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Auto/Economy
2:53 pm
Wed February 9, 2011

Big checks coming to GM workers

GM's Headquarters in downtown Detroit. GM's Akerson says he "wants compensation for hourly workers to more closely mirror that of white-collar employees and executives." - Wall Street Journal
Rich Evenhouse creative commons

Profit-sharing checks to GM's 45,000 workers are expected to break a record. The news comes as GM is tallying its profit numbers for 2010. The company will release the amount of the checks soon.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

General Motors Co. is planning to pay its hourly workers in the U.S. at least $3,000 each in profit-sharing payouts, the largest amount ever, after the company's return to profitability in 2010, people familiar with the matter said...The auto maker is trying to tow the line between fiscal prudence and expectations that it will share recent gains with workers as the company heads into labor negotiations with the United Auto Workers.

Other U.S. automakers are also sharing the wealth.

Ford Motor Company paid hourly workers more than $5,000, "more than the company was required to pay under the profit-sharing formula in its contract with the UAW," according to the Wall Street Journal.

And Chrysler gave their workers $750 despite the company's losses in 2010.

The Detroit Free Press reports that the checks are expected to be handed out in the months ahead, and the size of the checks could help the automaker in its negotiation with the United Auto Workers union. From the Freep:

The Detroit Three, which will negotiate new labor contracts with the UAW this year, may be giving higher-than-required payments to autoworkers as part of a strategy to convince the rank and file to keep labor costs flat in return for bigger profit sharing in the future, labor experts previously told the Free Press.

Arts/Culture
2:04 pm
Wed February 9, 2011

Kalamazoo artists vie for big-time competition

The winner of KIA's competition will have their work featured on billboards throughout the county for up to a year.
thingstado.com

You could call it drive-by artistry.

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is holding a billboard contest for artists who live in Kalamazoo County.

Farrell Howe is with the KIA.  She says artists must submit a one-page biography and five images of their work to enter the competition.

"Winners will then be awarded the ability to have their artwork featured on a billboard for one year," Howe says. "Basically what's great about that is it doesn't stay in one spot. The billboards will be rotating across 850 sites inWest Michigan."

Read more
Economy
12:48 pm
Wed February 9, 2011

Grand Rapids officials take pay cuts, hope unions will follow

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell says the city's financial future depends on employee concessions in pay and benefits.
Steven Depolo Flickr

Appointed officials in Grand Rapids agreed to scale back the wage increases they recently received.

In a press release, the City officials said they were "responding to Governor Rick Snyder's call for realigning public employee compensation."

City Manager Gregory Sundstrom, City Attorney Catherine Mish, and City Treasurer Lauri Parks said they will return to their salary levels that were in effect in 2009.

City Treasurer Albert Mooney agreed to return 2% of his salary increase.

The Grand Rapids Press reports that if their request is granted:

Sundstrom's pay will fall back to $142,000; Mish's pay will return to $114,092; Parks' pay will go back to $93.731; and Mooney's pay will fall to $108,755.

The officials said in 2010, "appointed officials again led by example, voluntarily accepting an additional 10% reduction in overall compensation." This included turning down a 2.5% pay increase that was scheduled to take effect on June 30, 2010.

The Grand Rapids officials say the the 2.5% pay increase was "received, and is still being enjoyed today,  by all of the City's unionized workforce."

The city is in the middle of re-negotiating it's collective contracts with the City's unionized workforce. And the negotiations are "difficult" as Mayor George Hearwell said in his State of the City address last Saturday.

As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reported, Heartwell said:

The city’s financial future depends on city employees taking further concessions in pay and benefits.

"There’s no doubt in my mind that unless we tackle this problem today, we cannot be sustainable over the long term," says Heartwell.

The vast majority of the city's workforce in Grand Rapids is unionized.

I called up City Attorney Catherine Mish, one of the officials taking the pay cuts. I asked her whether she and the others are sending a signal to the city's unionized employees:

"I would have to say 'yes.' We're hoping the unions agree to similar concessions."

Mish said the unions are under current contracts that run from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2013.

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Commentary
11:41 am
Wed February 9, 2011

State of Desperation

Earlier this week Wayne State University’s Alumni Association invited me and Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, to have a frank discussion with their members.

