New technology would make 911 better, but at a cost

By JINGJING NIE
Capital News Service

LANSING — An improved emergency 911 system would allow Michigan residents to text police if they are held hostage by an active shooter.

Crime victims could text for help without alerting a burglar in the next room.

And police could accurately locate crime victims who use cell phones to report when they are threatened.

But lawmakers are now struggling to figure out how to pay for the expansion of the new system called Next Generation 911.

“The problem we have right now is many 911 centers around the state are only able to trace a call to a landline,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who has introduced a bill to expand the Next Generation 911 system beyond the 33 counties that have it now.  “However, most people nowadays are changing to cellphones.”

The current 911 system is almost 40 years old. Meanwhile, around 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cellphones that cannot be accurately traced, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Michigan residents now pay 19 cents a month for state 911 fees per device. Prepaid wireless users pay 1.92 percent per retail transaction.

If the bill passes, the state 911 fees would go up to 25 cents per month, and prepaid wireless users would pay 4.53 percent per retail transaction.

Without the change, even the counties that already have Next Generation 911 will lose it when their funding runs out next year, said Harriet Miller-Brown, the state 911 coordinator.

“Even though they have it, it won’t be paid for, and there is no more money for new counties to join,” Miller-Brown said.

Next Generation 911 makes it easier for dispatchers to help each other out when they are flooded with calls, said Thom Sumbler, vice president of sales and business development for Peninsula Fiber Network, which installs systems for counties.

Dispatchers are flooded with calls when accidents happen, said Sumbler. ”There might be only two or three people taking calls and they might be getting 25-30 calls at one time,”

If someone called in about an unrelated heart attack, the call might not go through with the old system, he said. With the Next Generation 911, calls can be routed to dispatch centers that are less busy.

“This is an enormous improvement,” Sumbler said.

Next Generation 911 also allows users to text to 911.

“Always call when you can, text when you can’t,” said Jason Torrey, director of Grand Traverse County Central Dispatch/911 and the president of the Michigan Communication Directors Association.

But under certain circumstances, text is the better option.

“If you’re a victim of domestic violence and the assailant is in the immediate vicinity and you don’t feel safe placing a voice call, you can use that text solution to silently notify dispatch and 911 that you need help,” Torrey said. “We’ve had that occur, right here in our own town.”

The feature is also helpful for people who are deaf or partially deaf, Torrey said.

Next Generation 911 is also more reliable.

“With the older system, one backhoe digging the line somewhere can take out multiple 911 centers,” said Torrey.

With the newer system, there is always another route so that call can be delivered, he said.

“There are so many opportunities and so much diversity that you can have with this new network,” said Torrey.

The bill was referred to Energy and Technology Committee.

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

By KALEY FECH
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.”

Debate continues over whether 17 is an adult or a juvenile

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Public policy advocates say it’s common sense to raise the age for a person to be tried in Michigan criminal courts as an adult from 17 to 18 years old.

The reason is, young people in adult prisons are at higher risk for sexual assault, restraint, solitary confinement and suicide, they say.

“We are a super-minority in the nation when it comes to the age of criminal responsibility for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Placing them in juvenile facilities also gives them a better chance to rehabilitate, advocates say.

“In contrast, young people in the juvenile justice system have opportunities for education, rehabilitative programs and interventions that may help them to succeed,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm.

But county officials are unsure who will pay for the hundreds of 17-year-olds and younger in the adult system who would move to juvenile facilities.

Lowering the age would create a lot of changes to the juvenile justice system, and the counties could be unprepared for those changes, said Deena Bosworth, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties.

Currently, the state and the counties are responsible for the upkeep and care of prisons. Counties pay for juvenile facilities.

Bills passed the  House in 2016 to raise the age from 17-years-old to 18-years-old but the Senate is waiting for a cost study commissioned by the Legislature before moving the bills.

The Association of Counties has been worried about the pending bills in the past for monetary reasons. County funding has been down since the 2008 recession, and the state is underfunding county programs, it says.

Furthermore, the  association says the proposed legislation does not require the state to cover additional local costs.

Costs are expected to go up for counties but the actual amount is unknown and will depend on the results of the cost study that was commissioned by the Legislature, Bosworth said.

The cost study is expected to be released within months. The study will look to see if there are savings for treating 17-year-olds as adults.

Since potential costs are unknown, the impact on counties financially is unknown but rural and more northern counties could feel a larger burden, Bosworth said.

