Why You Should Support the Part-Time Legislature Ballot Initiative

Michigan State Capitol

Michigan State Capitol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michigan’s legislators had enough time last year to pass a law to make sure that one guy in the U.P. could make money by letting people pet bear cubs.  That was just one of 367 laws passed since January 1st, 2013.  Laws are being passed so fast that citizens cannot keep up, and it’s doubtful that even the legislators have had time to understand the implications of each bill.  The overreaching nature of the current legislature is just one of the reasons a new ballot initative is being undertaken in order to restore Michigan’s part-time legislature.

Michigan is one of just four states with a full-time legislature, though another six states are near full-time according to the National Conference of State Legislators.  Michigan legislators are the 4th highest paid in the nation taking home $71,685 a year.  Because the legislators are full time, they require a larger staff.  The average staff member per legislator of a full-time legislature is almost nine people per elected official as opposed to just three per elected officials for a part-time legislature.  According to Mike Kuras, the Secretary of the Committee to Restore Michigan’s Part-Time Legislature (CRMPTL), Michigan now employs almost 1,000 staff members to help our148 legislators accomplish their work.  The CRMPTL is in the midst of gathering signatures that would not only return Michigan to a part-time legislature like it was before 1967, the ballot initiative would also limit the number of staff members to 250.  That number might be a little bit low since using the three staffers for each part-time legislator rule means about 444 staffers would be typical.  Legislators would likely lose some of their personal staff, but it would go beyond that.  The amendment calls for the elimination of the Michigan Legislative Council (MLC).  The MLC has a number of sub-entities including the Legislative Service Bureau whose job it is to compile and publish Michigan’s laws.  Kuras says that the legislature would be put to the task of recreating a body to perform that task.  They would likely have to do it with a lot smaller staff though.

One of the criticisms being bantered around about the initiative is that this move would actually increase the power of lobbyist in Lansing.  Even lobbyists are saying that, so it makes you wonder about the validity of the argument.  Kuras suggests that legislators will be spending a lot more time in their home district, unless they can afford and justify working full time in Lansing for half pay, so they might be far more likely to rely on local experts and the opinions of their constituents rather than those of paid lobbyists.  Also, when legislators are at home they wouldn’t be a stones throw from the lobbyist’s offices, and they wouldn’t be available to attend the fundraisers that lobbyists hold two or three days a week in Lansing.

Another valid question is who can afford to be a legislator at a pay that is capped at $35,000 a year with a mild cost of living increase each year.  First, the average Michigander makes less than $28,000 a year.  So if you are looking for average folks, the pay is not a barrier.  Additionally, legislators would be allowed, if not encouraged, to supplement their income with non-political work.  Since they would only be in session 60 days each year, unless called up for a special session by the Governor, they would have time to hold down another job and supplement that income.

Michigan still lacks the kind of transparency that would help prevent legislators from receiving kickbacks to make up for their lost income.  Unfortunately, this amendment wouldn’t change that.  According to Kuras, the transparency piece of this legislation would make public knowledge all the fringe benefits that legislators receive from the state, for instance when legislators take a trip to another country to attend an economic summit.  Apparently, the authors of this amendment hope that would shame the legislators into blowing less of the tax payers’ money.  It’s pretty hard to shame a legislator though.

One of the hurdles the CRMPTL will face, should they get enough votes to put it on the ballot, is getting over the ”just say no” mentality.  In the last election every ballot proposal was defeated by a no vote.  Based on the content of the amendments, it appears that the overriding philosophy was to say no rather than to actually consider the content of the five proposals independently.  The more ballot initiatives that get the needed signatures to make it on the ballot, the harder that no barrier will be to overcome.

So is a part-time legislature a good idea or not?  I guess we could look at this way. If we had a part-time legislature now, would we move to make it full time?  Also, do most voters believe that our best interests are being served when legislators cast their vote in Lansing?  If you said no to both of those questions, then why not say yes to a part-time legislature?

