Michigan particularly vulnerable to federal budget cuts

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — The money Michigan draws down from the federal government is the second- highest in the country, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

While Congress wages war on tax reform and health care, the uncertainty over Michigan‘s budget has officials nervously awaiting the outcome.

“It’s why we’re so concerned about the federal tax plan that’s being discussed at this point, either in the House or the Senate,” said Rachel Richards, legislative coordinator at the League, a nonpartisan institute that analyzes economic opportunity in Michigan.

All of the state’s 18 departments are at the mercy of the federal government, Richards said.

“There’s nothing set in stone currently, but the areas where we receive federal funding — like Medicaid, food assistance and child care — may be impacted by moves at the federal level,”  Richards said.

Michigan’s estimated budget in 2018 is $56.3 billion. The state budget office reports that 42 percent, or $20.1 billion of that would come from the federal government.

Leveraging federal dollars to support state programs generally makes sense. But acquiring so much money from the federal government has a dark side, said Craig Thiel, a research director with Citizens Research Council, a governmental policy research organization. What happens if it’s taken away?

“You could argue both sides of that,” Thiel said. As government funds less, the states have to pick up more of the tab, which can be concerning.

“That’s just the arithmetic of things.”

The risk of relying on federal dollars to fund state programs isn’t lost on the national level either.

“It’s a fair statement, given the level of deficit that the federal government has been running, to say ‘at some point, there would be spending cutbacks as one part of a solution to resolve that’,” said John Hicks, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Offices based in Washington, D.C..

The  League for Public Policy reports that both tax plans in the House and Senate would provide massive tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers, leave little for middle class individuals and grow the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade

“While the Legislature is allowed to lower tax revenue, we fear that at some point lawmakers down the road will see this and try to right-size the budget,” Richards said. “That means cuts to things that improve quality of life, like education and food assistance.”

If a tax code like the one being written at the federal level passes, the impacts on the budget would happen indirectly.

“What we anticipate this tax plan doing in the long run is affecting federal dollars to states,” Richards said. “For example: if the federal government had fewer dollars coming in, we would expect a reprioritizing of federal dollars that go to programs important to Michigan residents.”

Michigan’s budget isn’t threatened only by Congress. Some state legislators are trying to pass tax cuts that some officials say would be bad for many of the same programs that receive funds from the federal government.

The problem of receiving less money from above is exacerbated by Speaker. Rep. Tom Leonard, R-DeWit, who is attempting to lower taxes even more, said Meghan Swain, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. “We already have liabilities like transportation and infrastructure that will have to be paid for out of the general fund.”

Last February, Republican lawmakers proposed gradually decreasing the income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent, a move that the House Fiscal Agency estimated would result in a $1.1 billion budget hole by 2022.

It failed 52-55. But the bill could be brought up again.

“There’s going to be some pulls on the 2019 budget if any cuts happen,” Swain said. “Michigan won’t be able to backfill any of those programs.”

Federal proposals that might impact state budgets are nothing new. Over the 2017 summer, efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act would have drastically changed health care funding if they had succeeded.

“Everything that’s happening in Washington, D.C., will have significant impacts on the state,” said House Democratic Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing, ”and that’s why you’re seeing people really try to stand up and protect the systems that are in place, systems like Healthy Michigan.”

The Healthy Michigan plan was an expansion of Medicaid dollars from the federal government to states under the Affordable Care Act. It was meant for covering more individuals not under the original health care plan. About 91 percent of health care in Michigan, or $18.4 billion, is funded by federal dollars.

“It was a bipartisan effort that helped cover close to 700,000 people,” Singh said. A lot of small business owners were able to provide access to healthcare they couldn’t afford beforehand.

Michigan was among 31 states that expanded Medicaid when it was offered.

With the increased coverage came more costs. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that Healthy Michigan cost the federal government almost $3.6 billion in 2016.

Singh said he’s worried that programs like this may be slashed as part of governmental cuts.

“There’s been concern that you could see that program get cut, and that would mean going back to the old system.”

In response to the potential repealing of the Affordable Care Act, Michigan House Democrats issued a “Health Care Bill of Rights.” It’s a resolution that would require insurers to continue key Obamacare provisions, even if the law were repealed. The bill was referred to the Health Policy Committee.

