Michigan House Republicans

Governor Rick Snyder will join House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville at a press conference tomorrow.

They plan to outline the progress they’ve made closing a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

But it may be a little awkward, because Snyder still has not reached a deal with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville on his plan for major tax reforms.

Snyder says he hopes the Legislature adopts his plan to tax pensions, and eliminate the business tax in favor of a corporate income tax on profits, but he says he is not pushing his plan too hard just yet.

"Well I’m not leaning on anyone," said Snyder. "I’m having a positive discussion, as I always like to have, about how we can work best together. And I think good partnership opportunities there, and we’re going to continue that dialogue. We’re making positive progress."

A House panel is debating tax plans similar to what Governor Snyder wants.

Leaders in the state Senate are talking about alternatives to Snyder’s plan.

So far, the budget plans include salary restraints on public employees and requiring them to pay more for their benefits.

Some lawmakers say members of the Legislature should take pay cuts and pay more of their benefits too.

But Governor Snyder is staying out of those salary debates.

"Well, we’re three branches of government, and I look at it as they take an opportunity for leadership in an area that affects them. We have more than enough to do in the executive branch."

Snyder has been criticized for paying salaries as large as $250,000 to some of his cabinet members.

Snyder is a self-made millionaire who takes an annual government salary of one dollar.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan community colleges have seen double-digit growth and record numbers of students in the last couple years. But many community colleges expect that trend to slow down, or even stop, this year.

Muskegon Community College’s Dean of Enrollment Services George Maniatessays the school has nearly 20% more students now than it did in 2006.

 “The easy money for retraining, the No worker Left Behind Programs, those are all now gone. So people are pretty much on their own."

Maniates says his school is already seeing a significant decrease in the number of “adult learners” over 23 years old enrolling for summer and fall classes. He says that’s mainly because there’s less money for job retraining programs.

“We’re also seeing a lot of families who are torn between ‘well can I find a summer job – or do I go to school?”

Mike Hansen is president of Michigan’s Association of Community Colleges. He expects most community colleges will see flat or slower enrollment growth this fall.

“Now you have to remember too these are increases from historic highs. In other words if you walked onto these campuses you’d say ‘wow there’s tons of people here. There’s no spots left in the parking lot.”

He expects colleges in more rural areas will be harder hit.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan RAdio

Thousands of kids in the Detroit Public Schools system could see their school close or become a charter school next fall.

Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb laid out his reorganization plan today. It calls for closing seven schools this summer and one next summer. Another 18 schools will close by the fall unless a charter school operator can be identified to run them. And 27 more schools will be offered for conversion to charter schools, but will remain open otherwise.

Bobb says national experts and the community will carefully vet the applications to find “superstar” charter operators:

"It doesn’t do us any good to have anyone come in and receive a charter if in fact they do not have a proven track record of student achievement."

Detroit Board of Education President Anthony Adams says the troubled school district can either continue to close schools, or rethink its approach completely:

"If it is our responsibility to provide the highest level of education for students within our community, then we have to embrace a different service model of what we do."

The list of 32 schools is fewer than half the troubled school district will have to close or convert to charters to erase a $327 million dollar deficit. Bobb says it will be his successor’s job to finish the job. His contract expires at the end of June.

(USGS)

Large factory farms have lost a major court case in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The case involves farming operations with hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals. They are often called CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

The appellate court upheld a lower court ruling that the state could require large confined animal feeding operations to get pollution discharge permits before opening. Farm groups challenged the state rule insisting they should only need a permit after releasing manure causing water pollution.  But today, the three judge panel disagreed:

We conclude that the DEQ was fully authorized to require CAFOs to either (1) seek and obtain an (federal) permit (irrespective of whether they actually discharge pollutants), or (2) satisfactorily demonstrate that they have no potential to discharge.  The circuit court  properly denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary disposition and granted summary disposition in favor of the DEQ.

Ann Wiowode  is the director of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. She welcomes this week’s ruling. 

 “That is essential in insuring they’re not allowed to begin operation and potentially pollute the water  without going through proper review.”

But while she welcomes the decision, Wiowode says more work is needed to protect Michigan from water pollution connected to agriculture. 

 “We think the regulations are still too weak.  And based on our experience, the permits themselves have many things that could be improved.”   

The Michigan Farm Bureau expressed disappointment with the decision.

Scio Residents for Safe Water

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is holding a public meeting tonight about changes to the 1,4-dioxane groundwater cleanup plan in Ann Arbor.

