Politics & Government

Stories about politics and government actions

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Several thousand medical marijuana patients and their supporters rallied at the state Capitol today. 

The state Court of Appeals recently ruled that medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal under Michigan law.

Patient advocate Joe Cain says the courts and state officials are working to undermine the state constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana.

"They don't care about you," said Cain. "They don't care or they would have had a plan, because you don’t take sick people’s medicine away."

Cain says the state Court of Appeals decision was politically motivated.

"The objective was to deny people safe access to their medicine. This was not a judicial decision. This was a political decision," said Cain.

The Michigan Supreme Court will soon consider several medical marijuana cases. The court's decision in those cases is expected to go a long way to determining the scope of Michigan's medical marijuana law.

Cedar Bend Drive / Flickr

Welfare recipients could not use their state-issued debit cards to draw cash from casino ATMs or buy lottery tickets, alcohol and tobacco under legislation moving through the state Legislature.

The Michigan House passed bills Wednesday that would restrict the use of Michigan Bridge Cards, used like debit cards for state food assistance and cash programs. The major bills passed 108-0 and advance to the Senate.

Monthly food assistance in Michigan is based on income, how many people are in their household and other criteria. Funds are made available on a debit card swiped through electronic reader when buying groceries.

Other bills in the package would require the state to deactivate a Bridge card when a recipient is in jail.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Workers at the American Red Cross Mid-Michigan chapter are on the picket line, after a strike deadline passed without a deal.

Red Cross spokeswoman Monica Stoneking says the strike will drastically reduce blood collection efforts in 65 Michigan counties:

"In the Great Lakes region alone, we need to collect about 700 units of blood every day to meet the hospital needs and the needs of the patients we serve, and not being able to collect those blood products really puts our blood supply in jeopardy," said Stoneking.

Stoneking hopes negotiations will resolve the standoff soon.

"We're preparing for at least ten days," said Stoneking. "We're calling on other regions that aren’t affected by the union to increase our blood collection so that our national blood supply is healthy."

The strike affects about 280 nurses and staff who handle blood. They’ve been working without a contract since 2008.

Union officials say the two sides are far apart on many issues.

Talks are scheduled to resume September 17.

Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation that places tighter limits on cash assistance benefits to the poor.

It puts a four-year lifetime cap on cash assistance payments from the state. The four years don't have to be consecutive, they can be tallied up over time, and the clock on the four-year cap started on October 1, 2007.

It's estimated that 12,600 cases will be taken off the cash assistance as of October 1, 2011.

Peter Luke of MLive points out that in 2006, then-governor Jennifer Granholm also signed legislation limiting cash benefits to four years, "but DHS caseworkers had leeway to authorize exemptions."

This measure is more strict, and Governor Snyder said his administration is "returning cash assistance to its original intent as a transitional program to help families while they work toward self-sufficiency."

From MLive:

DHS Director Maura Corrigan said the agency is partnering with non-profit groups to provide recipients with a “soft landing” during the transition... The measure is estimated save the 2012 state budget about $65 million.

The new law also allows families on the rolls to earn more money on the job while still receiving benefits. In the past, families that earned more than $814 a month could no longer qualify for cash assistance. The new limit on earned income is $1,164.

"Michigan continues to face financial challenges, and the fiscal reality is that we cannot afford to provide lifetime cash assistance to recipients who are able to work," Corrigan said.

In a statement, the head of the Michigan League for Human Services, Gilda Jacobs, says these cash benefits support children in need:

The Department of Human Services has estimated that 29,700 children will be cut from cash assistance in October. Though the department says it will assist the families for a few months, it’s questionable whether new jobs will be available for adults in these families by the end of the year.

It will be a hard, hard winter for many of these families.

Michigan has six congressmen from the Democratic Party. Their ages are 85, 82, 82, 80, 54 and 52. One of the 82-year-old guys is retiring.

But Michigan is losing a seat in Congress, and so it has to lose another of these men. Our state has no women Democrats in the house, by the way. So, logically, which one should go?

Should the 85-year-old, whose own party stripped him of his committee chairmanship last year, retire? He has already served longer in the house than any man in history. Should the other 82-year-old retire? He sometimes appears confused in public; his office is chaotic and has been the target of ethics investigations.

What about the 80-year-old, who was his party’s nominee for governor before most of today’s citizens were alive?

Matthileo / Flickr

Every Wednesday, we get a dose of state politics from Michigan Radio's Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry. On tap for this morning: state lawmakers are back in Lansing for the fall session, there's a good chance 'right to work' legislation will make its way to the state Legislature, and the latest round of musical chairs in the state's 2012 Congressional election.

