Tracy Samilton

Auto Reporter/Producer

Tracy Samilton covers the auto industry, business, and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio.   She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly "bitten by the radio bug," and never recovered.  She took over the auto beat in January, 2009, just a few months before Chrysler and General Motors filed for bankruptcy.  Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio.   Her coverage of Michigan's Detroit Three automakers has taken her as far as Germany, and China. 

Tracy graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. 

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State Law
3:23 pm
Tue March 29, 2011

State Senator Rick Jones: If teachers sacrifice, everyone should

Republican state senator Rick Jones says many schools may soon demand that teachers pay at least 20-percent of their health insurance premiums. 

Jones has introduced a bill that would keep a school’s per-pupil funding intact, if teachers agree to the cuts. 

But he says teachers shouldn't be the only one making the sacrifice.

"I learned that senators and representatives pay anywhere from 5% to 7.6%, and I thought, how is that fair that we’re paying that and teachers are being asked to pay 20%?"

Jones says his new bill would require state legislators to pay 20% of their health insurance premiums. 

He has also introduced a bill to alter the lifetime health insurance that legislators receive after serving only six years, calling it “obscene.”

The bill would phase in the benefit, beginning at ten years of service.

State Law
10:15 am
Mon March 28, 2011

Bill could speed up adoptions in Michigan

A bill pending in the state legislature could speed up adoptions in Michigan. 

State law requires all adoptions be approved by only one person – the superintendent of the Michigan Children’s Institute.

That leads to delays of up to two months in getting an adoption finalized.

Maura Corrigan is Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services.

She says the superintendent should be able to choose people to act in his stead.

"We’ll be able to have the adoptions approved locally by one of his designees, instead of every local case going to Lansing and be looked at there," says Corrigan.

There are more than 4,000 children eligible for adoption in Michigan.

Politics
6:27 pm
Tue March 15, 2011

Students protest selection of Governor as U of M commencement speaker

The University of Michigan’s selection of Governor Rick Snyder as its Spring commencement speaker has sparked a protest.

U-of-M Senior Rick Durance, a history major and progressive activist, started an online petition asking University Regents to withdraw the invitation.  As of 6:15 p.m. Tuesday evening, 3,759  students have signed it.

Durance says Snyder is a poor choice because he wants to make deep cuts to state funding for K-12 schools and universities. 

Durance says it appears the Governor is only interested in helping business people. 

"This in fact is not the proper person to be speaking for us or representing us at this particular junction of our lives," says Durance.

University of Michigan spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham says it's a time-honored tradition since 1967 for the newly elected governor to present the commencement address.

She says the school is very pleased that Governor Snyder, a three-time alum of the University, was able to accept the invitation.  

Durance says there will be a 1:00 rally on Wednesday on campus against Snyder as commencement speaker. 

But he doesn't favor a commencement boycott, should the petition fail in its goal.    He says students who oppose Snyder should join protests in Lansing.  But at commencement, students should act with decorum.  

"I've already invited people, my parents are going to be there.  I want to be there.  I would not miss my own graduation for the world."

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Auto/Economy
10:20 pm
Sun March 13, 2011

Most customers think their new car dealers are honest

Most people think their dealerships are being honest about recommended repair and maintenance work.  That’s  according to an annual survey by J.D. Power.  

J.D. Power says only 7% of people say their dealer tried to sell them maintenance or repairs they didn’t need.  The practice is called “upselling.”

Research director John Obsborn says customers’ satisfaction with dealerships has been steadily improving for a decade:

" Unfortunately there are many stereotypes out there about the dealers -- but our data indicates that they provide high levels of satisfaction both in the servicing of vehicles and the selling of vehicles."

Osborn says vehicle quality has also been improving for the past ten years – and that tends to increase people’s satisfaction with their dealerships, who don’t have to give customers bad news in the form of high repair bills as often.   

The survey found little difference among perceptions of upselling between brands, luxury and non-luxury vehicles, or between men and women. 

