Lester Graham

Investigative Reporter

Lester Graham is with Michigan Watch, the investigative unit of Michigan Radio. 

He was formerly the Senior Editor of The Environment Report/Great Lakes Radio Consortium, the environmental news service based at Michigan Radio, starting with the service in 1998. 

He has been a journalist since 1985.  Graham has served as a board member of Public Radio News Directors Inc., and also served as President of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. He is a member of the Radio-Television Digital News Association(RTDNA), Society of Professional Journalists and other professional groups. 

Graham received more than 100 awards at the state, regional, national and international levels for journalistic excellence, including four RTDNA Edward R. Murrow awards, two of them at the network level.

Twitter: @MichiganWatch

Facebook link

email:  llgraham@umich.edu

Ways To Connect

It appears a superPAC and other political groups are coordinating their purchases of TV ads running in Michigan.  This means a more efficient use of secret money to influence voters.

Michigan TV stations across the state are running a series of ads critical of President Obama and his administration.

Here's an example of one of the ads.

The Michigan legislature will soon vote on whether to shift more of the state’s tax burden from business to households.  Last year the legislature and the governor shifted about one-and-a-half billion dollars in tax payments from small and medium sized businesses to retirees and the working poor. This year there’s a proposal to cut another business tax. That proposed tax cut could mean higher real estate taxes for homeowners and revenue cuts to local governments.

user Biodun / themedicalhealthplus.com

Elected state officials in Michigan can be more secretive about money than federal officials. At the state level, the disclosure laws on money and politics make it easier to hide conflicts of interest and influence on politicians.

When Governor Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State address last January, he tucked into it a quick mention about making state government more open.

Wyoming Upper Green River Valley / Flickr

This is a speech I recently gave to a Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism meeting in Detroit on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing.

BENEFITS

According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, we are seeing an unprecedented drop in the price of natural gas in comparison to oil prices.

Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel. In 2002, oil was about $20 a barrel.

Natural gas is currently at 2002 prices. In fact, the price of natural gas is half of what it was one year ago.

Why? Because of abundant supplies of natural gas, what the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls “robust inshore production.”

There is a glut of gas.

This increased supply is mostly due to hydraulic fracturing. More importantly, a newer way to use the drilling method, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal ‘fracking’ has made it easier and cheaper to extract natural gas from shale deposits in the U.S. and other sites around the globe.

Horizontal fracking has meant a boom in gas drilling and production. It’s meant more jobs in certain areas of the country. It’s meant greater dependence on domestic energy, and less dependence on foreign energy.

Because burning natural gas emits about half of the CO2 emissions of coal or oil, it means less of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

It’s meant families can heat their homes more cheaply.

That all sounds good, right?

Well, it’s not ALL good.

 Michigan Watch is working with the online magazine Bridge in a year-long collaboration, following families who were cut from welfare cash assistance by a Department of Human Services decision late last year. 

Eleven thousand Michigan families were cut from welfare cash assistance late last year. Cash assistance is the $500 a month or so that helps the poorest families pay their bills and rent.  The Department of Human Services says the state can’t afford the cost.  So, the agency cut off those who’d been on welfare the longest. Advocates for the poor say there’s no need for those cuts… there’s plenty of federal money to pay for the benefits.

While the agency and advocates argue and maneuver in court, thousands of families are in trouble. Here's one family's story.

MI Supreme Court

Lots of campaign money is being spent to influence the election of Michigan Supreme Court justices. That makes people wonder how judges can be impartial. After  all, some of the justices owe their position on the bench to people who have given them millions of dollars.

Every election cycle more and more money is being spent to help candidates for justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. With three seats on the court in contention this year, the amount of money is likely to break all records.

Michigan Radio and Bridge Magazine are collaborating on a year-long look at the families terminated from Michigan's welfare cash assistance. This is the latest installment from Bridge.

By Ron French/Bridge Magazine

Todd Stafford has an uncontrollable neurological disorder that causes him to beat himself in the head hundreds of times a day. The beatings have made him blind and caused his head to “look like Frankenstein,” he says. His wife, Tina Stafford, doesn’t have a job because someone needs to be at their St. Joseph County home in case Todd injures himself seriously.

(Click here for the entire story.)

Michigan’s Republican presidential primary elections are over.  But, primary elections for federal and state legislators are in August.

Already out-of-state groups are spending tons of money to influence Michigan voters.

Big money often buys votes. Usually, that includes a lot of big money from out-of-state groups.

Many voters suspect politicians are corrupted by money. Campaign contributions and cozy relationships with lobbyists make voters wonder if their elected officials have their best interests at heart. That’s led to attempts to fix the problem in Michigan, but observers say sometimes the ‘fix’ makes the problem worse.

