Proposed constitutional amendment would streamline voter registration

By GLORIA NZEKA
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.

Unions seek to organize charter schools, but only nine have them

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Teachers at  only a few charter schools in Michigan have joined a union because, leaders say, the schools may be violating their labor rights.

The 294 charter schools in Michigan have about 10,000 teachers and 1,500 administrators, according to Buddy Moorehouse, the vice president of communications at the  Michigan Association of Public School Academies. The association represents operators of charters, which are taxpayer-funded.

Only about nine charter schools are unionized now, according to Nate Walker, a K-12 union organizer and policy analyst at the AFT Michigan, the state organization of the American Federation of Teachers. The most recent charter to unionize is Southwest Detroit Community School. Its staff voted in October to unionize.

The Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Michigan ACTS), a local union affiliated with AFT Michigan and represents nearly 200 members in Metro Detroit Charter Schools, has won contracts that improve job security, protect educator voices and ensure fair compensation, Walker said.

Some staff at charter schools prefer a union-free environment, Moorehouse said. “All workers have the legal right to form a union. They have the choice. There’s nothing that prohibits the teachers at a charter school from unionizing.

“The fact that only nine schools out of 294 have decided to form a union speaks volumes,” Moorehouse said.

Union organizers say employees at charter schools face special obstacles.

“The biggest challenge for staff who are forming unions is the opposition they face by the private companies that manage their schools,” said Walker. “Oftentimes employers violate the protected rights of staff by retaliating against them for trying to speak up about working conditions at their school.”

Some charters were formerly unionized but no longer are. In 2015, for example, the staff at a charter in Northwest Detroit voted overwhelmingly to form a union, but the private company that managed the school chose to leave.

“Because they did not want to negotiate with their staff,” Walker said. “They decided to destabilize the school and walk away from students rather than respect the choice the staff at the school made.”

Some companies are aware that once their staff has negotiating power, it will require them to be more transparent and accountable to their school communities, he said.

But Moorehouse says charter schools are accountable not only to their school boards, but also to the public body, which is usually a state university, that authorizes it.

Michigan’s charters are among “the most heavily regulated in the country,” and every dime that a charter spends must be publicly reported, he said.

One way to ensure the money spent for students actually go towards students is hearing from charter school workers, said Paula Herbart, the president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA). It is the state’s largest union of public school employees.

The MEA represents four units in three charter schools: West Michigan Academy of the Arts teachers, Macomb Academy teachers and job coaches (which have two separate units), and Old Redford Academy ITS teachers.

A unionized workforce gives teachers and staff the security to speak out against injustices in the classroom, “especially in for-profit charter schools,” Herbart said.

Charter schools are difficult to organize because of a “high turnover rate” among teachers, Herbart said.

If the staff of a school unionized one year and more than half of them are teaching elsewhere the next year, the new replacements “didn’t start the union, and they don’t want to be a part of it,” she said.

Most charter school teachers are young and “they arrive at their first job (at a charter) and quickly realize they have no voice in their workplace, no collective bargaining to determine wages, benefits and working conditions,” said David Crim, the communications consultant at the MEA.

“They also realize quickly that, in the vast majority of charter schools, turning a profit is the number-one goal. Educating students is not,” Crim said. “They become disillusioned and look for a job in a traditional public school where 99.9 percent are unionized which provides them with better wages, benefits and working conditions and whose top priority is education, not profits.”

Walker said several charters have hired law firms to “dissuade workers from organizing a union.”

“It disrupts the learning environment and promotes a culture of fear among the staff,” he said.

Michigan ACTS has settled a grievance with a charter school that terminated several teachers from speaking up at a board meeting. Those teachers received back pay and had the option to return to the school.

“The message to the rest of the staff was clear — you may have the right, but it does not mean we won’t violate it,” Walker said.

Herbart said that MEA still believes that if it can organize workers, “it allows them to have a say-so in their own workplace and benefits, not only their own conditions, but students they serve.”

Political corruption knows no party, history shows

By ERIC FREEDMAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — The recent FBI and State Police search of Sen. Bert Johnson’s office in Lansing and home in Highland Park serves as a reminder that illegal conduct, corruption and scandal don’t carry party labels.

Details of the federal-state investigation of Johnson, D-Highland Park, remain incomplete, but news reports suggest it may relate to questionable staff payroll practices. Evidence in Michigan and elsewhere in the country demonstrates that some politicians — regardless of party affiliation — don’t respect the law, the public or the oath they swore

Think about recent history in the state: Continue reading

Gender imbalance in Michigan Legislature persists

By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — There are 148 members of the Legislature. Just 34 are women. One is in a leadership position.

“You’re not getting kind of that balance between who your representatives are and who your constituents are,” said Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, the House minority floor leader. “That is a problem, and I think that’s what skews the issues that get talked about.”