The theme was “Michigan at a Crossroads,” a look at the challenges facing our state today. I think some people expected a bitter debate. After all, Finley runs an opinion section which is profoundly conservative. My reputation is that of some sort of moderate liberal, though I prefer to think of myself as a common sense pragmatist with a bias towards things that work.

But people expected a verbal slugfest, they were disappointed. Oh, Nolan and I have our differences. I think a graduated income tax would be a good idea; he doesn’t, and I‘d be comfortable with a higher level of taxation, if the revenue were to be used for the right things, like education, roads and bridges.

Fifteen years ago, our views probably would have been far further apart. But now, Finley and I were virtually united in recognizing that the first thing we all must do is understand how big our predicament is. Michigan is engaged in a race to the bottom, in more categories than anyone would care to count.

We’ve gone from being a relatively rich state to a poor one.

Still, we have to somehow get competitive for the jobs and growth industries of the future. And that’s hard to do when we have crumbling roads and bridges and crippling deficits.

That’s even harder to do when school systems are failing, and when cities fail to meet their obligations and slip into emergency financial manager status, the equivalent, in the political world, of bankruptcy and receivership. Treasurer Andy Dillon said recently that five communities soon won’t be able to pay their employees.

This may be only the tip of the iceberg, and speaking of icebergs, there are other monstrous ones ahead. We both agreed that one of the most uncovered stories in this state is the fact that state pension funds have a staggering $15.5 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities.

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Education
11:17 am
Wed February 9, 2011

Financial Manager of Detroit schools to speak at Capitol

Detroit Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb will appear at the state Capitol today
Sarah Hulett Michigan Radio

Update 11:15 a.m.:

Robert Bobb, the financial manager of Detroit Public Schools, has asked state lawmakers to borrow funds for the school district. The Associated Press reports:

Bobb said Wednesday during an appearance before a joint session of the state Senate and House education committees that draft legislation for his plan would be submitted within about a week.

The plan would include the state helping to guarantee the school district won't go into bankruptcy. Bobb said the district does not plan to file for bankruptcy.

Bobb said the plan would not cost the state "one dime."

Bobb said the district plans to borrow more than $200 million in March. He wants his legislation approved by April 1.

6:35 a.m.:

Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Public Schools, will testify today at the state Capitol. He'll appear before a joint session of the state Senate and House education committees.

The Associated Press reports:

He's expected to talk about the district's turnaround plan including finances and academics. Bobb was appointed as the Detroit district's emergency financial manager by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm in early 2009. Bobb has feuded with the elected school board over control of the district.

Auto/Economy
9:54 am
Wed February 9, 2011

Toyota's electronics exonerated in unintended acceleration claims

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks about the government's investigation into whether electronic systems could have caused unintended acceleration in Toyotas
NHTSA

"The jury is back, the verdict is in."

That’s how Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that faulty electronics played no role in cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars.  It’s unequivocal good news for a company attempting to rebuild its reputation.

Last year, Toyota recalled millions of its cars for gas pedal defects that could cause unintended acceleration.

Those recalls shook the company’s reputation for safety like an earthquake.

Dean Stewart is Service Manager for Victory Toyota in Canton, Michigan. The dealership's huge - and nearly empty - service garage, has only one car on a lift that was brought in under a recall.  But last year at this time, the place was bustling:

"I mean we were open 7 days a week, we had two shifts, we were working 90 hours a week just to make sure we could take care of our customers," says Stewart.

Read more
News Roundup
9:22 am
Wed February 9, 2011

In this morning's news...

Nicolae Gerasim Flickr

Government Releases Report on Toyota

A government investigation into safety problems with Toyota vehicles found there were no electronic flaws that would account for sudden, unintentional acceleration. As the Associated Press reports:

Transportation officials and engineers with NASA say two mechanical safety defects previously identified by the government - sticking accelerator pedals and gas pedals that can become trapped in floor mats - are the only known causes for the reports of runaway Toyotas. Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles globally since fall 2009 for a series of safety issues.

Bill to Eliminate EITC Introduced

A bill that would eliminate a tax credit for low-income workers in Michigan has been introduced in the state Senate. Republican state Senator Roger Kahn introduced the measure yesterday that would end the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. Many Republicans in the state House support eliminating the tax credit. Opponents say an elimination of the credit would be the same as a tax increase on the state’s working poor.

