will save the state $65 million dollars in the new budget year.

Some Schools Remain Closed on First Day

Some schools have had to postpone their first day of classes due to power outages and storm damage from this weekend’s powerful thunderstorms. The Associated Press reports:

The public school district in Ferndale cancelled classes Tuesday to give cleanup crews more time to deal with the remnants of Saturday's storms that downed trees and power lines and knocked out electrical service to several of the district's buildings. Detroit Public Schools says Macdowell, Carstens at Remus Robinson, Emerson and Vernor elementary schools were closed Tuesday due to power outages caused by the storms… In all, utilities say about 176,000 Michigan homes and businesses lost power.

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to sign a new 48-month cap on cash assistance welfare benefits into law this week. The new limits are expected to immediately reduce the cash assistance caseloads by 15 percent. The measure got final approval from the state legislature last month.

About 12,600 people have been on cash assistance for 48 months or more, and payments to those families will end when the state’s new fiscal year begins October 1st.

“It was always meant to be a bridge and it’s become a lot longer than that in Michigan  -- in some cases, many individuals or families have been on it for five, six, seven, eight, 10 plus years,” says Sara Wurfel, Governor Snyder’s press secretary.

The new limits are expected to save the state $65 million dollars in the new budget year.

Michigan’s four-year cap on cash assistance will make the state’s welfare limits among the strictest in the Midwest. Advocates for the poor say private agencies may not be able make up the difference for people who still need help. They say many of the people who take payments for extended periods are the chronically unemployed who are struggling through the poor economy.

user Bernt Rostad / Flickr

Three Detroit businesses earlier this year began to offer up to $25,000 to encourage their employees to buy a place to live in Midtown Detroit. But the "Live Midtown" incentives have created a new kind of housing crisis in the city: a housing shortage. 

Austin Black is a realtor with City Living Detroit in midtown. He says in 2007 - 2008, the area was flush with unsold units. But he says now many of his clients have become frustrated looking for housing in the area.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

For most Michigan kids, today is the first day back to school.  And many are taking backpacks full of school supplies. They are not required to take school supplies. By state law the public schools are to supply everything students need for class. 

When you add it all up, the new school clothes, gym shoes, and all those binders, crayons, paper, pens and pencils, back-to-school shopping is big business.

“It’s really become probably the second biggest shopping period of the year, right behind Christmas.”

That’s Tom Scott with Michigan Retailers Association. One national estimate puts back-to-school shopping at about 16 percent of retail business in a year. It’s difficult to separate just how much of that is actual school supplies and not clothes or computers. 

The school districts always put out a long list of things kids might need for school and parents start hunting.

Pete Souza / Official White House photo

Speaking to union members and supporters at a Labor Day rally in Detroit, President Obama says his biggest concern is to “fully restore” the country’s middle class.

The President will outline a jobs agenda to Congress on Thursday. He drew a disbelieving groan from the crowd when he said he still believes “both parties can work together.”

But Mr. Obama also said he “won’t wait around for” Republicans in Congress.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

 The American Red Cross may be hit by a strike this week by some of its unionized employees.   The picket signs are stacked up and ready to go at the union hall in south Lansing.  

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

 Controversial Florida Pastor Terry Jones is coming back to Michigan this week.    Terry Jones gained fame for burning a copy of the Qur’an as a protest against what he calls ‘radical’ Islam.     His attempt to hold a protest in Dearborn landed him in jail briefly this Spring.    He’s due back in a Dearborn courtroom on Thursday. 

Before then on Wednesday, Jones plans to take part in a rally at the state capital, which he says will focus on America’s moral decay and the rise of radical Islam. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will make an appearance in Detroit this week, just days after a visit from President Obama. It's part of a three-day “Education and the Economy” tour Secretary Duncan is taking through the Midwest.

Matt Callow / Flickr

 A state Senate panel is expected to continue hearings soon on a proposed second bridge between Detroit and Canada. Lawmakers say they still have a lot of testimony they need to hear before they can make a decision.

State Senator Geoff Hansen is from Oceana County. He says people ask him every day about the Detroit bridge proposal, even on the west side of the state.

“It’s been brought up to a really high profile thing with all the advertising on the TV and all the fliers that have come out,” Hansen said.

Labor Day

Sep 5, 2011

I hope you are out on a boat listening to this. Or getting ready for a barbecue, or working in the garden, or doing something you feel like doing. Depending on the weather, I may be playing soccer with my Australian Shepherd right now.

He, by the way, will win easily. But while I hope you are relaxing, I hope even more that you have a job to go back to tomorrow. Far too many people don’t.

True, the unemployment rate is down from last year, but it is still over ten percent in Michigan, which is far too high. And there’s something that worries me more than the numbers.

And that’s the number of adults in the prime of life who have been unemployed for a long time -- six months or more. That’s the most on record, according to the Michigan League for Human Services, and they should know. They’ve been trying to help folks in difficult circumstances for almost a century.

The U.S. Army / Flickr

President Obama travels to Detroit today to attend Detroit's annual Labor Day parade. He'll address thousands of labor union members about his ideas to create jobs and help grow the economy, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

Obama's speech at a rally sponsored by the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO may serve as a dry run for the jobs speech he'll deliver before a joint session of Congress Thursday night...In the speech to Congress, Obama is expected to outline a mix of tax credits and public works spending and press lawmakers to act quickly on the proposals.

Michigan Radio's Detroit reporter Sarah Cwiek will be at the President's speech. As she notes:

The President is looking to shore up support among organized labor, a key part of his base...

Speaking in the shadow of General Motors headquarters, it's likely the President will tout his administration's role in reviving the American auto industry. Publicly, Michigan's union leaders have generally praised Mr. Obama for rescuing U.S. automakers.

But, there are signs the President's support among union members has eroded, especially as unemployment remains high, and collective bargaining rights for public employees are under attack in many states.

This will be the President's second visit to Michigan in the past month. Mr. Obama toured an advanced battery plant in Holland in August.

User ppdigital / MorgueFile

High school students from Detroit to Marquette will be participating in this year’s Great Michigan Read, a free, statewide book club put on by the Michigan Humanities Council.

This year’s book is "Arc of Justice" by Kevin Boyle. It’s a true story about an African American physician in the 1920s that moves to an all-white neighborhood in Detroit and defends his family’s right to live there.

(Official White House photo)

 The nation’s home builders are one group expected to closely watch President Obama’s economic address to Congress this week.  Pulte Homes of Bloomfield Hills is the nation’s largest home builder.   

Pulte, like its competitors, has seen its sales plummet as the housing market crashed in recent years.    And past government efforts to prop up the housing market with tax breaks have failed to spur new home construction.      

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