The Human Impact Partners, a national public policy research and advocacy group, studied juvenile facilities, adult facilities and community-based programming in Michigan. To house a youth in a juvenile facility costs nearly $179,000 a year while to house a youth in an adult facility it costs just over $40,000 per year.

The counties are worried they won’t be able to adequately fund the transition of prisoners from the adult system to the juvenile system and afford the higher costs of the juvenile system.

Advocates are adamant that the age for adult prisons needs to be raised. Michigan is one of only five states in which the age to be tried as an adult is not 18..

Kids who commit crimes need rehabilitation at a facility equipped to handle their developmental status and recognizes they are not adults, Guevara-Warren said.

“In other parts of our laws, 17-year-olds aren’t old enough to vote, they’re not legally old enough to drop out of school, they’re not old enough to buy fireworks,” Guevara Warren said.

Other reasons to raise the age stem from the more supportive treatment of young people in juvenile systems, which allows them to stay in touch with families and communities.

“It’s designed to help young people with their education and to provide treatment and rehabilitation,” Feierman said. “When the juvenile justice system is really working well, it is an intervention that helps young people. The criminal justice system just isn’t designed to fulfill those goals.”

The battle over raising the age, however, is not about the policy implications but over how to pay for it.

Feierman and Guevara Warren said states are recognizing the age raise is better policy and better financially in the long run.

“Youth prosecuted as adults earn 40 percent less over their lifetime than youth in the juvenile justice system which translates in a loss of state tax revenue and economic productivity,” Guevara Warren said.

Shoulder test near Ann Arbor could come to a highway near you

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — An experiment allowing Michigan drivers for the first time to legally drive on a highway shoulder could lead to similar efforts across the state.

Advocates say that the use of advanced technology could prevent accidents, ease congestion and save millions of dollars in construction costs statewide.

Drivers were recently allowed to drive on the shoulder of a stretch of U.S. 23 during rush hour, an option labeled a flex route.

It is the first of its kind in the state and is essentially an initial experiment, said Kari Arend, a media representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

“We will be watching it closely to see how it operates and hopefully eventually adding it to other locations across the state,” Arend said.

Among them is a stretch of Interstate 96 in Oakland County and U.S. 131 near Grand Rapids, places officials say have high congestion similar to U.S. 23.

Savings from the use of the highway’s existing paved shoulder instead of building larger highways can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Arend said

The U.S. 23 flex route opens up the highway’s inside shoulders between M-14 and M-36. That’s  roughly north of Ann Arbor and through Whitmore Lake, one of the state’s most highly congested highway stretches.

The shoulder is open only 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Motorists are alerted of its availability by overhead signs.

Green arrows mean the shoulder is open. A red “X” marks its closure. Yellow arrows alert drivers to merge to avoid traffic accidents. Other signals alert drivers of speed limits.

The flex route also opens during traffic accidents to allow traffic to more easily bypass them.  

Virginia and Minnesota have similar systems that have been successful, Arend said. MDOT looked at these states to see what could be feasible in Michigan.

Police say they hope they improve safety.

“We’re hoping there’s going to be less crashes because traffic is going to flow better,” said State Police Lt. Mario Gonzales of the Brighton post.

Stop-and-go traffic at these times leads to more rear-end collisions, especially when it slows down quickly during rush hour, Gonzales said.

“With these flex lanes, when they’re open, traffic is not going to have those choke points and that’s going to flow better and hopefully reduce those rear end collisions,” Gonzales said.

That would be helpful.

Almost 30 percent of all Michigan crashes occur on state and federal highways, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning. And there were slightly more than 83,000 rear-end collisions in the state last year, according to the crash data.

Why not keep the shoulders open all the time?

It has to do with the definition of a shoulder, Arends said, because it’s not a “true lane.”,” Arend said.

To add a third lane, the state would have to widen the road and add a shoulder too, costing millions more.

The flex route is part of a $92-million update of roads and bridges along U.S. 23. Without it, the cost of improvements would be close to $200 million, Arend said.

The biggest concern for police is educating people on the rules of the lane.

Drivers could still drive in the flex route at all times, though Gonzales said police would be monitoring the route more heavily. Drivers who pull into the shoulder during noon rush hour times could be at risk if another driver were to use the shoulder illegally.

Illegal use of the route falls under illegal lane use and would put two points on a driver’s record and a $135 ticket if the driver is caught.

Bills would make recounts harder in lopsided votes

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Losers of Michigan elections would get a recount of the votes only in close races that they have a reasonable chance of winning under a bill proposed in the Legislature.

Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, hopes to tighten Michigan law after Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed for a recount in Michigan even though she lost the election by more than 2 million votes.

The legislation would change Michigan recount law to say that a candidate must have a reasonable chance of winning. Currently, the law allows any candidate to file for a recount.

Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township, cosponsored the bill and said the decision to craft it was because of Stein and the hassle the recount presented to local clerks.

“Everybody agrees it was a nightmare, it was unneeded, it was a lot of work for nothing no matter what side they were on,” Miller said. “It was just a logistical nightmare.”

Miller said the bill would add another hurdle before a candidate could consider filing a recount.

“Just preventing something that was unreasonable from happening in the future was the goal of this legislation,” Miller said.

The recount filed by Stein was allowed after the Board of State Canvassers voted 2-2 that it  should take place. Attorney General Bill Schuette had asked the Michigan Supreme Court to block the recount because he felt it would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The state Court of Appeals later ruled the recount should not take place. It was stopped by a federal judge three days after the recount began.

The bill passed  the House 98-10 and referred it to the Senate’s Elections and Government Reform Committee.

The Michigan Association of County Clerks did not take a position on the bill, said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, who sits on the association’s legislative committee. He said he understands the need for clarifying language.

The bill does not change how election clerks administer recounts, he said.

“We certainly process a recount petition filing and move forward with the recount process the same as we always have,” Roebuck said.

The bill could benefit clerks as it sets a standard of what constitutes a candidate with a legitimate gripe about an election, Roebuck said.

“I just think that’s good public policy in my personal opinion in terms of using taxpayer resources,” he said.

Fiscal analysis paired with the House bill said Stein would have paid $973,250 for a recount and the state would have paid almost $1.3 million.

Another bill introduced in the Senate would increase the cost candidates pay for recounts and save taxpayer money, Roebuck said. The bill recently passed the Senate and is now awaiting a vote by the House.

“From the clerk community, we kind of see that recount fee as a deterrent as well for someone who is truly not (aggrieved),” Roebuck said. “If you’ve lost by a significant margin, I think it would be difficult to reach the threshold of alleging that you truly could have won the election.

“I think that recount fee increase is sort of helpful for setting a standard as well for why a candidate would actually come to file,” he said.

A candidate who loses by more than 50 votes or 0.5 percent of the total votes now must pay $125 a precinct for a recount. The bill would require a candidate that lost by more than 75 votes or 5 percent of the total votes cast to pay $250 per precinct.

Miller said the Legislature almost tied the House and Senate bills together so he believes both should pass the opposite chamber easily. He also said he believes the governor will sign them into law.

Candidates who lose close elections shouldn’t be deterred from recounts, Roebuck said.

“We certainly want a candidate who has lost by a slim margin (to file a recount) and there’s a potential there for even a simple mistake to potentially overturn an election,” he said. “We want that candidate to be able to come to the table and make sure they have the right to a recount.”

Bill would let some counties veto state land purchases

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Counties with lots of public land are looking to take some control over state land purchases.

A pending bill would grant local governments more power when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) buys land, while also making sure the state pays its tax bill on time.

The proposed change is in response to the local governments that are upset the state has too much control over northern Michigan land, said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, a cosponsor of the bill.

“I always hear the reason the state wants to own the land is so you and I can enjoy the land,” he said. “Yet in my area, far too often, land was gated up or fenced off and access was cut off.”

Critics say the bill restricts statewide land management decisions.

Casperson worries it’s too difficult for people to buy land from the state. The Michigan Association of Counties, which supports the bill, wants counties to be able to veto state purchases. And groups like the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance take issue with how the DNR allocates land.

“If conservation is the wise use of resources that benefits the most people for the longest time, then that’s not what is happening,” said Dale McNamee, the former president of the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Parts of the bill guarantee sportsmen they will have land where to hunt.”

McNamee says the DNR often doesn’t take advantage of public land by prohibiting mining, fishing and hunting. The alliance promotes recreational experiences and encourages conservation of natural resources in the area, he said.

Under the bill, counties with more than 40 percent of their land owned by the state would have approval power over any additional state land purchase in their county. As of 2016, six counties fit that description: Cheboygan, Crawford, Dickinson, Kalkaska, Luce and Roscommon. Of the almost 4.6 million acres the DNR owns, 85 percent is north of the Mason-Arenac line, an invisible line that stretches across counties north of the Thumb.  

The Michigan Environmental Council opposes several parts of the bill.

