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.

Jim Wallace / Flickr

State Republican leaders say they hope to move forward in October with a proposal to build a publically owned second bridge between Detroit and Canada.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley says a second bridge would benefit businesses throughout the state.

"Those entities that make things here, be they automobiles, furniture, chemicals, cereal or baby food or even Slinkys, all these things we make in Michigan, and agricultural products as well, Canadians buy more of that than anybody else in the world," said Calley.

He says a publically owned bridge that connects major highways on both sides of the river would keep exports streaming into Canada from Michigan.

Calley was on Mackinac Island over the weekend for a Michigan Republican Party conference.

He lobbied for the bridge project while there saying the bridge project is a conservative one that will be attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike.

The proposal has been unpopular with some Republicans who think a second bridge should be built by a private company. The owner of the existing bridge in Detroit was also at the Michigan Republican Party conference on Mackinac Island to try to influence lawmakers oppose a publically owned bridge.

Calley says he and Governor Rick Snyder are not deterred by campaigning against the project by the company that owns the existing bridge in Detroit.

"[We're] making very steady progress and feel good about the track that it's on right now," said Calley. "It's really always been more a matter of getting through all of the garbage on the TV ads, and simply articulating what the proposal is."

Calley says one of the biggest hurdles they face is countering the influence of the multi-million dollar ad campaign. The campaign is paid for by the owners of the existing Ambassador Bridge.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Perry will be on Mackinac Island this weekend for a Republican conference held by the state party every two years. The two prominent presidential candidates will speak with party faithful tomorrow at the Grand Hotel.

Also on the island are many campaign signs, buttons and t-shirts advertising names of Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls. Among them is Gary Glenn, the president of the anti-gay-rights group American Families Association of Michigan. He says coming to Mackinac Island this weekend is important for his campaign.

Fewer than 100 unmarried state employees are expected to sign-up for health care benefits for their domestic partners by the end of this month.

That would mean less than $600,000 would be spent on live-in partner benefits paid for by the state.

The preliminary estimates are well below what some Republican lawmakers said taxpayers would end up paying for the benefits.

Republican state Representative Dave Agema (R-Ottawa Co.) sponsored a measure to end domestic partner benefits for public employees in the future.

"Numbers aside, it really doesn’t make any difference because what we have now, if it doesn’t stop, it will only grow in the future," said Agema. "We haven’t included the colleges and the local governments and so-forth, so it would only be increased to millions and millions of dollars in the future."

Agema’s proposal could not reverse the decision by the state Civil Service Commission to allow for public employee domestic partner benefits.

At the state Capitol, the House and the Senate have approved separate measures that would ban a controversial abortion procedure that’s already illegal under federal law. Both bills were approved by commanding majorities.

Democratic state Representative Jimmy Womack is also a minister and a doctor. He was a “no” vote.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

State Senate Republicans say they want to focus on proposals this fall that will help businesses create jobs.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says eliminating the Michigan Business Tax on small businesses was a good start. He says now it’s time to get rid of the Personal Property Tax that businesses pay.

“The government itself does not create jobs, all we can do is better the environment. And that’s what we’re attempting to do with the legislation we’ve put on the table so far, and what we’ll continue this fall.”

Richardville says the Senate will also take up measures this fall to reform education and regulate the medical marijuana law.

The law was approved by a wide margin of voters in 2008.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says the law is too vague.

“I have a real concern about those that would abuse this law and that somehow more would illegal marijuana would end up on the street, and eventually find its way into our school yards. That’s my big concern here.”

Senate Republicans also plans to take up legislation to eliminate the tax on businesses and factory equipment. Education reforms, and a ban on a controversial abortion procedure are also at the top of the party’s fall agenda.

The state Legislature is expected to vote tomorrow to ban a controversial abortion procedure performed after 21 weeks of pregnancy.

“Dilation and extraction,” or “partial birth abortion,” as it’s called by opponents has been illegal in the U.S. since 2003.

Republican state Senator Geoff Hansen says the proposals in the Legislature would help ensure the procedure remains illegal in Michigan, no matter what.

“We want to make sure that our attorney general has every tool that he needs to make sure that we don’t have this practice happening in Michigan,” said Hansen.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says passing the same ban at the state level will cement Michigan’s stand on the procedure.

"It’s kind of an insurance policy, if you will, but also strengthens our resolve that this is something wrong that needs to be addressed wherever it’s found in the state of Michigan," said Richardville. "It’s a responsible bill that tells the citizens of Michigan that we’re concerned about partial-birth abortion, and we’ll do everything we can to stop it from happening in this state."

