Proposed bill would prevent creation of rules more strict than federal regulations

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING – Some Republican  lawmakers want to prevent state departments from creating rules that are tougher than federal regulations.

They’re backing a bill that would allow only the Legislature to do that unless there are exceptional circumstances. The bill, introduced by Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, would encompass rules that would regulate sectors as diverse as business, the environment and manufacturing.

“This is a good bill with a good purpose,” said Jason Geer, the director of energy and environmental policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “It will help ensure Michigan is not overregulated.”

It’s the third time in six years that the legislation has been pushed. And opponents fear this time there may be enough political will to pass ith.

The Michigan Environmental Council questioned why lawmakers would want to take away the governor’s power and put it in the hands of the federal government.

“Why should we demote the governor and his ability to protect Michigan?” said James Clift, the policy director for the council.

Clift said the bill would give the decision-making power to the Trump administration. He said this would directly impact quality of life in Michigan, especially  considering the federal government’s lowering of its own regulations.

Supporters of the bill say that’s good because it will require state departments to show  there really is a need for a rule that is more strict than federal regulations.

Geer said the bill would prevent state departments from doing whatever they want.

”It’s not an outright ban,” he said. “Anytime they feel the need to exceed federal standards, it just requires them to explain it and demonstrate a need for it.”

But critics fear the bill will force the state to be reactive instead of proactive.

“The level of convincing that will be needed to exceed the federal standards is a very high bar,” said Charlotte Jameson, director of government affairs at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “That means there will only be rules in times of crisis.”

Geer said many of the rules in Michigan that exceed federal standards relate to environmental laws, and the bill shines a light on that.

He said it would force state departments to prove why they are necessary. That would help businesses because they wouldn’t have to meet standards significantly higher than the federal level, he said.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters says the standards set by the federal government are a minimum requirement all states must be at or above.

“We feel the federal standards are a floor, not a ceiling,” Jameson said. “The rules don’t account for unique states.”

The Michigan Environmental Council agrees, Clift said.

Officials at both environmental groups say their biggest concerns relate to the Great Lakes.

“Michigan is the Great Lakes State,” Clift said. “This would undermine the ‘Pure Michigan’ campaign because we wouldn’t be able to create stricter rules to protect the lakes.”

Stricter rules are needed to protect the lakes, Jameson said.

“The Great Lakes need forward-thinking protection,” she said. “We need flexibility to go beyond federal standards.”

This is not the first time a similar bill has been proposed. Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed one in 2011. And in 2016 one cleared the House but never made it out of the Senate.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said he thinks the bill will pass in the Senate this year. He sits on the Oversight Committee that approved he bill, and he supports it.

“It does present some challenges, but the bill has great intentions,” Stamas said. “This is a positive discussion to have.”

One challenge could be protection of wetlands, Stamas said. Michigan is one of only two states that administers the federal wetland program. There is a lot of support for keeping wetlands under state control, he said.

Clift said he is concerned the governor may sign the bill this time because Snyder has not made a statement in opposition to it.

The governor isn’t saying. He’ll evaluate the final version if and when it reaches his desk, said Tanya Baker, the deputry press secretary in the executive office of the governor.

Clean Water Action members and Plainfield Township residents gathered at the Capitol on Oct. 10 to oppose the bill and highlight contaminated drinking water in that Kent County community.

That contamination was caused by Wolverine Worldwide, a footwear manufacturer.

Sean McBrearty, the campaign organizer of Clean Water Action, said the bill threatens public health because the Department of Environmental Quality would be unable to more strictly regulate contamination in drinking water.

Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford and who represents Plainfield Township, issued a statement saying the bill was not created in response to water contamination there.

“This bill was not introduced or approved by the Senate Committee on Oversight in response to the current situation, nor can it be retroactively applied to the ongoing issue in Plainfield Township,”  MacGregor said.

The bill passed 57-50 in the House in May. It was reported from the Senate Oversight Committee on Oct. 5. It’s unclear when the Senate will take a vote on the bill.

MacGregor has asked the Senate to pause the bill, according to McBrearty. MacGregor could not be reached for comment.

Sandhill cranes could be hunted if legislators get their way

By JINGJING NIE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Some lawmakers want to reverse a hundred years of conservation and allow hunting of Michigan’s sandhill crane.

The push comes as the cranes — by the hundreds — are expected to land at the 23rd annual CraneFest on Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue at dusk Oct. 14-15. The CraneFest celebrates the big birds in art and offers educational materials.

Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, recently introduced a resolution asking the Natural Resources Commission to add the birds — some as big as 5 feet tall and with a 6- to 7-foot wingspan — to a list of Michigan game species, and to seek U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval for a hunting season. The resolution was passed in the House Natural Resources Committee Committee.

Lower said many of his constituents complain that the birds damage crops. They favor freshly planted corn.

But conservationists say the birds still require protection. The Michigan Audubon Society and the Kiwanis Club of Battle Creek sponsor CraneFest at the Kiwanis Youth Area in Bellevue, overlooking Big Marsh Lake. The event promotes crane awareness and provides optimal viewing of hundreds of cranes as they land for a rest on their way south.

The Department of Natural Resources reports a 10.5 percent annual increase in Michigan’s sandhill crane population from 1966 to 2013. The Nongame Wildlife Fund recently found 805 breeding pairs in the state, the DNR reported.

The  Fish and Wildlife Service reports that sandhill crane hunting is allowed in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Farmers with damaged crops can apply for permits to hunt them from the Fish and Wildlife Service. But even with a crop damage permit, farmers cannot eat what they kill, Lower said.

“I think it is sad and wasteful. It would make a lot of sense to be able harvest the meat,” Lower said.

The Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which represents hunters, supports a hunting season.

“Hunting is a valid and preferred way of wildlife management. We would like to see hunters have the opportunity to manage the population,” said Amy Trotter, the deputy director of the organization.

The birds were once rare in Michigan but their population has recovered.  

Julie Baker, director of the Michigan Songbird Protection Coalition, said, “The sandhill crane has been protected as a non-game species for a hundred years, and we hope to remain that way,” said

The bird is native to Michigan but was hunted to near extinction, Baker said.

Hunting them was banned nationwide in 1916 when they verged on extinction. By the 1930s, only 50 breeding pairs lived in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Because they reproduce very slowly, it took several decades for the birds to recover, Baker said. A pair usually hatch one or two chicks each year.

The increase in population in recent years is because the crane is protected as a non-game species. For the first time in many decades the population has stabilized but is still vulnerable, Baker said.

“There is no good reason to recreationally hunt sandhill crane. There are no benefits to anyone,” she said.

Farmers don’t have to kill them, Baker said. Most of the damage is done in the first three weeks after corn is planted and chicks have hatched. Farmers can apply a product that makes crops taste bad to the birds.

The issue has not come before the state Natural Resources Commission which sets hunting seasons. The DNR only monitors the population, said Ed Golder, the agency’s public information officer.

John Matonich from Marenisco, the chair of the Natural Resources Commission, said, “There is no initial discussion on that yet. If there is an interest, we will look into that, and we will work with the wildlife division to see their recommendation and options then decide.”

The resolution is co-sponsored by Reps. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville; Tom Barrett, R-Potterville; Triston Cole, R-Mancelona; Scott VanSingel, R-Grant; Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance; Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton; Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker;  Jason Wentworth, R-Clare;  Gary Howell, R-North Branch; Daire Rendon, R-Lake City; and Tim Sneller, D-Burton.

The resolution awaits House action.

Bill would create a council for beer, wine and liquor makers

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Craft beer and liquor makers could soon see some money coming their way that originally only winemakers could access.

A bill introduced in the House would replace a statewide council for winemakers with the Michigan Craft Beverage Council for beer, liquor and wine makers. It’s music to some micro-beverage makers’ ears. The money they receive would go to researching and promoting all three beverages.

“Our bill really says, ‘Hey, this Grape and Wine Council has been a good thing for wine grape growers and small winemakers in Michigan. Let’s see if it can be similarly good for breweries,’” said Michigan Brewers Guild Executive Director Scott Graham.

Currently several winemakers appointed by the governor sit on the council, which is under the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Non-voting members such as Michigan State University researchers and Michigan Economic Development Corp. members advise the council on the best way to spend its money. The bill would remove those advisors and the department, which is the source of some concern.

“This bill removes us from being a voting member, and I have zero problem with that,” said Matt Blakely, the director of policy and legislative affairs with the department. “But it also removes other departments and people in the state from non-voting status that I feel is important to include in this.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, says that the industry has changed and the council needs to reflect that change.

“I took a look at the Grape and Wine Council and said, ‘it’s no longer just that industry in Michigan now,’” Iden said. “As we look at all the craft beverages — from distilling to, obviously, the many breweries that are in my district—I’ve said we really need to expand this. We need to be inclusive of all of this.”

