Politics & Government

Government Shutdown
9:46 am
Mon April 4, 2011

Countdown to federal government shutdown

(flcickr Matti Mattila)

The clock is ticking down to a possible federal government shutdown at the end of this week. And, Michigan lawmakers are playing pivotal roles in the budget debate. 

Michigan congressmen Justin Amash and Tim Walberg are among a group of 13 House Republicans that have threatened to break with the GOP leadership on the budget negotiations. They’ve pushed budget amendments to slash$61 billion in spending.

Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin says far right Republicans in the House are preventing the two sides from reaching a budget deal.  

“Right now the leadership of the House…Mr. Boehner…is a kind of a captive of the far right of the House.”  

Levin complains that lawmakers with ties to the Tea Party don’t care if the federal government shuts down, since they believe government is the problem to begin with.

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medical marijuana
9:03 am
Mon April 4, 2011

ACLU of Michigan to take medical marijuana case to Michigan Supreme Court

The ACLU of Michigan hopes to take a medical marijuana case to the Michigan Supreme Court
Kevin Connors MorgueFile

The Michigan Supreme Court may soon hear its first case on the state’s medical marijuana law.

Larry King of Owosso has a medical marijuana license from the state.  He was charged with a felony by the Shiawassee County prosecutor for growing marijuana in a locked dog kennel that did not have a roof. The Circuit Court dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals reinstated the felony charges.

Dan Korobkin is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. He says the prosecution shouldn’t charge King with a felony because King is legally allowed to grow marijuana:

“Instead of simply telling Mr. King that he needed to move his plants inside, or put a roof over it, they’re now prosecuting him on felony drug charges for the same offense that he would be charged with if he never had any medical marijuana card at all.”

Korobkin said Michigan voters approved the medical marijuana act to protect patients that were approved to use marijuana for medical reasons.

“We’re representing him because the prosecution of a medical marijuana patient who is complying with the law is a gross injustice and thoroughly undermines the intent of the voters in passing the Medical Marijuana Act."

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Politics
7:01 am
Mon April 4, 2011

Snyder says new Detroit/Ontario bridge is still in the works

A view of the Ambassador bridge over the Detroit River
J. Stephen Conn Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder says he hopes to introduce legislation next week that would move forward with construction on a second bridge span between Detroit and Canada. A similar proposal has met stiff opposition for several years among Republicans in the Legislature. Snyder says it is time for another international crossing:

“Doing the new international trade crossing is the right thing to do. At the same time, when I did my analysis I believe there’s viable opportunity to have the Ambassador Bridge continue, the Windsor Tunnel, the Blue Water Bridge, and clear up at the Soo. We’ve got great crossings, we just need another crossing.”

Democrats in the Legislature say Snyder will need their votes to approve the bridge project. They say if the governor wants their support he will also need to work with them more during budget negotiations.

Lawmakers return next week from their spring break.

Election 2012
6:21 am
Mon April 4, 2011

President Obama announces reelection bid

President Obama launched his re-election campaign early Monday morning
The U.S. Army Flickr

President Barack Obama launched his reelection bid this morning. The announcement was made via a web video that was posted to the President's campaign website and through an email sent to supporters.

The news made headlines across the blogosphere:

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Politics
1:29 pm
Sun April 3, 2011

Opponents start push to repeal Ohio union law

Opponents of an Ohio law to limit public workers' collective bargaining rights have started gathering signatures to get a referendum on the measure. Governor John Kasich signed the measure Thursday. It bans public worker strikes, eliminates binding arbitration, and restricts bargaining for 350,000 public workers.

The bill was supported by the Republican majority in the Legislature and by business groups and tea party activists. They say it's needed to help Ohio economically. Unions and Democrats opposed it.

The bipartisan coalition leading the petition drive will need more than 230,000 valid signatures by June 30 to put a referendum on November's ballot.

Corrections
4:48 pm
Fri April 1, 2011

Michigan's prisons keep prisoners longer, cost more

User bgb Flickr

While controversy over budget cuts lingers, new statistics show that Michigan's prison system may have some system-wide problems that actually increase cost.The Chicago Tribune/A.P. reports:

Michigan often keeps inmates long after other states would have released them for similar crimes, driving up prison costs by millions of dollars a year and eating up a quarter of the state's general fund.

Both former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and current Republican Gov. Rick Snyder have encouraged the parole board to be more lenient when it comes to releasing prisoners who have served their minimum sentences. Yet a bill that would require that inmates serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence but no more than 120 percent failed to make it through the Legislature during the last two-year session.

That has left 8,000 inmates still behind bars who have served more than their minimum sentences, a practice that's costing Michigan taxpayers around $280 million annually.