The proposed ban is set for votes this week in the state House and Senate.

The votes will likely come just before the anti-abortion group "Right to Life of Michigan" has a conference in Lansing this weekend. The group is expecting an update on the status of the proposed ban from one of the Senate sponsors.

Democrats in the state House say voters should be allowed to decide how the state spends its education dollars.

They’re calling for a constitutional amendment that would specify that School Aid Fund money be spent only on K-12 schools, and not on universities and community colleges.

Democratic state Representative Barb Byrum says Republicans have proposed diverting $900 million from K-12 schools for the fiscal year that starts in October.

A bipartisan legislative workgroup has determined that keeping Michigan's roads useable will require an additional $1.4 billion a year.

In 10 years, that number grows to an estimated $2.6 billion.

Business and infrastructure groups have been pressuring the Michigan Legislature for years without success to come up with a way to raise more money for fixing and maintaining roads and bridges.

Representative Rick Olson says Michigan needs to more than double what it spends to maintain streets and highways:

“Well I think the bottom line of this study is, unless we spend this kind of money we’re either going to need to reconcile ourselves to poorer roads, or we’re going to need to be willing to pay even more in the future.”

 Olson says raising the gas tax would not go far enough in raising revenue to pay for roads. He says a larger and more permanent solution will need to be found to generate revenue. Olson and his Democratic counterpart have submitted their report to state House leadership.

 

Dan Wuan / Michigan Senate

Former NBA player and one of the “Fab Five” at the University of Michigan, Jalen Rose, told lawmakers at the state Capitol today parents need more school options for their kids.

Rose testified before a state panel in support of allowing more charter schools and schools of choice in Michigan.

He sponsored a charter academy that opened in his hometown of Detroit.

Rose says the school selects students based on a lottery, rather than test scores, so every kid would have a shot at getting in.

Chelsea Hagger / Michigan Public Radio Network

Former congressman Pete Hoekstra has been accepting endorsements and campaign donations to run for the U.S. Senate for weeks, but today Hoekstra formally launched his statewide campaign for the Republican nomination.

Hoekstra says he is glad to have the endorsements of some of his former rivals. They include former state Attorney General Mike Cox, who ran against Hoekstra in the Republican primary for governor.

Hoekstra says he and Cox may not have gotten along during that race, but they have buried the so-called hatchet.

 "Whatever hatchet there was, we’ve agreed to work together to make sure Michigan has a new senator. He and I have talked a number of times over the last few weeks, we’ve had great conversations. If there was a hatchet, it’s gone."

Hoekstra has also been endorsed by Governor Rick Snyder, another former rival.

Hoekstra says if he were elected to the U.S. Senate he would work to repeal "No Child Left Behind" school mandates and the new national health care regulations.

Hoekstra says he has met with many small business leaders who would rather see the federal government focus on deregulation than on tax breaks. 

"We need to get the economic engine going again, which is taking a look at the regulatory reform in Washington, it’s taking a look at repealing Obama-care and putting in place smart reforms for health care, and it is allowing for energy exploration in the United States," said Hoekstra.

Hoekstra is running in the Republican Senate primary against anti-gay activist Gary Glenn, businessman Peter Konetchy, former judge Randy Hekman, and school-choice advocate Clark Durant.

The winner of that primary will run against Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

The Republican leader of the state Senate says he has no interest in making Michigan a right-to-work state.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says union workers have already made many concessions to help Michigan’s economic outlook.

A state lawmaker has called for licensing of in-home health care workers to help combat fraud. He says recent fraudulent billings from some agencies cost the Medicare program $28 million.

State Senator Mark Jansen (R-Grand Rapids) says some fraudulent in-home agencies came to Michigan because other states require the groups to be licensed, and Michigan does not.

"Some of those folks have been chased out of their states because they've been caught or they know people are paying attention, and they're coming to states that don't have licensure."

Jansen says fraudulent in-home care agencies prey on the most vulnerable people in Michigan.

A state Senate panel began hearings yesterday on a package of sweeping education reforms. This is the second round of major changes proposed to Michigan’s education system this year.

The package of bills include measures that would allow more charter schools in the state, allow schools to hire teachers from private companies, and require districts to open empty seats in classrooms to students who live outside of the area.

Representatives from the education community say the proposals are controversial. Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov says, he does not think so.

“I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘controversial,’ I mean we having a conversation about choice for parents and students in the state and that shouldn’t be controversial,” Pavlov says.

Pavlov also took the lead on the debate over teacher tenure reform earlier this year. Pavlov says Governor Snyder supports some of the reforms. Pavlov says he does not have a timeline to get this round of education reforms through the Legislature.