Younger customers were, however, more likely to think their dealership was trying to sell them an unnecessary repair or maintenance.

Auto/Economy
5:43 pm
Fri March 11, 2011

Japanese car exports to U.S. threatened by tsunami

Many car plants in Japan remain closed as a result of the massive earthquake and tsunami. 

Japanese carmakers say it’s too early to know if the disaster will hurt their exports to the U.S. 

Toyota, Nissan, Subaru and Honda suspended most of their operations in Japan after the disaster, and many plants remain closed today.

Nissan says small fires broke out at two plants but the fires were quickly extinguished. 

One Honda employee in Japan was killed when a cafeteria wall collapsed at Honda’s Research & Development Center in Tochigi. 

More than thirty Honda employees were also injured in Honda facilities in Tochigi due to ceilings collapsing and other damage that took place during the earthquake.

Exports to the U.S. are threatened not just by damage to plants but damage to Japanese ports. 

There could also be parts disruptions from damage to Japanese suppliers.

stanford v. roche
6:28 pm
Thu March 10, 2011

Big research dollars at stake in Stanford v. Roche

Michigan’s research universities could have a lot at stake in the outcome of a Stanford University lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling could affect who gets the rights to nearly two billion dollars’ worth of patents that are developed as part of university-private partnerships.

Stanford sued after drug company Roche claimed the rights to a lucrative medical test.

A Stanford researcher developed the test using research techniques he learned at a private company later acquired by Roche.

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Auto
9:01 am
Thu March 10, 2011

GM CFO to step down

General Motors' CFO will step down as of April 1st
Spacing Magazine Flickr

Updated:  5:59 p.m.

Outgoing GM CFO Chris Liddell says he only began wrestling with whether to leave GM in the past few weeks, and he and boss Dan Ackerson have been discussing the subject only for the past week.

Liddell says he has no announcement to make as to his next job, but he thinks it will not be a chief financial officer position.

GM CEO Dan Akerson says the transition, from Liddell to his successor, current GM Treasurer Dan Ammanns, should be "seamless."

Akerson says he's committed to remain at the helm of GM for the next five years.  Dan Ammanns also stresses his plan to stay for the long term.

Investors in GM's initial public offering in November had been assured that GM's leadership would stabilize. 

Sheldon Stone is with Amherst Partners, a restructuring consultant firm.

Stone says some investors will likely be concerned about Liddell's departure.

"He (Liddell) was part of that road show, that went out pitching the IPO," says Stone.  "He had his fingerprints all over it. 

Stone says GM needs change.  But this may be too much change.

GM has had four CEOs in the past year.  Several senior executives have left GM in the past year.  And the deck of senior management has been shuffled and re-shuffled several times.

Ken Elias is an analyst with the consultant firm Maryann Keller & Associates. 

He says Liddell, formerly CFO of Microsoft, was brought to GM by former CEO Ed Whitaker, with the understanding that Liddell would be groomed as Whitaker's successor.

But months after Liddell began his new job at GM, Whitaker stepped down as CEO.  GM's Board chose Board member Dan Akerson to lead the company. 

Elias says that could account for Liddell's decision, after the IPO was completed, to leave GM.

 

---------------------------------

General Motors says its Chief Financial Officer will step down as of April 1st. Chris Liddell will be replaced by Treasurer Dan Ammann. The Associated Press reports:

Spokeswoman Noreen Pratscher said Thursday that Liddell accomplished his goals of finishing an initial public stock offering and returning the company to sound financial footing. She says Liddell did not say anything about his plans for the future.

Under Liddell, GM posted four straight profitable quarters.

Spokeswoman Noreen Pratscher said Liddell accomplished his goals of finishing an initial public stock offering and returning the company to sound financial footing. She says Liddell did not say anything about his plans for the future.

The 52-year-old Liddell joined GM in January of 2010, about six months after it emerged from bankruptcy protection.

