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

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Investigative
4:20 pm
Wed April 27, 2011

Some legislators voting to eliminate their own business taxes

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.

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FOIA
9:20 am
Wed April 20, 2011

State Police want big bucks for public documents

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. 

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Investigative
8:49 am
Fri April 8, 2011

Shifting money away from schools

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.

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Investigative
8:43 am
Tue March 15, 2011

What will the 'Michigan reinvention' look like?

Rick Snyder campaigned on "reinventing" Michigan.
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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Investigative
9:55 am
Thu March 10, 2011

Taxing the working poor

Rick Snyder talked about reinventing Michigan on the campaign trail (Snyder at the Republican Convention in 2010). Now, Governor Snyder says he's creating a "level playing field that encourages economic growth" with his budget proposal.
Bill Rice Flickr

When the budget was introduced, it was left to Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley to explain some of the details.  Among them was the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit, a move that would take away a tax break for the state’s working poor.

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Investigative
10:05 am
Fri March 4, 2011

State income tax on pensions

Seniors drawing pensions could be taxed under Governor Snyder's new tax proposal.
Flickr

When he presented his budget to the legislature, Governor Snyder explained part of the shared sacrifice would be taxing public and private pensions.  There is no state income tax on pensions right now.  The Governor noted, retirees still use government services.  He also said there are some retirees who are still working, paying the current 4.35% in state income taxes.  He said taxing pensions is a matter of fairness to people of retirement age who are still working.

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Investigative
12:21 pm
Thu March 3, 2011

Eliminating business tax credits

Alan Cleaver Flickr

Update 12:21 p.m.

The State of Michigan will have to honor some tax credits for years to come because of contractual obligations.  In a speech today, Governor Snyder indicated over the next four years, the state was on the hook for $2-billion dollars in credits.  About $500-million of that is in next year's budget. 

March 2nd, 8:23a.m.

Governor Snyder says his approach to taxes in Michigan is “simple, fair, and efficient.”  One way the Governor wants to make the tax structure more fair is by eliminating all tax credits for business.  It’s a controversial move which surprised many people in Lansing.

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Investigative
10:27 am
Thu February 24, 2011

More cuts to public universities?

Governor Snyder's budget calls for further cuts to public universities.
user dig downtown detroit Flickr

For eight years, year after year, the state of Michigan has been cutting the money it distributes among the 15 public universities.

“We haven’t been chiseling around the edges.  We haven’t been making minor adjustments.  We’ve been really making huge cuts.”

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Investigative
2:11 pm
Fri February 18, 2011

How did we get in this budget mess?

You can talk about tax structure and decisions by governors and legislatures in the past, but above all, the state's financial difficulties have to do with the economy.  

Because Michigan has been heavily reliant on manufacturing, specifically the automakers and their many suppliers, Michigan has been hit especially hard.

Mitch Bean is the Director of the House Fiscal Agency.  Basically, he’s one of the economists who keeps the legislature informed about the economy and the state’s budget.

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Investigative
12:48 pm
Fri February 18, 2011

Money and tips to avoid foreclosure

The national rate of foreclosures has slowed
User thinkpanama Flickr

Nationwide and in Michigan the rate of foreclosures has slowed a bit in recent months.  But Realty Trac experts say that’s less a sign of a robust housing recovery and more a sign that lenders have become bogged down.  They’re reviewing procedures, resubmitting paperwork and formulating legal arguments related to accusations of improper foreclosure processing, the so-called robo-signing scandal.

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Environment
10:37 am
Fri February 11, 2011

Fracking leak in Michigan

Since producing a Michigan Watch series on the "hydraulic fracking" boom in Michigan last September and October on Michigan Radio, not much has been said or done about this method of drilling for natural gas.

A leak has now put the issue back in the news.

The Associated reports a leak has shut down a drilling operation not too far from Traverse City.

It's not yet clear whether it will damage underground water sources.  It does raise questions as to whether Michigan regulations are adequate to protect the environment while exploiting the gas reserves in the state.

Investigative
9:43 am
Fri February 11, 2011

Economic gardening? What's that?

Michael Finney - As CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, he's the state's chief "economic gardener."
Photo courtesy of Inforummichigan.org and Peplin Photographic (larrypeplin.com)

When the Governor gave his State of the State speech, I was standing on the crowded floor of the House of Representatives.  Governor Rick Snyder outlined his plans to get Michigan back to work.  We all listened as he said the Michigan Economic Development Corporation would lead the way.

“The MEDC will recalibrate its efforts and become a better partner with these regional groups to enhance economic gardening, talent enhancement, and support service to companies.”

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Investigative
8:52 am
Mon January 31, 2011

'No tax hike' pledge include eliminating tax credit?

About two dozen Michigan anti-tax legislators could find themselves in a bind.  The Michigan legislature is likely to vote on eliminating the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit.  Killing the credit would mean the  lowest paid workers in the state would have to pay more in taxes.  Kelly Cobb is with the group Americans for Tax Reform.  He says if eliminating the credit meant the state got more money, it’s a violation of the “no tax hike” pledge.

“That’s where the question lies is whether or not this would bring in revenue to the state.  And as a stand-alone proposal, it would certainly do that and therefore be a pledge violation.”

There is an escape clause for legislators who signed the pledge.  If they vote to increase taxes on the working poor, and also cut taxes for business by a like amount or more, it would meet the requirements with the tax reform group.

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Investigative
5:04 pm
Fri January 28, 2011

Governor Snyder on taxing low-income workers more

Governor Rick Snyder has not yet said whether he’ll support efforts to increase state taxes on the lowest-earning workers in Michigan.  He has indicated he’ll have something to say about whether to eliminate the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit when he gives his budget address.

“Well, we’ll save that for mid-February.  But the Earned Income Credit is largely a federal program.  That’s the main driver that brings results, is the fact that it’s on your federal return.  It’s a question of how much difference does the Michigan piece of that make in terms of changing behavior.”

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Investigative
7:30 am
Fri January 28, 2011

Michigan legislature considers tax increase on working poor

The first federal tax credit for the working poor was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975.
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.

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Investigative
2:35 pm
Fri January 21, 2011

State of Michigan giving more in tax breaks than it collects

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.

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Investigative
8:25 am
Wed January 19, 2011

Medicaid-welfare cuts could cost Michigan

A snapshot of Michigan's Assistance Application.
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.

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Investigative
6:12 am
Mon January 17, 2011

Will cities, villages and townships lose revenue sharing again?

Lawmakers in Lansing may have to cut revenue sharing with local governments to fill the $1.8 billion budget hole.
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.

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Investigative
7:42 am
Fri January 14, 2011

State employees... overcompensated fat cats?

Michigan governor Rick Snyder. Snyder says cutting state worker pay is "an extremely difficult issue because you’re talking about people and their families."
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.

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Investigative
2:55 pm
Sat January 1, 2011

Snyder sworn in as governor

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.

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