Laura Weber

Reporter / Producer - Michigan Public Radio Network

Laura Weber is the newest player for the MPRN team. A native of Ann Arbor, she crossed rival lines into East Lansing and did her undergraduate work at Michigan State University. She later received a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. After spending time in Los Angeles and at Southern California Public Radio, Laura was ready to come home to report on and tell the stories of people in Michigan.

A self-professed public radio junkie and audiophile, Laura finds the best way to create images in storytelling is with sound. When she's not listening to NPR, she's blaring the kind of Soul music you can only find in dusty record shops full of crates upon crates of vinyl. From Motown to Funk to Hip-Hop, if it sounds like Detroit she can't get enough.

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Education
7:30 pm
Wed January 25, 2012

More online K-12 schools coming to Michigan?

The debate over the effectiveness of K-through-12 cyber schools is ramping up at the state Capitol.

A state House panel is considering a measure that would allow more "cyber schools" to operate in Michigan.          

There are currently two cyber schools authorized in Michigan.

Former state schools Superintendent Tom Watkins supports allowing more cyber schools to operate in the state. But he cautioned lawmakers to take careful consideration of how well individual schools are performing.  

“I would invoke an old Chinese saying; that once you open the window, all the flies can come in,” said Watkins.

Those opposed to more cyber schools in the state say not enough is known about their success rates.

Democratic state Representative Rudy Hobbs, playing on Watkins' flies metaphor, said he wants to make sure new cyber schools operating in the state meet high performance standards.

"Once we pass this, we open up the window. All the flies can come in; every single one of them," said Hobbs. "And then we have to try and figure out which ones are good, which ones are bad, get our fly-swatter out and kind of kill the ones that are bad. Why get the fly-swatter out? Let’s just make sure we let the good ones come in and be done with it."

Supporters of online learning say kids and parents should be afforded more education options and opportunities in the digital age. And they say wait-lists for cyber schools are long.

Republican state Representative Tom McMillin chairs the House Education Committee.

"Education is changing, and it’s changing rapidly. But if we don’t change, the world’s not waiting. And we can’t be stuck in some of the older ways of doing things and our kids are going to be left behind and our state is," said McMillin.

Governor Rick Snyder says he wants traditional public schools to incorporate more cyber-learning. But he has not called for more online-only schools.

Politics
5:03 pm
Tue January 24, 2012

Republican lawmakers push to cut Michigan income tax

The Michigan House of Representatives.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

A proposal at the state Capitol would cut the Michigan income tax rate to 3.9 percent over the next five years. Right now the rate is 4.35 percent.

Republican state Senator Jack Brandenburg sponsored the measure. He said people in Michigan were promised the reduction during messy budget and tax deals made in 2007. Brandenburg said he told his Republican colleagues about his plan earlier this month.

“At our caucus retreat, we were all asked to list our priorities, and I made it clear that this is one of my priorities,” Brandenburg said.

He said an estimated $450 million budget surplus convinced him it’s a good time to propose the rollback.

“I wanted to wait to see what kind of surpluses we were having. One-tenth of a point represents  $175 million,” said Brandenburg

Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville cautiously supports the proposal, but he said he’s hesitant to spend money that could be added to the state’s rainy day savings fund.

Democrats say surplus should be used to restore cuts made to K-12 schools and higher education.

Economy
6:28 am
Tue January 24, 2012

Report: Michigan sees uptick in child poverty, abuse

About one-fourth of kids in Michigan live in poverty. That’s according to the Kids Count report from the Michigan League for Human Services. The report says the percent of kids living in poverty and “extreme poverty” has risen dramatically in the past decade, as has the rate of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Jane Zehnder-Merrell is with the League. She says poverty is pervasive throughout the state.

“There’s sort of a perception out there of ‘if people would just look for a job then they wouldn’t have to rely on public support. But when you look at what’s happened throughout Michigan counties and their employment rates, it’s a pretty staggering picture thinking about trying to look for a job in this job market," Zehnder-Merrell says.

She says the good news from the report is teen births continue to decline. The number of teen deaths and the rate of high school dropouts are also declining.

State Legislature
7:03 am
Mon January 23, 2012

Health advocates say state should go beyond “personal responsibility”

Some health advocates say Governor Rick Snyder was not bold enough in his State of the State speech on fighting childhood obesity. Governor Snyder mentioned a program in his speech last week that would teach parents about proper nutrition for young children to help combat childhood obesity.

Katherine Knoll is with the Midwest chapter of the American Heart Association. She says kids need direct instruction on how to control their weight, and that should take place in school.

“Just as we don’t expect them to know how to read when they enter school, we don’t expect them to know how to balance that calories-in-calories-out equation, and we need to work with them on that," Knoll says.

Knoll says she hopes the state Legislature will approve a measure that would require all kids in elementary and middle school to have physical education twice a week.

