Michigan particularly vulnerable to federal budget cuts

Capital News Service

LANSING — The money Michigan draws down from the federal government is the second- highest in the country, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

While Congress wages war on tax reform and health care, the uncertainty over Michigan‘s budget has officials nervously awaiting the outcome.

“It’s why we’re so concerned about the federal tax plan that’s being discussed at this point, either in the House or the Senate,” said Rachel Richards, legislative coordinator at the League, a nonpartisan institute that analyzes economic opportunity in Michigan.

All of the state’s 18 departments are at the mercy of the federal government, Richards said.

“There’s nothing set in stone currently, but the areas where we receive federal funding — like Medicaid, food assistance and child care — may be impacted by moves at the federal level,”  Richards said.

Michigan’s estimated budget in 2018 is $56.3 billion. The state budget office reports that 42 percent, or $20.1 billion of that would come from the federal government.

Leveraging federal dollars to support state programs generally makes sense. But acquiring so much money from the federal government has a dark side, said Craig Thiel, a research director with Citizens Research Council, a governmental policy research organization. What happens if it’s taken away?

“You could argue both sides of that,” Thiel said. As government funds less, the states have to pick up more of the tab, which can be concerning.

“That’s just the arithmetic of things.”

The risk of relying on federal dollars to fund state programs isn’t lost on the national level either.

“It’s a fair statement, given the level of deficit that the federal government has been running, to say ‘at some point, there would be spending cutbacks as one part of a solution to resolve that’,” said John Hicks, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Offices based in Washington, D.C..

The  League for Public Policy reports that both tax plans in the House and Senate would provide massive tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers, leave little for middle class individuals and grow the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade

“While the Legislature is allowed to lower tax revenue, we fear that at some point lawmakers down the road will see this and try to right-size the budget,” Richards said. “That means cuts to things that improve quality of life, like education and food assistance.”

If a tax code like the one being written at the federal level passes, the impacts on the budget would happen indirectly.

“What we anticipate this tax plan doing in the long run is affecting federal dollars to states,” Richards said. “For example: if the federal government had fewer dollars coming in, we would expect a reprioritizing of federal dollars that go to programs important to Michigan residents.”

Michigan’s budget isn’t threatened only by Congress. Some state legislators are trying to pass tax cuts that some officials say would be bad for many of the same programs that receive funds from the federal government.

The problem of receiving less money from above is exacerbated by Speaker. Rep. Tom Leonard, R-DeWit, who is attempting to lower taxes even more, said Meghan Swain, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. “We already have liabilities like transportation and infrastructure that will have to be paid for out of the general fund.”

Last February, Republican lawmakers proposed gradually decreasing the income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent, a move that the House Fiscal Agency estimated would result in a $1.1 billion budget hole by 2022.

It failed 52-55. But the bill could be brought up again.

“There’s going to be some pulls on the 2019 budget if any cuts happen,” Swain said. “Michigan won’t be able to backfill any of those programs.”

Federal proposals that might impact state budgets are nothing new. Over the 2017 summer, efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act would have drastically changed health care funding if they had succeeded.

“Everything that’s happening in Washington, D.C., will have significant impacts on the state,” said House Democratic Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing, ”and that’s why you’re seeing people really try to stand up and protect the systems that are in place, systems like Healthy Michigan.”

The Healthy Michigan plan was an expansion of Medicaid dollars from the federal government to states under the Affordable Care Act. It was meant for covering more individuals not under the original health care plan. About 91 percent of health care in Michigan, or $18.4 billion, is funded by federal dollars.

“It was a bipartisan effort that helped cover close to 700,000 people,” Singh said. A lot of small business owners were able to provide access to healthcare they couldn’t afford beforehand.

Michigan was among 31 states that expanded Medicaid when it was offered.

With the increased coverage came more costs. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that Healthy Michigan cost the federal government almost $3.6 billion in 2016.

Singh said he’s worried that programs like this may be slashed as part of governmental cuts.

“There’s been concern that you could see that program get cut, and that would mean going back to the old system.”

In response to the potential repealing of the Affordable Care Act, Michigan House Democrats issued a “Health Care Bill of Rights.” It’s a resolution that would require insurers to continue key Obamacare provisions, even if the law were repealed. The bill was referred to the Health Policy Committee.

Richards said that beyond health care, federal funding for roads and temporary assistance for needy families could be in the crosshairs of federal budget cuts.

The National Association of State Budget Offices, which analyzes how federal policies impacts state budgets, has yet to analyze how this tax policy would change things.

Hicks said, “We won’t be able to do a state-by-state analysis for a while.”

Once the bill becomes law, there’s still going to be a lot to unpack in how it affects each state’s budget, he said.