The meeting will be held at 7:00 p,m. at Abbot Elementary School, 2670 Sequoia Parkway, Ann Arbor.

From the MDEQ:

countyhealthrating.org

A new study says Ottawa County is the healthiest county in Michigan. The county borders Lake Michigan’s shore directly west of Grand Rapids.

Marcia Knoll is a community health analyst at Ottawa County’s Health Department. She says the department does not take credit for the county’s “healthiest” rating. Knoll says there are many organizations, churches and people working together to keep the community healthy.

“Instead of standing like silos, each with our own agenda and our own territory. So that’s not the environment here, that’s not the culture here and I think that has stood us well in the struggles and with our health care.”

The study was done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It looks at a number of measures that affect a community’s health; how many people smoke, are overweight, and have access to fresh, healthy foods.

K. Sawyer / Flickr

Controversy continues to swirl around collective bargaining rights--and the protests that recent legislation has sparked--in Michigan and Wisconsin.

At issue now is a number of Freedom of Information Act requests done by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The requests have been made for information on faculty at Wayne State, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan.

Some critics are claiming that the FOIA requests are being used to intimidate college professors from participating in pro-labor protests.

Two Democratic state lawmakers are preparing legislation that would restore unemployment benefits cuts recently signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder.  Snyder signed legislation to extend federal jobless benefits, but the bill also contained a provision shrinking state unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks next year.  

Republicans lawmakers pushed for the jobless benefits cuts, saying it will reduce the burden on Michigan businesses, which pay into the state unemployment insurance pool. Jim Ananich is a state representative from Flint.   He’s introducing legislation to restore those benefits.  

“You know I’m hopeful that they will see the error of their ways and see that now is not a time to be taking money out of people’s pockets.”

Ananich hopes to introduce his bill next month.

Sam Kim / Flickr

Buckle up, kiddos!

A new law restricting Level 2 driver's license holders (basically, first year drivers who have passed their driving test) goes into effect today.

The restrictions include:

  • Drivers cannot carry more than one passenger below the age of 21 unless they are family members
  • Drivers cannot drive after 10 p.m. or before 5 a.m. Exceptions include going to and from work, and driving when accompanied by a parent, guardian or other adult (21 years and older).

The Detroit News has more:

Listen up, teenage drivers: Starting today, some of you will be driving less and with fewer pals in the car because of two big changes to Michigan's Graduated Driver Licensing Law...

The more teens in a vehicle, the greater the chance of a crash, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning, a division of the Michigan State Police.

According to the 2009 Michigan Traffic Crash fact sheet, younger drivers "were less likely to be alone in their car at the time of the crash," with 169 people ages 16-24 killed and nearly 18,000 injured.

"Studies have shown for teen drivers, the crash risk increases exponentially for each additional passenger, but parents seem unaware of the dangers associated with passengers and nighttime driving," said Michael L. Prince, director of the Office of Highway Safety Planning. "The new requirements and the awareness campaign will go a long way in improving teen driving safety."

AAA of Michigan is on board with the new changes, according to Jack Peet, traffic safety manager.

"This new law will help strengthen the graduated licensing approach where teens gain more driving privileges as they get older and acquire more experience," Peet said.

"Many studies have shown that limiting the number of teen passengers in a vehicle driven by a teen or novice driver helps make them safer."

Before today, Level 2 drivers were allowed to stay on the roads until midnight.

-Brian Short, Michigan Radio News

Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

Governor Rick Snyder plans to, "discuss legislative accomplishments and future plans" at a press conference scheduled for tomorrow morning in Lansing. Lt. Governor Brian Calley, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, and Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger will be there as well. The Detroit News reports:

It's a sign of Republican unity amid continued signs that pieces of Snyder's Feb. 17 budget could be in trouble in the Legislature. For example, enough GOP senators have said they don't support Snyder's pension tax as he has proposed it, which could keep it from passing if Democrats vote against it as a bloc.

Snyder said he, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, will talk about "what we've accomplished so far this year," and what "we're still working on."

Snyder made his remarks today after signing the 15th bill enacted into law by the Legislature since he took office Jan. 1.

"If you go through the State of the State, we've accomplished most of those items," Snyder said, referring to the January speech he gave to lay out his legislative agenda and broader vision for the state...

Earlier bills signed into law eliminated an item pricing requirement for retailers, strengthened the powers of emergency managers appointed by the state to oversee financially troubled cities and school districts and provided incentives for environmental self-regulation by farmers.

