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.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[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.

frankjuarez / flickr

A political fight in Lansing could mean tens of millions of dollars in un-budgeted borrowing costs for Detroit Public Schools over the next few years.

At issue is legislation that would have allowed the district to make a new deal with creditors. The deal would have given the troubled school system more time to pay off its bonds. But the measures were tabled after Republican and Democratic leaders had a disagreement over an unrelated measure and adjourned for the year. Now officials with the school system will have to come up with the cash more quickly.         

John-Morgan / flickr

Michigan taxpayers who want to get a state tax credit for some charitable donations have about a week and a half left before the credits expire. Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature eliminated the credits as part of a tax overhaul designed to help balance the budget.

Many groups say it's difficult to predict how the expiration will affect charitable giving.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a bill into law that gets rid of the cap on the number of university-sponsored charter schools in the state.

Snyder said he hopes allowing more charter schools to open their doors in Michigan will encourage all schools to improve their performance.

“One of the nice parts about charters is it really emphasizes innovation and entrepreneurial ideas about how to really advance education,” said Snyder. “It’s the system of school concept that you’re going to see more and more across all education – that it’s not just about a district, it’s about schools being successful.”

Critics of the measure say the law does not include enough assurances that charter schools meet high standards. And they say charter schools leave out special-needs students through selective enrollment and interviewing.

Governor Snyder said treatment of students with special needs is a concern.

 “I would like to say that there’s a better job in general that we can do with special-needs kids, and that’s something that a more comprehensive review would be appropriate – including the intermediate school districts, the whole process of how we do it today, and how we can work better together. Because it’s important, again, to have all our kids be as successful as possible,” Snyder said.

The law will allow an unlimited number of university-sponsored charter schools to operate in Michigan by 2015.

Pregnant women and new mothers in Michigan can now get free text message tips on raising healthy babies. The state Department of Community Health has partnered with a national program called "Text-4-Baby," which sends tips on infant health to people’s cell phones.

Angela Minicuci is with the department. She said the texts provide a lot of information.

“Critical information for birth defects, for immunization, nutrition, seasonal flu information, mental health, oral health, safe sleep tips, different things that women may need to know, both during their pregnancy and once the baby is born to make sure that both themselves and the child will be healthy,” said Minicuci.

Minicuci also said that giving advice via text makes sense.

“Research has shown that 85 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and 72 percent of users offer text messaging,” said Minicuci “So that’s a very good number, a very large portion of the population, and text4baby is going to help, I think, address that population that we need to reach.”

Minicuci said the goal of the text-message system is to help reduce infant mortality rates. Michigan’s infant mortality rate is 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. That’s above the national average. 

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The state Legislature has wrapped up work for the year.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have different opinions about how successful 2011 was.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) told lawmakers this week that they should be proud of the accomplishments of the Republican-led House and Senate chambers this year.

“Unquestionably, this has been one of the most productive in recent history for the Michigan Legislature,” said Richardville.

He said a quick budget process, changes to the state’s tax structure, and big changes to the education system are among his proudest achievements.

Republicans feel the changes made Michigan more attractive to businesses and set the state’s economy on the right track.

But the work Republicans are proud of is what Democrats say made 2011 a horrible year for Michigan’s middle-class families and vulnerable people.

Democratic lawmakers say cuts to schools and a new tax plan on seniors put the priorities of big business over the wellbeing of people.

State Representative Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) says she thinks a lot of the new policies actually hurt Michigan’s business climate.

“I’ve always said I don’t know what business would want to come here if we don’t have highly educated workers, and if they can’t put their kids in a quality school, said Brown. “So you’re talking about creating jobs; I think the legislation that has been put forth this past year is discouraging people from coming to Michigan.”

State lawmakers will return to the Capitol in the middle of January, right before Governor Rick Snyder gives his State of the State address for 2012.

A proposal to get rid of the limit on the number of university-sponsored K–12 charter schools in the state is on its way to Governor Rick Snyder’s desk. The state Senate gave final approval to the measure yesterday at the state Capitol. Democratic lawmakers say it will hurt traditional public schools.

