Gender pay gap under the spotlight

Capital News Service

LANSING — With national Equal Pay Day coming on April 10, gender equity proponents in the Legislature are working to get Gov. Rick Snyder to veto a bill that would prevent municipalities from deciding whether local employers can request a job candidate’s wage history.

The bill, which passed the House and Senate, is sponsored by Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, would expand a current ban on local government regulation of information from job applicants.

Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, who voted against the bill, said there hasn’t been significant action taken on equal pay since the federal Equal Pay Act was signed into law 55 years ago with the purpose of abolishing wage disparity based on gender,  

Lasinski said there are two aspects of the bill she opposes: restricting the ability of communities to innovate and trying to preempt local action that may help close the gap.

The National Partnership for Women and Families’ latest report shows that in Michigan, women on average are paid 74 cents for every dollar paid to men. The group, based in Washington, D.C., said that women in Michigan lose nearly $23 billion a year due to the pay gap.

The gap is even more pronounced in ethnic groups such as black and Latina women, the report said.

“One of the things that perpetuates the pay gap is folks consistently being paid based on the salary history of their previous job versus the pay for the skills required to do the current job,” Lasinski said.

Gender pay proponents are writing letters to Snyder, urging a veto, Lasinski said.

The move to limit local governments from passing wage history ordinances comes as part of an accelerating trend from the Legislature to reduce local government autonomy.

“There has been a tightening from the state level on the ability of local governments to do what’s best for the local community,” Lasinski said.  “We have had several bills over this session that restrict local government from innovating in their own communities and from ensuring that, as local elected officials, they’re doing what’s right and best by their communities.”

For equal pay supporters and advocacy groups, Lasinski says the effort to achieve pay equity is taking place on many levels.

The Progressive Women’s Caucus in the Legislature supports a 14-bill package with items that its members say are needed to close the gap. One bill in that package would establish an award program for employers that achieve progress in equalizing pay for men and women.

The package will be highlighted on April 10 at the Equal Pay Legislative Day rally at the Capitol.

“It’s not until April 10 that women and men in Michigan receive equal pay. So essentially women have been working for free up until April 10,” Lasinski said.

Farmers eye tariff as potential trouble

Capital News Service

LANSING – Many Michigan farmers are worried about a potential backlash as a result of higher federal tariffs and new international trade policies.

“The big concern in agriculture right now is that by leveling steel and aluminum import tariffs against some of our key trading partners, like China, it could levy a retaliatory tariff, and often retaliation targets agriculture,” said Chuck Lippstreu, a publicist for the Agricultural Leaders of Michigan.

That could to lead to unintended consequences and a retaliation against Michigan agriculture and U.S. agriculture that would hurt farmers, he said.

One of the biggest concerns is the effect a backlash from the tariffs could have on soybeans.

“Michigan produces over 100 million bushels of soybeans annually, or three million tons,” said David Williams, the president of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Association based in Frankenmuth. “Michigan exports over 60 percent of its soybeans.”

China is one of the country’s top customers for soybeans, Williams said. U.S. exports to China are worth around $14 billion a year.

China is also one of the major targets for the new steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump.

“If these tariffs cut our market access, that could really hurt the U.S. economy,” Williams said.

The price farmers get for agricultural commodities is lower than in the past, and retaliatory tariffs on commodities would only increase their problems, he said.

Soybeans are a versatile crop, Williams said. The main product is soybean meal, which is used as feed for animals. The oil is also extracted and used in carpet backing, the foam in car seats, plastics and a multitude of other products.

Milk is another commodity that could feel a backlash because of retaliatory tariffs.

“Dairy has become part of the global economy,” said Ken Nobis, the president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association. “And agricultural products are usually the No. 1 target of trade disputes.”

The Novi-based group has plants in Constantine, Ovid, Mt. Pleasant and Middlebury, Indiana.

Michigan produces 11 billion pounds of milk each year, and while most of that milk is sold in the United States, Michigan dairy farmers could still be adversely affected by retaliatory tariffs.