Two days ago a friend of mine called me in a semi-panic. Her unemployment benefits were about to run out, and she had eighty-seven dollars to her name. She wasn’t going to be able to make the modest payment on her small house, and didn’t know what to do. Nor did she understand what was going on in the legislature. Someone had told her that the governor was signing a bill to extend unemployment benefits. Somebody else told her he was going to shorten them. Which, she wanted to know, was it?

Well, both, I said. The governor signed a bill Monday that extends eligibility for federal extended unemployment benefits for up to ninety-nine weeks.

That’s only, however, for people like my friend Karen, who already is collecting unemployment.

Next year, however, things will change drastically. Any Michigander who loses his or her job after January 15, 2012 will only be eligible for state unemployment benefits for a maximum of twenty weeks. That’s less than five months.

For years, jobless workers in Michigan have been able to collect benefits for a maximum of twenty-six weeks, or six months. They can collect them for longer periods of time now because the federal government decided to temporarily provide benefits, because of the lingering effects of the recession. Those effects are still hanging on in Michigan, where unemployment is still more than ten percent. Economists expect that to come down a little by next year, but we’re likely to continue to be a long way from full employment. What that means is that for many people, twenty weeks is not going to be enough time to find a job.

So why is our government making it tough for jobless workers? Interestingly, nobody is really coming forward to defend this. Governor Snyder said he signed this bill because it was necessary to extend benefits for those who are jobless now. He said he would have been happy to leave eligibility at twenty-six weeks, and blamed the legislature for shortening the time period. Why did they do this? Well, nobody is rushing forward to claim credit.

Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio’s auto-beat reporter Tracy Samilton spent the day yesterday at General Motors’ Orion assembly plant outside of Pontiac.

Samilton was one of 16 reporters who were invited by GM and the UAW to see just what it takes to build a car.

Joanne Muller was one of the other reporters on the scene. In a blog-post published today on Forbes.com Muller writes, “After spending half a day learning how to put together an automobile, I have this to say: it is not as easy as it looks.”

In the post, titled, “My New Appreciation for the American Auto Worker,” Muller explains:

My job was to use a power tool to attach front and rear “bumpers” on a wooden mock-up of a car as it rolled down the assembly line. Then later, I swapped jobs with a coworker and began installing “headlights” and “tail lights."

I was, in a word, terrible at it.

But, it wasn’t just Muller who couldn’t keep up. Apparently, our very own Tracy Samilton had some troubles of her own. Muller writes:

The other journalists were just as bad, or worse, at their jobs. Michigan Radio’s Tracy Samilton and I were like Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up in the candy factory. She dropped a “bumper” on the floor, meaning the part had to be scrapped and our team would not meet its cost target. Safety was also lacking: the journalists recorded 22 safety “incidents” in 20 minutes — including a worker who was hit four times by a car coming down the line. At the end of our first 20-minute shift, we produced only 13 cars (instead of 18, our target), with a total of 25 defects, which meant we would have to return Saturday for unscheduled overtime to fix the faulty cars and meet our production goals. I learned that’s a very bad thing.

Samilton says the visit to the plant made her realize the pressure and deadlines that today’s factory workers are under, “and I thought it was hard being a reporter,” she noted.

Here's a video of Samilton at work:

CBSSports.com is reporting that the final deal to sell the Detroit Pistons will be completed by the middle of April.  The NBA franchise has been on the block since the death of longtime owner Bill Davidson. There have been many suitors, but it appears the winner is billionaire Tom Gores.  

CBSSports senior writer Ken Berger says the sale could be made official in a few weeks. 

Word in league circles is that negotiations to sell the Pistons to billionaire Tom Gores are far enough along to expect the matter to come to a vote by the Board of Governors April 14-15 in New York. League approval will be a welcome development for the organization, whose basketball operations department was paralyzed by the proposed sale. The Pistons are one of a handful of teams not to complete a single roster transaction this season. 

One stumbling block that has slowed the sale of the Pistons is the question 'How much is the franchise actually worth?' Forbes recently reported the value of the franchise has dropped about 25%.

Dave Brandon, for better or worse, was tied to his hire as Michigan football head coach, Brady Hoke.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Brady Hoke signed a six year contract Monday, that could average out to $3.25 million a year.  The Associated Press reports Hoke will be paid $2 million in the first year of the contract: 

Hoke will be paid $2 million this year and his base salary will increase by $100,000 each season. Hoke will earn a $1.5 million "stay bonus" after his third year and another $1.5 million "stay bonus" if he is still leading college football's winningest program in the sixth season of his contract.  

