Lawmakers weigh streamlining interim teaching certificates

Capital News Service

LANSING — Lawmakers are considering a proposal to  make it easier for people with a bachelor’s degree to teach full-time while working toward standard teaching certification.

The proposal was approved in the Senate and is pending in the House Education Reform Committee. It would remove some requirements for alternative certification programs that grant interim teaching certificates.

“The intent of the bill is to get more teachers into the classroom,” said Brad Wever, an aide to bill sponsor Sen.Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair.

Interim teaching certificates allow individuals to be a full-time teacher while continuing to work towards their teaching certification.

The bill would remove the requirement for program applicants to pass a Basic Skills Examination. As of last September, the Department of Education accepts only SAT test scores as a valid measure of those skills.

It’s ridiculous for an adult with a college degree to wait to take a test for an interim teaching certificate, said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, who chairs the committee and supports the bill.

Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, supports removing the basic skills test as well, but is still on the fence regarding the entire bill until he gets more information from the Department of Education regarding the accreditation of alternative certificate programs.

Current law leaves certification up to the state superintendent of public instruction. Six alt-cert programs have been approved, according to the department.

“The (Basic Skills Examination) is but one of many measures used by programs to admit teacher candidates, counsel people out, and to assure that we have quality program completers,” the Michigan Association of Colleges for Teacher Education wrote in a letter to the Senate Committee on Education Reform.

Erica House, a substitute Spanish teacher at Pontiac High School, testified in support of the bill. She has met all the requirements for the program and has to wait until March 10 to take the SAT test.

The bill is opposed by the Michigan Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, according to Beth Kubitskey, a board member of that group and an associate dean at Eastern Michigan University.

The Michigan Education Association said it fears that the quality of education provided to students will decrease if the bill passes. The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.

The proposal reduces the requirements for a teaching certification to a college degree and passing a Michigan Test for Teacher Certification, Kubitskey said. “We think that isn’t sufficient and it makes the alt-cert grossly different than the traditional certification programs.”

“Teaching is a profession,” said MEA communications consultant David Crim.

“Knowing the subject matter is one thing,” Crim said, “but there are a lot of skills that are needed to connect with kids.”

The Michigan Test for Teacher Certification provides subject-specific and grade-oriented testing for Michigan teachers. For students attaining a teaching certificate through a traditional four-year institution, test administrators  suggest that they wait to take the tests until they have finished 90 percent of their credits towards a degree.

Proposed constitutional amendment would streamline voter registration

Capital News Service

LANSING – Voter advocacy and civil rights groups are petitioning for a state constitutional amendment that would make it easier for Michigan residents to vote.

The campaign, called “Promote the Vote,” seeks to give military members more time to vote, automatically register citizens when they conduct business at a Secretary of State office and allow absentee voting without the need to give a reason. It also would allow same-day voting registration with proof of residency and straight party voting.

Under current state law, you need to be registered at least 30 days before an election  to vote. Military operating from an overseas installation are advised to send back their absentee ballot 35 days before election day, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

“We just want voting to be accessible, convenient and everyone’s vote to be counted and secure,” said Judy Karandjeff, the president of the League of Women Voters.

The proposal which is targeted for next November’s election, is backed by the league, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state and Detroit branches of the NAACP.  

The Secretary of State’s office is confident in the state’s current voting process, said Fred Woodhams, the elections agency’s director of communication.

“We believe that Michigan elections system does an excellent job of allowing voters to cast a ballot and have their voice heard.”

“Michigan saw the most registered voters ever in 2016,” he said. “Recent elections have seen near-record turnout.”

The Board of State Canvassers has approved the petition language, “and people will be able to sign the petition shortly,” Karandjeff said.

Backers of the proposal must get 315,654 valid signatures of registered voters to make the November ballot.

Only 15 states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The organization says there is strong evidence that election day registration increases voter turnout.

Promote the Vote isn’t the only campaign seeking to reform Michigan’s elections laws. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, a group of activists introduced a constitutional amendment proposal called Voters Not Politicians.

It would establish an independent commission to oversee the drawing of Michigan’s electoral districts. Elected officials would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

In December the group turned in more than 425,000 valid signatures to the Secretary of State, where the petition is under review. The redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years, was controlled by Republicans in 2011 and the party has since maintained legislative majorities in elections.