“Our issue with that is these are statewide land management decisions that are supported by a lot of people,” said Sean Hammond, the council’s deputy policy director. “This would allow a single county to hold up a statewide land management decision. We think that’s not the appropriate way to make these decisions.”

The council disagrees with restricting the DNR’s purchasing power if the state isn’t current on payments it makes in lieu of taxes. When the state buys land, not only is the county getting money for the initial purchase, but to offset the property taxes it isn’t receiving, the state pays what are called Payments In Lieu of Taxes or PILT.

If the state fell behind on these payments, the bill would allow a cap on how much land the DNR could purchase would go into effect. The council disagrees with this because, while the DNR purchases land, the payments are appropriated by the Legislature, not the department itself.

“We’re questioning why we need to tie those together when they are completely separate entities,” Hammond said.

While payments have been late in the past, the DNR says the state doesn’t usually miss PILT payments.

Both the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs oppose the bill.

Sponsors hope to improve local business opportunities impeded by public land ownership, Casperson said. In 2014, Oswald’s Bear Ranch, a big money-maker for Luce County, was looking to purchase land held by the DNR.

Instead, the business had to buy 160 acres the state wanted, then swap it for the land it preferred, which took years, Casperson said. More than half the county is owned by the state.

“When we can’t even help little businesses like this and there is so much economic turmoil in the region, it’s really unfortunate,” Casperson said. “There may be benefits to the state owning public land, but not through the local economy.”

That’s where the environmental council sees it differently.

The philosophy behind these bills is the state has too much public land and that doesn’t help the economy, Hammond said.

“Well, we see it the other way. We see tourism and recreation growing at huge rates. Trail running, mountain biking, birding, these are all industries that are growing, and where’s the best place to do them? On the state’s public land.”

The DNR says the  legislationl wouldn’t have much effect on the way it does business, because it  already uses many of the practices the bill mandates.

“We recognize there was justifiable concern that the DNR was making decisions about local land ownership without fully considering the interests or needs of local government officials,” said Ed Golder, the DNR’s public information officer. “So we’ve changed that engagement model.”

When a new land strategy was developed in 2013, DNR director Keith Creagh met with many northern county officials to gauge how they felt about how the government uses public land.

Since then, it’s become standard practice to seek approval from local governments and to seek agreement on the footprint of state-managed public land, Golder said.

It’s a practice that officials with the Michigan Association of Counties say they appreciate.

“We support the bill and we support the DNR working with counties,” said Deena Bosworth, the director of governmental affairs at the association.  “This bill codifies the relationship they have been working on for years now.”

The bill passed the Senate in mid-October and has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee.

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

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSK
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.”

Legal strings attached to airbow

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Does Michigan need more ways for disabled people to hunt game like deer, duck and bear? Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, thinks so.

The Upper Peninsula lawmaker wants to legalize the use of a pneumatic airbow, a crossbow that uses compressed air instead of a string for power.

The idea is to create more hunting experiences for people who cannot pull back the string of a traditional crossbow.

“A lady in my district, who has been an avid deer hunter her whole life and was getting up there in age, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,” said LaFave, who recently introduced legislation to allow the weapon. “So she can’t crank a crossbow anymore.”

She applied for a permit through the Department of Natural Resources(Department of Natural Resources) to use the weapon. Agency officials declined, citing a need for a change in the law. So she went to LaFave for help.

Folks in southern states like Texas and Louisiana have legalized the use of the airbow, which is a very effective weapon for killing game, LaFave said.

And that’s a problem, according to some critics.

“We do not support this legislation,” said Tony Demboski, the president of the Upper Peninsula Sportmen’s Alliance. “We have so many means of hunting, whether it’s firearms, bows or crossbows, there’s already too much pressure on hunting deer.”

Demboski said he is especially concerned how groups like humane societies might characterize the use of weapons like this.

That’s not the only snag LaFave’s bill has hit.

Months before it was introduced he brought up the option of legalizing airbows to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) a statewide coalition of outdoor groups based in Lansing. It disapproved of classifying an airbow under the same umbrella as a cros bow.

“It’s more of a pneumatic gun than archery equipment,” said Dan Eichinger, its executive director. “It has everything do with the mechanics behind it. With archery equipment, you’re drawing a string back. This thing is so powerful, it’s more like a firearm.”

It shoots arrows, so it should be defined as a bow-hunting tool, LaFave said. But because the MUCC doesn’t agree, only disabled hunters could use an airbow during bow-hunting season. Anyone else could hunt with one only during firearm season.

What all parties agree on is the that the aging population of hunters needs to be accommodated with special  weapons and programs.