The Associated Press also quoted U of M Athletic Director Dave Brandon expressing confidence in Hoke.

"It's a big job with a lot of expectations and we feel very good about how much we're compensating him to help us reach those expectations." 

Brady Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez who lost the Wolverine head coaching job after three lackluster seasons and an NCAA investigation. Hoke was an assistant coach under Lloyd Carr before becoming a successful head coach at Ball State and San Diego State University.

 Hoke issued this statement on his new contract:

The contract was handled by my agent and the University. My focus has been on the football program and will continue to be on making this program the best in America. I couldn’t tell you what’s in the contract other than my signature. The University offered Laura and I an opportunity to coach at Michigan and that’s been my dream. Nothing will change my focus.

user ldisme / Flickr

According to one estimate, there are around 3,000 shipwrecks in Lake Michigan (estimate from Jim Jarecki, President/Archivist of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago).

Now, add one more to that list. From the Associated Press:

An organization that documents shipwrecks says it's found the wreck of a 60-foot, single-masted sloop in Lake Michigan that may date back to the 1830s.

Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates this week announced that the wreck was found off southwestern Michigan in water about 250 feet deep between Saugatuck and South Haven. The discovery was made while working with author Clive Cussler and his sonar operator Ralph Wilbanks of the National Underwater & Marine Agency.

Holland-based Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates says the vessel sits upright and is in relatively good condition. The group says the sloop's construction and design are consistent with ships built in the 1820s and 1830s.

Video of the wreck is expected to be shown April 16 at an event in Holland.

In this morning's news...

Mar 30, 2011
Brother O'Mara / Flickr

So-Long Price Tags

Retailers will no longer have to put price tags on almost every individual item they sale. Governor Snyder signed a bill yesterday that repeals the requirement. Michigan was the only state in the country to have such sweeping price tag laws, Rick Pluta reports. Item-pricing was popular with much of the public. The law just signed by the Governor has a provision that makes sure the new law cannot be reversed by a citizen referendum, Pluta reports.

Shared Sacrifice Among Lawmakers

Republican state Senator Rick Jones has introduced a bill that would require state legislators to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums. With the state facing a $1.4 billion budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, Governor Snyder wants state employees to  pay 20 percent of their health care insurance and, so, Senator Rogers thinks state lawmakers should have to do the same. Senator Jones has also introduced a bill to alter the lifetime health insurance that legislators receive after serving only six years, calling it “obscene,” Tracy Samilton reports.

Price of Homes Continues to Fall

Homes values in Metro Detroit declined to a new low in January. From the Detroit News:

Among the 20 major cities surveyed for the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, Detroit ranked last with an index of 66.02. The region's previous low was 66.47 in December. Case-Shiller uses home values from January 2000 as a starting point of 100 — anything higher shows a gain, and anything lower is a loss. Compared with other major cities, Detroit is much lower.

According to Home Price Index, home values in Metro Detroit are the lowest since 1993.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne talked about an improving revenue picture ahead of a Fiat stockholders meeting today in Turin, Italy. He also says Fiat may soon increase its stake in Chrysler from 25% to 35% this year.   Fiat took over management of Chrysler 21 months ago, as the Detroit automaker emerged from bankruptcy protection.

Agenzia Giornalistica Italia reports that Marchionne told investors  that he is confident Fiat's 2011 goals will be met:

He explained, moreover, that in 2011, profits will amount to 37 billion(with the possibility of reaching more than 100 billion after 2014, due to the Chrysler integration effect), whereas the management outcome will range from 0.9 and 1.2 billion. Dividends policy will be confirmed (25% of net profits will go into dividends).

The Wall Street Journal quotes Marchionne as saying Fiat will increase this year its share of the European auto marker, where it saw a decline in 2010. 

"We expect a general improvement in trading conditions, with the exception of the passenger-car market in Europe, which will be negatively influenced by declines forecast for Italy and France...Nevertheless, we project that our market share will increase as a result of new model releases programmed for the second half".

A state law that would require punishment for Michigan teachers who go on strike appears to be on a fast-track in the state legislature, Steve Carmody reports. Republican State Representative Bill Rogers has authored one of two bills that would require a two year license suspension and a large daily fine for striking teachers. Carmody reports:

Rogers expects the anti-teacher strike bills will move quickly through the legislature and may reach the governor's desk before a possible statewide teachers' strike next month. The state's largest teachers' union is mulling possible job actions, including teacher walk-outs, to protest cuts in school funding and other issues.