“Exports for the country as a whole are about 15 percent of milk produced,” Nobis said. “Retaliatory tariffs would affect the prices of milk for all U.S. farmers because they would make the U.S. less competitive in the global market.”

Plenty of dairy is produced globally, Nobis said, so other countries can simply go elsewhere to get their milk.

“Tariffs can really knock things out of whack,” he said.

Meaure seeks to prevent potato diseases

Capital News Service

LANSING – Farmers with more than an acre of seed potatoes would face new requirements under a bill passed by the Senate and House: to plant only certified seed potatoes.

The intent is to reduce the possible spread of diseases that could have a major economic impact on the state’s agricultural industry, supporters say.

Michigan ranks ninth among the states in potato production with 47,000 acres planted, according to the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. The crop contributes $178 million annually to the state’s economy.

Montcalm, Mecosta, Antrim, St. Joseph and Delta counties are among the top producers in the state, said Mike Wenkel, the executive director of the commission.

In Michigan, 70 percent go into potato chips. Michigan potatoes fill one of every four bags of chips in the country, according to the National Potato Council.

Rep. Roger Victory, R- Hudsonville, the main sponsor of the bill, said Michigan is one of the only potato-producing states that doesn’t currently have a certified potato seed law.

“It is crucial that we take proactive steps to safeguard the industry’s continued success,” Victory said. “This legislation is very similar to regulations found in other potato-producing states.”

The bill is the result of many years of work and collaboration with the industry advocacy group Potato Growers of Michigan and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, he said.

Among the co-sponsors are Reps. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake; Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs; Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township; Triston Cole, R-Mancelona; and David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.

Chris Long, a potato specialist at Michigan State University, said that virus accumulation in potato seed is detrimental to healthy crop production, and other bacterial and fungal pathogens including late blight are also of great concern.

“The bill is a good thing,” Long said. “The certified seed law would better regulate seed that is at a higher risk to the potato industry and prevent it from ever being planted.”

Wenkel said, “Michigan potato growers are also working to manage disease, insects and other pests that can damage the crop. This includes many possible impacts on the seed during the growing season and the storage of the crop.”

Wenkel said potato seed is different from most types of seed used in producing food because it’s  a piece of potato that will grow into a new plant when placed in the ground. “Since they are living tissue, they can easily harbor disease and pests from one year to the next.”

“Through seed certification, many of the diseases are monitored during seed production and provided to the buyers to assist them in managing these diseases,” he said. “Our goal in supporting this legislation is to protect our industry and our reputation for growing quality potatoes from being impacted by diseases.”

The percentage of potatoes planted now using certified seed is unknown. “Today growers can use anything as seed,” Wenkel said, “although it is believed that most seed planted is certified.”

The bill would require potato growers to plant certified potatoes and allow exemptions only  under special conditions.

It also would allow a grower to secure an annual exemption if certified seed isn’t available. “The annual exemption is a critical component of the bill to ensure that no grower would be impacted in growing a crop for a season,” Wenkel said.

Victory said that the bill also provides a special  exemption for small potatoes and for individuals who plant and distribute less than an acre of seed potatoes, such as hobby farms.

John Marker, the owner and operator of Marker Farms in Elmira grows seed potatoes.

The legislation wouldn’t have a negative impact on his farm, he said. “All the seeds my farm uses are certified.”

“The bill is more directed towards the commercial growers in the state,” Marker said. “When they are replanting potatoes, they do not go through an inspection process” and could be replanting diseased potatoes.

Marker said the proposal, if signed, would reduce the risks to the industry and to other growers who are trying to do things correctly by planting clean seed.

The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.


Farmers concerned about air emission reporting requirement

Capital News Service

LANSING – Farmers in the state may soon be required to report air emissions from their livestock, a federal requirement that had exempted them in the past.

“It’s just a requirement for reporting for purposes of tracking,” said Laura Campbell, the manager of the Agricultural Ecology Department at the Michigan Farm Bureau. “This is a requirement with no useful purpose.”

The change is due to a recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling  in Washington, D.C.

Previously, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted farms from reporting hazardous substance air releases caused by animal waste. Only large concentrated animal feeding operations were subject to reporting under a related law.