Bobb to Testify at Capitol

Robert Bobb, the Detroit Public Schools financial manager, will in Lansing today. Bobb will testify before a joint session of the state House and Senate education committees. It’s expected he’ll talk about the districts educational and financial turnaround plans. Bobb has been the financial manager of the district since 2009.

Count Day

Today is ‘Count Day’ for public school districts across the state. Count days are important to every school district’s bottom line because the total number of students on the days helps determine how much state money the district gets year-round, Lindsay Smith reports.

State Legislature
7:38 am
Wed February 9, 2011

Bill to end low-income tax credit introduced in state Senate

Inside the Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Cedar Bend Drive Flickr

Republican state Senator Roger Kahn introduced a bill yesterday that would eliminate the state's Earned Income Tax Credit. The tax credit currently goes to low-income working people in Michigan. The Associated Press reports:

He (Kahn) says the credit is expected to cost the state roughly $370 million in the upcoming fiscal year and the state can't afford it. Many House Republicans also support eliminating the tax credit. The tax credit is staunchly defended by groups including the Michigan League for Human Services and the Michigan Catholic

Conference. They say eliminating the credit would be the equivalent of a tax increase on the working poor.

The state faces a projected $1.8 billion shortfall for the fiscal year that begins October 1st.

Read more
Education
9:41 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

It’s ‘count day’ for public school districts across the state

Tulane Public Relations Creative Commons

In Michigan there are two count days each year; one in September and one in February. Count days are important to every school district’s bottom line because the total number of students on those two days helps determine how much state money the district gets year-round.

The count day in September carries more weight in determining funding than today does. September's count day makes up 75% of a district's total enrollment and the count day in February 25%. But school leaders are still notifying parents of the extra importance today holds.

John Helmholdt is with Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“Parents need to do everything they can to ensure children are in school every day, it just so happens that there’s two days a year where our state funding is based on the total count of students on that day.”

Helmholdt notes students with an excused or unexcused absence can still be counted.

Helmholdt says the district treats count day sort of like a campaign; blanketing the community with fliers and making robo-calls beforehand and hosting fun events in school today.

Politics
8:49 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Changes to state parole board may save money

Paroling more prisoners over the past few years has resulted in savings
Simone Ramella flickr

It is too early to tell if Governor Rick Snyder’s executive order to move the job of paroling prisoners from Governor’s appointees back to the Department of Corrections will save money. The order also reduces the number of Parole Board members from 15 down to 10. All prisoners who want to be released before their sentence is up needs a decision from the parole board.

The move will save the state some money on some salaries, but the real savings will only happen if the new Board can continue to parole prisoners as fast or even faster than the old board. 

Matthew Grabowski is with the Michigan State Senate Fiscal Agency.

Michigan spends a little over $35,000 a year to house your typical inmate. It’s usually less expensive to supervise an individual in the community, whether it’s through traditional parole or whether we use some kind of electronic monitoring like a GPS tether. Those ranges are from maybe, say as little as $2,000 a year, up to around $10,000.

Grabowski also said more details are needed before it's known if the executive order may signal more changes to the Parole Board.  

It’s quite possible the parole board could change the way it approaches the parole process entirely. So it’s difficult to forecast sort of what the fiscal impact will be until the Governor and Director of the Department of Corrections sort of lay out a process for how the new parole board will operate. 

Parole approval rates for every class of criminal offender have gone up since 2008.

Weather
5:29 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Cold creeps into the region

Cold air is sweeping across the country.
NOAA

It's winter... It's cold... And it's getting colder.

The National Weather Service says cold air is sweeping down onto the lower 48:

A frigid arctic air mass will continue to surge southward east of the Rockies today and Wednesday as a strong frontal system pushes southward through Texas and northern Mexico. As a result, high temperatures across the southern plains will be almost 40 degrees below normal on Wednesday and up to 30 degrees below normal on Thursday.

It looks like the frigid temperatures will be here until Friday when we'll see temperatures in the 20s again.

Here's the forecast for southeast Michigan from the National Weather Service:

Tonight: Scattered flurries before 7pm. Partly cloudy, with a low around 2. Wind chill values as low as -14. West wind between 13 and 15 mph, with gusts as high as 18 mph.

Wednesday: A chance of flurries after 2pm. Mostly sunny, with a high near 14. Wind chill values as low as -15. West wind between 15 and 18 mph, with gusts as high as 25 mph.

Wednesday Night: Partly cloudy, with a low around 0. Wind chill values as low as -11. West wind between 8 and 13 mph, with gusts as high as 18 mph.