Representatives from the education community say they are concerned these proposals are based on politics and not research of successful education reforms.

A fight is brewing at the state Capitol over whether Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law should be changed.

Backers of the legislation want drivers to be able to opt out of coverage that provides unlimited lifetime benefits for the most severely injured accident victims.

Pete Kuhnmuench, with the Insurance Institute of Michigan, says the option would save people money:

"We think putting more money back in the pockets of the consumers we think now is the right time to do that, given our economics," says Kuhnmuench.

A study commissioned by the measure’s opponents says most drivers would choose to underinsure themselves to save money.

The study says that would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Matt Callow / Flickr

 A state Senate panel is expected to continue hearings soon on a proposed second bridge between Detroit and Canada. Lawmakers say they still have a lot of testimony they need to hear before they can make a decision.

State Senator Geoff Hansen is from Oceana County. He says people ask him every day about the Detroit bridge proposal, even on the west side of the state.

“It’s been brought up to a really high profile thing with all the advertising on the TV and all the fliers that have come out,” Hansen said.

The Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan

A coalition of Michigan’s public university officials says college is still affordable, despite tuition hikes.

A report from the Presidents Council says need-based financial aid is on the rise, and universities are covering more student costs.         

Michael Boulous is executive director of the Presidents Council.

"The bottom line is aid is available if you have need. College still is affordable, and we don’t want that to be a discouraging piece in attending any post-secondary institution."

Boulous says a college education is more important than ever for workers in Michigan.

"The number of jobs for workers with high school diplomas is shrinking rapidly," says Boulous. "In many cases, entire industries that employed these workers are vanishing. Unemployment for people who have gone to college is half the rate it is for those who have only a high school diploma."

        The report says merit-based scholarships have decreased slightly over the past few years. But the report says need-based financial aid has nearly doubled in that time.

The Presidents Council says the average student pays about $4,800 in tuition at a public university. Housing and books can add about $9,000 to that price tag.

School officials say about two-thirds of students qualify for financial aid.

screenshot from HTV

The former state House Education Committee chairman is resigning his office to become a national school reform lobbyist.

Democratic state Representative Tim Melton (D-Pontiac) will work for the Students First organization in California starting in early September.

Students First is an organization headed up by a nationally polarizing figure in education reform, Michelle Rhee.

"I’ll be helping other state’s throughout the country pass reforms similar to the ones we did in Michigan," said Melton. "The Students First organization is a national grassroots advocacy for school reform. We’re going to really try to move the United States and this country forward as far as what the rest of the world’s doing on education reform."

Melton says the job will allow him to build on the work he did with the controversial "Race To The Top" legislation he spearheaded in Michigan.  

He is the third state lawmaker in the past couple years to leave office early for a different job. Melton says term limits could make leaving early a trend for politicians.

"I’ve got two young kids and I guess not knowing what’s going to happen after your term is up, and if an opportunity arises that allows you to do the thing that you’re really passionate about—you know, school reform to me is something that is a major issue," said Melton.

Melton’s departure will leave the House with 46 Democrats, to the majority of 63 Republicans. He was known for frequently working with and voting with Republicans.

He had contemplated a run at a House seat in Congress, but says he has reached the end of his career as an elected official.

Republican Conference / Flickr

Update 3:23

Michigan Public Radio's Laura Weber covered today's announcement. She reports Hoekstra says he and Snyder became friends after running against each other in a “hard-fought” primary for Governor last year:

“Isn’t it great that two people can go through a campaign, they can go through a primary, and at the end of that process they actually like each other, they actually have respect for each other, because they went through it in a way that the people of Michigan respected.”

Hoekstra said he does not think Snyder’s sinking approval rating will have a negative impact on his campaign for Senate. In his remarks, the governor reciprocated Hoekstra's admiration. Snyder said the experience of gave him respect for Hoekstra:

"Being one of our senators is critically important to our state, so I felt it was appropriate to speak up on this. And it was so easy to speak up. This is a case where we have a compelling candidate.”

6:22 am

Governor Rick Snyder has scheduled a press conference today to endorse former Congressman Pete Hoekstra in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Michigan Radio was first to report the endorsement earlier this month.

Snyder and Hoekstra first got to know each other last year as rivals for the Republican nomination for governor. Snyder won, but people close to the governor say he walked away from the campaign with respect for Hoekstra. They say Snyder praised Hoekstra as a results-oriented congressman with a history of rising above partisan interests to get things done.

The endorsement will put the governor at odds with other Michigan Republican power players. Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis, and ex-Senator Spencer Abraham – all former GOP party chairs – are backing school choice advocate Clark Durant.