Because the court ruling struck down the exemption, farms, ranches, livestock operations and animal operations, will be required to report releases of hazardous substances that exceed threshold limits.

According to the EPA, agriculture contributes 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Among them, methane from normal digestive processes of livestock represents almost one-third of the emissions, and manure management accounts for about 15 percent.

No one knows how many farms will fall under the requirement, Campbell said.

“The requirement depends on how much ammonia or hydrogen sulfide the manure on a farm might emit,” she said. “Confinement, pasture, all sizes of operations will have to review their farms to try to figure out whether they would estimate that their emissions meet the threshold.”

The threshold for ammonia or hydrogen sulfide from a farm is 100 lbs within a 24-hour period, according to EPA.

However, no reliable way exists to measure air emissions from any type of farm, “whether a livestock barn, manure storage structure, feedlot, pasture or any other type of (animal) housing,” Campbell said.

The EPA has recommended a few calculators that farmers can use to estimate their emissions, but she said estimates are likely to be questioned because there is no way to scientifically verify them.

According to Campbell, the Farm Bureau has been working with Michigan State University Extension, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and other partners to get out information on how farms can comply.

Gary Voogt, the owner of Voogt Farms, a beef cattle farm in Marne, Ottawa County, said it will be a paperwork burden if farms have to report air emissions.

He said when farmers have to do “foolish things” that have nothing to do with raising livestock, “it passes onto the consumer, and the cost of food goes up and poor people can’t afford to eat.”

Campbell said there would be a “significant financial penalty if farmers don’t comply” with the requirement.

Beyond that, reporting would present a risk to their privacy, she said.

“Farm information submitted under most regulatory programs has some level of protection from release to the public,” Campbell said. But, under the federal Superfund law, “that information can’t be held private because the entire reason for the act is to provide that information to the public and emergency managers for response.

“Therefore, farm and farming family information would become public. There are many activist groups who want information about livestock farms specifically because they want to harass, demonize or find other ways to eliminate livestock farms,” she said.

Tom Zimnicki, the agriculture policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, said it’s essential to be able to track air emissions from all major sources that contribute to pollution, whether that be agriculture, transportation or other industry.

“Our hope is that both state and federal policy recognizes the impact these livestock operations, especially the large ones, have on air quality and address air pollution issues accordingly,” he said.

“I do not think the new air emission reporting requirements will result in any new standards to limit emissions from agriculture,” Zimnicki said. “To my knowledge it is only a reporting requirement.”

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate would exempt farms from reporting air emissions. Neither of Michigan’s senators, Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, or Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are co-sponsors.

Campbell said the Farm Bureau supports the proposal which is pending in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The organization says the new requirements won’t result in any benefits.

“This act has nothing to do with increasing protection of the environment,” Campbell said. “The best approach for helping farms do the best they can do for protecting air quality will come from university and Extension research under the kind of conditions that can be measured.”

That, in turn,  will allow them to make recommendations to use for state standards, she said.

According to the EPA, farms won’t be required to submit reports until the appeals court issues its order eliminating the exemptions on May 1.

When prisons close, communities may suffer

Capital News Service

COLDWATER —  It was lunchtime on a weekday but downtown Coldwater looked deserted.

In a nearly empty Subway on Marshall Street, only two customers grabbed a meal to-go. The restaurant is a mile from the Lakeland Correctional facility where the Florence Crane prison closed in 2011.

Just how much is a community affected economically when a prison closes?

That’s the question that arises as the state prepares to close West Shoreline Correctional Facility in Muskegon County. The facility has 1,245 prisoners and 174 employees, and the closing is expected to save $18.8 million in the 2019 budget.

Because Muskegon is in a metropolitan area with two other prisons nearby, “employees can easily be consolidated,” said Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“It takes time to evaluate the economic impact of a prison closing on a city. It depends on the facility itself, the school system and also where the staff lived,”  he said.

Businesses like gas stations and restaurants “may feel the impact but since there are two other prisons in the area, the city won’t lose on income tax.”