Thursday: Mostly sunny, with a high near 14. Wind chill values as low as -13. West southwest wind between 9 and 14 mph, with gusts as high as 18 mph.

Thursday Night: Partly cloudy, with a low around 2. West southwest wind between 9 and 15 mph.

 

And the forecast for West Michigan:

Tonight: A 40 percent chance of snow showers. Partly cloudy, with a low around 7. Wind chill values as low as -8. West wind between 13 and 18 mph, with gusts as high as 26 mph.

Wednesday: A 50 percent chance of snow showers. Partly sunny, with a high near 16. Wind chill values as low as -8. Breezy, with a west wind between 14 and 20 mph, with gusts as high as 29 mph.

Wednesday Night: A 50 percent chance of snow showers. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 6. Wind chill values as low as -8. West northwest wind between 7 and 16 mph, with gusts as high as 24 mph.

Thursday: A 40 percent chance of snow showers. Partly sunny, with a high near 16. Wind chill values as low as -9. West southwest wind between 10 and 16 mph, with gusts as high as 24 mph.

Thursday Night: A 40 percent chance of snow showers. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 9. Southwest wind between 10 and 15 mph, with gusts as high as 23 mph.

Education
5:01 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

State Board of Ed votes to raise 'cut off' scores on MEAP test

Michigan students will have to do better on state tests in order to be considered 'proficient'
Jennifer Guerra Michigan Radio

The state Board of Education voted in favor of raising the “cut scores” or cut off scores for what’s considered "proficient" on the state’s standardized MEAP test.

Susan Dynarski is an education professor at the University of Michigan:

"The cut score that the state has defined as indicating proficiency in math is currently set such that 95% of third graders are above that score. By moving up that score, 34 percent of third graders will be defined as proficient."

Dynarski says the new scores will give parents and schools a more accurate representation of how well students are doing and what areas need improvement:  

"The idea of the cut scores is to provide a signal about what proficiency is and what you should be aiming for, and if you set the bar at a higher level, the idea would be then that they’d be aiming for that higher level."

The new cut scores, which are still to be determined, will go into effect for the 2011-12 school year.

Read more
Health
4:55 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Michelle Obama to Flint: "Let's Move!"

First Lady Michelle Obama
(official White House portrait)

Flint is planning a major, new community wide effort to encourage fitness as it joins Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" anti-obesity campaign.  Flint is the 500th local community to join the First Lady’s youth fitness campaign which marks its first anniversary tomorrow.  

Mrs. Obama welcomed Flint to her campaign during a conference call with local officials today. 

 “This is a generational problem.  We have to keep driving this issue.  We will do it here at the national level.  But the real work happens on the ground where you are.”

Flint is partnering with the Crim Fitness Foundation to get people to make personal fitness commitments. A kick-off is planned for April. Flint also plans to expand nutrition-related education programs in its schools.

Transportation
3:09 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Lane closures on Zilwaukee bridge

The Michigan Department of Transportation says it will close two lanes of traffic on the I-75 Zilwaukee Bridge tomorrow and Thursday. From MDOT:

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will close the two left lanes in both directions of I-75 on the Zilwaukee Bridge in Saginaw County. These double-lane closures will be in effect 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. daily on Wednesday, Feb. 9, and Thursday, Feb. 10.

The closures are necessary to accommodate survey work on I-75.

Two lanes (ramp and drive) will remain open on northbound lanes on Wednesday, and on southbound lanes on Thursday.

Crews will close the two left lanes on both days.

Auto/Economy
1:56 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Government: No electronic throttle problems in runaway Toyotas

Some safety advocates thought software problems could have led to sudden acceleration problems in Toyotas.
Rebecca Bolwitt Flickr

After a ten-month investigation, the results are in.

From the Associated Press:

A government investigation into Toyota safety problems has found no electronic flaws to account for reports of sudden, unintentional acceleration. Transportation officials and engineers with NASA say two mechanical safety defects previously identified by the government - sticking accelerator pedals and gas pedals that can become trapped in floor mats - are the only known causes for the reports of runaway Toyotas. Both issues were the subject of large recalls by Toyota.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the department's 10-month study has concluded there is no electronic-based cause of unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.

Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles globally since fall 2009 for a series of safety issues. The company has denied that electronics are to blame.