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Posted in 2014 Election, Government Reform | 6 Comments

Capitol Police to Legislators will be 1 to 6 While Flint Police to Residents is 1 to 833

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Inside the Capitol Building. Photo by Chad Phillps

According the FBI, Flint and Detroit are two of the top five most violent cities in America.  Yet, Flint has just 1.2 police officers for every 1,000 residents, and Detroit has just 3 police officer for every 1,000 residents.  It is clear that neither of those two cities have a large enough police force to deal with the amount of violent crimes taking place within their borders each day.

There is one place that will have more than enough police presence though, the Capitol Building in Lansing.  According to a Detroit Free Press article, legislators are more than doubling the amount of capitol police on duty and quadrupling their budget.  There will now be one police officer for every six legislators!  It’s hard to say what these police officers will be up to since there has been virtually no crime at the Capitol Building ever!

If self serving behavior were a crime, then we would need those extra police officers at the Capitol Building to arrest Republicans legislators.  Since it isn’t, those extra police officers should be patrolling the streets of Flint and Detroit where they could save lives.  This is another great example of Republicans wasting money while running around advocating for fiscal conservatism.

Posted in Law Enforcement | 1 Comment

Snyder’s Graphs Show he is not Responsible for Michigan’s Comeback

Governor Snyder has labeled himself the “comeback kid.”  Two solid indicators of a comeback would be unemployment trending down and people’s incomes trending up.  As you can see in the two graphs below from Governor Snyder’s dashboard, we are slowly improving in those two areas.  What is also as clear as the swimming pool that Snyder emerged from in his peculiar Super Bowl commercial is that any recovery is a result of national trends rather than local ones.  The most significant factor in Michigan’s recovery from the great recession, and in part the nation’s recovery, is the resurgence of Michigan’s automobile industry.  That recovery was facilitated with tax payer loans to GM and Chrysler approved by President Bush.  President Obama’s administration also gets credit for overseeing the restructuring of the two automotive behemoths.  The management and workers of the “Big 3″ also deserve praise.  The person who doesn’t deserve credit is Governor Snyder.  If Snyder’s own policies were really gaining traction, we would see Michigan closing the gap on the rest of the nation, which clearly isn’t happening according to the charts from Governor Snyder’s dashboard.  Snyder’s attempts to take credit for the recovery prove that either he isn’t as great with numbers as he claims, or he understands the numbers but is more concerned with getting votes than being honest with the people of Michigan.

Per Capita Income

Unemployment Rate

Posted in 2014 Election, Economy, Richard Snyder | Tagged | Leave a comment

Republican Legislator Admits Targeting Teachers Which Could Violate the U.S. Constitution

Colored BullseyeIn 2011, Republicans dealt a serious blow to the collective bargaining process by passing a law (Public Act 4152 of 2011) that said state employees cannot get retroactive pay when a contract is settled.  This law essentially created an incentive for public employers to not settle a contract.  The longer the employer can hold out, the less they have to pay because wages are frozen at the current level and any raise agreed upon can not include a raise for the time when the contract was unsettled.  It pretty much puts public employers at the mercy of their bosses, the way Republicans like it.

According to the Detroit News, legislators are looking to change that law to allow unionized police and fire to get retroactive pay.  The article cited Republican Representative John Walsh (a former Chamber of Commerce chairman) who “said the law was meant to be aimed only at public school employees.”  This could very well be evidence that the law violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  According to the Cornell Univesity Law School website, the 14th amendment can be interpreted to mean “the laws of a state must treat an individual in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstances.”  As employees of the state, it could easily be argued that firefighters, teachers, police officers, prison employees, and other state employees are employed under similar circumstances.

