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Sam Corden

Political candidates raised millions of dollars - and spent millions of dollars - in Michigan this election season, but they weren’t the only ones. 

There was also plenty of political spending by independent groups. Those are the groups not connected to any candidate, which can accept unlimited amounts of cash from donors. The top 20 groups in Michigan spent $9.9 million between January 2015 and Election Day, according to a report by the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

About half of the money raised by those groups came from a dozen sources, the report says.

“Those 12 sources are driving the independent spending in Michigan, and the main force behind it is the DeVos family,” says Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

 


DTE Energy

The future of energy regulation in Michigan is uncertain.

For months, state lawmakers have debated the state’s energy rules, but for months they’ve failed to pass legislation. Republican leaders want to do the first major overhaul to energy law since 2008. 

Tomas Sienicki

The number of women who smoke while pregnant is way up in Michigan. A new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy says the rate increased by 18 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Smoking while pregnant can lead to a number of bad health outcomes for infants, including early birth.

The report also says that the number of preterm births increased by 20 percent in Michigan during the same time period. 

Cheyna Roth, a reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, says advocates are asking for more resources to attack the issue:

 


Voters in rural areas have been some of the strongest supporters of Donald Trump this presidential election. In Michigan, Trump dominated the entire Upper Peninsula and most of the northern part of the Lower Peninsula during the primary election.

This political development has puzzled many. How did a New York billionaire become a populist firebrand for rural voters?

In Michigan, Bridge Magazine went searching for an answer. Correspondent Ted Roelofs came back with a portrait of rural Michigan counties suffering from high rates of poverty and unemployment.

He spoke to IPR News Radio about what he learned:

 


Paul Maritinez/Flickr

The state legislature is scheduled to meet briefly next week, right in the heart of election season. But don't expect much to get done until after the election. 

There are plenty of key legislative issues unresolved in Lansing, including energy reform. That could be one of the main questions tackled by lawmakers when they come back to Lansing in the lame-duck session following the November 8 election.

“I’m trying to get in all of my sleep now,” says Michigan Public Radio reporter Cheyna Roth, “because once they do come back … I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of activity on quite a few things.”

Cheyna Roth spoke with IPR News Radio about what to expect in the coming months:

 


David Cassleman

In case you missed it, Hillary Clinton's daughter spoke with IPR News Radio following an event in Traverse City last week. She discussed economic opportunity and her mom’s plans to lower the cost of health care. 

 

Chelsea Clinton made the stop in northern Michigan last Friday to speak at a rally and answer audience questions at Kirkbride Hall. 

“I always admittedly struggle … when anyone accuses [my mother] of being part of the status quo because I’ve watched her obliterate the status quo my whole life,” Clinton said. 

David Cassleman

There’s a good chance that the car you’re driving is made from American steel.

Steel comes from iron ore, and American car companies rely almost exclusively on the kind that’s mined in Minnesota and Michigan called taconite. It’s carried down the Great Lakes in 1,000-foot-long iron boats to the steel mills.

That supply chain relies on a critical piece of infrastructure at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan: the Soo Locks.  

If there was a major problem there, the effects could send the entire nation into recession. And that has advocates saying it’s time to build a new lock – but they’ve been saying that for decades. 

 

  

Ellis Boal

Congressional candidate Ellis Boal has lived a life of political activism. The labor attorney was arrested while protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. At the time he was a cab driver living in Chicago. 

“I spent the night in jail,” Boal says, “and heard the acceptance speech of Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, from jail.”

 

Boal once posed for a photo with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He even played in a band that was the warm up act for Bernie Sanders 30 years ago. 

Boal, who has lived in Charlevoix since 2000, has also been a mainstay on ballots in northern Michigan. He is running as the Green Party candidate for the 1st Congressional District for the fourth time in a row.

Western Michigan University

College athletics are not moneymakers for most public institutions in Michigan. 

A new report from MLive called ‘The Price to Play’ shows that most universities are losing money on sports. Western Michigan University, for example, spends tens of millions of dollars to keep its athletic department afloat, the report says. 

Paula Gardner, an MLive reporter who worked on the series, says students and taxpayers are footing the bill. She spoke with IPR News Radio's David Cassleman about the price of big-time college athletics: 

 


Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Off roaders have used state forest roads in the Upper Peninsula as trails for years. Now they might have the same opportunity to use those types of roads below the Mackinac Bridge.