The bill would mandate that the new council spend half its budget on research projects and financial aid programs. Blakley doesn’t like those restrictions.

“In the current Grape and Wine Council, members decide how the money is to be spent,” he said. “I would support letting the industry members as part of this new council choose how this money is to be spent. It’s the council’s money and they should get to decide how it’s spent.”

Last year, the council received $550,000 from small winemaker, brewery and distillery licenses that the Liquor Control Commission passes on. Under the new proposed legislation, the council would receive no additional funds.

But Iden said he hopes to work with the appropriations committee to get extra money for the council.

“That’s the next step, and I need to get the framework in place first and then I can look at some specifics of where those dollars could come from in the budget process,” he said.

The research supported by the council focuses on methods of planting, growing and insect and disease prevention. Adding beer and distillers to the group would mean looking into hop and barley production, a prospect that’s of particular interest to the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

Local distillers  usually get their ingredients from out of state, said John O’Conner, the president of the distillers group.

If researchers could look for ways to more profitably grow those ingredients in Michigan, that would be great, he said

“We’ve had no seat at the table in the past, so we just appreciate getting tacked onto it,” he said.

New to the craft industry, the distillers association started in 2014 and now has about 30 members.

The Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, which represents distributors, likes the proposal but remains officially neutral.

“Expanding the scope to include all of the craft manufacturers is probably a good thing,” said Spencer Nevins, the group’s president.

The distillers association hasn’t analyzed its Michigan revenues. Michigan wine generates $4.9 billion in economic activity, reports WineAmerica, a national industry analyst. Michigan’s beer industry is worth $10.5 billion, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute.

Michigan has almost 200 craft breweries and 195 wine producers.

The bill has been referred to the House after the Regulatory Reform committee voted it out.

Proposed bills could undo parental education requirement for immunization waivers

By Kaley Fech
Capital News Service

LANSING — Parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids could skip an education session designed to teach them a the benefits of vaccines and the risks of disease, under legislation proposed by two Republican lawmakers.

A 2014 rule requires parents to first learn about vaccines from a county health department to get an immunization waiver, , according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The rule was put in place by a joint committee of the House and Senate, not the entire Legislature.

Michigan allows immunization waivers for medical, religious and philosophical reasons. Medical waivers are completed by a physician.The education requirement pertains only to parents claiming religious and philosophical reasons.

Michigan had the sixth-highest waiver rate for kindergarteners in the country in 2014-15, according to the state health agency. The state moved to 11th place after the educational requirement was put in place.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen a 33 percent decrease in waivers,” said Bob Swanson, director of the Health and Human Services division of immunizations.

Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, and Rep. Jeff Noble, R-Plymouth, introduced bills earleir this year to undo the education requirements.

One of the problems with the administrative rule is it contradicts state law, Barrett testified at at House Education Reform Committee.

“Michigan law grants parents the right to waive any and all vaccines for their children for medical, philosophical or religious reasons,” he said. “That law remains on the books today.”

The Department of Health and Human Services opposes the bills.

“From a public health standpoint, vaccines are very important,” Swanson said.

Supporters of the repeal say the issue is about parental rights

“We support the right for parents to choose if their kids are vaccinated,” said Beth Bechtel, a volunteer with Michigan for Vaccine Choice. “As a group, we are not for or against vaccines. We simply believe parents should be able to choose.”

Noble testified that parents and not government should be encouraged to make wise decisions.

State health authorities note that the education requirement does not take away a parent’s rights.

“The education informs parents of the benefits of being vaccinated and the risks of diseases, but afterward they still have the right to choose to sign a waiver,” Swanson said.

Another criticism by opponents is that the requirement was approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rule instead of the entire Legislature.

“If the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to change the rules, they should have written up bills,” Bechtel said.

Five vaccines are required for kindergarten school entry, according to the state health agency. That includes vaccines for chickenpox; polio; measles, mumps and rubella; diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; and hepatitis B.

Some parents are opposed to only certain vaccines due to religious or philosophical beliefs, Bechtel said. The most common one is for chickenpox.

Only about 3 percent of children in the United States are completely unvaccinated, according to officials.

Swanson said ending the education requirement would make waiver rates go back up and increase the risk of disease.

“The more people who are susceptible, the higher the risk for outbreak,” he said.

As of June 30, Houghton County had the highest waiver rate at 13.5 percent. Luce County had the lowest at 0.6 percent, according to Health and Human Services.

When 90 to 95 percent of a community is protected, it is almost impossible for vaccine- preventable diseases to spread, according to health officials administering the state’s “I vaccinate” campaign. As that number decreases, the risk of outbreak increases.  

