The State of the State... in Laingsburg, Michigan

Jan 18, 2012

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder gives his second State of the State address tonight.  He’s already signed more than 300 public acts.  That’s a new law for almost every day in office.

Over the next few weeks, Changing Gears is looking at how changes in state government are impacting lives and wallets across the region. Here in Michigan, people are riveted by some of Snyder’s big ticket changes, like giving emergency managers the power to strip control from elected officials in failing cities and school districts.

But this story is different.  It’s about one Mid-Michigan town and all the small, drowned-out changes that deeply affect people’s lives.  People like Janae Jodway.

“Well, this is Laingsburg and I am a hillbilly,” she says.  “Before you got here I had to take my pink bib overalls off.”

Jodway is a hillbilly-(her word!)-masseuse.  And a trained one.  She owns Body Works Medical Massage. The place is guarded by a Dutch Shepherd whose sole focus in life is his made-in-the-USA chew toy.

Every client here has a story about the economy.  Taundra Mitchell-Faynor runs a daycare center where about a third of the kids come from low income families.

“I’ve had a lot of tearful interviews in my office to tell parents that they have to pay more because the state is cutting back,” she says.

Under the current budget, Michigan has reduced subsidies to help low wage parents pay for child care while they’re out working.  Mitchell-Faynor says she tries to cut those parents breaks, even though her own bottom line has sunk.

“We raise a lot of these children from two weeks to twelve years so I’ve watched these kids grow up,” she says.  “And it’s a heart business, it’s not a money making business.”

Neither is the business we’re sitting in.  Masseuse Jodway’s rates are rock bottom, because most of her clients pay cash, but nobody has much.

She says she has older customers who “bring their own sheets in, because they can’t tip us and they feel bad, and they bring their own water. So I see how tight everyone around here lives. I figure someday we’re going to be licensed, and then we can make some money.”

Michigan passed a law in 2009 requiring massage therapists to be licensed, like chiropractors or physical therapists.  That regulation would allow Jodway to bill health insurance plans.  But three years later, there still no rules, no standards, and no application to get licensed.

“If we were to be licensed so that I knew what our finances were going to be every month, I would take on two more masseuses and a receptionist right now,” she says.  “Right now yesterday.  But I don’t, so I won’t.”

Up the road from Body Works is Laingsburg’s library.  It’s actually the perfect illustration of how retirement is changing in Michigan.  On one side of the room, a circle of white-haired elders discuss the book of the month.  (It’s by Zane Grey.)

These folks fall under the old rules: They won’t pay taxes on their pensions.  But across the room, part-time librarian Vicki Veith lives by the government’s new rules.  She doesn’t get a pension but her husband’s will now be taxed as income.

“I would have thought of retiring myself, but I won’t now,” Veith says.  “I won’t because of this.”

Last year, Gov. Snyder promoted his steps to reduce business’ burden based on the idea it was hampering job growth. His critics, however, accuse him of funding a huge business tax cut at the expense of retirees and the poor.

Businesses are expected to save more than $1 billion dollars this year.  But in small-town Laingsburg, I actually had to look pretty hard to find a business that will benefit from the tax overhaul.  Luckily, there’s Subway.

Valerie Meder owns the Laingsburg franchise.  She says she’ll save about $500 this year because of the business tax changes.

“It seems like a small amount, but that’s still money that I can put towards upgrading my equipment,” she says.

That includes the thermostat and those plastic bins that hold the vegetables.  Meder says business is actually good enough to open a second Subway down the road.

“A few years ago I might not have considered that.  Now it’s actually a reality,” she says.

Valerie Meder says she just feels like Michigan is getting back on track.  Tonight we’ll hear if the governor agrees.