Politics & Government

Commentary
11:00 am
Fri July 15, 2011

Improving Train Travel

Here’s the problem with selling people on local mass transit: Everyone is in favor of it, and everyone thinks that everybody else should take it. Everybody, except for them, that is.

You understand, I really need to take my private car, because  uh, I might have an important stop to make. But when it comes to longer distances it’s different. People love trains.

Airline travel ceased being fun a long time ago, unless you like being groped by strangers before being packed in a sardine can. Driving gives you freedom, but not the freedom to read or surf the internet. Plus, it can be nerve-wracking and exhausting.

Compared to everything else, trains are relaxing and civilized. Yet for years, during the rise of the airliner and the expressway, we sort of forgot about train travel. Lines went out of service; some sections of track weren’t maintained.

Now, there’s a renewed interest in trains, so much so that the governor has made former Congressman Joe Schwarz his special advisor on rail, a job for which the emotional rewards are sometimes great and the salary is non-existent.

Michigan still has more than three thousand, five hundred miles of track. Schwarz told me that, by the way. Back when he was in the state senate, he was known for his expertise on higher education, but the insiders knew if you had a question about rail, Joe was the man.

Right now, Job One is improving the route from Detroit to Chicago.  Can you believe that six hundred thousand people may have traveled that route by rail in the last fiscal year?

If you’ve ever been hung up in a traffic jam on I-94 outside the city, you probably wished you were on a train instead.

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News Roundup
8:51 am
Fri July 15, 2011

In this morning's news...

Morning News Roundup, Friday, July 15th
Brother O'Mara Other

Bid for Borders Falls Through

The Borders bookstore chain has gone from having a potential buyer to talk of liquidation in the last 24 hours, Jennifer Guerra reports. From Guerra:

The auction to sell Borders is still scheduled for Tuesday, July 19th.  But the lead bidder, known as a "stalking horse," has pulled out. That bidder was Najafi, a private equity from Arizona a firm. The New York Times reports creditors were "concerned that the agreement could allow Najafi to buy the company at a low price and then liquidate Borders later without letting creditors benefit."  So with Najafi out, the new stalking horse is a group led by Hilco Merchant Resources, and they want to liquidate Borders… About 400 Borders stores remain open.

Ford Laid to Rest

Former First Lady Betty Ford’s funeral took place yesterday afternoon at Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids. It is the same church where the Ford’s were married in 1948. Michigan’s Governor, former congressmen, ambassadors, and other politicians attended the services with Ford’s family and friends. Mrs. Ford died last week at the age of 93.

Head Start Funding

Detroit is in danger of losing millions of dollars in federal Head Start money, Sarah Hulett reports. “Head Start provides early childhood education for low-income kids. The city department that runs Head Start has been in trouble with the federal government for failing to fix problems uncovered in audits – including accounting errors and misspent funds. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reportedly looking to Wayne County to take over the program,” Sarah Hulett reports.

State Legislature
6:44 am
Fri July 15, 2011

Senate to evaluate statute of limitations

Inside the state's Capitol Building, Lansing, Michigan
Cedar Bend Drive Flickr

A state Senate panel will hold hearings soon on whether Michigan should extend its 10-year statute of limitations for charging people with violent crimes such as kidnapping, assault, and murder.

Republican Senator Rick Jones says he understands that extending the statute of limitations does not mean every old crime will be solved.

“Well certainly the colder the case, the more difficult it is for a prosecutor to obtain a conviction. But if somebody comes forward, there’s evidence – whether it be scientific evidence or a confession, certainly they should be able to bring charges.”

Jones says he wanted to take up the issue after he learned the statute of limitations prevented the Ingham County prosecutor from filing charges in a manslaughter case.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings when lawmakers return to the Capitol later this summer. Jones chairs the committee.

Rememberance
6:28 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Video of former First Lady Betty Ford's funeral procession

The body of former First Lady Betty Ford is brought into Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids today.
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio reporter Lindsey Smith watched and listened outside of Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids today when the military honor guard removed Ford's body from the hearse.

Here's her video of the event:

Politics
5:47 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Michigan politics: debt ceiling talks and the federal budget

United States Capitol
whitehouse.gov

Negotiations over the debt ceiling and federal budget continue in Washington D. C. 