Subterranean / Wikipedia Commons

Scores of seniors upset the state will tax some of their public pensions for the first time are expected to pack the courtroom when the Michigan Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the law.

The hearing begins Wednesday morning in the Hall of Justice.

The case is a major test of sweeping tax changes put in place earlier this year by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

He wants a Supreme Court advisory opinion that would effectively pre-empt any court challenge on the law filed by opponents such as public employee unions, who say the state constitution protects their pensions from being taxed.

Starting Jan. 1, pensions and some retirement income that previously was partially exempt would be taxed as regular income for those born after 1945.

A fight is brewing at the state Capitol over whether Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law should be changed.

Backers of the legislation want drivers to be able to opt out of coverage that provides unlimited lifetime benefits for the most severely injured accident victims.

Pete Kuhnmuench, with the Insurance Institute of Michigan, says the option would save people money:

"We think putting more money back in the pockets of the consumers we think now is the right time to do that, given our economics," says Kuhnmuench.

A study commissioned by the measure’s opponents says most drivers would choose to underinsure themselves to save money.

The study says that would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Governor Rick Snyder has signed legislation that would end cash assistance welfare benefits after a family has been receiving payments for 48 months or more. 

About 12,600 cases, many of them families with children, will close and lose their benefits when the law takes effect on October 1.

In a statement, Governor Snyder says four years should be long enough for people to become self-sufficient and some people have been getting cash assistance for as long as 14 years.

Critics of the new limits say many of the people who will lose assistance are families with children, and many of the people who lose the benefits are adults who can’t find a job in a bad economy.

Governor Snyder’s administration says caseworkers will still make sure families who lose benefits will continue to get Medicaid coverage, food assistance, and help with training and job searches.

The savings to taxpayers is pegged at $65 million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year.

Republican state lawmakers say this won’t be the final word this year on changes in the welfare system.

The State House could vote as soon as this week on more limits to public assistance, including making sure automatic teller machines in casinos cannot accept Bridge Cards to make cash withdrawals, and canceling the cards of people with outstanding warrants.

Photograph courtesy of Senator Whitmer's office

The Michigan Legislature is back in session this week, so we took some time to speak with state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-23rd) about what she would like to see happen in the state legislature this fall.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A rally is scheduled Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol protesting proposed changes to the state's medical marijuana law.

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Association president and other speakers during the rally in Lansing are expected to discuss the law and treatment patients and caregivers have received from law enforcement. The event starts at noon.

Michigan voters in 2008 approved use of marijuana to relieve pain and other chronic ailments. About 100,000 people have state-issued cards letting them have 2.5 ounces of "usable" pot and up to 12 plants. Registered caregivers also can grow marijuana for five people.

Michigan's Appeals Court has ruled some sales at dispensaries illegal.

Changes proposed by some Michigan legislators requiring stricter doctor-patient relationships before a patient could get authorization to use the drug.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder is ready to launch a new series of fall initiatives, including measures to improve Michigan residents' health, fix crumbling roads and sewer systems and train
more people for available jobs.

He could unveil his health and wellness initiatives as early as next week. The Republican governor plans to lay out a roads plan in October and a way to better tap Michigan workers' talents in
November.

Snyder has been focused on "reinventing" Michigan since he took office in January, and doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.

But he could be distracted this fall by a flurry of bills being pushed by fellow Republicans, such as making Michigan a right-to-work state and outlawing a late-term abortion procedure that's already illegal through a federal law.

screen grab from YouTube video

Yesterday, President Barack Obama told a crowd of around 13,000 in Detroit that the country will rise and fall together:

"Anyone who doesn’t believe it should come here to Detroit," said Obama. "It’s like the commercial says:  This is a city that’s been to heck and back. And while there are still a lot of challenges here, I see a city that’s coming back."

Obama said the nation "cannot have a strong growing economy without a strong growing middle class and without a strong labor movement."

At the event, Obama was previewing his jobs speech, which will be given in front of a joint session of Congress this Thursday (September 8).

"I don't want to give everything away right here, because I want ya'll to tune in on Thursday," Obama said.

"But I'll give you just a little bit.

We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding.

We’ve got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building.

We’ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now. 

There is work to be done and there are workers ready to do it.  Labor is on board.  Business is on board. 

We just need Congress to get on board.  Let’s put America back to work."