Richards said that beyond health care, federal funding for roads and temporary assistance for needy families could be in the crosshairs of federal budget cuts.

The National Association of State Budget Offices, which analyzes how federal policies impacts state budgets, has yet to analyze how this tax policy would change things.

Hicks said, “We won’t be able to do a state-by-state analysis for a while.”

Once the bill becomes law, there’s still going to be a lot to unpack in how it affects each state’s budget, he said.

Fewer unpaid parking tickets could trigger block of license renewal

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Drivers in Michigan with unpaid parking tickets might be given a break by the Secretary of State when it comes to license renewal if current state law reverts back to an earlier, tougher form.

The Secretary of State can refuse to renew your license if you have three unpaid parking tickets. A bill that recently passed the Senate would keep that number from reverting back to six, which is slated to happen Jan. 1.

The original bill was given a sunset, meaning the law and its three-ticket threshold would expire Jan. 1. If it does, lawmakers believe cities will not be able to effectively collect unpaid fees because there won’t be a big-enough incentive for drivers to pay their tickets.

Cities often use ticket revenues to pay for public safety and city services. Collecting more fees would provide higher revenue for the services.

“(The bill) just removes that sunset so we can continue to have the program in place which helps our cities collect unpaid parking tickets and make sure people are responsible, when they break the law, that they are doing their due diligence on the fines they have occurred,” said Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.

A law in 2012 established the three-ticket minimum and was sponsored by Hildenbrand, who is sponsoring the bill to keep it that way.

“So every four years you have to renew your license. What the bill allowed the Secretary of State to do, when they send out your driver’s license renewal and you had three unpaid parking tickets, they would basically just say ‘hey, you can’t renew your driver’s license until you get this taken care of,’” Hildenbrand said.

Grand Rapids, which pioneered the program, has had success with the law, city officials say.

That city wrote off approximately $1.2 million in unpaid tickets before the state law was passed, City Treasurer John Globensky said. Since 2012 when the law passed, the city wrote off only another $275,000 as more people paid their tickets because of the law.

“After six years the city can no longer collect on a ticket,” Globensky said.  Grand Rapids was losing money it could use for public safety and services.

The law has shifted the burden of collection to the district court in Grand Rapids, Globensky said. When a person renews his or her license, the Secretary of State can see that the court has placed a hold on that renewal until the fines are paid.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State will also issue a $45 license clearance fee after the tickets have been paid, but the clearance fee could also be waived by the court.

A Senate Fiscal Agency analysis found that Grand Rapids sent $2.8 million in unpaid parking tickets to the courts and 81 percent of the costs were collected because of the bill.

A House fiscal impact analysis found that if the law were not enacted, drivers would have less incentive to pay their outstanding tickets.  And the Secretary of State could lose more revenue if the $45 clearance fee goes away.

While lowering the threshold from six tickets to three boosted revenue for public safety and city services by prompting more people to pay their fines, it was also about giving people a chance to take care of their outstanding tickets.

“It’s just kind of a nudge for people to take care of their unpaid parking tickets because, really, municipalities, especially our big municipalities, didn’t have a way to enforce these collections,” Hildenbrand said.

A sunset on Hildebrand’s bill to lower the ticket trigger from six to three was first put in place as a review method to see if the policy worked for cities. The policy is optional, Globensky said. Not all cities use the policy.

“All of the feedback was that it was working fine, it was accomplishing the goals of making sure people were taking care of their outstanding liabilities,” Hildenbrand said.

Preservation tax credit would return, if bill passes

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s historic buildings could get a facelift under proposed legislation that would restore a preservation tax credit that was cut in 2011.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, introduced a bill  that he said would spur local economies and increase the tax base of Michigan cities.

And what it might take to boost the economies of some of these cities could be a single  redevelopment spurred by the credit, he said.

“When you look at Escanaba, you look at the potential and what’s happening in Cheboygan, in Sault Ste. Marie — some of these places need that first one or two buildings (to be redeveloped) to get it going to invest more,” Schmidt said.    

The bill passed the Senate Finance Committee on Nov. 30 and is headed to the Senate floor for a vote.

The tax credit was cut in 2011 and residents, businesses and cities have since had a hard time revitalizing historic buildings, said Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

“Ever since (the cut), small projects like on Main Streets and residential properties have had little incentives to make projects work,” Finegood said.