It's likely to take years for the parole board to consider those 8,000 cases, which make up nearly a fifth of the prison population. On April 15, the parole board will shrink from 15 members to 10 under a Snyder executive order estimated to save around $500,000 a year in pay and benefits.

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Commentary
9:49 am
Fri April 1, 2011

Doctors with Borders

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Joe Schwarz, one of the best-informed, multi-talented men in public life in this state. After a stint as mayor of his native Battle Creek, Schwarz spent sixteen years in the state senate, where he was immensely knowledgeable on education policy and finance.

That was, of course, back in the era before term limits. Schwarz is also one of those people whose resume could fill a box. He’s also had a career in the U.S. Navy, and as a spy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He ran for governor once and congress twice, finally winning a single term in 2004.

Schwarz’s problem was never the general election. Every time he got to one of those, he won easily. But he had trouble in  Republican primaries. He is a fiscal conservative and a military hawk, but also believes in funding education, and that abortion should be “legal, safe and rare.” Nor does he always suffer fools gladly.

By the way, I didn’t mention his day job. He is an otolaryngologist, which we civilians call an ear, nose and throat surgeon, and is still happily practicing medicine. 

That is, when he isn’t teaching at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Schwarz understands health care issues, and I was curious about our medical school explosion.

The U of M has a medical school; Wayne State has one; Michigan State has two; Oakland University and Beaumont Hospital have started one, and Western Michigan is now starting one.

Is that too many? Will we be producing too many doctors?

That’s a good question, the good doctor told me, but not the most important one. When all these medical schools are up and running, they’ll be producing something like six hundred and ninety doctors a year, trained largely at state expense.

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Election 2012
7:00 am
Fri April 1, 2011

State Rep. Knollenberg to challenge Congressman Peters

State Representative Marty Knollenberg
Photo courtesy of www.gophouse.com

Republican state Representative Marty Knollenberg (District 41 - Troy) will run against Democratic Congressman Gary Peters in Michigan’s 9th Congressional district in 2012.

Representative Peters unseated Congressman Joe Knollenberg, Marty's father, in the November 2008 election.

As the Associated Press reports, “the younger Knollenberg said Thursday that his staff is filing candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission. The Troy legislator says he's entering the race now so as not to fall behind the Bloomfield Township Democrat in fundraising."

Politics
5:31 pm
Thu March 31, 2011

Snyder and Republican leaders point to progress and sticking points

Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican leadership in the State House and Senate outlined progress and sticking points.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

Governor Snyder, House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville say they have worked well together to approve many measures so far this year – including the expansion of power for emergency financial managers.

But one area they do not seem to agree on is how and where to reform taxes.

Richardville said "we actually have been disagreeing quite a bit," but he says those disagreements are fine because they are still listening to each other.

"It’s not about disagreement, it’s about passion. Everybody that got elected ran as hard as they could to get here, and is passionate about getting here," said Richardville, "but we have respect for the other passions in the room, so we’re going to get there."

Disagreement over taxing pensions

One area where they disagree is Governor Snyder’s proposal to tax pensions.

Snyder says he stands by his plan, even after receiving a cool reception from many Republican legislators:

"For higher income people, for people who have the wherewithal to say they’re also contributing to our system – I think that’s a fair answer. Because that’s the part of it that is, people shouldn’t just look at what they’re asked to give up, but when you look at where they’re ending up. Are they being treated fairly in respect to the other citizens in our state?”

Governor Snyder often stresses that low-income people on pensions would not be subject to painful tax increases.

Some Republicans state senators say there is no pension tax they would agree to, even one that only focuses on the very wealthy.

Democrats feel left out

Democratic lawmakers say they have been left out of negotiations so far.

Democratic state Senator Bert Johnson says many of the Republican proposals are the reason why thousands of angry people have protested at the Capitol in recent weeks.

"I think we would do well – all of us here in this Legislature – to realize what it being said out on the front steps of the Capitol, what is being said out on the lawns of the Capitol. I think these are not crazy people – these are people who have elected all of us. These are people who go out, and they vote, and they vote in numbers and they’re carrying their concerns to the Capitol."

Johnson says Democratic lawmakers have been ignored in much of the work that has been done so far. He says Snyder will soon find that he needs Democratic votes as he tries to approve parts of his tax plan that are unpopular with Republicans.

Politics
4:48 pm
Thu March 31, 2011

Ballot proposal would put casinos in seven Michigan cities

Triin Q wikipedia commons

New casinos would open in seven Michigan cities, under a measure a group hopes to get onto the ballot in 2012.