Survey: dune supporters include stormwatchers, ecologists, campers, economists

Capital News Service

LANSING — It’s not just their beauty that people love about dunes. Some value Michigan’s sandy knolls for storm-watching.

“It was a really popular activity that we didn’t have on our radar,” said Brad Garmon, director of conservation at the Michigan Environmental Council. “Some parks, specifically in Southwest Michigan, had a pretty high percentage of people rank storm-watching as the primary purpose of their visit to the dunes.”

Those storm clouds and lightning bolts are among many reasons why Michigan’s residents value the state’s dunes, a new survey is telling researchers.

“About 93 percent of people that took the survey valued dunes for their scenic value,” Garmon said. “I think that’s not surprising if you think about Sleeping Bear and some of these high-profile dunes, but that’s still a really high number.”

As one of the first of its kind, the online “How You Dune” survey administered by Michigan State University  pinpointed where and how people spend time when they visit dunes. Popular uses included beach-going and camping.

More than 89 percent of the respondents valued protection of dunes, while 80 percent valued them as a unique ecosystem.

“The idea of generational importance that ‘the dunes I enjoy today I want my kids and grandkids to have the opportunity to have and see and experience these dunes too,’ was really significant,” Garmon said.

Found mostly on the state’s west coast, the 275,000 acres of Michigan dunes comprise the world’s largest freshwater dune system. They house an ecosystem of animals and vegetation distinct to the region.

Many of these organisms rely on how the dunes migrate, a nuisance to many homeowners.

“From a coastal homeowner’s perspective, you’re always trying to keep the dunes in place,” said Shaun Howard, a Nature Conservancy project manager. “You’ve got your home and you’re worried about erosion. But they are dynamic and they are supposed to move.

“Dunes are really important as a component of the ecosystem food-chain because they have these really specific plants which have really specific insects that feed on them which in turn feed birds and other wildlife,” Howard said.

Some species, like the federally endangered Pitcher’s thistle, indicate the health of the dunes.

The plant needs the dunes to scour its seeds so they can continue to reproduce, Howard said. “Without the sand movement, you don’t get that scouring effect, and in return you get reduced germination rates of that particular plant. So we use Pitcher’s thistle success and growth as an indicator for whether the dunes are healthy.”

Coupled with understanding how individuals use dunes, researchers also sought how to galvanize dune supporters.

“We wanted to catalyze a group of dune stakeholders,” said Robert Richardson, an ecological economist with Michigan State who helped develop the survey that 3,610 people answered. “So given that we don’t know who cares about dunes, people who took the survey were invited to give us their contact information so that we could follow up. So now we can build upon this dune stakeholder community.”

Survey respondents were fairly homogeneous, Richardson said. About 87 percent are white.

“We feel like that’s also an opportunity for the Department of Natural Resources to do some targeted outreach to reach more diverse communities who may not have visited dunes or who may not be aware of the uniqueness of dunes,” Richardson said.

To reach minorities, there needs to be a reframing of the discussion about promoting the environment, said Sandra Turner-Handy, the community engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

It’s not that people of color don’t enjoy nature, because they do, she said. The priorities for many people of color in the environment are about survival.

“We are long-term lovers of nature. But when we have our hands in the dirt or we’re fishing or hunting, we’re supplying our food system,” she said. “Reframing how we can enjoy the environment is happening and it will take a while. But we have to invite more people of color into the conversation about the environment so we can begin to understand how it plays a natural role in our everyday lives.”

It’s not easy to calculate the economic value of dunes. Park officials say Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore brought in 1.68 million people in 2016 who spent $183 million in nearby communities. Silver Lake Sand Dunes officials say that state park generates about $2 million a year from the 1 million people who visit. Arcadia dunes near Traverse City collects close to $1.45 million a year in direct economic impact, according to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

Howard said, “They offer Michigan a unique opportunity to develop an ecotourism economy. We know people traveling from all over the country and all around the world come to see these dunes.”

As dynamic as they are, dunes are also sensitive to outside influences. When people pick them as a tourist spot, it can harm them.

“In a large dune area, there are places where people run wild,” said David Foote, the director of stewardship for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. “It denudes the face of the dune, moving vegetation from an entire system.”

As a solution, the conservancy uses a tactic called controlled trampling. That makes it more inconvenient for individuals to walk on dunes by making the trails between them and parking lots longer. Fewer people walking on the dunes loosens up the sand, without destabilizing the mound.

“If you have just a trickle of people, it can free up sand that will be blown up the dune on the backside,” Foote said. “That way rare plants like Pitcher’s thistle can thrive. It’s sustainable in the long run and a way we handle public use on some of the larger properties.”

Federal ballast water rules would replace state’s, if bill passes

Capital News Service

LANSING — MIchigan’s ballast water regulations are deterring oceangoing vessels from entering Michigan ports to pick up exports.

Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, has introduced a bill that he says will bring those ships back to the state. The bill has passed the House and is headed for the Senate.

“Michigan’s ballast water regulations are the most stringent,” he said. “The regulations drove the state’s export business to neighboring states.”

His bill would get rid of the current ballast water discharge requirements for oceangoing vessels and adopt the federal regulations.

Ballast water is water in a ship that is taken in and let out, depending on the weight of the ship’s cargo, increasing the ship’s stability.

Ballast water has been blamed for the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes. Some environmentalists worry that easing the standards will bring more invasive species.

The regulations have deterred oceangoing vessels from entering Michigan ports to pick up exports like grain, said Jim Weakley, the president of the Lake Carriers’ Association.

Instead, these vessels pick up Michigan grain in cities like Toledo and Windsor, he said.

As a result, grain is transported by truck or train out of the state and loaded on the ships in other ports.

“They basically stopped calling on Michigan,” Weakley said. “The grain is trucked to these other ports and loaded on to those same ships that would have gone to Michigan ports if not for Michigan laws.”

This impacts revenue for Michigan farmers, he said. Farmers pay more to send their grain to ports out of state, but they cannot charge more for it because the buyer would then simply buy it from someone else.

“When that happens, the additional cost of trucking the grain out of Michigan simply cuts into the profit the farmer receives,” he said. “The farmer has to pay for double handling.”

Moving Michigan’s exports out of the state by truck or rail also creates more air pollution, Weakley said. Because a ship can carry more cargo than a truck or train, more trucks and trains are needed to transport the cargo to another port. One ship can carry the cargo of multiple trucks or trains while consuming less fuel and emitting less exhaust.

Michigan’s regulations were created in 2005 because the Legislature felt the federal standards did not do enough to protect the Great Lakes. Oceangoing vessels are prohibited from discharging ballast water in Michigan waters without a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. The permit allows four types of ballast water treatment, and every oceangoing vessel has to use one of the four approved treatments.

Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has updated its standards for ballast water. Oceangoing vessels have several options for ballast water management. The regulations set a performance standard for discharged water and allow for more treatment options than those allowed by Michigan law, Weakley said.

Changing to those standards would put the states and Canadian provinces in the Great Lakes region on a level playing field, Lauwers said.

“This bill simply says Michigan is going to use the Coast Guard federal standards as the requirement for seeking a permit to be able to discharge ballast water in the state,” he said.

Some environmental groups  are concerned that changing the state’s standards will open the door for invasive species.

“We think it’s really sending the wrong message,” said James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “We think that the Michigan standards are where everyone should be.”

This bill would give the power to protect the Great Lakes to the federal government at a time when the federal protections for natural resources are being cut back, Clift said.

If Michigan’s regulations were to fall in line with federal regulations, Weakley said he believes oceangoing vessels would return to Michigan ports.

“It’s always a risk when business goes away to try and get it to come back,” he said. “You have to give them an incentive to come back. I do think they’ll come back; whether it’ll be the same volume, I don’t know.”

Lauwers said his bill is meant to bring the export business back to Michigan.

“Everyone else has continued shipping all along,” he said. “By making it clear in the legislation that we are adopting the federal standards, we’re telling the world Michigan ports are open for export.”

Quick! Michigan in two words! Minnesota in three!

Capital News Service

LANSING — “Pure Michigan.” “Honest-to-Goodness.” “Find It Here.”

Can you name the state that goes with each slogan?

That first one and “Only in Minnesota” are quite clear about the states they represent. Less obvious state slogans from the Great Lakes region include “Are you up for Amazing?” and “Pursue Your Happiness.”

No matter the phrase, all state slogans seek to attract tourists.

“Tourism had a $20 billion impact on our state’s economy in 2016,” said Lisa Marshall, the communications director for Travel Wisconsin

Michigan officials boast of a similar $20 billion tourist industry, second only to manufacturing.

And in Minnesota tourism was valued at $14.4 billion in 2015, according to Alyssa Hayes, a public information officer for Explore Minnesota.

State tourism officials use slogans to make their state stand out as they compete for the same tourists.

“Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have a lot of the same tourist products,” said Marshall. “So we want to be different. Who are we compared to Michigan? Who are we compared to Minnesota?”

In Wisconsin the answer  is supper clubs, Marshall said. Supper clubs are a class of restaurants all their own in Wisconsin, widely known as the place to go for a great atmosphere, delicious prime rib and a brandy old fashioned.

“We did an ad campaign last year that was based on supper clubs,” Marshall said. “We have hundreds of them, and that’s something that’s really iconic to Wisconsin.”

Some states embrace their slogan.