Chairman and Chief Executive Dan Akerson said Liddell was a major contributor to GM during a pivotal time in the company's history.

"He guided the company's IPO process and established a good financial foundation for the future," Akerson said in a statement.

GM reported net income of $4.7 billion last year, fueled by strong sales in China and the U.S. as the global auto market began to recover. It earned $2.89 per share on revenue of $135.6 billion.

It was the company's best performance since earning $6 billion in 1999 during the height of the pickup truck and sport utility vehicle sales boom.

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Auto
5:32 pm
Mon March 7, 2011

Chrysler recalls 250,000 of its popular minivans

Chrysler is recalling a quarter million crossovers and minivans for ignition switch problems that can cause stalling. 

The recall involves 2010 model year Dodge Journey crossovers and Grand Caravan minivans and Chrysler Town and Country minivans. 

The company says in some of the vehicles, ignition switches can slip out of the “run” position while the vehicle is being driven. That could shut off the engine. 

At least two rear-end collisions have been reported due to the defect.   

The Grand Caravan and Town and Country minivans are top-sellers for the company. 

The automaker is struggling to increase sales while many of its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brand vehicles remain at the bottom of many quality and reliability surveys.

Auto
5:52 pm
Tue March 1, 2011

Snowstorms didn't dampen February sales - especially for GM

General Motors' auto sales rose by 46 percent in February
Spacing Magazine Flickr

Snowstorms in February didn’t seem to dampen car sales.  Sales were up 32-percent at Nissan, 42-percent at Toyota, and 46-percent at GM.

GM’s gain is for several reasons. Last February GM’s sales were weak, so this February looks much better in comparison. The company increased incentives in February. And it’s easier for GM customers to get financing now that GM has its own finance arm, GM Financial.

Don Johnson is head of GM’s U.S. sales.

"With their entry into the market, our penetration of the sub-prime business is above the industry average," says Johnson.  "We’ve also got GM Financial growing their prime lease business."

February sales were up 13-percent at Chrysler and 14-percent at Ford.

Politics
5:48 pm
Tue March 1, 2011

Flint wants - but may not get - permission to ask for city tax increase

State Representatives from Flint want to allow the city to ask residents to approve an increase in the city's income tax
Sean_Marshall Flickr

Flint’s state representatives could introduce a bill that would permit the city to ask Flint residents to approve an increase in the city income tax.   

The city faces a deficit of more than $17-million. Representative Woodrow Stanley says there aren’t many other options.  Flint can’t turn to a cash-strapped state for help.

"As a matter of fact, about 8.1 million dollars is being proposed to be cut from Flint’s revenue sharing," says Stanley.

But Stanley says getting such a bill passed will be an uphill battle, because of  strong anti-tax sentiment among Republicans in the state House.

Science/Medicine
6:24 pm
Mon February 28, 2011

Too many doctors still prescribing antibiotics for viral infections

A new study says overuse of antibiotics is still a big problem, fifteen years after the Centers for Disease Control began a campaign to stop the practice.  

Marianne Udow-Phillips is head of the University of Michigan’s Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.  She says antibiotics do not work for viral infections.  And the more physicians over-prescribe antibiotics, the more pathogens will develop resistance to the drugs.  But she says patients and doctors alike haven’t gotten the message. Udow-Phillips says:

"We’re just sick for a long time and we just want that magic pill to fix us... But if we have a virus, an antibiotic is not gonna help.  And sometimes physicians cave in to the pressure from families who say, 'just do something'."

Udow-Phillips says drug-resistant staph has become a huge problem.  In fact, more Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant staph infections than AIDS. 

The practice of overprescribing the drugs is a bigger problem in some parts of Michigan than others, the study found.  In Holland, only about 10% of children who saw a doctor for an upper respiratory viral infection were given a prescription for antibiotics.

But in West Branch, nearly 68% of children with upper respiratory infections were given a prescription for an antibiotic.