A press release on Rep. Rogers' website explains the rationale behind the measures:

Teacher strikes put the education of students and teachers' jobs at risk and have recently been encouraged by Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Iris Salters. Striking is illegal in Michigan, although penalties for doing so are hard to enforce.

House Bill 4466... will fine the Michigan Education Association $5,000 per teacher for each full or partial day that public school employees are engaged in a strike or strike like activities. The bill also orders employees to pay a fine in the amount equal to one day of pay for every day or partial day in which an employee participates in a strike...

House Bill 4465... requires that state superintendents suspend a teacher's license for a period of two years or permanently revoke their license, if caught breaking existing strike laws.

"This legislation discourages teachers from striking by putting teeth into the current strike law," said Rogers, R-Brighton. "We need to put the focus back onto educating our children. Children are the ones who suffer from teacher strikes and this legislation makes sure those who choose to participate face consequences for their actions."

Governor Snyder says he hopes teachers won’t authorize their union to call a statewide strike in response to his budget plans. Snyder proposed a $470 per-pupil-cut in state education spending earlier this year.

State lawmakers are on a Spring break until April 11th.

Update 3/30/2011, 6:32 a.m.:

A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman says three people have been killed after a small, single-engine Piper airplane crashed into a Monroe city park, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

Police and other emergency personnel responded to the Tuesday afternoon crash at Munson Park. A police dispatcher says reports of the crash came in at 4:04 p.m.

Munson Park is at the southeast corner of Monroe Custer Airport, about 35 miles southwest of Detroit and just north of the Ohio state line.

FAA Spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says her agency is investigating the crash. The investigation will be led by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Tracking service FlightAware.com reports that the plane left an airport in Bedford County, Pa., at 2:26 p.m. and was due in Monroe at 4 p.m.

3/29/2011, 5:12 p.m.:

From the Associated Press:

Police and other emergency personnel are responding to a small plane crash at Munson Park in the city of Monroe.

A police dispatcher says reports of the crash came in at 4:04 p.m. Tuesday.

It was not immediately known if anyone on the plane or on the ground suffered any injuries.

Monroe is about 35 miles southwest of Detroit and just north of the Ohio state line.

This from FOX 2 News in Detroit:

FOX 2 News is learning there has been a small plane crash near Monroe Custer Airport in Munson Park just across North Custer Road from the airport.

Witnesses tell us they could see smoke coming from the area.

We spoke by phone with a man who works nearby. He says he saw the burning plane and heard there were three people on board.

A second caller tells FOX 2 he's hearing there are three victims, as well.

Firefighters and police are on the scene.

Pity the poor minivan. 

It hauls the family on vacations, never complaining.  

Carries the kids to school and soccer practice.  

Ever ready for a spontaneous trip to the hardware store, but does it get any respect? Nope. 

It gets called names. 

"Loser cruiser."

"Road slug."   

Well, if you make minivans, you can get mad.  Or like Toyota, you can embrace the situation with a tongue-in-cheek rap -- “The Swagger Wagon”  sung by an unhip, white, yuppie, suburban couple, with their two kids jammin' to the beat, next to a Sienna minivan.

"We rock the SE not the SUV, and it's true if I were you I'd be jealous of me, in the swagger wagon, yeah, the swagger wagon, I got the pride in my ride in the swagger wagon...."

Chrysler invented the minivan 27 years ago.  But after being wildly popular for years, the segment has lost customers, first to SUVS, then to crossovers. 

The people who design minivans are the first to admit they’re fighting an image problem.  And they’re doing something about it.  Chrysler has an optional all-black leather interior it nicknamed the “Man Van. “  All four of the biggest players – Honda, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan – got minivan makeovers this year.  There’s more sculpting, more chrome, more creased sheet metal.  Even jaunty little fins.  Sage Marie is with Honda.    

"If you think of what makes a sports car compelling, it’s that its low and wide, that's what makes it emotionally exciting.  So from a styling standpoint we tried to do that with the Odyssey."

In your FACE, sports car owners.  And cue another tongue-in-cheek song about minivans, this time a Beach Boys-style parody by the Austin Lounge Lizards.

"Hey, little minivan, we're going to the grocery store!/She's got an automatic tranny with overdrive and the radio's tuned to Magic 95/ She gets 30 miles on a gallon of gas and  I can schlep all the girls to gymnastics class/Hey little minivan, we're goin' to the children's museum!"