Here's President Obama's Labor Day Speech:

During the speech, Obama recounted a conversation he had with Michigan Senator Carl Levin:

You know, I was on the plane flying over here, and Carl Levin was with me, and he showed me a speech that Harry Truman had given on Labor Day 63 years ago, right here in Detroit -- 63 years ago.  And just to show that things haven't changed much, he talked about how Americans had voted in some folks into Congress who weren’t very friendly to labor.  And he pointed out that some working folks and even some union members voted these folks in.  And now they were learning their lesson.  And he pointed out that -- and I'm quoting here -- 'the gains of labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the nation.  Labor’s gains contributed to the nation’s general prosperity.'"

Once upon a time, it was an enormous deal whenever a President came to town. I know a woman who was a little girl of six in Pontiac sixty-three years ago, when President Harry Truman came to make a Labor Day speech in Detroit. There was a motorcade along Woodward, and she still has a vivid memory of standing along the curb and hoping for a glimpse of the President on his car.

Incidentally, her parents were Republicans. They didn’t vote for Truman that fall, when he won re-election in a stunning upset. But that didn’t matter. He was the President of the United States, and if you had a chance to see him, you took it.

These days, however, presidents are always on the move. Mr. Obama visited a battery factory in Ottawa County barely three weeks ago. True, an estimated 12,000 people braved crowds and traffic to pack into a parking lot on Detroit’s riverfront to see President Obama yesterday. But 42,000 had come downtown the night before, to pay money see the Detroit Tigers annihilate Obama’s Chicago White Sox.

The comparison isn’t fair, in a way. These days, almost everybody had the ability to watch the President on TV or the internet, which certainly wasn’t true in the days of Harry Truman.

However, Truman started something that Labor Day long ago that still continues today: The tradition that Democrats running for election or reelection as President kick off their campaigns with a Labor Day speech in Detroit. Campaigns start a lot earlier these days, and that was part of what was going on here.

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Obama Speaks in Detroit

President Obama spoke to union members and supporters at a Labor Day rally in Detroit yesterday. As Sarah Cwiek reports, the President says his biggest concern is to “fully restore” the country’s middle class:

The President will outline a jobs agenda to Congress on Thursday. He drew a disbelieving groan from the crowd when he said he still believes “both parties can work together.” But Mr. Obama also said he “won’t wait around for” Republicans in Congress.  “We’re going to see if Congressional Republicans will put country before party. We’ll give ‘em a plan, and then we’ll say: do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work re-building America.” The President says he’ll urge spending on infrastructure, growing export markets, and renewing a payroll tax cut for workers.

Snyder to Sign Welfare Cap

Governor Snyder is expected to sign the state’s new 48-month cap on welfare benefits into law this week. The state legislature approved the measure last month. “The new limits are expected to immediately reduce the cash assistance caseloads by 15 percent. About 12,600 people have been on cash assistance for 48 months or more, and payments to those families will end when the state’s new fiscal year begins October 1st,” Rick Pluta reports. It’s estimated the new limits will save the state $65 million dollars in the new budget year.

Some Schools Remain Closed on First Day

Some schools have had to postpone their first day of classes due to power outages and storm damage from this weekend’s powerful thunderstorms. The Associated Press reports:

The public school district in Ferndale cancelled classes Tuesday to give cleanup crews more time to deal with the remnants of Saturday's storms that downed trees and power lines and knocked out electrical service to several of the district's buildings. Detroit Public Schools says Macdowell, Carstens at Remus Robinson, Emerson and Vernor elementary schools were closed Tuesday due to power outages caused by the storms… In all, utilities say about 176,000 Michigan homes and businesses lost power.

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to sign a new 48-month cap on cash assistance welfare benefits into law this week. The new limits are expected to immediately reduce the cash assistance caseloads by 15 percent. The measure got final approval from the state legislature last month.

About 12,600 people have been on cash assistance for 48 months or more, and payments to those families will end when the state’s new fiscal year begins October 1st.

“It was always meant to be a bridge and it’s become a lot longer than that in Michigan  -- in some cases, many individuals or families have been on it for five, six, seven, eight, 10 plus years,” says Sara Wurfel, Governor Snyder’s press secretary.

The new limits are expected to save the state $65 million dollars in the new budget year.

Michigan’s four-year cap on cash assistance will make the state’s welfare limits among the strictest in the Midwest. Advocates for the poor say private agencies may not be able make up the difference for people who still need help. They say many of the people who take payments for extended periods are the chronically unemployed who are struggling through the poor economy.