Udow-Phillips thinks the differences in prescription rates is most likely because the CDC campaign focused on pediatricians rather than family physicians or internal medicine specialists.  She says more children may be seeing family physicians in areas like West Branch.

Udow-Phillips says the worst part of it is, physicians are often over-prescribing so-called "broad spectrum" antibiotics, when "narrow spectrum" antibiotics would, at least, do less harm.

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Auto/Economy
10:49 am
Mon February 28, 2011

Snowstorms didn't dampen February car sales

It's not unusual for a big snowstorm to hurt business at new car dealerships.

But it appears that February car sales in the U.S. improved over the same month a year ago, even though much of the country experienced more than one big snowstorm.                           

Car sales could be up 19% as a fair number of people trudged through snow-covered lots to buy a car.  That could be a sign that the pent-up demand that built up over the recession is now being released at a steady pace. 

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Politics
10:38 am
Mon February 28, 2011

U of M won't ask legislature to soften Governor's higher ed cuts

The University of Michigan will probably not ask state legislators to soften what it calls “painful” proposed cuts to higher education.  Rather, U of M President Mary Sue Coleman is expected to tout the institution's successful efforts to drive costs out of the school's budget.

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storm hits Michigan
3:39 pm
Mon February 21, 2011

This is Michigan. And this is what we do. (Dig out after storms).

Scott Denny Flickr

The state's three main airports report business has returned almost to normal, after crews spent the evening clearing runways of snow and ice.  Up to ten inches fell overnight.  In many cases, that was more snow than fell during the so-dubbed "Snowpocalypse," a few weeks ago. 

Detroit Metro Airport spokesman Mike Conway says the big problem last night was the roadways leading to the airport.  He says it took a long time for taxis to return from outlying suburbs, and there was congestion as cars and taxis lined up outside terminals.

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Auto/Economy
11:32 am
Mon February 21, 2011

A small car gets big results for global safety

Ford's global small car, the Ford Fiesta, has received the equivalent of a five-star safety rating in virtually all the regions of the world in which it is sold - China, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and the United States.   The subcompact car also received a "Top Safety Pick" award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which nonetheless warns drivers that in general, larger vehicles are safer vehicles.   

Developing
3:45 pm
Thu February 17, 2011

See who shares the sacrifice in Governor Snyder's proposed budget

A look at the projected budget deficits states across the country are facing.
Michigan Radio

Update 3:45pm

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal calls for eliminating millions of dollars in business and personal tax breaks; big cuts to schools, universities, and local governments.  The governor says it is bitter medicine necessary to cure the state’s budget troubles, and set the foundation for an economic recovery. 

Governor Snyder says everyone will have to sacrifice to fix massive fiscal problems that have built up over decades under Republican and Democratic administrations. That includes growing pension and healthcare liabilities that the state will start to pay down.

 “We are going to take responsibility for a legacy of debt that has built up over decades.”  

 To pay for that, balance the budget, and cut taxes for businesses, Snyder wants to shut down state police posts and at least one prison; start taxing pensions; cut money for schools, universities, and local governments; and ask public employees to pay more for their benefits. 

Critics already say the budget will force more school districts and local governments into insolvency and families into poverty. The governor, who is a millionaire, says he will share in the sacrifice by working for a dollar a year.    

Budget Director John Nixon says the administration’s proposal will end the state’s string of budget crises and will send a message that Michigan is managing its finances.

“A lot of people are going to be upset with this budget. We understand that. But it’s the right budget. It’s a responsible budget that takes into account the needs of our citizens and taxpayers’ ability to pay.”

About two dozen state employees protested in Lansing today as Governor Rick Snyder presented his budget plan to state lawmakers. They complained about plans to roll back public employee benefits and tax pensions.         Tammy Warner works in the state Department of Human Services.

“The state is cutting all kinds of services not just to the poor – they’re actually decimating the middle class. They’re also decimating the state workers and they are making it impossible for us to live in this state.”

