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Lester Graham

Reporter/Host of Stateside

Lester Graham splits his time between hosting Stateside (Fridays) and reporting for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC). He was formerly the Senior Editor of The Environment Report, 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 the 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.

Lester has 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

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?"

Car rear ended another car in Ann Arbor.
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.

The Michigan legislature and the governor are working to make Michigan a more business-friendly state by changing the tax structure.  But, while businesses are benefiting from already passed tax reductions --and anticipate more--  the change is costing communities. 

I went to one city to see how it was handling those changes.

When I visited, it was a beautiful day in downtown Monroe.  The city is situated on the River Raisin in the southeast corner of the state, right on Lake Erie.  It’s just 19 miles north of Toledo, Ohio.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Michigan lawmakers are considering eliminating the Personal Property Tax.  That’s a tax businesses pay on equipment.  The money goes directly to local units of government.  Businesses say it’s a complicated tax that punishes them for investing in equipment.  Cities, townships, counties and schools say if the tax is eliminated, that revenue has to be replaced. 

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

For most Michigan kids, today is the first day back to school.  And many are taking backpacks full of school supplies. They are not required to take school supplies. By state law the public schools are to supply everything students need for class. 

When you add it all up, the new school clothes, gym shoes, and all those binders, crayons, paper, pens and pencils, back-to-school shopping is big business.

“It’s really become probably the second biggest shopping period of the year, right behind Christmas.”

That’s Tom Scott with Michigan Retailers Association. One national estimate puts back-to-school shopping at about 16 percent of retail business in a year. It’s difficult to separate just how much of that is actual school supplies and not clothes or computers. 

The school districts always put out a long list of things kids might need for school and parents start hunting.

Robbie Howell / Flickr

The Michigan legislature is considering bills to end the state’s mandatory no-fault auto insurance.  Its supporters say it will give consumers more choices and help reduce cost of auto insurance.  Opponents say it’s a misguided effort that will have very little effect on insurance rates and could mean people who suffer injuries won’t get the help they need to fully recover. 

Kristin Howard was driving, taking an interstate to work on a summer day in 2006 when her life was changed forever.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Part 3 of 3 part series -

Salmon fishing has meant a lot of tourism dollars for cities along the coasts.  But, changes in Lake Huron have caused a collapse of salmon.  But, what if other Great Lakes lose their salmon?

Fishing for salmon on some parts of Lake Huron is still a big deal.

INTERNET AUDIO ADVERTISEMENT

“This July for the first annual Mackinaw City Salmon Festival..."

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Part 2 of a 3 part series -

Fishing in the Great Lakes would not be what it is today without stocking Pacific salmon in the lakes.  But it costs a lot of money.  Michigan fisheries managers say it’s worth every dime.  In the second report of the series 'The Collapse of the Salmon Economy," we look at the economic benefits of subsidizing salmon fishing in the Great Lakes.

In the 1960s, the state of Michigan first put salmon into the Great Lakes.  It was a gamble to create world-class recreational fishing. 

Michigan spends about $8-million a year stocking salmon and other types of fish.  But the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t really know how many fish we’re catching for those millions of dollars.

Gary Whelan is in charge of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries. 

“I wouldn’t say we have no idea.  I think we have a ballpark.  We don’t have a great estimate.  We would like to have a lot better estimates than we have now.  I would absolutely agree with that.”

A Michigan Watch analysis found the cost for each fish caught in Michigan waters ranges from a couple of dollars to $150 per fish caught, depending on species and depending on year.  We use catch estimates used by some other Great Lakes states.

The Michigan DNR’s Gary Whelan questions those estimates and our calculations.

And… he says besides, we’re looking at it all wrong.  It’s not about the cost per hatchery-raised fish caught; it’s about what those salmon mean to Michigan’s economy. 

“You have lots of people, for example, who are catch-and-release fishermen who will never take fish home.  But, they’re spending a lot of money to go fishing for this fish or the opportunity to fish for them.”

And stocking Pacific salmon does attract anglers from all over.

Headed out to go salmon fishing on Lake Michigan near Grand Haven.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

To understand why salmon are so important to the Great Lakes and the Michigan economy, you first have to understand some history.

It used to be the lake trout was the fish to catch.  It was big.  It was tasty.  But, by the late 1950s, that fish and others had been severely over-fished.  And, an eel-like, blood-sucking parasite called the sea lamprey further reduced lake trout numbers.

Those weren’t even the worst problems for lake trout.  A fish called the alewife invaded the Great Lakes through manmade canals.  Lake trout starting feeding on alewives.  But  alewives caused a thiamine deficiency in lake trout.  A lack of vitamin B-1.