A spokeswoman for Governor Snyder says the governor wants to take a comprehensive approach toward tackling obesity. She says the administration expects to hear soon from the Department of Community Health on details of an obesity-fighting plan.

Politics
3:33 pm
Fri January 20, 2012

Michigan Board of Canvassers approves two petitions

(L)Brian Robert Marshall/geograph.org (R) USFWS

Michigan voters may soon be asked whether utility companies should be required to collect a fourth of their energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower. The state Board of Canvassers approved the language of a petition that calls on utilities to draw more from clean energy sources by 2025.

Mark Fisk is with a coalition working to get the question on the ballot this November. He told the panel reviewing the petition that the fee increases people would pay for more clean energy would be small.

“The average rate-payer would pay no more in a year than $15 for the implementation of this proposal,” said Fisk. “Moreover, we have analysis that shows over time this initiative would reign in the cost of rising energy costs, compared to doing nothing.”

The Board of Canvassers also approved a petition that would end prohibition of marijuana in the state for anyone age 21 or older.

Matthew Abel is director of Committee for a Safer Michigan, which is leading the petition drive. He said if voters approved the measure, marijuana would still be illegal under federal law.  

“Generally the federal government has a rule of thumb where they tend not to prosecute anyone who has possession of less than 100 plants or 100 kilos of dry material, so generally they stick to larger cases,” Abel said. “But they could prosecute any individual for one single plant or one single gram of marijuana.”

Each petition drive must collect more than 300,000 valid signatures to get the question on the ballot.

State Legislature
7:05 am
Fri January 20, 2012

Michigan House panel opens hearings on health care exchange

Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Matthileo Flickr

Tea Party activists and health care advocates packed a public hearing yesterday at the state Capitol. State lawmakers will decide over whether Michigan should create a website that would allow people to comparison shop for health insurance. Most people who showed up used the event to voice their opinion on the federal Affordable Care Act.

The online health care exchange is required under the new health care law, which is why many Republicans at the state Capitol have been hesitant to approve the website. They say it would be an endorsement of the Affordable Care Act.

Doctor Fadwa Gillanders is a chronic disease management specialist. She opposes national health care. She told lawmakers about a patient with several chronic conditions who called her – in her words – begging for help.   

“I get beggars every day. We’re turning into a nation of beggars, ‘Can you give me? Can you give me?’ Because we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, and we’re hoping insurance will make it better, but it actually makes it worse.”

Those who support national health care say health care is too expensive and too few people receive adequate care. The Republican chair of the House panel says she has no timeline to approve or reject the creation of the health exchange website.

State of the State 2012
6:41 am
Thu January 19, 2012

Democrats not impressed with Snyder's address

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer
Senator Whitmer's office

Governor Rick Snyder said in his State of the State speech last night that he wants to make sure all kids in Michigan who graduate from high school are ready for college or advanced job training.

Democratic state lawmakers say the policies the governor has supported so far have hurt that goal.

The governor says he thinks a handful of education proposals that stalled last year would strengthen the state’s education system. He says he would like to see those measures approved this year; including more online learning, and better funding for early childhood education.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer says she was not impressed. “He spent 48 minutes talking about last year. We know what happened last year; they picked corporations over kids every time. What we need is a bold vision," Whitmer says.

Whitmer says it was a mistake last year to cut school and university funding. She wishes the governor would have acknowledged a Democratic proposal to ensure all kids who graduate from high school in Michigan receive tuition grants from the state.

Emergency Manager Protest
6:51 am
Tue January 17, 2012

Protesters take EM fight to Snyder’s door

Protesters gather outside the gated community where Governor Snyder lives.
Laura Weber Michigan Public Radio Network

About a thousand protesters marched on Governor Rick Snyder’s residential neighborhood in Ann Arbor yesterday evening. They marched to ask Governor Snyder to repeal the state’s controversial emergency manager law.

The rally started at on the eastern edge of Ann Arbor, and about a mile-and-a-half from Governor Snyder’s house. Protesters marched, chanted and sang, hoisted signs and lit candles. They wound in a long line through the tree-lined neighborhood of gently rolling hills spotted with the occasional large house. They were greeted outside of Snyder’s gated community by the governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore.

Reverend Charles Williams II of Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church told Muchmore to tell the governor that the law negates the will of voters in struggling communities.

“And we need democracy here, in Detroit, Benton Harbor, Inkster, Ecorse and Flint.”

“Will do.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll do that. Thank you very much.”

Muchmore says the governor wants to work with people living in financially strained communities, but that the cities must also be protected from insolvency.

Politics
4:12 pm
Fri January 13, 2012

Autism legislation in Michigan could gain momentum in 2012

A national advocacy group for autism-treatment says Michigan tops its list of states it believes could require insurance companies to cover treatments for autistic children this year.