The U.S. represents just 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it holds 25 percent of its inmates. More than 2.2 million people are locked up in state, local and other detention facilities across the United States.

Yet, in some states like Michigan, the prison population has been declining in recent years. During his State of State address early this year, Gov. Rick Snyder said the prison population was below 40,000 in 2017 for the first time in more than 20 years.

Michigan began seeing a decline in inmates in 2003, and Corrections has closed and consolidated 26 facilities since 2005, saving what it said was nearly $400 million.

The Department of Corrections estimates that prison population will continue to decline, but at a slower pace than the last two years. This year, the number of prisoners is projected to fall by 584 but the department says it has no plans to close another facility besides West Shoreline.

Policymakers are advocating for changes in the criminal justice system that will treat incarceration as the last resort for law-breakers. But what happens to prison properties after they close – as well as to the community  that depended on them — has been missing from those discussions.

The most recent closure was the Pugsley Correctional Facility in Traverse City, which shut its cell doors in 2016. “There were 230 employees and only 44 were laid off. Half of those 44 were offered jobs within the department but declined,” Gautz said.

Not all closed Michigan prisons are in metropolitan areas. Among the relatively recent closures in small communities were Florence Crane in Coldwater, Branch County, and the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility in Standish, Arenac County – which was the city’s largest employer.

When traveling through some of Coldwater’s main roads like Marshall and West Chicago streets, I was struck by the number of closed or abandoned businesses — even bookstores closed shop.

Cayden Sparks, the executive director of the Coldwater Area Chamber of Commerce, said the aftermath of two prisons closing – Florence Crane and Camp Branch — has been bad for the most part.

“Depending on where prison staff lived, some have had to relocate with their spouse and kids,” Sparks said. “That meant jobs leaving the city, less children in schools and therefore, less tax income in the community.”

Sparks said that working in a prison requires specialized skills, and when one closes, many staffers have difficulty finding jobs in other fields.

“In a city like Coldwater, there aren’t many jobs for someone trained as a prison guard,” Sparks said.

Prisons become a part of a community in various ways. In the case of Coldwater, Sparks said prison facilities were places where educational programs and trade schools for prisoners made community members participants in reshaping their society.

Gautz, from Corrections, said state-owned former prisons can be sold or rented to businesses, in which case it will still benefit the county through tax revenue.

“Muskegon is in an industrial park. We haven’t decided what we will do with it because right now the focus is on finding jobs for officials. But the county will be interested in using the facility,” Gautz said.

Sparks, from the Coldwater Chamber, said the challenge for small communities is that no businesses are big enough to occupy an entire prison facility. “It’s impossible for small businesses to use this space —  it’s either all or nothing.”

Parts of the closed prison facilities in Coldwater sit empty. Florence Crane is being used for disability services, Sparks said.

“The infrastructure needs to be kept together, and it’s a lot of money to maintain the facilities,” he said.

Sparks says to remedy the economic problems of Coldwater and other small communities, the downtown area needs to be developed. For example, creating a centralized business space with food and micro-brewery businesses could generate more employment opportunities.

Automation spurred by skilled worker shortage, business experts say

Capital News Service

LANSING — “I just bought a million-dollar robot, and it’s replacing 32 people and it never calls in sick.”

This is what a Michigan business owner recently told Rob Fowler, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

As technology improves by leaps and bounds, automation is increasingly replacing human labor to make things in Michigan. The implications of automation are enormous, even changing the nature and definition of “work.”

“It’s sort of moving from making stuff with our hands to running machinery and equipment that makes stuff, to managing and repairing and programming robots to do the work,” Fowler said.

The Robotics Industry Association estimated 250,000 robots were in use in the United States as of May 2017, the third most in the world behind Japan and China. An August 2017 report from the Brookings Institute concludes 233,305 robots are in use.

Michigan leads the nation with roughly 28,000 robots, or 12 percent of the nation’s total, according to the Brookings Institute. Metro Detroit itself has more than 15,000 industrial robots as of August 2017, or 8.5 for every 1,000 workers, more than three times the number of robots as other metros.