It’s hard to say if legislators will carve out a special exemption for police and firefighters.  Republican Ethics Committee chair Lisa Posthumus Lyons unsuccessfully attempted to do that for her husband, a prison guard, when the right-to-work law was passed.  It’s also hard to say if unions, who have been bludgeoned with discriminatory laws passed by the Republicans, have the resources to fight this law.  What is certain is that Republicans see teaching as being a lesser profession.  They seem to believe teachers do not deserve to have a say in their working conditions like the police who protect them.  I guess you can pander for more than votes.  Discrimination and pandering: the new axioms of the Michigan Republican Party.

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Posted in Chamber of Commerce, Collective Bargaining, Right-to-Work, Schools | 1 Comment

Snyder’s Economic Policies are Working. Billionaires’ Income up 22%

Billionaire MathHas your income risen 22% in the past year?  Or has it risen less than 2% like the average Michigander?  If you are in the latter category, have you considered being a billionaire?  According to Forbes’ 28th Annual World’s Billionaire List, Michigan’s 11 billionaires are worth 36.4 billion dollars. Last year, Michigan’s 12 billionaires were worth 29.75 billion dollars.  The average Michigan billionaire increased their wealth by $829,924.  Meanwhile, the average Michigander, who makes $28,719 a year, made an additional $316 according to the most recent numbers on Governor Snyder’s dashboard.

Dick Devos, the big money behind the Republican Party in Michigan, did better than the average billionaire.  He made 1.8 billion dollars over the past year.  DeVos is now worth 5.1 billion dollars.  To put that in perspective, DeVos has more money than the owners of the Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, and the Washington Redskins combined!  You would have to pool the average wage of 177,582 Michiganders to have as much money as Dick DeVos.

It is clear that with the election of Richard Snyder, a millionaire but not yet a billionaire, we have established a plutocracy (a government ruled by the rich) in Michigan.  Governor Snyder’s latest campaign finance report is a who’s who list of Michigan’s most wealthy individuals.  His tax policy raised taxes on the poor while cutting taxes on some of Michigan’s richest individuals.  Snyder’s own dashboard reports that despite the rich getting richer, 25% of our state’s children still live in poverty and that number has not improved.  Voters have a clear choice in 2014.  Double down on plutocracy and the reverse Robin Hood economics of the Richard Snyder administration, or vote Mark Schauer for Governor.

Note: The original post said the increase was 14%.  Thanks to my wife, who teaches eighth grade math, for correcting me.  Also, William Clay Ford Sr, one of Michigan’s billionaires and owner of the Detroit Lions, passed away two days after this was originally posted.

Posted in DeVos Family, Richard Snyder, Taxes | 2 Comments

State Rep Says Employees Can Raise the Minimum Wage By Working Harder and Faster

State Representative Phil Potvin is known for saying dumb things.  So it is no surprise that his answer to 7&4 News reporter Nathan Edward’s questions on raising the minimum wage left a lot to be desired.  Edwards asked Potvin how much the cost of living would have to increase before he would consider voting for an increase in the minimum wage.  Potvin said the employee can increase the minimum wage by “working better, by working faster, by putting out more product for your employer.”  He went on to say you have to “stay with the employer for more than 15 minutes.”  See his comments below at the 1:54 mark.

One of several problems with Representative Potvin’s statement is that worker productivity does not equal higher wages anymore.  According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, worker productivity has increased 23 percent since the year 2000 while wages have remained flat.  This trend may have began as far back as 1973.

It should also be noted that Potvin took over his family business, that had been in existence since 1946, and that business is now closed.  Potvin landed on his feet though and was able to donate $25,000 of his own money to his successful State House campaign.  Now he makes $71,000 a year working for the fourth highest paid legislature in the country.  Meanwhile, Michigan has the 21st highest minimum wage.  I guess that proves state legislators are working harder and smarter than the rest of us.

Posted in Phil Potvin | 2 Comments

Four Ways Meijer is Morphing into Walmart (Including Donating to Privatize Your School)

A Meijer in Midland, Michigan.