When the Pure Michigan campaign was launched in 2006, the state was going through a recession, and a lot of the news coming out of the state was negative, Grinnell said. The campaign helped change people’s perception of Michigan.

“Pure Michigan became a point of pride for the state in a time when we really needed that,” Grinnell said. “The entire state has really embraced the Pure Michigan campaign.”

The campaign was a collaboration between the advertising agency McCann Detroit and the staff at Travel Michigan, Grinnell said. It was the result of research that was done to understand how people felt about Michigan.

Other states use slogans that are more transient. A recent article in State Legislatures magazine reported Wisconsin’s slogan as “When you’re having fun, we’re having fun.” But Marshall says that’s not the case.

“We don’t really do slogans,” Marshall said. “We had a lot of slogans before 2011 and we kept changing them. A new tourism secretary came in 2011, and she thought we were sloganed out.”

Instead, Wisconsin uses taglines in advertising that change from year to year, Marshall said. This year’s tagline is “When you’re having fun, we’re having fun.”

The slogan is only one piece of the the state’s overall brand.

“Our brand is the brand of fun,” Marshall said. “People come here because they want to have fun. When you come here, you’re free to be yourself and have fun.”

Pennsylvania’s brand is the pursuit of happiness.

“The slogan is simply the public moniker for our brand,” Hemming said. “Our brand says that in Pennsylvania, a vacation or getaway is an active, self-styled adventure – a pursuit. Visitors of all ages can choose from an unrivaled collection of opportunities to explore, discover and experience.”

It’s a concept that also applies to “Pure Michigan,” Grinnell said.

“It really is the overall brand for the state,” she said. “I think it has become so emblematic of Michigan and so recognizable outside of the state that it’s almost a shorthand way to talk about Michigan.”

Nearly half of visitors to Pennsylvania arrive within one week of seeing a tourism brand advertisement for the state, said Emily Hemming, account director at Tierney, the agency that does advertising for Pennsylvania tourism.

“These numbers prove that advertising the Pennsylvania tourism brand in neighboring states and in the commonwealth leads directly and immediately to increased travel to Pennsylvania,” she said.

One of the big ways states use their slogans for marketing is through social media.

“On Instagram, #puremichigan is the most used tourism marketing hashtag,” Grinnell said. “Over 4 million people have used that.”

And Minnesota has engaged in the hashtag war that enlists “scroll-stopping” images.

“Residents and visitors alike use #OnlyinMN on social media for Minnesota travel inspiration,” Hayes said. “#OnlyinMN has nearly 700,000 uses to date.”

It’s not about the words when it comes to a slogan, it’s about the feeling people get when they see them, say those in the business of marketing states.

“Our brand is not about the words ‘Pure Michigan’ as much as the emotions the campaign evokes,” Grinnell said. “We don’t have a hard sell. We don’t say plan your vacation in Michigan. It’s all about the memories, the moments, the emotions you will feel in Michigan, and that has proven to be very very powerful.”

And those other Great Lakes slogans? Here’s the key:

“Pure Michigan”

“Find it Here”

New York
“I ❤ New York”

“Pursue Your Happiness”


“Are you up for Amazing?”

“Only in Minnesota”

“When you’re having fun, we’re having fun.” (but only for 2017)

New ways with wood open up building opportunities

Capital News Service

LANSING — Steel and concrete would be the classic choices for building a large new laboratory planned at Michigan State University.

But experts in the university’s forestry department are asking, “Why not wood?”

They’re not the only ones with that question as builders nationwide push to build high rises, college laboratories and other large buildings with a construction material typically seen in houses. It’s a trend that could bring new markets for Michigan trees, fight climate change and produce new jobs, experts say.

“We have a tremendous amount of resources here,” said Jon Fosgitt, a member of the Forest Stewards Guild in Michigan. “The challenge is understanding the construction style, but also creating the infrastructure here in the state. We’ve got the resources here and that’s a Michigan-made story.”

Building with wood isn’t new. But a hot new construction technique called cross-laminated timber—CLT, for short—makes it possible to build large buildings out of wood. It’s constructed by bonding several layers of wood panels in alternating directions. The result is a material strong enough to build skyscrapers.

It’s fire resistant as well, said David Neumann, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forest marketing specialist. “It has the same strength as concrete, when designed properly.”

Michigan has the trees. But there’s more to it than that to put them to work.

“Here’s the challenge with cross-laminated timber- there’s only two plants in the U.S. that construct it and they are both on the western side of the country,” Fosgitt said. It doesn’t make sense to construct the materials, then ship them across the country when we have all of those resources right here, he said.

One solution is to build a plant here, but even as interest in using cross laminated timber construction grows, it’ll take time for the industry to grow with it.