“There’s been more growth in the last 10 years than in the prior 30 years expanding these programs,” Eichinger said. “People are living longer and there just isn’t as much interest in younger people to go hunting.”

Accommodations are made for many kinds of disabilities, from lung and cardiovascular problems to mobility issues.

That’s another reason Demboski doesn’t agree with the bill. So many accommodations for disabled hunters are out there, adding more isn’t necessary.

“Michigan already has lots of ways for disabled hunters to continue hunting,” he said. “The U.P. even has one business that has state-of-the-art equipment specifically designed for assisting disabled hunters.”

He’s talking about Wheelin’ Sportsmen, based in Escanaba. In 2007, Ken Buchholtz got the idea to build trailers to accommodate hunters with mobility problems. Since then it’s become nationally recognized.

The trailers are outfitted for wheelchairs and have TV screens that act as scopes and rifles that accommodate many physical handicaps.

People are living longer, but with older hunters comes more disabilities, Buchholtz said. “Hunting is a big part of people’s lives, so when that becomes harder to do for them, it can be really sad.”

Buchholtz is also the Upper Peninsula district director for the Accessibility Advisory Council at the DNR, a group that bolsters efforts to keep disabled hunters in the sport.

While LaFave would prefer airbows be available to all hunters during the entire archery season, meeting other groups in the middle for him is where it counts.

“My goal ultimately was to help this individual and others with disabilities,” he said. “If a compromise is what I need to do, a compromise is what I’m going to come up with.”

Local government revenues lag state’s economic recovery

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — The fiscal health of local governments in Michigan appears to be rebounding from a slight dip last year, according to a recent report.

But local officials say their revenues still lag the general economic recovery, making it hard to restore basic services like park improvements, pay employee benefits and invest in maintenance of buildings, sewers and streets.  

“Since about 2011 we had seen an improvement in fiscal health that had continued every year,” said Tom Ivacko, administrator at the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. “ Last year that reversed, and we were surprised to see that.”

The center has surveyed local government leaders since 2009. And while the uptick is welcome, local leaders say improvements to the state’s economy are outpacing improvements to the bottom lines of counties, cities and townships.

The study shows a disconnect between economic improvement and improvement of fiscal health of local governments. While 51 percent of local officials are optimistic about next year’s economy, only 29 percent predict their local government will be better able to meet fiscal needs. Another 22 percent think they will be worse off.

“There’s a bit of a disconnect in that Michigan’s economy continues to improve, but local fiscal health is not necessarily keeping pace,” Ivacko said.

Local leaders were asked whether they are better able or less able to meet their fiscal needs compared to the previous year. They weighed expenses, revenue, debt and assets, Ivacko said.

Forty-eight percent of county officials and 70 percent of township officials rated their current fiscal stress as low.

Large jurisdictions are more sensitive to economic downturns.

“What we have found is there’s a lot more volatility in fiscal health for big jurisdictions compared to small ones,” Ivacko said.

That’s because small rural townships have  few residents, and don’t provide a lot of services, he said.

Townships don’t rely on manufacturing the way cities and counties do, said Larry Merrill, executive director of the Michigan Townships Association. That is one of the reasons some township officials rate current fiscal stress as low.

“If you’re a city that relies on that industry for your tax base, you’re going to be struggling,” he said. The townships are more suburban and rural. Most are more commercial or agricultural, and those industries didn’t get hit as hard in the recession.”

On the other end, large, complex cities and counties have a lot of employees providing a wide range of services.

Counties may be particularly vulnerable to what happens in the overall economy because they provide  far more basic public services, said Stephan Currie, executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties. These responsibilities stress county budgets more than most townships.

“The smaller jurisdictions are just much more stable,” Ivacko said. “Things don’t change on the same scale as they do in big jurisdictions.”

Merrill said that while townships are not necessarily struggling, but needs are going unmet.

“We’re relatively better off than we were, but we still aren’t taking care of the things that in most states people take for granted,” he said. Maintaining local roads is particularly a problem.

And it remains difficult to invest in repair and maintenance of a jurisdiction’s other long term assets, said Jim Storey, an Allegan County commissioner.

“We struggle to balance the budget for operations while trying to find the money for needed capital improvements to aging buildings such as the county building and juvenile home, not to mention improvements to our parks,” Storey said.

One reason local government lags a more general economic recovery is that while property values increase, property tax revenues do not rise as fast, Ivacko said.