Agriculture
12:12 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Michigan Farmers to learn about labor laws

Migrant farmworkers live and work on Michgan farms during the harvest
Craig Camp flickr

Sarah Alvarez-Michigan Radio Newsroom

The Michigan Farm Bureau is starting a six month series to educate farmers about laws that apply to migrant workers and youth labor. Michigan’s agriculture industry is dependent on migrant labor. The industry is still dealing with the effect of a harsh report on worker conditions by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

Hannah Stevens is with Michigan State University Extension, one of the sponsors of the series.

In agriculture it’s complicated because there immigration issues there’s housing issue, you know, so many regulatory agencies that look closely at management of labor.  I think particularly it’s a sensitive topic.

Stevens says that pressure to comply with labor laws is also coming from retailers.

The retail stores, Meijer’s and Walmart’s and all these, are beginning to demand that there’s certain responsibility that growers have in terms of managing their workforce. They may reject Michigan produce if they don’t feel that’s being handled correctly. That may put growers in a very awkward position.

The farm bureau expects only about 25% of growers in the state will attend their seminars. The seminars will run from February to July.

Economy
12:04 pm
Tue February 8, 2011

Pure Michigan takes step to getting $10 million dollars more from state

The Lake Michigan shoreline at Frankfort, Michigan
Steve Carmody Michigan Radio

A State House committee this morning approved $10 million to for the Pure Michigan tourism advertising campaign. The full House is expected to vote on the funding this week, and the Senate next week.

The measure may hit the governor’s desk before the end of the month. 

George Zimmerman is a vice president with Travel Michigan.  He says the money is needed as soon as possible.

 "The funding for the national cable TV buy has already been provided up to this point.   But we don’t really have the funding yet for the regional Spring/Summer buys, in key out of state markets like Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus etc."

The Pure Michigan campaign is expected to be fully funded at $25 million this year with a mix of public and private money.  The Pure Michigan advertising campaign is credited with boosting the state’s tourism industry, but state budget cuts threatened to keep the campaign off the air.

Environment
11:42 am
Tue February 8, 2011

National bike routes for Michigan

Organizers are making progress on designating two national bicycle routes through Michigan.  As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith found out, they're hoping the routes will attract tourists to the state.

A group of avid cyclists is working to designate bike routes sort of like the U.S. Department of Transportation designates interstate freeway systems. You can ride on two of these routes in Michigan already – they travel mostly along county roads.

  • Number 20 is an east-west route from Ludington to Marine City.
  • Number 35 is a north-south route that stretches for hundreds of miles along the Lake Michigan shore.

Kerry Irons is with Adventure Cycling, the non-profit that’s spearheading the effort.

“Nothing moves by at a high speed. You don’t have to get off and stare at the lake, you know, get out of the car and stare at the lake, the lake is there for 400 miles. That’s the essence of bicycle touring and the driver behind this national network which is going to be a couple hundred thousand miles of established bicycle routes by the time it’s all done.”

Read more
Arts/Culture
11:36 am
Tue February 8, 2011

Artpod: Cost of Creativity, part 2

The Cost of Creativity looks at arts and the economy in Michigan.
Dani Davis

We put together our stories about arts and the economy in the state to create an hour-long documentary called The Cost of Creativity. On today's podcast, we'll hear the second installment of the doc.

And because Artpod is about all things Michigan, all the music you'll hear on The Cost of Creativity is by Michigan artists. The musicians featured on today's podcast Luke Winslow-King and The Red Sea Pedestrian.

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Commentary
11:29 am
Tue February 8, 2011

Save the Children

We could argue endlessly over who is responsible for the state of Michigan’s economy. Some people blame globalization. Others, the short-sightedness of the domestic automakers. Some say, Jennifer Granholm‘s failure to lead.

Some say it was the callous selfishness of the Republican Party, and on and on. But one thing is clear: today’s toddlers aren’t to blame. Neither is any child. They didn’t make the policies or the mistakes. But they are suffering as a result of them.

That’s not only unfair to them, but sabotages all of our futures, and that of Michigan. If we live long enough, our destinies will all be in the hands of people much younger than us. And right now, we aren’t serving them well. Certainly not well enough.

That’s the clear message emerging from a document released today, The Kids Count Data Book. This is an annual, joint project of two non-partisan, non-profit institutions, the century-old Michigan League for Human Services, and the newer Michigan’s Children.

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