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Politics
4:39 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

MEA plans rally in Lansing as Senate considers financial manager bills

A protester at Saturday's MEA-sponsored rally in Lansing
Michigan Education Association

The Michigan Education Association, along with the Working Michigan coalition, is planning a protest rally in the capitol tomorrow. From the MEA's website:

"Working Michigan, a coalition of organizations dedicated to protecting working families and Michigan’s Middle Class Dream, will be holding a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday, March 8, to protest the package of "Emergency Financial Manager" bill that is currently in the state Senate."

According to the Detroit News, the state Senate may vote on Tuesday to bestow broad powers to emergency financial managers including the ability "to toss out union contracts and suspend elected officials in communities and school districts that are operating at a deficit."

The MEA is protesting what it calls a series of "attacks on Michigan workers."

Economy
4:24 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

US Postal Service may close Flint mail facility, among others

113 jobs could be affected if USPS consolidates Flint mail center into Pontiac
Carlota Soc creative commons

A mail processing center in Flint may be slated for closure next month. The United States Postal Service may move the city’s mail sorting and processing to Pontiac.

Shannon LaBruyere is with the U.S. Postal Service. She says if the closure goes through, 113 jobs will be affected; half would be relocated to Pontiac, half would be offered other positions likely outside of Michigan.

"They will be the people who bear the brunt of the change. Our customers, from our preliminary assessments, won’t see any change in the service they receive."

USPS will hold a public meeting to discuss the possible Flint closure on March 23 at the city's Holiday Inn Gateway Centre.

The Postal Service lost $8.5 billion last fiscal year and plans to close 2,000 post offices nationwide this year. LaBruyere says USPS would save "$6.5 million dollars per year" by moving Flint operations to the Michigan Metroplex in Pontiac. 

A Washington Post article in February says President Obama's 2012 budget recommends about $11 billion in relief to help stem losses at the Postal Service:

The losses stem in part from hefty personnel costs not borne by other federal agencies. One is a requirement, imposed by a 2006 law, that it set aside money each year to cover the costs of future health benefits for its retired workers.

In the Obama administration's first substantive attempt to address the Postal Service's fiscal woes, the budget would allow the agency to pay $4 billion less toward future retiree health benefits than otherwise required. The mail agency would have to pay about $1.5 billion of those costs in fiscal 2012 and make up the difference in later years.

The budget proposal also adjusts the size of the annual payments by taking into account the size of the workforce, which has shrunk to about 583,000 full-time employees since the law passed in 2006.

Auto
3:22 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

Do high gas prices mean high times ahead for high mileage cars?

Ford Focus
(Ford Motor Company)

Rising gasoline prices are apparently spurring interest among car buyers in smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. Gas prices in Michigan are hovering around $3.50 a gallon. In California, the average price for a gallon of gas is nearly $4. 

George Peterson is the president of Auto-Pacific, an automotive marketing research firm. He says gas prices are helping boost interest in small cars. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest, especially with the new small cars on the road that are very, very good.  The Hyundai Elantra, the Ford Focus, the Chevrolet Volt, the Chevrolet Cruze, the upcoming Honda Civic.  All of those are very fuel efficient.  Very good small cars.”  

Still, Peterson says  SUVs remain the leading segment in the auto sales market.

“The largest segment of vehicles still selling is Sport Utility Vehicle.  Now most of those are cross-over SUVs.  So they’re much more fuel efficient than the old gas hog SUVs that we had before.   If you think about sales, SUVs are king, followed by small cars, followed by mid-sized cars.”   

Peterson says the last time gas prices spiked over $4 a gallon, many drivers traded in gas guzzling SUV’s for smaller, more fuel efficient cars. But, he says many of those drivers expressed buyers’ remorse, after missing their larger, more powerful rides.

Environment
3:04 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

Enbridge set to begin next phase of oil spill clean up

Crews monitor the air near the site of the oil spill
EPA Region 5

It’s been 8 months since a broken pipeline spewed more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil near Marshall.