Here in Michigan the still fragile state economy seems to be slowly improving with a recent uptick in job growth. But if the nation defaults on its debt, how is Michigan affected? Economically and politically?

In our weekly political conversation we talk with Susan Demas, political analyst for Michigan Information and Research Service and Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and senior policy fellow for Public Sector Consultants.

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Politics
5:30 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Detroit stands to lose millions in Head Start money

Wayne Co. Commissioner Ilona Varga

Detroit is in danger of losing millions of dollars in federal Head Start money. Head Start provides early childhood education for low-income kids.

The city department that runs Head Start has been in trouble with the federal government for failing to fix problems uncovered in audits – including accounting errors and misspent funds.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reportedly looking to Wayne County to take over the program. Wayne County Commissioner Ilona Varga says chronic under-enrollment is another problem the feds are trying to fix:

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Politics
5:10 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Rebublican leader hopes to sweeten Michigan's film incentives

Taking another look at Michigan's film incentives.
Reinis Traidas Flickr

The old film incentives were scrapped in the tax overhaul approved by the Michigan legislature and the Governor.

They said the old film incentives, which gave production companies a 42% credit on total expenses in Michigan, was too costly ($115 million was spent last year, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy).

In it's place, a $25 million film incentive program for Michigan's next fiscal year (which starts October 1).

Now, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says he wants to improve the film incentives.

MPRN's Rick Plua filed this report:

Richardville says his new proposal would focus financial support in activities that reward spending on Michigan products, services, and workers.

He says investors have put money into expensive production facilities, and workers have learned new skills in the belief that incentives would attract more film business to the state.

 “I think the strength of that workforce, the strength of the investments we have in Michigan will cause us to win contracts in competitive situations versus other states. Once we’re done with that, then let’s analyze it to see what we can afford versus what the industry needs to sustain itself here in Michigan.”

Governor Rick Snyder’s office says he would like to see how Michigan’s new incentive program is working before making changes.

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Transportation
3:59 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

TSA to test faster security screening program at Detroit Metro Airport

Everyone won't be able to participate in the TSA's pilot program. Want faster security screening times? Don't be messy. A message from your friendly TSA agent.
TSA.gov

I posted information from the AP earlier about the TSA's plans to test a program that will improve screening times at airports. (Welcome news to many who abhor waiting in lines at airports.)

Twitter follower Justin Fenwick wrote us saying "Wish I knew what info. they want..."

Good point, Justin!

The Associated Press reports that currently, the TSA has three bits of information on all passengers:

  1. Your full name,
  2. Date of birth,
  3. and Gender

This new program will gather up information from frequent-flier programs:

Frequent-flier programs include more than those three identification fields. For instance, personal information provided in Delta's frequent-flier program includes the traveler's home address, email address or phone number, and preferred language.

TSA officials would not say what screening measures could be avoided for security reasons.

In a press release, TSA officials say the pilot program is expected to start this fall.

During the first phase of testing, certain frequent fliers and certain members of CBP's (Customs and Border Protection) Trusted Traveler programs, including members of Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS, who are U.S. citizens will be eligible to participate in this pilot, which could qualify them for expedited screening at select checkpoints at certain airports.

They expect around 5,000 to 8,000 passengers to participate in the initial program.

At Detroit Metropolitan airport, officials say certain frequent fliers from Delta Air Lines and certain members of CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs who are U.S. citizens and who are also flying on Delta will be eligible to participate in the pilot.

Officials say they plan to expand the pilot program to other airlines "once operationally ready."

Transportation
2:01 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Faster security checks at airports in exchange for more information

A new TSA program is aimed at speeding up screenings in exchange for more personal information.
Michael Eyal Sharon Flickr

A new program aimed at speeding up airport screenings will be tested in Detroit.

From the Associated Press:

The Transportation Security Administration plans to test a program that would pre-screen certain travelers who volunteer more personal information so they can be vetted to potentially receive expedited screening at the checkpoint.

This is the Obama administration's first stab at a more risk-based, intelligence-driven passenger screening program that could begin to answer traveler complaints that the government is not using common sense when it screens all passengers at airports in the same way.