Pete Souza / Official White House photo

Speaking to union members and supporters at a Labor Day rally in Detroit, President Obama says his biggest concern is to “fully restore” the country’s middle class.

The President will outline a jobs agenda to Congress on Thursday. He drew a disbelieving groan from the crowd when he said he still believes “both parties can work together.”

But Mr. Obama also said he “won’t wait around for” Republicans in Congress.

Matt Callow / Flickr

 A state Senate panel is expected to continue hearings soon on a proposed second bridge between Detroit and Canada. Lawmakers say they still have a lot of testimony they need to hear before they can make a decision.

State Senator Geoff Hansen is from Oceana County. He says people ask him every day about the Detroit bridge proposal, even on the west side of the state.

“It’s been brought up to a really high profile thing with all the advertising on the TV and all the fliers that have come out,” Hansen said.

The U.S. Army / Flickr

President Obama travels to Detroit today to attend Detroit's annual Labor Day parade. He'll address thousands of labor union members about his ideas to create jobs and help grow the economy, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

Obama's speech at a rally sponsored by the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO may serve as a dry run for the jobs speech he'll deliver before a joint session of Congress Thursday night...In the speech to Congress, Obama is expected to outline a mix of tax credits and public works spending and press lawmakers to act quickly on the proposals.

Michigan Radio's Detroit reporter Sarah Cwiek will be at the President's speech. As she notes:

The President is looking to shore up support among organized labor, a key part of his base...

Speaking in the shadow of General Motors headquarters, it's likely the President will tout his administration's role in reviving the American auto industry. Publicly, Michigan's union leaders have generally praised Mr. Obama for rescuing U.S. automakers.

But, there are signs the President's support among union members has eroded, especially as unemployment remains high, and collective bargaining rights for public employees are under attack in many states.

This will be the President's second visit to Michigan in the past month. Mr. Obama toured an advanced battery plant in Holland in August.

by nailhed / for Panoramio/Google

Detroit officials have announced a $20 million effort to clean up one of the city’s most notorious pieces of vacant land.

They say it's only phase 1 of a plan to clean up the site on Detroit’s east riverfront that once housed a Uniroyal tire factory, and other heavy industry that contaminated the land.

When I asked one famous Michigan native what he thought people might not know about him, he put it this way: “I just do my thing. I go to work and do my job the best I can.“

“I think about how I can help people, and have fun.“ If that sounds like something Jeff Daniels or Bob Seger might have said, guess again. That’s how Governor Rick Snyder described himself to me during a interview this week.

user subterranean / wikimedia commons

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to let unions and business groups weigh in before the justices rule on whether the state’s new tax on pension income is legal.

The court will hear arguments in the case next week.

Governor Rick Snyder asked the court to cut short any legal challenges with a preemptive ruling.

The governor wants an opinion from the court before the end of the month.

His budget relies on $343 million dollars from taxing pensions, and he wants to avoid months or years of legal wrangling on the question.

The governor asked the court to decide whether the pension tax breaks a promise by the state to retirees and public employees; and whether income limits in the law amount to a graduated income tax – which is prohibited by the state constitution.

The Supreme Court has agreed to accept briefs from retiree associations and unions that oppose the pension tax, as well as business groups that say the tax is fair.

The Michigan Education Association, the UAW, and the AARP are among the groups that filed briefs opposing the tax. They say the pension tax breaks a promise to retirees and public employees, and it violates the state constitution.

Business groups, including the Michigan Bankers Association, and the Small Business Association of Michigan, are backing Governor Rick Snyder. They say the pension tax is fair because it treats all income equally in the tax code.

If the pension tax is upheld, pension income will be subject to the state income tax starting January 1, 2012.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In February the sheriff instituted a “postcard only” rule at the county jail. That meant inmates could only send or receive mail on standard postcards. The sheriff was trying to keep drugs, pornography, and items inmates could use as weapons – out of the jail. Legal paperwork is exempt. Now the sheriff is allowing inmates to send letters. But incoming mail still has to be written on standard postcards.

Federal prosecutors in Detroit have charged another 28 people in three alleged Medicare fraud schemes.

The allegations outline typical Medicare fraud schemes totaling over 28-million dollars.

One scheme involved 14 people operating out of the Detroit suburb of Livonia, who allegedly submitted fraudulent claims for home health care services.

Matt Katzenberger / Flickr

The legislature recently approved a bill that would impose a stricter four-year lifetime limit on welfare cash assistance. The new limits could affect 12,000 families in Michigan. Governor Snyder has yet to sign the bill into law.