It’s also hurting smaller towns with historic districts. Currently, 78 communities have local historic districts overseen by historic district commissions that have authority to protect historic resources, according to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.  

“There’s nothing for residents any longer and it’s harder and to make those projects in smaller towns work,” Finegood said.

Renewing the credit would motivate residents in historic districts and owners of historic buildings to rehab their buildings, Schmidt said.

“When you look at a smaller city or village in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, it’s not just a building but rather is really part of an entire downtown or a neighborhood and the impact is that much greater,” Schmidt said.

The legislation would allow up to 25 percent of qualified expenditures for historic rehabilitation projects to be subtracted from state tax payments.  

Qualified expenditures include the upkeep of the building, such as rehabbing the interior and exterior. It would not cover the funds to buy a historic building.

A federal tax credit is available for historic preservation which gives a credit of 20 percent of the expenditures, but the building must be registered on the national historic register and  be used for commercial purposes.

If a building received the national credit, it could also apply to the state for an additional 5 percent credit.

For buildings that could not or don’t receive the national credit, the state could award a credit of up to 25 percent.

Schmidt said the former tax credit benefited many cities.

“When you (see) the redevelopment of historic buildings, historic homes in key neighborhoods, when you look at Heritage Hill in Grand Rapids, when you look at many of the buildings in Detroit or Saginaw or Flint or Kalamazoo, they have a very good return in terms of stabilizing and improving the neighborhood or business district,” Schmidt said.

The Michigan Townships Association said it supports the proposed tax credit.

The state tax credit would apply to buildings in a local historic district or individually listed as a local historic building. Homeowners could apply for the credit if their house qualifies.

Finegood said, “I know someone who did their kitchen and it qualified in Ann Arbor.”

An analysis by the Senate Fiscal Agency found that the addition of the tax credit would reduce tax revenue by approximately $10 million to $12 million per year. Most of that loss would reduce General Fund revenue.

The credit’s impact on the state could fluctuate depending on tax overhaul movements at the federal level, according to that analysis. The tax could be altered or eliminated depending on the legislative actions in Washington.

Many areas across the state would benefit from the credit, especially Detroit, Finegood said.

Schmidt said, “My goal is to get people in Michigan, in any size community but especially in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula where we need that extra investment, to get that back there and to make sure that money is redeveloping (the community).”

The rehab projects would also benefit towns by bringing the buildings back onto property tax rolls and using local labor to do the projects, both Finegood and Schmidt said.

Ultimately, Schmidt said,it’s about keeping Michigan workers and Michigan developers in Michigan to work on Michigan projects.

“Improve buildings, keep people employed and keep those investment dollars working,” Schmidt said. “And obviously, preserving our sense of place in history.”

Drones raise issue: Who controls prison airspace?

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Now that drones fly in the face of state prisons, someawmakers want to restrict the airspace over and near those facilities.

Recently, drones have been spotted flying over state prisons, making officials nervous. Exacerbating their worries is contraband dropped by the drones into a prison.

“We receive reports of drones flying over or nearby multiple times a month, sometimes multiple times a week,” said Chris Gautz, the Department of Corrections public information officer. “It creates a huge strain on the facility. So when people are dropping cell phones, guns or drugs, it’s a huge security concern.”

Although no guns have yet been reported as dropped into prisons, both prison officials and state politicians are worried it could happen. Last summer, a drone dropped razors, drugs and cellphones behind a  prison fence, prompting some lawmakers to introduce bills that would outlaw the craft above or near prisons.

It’s  a safety issue, said Rep. John Chirkun, D-Roseville, a primary sponsor of one of the bills. “I’ve heard from sheriffs from the three biggest counties in the state of Michigan concerned about this, so I decided to pick up the ball and run with it.”

His bill would outlaw the piloting of unmanned aircraft within 1,000 feet of state prisons, municipal police departments and state court buildings.  

The incident that prompted the legislation occurred last August at the Richard A. Handlon correctional facility in Ionia County. Three men were charged with smuggling weapons, drugs and cellphones into the prison.

Gautz said that because of the threat, when a drone is spotted near a prison and inmates are outside, sirens blare and prisoners are moved back to their cells. “We have to conduct a large-scale search of our entire prison grounds.”