The program will initially be tested at airports in Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Dallas, among certain Delta and American travelers who are U.S. citizens and are enrolled in the airlines' frequent flier programs, as well as among Delta and American travelers who participate in some other government trusted traveler programs and who also travel through those four airports.

Politics
12:57 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Crowds wait for Betty Ford funeral to begin

Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

The funeral itself is private, but around 200 people are lining the route close to the Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids.

Donna Smith and her husband, John, live just a couple blocks away from the church and got a great spot to view the precession pass by.

"She went through a lot personally and because of her strength in fighting breast cancer, alcoholism; just being a wonderful wife and mother and supporting her family," Donna Smith says.  "I have a lot of respect for that."

Politics
12:12 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

Another delay for Detroit's light rail plans?

An artists rendition of the "Foxtown/Stadium" stop for the proposed light rail project in Detroit.
screen grab from YouTube video

This past Monday, Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reported on the growing controversy surrounding Detroit's light rail project. Reports indicated that private backers might pull out of the project. (Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson told Cwiek  the foundation is committed to the project.)

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Politics
10:39 am
Thu July 14, 2011

Flint considers reopening city jail

Flint is talking to state officials about reopening the city jail. The jail would be a 72-hour lock-up facility that holds roughly 150 offenders. Dayne Walling is mayor of Flint.  

"The city jail is an essential tool for our officers. There has to be an ability to make arrests and put offenders behind bars when they break our community’s laws."

In May, Flint voters said no to a property tax increase to keep the city jail open. Walling says the short term lock-up facility would most likely be paid for through the city’s general fund.

Commentary
10:13 am
Thu July 14, 2011

Limiting welfare... now what?

If you’ve been supporting your family on welfare since the Great Recession started three years ago, here’s news for you. You’ve got one more year left. And then your benefits will be cut off, forever.

What if you get a job after that, work hard for another ten years, and then become the victim of another recession? Sorry, you are out of luck, once your savings and unemployment run out.

What if you have kids? Well, you can still get food stamps.

Yesterday, the state Senate passed a bill which, once the governor signs it, will mean that you can be on welfare for a maximum of four years in your entire life.

Doesn’t matter what might happen to you, the nation or the economy. Four years, and that’s it. Doesn’t matter if you are supporting children. Oh -- if you are pregnant or have a new baby you might be able to stay on the rolls for another 60 or 90 days, but then that’s it. They did make one exemption:  those caring for a disabled child or spouse. But that’s all.

The sponsor of this legislation, State Rep. Ken Horn, a Republican from Frankenmuth, says putting this cap on welfare will make Michigan stronger. What I don’t understand is how.

Now, if you aren’t an expert on the system, you may think we are ending welfare for a bunch of lazy adults who would prefer lying around and watching TV to working. Well, guess what.

They were on a program called general assistance, and Gov. John Engler ended it 20 years ago. Welfare as we once knew it has been gradually reduced since the 1980s. Mainly, the only people still receiving payments are needy families.

Now, about 12,000 of those families, which include 25,000 children, will lose benefits forever. That might not be bad, if ending welfare meant the heads of those households would now go out and get good-paying jobs. But they won’t.

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News Roundup
8:44 am
Thu July 14, 2011

In this morning's news...

Morning News Roundup, Thursday, July 14th
Brother O'Mara Flickr

Senate Approves Welfare Cap

The Michigan Senate approved a four-year limit on cash assistance welfare benefits yesterday. The 48-month cap is part of a Republican plan to balance the state budget. Some 12,600 families are expected to begin to lose benefits on October 1st because of the new limits. Lawmakers voted along party lines: 24 Republicans voted for the measure, 12 Democrats opposed it. The Senate Fiscal Agency says the legislation will save the state $77 million. If signed into law, the new limits would be among the strictest in the Midwest.

Ford Brought Back to Grand Rapids

Betty Ford will be laid to rest this afternoon in Grand Rapids. Thousands of people paid their respects yesterday evening during visitation at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. Dustin Dwyer was at the museum and reports:

The sidewalk outside the Ford Museum was packed with people when the motorcade rolled by, carrying Betty Ford on her final trip home. Visitors remembered Mrs. Ford as a woman who wasn't afraid to discuss her battles with alcoholism and breast cancer. A funeral service is scheduled for 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon. Afterward, Betty Ford will be laid to rest next to her husband at the Ford Museum.