Automation might be accelerating, but it’s not new, Fowler said. Technology has been crowding out human labor for at least a century.

“In a way, Henry Ford started it with the assembly line,” Fowler said. “Technology has allowed us to be way more efficient at building stuff, so in Michigan, we build stuff, and it’s allowed us to do it at a productivity level that is world-class. Sometimes, productivity means we use fewer people, more machines.”

While Michigan’s manufacturing industry is growing again, it won’t reach the same employment level it once was at, Michigan Manufacturers Association President Chuck Hadden said.

That’s because it took a lot of different workers to do what a handful can do now.

“I’m not saying that robots are going to replace everybody, because somebody’s got to make the robots, first of all. Second of all, someone’s got to program the robots to make sure they’re doing what they need to do, but our workforce is going to be changing over the future, and it’s going to take less people to make things,” Hadden said.

But companies will still need people: Humans bring ingenuity and problem-solving that a machine can’t, and that problem-solving ability can never be replaced, Hadden said.

“A machine can’t do that for you,” Hadden said. “Artificial intelligence, machine learning, only goes so far.”

David Miller, president of the Cadillac Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees that workers need problem-solving skills to stay competitive.

“Even the middle skill sets that everybody thinks are in high demand, if they don’t have a degree of problem-solving associated with them, those job numbers are declining as well,” Miller said.

Hadden said he hopes smaller companies will reinvest funds, such as any benefits from recent tax cuts, into their businesses to buy machinery or to learn how to be more productive with automation and robotics so they can keep up and survive in an automated environment.

“In some cases it may force some people out of business,” Hadden said. “If you don’t go to work and be on the cutting edge of your products that you make, you’re going to be left behind. So you need to reinvest in your companies and not just take money out.”

Automation replacing jobs is a more pressing issue now because of a tight labor market, Fowler said. The main issue his members have are that they can’t find enough people to work at their companies.

For Miller, automation is a result of his members’ struggle to find qualified talent. Not enough area tech students are pursuing manufacturing or welding fields, he said.

“They would like to hire people but they’re having a hard time finding people with the skill sets that they need, the work ethic that they need,” Miller said. “They’re having to invest in more automated equipment to reduce the dependency on the labor pool that’s lacking.”

The economic development system has been geared toward two metrics for generations, Miller said: investment and job creation.

Companies continue to make investments, but cannot create the jobs to match, Miller said. Employers don’t intend to cut workers, but they do what they must to meet production requirements with the workers they have, Miller said. They fill the void with technology.

“A number of our companies are having new projects. They’re investing significant sums of money, but traditionally you’re expecting them to hire 50, 100, 150 workers,” Miller said.

“Well, they’re not doing that today because those workers aren’t out there.”

Fowler said that to thrive, workers must consider which industries need workers and what skills they’re hunting for. Workers can then get trained in those areas.

“Certainly right now if you had an inclination to work, if you have some basic set of talents and the ability to continue to learn, if you are reliable – that is, you will show up on time and you will put in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work – there’s a job for you in Michigan, no question about it,” Fowler said.

Labor costs are rising because companies are competing for talent, while the cost of technology is going down, Fowler said. There’s more pressure on employers to provide more benefits.

Meanwhile, there are fewer opportunities for unskilled workers.

Fowler said what’s being taught in high schools and colleges must be adapted to understand this fundamental change, but high school dropouts or graduates without postsecondary or trade education are the workers most often being replaced.

“I think the world is going to be a hard place for people who have no skills, no continuing education, and want to make a living,” Fowler said.

Older workers staying on the job help close skills gap

Capital News Service

LANSING – The growing talent gap in skilled trades jobs may be eased by the trend toward delayed retirement, experts said.

“Skilled trades account for more than 500,000 jobs in the Michigan economy, and approximately 15,000 new job openings are expected annually through 2024,” said Dave Murray, the director of communications at the Department of Talent and Economic Development.

However, “employers are challenged to find people with in-demand skills for the jobs they need to fill today,” Murray said.

Skilled trades jobs are in a variety of industries, but primarily in manufacturing and construction.