Wintry weather reduced the size of the cleanup response. But now, the next phase of the cleanup is about to begin. 

Becky Haase is an Enbridge Energy spokeswoman. She says about 200 cleanup workers have spent the past few months digging up oil-soaked soil from contaminated wetlands. Now that’s its getting warmer, Haase says oil may once again become visible along the Kalamazoo River. 

“It’s definitely possible that some sheen will be visible to folks…especially those who live along the river." 

Enbridge will focus this Spring on removing oil still resting on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. Haase  says work crews will begin cleaning oil soaked islands in the Kalamazoo River this month “and remove that soil and replace it with new, fresh soil. The restoration effort will follow that.”

Legal
2:54 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

Is there a difference between a 'highway' and a 'forest trail'? The Michigan Supreme Court will decide

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case where a woman wants to sue the state for injuries she suffered while riding on a state-maintained off-road trail. The question before the Michigan Supreme Court is whether a forest trail is also a highway?

Beverly Duffy and some friends were riding All-Terrain Vehicles on the Little Manistee Trail. Duffy’s ATV struck some half buried boards in the trail, throwing her from the vehicle. She suffered spinal injuries and paralysis. She sued, claiming the State Department of Natural Resources failed to maintain the trail for all licensed vehicles, as required by state law.

The law applies to state maintained ‘highways.’ The state contends the off-road trail is not a ‘highway’ as defined by state law.   

The trial judge sided with Duffy, but the state Appeals Court ruled in the state’s favor.

Economy
2:25 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

Gas prices going up as world oil prices rise

Gas prices continue to go up in Michigan.
Andrew Taylor Flickr

Gas prices continue to go up in that wake of tensions in the Middle East.

The price of a barrel of crude oil has gone over $100 - that number was a record breaker back in early 2008 - the start of the Great Recession.

From the Associated Press:

Gas prices AAA Michigan says gasoline prices are up 8.4 cents per gallon over the past week to a statewide average of $3.53. The auto club said Monday the statewide average is 80.5 cents per gallon higher than last year at this time. Of the cities it surveys, AAA Michigan says the cheapest price for self-serve regular fuel is in the Saginaw/Bay City area, where it's $3.48 a gallon. The highest average can be found in the Marquette area at $3.59. Dearborn-based AAA Michigan surveys 2,800 Michigan gas stations daily.

The White House chief of staff Bill Daley said on NBC's Meet the Press that opening up the country's strategic oil reserves is an option the Obama Administration is considering:

"It is something that only is done--has been done in very rare occasions.  There's a bunch of factors that have to be looked at, and it is just not the price. Again, the uncertainty--I think there's no one who doubts that the uncertainty in the Middle East right now has caused this tremendous increase in the last number of weeks."

Many people wonder why we're seeing an increase in gas prices when the U.S. imports most of it's oil from Canada and Mexico.

Libya doesn't even make the the U.S. Department of Energy's Top 15 list of countries we import oil from.

The answer, simply, is that oil is a global commodity, so when the global price of crude goes up, we all pay more. Crude oil prices influence the price of gas more than other factors like refining, distribution, and taxes.

How Stuff Works has a write up of how the complex system of gas prices are factored here in the U.S.

They break the cost of a dollar of gas down this way:

  • Taxes: 15 cents
  • Distribution and Marketing: 11 cents
  • Refining: 7 cents
  • Crude oil: 67 cents

You can check gas prices near you on michigangasprices.com.

Sports
12:17 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

Fennville basketball team plays tonight without Wes Leonard

The Fennville community is remembering Wes Leonard this week.
Steve Johnson Flickr

The Fennville boys basketball team suffered an unbelievable tragedy last week when their star player, Wes Leonard, died from a heart attack minutes after hitting a game winning shot in overtime.