University Tuition Increases

Ferris State University trustees have voted to raise undergraduate tuition 5.14 percent, well short of a 7 percent cap that Governor Snyder has set for schools to get access to special funds, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

Ferris is among the final state universities to set their tuition for the 2011-12 academic year. Central Michigan and Northern Michigan are expected to set their rates Thursday, and Grand Valley State is expected to decide Friday… The state is reducing its aid to the school by 15 percent, or $7.3 million.

Jennifer Guerra has a roundup of the schools that have announced tuition increases so far:

Rememberance
10:49 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Thousands pay respects to Betty Ford in Grand Rapids

People watch and wait for the precession to head down Pearl Street to the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

Betty Ford will be laid to rest Thursday afternoon in Grand Rapids. Wednesday evening, thousands paid their respects during visitation at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum.

The sidewalk outside the Ford Museum was packed with people when the motorcade rolled by, carrying Betty Ford on her final trip home.

Edna Jungers and her friend Yvonne Locker traveled from Milwaukee to see the former first lady in repose.

Jungers says her son lived near the Fords when they had a condo in Vail, Colorado.

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Politics
6:44 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Lawmaker wants to make business tougher for land speculators

State Sen. Tupac Hunter

Legislation introduced at the state Capitol aims to make it more difficult for land speculators to bid on foreclosure properties at tax auctions.

State Senator Tupac Hunter says the glut of foreclosure properties has created an environment ripe for speculators who buy properties to flip them, with no intention of improving them or paying taxes on them.

His legislation would set some restrictions on who can participate in auctions where tax-foreclosed properties are sold:

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The Two-Way
6:08 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Moody's puts U.S. credit rating on review for possible downgrade

Originally published on Wed July 13, 2011 5:55 pm

As the clock ticks down to the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, Moody's Investor Service became the first of the big-three rating agencies to put the United States' Aaa credit rating on review for possible downgrade.

Reuters reports:

In a statement, Moody's said it sees a "rising possibility that the statutory debt limit will not be raised on a timely basis, leading to a default on U.S. Treasury debt obligations."

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Politics
6:01 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Michigan getting ready for federal health care law

The federal health care law is being phased in. States are getting ready to fulfill their obligations under the law.
Andrian Clark Flickr

The state Senate has opened hearings on how Michigan will handle its responsibilities under the new federal health care law. If Michigan does nothing, the state will be placed in the federal system when the law is fully enacted in 2014.

Republican leaders expressed hope that federal courts will ultimately strike down the health care law. But Senate Insurance Committee Chair Joe Hune says Michigan needs to be ready.

"This is all because of Obamacare, which is a downright travesty that that was passed through at the federal level, but we’re in a position if we do nothing that we’ll have the federal government breathing down our neck to put something in place that we definitely do not like," said Hune. 

Senate committees were told by consumer groups, social services advocates and businesses that Michigan would be better off designing its own system than joining the federal plan or a multi-state consortium.

Legislative hearings on the state’s role in federal health care reforms could last a year.

Rememberance
4:51 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Services for Betty Ford to be held tonight and tomorrow

Betty and Gerald Ford
ABC News

The body of former first lady Betty Ford is being moved to Michigan for a service, according to the Associated Press.

From the AP:

The body of Betty Ford was placed on an Air Force jet for a final trip to Michigan, where the beloved
former first lady is to be laid to rest next to her late husband, President Gerald R. Ford.

Ford's mahogany casket, covered in flowers, was placed aboard the jet often used by Vice President Joe Biden shortly after 10a.m.

Wednesday for the four-hour flight to Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Politics
3:16 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Michigan Senate passes welfare limit, raises wage cap

The Capitol Building in Lansing

Here's some additional material on the welfare limit bill passed by the Michigan Senate today from Rick Pluta.

UPDATE:

The Michigan Senate split along party lines to approve a four-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits.

 The House is expected to concur with the Senate version, and Governor Rick Snyder will almost certainly sign it because the budget relies on more than 60 million dollars in savings from the benefits cap.

It also means 12,600 families will lose benefits come October first.

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