“There is not a set retirement age,” said Caleb Buhs, the director of communications

at the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

“Normally the anticipated retirement age is 65,” Buhs said. “But everybody’s circumstances might be different. It is based on their economic situation.”

Manufacturers in the state face challenges in hiring talented personnel, said Brett Gerrish, the communications coordinator at the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

The delayed retirement trend helps manufacturers ease the shortage of younger skilled workers, Gerrish said.

“An older worker has experience that cannot really be trained into a younger worker,” he said. “You can train someone with a skill, but training them with experience of 40 years or more for manufacturing facilities will be difficult.

“People are living longer, so they will work past the age of retirement more often,” Gerrish said.

Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. increased from 76.8 years in 2000 to 78.8 years in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among employed adults in the U.S., 39 percent now expect to retire after age 65, compared with 14 percent in 1995, according to Gallup’s annual Economy and Personal Finance survey.

In Michigan, the employment rate for people age 65 and older was 15.6 percent in 2017 and 13.7 percent 10 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chuck Hadden, the president of the Manufacturers Association, said delayed retirement helps close the skilled trades gap a little but isn’t enough.

Older workers can be an advantage for younger ones by mentoring and supervising them, Hadden said. “It would be a good possibility for them to be part of a fantastic genius putting out fantastic products.”

Hadden said he doesn’t believe the growing number of older workers hinders high school and colleges grads from getting jobs.

Stephen Patchin, the director of career services at Michigan Technological University, echoed Hadden’s thought based on his observation of his school’s career fair held in February.

“The hire market is still very aggressive,” Patchin said. “We are hosting over 220 recruiting organizations for our career fair, followed by over 2,000 interviews.”

“We are still seeing robust demand, especially in areas of STEM,” he said, referring to science,  technology, engineering and math.

Besides economic situation and health status, personal preference and increasing job opportunities are other reasons that older adults continue to work past retirement age, said Ginnie Smith, the project manager for Age-Friendly Grand Rapids.

“Some older adults want to stay engaged and active, and give back to the community,” Smith said. “They want to continue being productive.”

To work toward an age-friendly community, her program cooperates with employers and shows them the benefits of hiring older adults, she said.

Around 11 percent of the population in Grand Rapids is 55 and over, according the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last summer, AARP Michigan launched Experienced for Hire, a program that matches experienced workers age 50 and older with job openings.

The Department of Talent and Economic Development provides skilled trades training funds for employers to help employees, including older ones, gain cutting-edge skills.

“We provide environment for businesses to create job opportunities,” the department’s Murray said.

“Michigan schools are struggling to find people to teach career and technical education classes,” he said. “We’re encouraging our veteran people in skilled trades careers to consider a second career in the classroom, preparing the next generations.”

Credit requirements, funding hinder class options for students, experts say

Capital News Service

LANSING — When retired Clintondale Community Schools teacher Ken Austin started teaching in 1974, the vocational technical education department was largest department in the building, he said.

“Now, there’s nothing left,” Austin said. “I was really the last man standing as far as what they used to call ‘shop classes,’ and through budgetary constraints even that was eliminated. And that’s kind of why I retired — because there wasn’t any work for me to do.”

It’s a situation that Michigan employer groups seek to rectify.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of vocational classes, Austin said. One is more stringent local and state class requirements..

“Gradually over time, at my particular school and just in general, course offerings for those kinds of classes kind of stayed on the books, but they’re driven by how many students are available to sign up for them and there became fewer and fewer opportunities for students to take those classes,” Austin said.

The Michigan Manufacturers Association supports efforts to change the state’s graduation requirements to be friendlier to technical education, said Chuck Hadden, the group’s president.

“We find that the curriculum is very rigid and doesn’t give you the opportunity to work with your hands a lot of times,” Hadden said.

A good example is foreign language requirements, which Hadden said should include computer language options.

Welding should be considered an alternative to taking Algebra 2, he said.

“You need Algebra 2 to be able to weld,” Hadden said. “We’re not trying to lower the standards, we’re trying to keep the standards high but give some alternatives out there that could allow people to work with their hands and still graduate.”

