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

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.


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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.


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.


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.