House Bill 5275 would permit Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) to use any state forest road across the state, unless it has been closed. Most of these roads are already open to motorized traffic from vehicles with license plates, but not to machines like all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) or side-by-side vehicles. The legislation, which was introduced by state Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona), is currently sitting in the state Senate.

“Right now we have limited use and sporadic accessibility for our ORVs and side-by-side machines,” Triston Cole says. “And this is the next step in increasing tourism and improving our economy here in northern Lower Michigan.”

Cole says many off roaders in the Lower Peninsula are heading north to the Upper Peninsula to use its more numerous ORV trails. He wants to keep them below the Mackinac Bridge.
 

But some are concerned about potential environmental impacts if the roads are opened up to ORVs with aggressive tire treads. 

Betsy Coffia for State Representative

Democrat Betsy Coffia is again rejecting fundraising contributions from political action committees and the Democratic Party during her campaign to become Grand Traverse County’s next state representative. Coffia is an outspoken advocate for campaign finance reform.

“This is an easy talking point,” Coffia told IPR News Radio in an interview earlier this month, “ … but it’s a very different thing to walk the walk.”

An extended interview with Coffia is available at the bottom of the story.

Coffia, who won 47 percent of the district’s vote in 2014, is only accepting fundraising dollars from individual donors. She says Michigan is in a state of severe political crisis because of the influence of large political spenders.

“What it really comes down to is a state government where we have elected officials who are more accountable to their special interest donors and their party bosses … than they are to the voters,” Coffia says.

Candidates for northern Michigan’s seat in U.S. Congress have raised more than $2.3 million so far in a race that is expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation this November.

Campaigns across the nation filed financial statements with the Federal Election Commission last week.

Former Michigan Democratic Party chair Lon Johnson leads all candidates in the 1st Congressional District with more than $1.2 million raised through June 30. Fellow Democrat Jerry Cannon has raised $46,169.

Republican Jack Bergman, a retired Marine Corps general from Watersmeet, has more cash on hand than any other Republican. He has raised $336,275 total and spent more than $94,000.

Most of that money comes from Bergman’s own pocketbook, says Craig Mauger with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
 


Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The state legislature is on summer break for the next couple months but expect lawmakers to take on significant legislative questions when they return in September, says Rick Pluta.

Pluta is Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network.

One of the those questions is energy reform — a topic that legislators have been debating for months in Lansing.

“There are a lot of disparate entities who have different ideas about how [energy reform] ought to look,” Pluta says in an interview with IPR News Radio.
 


Diane Bostow

Michigan Libertarians have picked a former schoolteacher to run for U.S. Congress in northern Michigan.

“This is a district that is frugal, hard-working people and they kind of like to be left alone,” says Diane Bostow, who is a former teacher and entrepreneur from the Upper Peninsula town of Gwinn.  

Michigan Libertarians selected Bostow at the state party’s convention last month.
 


David Cassleman

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters is pushing a federal agency to speed up a report that could lead to a new lock built at Sault Ste. Marie.

A 2015 analysis from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warns of a scenario where a six month closure at the largest lock at the Soo, Poe Lock, leads to the nation’s automobile industry grinding to a halt. That could send the economy spiraling into a deep recession.

“It is a critical piece of infrastructure not just for Michigan but for the whole country,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters says in an interview with IPR News Radio. Sen. Peters along with Sen. Debbie Stabenow have been advocating for a new lock at the Soo.


DTE Energy

Ten years ago, Michigan’s residential electricity rates were below the national average. That is not true anymore.

Today, Michigan’s ratepayers have the highest rates in the Midwest, and the price per kilowatt hour could get even higher this year.   

Last month, we heard from an advocate for customers in Michigan, but today we hear from one of the state’s largest utilities about why prices go up.

David Mengebier is vice president of governmental, regulatory and public affairs for Consumers Energy.


Michigan has a bad reputation when it comes to government openness. Last year, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity gave the state an ‘F’ in government transparency and accountability.

The governor’s office is exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and so is the state legislature. That means emails and other records are often out of reach for reporters and other government watchdogs.

But a group of Michigan lawmakers wants to end those exemptions to FOIA that have shielded the executive and legislative branches since the 1970s . They’ve unveiled a package of bills that would reform the state’s FOIA laws, by creating the Legislative Open Records Act.

“Any elected official who is not in favor of transparency … really is not qualified to hold public office under our system of government,” says Rep. Lee Chatfield of Emmet County.