Republican state Senator Phil Pavlov said the final version of the bill should be more acceptable to everyone.

“There were some additional transparency measures included in this legislation, as well as a gradual lifting of the authorizers on the public school academies,” said Pavlov.

The bill would allow unlimited university-sponsored charters in the state by the year 2015. And it would require charters to report back to their authorizers on whether the new schools are meeting their academic goals. The bill does not require the charters to meet exceptional performance standards.

State Senate GOP website

The Michigan Senate has approved a bill that would allow state officials to appoint a transition team to work with a community after an emergency manager’s term is up.  

“This is insurance to the people of those affected communities under emergency managers to make sure that there’s financial stability going forward, collective bargaining agreements, revenue estimating conferences are also a part of this process, to determine the financial stability of that community going forward,” State Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair) said. Pavlov said it’s important the state not abandon communities coming out of financial crises.

The bill would create a transition team for a local government that’s ending its run with an emergency manager. But lawmakers could quickly adopt an alternative version next year if the state’s emergency manager law is stalled by a referendum or reversed by a court.

“The Legislature and the governor are trying to capitalize on our cities’ financial distress by appointing these emergency financial manager dictators that can oust elected officials and overtake local governments without any accountability to the community,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing).

Lawmakers won't revisit the emergency manager law before January when they return from a month-long winter break.

The state House has approved a measure that would allow an unlimited number of university-sponsored K-12 charter schools to operate in Michigan by the year 2015.

The proposal would lift the cap on university charters over a couple years, eventually eliminating the restriction on the number of charters altogether.

Democratic state Representative Steven Lindberg says that could lead to more failing public schools if charter schools are allowed to interview and hand-pick their students.

“It saddens me, because I see us going back to a time when we’re going to have separate but unequal education in this country.”

The measure would require universities to consider county populations and the number of kids in an area that are on charter school waiting lists before opening a new charter school.

Republican state Representative Deb Shaughnessy is on the House Education Committee.

“Many people have tried to paint this legislation as an attack on traditional public schools. I vehemently reject that portrayal. I don’t buy it, and I urge you not to either. I graduated from public school, and so did my children, and my children are leading very productive and successful lives.”

The measure now heads back to the state Senate for final approval.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Major changes proposed to Michigan’s workers compensation system are on their way to Governor Rick Snyder for his approval.

The legislation would allow insurance companies to reduce payments to injured workers by the amount the insurer believes they could make at another job.

Opponents say injured workers should be allowed to recover from their injuries before they’re expected to work again.

 “I urge my colleagues to please don’t take injured workers and force them back before they’ve healed, that’s not what the bill was supposed to be about, and it’s certainly not the kind of people we hope to be," said State Rep. Vicki Barnett (D-Farmington Hills). "Let injured individuals get the time they need to heal.”

Supporters say the changes would help prevent fraudulent workers’ comp claims. And they say they’ll help stabilize the finances of the workers’ comp system.

Cedear Bend Drive / Flickr

A fight could be brewing at the state Capitol over funding an exchange that would allow people and businesses to comparison-shop for health insurance. The state is supposed to create the exchange as part of the new federal health care reform requirements.

Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol have debated whether funding the health insurance exchange would be showing support for the new federal health care law.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says it’s one of the handful of pressing questions that should be settled this week before the Legislature begins a month-long winter break. He says there are other issues that can wait.  

“We want to have a docket ready to go come January, and we want to use that month of January a little more effectively than in the past.”

The Legislature is also still debating whether to allow more K-12 charter schools, and whether to overhaul the state’s workers compensation rules. And a lingering question remains whether the state House will vote to dramatically alter Michigan’s no-fault insurance laws.

A leader of an effort to overturn the state’s emergency manager law says the petition drive is invigorated by news that legislative leaders are working on a back-up plan in the event the law is halted.

Brandon Jessup with Michigan Forward said he expects that halt will happen.