A Meijer in Midland, Michigan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a lot of reasons to choose Meijer over WalMart.  Meijer is based in Michigan rather than Arkansas.  Meijer is still a private business, 13th largest in the U.S according to Forbes, instead of a heartless corporation.  Some of Meijer’s workers are organized which means that they have a say in their working conditions.  Yet, Meijer is slowly becoming a lot more like Walmart.  Here are four reasons why.

Reason 1: The Walmart heirs, who alone have as much wealth as the bottom 40% of Americans, have donated millions to the school privatization movement (yet your local public school probably buys loads of stuff from Walmart).  In Michigan, the organization leading the privatization movement is the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP).  GLEP is funded in large part by over a million dollars in donations from the DeVos family.  Walmart heirs Jim and John Walton have chipped in though, donating $100,000 each to the organization.   Meijer founder Hendrick Meijer donated $1,000 to GLEP when the non-profit was just getting started.  While these were donations by major stakeholders in these companies, they were not donated directly by the company.  That is until 2011 when Meijer directly donated $20,000 to GLEP.  When I contacted their charitable giving department, I was told that Meijer does not donate to political organizations. Further inquiry lead me to Stacie Behler’s office. Behler is the Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.  According to her Linkdin profile, she is in charge of “public relations, corporate philanthropy, government affairs and internal communications, partnerships and promotions for Meijer.”  Behler also sits on the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and Meijer and the DeVos company Amway are both members.  Behler also sits on the board of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids.   Dick DeVos has been a featured speaker for that group.  It is safe to assume their paths have crossed more than once.  While I couldn’t reach Behler to ask her if DeVos lobbied her personally for the money, I was connected with her assistant Heather Roland.  Roland indicated that she would try to get me more answers about how and why such a large donation occurred on behalf of Meijer.  However, Roland never called me back with the information and several voicemails left for her were never returned.

Reason 2: Both Meijer and Walmart seem to lack compassion for their customers and their employees.  In October, Walmart fired a Michigan worker in Hartland for helping a women who was being assaulted in their parking lot.  Not to be outdone, in November Meijer fired a worker in Gaylord for putting out a customer’s car fire!   Both cited violation of company policy.  Apparently, being a good Samaritan is frowned upon in those establishments.

Reason 3: As Meijer has grown they have become less community centered.  For instance, Meijer made a “corporate decision” to stop  free publications from being distributed in their stores.  Some of those publications contained important notices by local municipalities.  Attempts by concerned parties to keep these publications in stores was not successful.  However, Meijer was successfully lobbied by hunting activists to cancel a contest that was set to help the Humane Society of the United States.  The money was to be earmarked for pets whose families were going through foreclosure.  Back in in 1994 Meijer began banning Salvation Army bell ringers from their stores.  Meijer made the decision to ban the Salvation Army, the Girl Scouts, and everyone else because they wanted to prevent unionized workers from handing out leaflets.

Reason 4: Meijer has become more and more political and less ethical.  In 2007, a firm hired by Meijer attempted to get local elected officials recalled when they wouldn’t approve a large development, which included a Meijer store, in Acme near Traverse City. According to an article in Harpers, Stacy Behler (referenced above) may have been involved in the recall campaign based on phone records.  Harpers writer Alec MacGillis, like myself, was unable to talk to Behler because she did not return his phone calls.  When the Record Eagle ran a series of news stories about the controversy, Meijer pulled $250,00 worth of advertising from the newspaper.  According to Harpers, six Record Eagle employees lost their job in large part do to that move by Meijer.  Meijer ultimately paid $190,000 in fines for violating Michigan Campaign Finance laws because the company made direct contributions to the recall rather than using a political action committee.  Meijer got the last laugh on this one though as they will finally be getting a store in Acme after more than a ten year battle with locals.  Ron Hardin, a member of the Acme town board who finally voted to approve the development told MacGillis “in the end it was easier to go along with it than to keep fighting it over every little thing, and there was a big fatigue factor involved for everyone.”