It was later found that the sixteen year old had an enlarged heart.

Now, the Fennville Blackhawks (20-0) have decided to play on despite their immense sadness.

From ESPN.com:

The Fennville team will play Monday night against Lawrence High in the Class C district playoffs. The game has been moved to Hope College in Holland.

The Sporting News says the game was moved from Lawrence High School to Hope College to accommodate an expected large crowd and large media presence.

The Lawrence High School coach spoke with ESPN about how he expects the Fennville boys team to play. From the Sporting News:

Lawrence coach Curt Meat told ESPN of Monday’s game, “Either they’re going to come out and break down and be terrible, and I’d hate to see that … or they’re going to come out and they’re going to have angels on their shoulders and really light it up.”

Drew Sharp has an opinion piece in today's Detroit Free Press. He quoted a statement from Fennville superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer talking about Lawrence High School decision to change the venue:

"They have been more than gracious and accommodating in making this decision. By doing so, they are relinquishing home-court advantage. We also recognize that Lawrence has been cast in an unenviable position and must feel as if the world will be rooting against them. Rather than focusing on the outcome of Monday's game, our joint goal is to make it a fitting tribute to the memory of Wes Leonard."

Wes Leonard’s funeral is scheduled for Tuesday morning at Holland's Christ Memorial Church.

Visitation is today from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. at Fennville United Methodist Church.

Here's a video from WMMT TV in Grand Rapids:

What's Working
11:46 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Old prison breathes new life

user djbuchanan / Flickr

For this week’s installment of “What’s Working,” Morning Edition Host Christina Shockley speaks with Judy Krasnow, resident and tour guide of the Armory Arts Village in Jackson. Located in what once served as Michigan’s first penitentiary, the Armory Arts Village is a residential community originally set up to provide living, working, and presentation space for artists.

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Politics
11:21 am
Mon March 7, 2011

AARP organizing rally to oppose tax on pensions

AARP is organizing a rally to be held in Lansing
nasaimages

Organizers for AARP Michigan say their rally will be held on the east steps of the State Capitol Building on March 15th from 11 a.m. to 1p.m..

From the AARP Michigan blog:

The rally was the brainchild of AARP member and retiree Mary Lee Woodward of Oxford, who launched the effort on Facebook with the help of her daughter.  Woodward says she's heard from thousands of seniors who say new taxes on their pensions and other income will make it difficult to pay their bills. Many also object to elimination of a tax credit for low-income working families, and proposed cuts to schools, universities and local police and fire protection and road maintenance.

State Legislature
10:54 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Pension tax alternatives on the table for legislators this week

Michigan Senators plan to discuss alternatives to a pension tax this week
user lincolnblues Flickr

Michigan legislators are planning to discuss alternatives to Governor Rick Snyder's budget proposals this week.

One hot button issue is Snyder's plan to place a tax on pensions. That tax is estimated to raise $900 million.

It would go a long way in eliminating the state's budget deficit which is estimated around $1.5 billion.

It's angered a lot of seniors, and lobbying groups, like the AARP, are putting pressure on legislators in Lansing to keep the tax exemption on pensions in place (the AARP plans to hold a rally in Lansing on March 15th).

Laura Weber, with the Michigan Public Radio Network reported that Michigan Senate Republicans are meeting early this week to try to come up with alternatives to the pension tax plan.

Weber spoke with Republican State Senator Tory Rocca who said his opposition to taxing pensions is simple:

"It’s a tax increase, and on top of that it’s a tax increase on senior citizens, and if you look at what their cost of living is and what their cost of living increases are, they tend to have a higher cost-of-living increase than other people because a lot of their cost-of-living is weighted toward health care, which does increase at a rate greater than the rate of inflation every year."

The Associated Press reports that State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville didn't say whether Snyder's pension tax plan had enough support to win approval.