While foreign language is important for those going on to higher education, it should not be required if a student’s wants and needs don’t align with them, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said.

“When funding dries up and standards of graduation increase in the core areas… when is there time for me to take a welding class, which is what I really want to do?” Herbart said. “When is there time for me to take these introductory medical classes in the career and technical education department, when I am required to take four years of a foreign language which I may or may not ever use?”

As budgets shrank, expensive classes like vocational and teaching classes became easy targets, Austin said.

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed an additional minimum per-pupil funding increase of roughly $230 per pupil for the coming year’s budget.

But longstanding problems with funding and stricter curricula have starved public school programs that once provided course work in welding, small engine repair, culinary arts, agriculture, computer-assisted design and other programs, Herbart said.

“Gov. (Rick) Snyder talks about it like he invented this pathway. I want to just choke him and say ‘Before you cut the funding we had those programs, and then you starved those programs and now you want them back again?’ Well, we’re happy to do it,” Herbart said. “We can’t even get certified teachers in those areas anymore because we starved this funding so bad that those teachers couldn’t get jobs so they stopped going into that as a profession.”

Losing vocational classes is a disservice to students and the community, Austin said. Many of his students were able to get apprenticeships or industrial work because of technical classes.

“Even students that I had many years later would come back and say, ‘You know, I’m an engineer now, but the classes that I took with you and others proved invaluable to my understanding of how things work.’

“I think we’ve made a mistake, but I’ve sang that song for 40-plus years and not too many people were listening, and I would still sing it but nobody’s paying a lot of attention.”

Add deposit to water bottles or raise landfill rates: debate is on

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan residents soon may have to pay a 10-cent deposit on plastic water bottles.

In a renewed effort to increase Michigan’s recycling rate, Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, sponsored a bill to expand the 1976 beverage containers law to include water and all beverages in metal, glass or plastic containers, except for milk products.

“We need to recycle more materials, keep things out of our landfills,” Hoadley said. “We need to recycle more so we save energy, and we need to invest in this type of recycling because it creates jobs as well.

“So it’s a win-win-win,” he said.

Efforts to expand the deposit law over the past decades have failed in the face of  opposition from grocers and retailers. Even some environmental advocates argue that other measures would provide a bigger boost to recycling in the state.

Michigan’s 15 percent recycling rate is the nation’s third-lowest, Hoadley said.

“We have an abysmal recycling rate,” he said. “But when you look at the bottle deposit bill, somewhere between 95 and 98 percent of bottles that have a deposit on them end up being returned for recycling, which is incredible.”

The bill was introduced around the same time Gov. Rick Snyder announced his new statewide initiatives for reducing waste and increasing recycling. This includes an increase to the fee to dispose waste in landfills from 36 cents/ton to $4.75/ton. This would generate $79 million annually, some earmarked for grants to local governments and nonprofits for recycling infrastructure, market development initiatives, education and outreach.

However, Snyder didn’t propose expanding the scope of the beverage deposit law.

“This is the first serious conversation we’ve had on recycling in years,” Hoadley said. “The governor’s recycling task force is finally issuing recommendations, the governor is bringing a mouthpiece to it and the governor has proposed some other solutions.”

Legislators want to show that they have solutions to propose as well, he said.

When it comes to recycling, some groups would rather see the focus placed on the governor’s initiatives rather than on an expansion of the bottle bill.

“While the bottle bill is an important part of the tools that we use to increase recycling, we’re trying to go much further beyond that,” said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

The association represents recycling and composting interests.

“A bottle deposit law expansion bill comes up periodically, and it would capture an additional 2 percent or so of the waste, but what we’re trying to do with the governor’s initiative is get to a 30 or 45 percent recycling rate,” O’Brien said.

Other experts say it’s not an either/or situation, but rather an opportunity to combine potential solutions to create the best plan.

“While we support an expansion of the bottle deposit law, it must also be accompanied by other efforts and significant funding to assist communities into developing effective recycling options,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

MUCC led the successful petition drive to enact the original law.