“I’m predicting success based on the amount of support we’ve received from across the state. Not just Detroit, but places like Traverse City, Cheboygan County, Grand Rapids, Benton Harbor – clearly – Pontiac, Saginaw, all across the state,” said Jessup.

Jessup said it’s good that lawmakers are revisiting the issue, but they need to do more.

“I’m glad to see the Legislature start to do something, but they haven’t invited the community to come to the table to help draft the legislation, so once again this is another near-sighted attempt," he said. "Not really to solve the solution, to be a solution to the problem, but to thwart our attempts at democracy.”

Opponents say the emergency manager law gives too much authority to state-appointed officials, and robs people of the right to select their local elected leaders.

Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse, Flint and the Detroit Public Schools are all run by emergency managers.

A proposal to limit access to health care coverage for abortion procedures has cleared a state Senate panel. The proposal would require employers or individuals purchasing health care plans to pay higher premiums if they want to include abortion coverage.         

Critics say it’s important for insurance companies to offer abortion coverage because no one plans for unintended pregnancies or unforeseen medical issues.

"Nobody expects to have an unintended pregnancy and I think nobody who has a wanted pregnancy expects that something is going to go wrong," said  Shelli Weisberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the measure. "But the problem with this is it’s taken away something that women already have. From a moral standpoint – it’s taken away comprehensive coverage when women most need it.”

There is no plan in the Senate to approve the abortion insurance proposal before lawmakers begin a winter break next week.

The state Senate is expected to vote this evening on major changes to Michigan’s workers’ compensation laws. The proposal would reduce payments to an injured worker by the amount an insurance company believes the worker could make at another job.    

“Just what that will do to the working people of this state, I shudder to think, because it will cause untold misery on thousands of people’s lives," says Rick Warsh, an attorney who handles workers' compensation cases.

Those who support the measure say it would help prevent fraudulent claims, and would stabilize the workers’ compensation system for businesses.

user sfgamchick / Flickr

A board that’s advising Governor Rick Snyder on the state’s liquor laws is close to making recommendations on how Michigan’s alcohol rules should be altered.

Meanwhile, advocates that want to keep Michigan’s current regulations say they’re concerned about the potential changes. Among them is the possibility that the state will boost the number of liquor licenses it issues.

Harriett Dean is with the Clinton Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.

“The worry is that they will allow for increased density of liquor licenses in a community, they’ll remove the 500 feet from a church or from a school current existing law, and that will increase exposure to young people to alcohol, as well as for adults too,” said Dean.

But Andy Deloney, who chairs the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, says the advisory board does not choose which recommendations become laws.

“That’s up to the governor to decide, that’s not up to this committee to decide,” Deloney said. “The governor wanted these committees to be created and to do this work, and it’s up to him to decide when and how and which recommendations he wants to go along with.”

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

More charter schools may soon be allowed to open in Michigan. The state House is expected to vote this week on a measure that would get rid of the cap on the number of university-sponsored charter schools in the state.

State Representative Tom McMillin chairs the House Education Committee. He said it’s important for lawmakers to approve the changes before they leave for a winter break.

“I want to unchain as many kids as I can from failing schools,” said McMillin. “And the sooner we put in place how that can be done, the more that people who are interested in filling that need that desperate need, will be able to start planning and putting it in process so they don’t lose a year, you know so they can do it quicker.”

But Peter Spadafore disagrees. Spadafore is with the Michigan Association of School Boards, which opposes the proposed changes. He said most of the testimony lawmakers heard was from representatives of high-performing charter schools.

“But what’s not being talked about is that one third of failing schools in the state of Michigan are charter schools, and one third of all charter schools are on the bottom 20 percent of the Michigan Department of Education’s list of persistently low-achieving schools,” Spadafore said.

Spadafore said the proposal should include requirements that all charter schools perform well as a condition of staying open.

Supporters of the measure say parents and students –especially in neighborhoods with low-performing public schools – deserve more options.