“I think it’s been taken up quite quickly, considering that there wasn’t even manufacturing in the US recently,” said Jennifer Cover, the president of WoodWorks. “We’re actually seeing it take off at an exponential rate. It’s quite incredible.”

WoodWorks is a nonprofit organization funded by the wood industry and  offers free education and design assistance related to non-residential and multi-family wood buildings.

Even so, the only large construction project considering the use of cross-laminated timber in the state is on Michigan State’s campus.

While the technique is recognized by the 2015 International Building Code, a model that addresses safety and health concerns of buildings, it’s still not the industry standard.

Fosgitt does anticipates a stronger emphasis on training people to build with wood, especially in Michigan.

In fact, one of the strongest drivers for more wood buildings is an environmental one. Wood products store atmospheric carbon, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet. Concrete and steel do not. According to the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, substituting wood could prevent 14 to 31 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere.

“Obviously the environmental benefits are good because climate change is real,” Fosgitt said. “This is part of a natural solution to climate change.”

Fears of a fire hazard may make wood a less popular choice. But cross-laminated timber doesn’t burn like normal wood because it’s so dense. It also has a faster installation process than concrete or steel, Cover said.

It’s particularly popular on the West Coast due to its flexibility and ability to withstand earthquakes, Fosgitt said. The first all-wood high rise was approved in Portland, Oregon, last June.

While Michigan has no structures built from cross-laminated timber, it does have the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, the largest wooden dome in the world. Construction started in 1989 and used large laminated beams, said the university’s associate athletic director, Carl Bammert. It opened in 1991.

The DNR has teamed up with WoodWorks to help train more Michigan builders and architects.

The organization also offers assistance on other wood-building techniques that have been around for longer, like timber that’s put together with nails and glue.

It hosted training sessions for architects and engineers in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor in September. The next step is to get more cros- laminated timber for Michigan builders to work with.

“In the long run, what we’d like to get is a facility to make some of these products out of Michigan wood,” said Richard Bowman, the director of government relations at the Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

Fosquitt said that iIf the mass timber industry were to make its way to Michigan, it would put more pressure on the forest resource. But, because Michigan harvests only a fraction of its annual growth, the industry can be managed sustainably.

“And when a building is made from natural products, it smells great too.”

Meanwhile, the newest wall covered by ivy at MSU may not necessarily be brick or concrete.

“MSU has been considering using CLT and other engineered wood products for the new building that is planned,” Richard Kobe, the chair of the university’s forestry department, wrote in an email.

Snowmobile sales rebound but less snow, fewer riders slow recovery

Capital News Service

LANSING — Warmer weather and a cool state economy have teamed up to mean fewer snowmobile riders on state trails — and less money in the pockets of those who rely on them.

A snowy winter at the peak of the snowmobile era could pump nearly $1 billion into economy of the state, with its nearly 300,000 registered snowmobiles and thousands of miles of snowmobile trails.

But snow hasn’t always been a sure thing in Michigan’s winter wonderland recently.

And, according to the Secretary of State’s office, registrations have been falling over the past decade.

In October, 283,884 snowmobiles were registered in Michigan, said Laura Lehman, a communications representative for the Secretary of State. That’s down from October 2007, when 390,168 snowmobiles were registered..

A three-year registration costs $30, the Secretary of State says.

Snowmobilers need an annual state-issued trail permit sticker to ride on public roads “where authorized,” and on public lands and trails, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

An annual trail permit is $48. Snowmobile trails i officially open Dec. 1 and close March 31.

During the 2016-17 winter season, about 130,000 trail permit stickers were issued, said Paul Gaberdiel, a trails specialist with the DNR in Newberry. That’s down from about 200,000  issued in the 2006-07 season, Gaberdiel said.

He said he blames the downturn on the cost of snowmobiling, inconsistent temperatures and snow, and the Great Recession of 2007-09, which hit Michigan especially hard.

“It just hasn’t rebounded from there,” Gaberdiel said.

Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, says snowmobiling depends on disposable income, and there has been less of that since the recession.

But he is optimistic about the future of snowmobiling in Michigan.

“We’ll come back,” said Manson, whose 17,000-member organization is based in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming.

In the late 1990s, sales of new snowmobiles in Michigan reached about 20,000 a year, he said. By 2008, sales had plunged to about 3,000 units a year, he said, but rebounded to about 6,000 last year.

“There’s a good feeling among hard-core snowmobilers that this is going to be a good winter,” said Manson, who counts himself among those hard-core riders.

“We’ve stabilized. If we have a good winter, I think we’ll see permits, sales, registrations all go up,” he said.

Back in 2007, before the recession hit, snowmobiling was a $1-billion-a-year industry in the state, he said. These days, the industry has slipped but still contributes about $800 million a year to the state’s economy, he said.