But he did say that if legislators want to scrap the tax plan, they'll have to find money elsewhere. From the AP:

Richardville said that if the Senate opposes pieces of Snyder's proposal they will have to balance it out by cutting programs or finding revenues somewhere else within the budget.

That's $900 million more, which could mean more proposals out of Lansing for bigger cuts.

Commentary
10:54 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Shared Sacrifice?

If you want to see why this recession was different from others in recent history, spend a little time over at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.

They’ve been seeing and feeding people they’ve never seen before, people who never imagined they’d need help.

The other day, I went to see Dr. Chad Audi, the mission’s President and CEO. Not only is their caseload flooded, he said, “more and more we are seeing the working homeless.”

These are people who have jobs, but still have no place to live. The Rescue Mission does what it can to get them into housing, but the need is far greater than it used to be -- and for many, the ability to give is less.

Incidentally, there are some who think of the mission as just a soup kitchen, possibly because of their mass appeals for help with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless. A soup kitchen was pretty much what it the mission was when it was founded a century ago. Founder David Stucky kept people alive with food from his own pantry during the worst of the Great Depression.

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Science
10:07 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Race & Happiness

(flickr kk+)

A new Michigan State University study finds Black Americans who identify strongly with their racial identity tend to be happier. MSU researchers talked with African-Americans living in Michigan.  

Researcher Stevie Yap says they found people who said that ‘being black’ was an important part of their life and gave them a sense of ‘belongingness” to a wider community.  

"We did also find the sense of belongingness…the degree to which that is a mechanism…in racial identity to happiness…that is especially the case for women.”

The MSU study appears in the current issue of Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.

Medicine
10:00 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Ingham Regional Medical Center starts layoffs this week

Ingham Regional Medical Center in Lansing will start laying off about 7 percent of it’s workforce this week.

Interim hospital CEO Patrick Salow says a 10 percent decline in patient numbers over the past year is forcing the staffing cuts. He says the layoffs will affect the hospital’s nursing staff, but the layoffs will also affect other divisions like the finance department.

“If we’ve got fewer patients, so there’s fewer bills to send out, do we need as many people to process bills for example."

The total layoff will be between 100 and 150 hospital employees.

State Legislature
6:45 am
Mon March 7, 2011

Senate ready to vote on Emergency Financial Manager bills

Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Ifmuth Flickr

The state Senate is expected to vote this week on a proposal to give emergency financial managers more control when they take over the budgets of cities, townships or school districts.

State Senator Phil Pavlov says the purpose of the proposal is to help communities that are in financial trouble fix their problems before they have to be taken over by an emergency financial manager.

He says it sets warning signs so problems can be dealt with earlier. But he says if emergency managers do step in, they need to have total control of the situation.

“The emergency manager would be able to make some very difficult decisions, and we know that we have to have somebody with the power to do that under extreme situations."

Unions oppose the proposal because it would allow managers to throw out contracts.

Governor Rick Snyder asked the Legislature to approve the increased power for emergency financial managers during his State of the State speech.

Education
3:27 pm
Sun March 6, 2011

FREEP questions test score improvements

COCOEN daily photos flickr

A newspaper analysis shows standardized test score gains from 34 Michigan schools over a one-year period are statistically improbable.

The Detroit Free Press joined a nationwide investigation with USA Today and other partners. The analysis of millions of test score results found 304 schools in six states and the District of Columbia had test scores so improbable they should be investigated.

The analysis that was specific to Michigan scores found that in 2008 to 2009, 34 schools, including 32 in the Detroit area, had test score deviations that statistical experts say are virtually impossible to explain through improved instruction alone.

Environment
10:42 am
Sun March 6, 2011

Legal battle between Saugatuck Twp and private developer in front of federal judge Monday

Joe Gratz Flickr

Monday a federal judge in Kalamazoo will hear arguments in a case that pits Saugatuck Township against a billionaire looking to develop his property that includes coastal dunes along Lake Michigan.