Well, upping the cool factor may help.  But people really buy minivans for comfort,  convenience, and practicality.  The sliding doors, all that space.  And the seats. 

Minivan designers take fierce pride in their seating configurations.   Honda’s Odyssey has a second row middle seat you can slide really close to the front seat.  That puts the baby within arm’s reach of a parent.  For Chrysler, the bragging point is “Stow and Go seats,”  which, in a matter of a few seconds, can be neatly folded and pushed into a compartment in the floor.

Fold all the seats down and there’s enough room for a refrigerator or two.   But one company thinks some customers could be willing to downsize a little, especially as gas hovers around $4.00 a gallon.  Ford Motor Company’s new small people-mover, the C-Max, will seat seven.  It will have sliding doors.  But Ford’s Paul Anderson says it will get car-like fuel economy.  Just don’t call it a minivan.

Public school teachers protesting in Lansing on February 26th, 2011.
mea.org

Governor Rick Snyder says he hopes teachers won’t authorize their union to call a statewide strike in response to his budget plans.

The Michigan Education Association is in the process of collecting answers to a member inquiry.

The MEA is querying its 155,000 members and 1,100 local bargaining units.

Union members are mad over Michigan’s new emergency manager law that could threaten collective bargaining agreements in financially troubled school districts. And many of them oppose Governor Snyder’s proposed big cuts to K-through-12 education and requiring teachers to pay more for their pensions and health coverage.

The governor says he’s confident the controversies will not spill over to classrooms.

"We have fabulous teachers in our state and I have confidence that the teachers in our state understand, and really appreciate – because they’re doing it for a living – that the most important thing in front of them is the students they’re teaching, and I don’t think they’ll look at using their students as a pawn in a broader game," said Snyder.

It is illegal for teachers and other public employees to strike in Michigan, but the MEA says cuts in school funding and rollbacks in collecting bargaining rights may demand drastic actions.

They've asked its bargaining units to authorize job actions that could include picketing or walkouts.

They expect to have all responses in hand by mid-April.

Liz West / Flickr

Governor Snyder says he expects consumers will benefit from lower prices and better service now that retailers do not have to assign workers to put price tags on almost every item on sale.

The governor signed a law today that repeals the requirement.

Michigan was the only state in the country to have such a sweeping price-tag law.

The new law requires retailers to prominently display prices near items on sale.

Governor Snyder says he does not expect consumers will be inconvenienced:

"And I always like to ask the question: When people went out of state, when we went on vacation, or people went out of state and went into a grocery store, I don’t know many of us who as we purchased these goods, we stopped in the aisle and yelled we were outraged because there wasn’t a sticker on them," Snyder said.

 Mark Murray, the president of the Meijer retail chain, says his stores do not expect to lay off people because of the new law.

He says the new law will allow his stores to compete with shopping clubs that were not covered by the item-pricing requirement, and retailers in neighboring states.

"They don’t have to item price. This is a competitive leveling of the playing field, and we believe we can take advantage of it to grow sales in every store and have that, in turn – hours are related to how much we sell," said Murray.

But retail employee unions say they fear there will be layoffs.

Item-pricing was popular with much of the public. The law just signed by Snyder has a provision that makes sure the new law cannot be reversed by a citizen referendum.

Republican state senator Rick Jones says many schools may soon demand that teachers pay at least 20-percent of their health insurance premiums. 

Jones has introduced a bill that would keep a school’s per-pupil funding intact, if teachers agree to the cuts. 

But he says teachers shouldn't be the only one making the sacrifice.

"I learned that senators and representatives pay anywhere from 5% to 7.6%, and I thought, how is that fair that we’re paying that and teachers are being asked to pay 20%?"

Jones says his new bill would require state legislators to pay 20% of their health insurance premiums. 

He has also introduced a bill to alter the lifetime health insurance that legislators receive after serving only six years, calling it “obscene.”

The bill would phase in the benefit, beginning at ten years of service.

Dow Chemical admitted this week that the company accidently paid more than $700,000  worth of the company’s CEO’s personal expenses. 

Midland-based Dow Chemical explained in a filing with federal regulators that ‘shortcomings’ in the company’s record keeping led to the company paying $719,000 in bills that CEO Andrew Liveris should have paid himself. The filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission does not detail the expenses inadvertently charged to the company.  

 Liveris took home more than $21 million in compensation last year. A spokesman says he wrote a personal check to reimburse the company.  