Mark Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission

“The thiamine deficiency that the alewives cause is one of the top reasons why natural reproduction has been very slow to occur over the decades in the Great Lakes of these species.”

Catching a lake trout became rare.

Rick Snyder said the Michigan Business Tax was bad for business. 

 “I propose replacing it with a flat six-percent corporate income tax.  Let’s take a job-killer environment; let’s start creating jobs.”

He said it on the campaign trail.  He made the point to business leaders.

I can only imagine, thinking you might have been exposed to HIV might be one of the scariest things of a person’s life.  Am I infected?  Will I get AIDS? 

Even more traumatic, is contracting it because you were sexually assaulted.

David—not his real name— says he was at a bar one night late in 2009.  He was hoping for a ride home.  He ended up at another man’s house and they had sex.  David says it was unwanted, that it was sexual assault.

“He doesn’t think he assaulted me.  So, uhm.  But, he was going to against my will.”

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Everybody’s got a theory why gasoline prices shot up.

“I think gas prices are up because we’re getting our gas from the wrong place.  We need to get gas from Alaska.”

“I think gas prices are up because it’s summertime and everybody wants to travel and it’s a conspiracy.”

 “Government regulators are not willing to rein in Wall Street.  If you can speculate on a commodity and you have a hedge fund that’s big enough, you can affect prices and earn profits.”

A brief look at wind energy in Michigan, using American Wind Energy Association data and other sources.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio's Lester Graham moderated a panel discussion looking into the current state of brownfield redevelopment in Michigan at the Mackinac Policy Conference last week.

He spoke with Michael Finney, the President and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and James Clift, the Policy Director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

They talked about Governor Snyder's plan to replace the current system of brownfield tax credits with up-front grant money for redevelopment.

You can watch the discussion below.

Environmental Panel: Reinvention vs. Redevelopment

Yesterday, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced new requirements to address public concern about potential pollution connected with horizontal fracturing (fracking) for natural gas.

From the DEQ news release:

The requirements, issued as New Permitting Instructions by the state Supervisor of Wells, include:

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

UPDATE 11:13 a.m.:

At the request of Michigan Watch, the Michigan Department of Human Services retrieved data regarding the number of unclaimed bodies during the calendar year 2010.  The DHS reports State Emergency Relief (SER) payments were made to help 7,099 indigent burials.  Of that number, 125 were unclaimed bodies.    Since the new budget will limit (SER) funds to unclaimed bodies only, this will mean the amount of funds used for indigent burials will drop from about $4-million to an estimated $4-thousand.

May 23, 2011, 9:33 a.m.:

Governor Rick Snyder says he wants to create a more focused approach to getting young children ready for school.  The Governor says Michigan’s publicly and privately funded early childhood programs are fragmented, segmented; there’s not a coherent effort. 

Michigan Geographic Framework

States must redraw congressional and legislative maps to adjust for the shifts in population when the census numbers are released every ten years.  This time Michigan lost population while other states gained.  That means Michigan will lose a representative in Congress.  But there were also shifts of population within the state which means the state house and senate districts will have to be redrawn.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Michigan legislature and Governor Rick Snyder are considering a new tax structure for the state.  It would cut the state budget and shift some of the tax burden from businesses to individuals.  The Governor has said up to two-thirds of Michigan’s businesses might not have to file a state tax return at all.  Reporters Lester Graham and Bridget Bodnar with Michigan Watch learned that means some legislators who own businesses could be voting to cut their own taxes.

photo by Vincent Duffy

The Michigan Freedom of Information Act is 34-years-old this month.  According to a ranking by the Better Government Association, it’s one of the stronger Freedom of Information laws in the United States. 

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal would change how we fund public schools. That change would start with a cut to schools at a time when the School Aid Fund is growing.

The School Aid Fund is one of the main sources of money for K-12 public schools. Since it was established by the 1908 Michigan Constitution and even though in the 1963 Constitution “higher education” was added, the money in the School Aid Fund only has been used to pay for educating public school children. That is, until this year. 

The last legislature ‘borrowed’ a couple of hundred-million dollars from the School Aid Fund to give to community colleges. I say ‘borrowed,’ but there’s no indication that it’s going to be paid back.

Federal stimulus money helped make up the difference. But for this coming fiscal year, there is no more federal stimulus money.

Bill Rice / Flickr

It was only a few months ago that Republican Rick Snyder and the majority Republican legislature were voted into office. Snyder said on the campaign trail that he wanted to change the way state government works.

He promised to “re-invent” Michigan.  People liked the sound of that.

As he’s revealed the path to his vision of Michigan, not everyone is pleased. 

(sound of protestors in capitol)

Union members, Democrats, public employees, retirees and the poor have been holding rallies at the capitol about as often as the legislature meets in Lansing.

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