Aubrey McClendon owns more than 300 acres north of where the Kalamazoo River empties into Lake Michigan. He wants to build a marina, condos, houses, and a golf course there.

Township officials have to approve special zoning for him to develop his property. McClendon’s attorney Jim Bruinsma says the officials are biased against his client.

“We contend that we have been unfairly singled out for unique zoning restrictions and really unfair procedures.”

Bruinsma alleges the township worked illegally with an environmental group to restrict development and fund the township’s legal defense.

Saugatuck Township officials deny they’ve done anything illegal. They’re attorney Craig Noland is asking the judge to dismiss the case, forcing McClendon to go through normal zoning procedures. 

“Our position is that they should be required like any other citizen to file an application and allow the township to consider the application and make a decision.”

Noland says Saugatuck Township’s attorney township officials are prepared to handle McClendon’s zoning request fairly and transparently.

Offbeat
2:24 pm
Sat March 5, 2011

Underwater crucifix memorial

Little Traverse Bay
Flickr user Bkonrad

A yearly display of a sunken crucifix in Lake Michigan is scheduled to take place in Petoskey on Saturday.

The monument to people who have died in water-related accidents is submerged 21 feet down in Little Traverse Bay. The cross is 11 feet long and the figure of Jesus measures 5 feet, 5 inches.

It was put in place in 1962 and moved to its current location in 1984. A once-a-year winter viewing is held when the ice is firm enough.

Visitors can park Saturday at Sunset Park, then walk to where a large hole has been cut in the ice. Viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Coordinators say the showing will be canceled if the ice becomes unstable, but conditions look favorable.

On the city's website it says organizers believe it's, "the only freshwater shrine in the world dedicated to divers."

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State Law
1:03 pm
Sat March 5, 2011

Class helps ticketed drivers avoid points

Mark Brush Michigan Radio

Let’s say you get busted for speeding, disobeying a stop sign, or failing to yield. You still have to deal with the ticket by contesting it or paying up. But if you’re eligible you’re going to get a letter in the mail from the state. It’ll tell you about a class you can take online or in a classroom.

The new driver improvement course is a refresher on traffic safety.

Drivers who pass the class within sixty days can avoid getting points put on their records and that helps keep insurance rates low.

The program started in January and more than 1,000 drivers have taken the course so far.

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Economy
4:24 pm
Fri March 4, 2011

Are Mexican truck drivers coming to Michigan?

A tractor trailer with the U.S. and Mexican flags
(Flickr-Chazz Layne)

Mexican truck drivers may soon start turning up on Michigan roads. U.S. truck drivers are not happy about it.

The Obama administration announced a deal Thursday that will allow Mexican truck drivers to ply their trade on US roads. The deal ended a nearly 20 year ban. Under the deal, Mexican drivers and their trucks will have to meet US safety and other standards.

Union and independent truck drivers don’t like the deal. Leo Wilkins is an independent trucker from the Saginaw area. He says allowing Mexican truckers on US roads will cost American jobs.

 “It would be a benefit to them, but it’s not helping our labor force any.  It’s just destroying more of our labor force that’s already been destroyed."

The US Chamber of Commerce applauds lifting the ban on Mexican truckers. Mexico imposed high tariffs on more than 2 billion dollars worth of US products annually, in retaliation for the ban, which Mexican officials claim violated the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Arts/Culture
3:35 pm
Fri March 4, 2011

So-Called 'Ordinary' People: Michigan on the Page Part 2

User b talbot Flickr

Patricia Clark is an award-winning poet, and the former Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids. When I asked her to participate in our web-exclusive “Michigan on the Page” series, Ms. Clark chose a certain author’s first story collection, a writer who—like many recent college graduates—has made her way out of the state to advance her career.

Ms. Clark first encountered Suzanne Rivecca at Grand Valley State University, where she was, Ms. Clark insists, the most talented student she has seen there.

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