The House includes 15 Democratic and 15 Republican women, while four women — three Republicans and one Democrat — are in the Senate. Much of the diversity in both gender and race comes from the southeastern region of the state.

As imbalanced as gender representation is in Michigan, policy can be even more male-dominated. Continue reading

Severe impact predicted in Michigan if new health care bill passes

By ISAAC CONSTANS

Capital News Service

LANSING — About 2.5 million Michiganders could lose health care coverage under the Republican-proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The study comes on the heels of a Congressional Budget Office projection that the recently introduced American Health Care Act(AHCA)  would cause 24 million people to lose their insurance over 10 years, while reducing the federal deficit by about $337 billion.

The Republican proposal jeopardizes the Healthy Michigan Plan, the Michigan Medicaid expansion that has insured 650,000 residents under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The ACA would be repealed and replaced with the AHCA. Continue reading

New Adrian representative is working for her community

By CAITLIN TAYLOR
Capital News Service

LANSING — Bronna Kahle’s campaign for state representative came full circle when she was sworn in at a ceremony in her hometown of Adrian, rather than the state capital.

“A lot of people do that in Lansing,” said Kahle, R-Adrian. “But I just had to do it in Adrian. I’m representing Lenawee County.”

Over 100 people watched as Kahle took the oath of office administered by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in an Adrian College lecture hall in mid-December. Looking into the audience, she said it was humbling to recognize everyone in the room who helped with her campaign.

“I remember when I did that with that person, I remember when they made phone calls — oh, they hosted a coffee with me,” Kahle said in her Lansing office, gesturing toward the community members she recalled sitting in her swearing-in crowd. “I am honored to serve these people.” Continue reading

State Senate: Make February about taking care of you

By CAITLIN TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING — If taking time for yourself often feels like an impossible task, now you have a reason to be a little more selfish.

A  Senate resolution promoting healthy lifestyle choices was adopted at the end of January. Introduced by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, the resolution recognizes February 2017 as Self Care Month.

The resolution’s sponsors include Sens. Darwin Booher, R-Evart; Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage; John Proos, R-St. Joseph; and Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.

According to the resolution, self-care is a lifelong commitment to good hygiene practices, monitoring changes in health, knowing when to consult a healthcare practitioner and preventing infection and illness.

While there are many types of self-care, the resolution highlights knowing when it is appropriate to self-treat physical health conditions with over-the-counter medications.

Schuitmaker said Perrigo, an over-the-counter pharmaceutical company in Allegan, asked her to propose Self Care Month.

Continue reading

Women’s marches inspire increased activism across Michigan

By CAITLIN TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Amy Shamroe felt proud to hear Traverse City recognized in a speech by Michigan filmmaker Michael Moore at the Women’s March on Washington.

“Michael Moore said Traverse City is a place where people are active and engaged and you can find people there who make a difference,” said Shamroe, a Traverse City city commissioner and president of the local American Association of University Women (AAUW) chapter.

Though she was pleased by the shout-out, Shamroe wasn’t surprised: Since Election Day, she has seen increased engagement with AAUW Traverse City, which focuses on empowering women and girls. Shamroe has always had to recruit members, but now they’re coming to her.

“It’s something I haven’t seen in my six years in this community,” she said. “People are showing up and saying, ‘Where do I sign up?’ and ‘How can I help?’”   Continue reading

Does infrastructure upgrade include Soo Locks? Only Trump knows

By CARL STODDARD

Capital News Service

LANSING — Almost everyone agrees the Soo Locks in the Upper Peninsula need to be upgraded. Modernizing the locks won’t be cheap, however, and so far Congress hasn’t approved funding for the work.

But there are signs that might change under the administration of President Trump, who has pledged to repair the country’s aging infrastructure.

Congress already has approved construction of a new lock at Sault Ste. Marie but hasn’t approved spending money on the project. The total construction cost is estimated at $580 million and would likely take 10 years to complete, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the locks on the U.S. side.

“I think it’s too early to say with any certainty what Trump’s infrastructure improvement plan will mean for Michigan, but I’m optimistic,” said newly elected U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican from Watersmeet whose district includes Sault Ste. Marie. Continue reading

Proposed voter ID cards would cost $10 million

By CAITLIN DeLUCA

Capital News Service

LANSING — Three bills to increase voter photo identification requirements passed narrowly through the House and are on their way to the Senate.

Under this package, voters without an ID at the time of voting would fill out a provisional ballot. It would be valid only  if the voter returns to the clerk within 10 days to either show an ID or provide evidence of why they can’t have one. That might include religious reasons or an inability to afford one.

Current law allows registered voters withourr a voter ID to fill out an affidavit attesting to their identity. They can then vote.

The bills are controversial. Even some Republicans went off party lines to vote against them. Continue reading