Bill Thompson is a casino expert from Las Vegas who helped draft the proposed constitutional amendment, which calls for a 19% wagering tax for the casinos. He says it would raise about $400 million in tax revenues. More than half the money would fund college scholarships and a tourism ad campaign.

Thompson says much of the rest would go to the communities that host the casinos:

"This will bring money into Saginaw, Benton Harbor – two cities that are in desperate financial situations, also Lansing, Grand Rapids – two cities that need help."

The measure also calls for casinos in Mount Clemens, Detroit and Romulus, where Alan Lambert is the mayor:

"There’s so many people out of work. In my own community there’s a lot of people out of work. So to a city like Romulus this means revenue obviously, and it means a lot of jobs."

Detroit’s three existing casinos will likely put on a vigorous fight to block the measure. And since it’s a statewide vote, opponents say it takes away residents’ rights to decide whether they want a casino in their communities.

The group failed to get a similar measure onto the 2010 ballot.

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Commentary
11:19 am
Thu March 31, 2011

Thought Police

Several listeners have asked me why I haven’t commented on the battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.  Well, there’s a good reason for that.

Which is, that we’ve got more than enough in Michigan to wrestle with to keep us all occupied. That doesn’t mean, as one of my devoted admirers e-mailed me, that I am a “gutless wonder.”

Matter of fact, I would like to get an inch or two off my gut. Seriously, I have a hard time accepting that anyone should lose their collective bargaining rights in America, no matter who their employer.

But I have an even harder time with anyone trying to suppress anybody’s freedom of expression in any way.

Which brings me to a very ominous development I first read about on the political blog Talking Points Memo, a story which involves Michigan and the Wisconsin mess.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank best known for supporting free-market economics, is asking, under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, for all the emails by labor studies professors at our state’s three major public universities -- Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State. 

All the e-mails, that is, that these professors have sent regarding the union strike in Wisconsin, that state’s governor, and, oddly enough, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Why are they asking for these e-mails? The managing editor of the Mackinac Center’s newsletter wouldn’t say. But some fear the center wants to use them to attack liberal professors for using state resources for what could be called improper political activity.

That, or cow them into not expressing their points of view.

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Politics
10:08 am
Thu March 31, 2011

Is the State Supreme Court a flip-flopper?

The Michigan State Supreme Court attracts attention for overruling its own older decisions
jeffness Wikimedia Commons

Politicians don’t like to flip flop. Going back on what they said before can be a big political headache. 

The U.S. Supreme Court also takes flip flopping very seriously. The last time they overturned a decision was in 2003.

By comparison, the Michigan Supreme Court has flip-flopped a lot. Somewhere around thirty-eight times in the past decade.

All this flip flopping means that court keeps changing the law. One reason for the flip flops is because the judges on the court keep changing. Between elections and appointments there can be a lot of turnover on the bench. And new judges don’t necessarily agree with those who came before them.

Robert Sedler is a court watcher who says ideology is causing the back and forth on the Court. And he says things got bad about a decade ago. He teaches law at Wayne State University Law School.

"Around 1998 there were a series of appointments by former Governor Engler who were very ideological in their views. The majority took the position that, if they believed  cases were wrongly decided, they were going to overrule those cases."

Conservative majorities, like the one appointed by Engler, aren’t the only ones overturning old decisions. In 2010 there was a more moderate court, and they also overturned cases.

Take marajuana, for example. In 2006 the court saw all marijuana use the same, it was illegal. Four years later the new court saw more nuance and interpreted the law in ways that impacts medical marijuana use.

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News Roundup
8:53 am
Thu March 31, 2011

In this morning's news...

Morning News Roundup, Thursday, March 31st
Brother O'Mara Flickr

Snyder to Deliver Progress Report

Governor Snyder plans to deliver a progress report on his first 90 days in office later this morning in Lansing. Lt. Governor Brian Calley, state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, and state House Speaker Jase Bolger will join him. It’s expected the Republican leaders will address their plans for the state’s budget. The Governor has previously asked the legislature to balance the state’s budget for the next fiscal year by May 31st.

Dems to Propose Reinstating Jobless Benefits

Two Democratic state lawmakers are preparing legislation that would restore cuts to unemployment benefits. On Monday, Governor Snyder signed legislation to extend federal jobless benefits this year by 20 weeks, but the bill also contained a provision reducing state unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks for new filers beginning in 2012.