 Liveris has been Dow’s CEO since 2004. He’s been the chairman of the board since 2006.

Khalilshah / Flickr

On Monday, Governor Snyder signed into law a bill that would extend unemployment benefits by 20 weeks to some 35,000 Michiganders. However, the bill also cuts six-weeks of state unemployment benefits for new filers beginning next year. The measure reduces jobless benefits in the state from 26 weeks to 20 weeks as of 2012. That reduction means, beginning next year, Michigan will provide the shortest number of weeks of unemployment out of any state in the nation.

Snyder’s signing of the bill has gained the state quite a bit of national attention.

From The New York Times:

Democrats and advocates for the unemployed expressed outrage that such a hard-hit state will become the most miserly when it comes to how long it pays benefits to those who have lost their jobs. All states currently pay 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, before extended benefits paid by the federal government kick in. Michigan’s new law means that starting next year, when the federal benefits are now set to end, the state will stop paying benefits to the jobless after just 20 weeks. The shape of future extensions is unclear.

The measure, passed by a Republican-led Legislature, took advocates for the unemployed by surprise: the language cutting benefits next year was slipped quietly into a bill that was originally sold as way to preserve unemployment benefits this year.

From NPR’s political blog:

Few states were hit harder by the Great Recession and unemployment than Michigan, a state that faced profound economic challenges, including relatively high unemployment, even before the national downtown.

So it could strike some as ironic that Michigan, of all places, just enacted into law a reduction of the number of weeks it will pay unemployment insurance to 20 weeks from 26 weeks starting next year.

The reduction will make Michigan the state that provides jobless benefits for the shortest number of weeks. And that's in a state whose jobless rate was 11.3 percent in February compared with the 9.5 percent national rate….

Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who took office this year, and GOP legislators said the reduction was necessary because the state's unemployment insurance fund is $4 billion in the hole as a result of its economic woes. Michigan borrowed from the federal government to keep the program afloat.

Since employers contribute to the state's jobless fund and were facing higher taxes to repay the federal loan, they supported the benefits reduction.

And, in a story picked up by USA Today, Chris Christoff with the Detroit Free Press, takes a hard look at the fact that Michigan owes, "the federal government about $3.96 billion that the state borrowed to pay unemployment benefits during the worst economy since the Great Depression. That's on top of the regular unemployment tax businesses and other employers must pay."

Snyder's signing of the bill also led some to speculate on whether or not other states would follow Michigan's lead in shortening benefits. An article in Examiner.com asks,"Will Ohio follow Michigan lead on reducing unemployment benefits?" And, in an article last week, the Washington Post noted:

This month, the Florida House approved a measure reducing the maximum benefit period from 26 to as little as 12 weeks while curbing increases in unemployment taxes paid by employers. The jobless rate in Florida is 11.9 percent.

“We are sending a message to the business community that Florida is quickly becoming the most business-friendly state in the country,” said state Rep. Doug Holder (R-Sarasota), the sponsor of the Florida bill.

It would go into effect Aug. 1.

In Arkansas, lawmakers are moving toward freezing unemployment benefits levels while trimming the maximum benefit period for state benefits from 26 to 25 weeks.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

The next director of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department might earn a quarter million dollars a year. The Detroit city council voted to increase the job’s salary cap today by nearly  $100 thousand. Councilwoman Sauntell Jenkins  says the pay hike is needed to attract the ‘best and brightest’ candidates to fill the vacant position. 

“So if we want to move forward and doing things right, we have to be willing to do what it takes to attract that talent.  Because we’re in competition with other municipalities.”

Councilwoman JoAnn Watson voted against the salary cap increase.   Watson says,  since the council just approved a 9%  water fee increase, now is not the time to approve a pay hike for the head of the water department.

 “It’s unconscionable to be paying the director of the water department a quarter of a million dollars when citizens can’t afford to pay their basic water bills."

Detroit's mayor and the heads of three neighboring counties recently reached a deal two revamp oversight of the department which serves the needs of 4 million people living in southeast Michigan.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Flint faces serious budget problems. The city is struggling to absorb a nearly $20 million budget deficit. The state recently approved the city’s plan to sell $8 million in bonds to reduce its debt. The city has also laid off a hundred  workers this fiscal year.  

This evening, the city is expected to take another, though much smaller step to reduce spending.  

Flint’s Local Officers Compensation Committee meets tonight to decide whether to impose a ten percent pay cut for the mayor and city council. The cut would translate into about a ten thousand dollar cut in pay to the mayor and a few thousand dollars each for Flint’s 9 city council members.