Sales, permits and registrations account for much of that impact. In addition, the average snowmobiler out on  winter trails will spend about $150 a day for gas, food, lodging and other expenses, he said.

State officials don’t break down how much is spent on snowmobiling but do know how much vacationers spend overall in the state in the winter months.

Last winter, leisure travelers in Michigan spent nearly $3.9 billion, out of $15.3 billion for the entire year, said Michelle Grinnell, director of media and public relations for the state’s Economic Development Corp. Travel Michigan program.

At Copper Country Rentals in Calumet, about 10 miles north of Houghton and Hancock, snowmobile rentals have been on the rise, said owner Susan Bushong.

“I see that trend toward renting” and away from buying snowmobiles, Bushong said.

With renting, she said, snowmobilers avoid a lot of expenses, but still “get a new sled every year.”

Bushong, who has 30 snowmobiles available for rent, said it already is snowing in the Upper Peninsula, but she expects business to pick up by late December as the snow starts piling up.

In Michigan, wetter-than-average weather is expected in the coming months, according to the most recent winter outlook released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).That same report said Michigan has an equal chance of being warmer or colder than normal this winter.

Blame the uncertainty on La Niña, which is “potentially emerging for the second year in a row as the biggest wildcard in how this year’s winter will shape up,” NOAA said in its  report. During La Niña, parts of the Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal, affecting the weather in North America.

The 2018 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a warmer than normal winter, with slightly above normal precipitation in most of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the tip of the Lower Peninsula, the almanac says, winter will be warmer than normal, while precipitation and snowfall will be below normal.

The Pure Michigan website says Michigan’s more than 6,500 miles of groomed snowmobiling trails “are one of the most extensive interconnected snowmobile trail systems in the nation, made even better by the state’s abundant and dependable snow.”

About 3,000 miles of the trails are in the remote, rugged and typically snowier Upper Peninsula.

According to the Otsego County Historical Society, the first U. S. patent for a snow machine, the predecessor of the modern snowmobile, was awarded in 1916 to Ray H. Muscott of Waters, which is south of Gaylord.

Schools would be able to hire tradespeople without degrees as teachers, if bill passes

Capital News Service

LANSING  — In Rep. Ben Frederick’s rural district west of Flint, constituents have learned to schedule construction projects a year in advance.

The reason? The demand for construction workers outweighs the supply.

And it’s due to a shortage of skilled workers such as electricians, welders, nurse technicians and carpenters, state officials say. The pinch isn’t felt only in rural areas.

“It’s a problem everywhere,” said Frederick, R-Owosso.

Officials have found a slew of reasons for the talent or skills gap.

“We did have a movement in our education system toward simply pursuing two-year, four-year college degrees over the last 20 years,” Frederick said. “A number of our trade-based programs in public education weakened or were eliminated in that time. And there’s a general perception problem with trades as dirty or dead-end jobs that needs to be tackled head-on.”

Frederick recently introduced legislation to allow schools to hire licensed career-technical professionals as teachers and to expand career technical education exploration in K-12 schools.

The bills came  from the recommendations of the Career Pathways Alliance, a group of teachers, business and union leaders formed by Gov. Rick Snyder in June.

Much of the alliance’s focus looks to bring technical education skills to students earlier.

That includes ideas like allowing for learning how geometry works in carpentry or computer science as a foreign language.

The group advocates for ridding the stigma placed on skilled trade careers by allowing earlier education in them and to raise understanding of careers that don’t involve college.

“One of the pieces of legislation will allow us to do more outreach to families who are interested in learning more about skilled trades programs,” Delaney McKinley, senior director of government affairs and membership for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said. “We know one of the ways to changing those misconceptions is career discovery.”

The state requires teachers to hold degrees in education. This legislation would waive that requirement for those teaching career technical classes and replace it with a requirement for  a high school diploma or GED and a license in their trade field.

“If you have a licensed professional who’s got a credential in their trade or a certain equivalency, an apprenticeship experience, I don’t see the added value of that person having a bachelor’s degree,” Frederick said. “And that’s simply a barrier that’s being placed in front of someone who may want to share their skills with students.”

Frederick said there have been problems with getting trade professionals to agree to teach because of the need for an education certification.

But gutting that requirement is opposed by the Michigan Education Association.

“Students deserve to have well-prepared educators in their classrooms whether they are in college prep or career tech programs,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the union. “And eliminating requirements for college degrees, passage of basic skills about how to do the art, craft and science of teaching doesn’t serve students well.”

The worry stems not from knowledge of the trade professional but in how they would go about teaching and how they would go about handling a classroom environment.

“We need to make sure that these folks have the basics of how to reach and teach a classroom full of students, that they understand the requirements,” Pratt said. “Does somebody coming in off the street with a high school diploma and a mechanics’ license understand they’re a mandatory reporter for child abuse?”