Bill would pay a bonus to some teachers in low-income schools

Capital News Service

LANSING – –Michigan’s struggle to retain teachers in low-income areas may soon receive a helping hand.

New bills in the House and Senate would give educators who teach mathematics, science or special education a bonus of $1,800 a year if more than half the students in their school district are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The bill applies to school districts, intermediate school districts and public school academies.

According to Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, low-income areas tend to pay lower salaries for teachers even though these educators do some of the hardest work.

Brinks, a sponsor of the House measure, said she hopes the bonuses would encourage dedicated and caring educators to go to and remain at these schools.

The Department of Education reported that between 2016-17, more than 17,000 teachers who taught at a school for a year didn’t return to the same school the next year.

Comparing the latest data, Michigan has 80.2 percent of teachers staying at the same school for consecutive years. That ranks below the national average of 84.2 percent.

The retention of educators is only part of a bigger problem, said David Crim, a Michigan Education Association communications consultant.

“The larger problem is the teacher shortage, caused primarily by attacks on teacher wages, benefits, pensions and collective bargaining rights over the past eight years,”  Crim said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, enrollment in colleges of education across the state is down by more than 50 percent since 2008, and average teacher salaries across the state have declined for the fifth straight year.

The number of new teachers leaving the profession in the first five years of teaching is at an historic high, according to the Michigan Education Association.

Among the sponsors of the bonus legislation are Reps. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; Jon Hoadley D-Kalamazoo; and Tom Cochran, D-Mason.

“These bills give a financial incentive that will help staff the schools facing a teacher shortage now, in the subjects that are most difficult to find certified teachers for,” Crim said of the bonus proposal.

Brinks said she hopes by increasing teacher’s income with a bonus, teachers would have an incentive to remain in the field, and that it may make the occupation more attractive to those making career choices.

Kathy Berry, president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics, doesn’t see the bill as helping to accomplish either of those objectives.

“The bill reads as a nice gesture, but at the end of the day, $1,800 is not that much money,”  Berry said.

People with the skills to teach mathematics are capable of going into other industries that are more profitable, and that sum of money wouldn’tt change their minds, Berry said. She said that although all teachers would like more money in their pocket, most would rather see their per pupil allowance increased.

The annual cost if the bill were to pass is unclear, but according to the n Department of Education, 702,777 of 1,532,335 Michigan public school students were eligible for free or reduced lunch during the fall of 2016.

The bills are pending in the House Committee of Appropriations and Senate Committee on Education.

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.”

Teacher salaries down statewide, with one exception

Capital News Service

LANSING — Teacher salaries in Michigan dropped an average of $333 from 2011-12 to 2016-17,  except in the smallest school districts, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Districts with enrollments below 500 paid teachers an average of $47,337 in 2016-17, an increase of nearly $2,500 over 2011-12.

For example, Hillman Community Schools in Montmorency County, a district with 437 students in 2016-17, saw average teacher pay rise 5 percent over the prior five years even as enrollment dipped by 14 percent.

But local administrators say that trends in average salary figures are misleading in small districts.

Since low-enrollment districts employ far fewer teachers, their average salaries are volatile, said DeTour Area Schools superintendent Angela Reed.

Her Chippewa County district is an example of that volatility. It employed the equivalent of 11.4 full-time teachers in 2016-17. DeTour’s average teacher salary of $92,498 in 2016-17 was the highest in the state, according to state figures.

Yet only five years earlier, DeTour ranked 33rd, with an average salary more than $20,000 lower than it was in 2016-17.

In DeTour the high average salary is due in part to the district’s “highly educated, experienced” teachers, Reed said. The loss of that experience is likely to prompt a major drop in the district’s average salaries when those teachers retire.

“If they all leave and I replace them with $35,000 teachers, that brings our average salary down quite a bit,” Reed said.

Burr Oak Community School District, in St. Joseph County, saw volatile shifts in its average salaries as well. After decreasing by nearly $3,000 from 2011-12 to 2015-16, teachers’ average pay rebounded to $40,272 in 2016-17 — slightly above the mark from 2011-12, according to state figures.

Another reason average salaries are misleading is because some districts supply teachers to other schools who are not counted in the final figures. DeTour Area Schools supplies teachers to the DeTour Arts and Technologies Academy. Those salaries are counted in DeTour’s budget, but the teachers themselves are not included in the district’s teacher headcount.