IPR News Radio spoke to Chatfield, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation:


Electricity rates have skyrocketed for Michigan residents in the past decade. The average price per kilowatt hour has increased by nearly 40 percent since 2008. Rates could go even higher, if the state’s biggest utilities have their way this year.

But ratepayers do have some advocates working on their behalf to try to keep prices down. They are a group called the Michigan Utility Consumer Participation Board.

The UCPB says poor funding restrains them from doing more on behalf of ratepayers. Jim MacInnes, the chair of the UCPB, wants to increase the group's funding from around $600,000 to $1.5 million per year.

Jim MacInnes — who is also the president of Crystal Mountain Resort — spoke with IPR News Radio last week:


Supporters of transgender rights are responding to Republican attacks on proposed  guidelines for school districts in Michigan.

“[The guidelines are] really all about creating a safe and supporting learning environment for all Michigan students,” says attorney Jay Kaplan of the ACLU of Michigan. Kaplan worked on writing the recommendations.

Kaplan spoke to IPR News Radio about the policy statement the state Board of Education will soon be asked to vote on:


A group of Republican lawmakers is attacking recommendations from the Michigan Department of Education on how schools should treat transgender students. State officials say the guidelines are meant to protect a group of students who often face assaults and threats on campus.

One recommendation is that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom “in accordance with their gender identity.” Another would allow students to be called a name other than the one on their birth certificate.

Each of the 17 guidelines are recommendations — not mandates for schools. The elected state Board of Education will vote on them in May.

State Rep. Triston Cole of Antrim County says he is particularly opposed to a guideline advising that school officials ask students if they want their parents to know they are transgender.

“Parents have got to be involved in this,” Cole told IPR News Radio in an interview last week. “This cannot be something kept secret from a parent.”

 


Grand Rapids Home for Veterans

State legislators are preparing to investigate a Grand Rapids nursing home for veterans that was sharply criticized in an audit released last month by the state’s Auditor General.

Governor Rick Snyder called the findings ‘deeply troubling,’ and the director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, Jeff Barnes, resigned last month.

According to the report, some allegations of abuse at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans went uninvestigated by nursing home staff. There were other problems, too, including staff who falsely reported checking in on patients.

Michigan Public Radio reporter Jake Neher says the report also found that the privately-run center was ‘grossly’ understaffed:


Detroit Public Schools

Two different plans to bailout the massively indebted Detroit Public Schools have emerged from Lansing in recent weeks. The price tag could be upwards of $700 million.

DPS could run out of money as soon as April, according to officials from the state’s largest school system, and state leaders are rushing to find a fix.

State Capitol reporter Jake Neher explains plans in the Senate and House.

 


Traverse City Area Public Schools

Some parents on Old Mission Peninsula want to know if they can pay higher taxes to keep their elementary school open. Traverse City Area Public Schools has proposed closing three elementary buildings to save money, including the school on Old Mission Peninsula.

The idea of raising taxes to keep a school open sounds simple but is something school districts are not allowed to do in Michigan. An amendment to the state constitution known as Proposal A made vast reforms to public education funding and prohibits a local school district from asking voters for more money to operate schools.

Parents on Old Mission Peninsula are talking about a way to work around that law.

Peter Payette discusses it with David Cassleman.


MIRS

A group that monitors the flow of money in Michigan politics has a new leader. Rich Robinson, former head of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, has announced that Lansing reporter Craig Mauger is succeeding him.

Mauger has been a reporter with the Michigan Information and Research Service since 2012.

Rich Robinson led the Michigan Campaign Finance Network for 15 years. Robinson spoke with IPR News Radio's David Cassleman about the current state of campaign finance regulation in Michigan.

"We're in a process, much like the federal process, of deregulating campaign finance to a pretty significant degree," says Robinson.


Passing any kind of millage in northern Michigan is a tough task, and it might become an even tougher job in the future. Last week Governor Rick Snyder signed a campaign finance law that prohibits public groups, like schools, from talking about millage votes within 60 days of an election.

"It's important that we get the information out to our community members," Steve Prissel, superintendent of Elk Rapids Schools, says. "This 60 day mandate ... just closes the door on us having the ability to be transparent."

The district failed to pass a $10 million school bond twice in 2013 and 2014.

Some opponents have called this law a 'gag order,' saying it will unfairly hamstring the ability of school districts and local governments to pass tax increases.

Rick Pluta, capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, explains the law further:


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