This is not the first time an expansion of the bottle bill has been brought forward, but past proposals have generated opposition.

“Grocers have a very slim profit margin, which makes it difficult to absorb costs,” said Meegan Holland, vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association.

“They would likely need new machines to take expanded bottle returns and figure out how to store additional bottles,” Holland said “It would require hiring additional personnel to sort and maintain machines that accept returnables, plus keep a sanitary environment.”

At the end of the day, Hoadley said, most people want to do the right thing for the environment.

“A clean earth does not know party lines,” he said. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, we can be supporting these initiatives that are working to create an individual incentive to do the right thing, create jobs and protect our environment.”

Co-sponsors of the bil are Reps. Tom Cochran, D-Mason; Bill Sowerby, D-Clinton Township; Brian Elder, D-Bay City; Erika Geiss, D-Taylor; Kristy Pagan, D-Canton; Robert Wittenberg, D-Huntington Woods, Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township; Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit; Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor; and Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.

The bill is in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Pipeline attacks in video game sparks Great Lakes controversy

Capital News Service

LANSING – In the “Thunderbird Strike” video game, the conflict is over oil pipelines crossing Great Lakes landscapes.

Some petroleum industry advocates say that it encourages ecoterrorism. And that’s a serious claim – a federal offense.

A quick synopsis: Players control a figure of Native American mythology on a flight from Canada’s large deposits of heavy crude oil to the Straits of Mackinac. They gather lightning from the clouds and use it to strike representations of oil and gas machinery or to resurrect animals.

“I grew up with thunderbird stories being passed on to me,” said Elizabeth LaPensée, a Native American games developer and Michigan State University assistant professor in the Department of Media & Information.

“We talk about a time when the people will call for the help of the thunderbirds to heal the lands and waters,” said LaPensée,whose ancestry is both Anishinaabe and Métis, as well as Irish-American.

“The game really reflects that. It’s a story that’s combined with an understanding that there will be a time where there will come a snake that threatens to swallow the lands and the waters whole,” she said.

This snake appears in the final level of the game, a visual metaphor for Enbridge Line 5, the controversial pipeline that transports oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline, built to last 50 years, is now 62 years old.

Environmentalists and other critics say it’s old, worn, poorly maintained and in danger of polluting the world’s largest supply of fresh surface water.

The game also features scenes where people cross the screen carrying “No Pipelines on Indigenous Land” posters.

LaPensée advocates for this cause on the “Thunderbird Strike” website, encouraging visitors to learn more about oil pipelines and their environmental impacts.

“Thunderbird Strike” won Best DIgital Media award at ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto. It’s the leading indigenous media arts festival in the world.

The game doesn’t sit well with supporters of the oil and gas industry, however.

When asked what Enbridge Inc. thinks of the game, company corporate communications representative Michael Barnes provided this statement: “No matter your view on future energy sources, reasonable people understand that destroying or tampering with existing infrastructure is dangerous – it has the potential to harm people and the very environment we want to protect.”

Barnes referred questions to the American Petroleum Institute, which said it doesn’t comment on fictional items like video games.

But criticism has been sparked elsewhere.

LaPensée received funding to make the game through an arts grant from the Minnesota-based Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and the criticism has been especially harsh in that state.

Minnesota state Rep. Bob Gunther, a Republican, called the Arts Council grant an abuse of funding.

LaPensée was audited, but everything checked out for her, she said.

Minnesota state Sen. David Osmek, another Republican, called the game “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.”

Toby Mack, president of the Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, accused the game of encouraging eco-terrorism.

LaPensée disagrees.

“Nowhere in the game is there anything that really would encourage that,” she said. “It’s not meant to be violent. It’s meant to say that we can remove these structures in a safe way that will help the lands and the waters and the animals.”

Since the game’s release, LaPensée said she’s endured attacks on her reputation as a professor and game designer. She’s had to change her phone number.

“When the first oil lobbyist group put out a press release, their goal was the complete deletion of the game,” LaPensée said. “So I think it could be feasible they’ll keep following the game, even though everyone who has published about the game to date has not actually played it themselves.”

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.