Although average salaries in Michigan’s small districts have increased, they continue to lag behind the statewide average of $62,280 by nearly $15,000.

Since state funding to schools is on a per-pupil basis, the smallest districts often face hard choices, said Greg Warsen, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University’s College of Education.

“The non-classroom costs in a smaller district have to be spread over a smaller number of students,” Warsen said. “You’re probably still going to need an athletic director, you’re still probably going to need some bus drivers, you’re still going to have operational costs.

“The dollars that remain for teacher salaries proportionally are going to be lower,” he said.

That low pay means fewer people are entering teaching, said David Crim, a communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest union of teachers and instructional staff.

Average teacher salaries have fallen statewide for five of the past six years on record, and the number of teaching certificates awarded fell from 5,721 in 2011 to 3,696 in 2016, according to state records.

“Talk to MSU, Central, Western — 50 percent reduction in enrollment over the last eight years in all colleges of education around the state,” Crim said. “Students are not going into teaching.”

At the same time, teachers have been hurt by increases in costs of living, cuts to benefits and student loan debt, Crim said.

MEA President Paula Herbart praised the willingness of young educators to enter the field in such a climate.

“We are lucky that we have people who still find the calling so great that they are willing to sacrifice their own financial security to go into education,” Herbart said. “We must lift them up, and funding has a lot to do with that.”

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.

Driver education may add bicycle safety lesson

Capital News Service

LANSING – While bicycling soars in popularity, bicycle crashes are also increasing in Michigan.

Bicycle crashes increased 12 percent, up from 1,763 in 2014 to 1,988 in 2016, the most recent figures show. Thirty-eight bicyclists died in 2016, up 81 percent from 21 in 2014, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Although bicycle crashes account for less than 1 percent of all traffic crashes, “bicyclists are more seriously injured in these crashes,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, the director of development and communications at the League of Michigan Bicyclists.

Many drivers are unaware that bicyclists — not only motorists — have the right to use the roads, said Kiersnowski.

“Often motorists will shout things like ‘get off the road’ or ‘get on the sidewalk’ at bicyclists when they are lawfully riding on a roadway,” she said. “Some even attempt to ‘punish’ bicyclists for being in their way by passing them extremely and dangerously close.”

The most severe crashes occur when a bicyclist is hit from behind when both the bicyclist and motorist are traveling in the same direction, according to the state crash data.

To raise drivers’ awareness of bicycle safety, Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, sponsored a bill to improve the driver education curriculum.

It would require driver education classes to include at least one hour of instruction on laws pertaining to bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians and other “vulnerable roadway users.”

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has moved the bill to the House floor for a vote.

The cosponsors are Reps. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek; Holly Hughes, R-Montague; Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian; Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township; and Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills.

Alexander said some motorists are confused because communities have different types of bike pathways. Some are in the middle of the road, some are on the side and some are between the road and parking areas.

“We need to make sure our new drivers have the information and education to become a better and safer driver,” Alexander said.

The one-hour classroom instruction would come from the 1.5 hours of instructor discretion that is now in the curriculum. It wouldn’t affect the total hours of driver education and other content, she said.

Driver education programs already devote time to bicycle safety, said Mary Kay Relich, the secretary of the Michigan Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association based in Kalamazoo.

If the bill is signed into law, local instructors would follow the outline established by the Department of State, she said.

The department is responsible for the driver education curriculum.

To ensure drivers’ awareness of bicycle safety, Relich suggested that the department write questions to test their knowledge.

Besides advocating for the improvement of driver education, the League of Michigan Bicyclists is creating a web-based training program for adult bicyclists, children and motorists on bicycle safety.

Incorporating bicyclists into driver education training will help motorists build an understanding of bicylists’ behavior and lead to an environment where both are comfortable interacting with one another,” Kiersnowski said.

Attack Ads Info Box

Excerpts from recent Michigan political attack ads

“In crunch time, Brian Calley fumbled. We need a strong leader.” – Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, against Lt. Gov. Brian Calley

“You can buy a Super Bowl ad. You can buy consultants to tell you the right political positions. You can even tell people you’re Detroit Tough. But in Michigan, we know tough when we see it.” — Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, against Sandy Pensler

“Senator Stabenow votes with [U.S. Sen. Elizabeth] Warren 93 percent of the time … Tell Senator Stabenow ‘no to government health care!’” — National Republican Senatorial Committee, against Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow


Statewide campaigns are going negative in recent ads

Capital News Service

LANSING — Although the first half of an advertisement from John James’s U.S. Senate campaign is spent questioning an opponent’s policy decisions and toughness, the campaign doesn’t want it to be seen as an attack on fellow Republican Sandy Pensler.