Politicians need money to run campaigns to win elections. And often that money comes from the rich and powerful. But what do those politicians get in return?

user tobym / Flickr

This election year, money will drive the conversation in politics more than usual because of  recent Supreme Court decisions. They opened the floodgates of cash, allowing groups called Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of federal candidates. We’re getting just a small sampling during the presidential primary.  This fall, Michigan will see a lot of money from outside the state coming in to buy tons of ads—most of them negative—to sway voters here.

Money can’t vote. But it certainly can affect the outcome of an election. And that bothers voters such as William Mayor.

The online magazine Bridge and Michigan Watch are collaborating on a year-long series of reports about the Michigan families who were removed from welfare. The Department of Human Services changed how it applied eligibility rules, resulting in thousands of Michigan families losing cash assistance from the state. Often that money was used for rent payments.

The latest stories come from Ron French of Bridge.

Welfare reform leaves families without a net, and off the radar

Three months after the launch of an aggressive welfare reform, Michigan has kicked more people off the dole than expected and saved the state millions of dollars. How the approximately 15,000 families cut off from cash assistance are surviving, though, isn’t as clear.  (Read entire article here.)

Daily life gets harder for three families

Her family is paying her rent; food stamps get her and her children most of the way through the month. But three months after being kicked off welfare, Matthews says she’s received cut-off notices for her electricity, gas and water. (Read the whole story here.)

user "Dmitri" Beljan / Flickr

Some Republicans in the Michigan House want to give workers in union shops the option not to pay union dues. Unions in the state say that’s something that they’d “take to the streets” to fight. 

But not all union members agree.

Terry Bowman works at a Ford plant in Ypsilanti. He’s a member of the United Auto Workers.

He calls himself a 'union conservative.'

user bettyx1138 / Flickr

The Michigan House of Representatives is expected to bring HB 4936 to the floor for a vote soon.

That legislation would significantly change Michigan’s auto no-fault Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage.

Here is a quick overview of what we have now, the proposed changes, and the potential consequences of those changes.

1. What we have now

There’s some confusion about changing no-fault. It’s not the “no-fault” part that would change. It’s the Personal Injury Protection portion of auto insurance that would change.

Photozou

Next year is an election year. That means lots of campaign literature in the mail, lots of ads on the television,   and, maybe worst of all, robo-calls. Those are the recorded calls that automatically dial your phone…usually right at dinner time. There are a lot of them now, but there could be a lot more in the future.

Even one of the guys who makes robo-calls happen knows most people don’t really like them.

“Everybody hates them. I think that they’re universally hated.”

Last month, more than 11,000 families were kicked off Michigan’s Family Independence Program, a cash assistance welfare program.

Lester Graham with Michigan Watch is working with the online magazine Bridge in a year-long collaboration, following families who’ve lost the state assistance. 

The legislature has been blamed for the loss of benefits to those 11,000 families, but its vote to restrict families to 48 months of benefits in a lifetime only immediately affected about 100 families.

It was an administrative decision by the Department of Human Services which resulted in kicking all those other families off of cash assistance. 

The new law allows no more than 48 months of benefits in a lifetime and it started counting months in 2007.  On its own, the agency, started counting months in 1996 and decided anyone who’d received help for more than 60 months since then would be cut off. 

That’s how those 11,000 families suddenly lost cash assistance.

Michigan legislators are considering changing insurance benefits for people badly injured in auto accidents.  The sponsors of the legislation say it will lower the price of auto insurance.  Some analysts say it will mean people who are severely hurt won’t get the care they need and argue in the end won’t save much money at all.

A Michigan Department of Human Services office in Detroit was the scene of protests, confusion, and anger this morning.  This was the day people losing welfare cash assistance had a chance to challenge that decision, but the hearings were delayed.

People losing cash-assistance were told to be at the Department of Humans Services office at 8 o’clock this morning and to be prepared to spend the day waiting for their teleconferenced hearing to be conducted.  Three hours later, the hearings had not started.

user H.L.I.T. / Flickr

Michigan legislators are looking at changing the state’s mandatory auto no-fault insurance.  But some of the legislators say the information they need from insurance companies to make an informed decision has not been available to them.  Regulators say legislators and the public wouldn’t be able to understand the information even if it were made available.

Class and the courts

Nov 21, 2011

There, perhaps, is no moment in life when the difference in class is more apparent than when you are accused of a crime.  The wealthy hire the best lawyer they can.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided.  But, the kind of attorney you get in Michigan all depends on where you live.

Class segregation

Nov 14, 2011
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is not just a matter of bank accounts. More and more it determines where you live. 

We’ve all heard about racial segregation. Whites live one place. Blacks live in another. There are all kinds of ethnic neighborhoods. But in the last 40 years, racial-ethnic segregation has moderated somewhat--although it is still high. But socioeconomic segregation, segregation by class, is on the rise.

Over the course of the next year Michigan Watch, the investigative/accountability unit of Michigan Radio, and Bridge Magazine, the online magazine put together by the Center for Michigan, will be collaborating on coverage of Michigan families who were dropped from cash assistance welfare.