Former Judge Randy Hekman, anti-gay rights activist Gary Glenn, and Roscomman businessman Peter Konetchy are also vying for the nod to face incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow next year.

A state lawmaker says tax-funded sex changes for prisoners need to be outlawed. The Department of Corrections says it already has a policy to reject sex-change requests.

Republican state Representative Tom Hooker says even though there is a department policy against granting tax-funded sex change operations, it needs to be set in Michigan law.

“It’s certainly not targeting any specific lifestyle or organization. I’m trying to save the taxpayers of the state of Michigan money.”

Hooker says it could cost taxpayers between 20 and 60-thousand dollars per sex change, with ongoing hormone therapies. And Hooker says he hopes to make sure taxpayers do not foot the bill for other elective surgeries for prisoners. But he says this was a good place to start as a preventive measure.

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections says they do receive occasional requests for sex change operations, and those requests are denied. He says the prisoners argue it is not an elective surgery, but rather a matter of mental wellbeing.

Democratic lawmakers in the state Legislature say businesses should be required to give parents unpaid leave to attend parent-teacher conferences and other education related appointments with their kids.

State Representative Lisa Brown is a mother of three. She says business owners should understand the importance of active parental involvement in education.

"Juggling work and getting kids to a parent-teacher conference is not easy, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have that my kids have had teachers that make special time for me, because I work far from home."

The bill introduced this week would require businesses to give employees eight hours of unpaid leave per child, per school year. A spokesman for the House Republicans says he has not seen the bill, but he does not anticipate support for any mandates on businesses.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The state Legislature has approved a measure that would mean higher health care costs for some teachers and local government employees.

The bill would require local governments to pay no more than 80 percent of their employee health care costs, or limit the payment to 15 thousand dollars a year per family.

Democratic state Senator Glenn Anderson called his Republican colleagues hypocrites:

“I just find it amazing that anyone that would support this bill would get up and make statements about the federal government dictating to us at the state level what we must and must not do. And yet we’re super-imposing our will on a matter that has always been a local issue.”

 The measure now heads to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature.

Human services advocates say many families still don’t know whether they will lose their cash assistance if the Legislature approves a four-year lifetime cap on benefits.

Legislative analysis estimates more than 12,000 cash assistance cases would be closed on October 1 if lawmakers approve the cap.

Judy Putnam of the Michigan League for Human Services says the state should look more closely into who would be affected by that cap.

“Two-thirds of the caseload on assistance are children, and the average age of a child on assistance is seven," says Putnam.

"That’s a second grader.”

Putnam says the state has not provided enough information to families who would have their cash assistance cut off October 1.  

“If it passes, this will give us the harshest time limits in the Midwest," Putnam says.

"Indiana cuts families off after two years on assistance, except that they only subtract the money for the adult. They still give the money for the kids."

Putnam says many people who receive cash assistance are unaware or confused about how they would be affected by the change.

Putnam hopes Governor Rick Snyder will change his mind and step in to at least phase out cash assistance, rather than cut it off.

"As it is we’re just saying ‘No more cash assistance, you’ve had enough.’ The problem is is that there aren’t jobs available. That might make sense if there were a lot of entry-level jobs available, with transportation to get to those jobs. But we all know that that’s not the case."

Snyder called on the Legislature to approve the measure, which would save the state an estimated $65 million dollars in the coming fiscal year.

State capitol
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Thousands of teachers and local government employees will have to pay more for their health care benefits under a plan to be voted on tomorrow at the state Capitol.

The plan limits what school districts and local governments can pay for health benefits.

A legislative committee approved the measure today. It's expected to be voted on tomorrow by the House and the Senate.

It will require local governments to pay no more than 80 percent of their employee health care costs, or limit the payment to $15,000 a year per family.    

Ifmuth / Flickr

The state Legislature will meet this week after two months of summer recess and a couple controversial issues await lawmakers at the state Capitol.

Republican leaders in the Legislature say they worked through the summer to prepare to vote on a proposal to require teachers and some public employees to pay more for their health care benefits.

“A lot of important work is happening, and a lot of the most important work happens outside of the session schedule," says House Speaker Jase Bolger.

The state Senate also has a final procedural vote waiting on a plan to set a four year lifetime cap on cash assistance for unemployed people. Democratic leaders say Republican proposals have made it harder for people to live and find jobs in Michigan.

Teen deaths are on the decline in Michigan. That’s according to an annual report that compares indicators on the wellbeing of children.

