Education nominee Betsy DeVos gets Michigan educators talking

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan lobbyist and business executive Betsy DeVos’ nomination as U.S. secretary of education has been met with criticism from Michigan educators and public school advocates who have been sparring with DeVos for decades.

But some educators who have worked in Michigan charter schools, for which DeVos has been an aggressive advocate, argue that school competition has helped the state.

Those who have been pushing back against the billionaire GOP donor’s influence on state politics and legislation, including the Michigan Education Association (MEA), say that DeVos’s persistent advocacy for charter schools could prove detrimental to public schooling across the country if her nomination is confirmed.

“There has never been in [DeVos’s] history – and you only have to look at her history here in Michigan – much concern at all about the public schools,” said union President Steven Cook. Continue reading

Michigan among states forced to deliver the most with the least

By BRIDGET BUSH

Capital News Service

LANSING– Michigan is one of 18 states required to provide the most state-mandated services with the least state funds, according to a recent national report.

Michigan local governments are among the most economically burdened nationwide.

Only Georgia and Montana didn’t feel similar budget pinches in 2016, according to the report by the National Association of Counties.

“It’s important that people realize this is a problem all over — not just in our state,” said Michael Selden, director of member information services for the Michigan Townships Association. “Citizens want more and more, but local units have less and less.”

It’s hard to pinpoint where the problem began, Selden said. Since the recession began in 2008, tax revenues decreased, and legislators reacted by reducing state revenue sharing. Continue reading

Local officials wary of new energy plan

By RAY WILBUR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Some rural officials are concerned that a recent package of energy bills will encourage yet more wind turbines to be built in their communities, leaving residents to bear the physical burden they pose.      

The main thrust of the two-bill package is to increase renewable energy to 15 percent by 2021, attempting to wean the state off harmful coal fire pollution. It is sponsored by Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek.

The state successfully reached its previous goal of 10 percent last year.

“The 15 percent mandate would require double the wind turbines, but developers can’t get them built anywhere,” said Kevon Martis, director of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, a Michigan-based group that raises awareness of the negative impacts of wind projects.

“The only people who aren’t being heard are the people living in the projects’ footprints,” he said Continue reading

County government upheaval likely

By KAREN HOPPER USHER

Capital News Service

LANSING — A lot of new faces will be in county boardrooms come January.

More than 130 county commissioner seats statewide will be filled by people new to their jobs — a 21 percent turnover rate, according to the Michigan Association of Counties.

And that’s just because of the August primary.

In the November general election, 145 more seats remain in contention. If all of them get new commissioners, that would be a turnover rate of 44 percent, said John Amrhein, a public policy educator at Michigan State University Extension. That’s something he’s never seen in 20 years of public policy work.

But it’s a tough year to call.

“We have such unusual things going on at the top of the ticket,” Amrhein said.

If the turnover is that great, a lot of new officials will have to learn to govern quickly.

Commissioner Conor Egan, R-Drummond Island, who was a new  commissioner in Chippewa County in 2014, remembers his first day when he had to start making appointments. Continue reading

Police recruiting not a problem in U.P., but retention a statewide issue

By BRIDGET BUSH

Capital News Service

LANSING—While the state’s Upper Peninsula can attract new police recruits, its Lower Peninsula has challenges attracting qualified officers, experts say.

The number of police officers is at an all-time low in Michigan, said Fred Timpner, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police.

“I’ve got departments in lower Michigan that have 10 openings and five applicants,” he said.

The reason is low pay and no retirement benefits, Timpner said. “What the public doesn’t realize is that 70-some percent of officers aren’t eligible for Social Security.

“People are going out of state because why would anyone risk their lives for $13 to $14 an hour after a college education?” Timpner said. Continue reading

State groups dispute how downtowns spend special millages

By BRIDGET BUSH

LANSING– A dispute between the state groups representing counties and downtowns has erupted over the way tax money is spent.

Michigan Association of County officials say some special millage tax dollars that could be spent on senior citizens, veterans and other causes get diverted into a popular tax strategy for helping downtowns.

A five-bill package was recently introduced in the House of Representatives to improve the oversight and transparency of groups capturing this tax revenue. Cosponsors are Reps. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering; Lana Theis,R- Brighton; Amanda Price; R-Park Township; Pat Somerville R-New Boston; and David Mature, R- Vicksburg.

The issue is over Tax Increment Financing, called TIF for short.

“Downtowns support the bulk of economic development, so this is a powerful tool to provide a way for the county as a whole to give back to downtowns that sustain their communities,” said Kent Wood, director of government relations for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance. “And there’s not a lot of tools we’ve got left in the toolbox.” Continue reading

Tax break for veterans faces resistance from local governments

By CAITLIN DeLUCA

Capital News Service

LANSING- A bill to increase the number of disabled veterans receiving property tax exemptions faces cautious resistance from local governments that would lose revenue if it passes .

And representatives of some veterans groups sympathize with their position.

The bill would broaden the exemption to include unmarried surviving spouses of veterans and residential or agricultural real property used as a homestead by the veteran or the surviving spouse.

As it stands, even wealthy individuals qualify.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, co-sponsor of the bill, said it shows veterans respect.
“Veterans today are treated less in dignity…than some of the immigrants that come over the border illegally,” Lucido said. Continue reading

Good Samaritan bill expected to be signed into law

By RAY WILBUR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Two pills and a night in December of 2014 changed the lives of one Michigan family and in turn spawned an effort to help families affected by drug overdose deaths across the state.

Mason Mizwicki, 16, of Watervliet, died of a methadone overdose on New Year’s Day of 2015 after a party with friends. Mizwicki took two methadone pills that had been provided by a woman hosting the party.

Methadone is an opioid medication administered to reduce withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin.

When he began having a seizure, his friends did nothing. They were too afraid to call the police for fear of criminal charges.

Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign into law a bill that would address tragic scenarios like Mizwicki’s by exempting people who call law enforcement agencies for help in an overdose situation from facing criminal charges. Continue reading

Bills would add time to driver’s ed

BY ALEXANDER SMITH

Capital News Service

LANSING — Bicyclists may be safer when riding on Michigan roads if new driver’s education bills are passed by the Legislature.

The proposals would require vehicles to be at least 5 feet away when passing a cyclist and create harsher penalties for injuring or killing a rider. They would also require three hours of instruction on bicycle and motorcycle awareness as part of driver’s education.

According to the Office of Highway Safety Planning, crashes between motorists and bicyclists rose 57 percent from 2014 to 2015. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30  this year, 18 bicyclists died from crashes with vehicles.

Some cities have local laws about how close a car can pass a bicyclist, but according to bill sponsor Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, a state law needs to set a uniform standard. Continue reading