In this week's political roundup we talk about the bill with Debbie Dingell, a Democratic Political Analyst and member of the Democratic National Committee and Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow for Public Sector Consultants.

Dingell says:

Update 3:12 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder has decided not to send out 30-day layoff notices to thousands of state workers while contract bargaining continues.

Allowing today’s deadline to pass means no workers can be laid off with the start of the state’s new fiscal year on October 1.

The governor’s spokeswoman says he wants to send a signal that he’s confident a deal can be reached without resorting to layoffs and other temporary solutions to keep the state budget balanced.

Ray Holman is with UAW Local 6000, the largest state employee union. He says the decision not to send layoff notices was the right one.

 "We agree with Governor Snyder that we need to make structural changes and what we need to do is look at the private contracts and then also invest in frontline staff, invest in the foot soldiers - the people actually doing the work."

Holman says that means managers should be first in line to lose their jobs to budget cuts.

The Snyder administration is trying to convince state employees to pick up a bigger share of their health and retirement costs.

The administration is looking for a total of $265 million dollars in employee savings.

2:58 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder's administration will not send layoff notices to state employees as contract talks continue.

Snyder's spokeswoman says he wants to send a signal to state employees that he believes a deal can be struck before the state's new fiscal year begins on October 1.

State contracts require 30-day notice before layoffs can occur.

user walmart stores / Flickr

Governor Snyder called for it last January during his first State of the State address, the law passed the legislature, and now it's in effect.

Individual price tags on each item are no longer in Michigan stores as of today.

From the Associated Press:

For the first time in decades, price tags no longer are required on most retail items in Michigan stores.

So, who is Rick Snyder, really? I spent a half hour talking to the governor yesterday, the first long conversation I’ve had with him since he took office exactly eight months ago.

Since then, he’s gotten more through the legislature than the last governor did in eight years. He’s also been the subject of nasty criticism and a recall attempt.

I was curious about a lot of things, one of which being whether he still likes this job he worked so hard at winning a year ago.

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Deadline Comes and Goes for Enbridge

Enbridge Energy, the company that owns the pipeline that leaked some 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River last summer, has failed to meet a deadline to clean up some of the submerged oil that remains from the spill. From the Associated Press:

The Kalamazoo Gazette and WWMT-TV say Enbridge Energy notified federal regulators that it would not meet the Wednesday deadline. Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum tells the Gazette there are many reasons. He says the scope of the cleanup grew over the summer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is investigating.

Report: MI Setting (Bad) Unemployment Record

An annual report by the Michigan League for Human Services says more than half of unemployed workers between the ages of 26 and 54 looked for work for six months or longer last year. “Even in the 1980's recession when unemployment overall was higher, the long-term unemployment rate was much lower than it is now,” says Karen Holcomb-Merrill who works for the league.

So Long, Price Tags

The state requirement that almost everything sold in Michigan have a price-tag ends today, as a result, the Detroit Free Press explains, “of legislation passed early this year at the urging of Gov. Rick Snyder.” The Free reports:

Snyder and other advocates for repeal said Michigan's item-pricing law, the strictest in the nation, was a relic of an era that was slowing innovation and adding more than $2 billion a year in costs to consumers. Defenders of the old law said repeal would sow frustration and anger among shoppers, result in layoffs for store clerks, and doubted that consumer savings would follow… In the absence of individual stickers, the new law requires that prices be displayed conspicuously and in close proximity to the item on sale.

It’s expected that the Snyder administration will announce today whether the state will issue layoff notices to some 50,000 state employees, the Detroit News reports. The administration wants $265 million worth of concessions from state employees but state employee unions say there are other ways for the state to save money.

Negotiations have been under way between the Snyder administration and state employees since July but a deal has not been reached. From the Detroit News:

Gov. Rick Snyder met Wednesday with his top budget officials, just ahead of today's deadline for sending out notices if the state opts to lay off employees Oct. 1.

Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, said internal discussions were continuing…

State officials have been told to prepare contingency plans for layoffs in case concessions can't be negotiated.

Because a 30-day layoff notice is required, the state would have to send out notices today if it wanted to achieve a full year of savings by making any layoffs effective Oct. 1.

Talks have been under way, but no progress has been made, Weiss said.

"State employee unions say state government is top heavy with managers and has too many contracts – and the Snyder administration should look those first before looking to squeeze more from frontline workers or lay them off," Lansing reporter Rick Pluta explains.

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