It’s getting hard and harder to go grocery shopping.  I believe when you give a business a dollar it is a lot like giving a political candidate your vote.  As we have seen with Meijer and Walmart, those dollars may actually end up in the hands of a group trying to privatize your job or influence your local elections.  So I’ll try to do most of my shopping at smaller Michigan grocery stores, farmers markets, and mercantile stores.  If you aren’t a fan of the Walmarts of the world, of which Meijer is quickly becoming one, you may want to join me.

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Posted in Business, Great Lakes Education Project | 10 Comments

Governor Snyder Deceived You On School Funding. Here is How.

Governor Snyder used fuzzy math when he proclaimed he increased school funding $660 in Michigan during his recent state of the state address.  A quick look at the Senate Fiscal Agency Report shows you that per pupil school funding is actually $120 less than the last year Governor Granholm was in office.  In fact, today’s per pupil funding is still less than the 2006-07 levels!  The Snyder administration used creative accounting to come up with their numbers.  They added the increases to the school employee’s pension fund and one time ”best practices” money even though those items were not counted towards school funding increases prior to the Snyder regime.  The Governor’s accounting isn’t quiet as bad as Enron’s, but it isn’t on the up and up either.

perpupilfunding

The Governor has also failed to deal with the discrepancy in school funding that dates back to 1995 and the passage of Proposal A.  Most schools this year are receiving $7,026 per pupil in funding.  That includes the Hamtramack School District whose residents are the third poorest in the state (551 out of 553).  The two poorest, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, are being operated by Emergency Managers.  Meanwhile, Bloomfield Hills School District, which has the richest residents per capita in the state, receives $11,804 per student.  So far, the Snyder administration has offered up no bills to update Proposal A and fix these discrepancies.

No one is suggesting that we triple school funding to the levels ($20,500) of the private school where Governor Snyder’s kids went.  However, most Michiganders want school districts adequately funded and they want funding to keep up with the cost of inflation.  That has not happened as proven by the vast increase of school districts in financial trouble under the Snyder Administration.  It also shows that educating public school children is not a priority for Governor Snyder despite what his $400,000 Super Bowl ad might tell you.

Posted in Richard Snyder, Schools | 62 Comments

Kid Rock Speaks Out in Favor of Governmental Regulation, One of Two Reasons I’m a New Fan

Kid RockKid Rock just wrote an Op-ed in the Detroit Free Press in which he urges state legislators not to eliminate Michigan’s ticket scalping law via House Bill 5108.  The current law prevents scalpers from selling tickets above the face value.  Without the law, scalpers could buy up loads of tickets before concert goers and then sell them for several times the face value.  This isn’t the first time Kid Rock has taken on high ticket prices and scalpers.  Last summer he played four shows in suburban Detroit that featured $20 tickets and free parking.  All four shows sold out.  In the Op-ed, Kid Rock says he is an expert on concert tickets.  Like many experts in their field, it seems he understands what type of regulations are necessary to protect the consumer.  The problem Kid Rock faces though is Republicans rarely care what experts have to say.  Just ask any teacher you know.  Maybe Kid Rock’s fame, or the fact that he endorsed Mitt Romney, will help persuade Michigan Republicans to go against their values and consider the needs of regular Michiganders.

On a less newsworthy note, there is another reason I recently became a fan of Kid Rock.  Despite my love of all things from Michigan, Mitt Romney aside, I’ve always had a hard time getting over the fact that Kid Rock’s lyrics are mostly about Kid Rock.  I prefer lyrics with a little more substance.  My feelings about him changed though when I had an opportunity to attend a large music festival in New Orleans a few months ago.  I made the trip to spend time with my cousin and see one of my favorite bands, Pearl Jam.  As part of my ticket package, I also got to see Kid Rock.  Of the many great artists I saw that weekend, I actually left being most entertained by Kid Rock.  I admired his energy, and I felt a bond with him because of his love for our home state, which is ever-present in his lyrics.  Even though I’m a resident of Northern Michigan, I proudly wore my Old English D t-shirt and sang along to some of the songs I had learned by picking up his CD prior to departing to the Big Easy.  One Kid Rock hit song said “They say I’m cocky, and I say What? It ain’t braggin’(expletive) if ya back it up.”  Lots of people say they love Michigan.  Kid Rock has backed it up by living in Michigan, promoting Michigan, and now advocating for average concert going folks in Michigan.  How can you not be a fan of that?

