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

Library of Congress

The idea of an Earned Income Tax Credit, giving people who have low-income jobs a bit of a tax break, has been around for a while.  In 1975, a Michigan Republican, Gerald Ford, signed the first federal credit into law while he was president.

I was sifting through the many reports by Gongwer News Service.  Gongwer covers just about everything that happens in and around the Lansing capitol complex.  What caught my eye was an article entitled "State Estimates Tax Expenditures of $33.8 Billion for FY'11." 

I read through the Gongwer story which linked to a 111-page report by the Michigan Department of Treasury.

MDHS

There are close to 10-million people in Michigan.  And almost three-million are now receiving some kind of state assistance.  Half of them are children.

“A lot of them are my next-door neighbors.  It’s bad in Michigan right now.  And people are in a position where they’ve never been," says Becky Clark, who works with the Michigan Department of Human Services in Lenawee County.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The money the state sends to local governments is called revenue sharing.  But "sharing" might not be quite the right word.  It’s actually a promise, a deal the state made with the towns we live in. 

Summer Minnick is with the Michigan Municipal League.  It represents the interests of the cities, villages and townships to state leaders.  She says decades ago, local governments gave up the power to charge their own sales tax to raise money.

Governor's office

Over the last decade, factories have closed.  People have lost their jobs. Some have had their hours cut.  Some have had their wages cut.  It’s been hard for many Michigan families. 

With so many people hurting, it’s easy to look around and get a little resentful when people who work for the government still have their jobs. 

More than 53,000 state workers --from the people who sweep the floors in the capitol to lawyers in the Attorney General’s office to engineers in the Department of Transportation-- still seem to be doing okay.

Rick Snyder begins his new job as Michigan Governor.  Snyder took the oath of office on the steps of the capitol under sunny skies and and falling temperatures.

Following his campaign theme, Governor Snyder outlined four goals as he called for Michigan to reinvent itself.

“We will be a globally competitive leader in innovation.  Number two:  we will create more and better jobs.  Number three:  we will create a bright future for our young people.  And finally, we will do this together and not leave some behind,” Snyder said during his inaugural address.

Lani Chisnell / Michigan Radio

The state budget amounts to $47-billion.  There’s a predicted shortfall of $1.6-billion in the upcoming fiscal year budget.  But, maybe $1.6-billion out of $47-billion isn't that bad.  Just cut everything by three-and-a-half percent and, Voila!  Everything’s fixed.

Steve Chrypinski / Michigan Radio

The incoming governor and new leaders of the legislature know they have a lot of work ahead of them.  The State of Michigan’s finances are a mess.  After a decade of cuts to education, prisons, arts, tourism and everything else, it appears more cuts are coming.  Lester Graham with Michigan Watch reports it’s not clear what the new government leaders are going to do, but they say it begins with some tough decisions about the budget.

rickforMI

Business groups say Michigan’s regulations and the state’s regulators make it more difficult to do business in the state than it needs to be.  During his campaign for governor, businessman Rick Snyder made it clear he agreed with that.

“Our regulatory system is backwards in this state.  Not only the amount of regulation, but how people are being treated.  Lansing is treating us as if we’re bad and should be controlled.  The average person is a good, honest person.  The average organization is trying to succeed.  We should be focused in on the exceptions.”

Don’t misunderstand.  Businesses in Michigan often complain about the red tape.  There are plenty of stories about Michigan government bogging down any attempts by business to expand in the state or to build new plants here.  But, it’s hard to determine whether those complaints are business people just griping about any kind of restrictions placed on them… or a real problem within the state’s bureaucracy.

So, let’s look at some of the ways you measure that.

rickformi flickr photostream

Rick Snyder says the way government works in Michigan doesn’t work.

“Now government.  It’s time for bureaucracy to go away.  It’s been with us a hundred-plus years.  It doesn’t work.  It is time for a new model.  It is time for customer service government.  The role of government is to treat you, the citizen, as the customer and look at life through your eyes and say ‘How can we help you succeed and how can we get out of your way.’”

Bentley Historical Library

Its critics called it "naive idealism."

In the 1950s, the United States' answer to the global spread of Communism had been military strength and monetary aid to prop up nations friendly to the U.S., including dictators and other authoritarian governments.