“State laws in Michigan put very severe caps on how much revenue can grow for local governments from property taxes,” Ivacko said. “Since that’s the most important source of funding, that’s a severe restraint on local governments.”

Even as the economy grows and property values increase, the taxes stay fairly flat, and townships aren’t able to recognize revenues from that growth, Merrill said.

The constraint means it will take county governments decades to catch up from the effects of the Great Recession, Currie said.

The second major source of revenue comes from State Revenue Sharing program. This program distributes sales tax collected by the state to local governments.

Sales tax revenue has not increased much, so the revenues received have not increased much, said Merrill.  

“We’re very limited in the types of revenues that we can rely on,” Merrill said “State shared revenues are pretty stagnant right now. We’re not getting additional money from the state, and this factor impacts the cities as well.”

Pay increases, health care benefits, and retiree related expenses are a major source of stress for some local governments, Ivacko said.

An increase in state-mandated services that are not accompanied by the state revenue needed to deliver them can be another cause of fiscal stress, Storey said. A child care fund for county youth programs is an example.  

“The counties and the state government are required to share the expenses for this fund, but the state is perpetually behind in reimbursing the counties for their costs,” Storey said.

Other officials agree: “We get handed mandates we have to implement, but we don’t get money to do it,” said Marlena MacNeill, the Alcona Township supervisor.

Merrill said local government revenues that fail to keep up with the economic recovery has expensive and dire long term consequences.

“The infrastructure in Michigan has not been attended to to the degree that it needs to, in terms of the roads, water and sewer systems,” he said. “We’ve deferred maintenance and replacement of those things in order to take care of current financial needs, and we’re headed for a day of reckoning there.”

Most Michigan kids lag national average in well-being; African-American students at the bottom

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — African-American children in Michigan score the lowest in the nation in a complex measure of their well-being, a new report shows.

“The data really shows that African-American kids here in Michigan are faring much more poorly compared to African-American kids in every other state in the country,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The Race for Results report, produced by the Kids Count project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, measures the well-being children of all races. It takes into account 12 indicators, including education, work experience, family support and neighborhood conditions. It looks at how children progress in education, health, economic security and other spheres.

The scores are based on a scale of one to 1,000.

African-American children in Michigan scored 260, far below the national score for African-American children, which is 369.

“Kids of color fare worse on most indicators compared to their white peers,” Guevara Warren said. “We have a lot of work to do around racial disparity.”

Latino children in Michigan fared better than their national counterparts. They had an index score of 446, which is above 429, the national score. Native American children in Michigan scored 511; the national score for that group is 413.

That said, both the state and national index scores for these minorities come up far short of the national index score for white children. The national score for African-American children is 369. For white children, it is 713.

White children in Michigan, while better off than their minority counterparts in the state, scored 667, below the 713 national average for white children.

Asian/Pacific Islander children in the state scored 804, which was better than the national score of 783.

Officials with the Michigan Department of Education declined to be interviewed about the report. Instead, department communications oficer William DiSessa, emailed this  statement:

“We need to work harder at getting every child to be successful in school, including children of color who have to overcome risk factors like poverty, undernutrition and lack of educational resources. Michigan has begun investing more heavily in early childhood education and programs to help at-risk students in our schools, and providing free nutrient-rich school meals for kids. When Michigan becomes a Top 10 education state in 10 years, it will be the result of these additional resources and greater focus on meeting the needs of our at-risk students.”

Guevara Warren said the League for Public Policy said it’s concerned that the Michigan fourth-grade reading level is low in all racial and ethnic groups. “The biggest and most troubling statistic is the rate of reading for African-American fourth graders in Michigan, which is the lowest rate of reading proficiency for African-Americans in the country.”

The Michigan Education Association says there is hope for the future, especially with the recent passage of a new law that requires school districts to assess the reading skills of students in kindergarten through third grade three times a year and requires districts to develop individual reading plans for deficient students.

“The new third=grade reading law will help make sure students are proficient in reading by the time they reach fourth grade,” said David Crim, a communications consultant at the MEA, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel. “It will take some time, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Guevara Warren said the report looks at 12 indicators because children are impacted by where they live, how much they eat, their families, their education, health care and a variety of other influences.  

“If you’re hungry, you’re not going to read well,” she said. “If you’re stressed out because you live in an area of concentrated poverty with high crime rates, you’re going to have a harder time in school. There are all these things that are interconnected that are important to addressing the whole child.”

Crim said social conditions are huge determinants of success.

“Where a child starts doesn’t have to determine where they end up,” he said. “We need to address social issues that impede student success.”