“We don’t look at it as a negative ad,” said Ted Goodman, communication director for James, a Farmington Hills businessman. “We’re very proud to have ads that focus on John James and how he is different from the other candidates that are running.”

In the digital ad, the campaign responds to Grosse Pointe businessman Pensler’s “Detroit Tough” advertisement, which aired on Super Bowl Sunday.

James’s 30-second spot opens by suggesting Pensler hires consultants “to tell [him] the right political positions” and questioning Pensler’s toughness. About halfway through, the ad shifts, highlighting James’ status as an Iraq combat veteran and self-described “conservative outsider.”

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s campaign funded a Super Bowl Sunday ad of its own, calling out Republican primary challenger and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s legislative history under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Attack ad or not, the decision to go on the offensive in an attempt to highlight a candidate’s uniqueness is commonplace in modern politics.

It is rarer for campaigns to take ownership of ads that go after opponents, as James’s and Schuette’s do.

Only about one in four ads that solely attacked another candidate or included negative content were funded by a candidate’s committee instead of a third party during the 2016 elections, according to data provided by the Political TV Ad Archive.

Letting outside organizations do the dirty work can insulate the candidate if the public doesn’t respond well to an attack or if the claims are questionable, according to J. Cherie Strachan, a political science professor at Central Michigan University.

“You don’t even necessarily have knowledge of the ad or how it’s being put together,” Strachan said. “It prevents the backlash.”

Strachan also said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which allowed corporations to spend an unlimited amount on political advertising, shifted campaign financing from being largely under candidates’ control to outside groups, like super PACs — political action committees — and nonprofit organizations.

“We have so much leeway for independent actors in the way we have structured campaigns,” Strachan said. “Maybe it’s not a good strategy for the candidate, but somebody that’s really angry — some group or organization that’s raised money — really wants to throw stones, they have free speech.”

Those outside groups can use that freedom of speech to say “negative things that aren’t a part of the official campaign strategy,” she said.

Ads sponsored by outside groups tend to be negative, while ads run by candidates’ campaigns tend to be positive, said Craig Mauger, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The network is a nonpartisan organization focused on the impact of money on Michigan politics.

“With this flourishing amount of outside money coming in, a lot of that’s going to fund negative ads,” Mauger said. “That’s why you see so many negative ads right now.”

Independently funded attack ads can be useful for a candidate, Mauger said. Not only can the candidate be shielded from blame, but he said attacks tend to be more successful in affecting public perception than positive content.

“They tend to work — people often remember negative ads and they may be more effective than your normal, positive ad,” Mauger said. “If it’s an outside or independent group making the claim, it’s harder for the public to tie those attacks to the candidate.

“Also, if there are claims being made that are false or fuzzy or inaccurate, it’s harder to hold someone accountable because it’s an independent group that might be hard to pin down who’s actually behind it.”

Strachan said the public generally expects attack ads to be a part of the political process, minimizing the risk politicians take when going on the offensive. She added that, especially with an increasingly polarized political climate, candidates are willing to “cross the line” more often and go for personal attacks or name-calling.

“Historically, Americans have accepted that politicians are on different sides and have different opinions, ideologies and approaches,” Strachan said. “There’s a certain element of negativity that’s sort of inherent in hashing these things out.”

In 2013, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed heightened disclosure rules for negative advertising. Taking issue with the impact of “dark money” — funding from anonymous donors — Johnson sought to end the exemption of “issue ads” from the state’s campaign finance rules.

Issue ads are allowed to support or attack a politician or cause anonymously, but cannot explicitly call for viewers to “vote for” or “elect” a certain ballot option.

On the same day Johnson announced that proposal, the Senate approved a bill by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, to exclude advertising from campaign finance reporting “if the communication does not support or oppose a ballot question or candidate by name.”

A month later, the bill was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, formalizing the ability of people or companies to fund unlimited political issue ads without public scrutiny.