Photo Credit: Chad Phillips

Posted in Business | 8 Comments

Governor Snyder Setting up Engler Style Tax Bomb

bombJohn Engler, former Michigan Governor and current Washington lobbyist, includes among his successes cutting taxes 32 times “saving taxpayers nearly $32 billion.” At least six of those cuts lowered the Single Business Tax rate, a tax Governor Snyder eliminated all together.  Engler was able to pass these tax breaks because the economy was exceptionally strong until near the end of his second term.  However, Engler left office with a 1.8 billion dollar deficit created by a slumping economy and a lack of revenue thanks in part to those 28 tax cuts.  To make matters worse, his annual personal income tax cuts extended beyond his term creating additional revenue problems for Governor Granholm.  Engler’s tax cuts, coupled with a slumping economy, in effect created a tax bomb.   The fallout from his tax bomb left Michigan in a very bad place in terms of revenue when the country entered the great recession in 2007.

Fast Forward several years.  Governor Snyder has been fashioning his own tax bomb.  By eliminating the Single Business Tax he cut 1.8 billion dollars from the tax base.  However, he did make some of that up by reducing tax credits for the working poor (earned income credit), eliminating deductions like the charitable tax deductions, and taxing retirees pensions.  More recently he has eliminated the personal property tax on business equipment.  These moves combined shift nearly the entire tax burden onto individuals with little help from the majority of businesses.  These cuts have caused some schools to go out of business, and many more to cut programs, close buildings, and lay off teachers.  They have also been harmful to local government who are struggling to keep the roads plowed and officers on patrol.  Local governments are also looking to cut other non-essential services.  For instance, Wexford County Commissioners recently voted to eliminate most funding for the local civic arena and ice rink citing declining state revenue sharing as the main reason.

Like Engler, Snyder has begun passing tax cuts that may extend beyond his tenure as governor.  Recently, he passed a bill that will allow people to pay tax on only the difference between the purchase price and the trade in price of a car or boat. This tax reduction will be phased in over several years.  This past week we learned the State has 1.3 billion dollars more in revenue this year than they had planned.  Instead of returning funding to our schools or local government, Republicans are looking at passing personal tax cuts.  Republicans may also phase these tax cuts in repeating the mistakes of the Engler administration.  When looking at future revenue, it should also be noted that more people are buying goods online reducing the amount of sales tax collected.  So far, politicians in Michigan have not been willing to extend the sales tax to online purchases leaving online businesses with an advantage over local businesses and leaving the state with less sales tax revenue than it should have.

The lowering of taxes now, to an extremely minimal level, combined with cutting taxes into the future, create Engler style tax bombs.  Should another recession hit, Michigan will be left feeling the effects of the Snyder tax bomb.  By then, Snyder will be off to Washington or back to working in private equity. When that happens politicians will likely  pass policies that harm children, the poor, and the elderly. Alternatively, we could learn from our past mistakes and tax people and businesses at a rate that is fair but adequate.  We could use the surplus we have now to restore funding to areas that have been cut like schools and local government.  We could also invest in our infrastructure and help rebuild Detroit.  However, this is an election year.  Since Republicans are in charge of our entire government, pandering to voters will be the central mission of their party over the next 11 months.  Meanwhile, the bomb is ticking.

Posted in Business, Richard Snyder, Taxes | 3 Comments