Michigan Court Rules Against CAFO Operators

Large factory farms have lost a major court case in the Michigan Court of Appeals, Steve Carmody reports. The case involves farming operations, called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs), with hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals. Carmody reports:

The appellate court upheld a lower court ruling that the state could require large confined animal feeding operations to get pollution discharge permits before opening. Farm groups challenged the state rule insisting they should only need a permit after releasing manure causing water pollution.  But today, the three judge panel disagreed:

“We conclude that the DEQ was fully authorized to require CAFOs to either (1) seek and obtain an (federal) permit (irrespective of whether they actually discharge pollutants), or (2) satisfactorily demonstrate that they have no potential to discharge.  The circuit court  properly denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary disposition and granted summary disposition in favor of the DEQ.”

Reorganization in the Detroit Public School System

Thousands of kids in the Detroit Public Schools system could see their school close or become a charter school next fall, Sarah Hulett reports. Yesterday, DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb laid out his reorganization plan. As Hulett explains, the plan calls for:

… closing seven schools this summer and one next summer. Another 18 schools will close by the fall unless a charter school operator can be identified to run them. And 27 more schools will be offered for conversion to charter schools, but will remain open otherwise…The list of 32 schools is fewer than half the troubled school district will have to close or convert to charters to erase a $327 million dollar deficit.

Politics
6:54 am
Thu March 31, 2011

Rep. Miller expected to introduce bill to secure U.S. borders

US/Canadian border in the Detroit/Windsor tunnel
Fritzmb Flickr

U.S. Representative Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township) is expected to introduce a bill today that would order the Department of Homeland Security to create a plan to secure 100 percent of the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, the Detroit News reports. From the News:

A draft copy of the bill, the Secure Border Act of 2011, was obtained Wednesday by The Detroit News. It would require DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her agency, within 180 days of its passage, to identify how to bring the northern and southern borders under full "operational control" — meaning authorities have clear ways of patrolling and controlling passage over a border — within five years.

Achieving full operational control of the borders would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more, if current projections are any indication.

Among the potential solutions are increased levels of fencing and boosted patrols on the southern border, while the U.S.-Canada border would be a prime candidate for a beefed-up Coast Guard presence in the Great Lakes, watch towers like those deployed along the St. Clair River and unmanned aerial drones in use in states like Arizona.

Both borders are far below that 100 percent goal. Forty-four percent of the U.S.-Mexican border is estimated to be under operational control; the U.S.-Canadian border is less than 2 percent controlled.

Rep. Miller chairs the Subcommittee on Maritime and Border Security in the U.S. House of Representatives.

State Legislature
6:35 am
Thu March 31, 2011

The debate over social issues during a budget crunch

Captiol Building, Lansing, Michigan
Thetoad Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder says he wants controversial social questions to take a back seat to taxes and job-creation. He says to do otherwise could create intense debates that enflame passions and sideline his efforts to fix Michigan’s economy.

But that has not stopped some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. They say GOP control of state government makes this the moment to tackle controversies surrounding abortion, gun control, illegal immigration, and medical marijuana.

Governor Rick Snyder meets up with his inner nerd every morning as he checks an electronic application that reminds him how much time is left before the budget deadline he set for the Legislature—May 31st.:

 “All I have to do is turn on my iPad and it shows me how many days and hours are left, and how many seconds…”

Snyder says he is singularly focused on completing the budget before that time on his iPad runs out. He has proposed massive cuts and tax reforms that would affect the budget. He says right now that should be the focus of everyone’s energy at the state Capitol. He’s finding some people – including Republicans – disagree. State Senator Rick Jones is one of those Republicans:

 “My job is looking at other issues that concern Michiganders."

Jones says the Legislature is working very hard on Snyder’s budget proposals and goals. But he says that does not mean lawmakers cannot and should not also work on social issues. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he recently took up and voted on a controversial abortion bill that is already covered by federal law. And he sponsored a measure that would add rules to the use of medical marijuana. Jones:

“The issues we take up, are issues where I could walk into any coffee shop in my district and the vast majority agree that it’s something we need to address."

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Politics
5:34 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

Snyder and Republican leadership to outline progress on budget tomorrow

Governor Rick Snyder outlining his plans in his State of the State address last January.
Michigan House Republicans

Governor Rick Snyder will join House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville at a press conference tomorrow.

They plan to outline the progress they’ve made closing a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

But it may be a little awkward, because Snyder still has not reached a deal with House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville on his plan for major tax reforms.

Snyder says he hopes the Legislature adopts his plan to tax pensions, and eliminate the business tax in favor of a corporate income tax on profits, but he says he is not pushing his plan too hard just yet.

"Well I’m not leaning on anyone," said Snyder. "I’m having a positive discussion, as I always like to have, about how we can work best together. And I think good partnership opportunities there, and we’re going to continue that dialogue. We’re making positive progress."