If you want to build a new home, you want an architect who can take your lifestyle and design a home around it. When it comes to building an environmentally-friendly house, you might even want someone who challenges you a little.

I was at the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference earlier this month to moderate a panel on America’s oldest net-zero energy home. That house happens to be here in Michigan and owned by Matt Grocoff. Matt wanted me to meet one of the architects leading the green building movement. His name is Eric Corey Freed.

As we talked to Freed at the conference… I wondered if people knew what they were getting into when they decided to build green…

“I think most people just assume I’m going to slap solar on it and be done.”

Solar. Yeah, it’s the sexy add-on that everyone seems to want. But Freed says solar is way too expensive unless first the house is built to be as energy efficient as possible. That means basic things… like proper insulation… which is not so sexy.

“Well, I think insulation is sexy, frankly. I mean, I think everybody should get naked and roll around in it. Not in the fiberglass! Because that could hurt. Maybe the recycled cotton one, that’d be pretty cozy. But remember, to me insulation is like chocolate: the more you have the better it is. So just bring it on.”

Update 3:35 p.m.

A state House committee has approved major changes to Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance.

The legislation would cap medical fees and restrict the kind of care people who are badly hurt in car accidents could get.

As it is now, if someone is catastrophically injured in a car accident, no-fault Personal Injury Protection pays for all necessary medical and rehabilitation expenses.

It’s unlimited, lifetime benefits if necessary.

This new bill would limit medical fees, and it would give motorists the choice to purchase $500,000, $1 million, or $5 million worth of coverage.

After that, you’re on your own.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference was held in Toronto this week.  “Greenbuild 2011” was four days of seminars, classes, and discussions about how to construct buildings and homes, using more environmentally friendly methods. 

Chelsea Hagger / Michigan Public Radio Network

Advocates hoping to keep the Michigan No Fault Personal Injury Protection auto insurance told members of the Michigan House of Representatives Insurance Committee that it would be a mistake to change the law. 

The hearing was packed with an overflow crowd spilling into other rooms to watch the proceedings on TVs. 

Reports from Lansing:  Three overflow rooms have been opened in the House office building to fit the huge crowd there to hear testimony about proposed changes to the no-fault Personal Injury Protection auto insurance.

user H.L.I.T. / Flickr

Tomorrow (TUES.) the Michigan legislature holds the first hearings on bills that would change the state’s no-fault auto insurance.  Legislators say auto insurance is too high and they want to allow people to buy less coverage. 

Right now, people who buy car insurance in Michigan also have to purchase something called Personal Injury Protection.  But, Representative Pete Lund says drivers who don't want the coverage should by law be able to pay for something less.

“I think it’s good to give people the options in life.”

Mia MacDonald / Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize died on Sunday in her native Kenya.  She was 71.

The New York Times reports:

The cause was cancer, her organization, the Green Belt Movement, said. Kenyan news organizations said she had been treated for ovarian cancer in the past year and had been in a hospital for at least a week when she died.

Maathai was a leading environmentalist and feminist as well as a human-rights advocate.  She has also worked to encourage nations around the world to work together to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

During an interview on Michigan Radio's The Environment Report in 2009 (click on audio above), Maathai also called on everyone to help work to solve the global warming problem.

"I think it’s very important to encourage farmers, individual citizens to plant trees. And, I’m very happy to know that in some of your states, tree planting has been embraced as one of the solutions. It’s one of the activities that every one of us citizens can do and feel good about it, and teach kids to do it, because every tree will count. And when there are 7 billion of us, almost, in the whole world, so you can imagine, if every one of us planted a tree and made sure that tree survived – can you imagine the impact?"

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

While doing some research for a story, I went back over some data issued by the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information last May. 

It might not be surprising that the number of traffic crashes is lowest during years of a down economy.  After all, there’s less commercial traffic and there are fewer people driving to work because so many are unemployed. 

(Springfield, IL)  Governor Rick Snyder is in Asia on a trade mission to China, Korea and Japan.  He’s not the only Midwestern governor there.  The governors of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana's Lt. Governor are also taking trade delegations to Asia. 

The four Midwestern governors will be meeting  in Japan with Japanese and other Asian political and business leaders.   They’re working to kick start trade with Asian countries.  China is particularly important because it’s one of the few nations where the economy is growing.

Charlie Wheeler was a long time statehouse reporter in Illinois.   He says  the chief executive officer of a state can carry symbolic weight in trade negotiations.

“And I think it makes a lot of sense for the Governor of Illinois, of Michigan and any other Midwestern state, any state in the union for that matter, to try and open up more markets in China, to establish the kind of personal relationships that in the business world often help to carry out these negotiations.”

The governor of North Carolina will be  next in the parade of U.S. governors touring Asia. She leaves for a trade mission there next month.

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