That changed late one chilly night on the campus of the University of Michigan when Democratic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy, challenged students to help the world.

They took it seriously. They organized. They made a proposal, and Kennedy embraced it.

He called it the Peace Corps.

In "Kennedy and the Peace Corps: Idealism on the Ground" you'll hear from some of the students who took on Kennedy's challenge and the White House staff who helped make it reality.

Listen to the documentary here:

Hundreds of brokers for oil and gas companies are offering landowners in northern lower Michigan contracts to drill for natural gas. Energy companies are betting the access to deep shale gas reserves will pay off big. But landowners don't always know about the risks.

An exploratory well has produced good results from a new source of natural gas in northern lower Michigan. So, energy companies have hired agents, called landmen to go knocking on doors of private landowners, trying to get them to sign contracts to lease their land for drilling.

Bureau of Land Management

A regulatory agency in Michigan says it can handle a new type of drilling for natural gas. That's what regulators in other states said before complaints about water contamination and leaking gas started coming in.

World Resources Institute

When the Great Lakes water levels fell a few years ago, people began thinking more about how much water we use. Now, this new kind of drilling, called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, again is causing concern about how we use water.

Water already has been used for vertical hydraulic fracturing in thousands of gas wells in Michigan. It takes about 50,000 gallons to drill each well and fracture shale layers underground to release the natural gas.

Horizontal fracturing, also called horizontal fracking, uses a hundred times more water.

Lester Graham

Environmentalists are concerned drilling for new sources of natural gas in Michigan could contaminate water. They're basing that on reports from other states that blame a new method of drilling for contaminating their water.

This new kind of drilling is called horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Until recently in Michigan, it was only used in vertical wells. Drill down, pump water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into a layer of shale, fracture it and release the natural gas trapped there.

Creative Commons photo by user Meridithw

Michigan could be seeing the beginning of a new boom in drilling for natural gas. Leases for drilling rights are going for unheard of prices in northern-lower Michigan.

Drilling for natural gas in Michigan is not new. The first natural gas production began in the 1930s according to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Since then we've seen drilling booms come and go.

Lester Graham

The way we pay for schools changed a lot back in 1994 when voters passed Proposal A. Before Proposal A, much of the support for the schools came from local property taxes. But voters passed increase after increase and in some districts property taxes got so high that people, especially senior citizens, couldn't afford to live in their homes. Michigan had some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

Lester Graham

School districts across the state have been cutting staff and freezing teacher pay to get through budget cuts made by the state.

Iris Salters is President of the Michigan Education Association, a labor union. She says teachers and other school officials are dealing with the cuts, but it's getting to the point where it's affecting the education your kids are getting.

Lester Graham

Michigan legislators hear from educators all the time about money for schools. But legislators, for the most part, are not hearing from parents and other taxpayers.

Tom White is with the SOS (Save Our Students Schools and State), a coaltion of education managers, the P-T-A and others. He says until the public really pressures lawmakers with protests, phone calls and petitions (what the legislators refer to as blood in the streets'), not much is going to be done about more money for schools.

Lester Graham

Getting your budget cut is no fun, and that's exactly what's happened to schools in Michigan. Generally speaking, educators know why that's happened. Michigan's economy tanked and that's affected the tax dollars coming in for schools.

Steve Carmody

You can hardly find a bar in Michigan that doesn't feature video screens offering you a chance to get rich and help Michigan schools. The lottery has done such a good marketing job of telling players they're helping Michigan schools that people have an inflated idea of how much the lottery money helps.

David Martell is the Executive Director of Michigan School Business Officials. He says it's true the Lottery does help.

Lester Graham

Michigan's schools are required by law to have a budget by June 30th. The legislature doesn't have to complete its budget until September 30th. So for the schools, it's hard to figure out a budget when you don't know how much money you're going to get from the state.

"I mean, that's crazy," said Tom White, Chair of a group called SOS (Save Our Students Schools and State), "We don't know until it's so late in our budgeting year, because every year the legislature appropriates funds, but they don't get around to it in a timely fashion.

Erika Celeste / Environment Report

This documentary is an in-depth look at the future of coal in this country.

The Environment Report explores the role that coal plays in our lives and in the lives of those who depend on coal mining for a living.

Can coal truly be a viable option in the new green economy?

Listen to the Documentary:

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Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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