A House panel is debating tax plans similar to what Governor Snyder wants.

Leaders in the state Senate are talking about alternatives to Snyder’s plan.

So far, the budget plans include salary restraints on public employees and requiring them to pay more for their benefits.

Some lawmakers say members of the Legislature should take pay cuts and pay more of their benefits too.

But Governor Snyder is staying out of those salary debates.

"Well, we’re three branches of government, and I look at it as they take an opportunity for leadership in an area that affects them. We have more than enough to do in the executive branch."

Snyder has been criticized for paying salaries as large as $250,000 to some of his cabinet members.

Snyder is a self-made millionaire who takes an annual government salary of one dollar.

Politics
3:27 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

FOIA requests raise concern over academic freedom

K. Sawyer Flickr

Controversy continues to swirl around collective bargaining rights--and the protests that recent legislation has sparked--in Michigan and Wisconsin.

At issue now is a number of Freedom of Information Act requests done by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The requests have been made for information on faculty at Wayne State, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan.

Some critics are claiming that the FOIA requests are being used to intimidate college professors from participating in pro-labor protests.

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State Law
2:31 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

Two state lawmakers push to restore jobless benefits cuts

Two Democratic state lawmakers are preparing legislation that would restore unemployment benefits cuts recently signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder.  Snyder signed legislation to extend federal jobless benefits, but the bill also contained a provision shrinking state unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks next year.  

Republicans lawmakers pushed for the jobless benefits cuts, saying it will reduce the burden on Michigan businesses, which pay into the state unemployment insurance pool. Jim Ananich is a state representative from Flint.   He’s introducing legislation to restore those benefits.  

“You know I’m hopeful that they will see the error of their ways and see that now is not a time to be taking money out of people’s pockets.”

Ananich hopes to introduce his bill next month.

Governor Snyder
1:12 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

Snyder to discuss 'legislative accomplishments and future plans' tomorrow

Governor Rick Snyder (R)
Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

Governor Rick Snyder plans to, "discuss legislative accomplishments and future plans" at a press conference scheduled for tomorrow morning in Lansing. Lt. Governor Brian Calley, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, and Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger will be there as well. The Detroit News reports:

It's a sign of Republican unity amid continued signs that pieces of Snyder's Feb. 17 budget could be in trouble in the Legislature. For example, enough GOP senators have said they don't support Snyder's pension tax as he has proposed it, which could keep it from passing if Democrats vote against it as a bloc.

Snyder said he, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, will talk about "what we've accomplished so far this year," and what "we're still working on."

Snyder made his remarks today after signing the 15th bill enacted into law by the Legislature since he took office Jan. 1.

"If you go through the State of the State, we've accomplished most of those items," Snyder said, referring to the January speech he gave to lay out his legislative agenda and broader vision for the state...

Earlier bills signed into law eliminated an item pricing requirement for retailers, strengthened the powers of emergency managers appointed by the state to oversee financially troubled cities and school districts and provided incentives for environmental self-regulation by farmers.

Commentary
12:48 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

Cutting Unemployment Benefits

Two days ago a friend of mine called me in a semi-panic. Her unemployment benefits were about to run out, and she had eighty-seven dollars to her name. She wasn’t going to be able to make the modest payment on her small house, and didn’t know what to do. Nor did she understand what was going on in the legislature. Someone had told her that the governor was signing a bill to extend unemployment benefits. Somebody else told her he was going to shorten them. Which, she wanted to know, was it?

Well, both, I said. The governor signed a bill Monday that extends eligibility for federal extended unemployment benefits for up to ninety-nine weeks.

That’s only, however, for people like my friend Karen, who already is collecting unemployment.

Next year, however, things will change drastically. Any Michigander who loses his or her job after January 15, 2012 will only be eligible for state unemployment benefits for a maximum of twenty weeks. That’s less than five months.

For years, jobless workers in Michigan have been able to collect benefits for a maximum of twenty-six weeks, or six months. They can collect them for longer periods of time now because the federal government decided to temporarily provide benefits, because of the lingering effects of the recession. Those effects are still hanging on in Michigan, where unemployment is still more than ten percent. Economists expect that to come down a little by next year, but we’re likely to continue to be a long way from full employment. What that means is that for many people, twenty weeks is not going to be enough time to find a job.

So why is our government making it tough for jobless workers? Interestingly, nobody is really coming forward to defend this. Governor Snyder said he signed this bill because it was necessary to extend benefits for those who are jobless now. He said he would have been happy to leave eligibility at twenty-six weeks, and blamed the legislature for shortening the time period. Why did they do this? Well, nobody is rushing forward to claim credit.

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