Gord McKenna / flickr

Low-income households that have trouble paying for utilities could soon get help from the state to keep the heat on through the winter. Republicans in the state House have introduced a proposal to tap into one-time federal funds to help pay for home heating assistance.

Funding for home-heating assistance was hit hard this year. Michigan’s home-heating funds were frozen because of a state Court of Appeals decision. At the same time, the federal government reduced home-heating payments to states.

A proposal to require all Michigan school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies is on its way to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature.  

The state Legislature gave final approval to a House Republican anti-bullying proposal following a month of heated debate.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said he is happy with the final product.

“At this point and time, yeah. It went through both chambers, got a fair amount of public scrutiny and feedback, and I’m proud of the work the House Republicans did,” said Richardville.

Chris Waits / Flickr

More than one hundred workers, union representatives and business lobbyists showed up at the state Capitol today to testify on proposed changes to Michigan’s workers compensation law.

The proposed changes before a state Senate panel would reduce an injured worker’s benefits based on the amount an insurance company believes the worker could be earning at another job.

Chris Luty, with the Michigan State Police Troopers Association, told lawmakers finding a job, especially while injured, is not as easy as some insurance companies would claim.

“What’s available out there – what’s really available out there – and what’s theoretically available out there are often two very different things,” said Luty.

Luty told lawmakers about a state trooper named Drew Spencer, who was hit by a car while on the job. Spencer’s injuries were severe and left him dependent on workers compensation benefits.

“Drew Spencer, like most people within the Department of State Police, has a lot of experience before he came in. He has an education. And when you apply the virtual wage language as I understand it, Drew Spencer would get nothing under this bill, as I understand it,” said Luty.

The proposed changes also includes extending the length of time an injured worker must see a doctor assigned to them by insurance companies rather than their own doctor.

Carl Alden, with the Michigan Association of Chiropractors, says letting injured workers visit their own doctors makes sure workers get the best medical care so they can get back to work more quickly.

“The success of Michigan’s current system shows that making a change is not in the best interest of employers, workers, Michigan, and ultimately the insurers,” said Alden.

Business groups say the proposed changes would help reduce fraudulent claims from workers and provide stability for businesses.

The Senate panel is expected to continue hearings on the workers comp issue when the Legislature returns from a two-week break next week.

Unemployed people in Michigan have a harder time getting jobless benefits than in other states in the Midwest. That’s according to a report from the Michigan League for Human Services.

The report also says Michigan pays the lowest maximum unemployment benefits in the region to people out of work.

Peter Raurk wrote the report for the Michigan League for Human Services.

“Giving unemployed families unemployment insurance benefits while they look for work helps to keep the economy going,” said Raurk.

Raurk says making sure unemployed people have access to jobless benefits helps stimulate the economy.   

When people suddenly do not have income, they’re not going to spend that income at local businesses. And places with very high unemployment often have businesses that experience difficulty because of less consumer spending.”

The report also says Michigan provides the fewest weeks of unemployment coverage in the region. Raurk says the Legislature should not approve proposals that would make it even more difficult for workers to get unemployment benefits.

Liz West / Flickr

Michigan ranks third highest in the nation for the percent of households that receive food stamps. That’s according to U.S. Census data. Oregon and Tennessee top the list.

The data show nearly 17 percent of Michigan households have at least one person who receives food assistance from the federal government.

Karen Holcomb-Merrill, with the Michigan League for Human Services, said about two million people receive aid to buy food.

“That’s a really huge number when you consider that the population of the state is under 10 million,” said Holdcomb-Merrill.

But she said that number has gone down since the beginning of the year.

“One of the reasons for that is that the Department of Human Services changed their rules and their polices with regards to college students receiving food assistance,” said Holcomb-Merrill. “And as a result of that, about 30,000 college students were dropped from food assistance earlier this year.”

Holcomb-Merrill said some college food pantries are now struggling to meet the need of low-income college students.

She expects the number will go down with new eligibility rules for food aid. The rules disqualify people with too many assets from getting assistance.

Holcomb-Merrill says several states have scrapped similar rules because they prevent many people who need help from getting it.

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