A challenge for the state legislation is that regulating where drones can be flown flies into the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates airspace.

“I don’t know where this is going to go,” said Robert Goodwin, a senior geospatial analyst/project manager with Michigan State University. “I understand the spirit of the law, but the FAA stepping in will open a huge can of worms.’”

Drone piloting, whether as a hobby or for commercial purposes, is new airspace for the FAA, said Goodwin, who pilots drones for university research. Because flying drones is new, the FAA is unlikely to support state restrictions on where they can be flown. Often state governments try to regulate where drones can be flown but don’t have authority to do so.

“Typically communities try establishing ordinances that say, ‘Listen, you can’t fly over a park,’ which they have no jurisdiction over,” he said. “Even if they make that statement saying someone can’t, it won’t hold water.”

But another lawmaker, Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, says that because the FAA hasn’t restricted where drones can fly, the state can.

If the federal government decides it doesn’t want to regulate where drones can go, then sstates can,  Barrett said.

As Chirkun tackles drone restrictions, Barrett is sponsoring a bill to allow an agreement between the FAA and police agencies for local authorities to enforce regulations relating to operation of unmanned aircraft systems.

Other solutions besides outlawing drones above state prisons include making it difficult to fly them, Barrett said. But those technqiues are expensive and not perfected, like frequency jammers the military uses to block radio waves.

“I think in the absence of those solutions, we should at least regulate and make it a crime,’ he said. “I’m not the one that favors regulation, but one that likes public safety.”

Goodwin sees problems for both hobbyists and commercial drone pilots if the state’s airspace starts to get regulated.

“From my standpoint, if they are going to choose an area, put a circle around it and say you can’t fly here, that can limit you a lot,” he said. “There’s going to have be exceptions to the rule set in place.”

As soon as states or the FAA regulate where drones can go, more rules will follow, Goodwin said.

“What if prisons want to use drones themselves? Or maybe a farmer wants to do agriculture research on his dairy farm. There’s all sorts of crazy things that are going to happen over the next several years in terms of what will and will not be allowed.”

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.”

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.”

Burnout, training and retirements challenge nursing shortage

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Dawn Kettinger recalls a nurse who had just completed a 15-hour shift, got into her car to drive home and fell asleep before leaving the parking lot.

Imagine that same nurse working one more hour in an environment where patient care is top priority. She asks: How can someone be asked to work in lifesaving situations when they can barely stay awake at the end of their shift?

“It contributes to the loss of experienced nurses in the field,” said Kettinger, the government affairs director for the Michigan Nurses Association.

The national burnout rate for new nurses is high. About 17 percent leave within the first year and 33.5 percent leave within two years, reports the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

That’s costly for hospitals, harmful to patients and creates a shortage of nurses needed to replace retiring ones.

A manageable caseload during a nurse’s 12-hour shift is usually four patients, Kettinger said. But they often work mandatory overtime and care for six, seven and even eight patients at one time.

That workload risks patient safety and increases the already high burnout rate, pushing nurses to find work elsewhere, Kettinger said.

Some lawmakers are attempting to address the issue.

Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, has introduced a bill that would set caps on how many patients a nurse can have, depending on the unit they’re in. The bill, which has bipartisan support, also would prohibit a hospital from forcing a nurse to work longer than 12 straight hours.

“When it comes to taking care of your loved ones, that’s something everyone relates to,” Hoadley said. “We need champions in the Legislature who are willing to make sure we’re putting patients and nurses first.”

Some hospitals maintain safe numbers, Hoadley said. But it’s important that the legislature establishes what is acceptable and safe for those that do not. Right now, there are no legal limits on a nurse’s patient load.

“We have a moral and ethical obligation to act, because of medical errors and staffing ratios have contributed to thousands of deaths or injuries,” Hoadley said.

While there is no way of knowing how many incidents are due to a lack of nurses, according to a 2014 Michigan Health Association report, there were 52,000 incidents, near misses and unsafe conditions in Michigan hospitals.

State lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to regulate hospitals over nurse conditions before. While not yet taking a formal position on the current legislation, the Michigan Health and Hospital Association has opposed similar bills.

“We believe that our local hospitals are best equipped to make the decisions in caring for their patients, and that includes staffing ratios,” said Laura Wotruba, the association’s director of public affairs. “Clinical care decisions shouldn’t be made in Lansing. They should be made in the local communities that take care of the people.”