“A number of preventable disease outbreaks have occurred in Michigan as well as other spots in the U.S. due to low vaccination rates,” said Angela Minicuci, the communications director for the department.

A current example is a hepatitis A outbreak among adults in Southeast Michigan, Swanson said.

“We haven’t seen it in a lot of kids because they’ve been vaccinated,” he said. “But most adults were never vaccinated against the virus, making them susceptible.”

State health authorities say as many people as possible should be vaccinated to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as pregnant women, babies, the elderly and ones who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“Vaccines are the best protection against diseases,” Swanson said.

The bills are in the House Committee on Education Reform.

Counties could pay informants more, if bill becomes law

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Criminal informants in Michigan could be in for a larger payday if a recently introduced bipartisan bill increases the limit on payouts by 10 times.

The  bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, and 17 co-sponsors who say a larger reward amount could make witnesses to crimes more willing to come forward. Three co-sponsors are Republican.

Currently the maximum amount that could be given to an informant is $2,000, and it comes from a county’s general fund. This legislation would increase the limit to $20,000. There is no particular reason for the proposed limit, Cochran said, although it seemed to be a figure counties could afford.

As for why there is any limit, Cochran said it was precedent. The law sets the limit at $2,000. However, Cochran said he would be open to an amendment to the bill to get rid of the limit and allow counties to figure it out themselves.

“The idea being the reward would be a little more substantial and possibly someone would come forward with information,” Cochran said.

A former sheriff approached him about increasing the reward for police informants after one of his deputies died while chasing a suspect, Cochran said. No witnesses to the crash came forward, and he thought a greater incentive might have made a difference.

“He felt very strongly in working with the Sheriffs’ Association that they would like to see this raised to $20,000,” Cochran said.

The money would be controlled by county commissioners and be doled out of the county general fund. Each county would select how much to reward witnesses up to that amount, Cochran said.

“This is permissive. It doesn’t require the county to put forth that much reward but it could be up to $20,000,” Cochran said. “Obviously they have to work within their budget constraints, but this allows for local control.”

Cochran said he has the backing of the Ingham County Sheriffs’ Department and the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Typically, the money doled out to criminal informants goes to persons informing on drug dealers or those involved in racketeering, said Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Association.

Rewards for criminal informants typically do work, he said. The money goes to those who divulge information leading to arrests or convictions of people for high- level felonies.

“The problem is, money is a great motivator,” Koops said.

Co-sponsors are: John Chirkun, D-Roseville; Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor; Pam Faris, D-Clio; Tim Sneller, D-Burton; Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale; Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park; Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti; Scott Dianda, D-Calumet; Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon; Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township; David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; Brian Elder, D-Bay City; Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township; Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township; Leslie Love, D-Detroit; Andy Schor, D-Lansing; and Patrick Green, D-Warren.

The bill was referred to the Law and Justice Committee, where Cochran says his Republican colleagues said they felt optimistic about getting the bill pushed through for a hearing.

DACA workers would leave a hole in economy if forced to leave

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING —  Veronica Thronson, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Michigan State University, said the economic impact to ending DACA is uncertain, but it could have detrimental effects on those already benefiting from it.

Thronson said she knows of DACA participants who are research assistants at Michigan State.  Another created her own business, she said.

“She started a business where I think she has four or five employees so not only are they [DACA recipients] contributing, they’re also employing other people,” Thronson said. “And so the impact is just going to be tremendous.”

Michigan’s economy could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the children of undocumented immigrants are deported, according to some analyses.

However, much uncertainty remains on the scale of the potential loss as the result of the Trump administration’s push for a plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

That program — enacted under former President Barack Obama — protects children brought to the United States by undocumented immigrants. To qualify, most had to enter the U.S. before they were 16 and live here since June 15, 2007.

A liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, based in Washington, D.C., pegs the economic loss at nearly $390 million for Michigan and nationally at $433.4 billion over the next 10 years. The conservative Cato Institute, also in Washington, puts the national figure at $280 billion over the next decade.

DACA allows these undocumented immigrants to apply for a two-year period of deferred action on deportation and to apply for a work permit. It does not give them legal status as a citizen.

Trump moved to end DACA Tuesday, giving its nearly 800,000 participants a six-month delay before they are eligible for deportation.

The onus is now on Congress to replace the program before the six-month delay ends.

The Center for American Progress estimates there are 5,982 Michigan DACA participants and that 5,204 of them are employed.