Public employees say they’ve already made concessions and accepted unpaid furlough days to help the state through earlier budget crises.   Advocates for low-income families say ending state the earned income tax credit for the working poor will result in more children living in poverty. School and city officials say cuts will force more local governments into insolvency.

Update 1:22

Democratic leaders in the Michigan legislature are reacting to Governor Snyder's budget proposal.

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer called the Governor's budget "the same old politics of putting corporate tax breaks ahead of the people. From Whitmer's statement:

"Governor Snyder's idea of shared sacrifice seems to mean that working families will do most of the sacrificing while companies continue to reap the rewards," said Whitmer. "He is balancing this budget on the backs of our kids, working families, and our seniors. Contrary to his rhetoric about 'moving all of Michigan forward,' this budget picks out who he's willing to leave behind."

Update 12:43 p.m.

Governor Snyder has placed his budget recommendations to the Michigan legislature online.

Update 12:11 p.m.

"The day of kicking the can down the road is ending," declared Governor Snyder in calling for tax and budget changes that he says should have happened twenty or thirty years ago.   

Snyder says he used the principle of fairness in arriving at some changes, for example, an end to the Michigan Business Tax, the tax on unincorporated companies in the state.   Snyder says the tax is unfair because it's a form of double taxation, since the business owner already pays personal income tax. 

And he says individual pension income should be taxed.  Snyder says it's not fair to tax the income of senior citizens who are still working, and not tax retired senior citizens living on pension income.

Snyder wants to eliminate many individual tax credits, such as the deduction for donations to public universities.  But he would keep the deduction for personal property tax, although he says the property tax system will need to be overhauled at a later time.

Snyder says his budget keep the safety net for Michigan's poorest citizens intact.

Update 11:23 a.m.

Governor Snyder says he will share in the sacrifices he's calling for in the state budget by working for one dollar a year. The governor is presenting a budget that includes big cuts to schools, local governments, and public universities -- as well as eliminating many personal and business tax breaks. The governor's budget proposal also calls for an overall one-point-eight (b) billion dollar cut on businesses. - Rick Pluta

Update 10:48 a.m.

Michigan Government Television will carry Governor Snyder's presentation of his budget proposal live at 11 a.m.

The Michigan Senate will also live stream the presentation from their website.

7:11 a.m.

These details of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's $45 billion budget proposal were outlined to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

- Drops the individual income tax rate from 4.35 percent to 4.25 percent on Oct. 1; the tax will then remain at 4.25 percent rather than being decreased to 3.9 percent in future years as scheduled.

- Eliminates the state income tax exemption for pensions, but Social Security benefits will continue to be exempt.

- Eliminates the Michigan Business Tax and replaces it with a flat 6 percent corporate income tax on major corporations.

- Eliminates business credits awarded for films, brownfield redevelopment, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority, etc., although current commitments will be honored. Sets aside $25 million for film credits from the 21st Century Jobs Fund.

- Rolls funding for universities and community colleges from the general fund to the school aid fund, the main funding source for K-12 schools.

- Cuts per pupil funds $300, in addition to the currently budged $170 per pupil reduction.

- Eliminates statutory revenue sharing payments for cities, villages and townships in FY 2012, leading to a net savings of $92.1 million. The change impacts 509 local units of government. Increases constitutional revenue sharing by 4 percent, to $659 million.

- Includes $200 million for a new incentive-based revenue sharing program for cities, villages and townships that meet specific standards to be detailed in March.

- Sets a lifetime limit of 48 months for residents to receive welfare payments, with exemptions for incapacity and hardship.

- Closes the Shawono Center in Grayling, and cuts 20 beds in capacity at the Maxey Training School in Whitmore Lake, resulting in $787,000 general fund savings.

- Eliminates 300 field worker positions in the Department of Human Services.

- Closes one prison to be named later this year.

- Reduces the number of Michigan State Police posts, saving $3.2 million.