The association is committed to working with nurses, but understands there is a burnout rate for new nurses when they enter the field, she said.

“Mandatory overtime is not the preferred option to staff a hospital, and they employ a number of different efforts to avoid that,” Wotruba said. “But it does happen because we’re caring for people around the clock.”

To address the stressful environment of hospitals, the association’s solution to burnout isn’t  more nurses, but more training and education. The more nurses holding a bachelor’s degree at a hospital, the better the results for patients.

Several studies show that training, not more nurses, improve patient care, Wotruba said.

Randolph Rasch, dean of the Michigan State University College of Nursing, agrees. While an increase in nursing staff does improve the patient outcome, the level of education is a key indicator, he said.

“One of the consistent things is that in those institutions that consistently had better outcome for patients, there was a higher percentage of nurses prepared with a bachelor’s degree,” Rasch said.

An outcome of such studies by the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania is the Magnet program, a gold standard awarded to hospitals that meet high standards for nurses. To be eligible, 75 percent of a hospital’s nurses must have a baccalaureate degree—a BSN.

Michigan has 12 magnet hospitals. While there’s no way of knowing how many are also pursuing the status, Kettinger says it’s becoming a barrier for students wanting to work as nurses.

“It’s a marketing ploy,” she said. “Hospitals brag about the status, but it doesn’t mean they have safe patient-to-nurse ratios.”

To become a registered nurse, individuals have to pass a test. It can be taken by people with associate or bachelor’s degrees in nursing. Kettinger worries the push by hospitals to become magnet programs is making two-year programs offered at many community colleges less attractive, even though they are a more cost-effective route to becoming a nurse.

“We reject the premise a bachelor’s degree is required and preferred to be a bedside nurse,” she said.

The shift in preference for bachelor’s degrees is also impacting current nurses, who may have years of experience under their belt but only two-year degrees.

“We already have nurses with all the right education,” said Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Mount Pleasant and a supporter of the bill. “The problem is we’re going to have a shortage of nurses by requiring them to go for four years instead of two.”

Hauck’s daughter is a nurse with a BSN and his wife is a nurse with an associate degree, he said. The hospital is making his wife go back to school.

Worried a nursing degree from two-year programs could become useless, the Michigan Community College Association based in Lansing has supported past legislation to allow its members to administer four-year nursing degrees.

“If there is a nursing shortage, it would make sense to remove the number of barriers to get more hired,” said Mike Hansen, the group’s president. “You don’t want to jeopardize professional standards. However, if there are more technical or bureaucratic laws keeping people from getting hired, then why wouldn’t you make it easier?”

But the Michigan Association of State Universities, based in Lansing, whose members provide those four-year degrees, says there are already enough programs to accommodate the nursing shortage.

“Whether it’s the BSN degree in nursing or any other occupation, we believe community colleges offering a four-year degree would represent mass duplication of those programs and enormous inefficiency of taxpayer dollars,” said Daniel Hurley, the association’s chief executive officer.

In a state already facing a decline in high school graduates, it makes little sense for community colleges to offer four-year degrees, he said.

But Rasch said the extra two years in the BSN program helps raise the level of competency for a nurse. It prepares them for the complexity of care now necessary in the field.

The bill would also mandate that hospitals make their staffing ratios public. Right now, they aren’t obligated to release that information.

Hoaldey said, “Some hospitals are saying ‘we’ve got this, trust us, but we don’t want to prove to you we’re doing things correctly. When someone gets sick or there is an accident, you don’t know how many people are working.”

Much of Hoadley’s bill is based on a 2004 California law. It resulted in nurses caring for one less patient than nurses in other states, a significantly lower mortality rate and a higher level of job satisfaction, according to a study of 225,000 California nurses by the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research.

But even if the burnout rate falls, Michigan needs yet more nurses to replace those who are retiring. More than 40 percent of the state’s registered nurses are 55 or older, according to 2017 data collected by the Michigan Annual Nurse Survey Project. Most will retire within the next 10 years

“Right now, we have a large number of our nursing workforce that have reached 65,” said Carole Stacy, the Michigan League for Nursing president. “They are retiring in hefty numbers and we’re losing a big brain trust.”