The Washington, D.C., Migration Policy Institute estimates that 15,000 Michigan residents are eligible for the program.

Experts say that the loss to the economy comes from losing potential workers.

Many participants are also pursuing high -evel degrees which will translate into employment in high skilled jobs,  Thronson said.

Much of the uncertainty shinges on how or if Congress adopts a new law regarding DACA.

“In that case the effects are likely to be small,” said Charles Ballard, an economist with the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan Statey.

The approximately 6,000 Michigan DACA participants could have a small economic impact in a state of 10 million residents, Ballard said. It would fall more so on the individual than on the economy as a whole.

As for highly skilled workers being removed from the economy, Ballard said he believes it wouldn’t be “devastating” to the economy in Michigan but would present a challenge to employers.

“If you’re an employer and you have a few of your top workers and all of a sudden they’re gone, that hurts your business — no question about it,” Ballard said.

Canada might be a benefactor if Michigan DACA workers are deported, he said. Many might choose to move there instead of facing deportation to a country which doesn’t speak English as a primary language.

“If we basically export thousands of highly skilled workers to Canada, that’s a win for Canada and a loss for the United States,” Ballard said.

Removing potential skilled workers harms the economy, Ike Brannon, a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote in an email.

“We’d basically be taking almost a million potential workers, all of whom have or are receiving post-high-school education, and are consigning them to the informal/underground work force,” Brannon wrote. “When the unemployment rate is below 4.5 percent, the issue isn’t that we have skilled people who are looking for jobs

“It’s that we have occupations that are wanting for skilled people, and we’re removing people who fill those needed positions, Brannon said.

Lawmakers want to shoot down Chinese lanterns

By CARIN TUNNEY

Capital News Service

LANSING — Americans celebrate holidays by sending things up.

But popular Chinese sky lanterns can kill livestock, strangle wildlife and cause fires, experts say.

Sky lanterns are made of paper, cloth and string. They use wires or bamboo for support. So-called fuel cells made of cardboard and wax allow them to float when lit.

They can soar more than a thousand feet and travel for more than a mile, depending on winds.

And that makes them dangerous, said Rep. Henry Yanez, D-Sterling Heights.

Yanez, a former firefighter, has proposed legislation to roll back the state’s fireworks law and prohibit the lanterns. They’re already illegal in 29 states, including Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Continue reading

Local governments seek help to regain big box tax revenue

By CHAO YAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Local governments continue to fight recent changes in valuing commercial properties that they say have cost them $100 million in lost tax revenue since 2013.

The problem, according to local officials and some lawmakers, is that the state’s Tax Tribunal is using methods to assess “big-box” retailers like Target and Menard’s based on sales of similar, vacant properties, often called “dark stores,” whose true value is not reflected.

That’s a shift from evaluating a store’s tax value based on more complete factors such as the cost of constructing the building and the amount of income it generates. Now, big retailers are appealing assessments and winning big tax breaks across the state.

Rep. David Maturen, R-Vicksburg, and dozens of co-sponsors are again pushing to solve the issue by insisting that the tribunal take more information into account when reviewing assessment appeals for any commercial property. Continue reading

Bill package aimed at bridging gender wage gap

By CAITLIN TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING — When a Michigan woman asked why she didn’t get promoted over her male counterpart, her employer told her she didn’t need the raise, according to Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, who was told this story by a constituent.

Her less-experienced male colleague had a family to support, the employer said, while the woman employee’s husband made enough money for both of them.

This is a common sentiment among some of the state’s employers, said Mary Pollock, the government relations coordinator for the American Association of University Women of Michigan.

“Still, employers say a married woman doesn’t need to be paid what a married man gets paid,” Pollock said. “But that’s just not true anymore. Both are supporting families, and there are many single-parent households now.” Continue reading

State laying plans to put new criminal justice laws to work

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — For the 18 criminal justice revamp bills signed by Gov. Rick Snyder last month, the next step is making the changes necessary throughout Michigan’s criminal justice system to spur them into action.

The updates to the state’s criminal justice system as a whole are meant to signal an emphasis on prisoner rehabilitation, as well as reducing recidivism and streamlining the system. This mostly involves incorporating more evidence-driven programs, or initiatives that have proved successful elsewhere.

Most of the bills will take effect on June 28.  Several of the bills will take effect starting Jan. 1, 2018.

Chris Gautz, a communications officer for the Department of Corrections, said the framework is being laid for a number of the new changes – especially those involving more complex issues and systems. Continue reading