- Reduces state aid to libraries in the Department of Education budget by $2.3 million in the general fund, with $950,000 directed to the Michigan eLibrary, resulting in net savings of $1.4 million.

- Suggests privatizing food service and prison stores operations in Michigan prisons, and suggests that resident care aide services at the Grand Rapids Veterans' Home be competitively bid.

-Turns the dairy farm inspection program over to industry field representatives certified by the Department of Agriculture.

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Auto/Economy
6:10 pm
Mon February 14, 2011

GM, Ford share profits with UAW before contract talks start

General Motors factory workers will get a record amount in profit-sharing checks this year.  The automaker's 48,000 UAW hourly workers will get at least $4,000.  That's more than twice the company's previous record for hourly worker profit-sharing  - $1,775 in 1999.

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Auto/Economy
9:54 am
Wed February 9, 2011

Toyota's electronics exonerated in unintended acceleration claims

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks about the government's investigation into whether electronic systems could have caused unintended acceleration in Toyotas
NHTSA

"The jury is back, the verdict is in."

That’s how Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that faulty electronics played no role in cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars.  It’s unequivocal good news for a company attempting to rebuild its reputation.

Last year, Toyota recalled millions of its cars for gas pedal defects that could cause unintended acceleration.

Those recalls shook the company’s reputation for safety like an earthquake.

Dean Stewart is Service Manager for Victory Toyota in Canton, Michigan. The dealership's huge - and nearly empty - service garage, has only one car on a lift that was brought in under a recall.  But last year at this time, the place was bustling:

"I mean we were open 7 days a week, we had two shifts, we were working 90 hours a week just to make sure we could take care of our customers," says Stewart.

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Auto/Economy
7:10 pm
Mon February 7, 2011

Plug-in electric tax credit should be a rebate, says U.S. Sen. Stabenow

Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow
Photo courtesy of www.stabenow.senate.gov

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow has introduced legislation to help people who buy plug-in electric cars – and to help the companies making the advanced vehicles.

Right now, someone who buys a plug-in electric car like a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt gets a tax credit of up to $7,500.  But the buyer doesn’t collect the money until tax time.

Stabenow says the program could be improved.

I think it would be an even bigger incentive if it were on the front end for consumers.

Stabenow says Congress already approved the money for the tax credit, so it wouldn’t cost any more to give it out as a rebate at the time of sale.

Currently, cars that qualify for the full rebate include the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and the Tesla Roadster. Coda and Wheego also make an electric vehicle that qualifies for the credit. Ford, Fiat and Toyota plan to launch electric plug-in cars within the next year.

Stabenow’s legislation would also commit the federal government to spend two billion dollars to help companies that make advanced lithium ion batteries for vehicles. That’s on top of the two billion dollars the federal government has already spent to help the new industry. 

The Congresswoman admits the legislation is being proposed during a tough budget year:

 (But) I think that strategic investments in innovation like battery innovation and manufacturing equals jobs – and so I’m hopeful that this will be a priority.

Michigan received the lion’s share of the last round of federal grants for advanced battery development– more than one billion dollars.  Michigan now has more advanced battery companies than any other state.

Auto/Economy
7:03 pm
Mon February 7, 2011

Federal government to release Toyota unintended acceleration results

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will reveal the results Tuesday afternoon of a year-long NASA investigation into claims of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Toyota recalled millions of vehicles last year – many because of the potential for loose floor mats to entrap the gas pedal.  In other cases, the gas pedal wouldn’t fully release.

But hundreds of lawsuits allege that Toyota vehicles can also speed out of control because something is wrong with the electronic throttle control system, perhaps due to electromagnetic interference – a problem NASA knows a lot about.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a preliminary report last year suggesting that in some cases, the sudden acceleration was the fault of drivers, because they hit the gas pedal instead of the brake.

Toyota says it has failed to find any problems with its electronic throttle control systems.  The company did pay record fines last year for delaying recalls.

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