Work-for-welfare push on in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s economy, on a slow upswing since the Great Recession, has recovered enough so the state is moving to reinstate stricter work requirements for recipients of federal food assistance.

The waiver of a three-month limit on some benefits for unemployed persons is being phased out.

In 2002, Michigan opted in to a federal waiver allowing states with high unemployment or low job availability to remove work requirements for able-bodied individuals without dependents.

Previously, they could receive benefits only through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program for up to three months every three years without meeting work requirements. The waiver eliminated the three-month limit, effectively allowing those without a job to receive assistance indefinitely.

Michigan used to have a statewide waiver of the federal requirements during the height of the economic downturn, according to Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the state moved to “phase out” the waiver program by moving to a partial waiver last year.

“There have been significant improvements in the unemployment rate in Michigan over the last several years,” Wheaton said. “As a result, people who are trying to reenter the workforce, such as these individuals who were receiving the waiver, now have more job opportunities.”

Michigan is one of 28 states receiving a partial waiver, meaning the indefinite grace period for unemployed SNAP recipients will be revoked in counties with economic improvement but not in those that continue to struggle.

Fourteen of the 83 counties have reinstated the three-month time limit so far. Ionia, Allegan and Grand Traverse counties are among the 10 that have done so in 2018. Work requirements were reinstated in 2017 for Kent, Oakland, Ottawa and Washtenaw counties.

To continue receiving benefits, SNAP recipients in those counties must work an average of 20 hours per week each month or participate in an average of 20 hours per week in an approved training program.

Wheaton said that while there is no concrete time limit on phasing out the waiver entirely, it’s the department’s goal to reinstate work requirements in all counties by October.

The department is prepared to help individuals meet the work requirements and “become self-sufficient so they can be in a situation where, once their food assistance expires, they’re able to support themselves by working,” Wheaton said.

As the current waiver is phased out, some legislators are pushing to prevent future waivers.

A bill introduced by Rep. Kimberly LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, would do just that, as well as create an “identity authentication process” for welfare applicants to prevent fraud. The bill is pending in the House Appropriations Committee.

Cosponsors include GOP Reps. Triston Cole of Mancelona, Roger Victory of Hudsonville and Jim Lilly of Park Township.

LaSata said the bill is intended to empower Michiganders to seek employment. She said the waiver was for individuals who would seemingly face the least obstacles towards returning to the workplace.

“You’re 18 to 49, you’re healthy, you have no dependents,” LaSata said. “Women that do have dependents have a work requirement.

“There’s really no reason for anyone to be against this,” she said.

But the move to prevent Michigan from receiving future work-requirement waivers is “foolish and self-defeating,” according to Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. The organization describes itself as a policy institute “dedicated to economic opportunity.”

He said while he believes Health and Human Services is “acting in good faith” by moving to phase out the waiver as the state’s economy improves, there’s no reason to prevent future waivers in the event of another recession.

“One thing Michigan absolutely should not be doing is tying its own hands on this,” Ruark said.

Ruark also disagreed with the use of county-wide unemployment rates as a measure of an area’s economic health. Using Oakland County as an example, he said that although unemployment rates indicate the county was recovering, Pontiac — its largest city — still faces troubles that could suggest a need for a waiver.

“There are still pockets of economic hardship, even in those counties that appear to be doing well according to the countywide unemployment rate,” Ruark said.

James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said unemployment rates are “a good proxy” for the health of the labor market but don’t tell the full story. The center is a free market-oriented think tank in Midland.

Michigan’s labor force has been growing, which has raised the unemployment rate but indicates a larger pool of talent, Hohman said.

“Even though it’s giving a contrary sign, it’s been good news for the state of Michigan,” he said.

Reinstating SNAP work requirements is far from the only way Michigan policymakers have sought to restrict welfare benefits in recent years.

For example, Sen. Joe Hune, R-Gregory, sponsored a 2014 law adding community service to the list of work requirements.

“This common-sense reform will ensure that those benefiting from public assistance are giving back to the community that is providing them with a helping hand,” Hune saide. “There is nothing wrong with folks having a little skin in the game.”

The community service option has no minimum hours requirement, and caseworkers approach each case individually, according to Wheaton of Health and Human Services..

In addition to the law sponsored by Hune, bills signed into law include cutting off payments to families with chronically truant children and testing recipients for drugs.