Pratt said he wants professionals to have a certification process where they learn things such as mandatory reporting of suspicions of child abuse to Child Protective Services.

“We’d love to have a conversation and figure out how to craft a system that makes sense for somebody who is not going to go back and get a traditional four-year degree and a masters degree and things like that because it may not make sense,” Pratt said.

McKinley said teachers are a barrier to creating strong career technical programs because teachers are not often taught skilled trades. Therefore, the Michigan Manufacturers Association supports getting certified trade professionals into schools.

“Getting people who know how to teach welding or know how to run a CNC machine, they’re just not out there,” McKinley said. “Or, they’re out there, they’re working in the manufacturing field.”

Pratt said education advocates are also worried about retention of career technical teachers because retaining college prep teachers is already hard.

“The downward slope in terms of salaries for school employees matters in terms of recruiting and retaining educators to the profession period,” Pratt said. “Now you take a look at that specifically through a (career technical education) lens, if you can make $100 an hour as a plumber or an auto mechanic, are you really going to come and teach shop for half that?”

Data provided by McKinley reported the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned slightly more than $81,000 annually, which includes benefits and pay. Data also showed the manufacturing worker earned almost $26 per hour.

There is more agreement on other facets of the bills, such as starting K-12 students to think about careers earlier and to provide them with more trade exploration opportunities.

Frederick said, “The idea would be to not have it be narrowly tailored toward career technical or trades but simply integrating within the education experience kind of the practical connection on the skills that the student is learning and how that ties into any type of professional career they wish to pursue.”

As of the 2015-16 school year, almost 108,000 students were enrolled in career technical education programs in Michigan schools. During the 2007-08 school year, almost 124,000 students were enrolled in career technical education programs.

The Career Pathways Alliance, which is housed under Michigan’s Department of Talent and Economic Development, estimates that 500,000 jobs will be available in professional trades by 2024 with15,000 jobs added to the fields each year.

Pratt said schools have begun implementing similar measures already.

“There’s positives in this package that are going to do good things for schools,” he said. “But we can’t just ignore the glaring negatives in a bill that frankly puts the quality of education of students could be getting at risk.”

Fantasy sports websites may have to pay for state license

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan could join 16 states in regulating fantasy sports that offer cash prizes.

Bills that have been approved in committee seek to clarify fantasy sports as a dominantly skill-based game exempt from gambling laws. Right now they are unregulated in Michigan — anyone can sponsor a league and anyone can play.

The bills would bar anyone under 18 from playing the games and bar contests from being based on youth sports, high school sports or college sports. They also would  require operators of the games, including FanDuel and DraftKings, to apply for a license to operate in the state.

A license would cost $5,000 and have an annual $1,000 renewal fee.

The attorney general has not labeled fantasy sports gambling.

The bills, put forward by Sens. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, and Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, label fantasy sports as a game of skill, not gambling. They passed the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee 7-0 and were recommended to the Senate floor without amendment.

Hertel testified before the  committee on Oct. 11, saying he felt the games needed regulation to avoid a ruling by the attorney general and to avoid potentially having more than a million residents breaking the law. If the attorney general decides the games are gambling, they would be regulated by the gambling laws.

Players select fake teams of real life athletes and compete against each other. Points are awarded based on the real-life athletes’ statistics collected in the game that day or week. Winners of the leagues often receive monetary prizes.

Skill games are based on strategy and knowledge of the game. Fantasy sports could be considered skill-based because players have to research the athletes, the team they play for and allocate money properly to craft the right team.

Supporters of daily fantasy sports say the games are skill-based as it takes a certain level of knowledge to consistently craft winning teams.

“It is a difficult skill to allocate assets and choose which players have the best chance of success, similar to how a pro sports team general manager does the same thing,” said Marc LaVorgna, a press representative for DraftKings and FanDuel, the two main daily for-profit fantasy sports websites.

LaVorgna also provided real-world sports as an example of skill-based decisions, as real sports executives must make decisions on which players will be beneficial to team goals.

“It’s about making decisions on a consistent basis that give you the best chance at success,” he said.

Gambling-based games have to meet the criteria of prize, consideration and uncertain outcome in Michigan, said David Murley, deputy director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board. Prize is the reward given out to winners. Consideration is buying into the game, such as putting a dollar into a slot machine or buying a lottery ticket.

“What if something is a game of skill? Well, if there’s an uncertain outcome and it meets the other two things, then at least it would seem to fall in the broad definition of gambling,” Murley said.

Supporters of fantasy games argue that it’s a skill because its based on their knowledge of the sport, its players and the strategy of creating teams capable of scoring a lot of points.

The popularity of fantasy games has grown into daily fantasy sports in which players pay into the league that day. They construct teams under a salary cap where each real athlete costs a certain amount of money to be placed on a team.