According to the report, Michigan ranks better than the national average for the death rate among teens. Jane Zehnder-Merrell is the “Kids Count” project director at the Michigan League for Human Services. She says teens are getting into fewer fatal car accidents. But she says Michigan is experiencing a national trend toward more teen murders. 

“It’s troubling to see that as we push down one rate another rates starts going up; the homicide rate. Suicide rate has remained relatively stable, but we may see increases in that as well with the stress.”

There has been a 64 percent increase in the child poverty rate in Michigan over the past decade, according to the report.

Zehnder-Merrell says increases in unemployment and home foreclosures affect the wellbeing of children.

 “Very stressful, very difficult times for families, even though in Michigan I think part of it too is we’re used to having a lot more people living a middleclass life and having access to housing and good jobs and good health insurance, and the world is changing.”

Zehnder-Merrell says many budget and program cuts and made in the Legislature have exacerbated child poverty issues. That includes a proposed four-year cap on cash assistance that is set for a final vote when lawmakers return to Lansing next week.

Nick Busse / Flickr

Republican leaders in the state Senate say they will push for a February 28th closed presidential primary date.

That’s one week earlier than the National Republican Party rules allow. National GOP rules state that only four states are allowed to hold primaries before Super Tuesday in March without penalty.

Michigan is not one of those states. Penalties could include having convention delegates stripped.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says they plan to stick with a primary on February 28th.

“Michigan is going to be really relevant in the decision making process because of this date, but I don’t think we’re doing anything outlandish that would cause the national committee to be upset with us.”

The Michigan Republican Party has not specified a desired primary date. The party is leaving the primary date decision up to lawmakers.

The chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Robert Schostak, says he is not too concerned with being penalized for the decision:

“The penalties are somewhat unclear. They haven’t been determined by the committee in finality. But if we would be penalized by losing delegates and we were trading that for relevancy, my sense is that the Legislature and the state committee that would be ultimately deciding on this are okay with it.”

Both the Republican and Democratic parties in Michigan were penalized in 2008 for holding an early primary. The parties were stripped of half their convention delegates.

The primary election is estimated to cost $10 million. Taxpayers would foot the bill.

Laura Weber / Michigan Public Radio Network

A busload of lawmakers and state officials toured parts of Detroit today that would be affected by a proposed second bridge between Detroit and Canada.

The tour began at the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, where the owners defended their proposal to build a second span and prevent the state from building a publicly owned bridge.  

Matthew Maroun is a member of the family that owns the Ambassador Bridge. He says his company saves taxpayers from having to pay for a new bridge:

State lawmakers are scheduled to return next week to the Capitol from their two-month summer break. However this week a handful of legislators will head to Detroit as discussions intensify over whether to build a publicly owned bridge to Canada.

A group of lawmakers will tour the site proposed for a second bridge from Detroit to Canada. And they will hear from parties interested in and opposed to building the second span. The tour and meetings are expected to last all day, and Senate hearings on the bridge issue will resume when lawmakers return next week. Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley says Governor Rick Snyder’s administration is serious about getting the project approved before the end of the year.

As for the governor, this week he is in the Upper Peninsula, touring businesses and meeting with community leaders. A spokeswoman for the governor says the bridge in Detroit could come up in those meetings. She says a bridge in the southern part of the state is still an important issue in the UP because the infrastructure would have a big impact on agriculture and businesses throughout the state.

A new tax on all health insurance claims waits for approval from lawmakers in the state House. As Michigan Public Radio’s Laura Weber reports, the tax is essential to balance the budget for the coming fiscal year.

Lawmakers must approve the health insurance claims tax in order to replace the existing tax on Medicaid HMOs. The federal government is expected to rule later this year that the existing Medicaid tax is illegal. To continue to receive funds from the federal government to help pay for Medicaid the state must approve the new tax on insurance claims.

Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they do not like the new tax proposal – Republicans saying they will not vote for a new tax, and some Democrats arguing that it would disproportionately affect some seniors who had their pensions taxed earlier this year.

The House is expected to approve the tax changes when lawmakers return in a couple weeks.

Five public employee unions say they will bargain with the state as a single unit on economic issues. Governor Rick Snyder is asking the unions to find $260 million in savings.   

Cindy Estrada with the UAW says there is a common assumption that when the state asks for savings from unions, that means employee wages will be docked or workers will be laid off. But she says that should not be the case.  

“That doesn’t just happen by coming to workers and saying ‘you need to give back.’ It happens by looking at what are the real problems in the state.”         

Public employee unions representing more than half of the state’s workers say there are structural changes that should be made. And they say the changes could save the state more than Governor Rick Snyder asked for. Those changes include reducing the number of managers compared to frontline workers and fewer privatized contracts for public services.

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