Rick Remington, with the New York-based group Autism Speaks, said the support of Republican leaders in the Michigan legislature along with Governor Rick Snyder bodes well for autism-treatment legislation.

“It’s been before the legislature for a number of years, it’s gotten strong support from Governor Snyder, as well as the advocacy of the lieutenant governor,” Remington said. “We’ve got strong support, bi-partisan support from the Michigan legislature. So, we’re very confident we will see a bill become law this year.”

Twenty-nine states already have insurance mandates for autism-treatment.

Remington said advocates for autism coverage are becoming more prevalent in legislatures throughout the nation as the number of autism diagnoses increases.

Many insurance companies oppose the idea, saying it would increase costs.

Politics
6:59 am
Fri January 13, 2012

AFL-CIO: still broad support for unions in Michigan

State union leaders say lawmakers should focus on creating more jobs in Michigan with more support for education and public services. And they say lawmakers should not try to make Michigan a right-to-work state.

Karla Swift is president of the Michigan chapter of AFL-CIO. She says most people in Michigan still support unions and collective bargaining rights, and would not want Michigan to be a right-to-work state. And she says Governor Rick Snyder has signaled he does not favor a right-to-work law, either.

“The governor’s made his position clear that he wants to do the work of rebuilding Michigan’s economy and creating jobs, and not spend time on right-to-work," Swift says.

Swift says right-to-work laws have not proven effective in many states with high unemployment rates. Supporters of right-to-work say it would help Michigan attract new businesses.

State Legislature
6:53 am
Thu January 12, 2012

Richardville talks Senate priorities in 2012

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville
Photo courtesy of Richardville's office

Republican leaders in the state Legislature say they will not be quick to spend any potential surplus money left over from the last budget year. An annual conference to determine how much money the state will have to spend this year is scheduled for Friday. A few hundred million dollars in additional revenue is expected to be available for lawmakers to spend on state-funded programs.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says special interest groups and advocates won’t get far if they ask him for more funding. “It doesn’t matter to me if they ask or not. You know, we’ve all been about financial responsibility from the beginning, and I think the reason you have emergency financial managers, the reason the president of the United States is trying to figure out ways to print new money is because we haven’t been financially responsible in the past," Richardville says.

Richardville says the Legislature was smart last year by adding to the state’s rainy day fund and helping to pay off long-term debts. Some Democratic lawmakers say a priority for surplus revenue should be to fill cuts to K-12 schools and higher education.

Meanwhile, Richardville also says he does not think Michigan should be a right-to-work state. He says he does not think eliminating the requirement that some workers pay union dues would help the business climate in Michigan.

“I believe any economic benefits that are talked about with regard to bringing jobs into Michigan are overstated quite a bit because the jobs that we’re trying to attract in Michigan aren’t the lower-level jobs that right-to-work might address," Richardville says.

Governor Rick Snyder has also said he thinks a debate over right-to-work would be divisive. Supporters of right-to-work legislation say Michigan could lose business and jobs to neighboring states if they adopt similar measures.

Politics
2:55 pm
Tue January 10, 2012

Financial review team for Detroit meets for first time

user steveburt1947 / Flickr

A state-appointed review team assessing the finances of Detroit met for the first time today. Most members of the panel say they are optimistic the city can avoid being taken over by an emergency manager.

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Conrad Mallet is on the panel. He is optimistic the city can turn its deficit around.

“We understand the concerns of the men and women who live inside the city of Detroit about what a survey like this actually entails and what it could mean,” said Mallet. “What it is going to mean is that we are going to get to the bottom of the course of difficulty.”

The review team has about a month and a half to send a report of the city’s finances and a recommendation to Governor Rick Snyder.

Medical Marijuana
6:39 am
Mon January 9, 2012

Legalizing marijuana petition drive starts this week

Eggrole Flicker

A campaign to legalize marijuana is expected to launch an effort this week to get the question of legalization before voters this November.

Matthew Abel is an organizer with the campaign. He says he thinks most Michigan voters want to legalize marijuana.It’s pretty clear that the polls in favor of ending the drug war, especially against marijuana, go in our favor," Abel says.

Voters in Michigan approved the state’s medical marijuana law by a wide margin in 2008. Abel says the campaign to legalize marijuana does not yet have the same level of funding the medical marijuana campaign had a couple years ago. The campaign to legalize marijuana must gather more than 300,000 valid signatures by early July to get the question on the ballot.

The state Supreme Court will also hear a case this week on the rules for medical marijuana clinics.

Politics
3:15 pm
Fri January 6, 2012

State House Dems say "right-to-work" won't bring Michigan jobs

Democratic leaders in the state Legislature say making Michigan a "right-to-work" state would give many families a reason to leave the state.