Cash prizes are awarded to the winner based on the fees paid by the players that day. Two of the most popular websites for daily fantasy are FanDuel and DraftKings.

The Gaming Control Board hasn’t taken a position on whether fantasy sports are gambling or skill based.

But it’s not clear-cut, as elements of both skill and chance are at play.

“Sometimes it’s not easy to draw the line between where the skill ends and the chance begins,” Murley said.

According to Hertel’s testimony, approximately 1.6 million Michigan residents partake in some form of fantasy sports for cash. These bills would mean exemption from gambling laws, clarification over just where the games fall and regulation of the fantasy sports sites.

The bills call for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to conduct licensing.

The Gaming Control Board argues that it’s the best fit to manage the operation, however.

“This is our business,” Murley said. “We’re in this world. We know things about consumer protection, we know things about gaming payouts, we know about licensing these people and some of the issues we’re likely to see. We know about entities that are part of a larger enterprise.”

Murley said the gaming board is familiar with larger companies that own gaming divisions such as Dan Gilbert’s Greektown Casino in Detroit and the Ilitch family’s MotorCity Casino. With this knowledge, it argues it can better serve consumers.

“If we’re going to have this, then really this should go to the gaming control board,” Murley said.

After 25 years, brownfield cleanup still totals millions

Capital News Service

LANSING — Around the state, new developments are springing up on formerly polluted, abandoned sites, thanks to the state-funded Brownfield Redevelopment  Program.

Since it was launched in 1992, the program has awarded $200 million in brownfield grants and loans for 350 projects in Michigan, said the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Just last year, $6.1 million was awarded for 26 new projects.

In all, the DEQ said, state brownfield money has been used for projects in 68 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

“We’ve been very busy,” said Jeff Hukill, a coordinator for the DEQ’s Brownfield Redevelopment Program. “There’s a lot of interest out there. There is a need and demand for it.”

The DEQ says its brownfield program has led to successes in cities around the state, including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Dowagiac, East Lansing, Grand Rapids, Northville, St. Johns and Traverse City.

Holland used state brownfield money to help develop the Baker Lofts, a former furniture factory that was cleaned up and refurbished for residential, retail and office use.

The brownfield program also helped clean up a heavily contaminated site to allow construction of a Menards home improvement store, said Tim Vagle, Holland’s city treasurer and director of finance.

About a dozen other brownfield projects also are in the works around the West Michigan city, Vagle said.

Although the program has some limitations, Vagle said, “it’s brought several properties back on the tax rolls.”

Hukill said the brownfield initiative cleans up contaminated sites and makes them as attractive and inexpensive as undeveloped sites.

“The goal of the program is to level the playing field,” Hukill said, to bring developers to cleaned-up sites.

Money for the  program comes from the state, primarily bonds, he said.

Hukill said efforts are in the works to make sure funding continues for the program. It currently has about $2.6 million available for future  loans and grants.

The  grants and loans, both of which are capped at $1 million, go to local units of government, not developers, Hukill said. The DEQ does not require local governments to come up with matching funds.

The  money pays for the investigation of environmental issues at a site, soil and water samplings, and dealing with contamination at the property, he said.

Not all contaminated sites are suitable for brownfield funding and cleanup efforts, Hukill said. Only those suitable for redevelopment get the funds.

Overall, Hukill said, the DEQ knows of about 13,000 contaminated sites that have not yet been addressed.

An official at the Michigan Environmental Council sees the brownfield program as an important tool in cleaning up polluted property in Michigan.

“This is something that needs to be done, (although) we see some shortcomings in it,” said Sean Hammond, deputy policy director at the Lansing-based organization.

“We need to make sure we’re spending enough money, and we’re spending it wisely.”

He said the council has concerns about leaks at sites where hazardous materials were sealed up rather than removed. The council also remains concerned about polluted sites that have yet to be addressed, Hammond said.

“We have a lot of sites that are abandoned,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to address those sites and protect public health.”

According to the DEQ website, a proposed project “must result in economic benefit for the community through job creation, private investment, and/or increased tax revenue for the community.”

Grants only are awarded “if there is a bona fide development project for the site,” the DEQ says.

Federal money also is available to reclaim contaminated property. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program helps pay for brownfields assessments, cleanups, loans and environmental job training.

In June, the EPA said, it awarded seven brownfields grants in Michigan, totaling $2.35 million. Those grants are to be used by various counties for the assessment of either hazardous substances or petroleum brownfield sites, or for the cleanup of hazardous substances, the EPA said.

Editor’s note: A write-thru of this story was done Oct. 31 to correctly report the amount of money available for new projects and to remove a reference to a Greenville project where the funding source was misidentified.