Jeffrey Simms Photography / Flickr

Michigan Senator Carl Levin (D), along with Arizona Senator John McCain (R), made opening statements this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Posture of U.S. European Command and U.S. Strategic Command. In his statement, Levin, the Chairman of the Committee, said President Obama was right to use U.S. military force in Libya.

The Senate hearing comes a day after Obama addressed the nation about the role the U.S. was playing in Libya. As the Associated Press reports:

Levin said Obama has taken a thoughtful and deliberate approach to avert a bloodbath in Libya. McCain, Obama's 2008 rival for president, said Obama's decision to intervene was right and necessary.

You can read Senator Levin's full remarks here.

A lot of people are uneasy about Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal to cut aid to education at all levels in order to balance the budget and give business a huge tax break. Even some of those in favor of cutting business taxes have problems with this.

They reason that no matter what happens, there aren’t going to be any jobs in the future for unskilled, undereducated workers -- and certainly not any good-paying ones. Our young adults are undereducated as it is, and cutting education won’t help.

So yesterday, we were alerted that the Michigan Senate Democrats were going to offer an alternate proposal. I was very interested to see what it would be. And frankly, I was hoping it would be an alternative I could support.

That’s because I am convinced that better education and training, more than anything else, is the key to Michigan’s future.

Well, I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the Democrats -- or in Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a charismatic and intelligent figure who may be their best hope for the future.

The minority leader called for a state constitutional amendment that would prevent the governor from taking money out of the school aid fund in the future.  In practical terms, this is the equivalent of my calling for an amendment requiring it to be seventy degrees so I don’t freeze when I walk the dog in the morning. 

First of all, this does nothing to address this year’s problems. Even if the legislature thought this was a good idea, they’d have to agree to put it on a statewide ballot so people could vote on it.

That wouldn’t happen until long after this budget has been passed. But the legislature isn’t going to do any such thing. Republicans control both chambers. Democrats are especially weak in the Senate, where Gretchen Whitmer’s party has less than a third of the seats, and by themselves are powerless to do anything.

That’s not the worst part of her proposal, however. When she presented it to the media yesterday, she was asked this sensible question: If her proposal became law, how would Democrats then propose to fill the resulting deficit hole in the general fund?

The Senate minority leader refused to offer an answer -- other than to say the tax code should be “re-examined.”

This is precisely what has been wrong with Michigan government for the past decade, and what got the Democrats tossed out of office last fall. This is also why Governor Snyder’s plan is likely to be enacted. The governor has made a comprehensive proposal for changing the way things are done.

His numbers add up.

Vistavision / Flickr

All the unclaimed deposits from Michigan cans and bottles really add up. The state gets about $12 million a year out of it.

A small amount of this money goes back to the retailers who sell the containers. But most of it is used for cleaning up old industrial land or toxic waste. The state also uses the money to finish the clean-up of federal Superfund sites.

With budget cuts, money for pollution clean-up is harder to come by. Anastasia Lundy is with the Department of Environmental Quality. She says her department used to rely on Michigan’s general fund.

"Well the programs that are funding environmental clean-up no longer receive any general fund whatsoever, so this has increased our reliance on these bottle bill funds to try to keep the programs meeting the most critical needs."

The state wants as much money in the clean-up fund as possible. They’re worried they are losing money to people they call smugglers. These are people bringing cans into Michigan from other states for deposit money.

This might sound like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer and Neuman drive cans and bottles into Michigan. But the state is getting serious about cutting down on bottle deposit fraud. So, they want bottle manufacturers to put a special mark on containers sold in Michigan. Bottle return machines would then only take containers with the mark-Michigan containers.

The state changed the bottle bill to require manufactures to add the mark, and the manufacturers are now suing the state over the changes to the bill.

The American Beverage Association is bringing the suit. They didn’t return calls for comment on this story. But, they’ve told other media outlets that making special cans and bottles for Michigan will be expensive and they don’t want to do it.

Retailers are siding with the state in the suit. Mike Lashbrook is the President of the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesaler Association.

"Well, you know, this issue, the fact that there is this smuggling that’s been going on, it’s not a joke like the Seinfeld episode. It is a major problem.

He says retailers are also worried about losing money to bottle smugglers.

The state has already put a little over a million dollars into upgrading the bottle machines to read the special mark. If the Beverage Association wins their case the state will lose this money.

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