Supporters of Michigan being a right-to-work state say it would help attract businesses, especially if Indiana and other neighboring states also adopt right-to-work policies. And  supporters cite examples of right-to-work states that have flourished because they got rid of compulsory union dues for workers.

Democratic House Minority Leader Rick Hammel said those examples are misleading.   

“You can slant it whatever way you want, but there are other cases that show it’s not true," said Hammel. "If you’re looking for investment in the state, you want to make sure you have a great, healthy education system. We’ve done a horrible job of making sure we have that. You want to make sure you attract young, talented people… you’re pushing people away, but yet you think you can do it by a right-to-work law. That’s not going to happen.”

Hammel said he thinks the policies approved by Republican state lawmakers and Governor Rick Snyder will be unpopular with voters in Legislative elections this year.

Politics
2:07 pm
Fri January 6, 2012

Michigan Dems should work with Obama campaign, says party leader

Barack Obama speaking in Flint, MI during the 2008 campaign
Barack Obama official Flickr page

The Democratic leader in the state House thinks Michigan Democrats and President Barack Obama can help each other win votes in the election this fall.

House Minority Leader Rick Hammel said lawmakers are coordinating with the president’s campaign efforts in Michigan. Hammel said Democrats could pick up seats in the House based in part on the popularity of President Obama.

“Quite frankly, the fact that he helped resurrect the automotive industry, and Mitt Romney said ‘The heck with it – die on the vine,’ that would have lost millions of jobs in the state," Hammel said.  "Not just automotive jobs, but jobs that are related to the industry, and the president stepped up and did the right thing, and so did Debbie Stabenow. So we’ll see enough energy on the Democratic side statewide, as well as nationally.”

Representatives of the state Republican Party say state Democrats are out of touch with voters and have no message of their own if they are embracing the president this far out from the election.

Hammel said a lack of popularity for Governor Rick Snyder and his GOP counterparts in the Legislature will also help Democrats win in November.

Education
6:40 pm
Thu January 5, 2012

State receives federal grant to continue student food assistance program

The state of Michigan has been awarded federal grant money as part of a pilot food assistance program for K-12 students and their families. The program gives a monthly stipend to 10,000 low-income families with students in Grand Rapids and Saginaw Bay area schools once classes are done for the summer.

Howard Leikert, with the Michigan Department of Education, says the money can only be used for specific foods:

"There’s a food list that lists only the specific food that can be purchased,” said Leikert.

Leikert said the money can only be used to purchase healthy foods such as fresh produce and whole-grain bread. Leikert said it will be up to Congress to decide whether the program should be expanded nationwide after it receives a report on the success of the pilot in a couple years.

Economy
5:21 pm
Tue January 3, 2012

State revenue projections continue to climb

The state is bringing in more money than expected. That’s according to a report by the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

The agency says Michigan ended the fiscal year that ended September 30th with a $1.3 billion surplus. An improving economy and lower income tax refunds are largely credited for the surplus. But much of the windfall has already been dedicated to programs in the current fiscal year.         

David Zin is an economist with the Senate Fiscal Agency. He says the auto industry still has a major impact on the state’s economy.

“People cut back so much on vehicle purchases in the 2008-9 recession, that while sales are low by historical standards, they’re up quite significantly from just a year or two ago,” Zin said.

Zin says the state collected more tax revenue in 20-11 than projected last year. He says the economy is not expected to grow quickly over the next couple years.

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Politics
11:14 am
Mon January 2, 2012

State budget talks already underway in Lansing

State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says budget negotiations for the coming fiscal year are already underway at the state Capitol. Richardville says he expects the budget to be done several months ahead of the constitutional deadline of October.

Last year the Legislature finalized a spending plan in June.

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Politics
6:24 pm
Thu December 29, 2011

Public defender system could get overhaul in 2012

James Cridland flickr

Michigan's system for providing legal defense for poor people may be revamped in 2012. 

Michigan’s public defense system is one of the worst-ranked in the country. In many counties, public defenders are poorly trained and overburdened.

“[A] patchwork of 83 systems and systems inside of those systems just is an embarrassment," said Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills). "We need to really get a better handle to try to ensure justice.”

McMillin says he’d like to introduce legislation in the first half of the year that would dramatically change how public defenders are trained and paid in Michigan.

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Politics
5:04 pm
Mon December 26, 2011

Lawmakers hope to tackle "cyber-bullying" in 2012

[F]oxymoron flickr

Legislation to require school districts to monitor bullying over the Internet or cell phones is expected to be introduced next year.

“My fundamental interest comes from being a mom,” said one of the idea’s supporters, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer. “Everyone has known someone who has been bullied, if it’s not themself, and I think with the technology that’s available to kids today, the bullying does not stay on the program. It follows them 24/7.”

Other lawmakers have reservations about the idea.

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