We've Got Issues

We've Got Issues follows the critical issues facing northern Michigan by tracking how policy and politics affect people. Join us Monday mornings at 6:44 and 8:44 a.m.

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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:


The Great Lakes region would become a 'high consequence area' for oil spills, under a bill before the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Gary Peters, who introduced the legislation, says the designation will make the Straits of Mackinac safer from a potential spill.

"It's going to increase the inspections," Peters told IPR News Radio in an interview. "It increases the reporting. It increases the standards that companies have to meet for those pipelines."

Environmental groups say a 60-year old oil pipeline crossing the Straits is high risk. Enbridge, the company that runs the pipe, says it’s safe.

Sen. Peters attached this legislation to a larger bill which reauthorizes the agency that inspects pipelines.


David Cassleman

Kids struggle to learn to read in Michigan. Nearly 70 percent of students reach fourth grade without being proficient in reading, according to national standards.

Governor Rick Snyder has said that fixing this problem will be an "overwhelming task." But state Republicans have a solution in mind that includes holding back more third graders.

Teachers call that retention.

Paul Maritinez/Flickr

Last week Governor Rick Snyder signed off on a long-awaited roads funding deal. The laws will raise more than $1 billion a year by 2021. The money will go towards repairing the roads and bridges in Michigan that have been neglected for years.

"This is the largest investment in transportation in Michigan in the last 50 years," Snyder said this month.

But many in the state are not happy with the final product, which includes a gas tax hike and higher car registration fees.

Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta explains the mechanics of the deal:


Rusty Blazenhoff/Flickr

Marijuana activists say a Michigan State Police policy is leading to unfair felony drug charges in the state. The policy involves the distinction between natural and synthetic THC. That's the active chemical ingredient in marijuana.

The source of THC determines whether someone will be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, if they are caught with an extract of marijuana. A State Police crime laboratory is accused of classifying extracts of marijuana as "synthetic," even when the source is unknown.

Michigan Public Radio's Jake Neher explains the case of a medical marijuana cardholder from Spring Lake, who was charged with a felony – and had his young son placed in a foster home. The man says he should have been charged with a misdemeanor.


Linda Stephan

More eight and nine-year-olds would be held back in school as a result of legislation meant to boost the reading skills of kids before they reach fourth grade. House Bill 4822 passed the state House earlier this month, and largely split the chamber along party lines.

Democrats and other opponents argued that holding back more third-graders would create lasting social problems for kids.

But Republicans supported the bill, like co-sponsor Rep. Lee Chatfield. He is a former high school teacher who represents Emmet, Mackinac and Chippewa counties.

"The fundamental principle of this bill ultimately is that reading is a building block to learning," Chatfield says. "Studies show that children who are not proficient in reading by the fourth grade end up struggling for the rest of their lives in school."


Linda Stephan

Kids in Michigan are struggling to read, compared to students in other states. Nearly 70 percent of students are not proficient in reading when they begin fourth grade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Michigan State Police

Police can make a lot of money off crime and criminals. Law enforcement might seize a drug dealer’s house, cars or cash through a process called civil forfeiture.

But sometimes police take things from people in Michigan without even charging them with a crime.

Bills that have moved through the state Capitol will make it easier for these people to get their assets back from law enforcement. But the legislation stops short of eliminating civil forfeiture entirely, which some groups in Michigan advocate.

Rick Pluta, Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, says the origins of civil forfeiture go back to the War on Drugs:


The boundaries of legislative districts can sometimes look like jigsaw puzzles in Michigan. That's because politicians draw those lines. It happens in the Michigan legislature every ten years after the census.

Opponents say legislative redistricting leads to gerrymandering, where lines are drawn to favor one political party against another.

"The fox is guarding the henhouse in essence," Judy Karandjeff says, "where the elected officials are choosing their voters instead of voters choosing elected officials."

Karandjeff is president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, a group which is hosting town halls across the state on redistricting and possible reforms.

She says almost every district in the state is clearly dominated by a political party.


Michigan's U.S. senators have unveiled legislation they say will protect the Great Lakes from oil spills.

The bill would require a review of all pipelines in the Great Lakes region, plus it would ban transporting crude oil on tanker ships. That's something that doesn't happen at all right now, but Sen. Gary Peters says it could be a threat in the future.

"This has been a possibility that's being discussed," Peters says. "It has not been done up to this point because people frankly believe that it's just unacceptable."

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek surprised voters in northern Michigan last week when he announced he's retiring at the end of this term. That decision has also piqued interest among possible Republican candidates for the 1st Congressional District.

"We don't know for sure who is definitely going to run just because the filing deadline is a while away and this news was unexpected," says Rick Pluta, the Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network.

But Pluta does have the names of some Republicans who are interested in making a run for U.S. Congress:

David Cassleman

A new report in Bridge Magazine this month questions how much state and federal officials know about the condition of an oil pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac.

Reporter Ted Roelofs also details the inspection process governing oil and gas pipelines in the United States.

“The pipeline network in this country, which is about 2.5 million miles, it’s essentially self-regulated by the industry," Roelofs says.

"The federal agency that oversees it [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA] essentially outsources the inspection to the industry itself.”


An affair, cover up and alleged blackmail have shaken up what had been a quiet summer in Lansing. The Detroit News was the first news outlet to report an affair between two state lawmakers, and an alleged cover up attempt by at least one of them.

Todd Courser, a Republican state representative from Lapeer, has now admitted to trying to cover up his affair with fellow Republican Cindy Gamrat, who's from Plainwell. But Courser says he was blackmailed.

Rick Pluta, Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, explains:


Bob Allen

Michigan, like every other state, is trying to figure out how to keep the lights on in the future. One answer could be more homeowners producing energy for themselves using wind or solar power.

Right now, fewer than 1,800 people in Michigan participate in a program called "net metering." That's where homeowners produce electricity for themselves, and then sell surplus energy to utility companies.

The small group of energy producers faces an uncertain future under a Senate plan (Bill 438) that would rewrite the rules governing net metering.

U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City

Ten thousand people partied on Torch Lake over July 4th weekend this year. The sandbar on the lake has become one of northern Michigan's prime summer party destinations.

But many neighbors on the lake are upset about the trash, the trespassing and the noise.

State Representative Triston Cole (R-105th District) put together a roundtable on the issue last week, seeking a solution.

"This is a public body of water," Rep. Cole says, "and people have a right to have a great time and enjoy places like the sandbar on Torch Lake."

Gerrymandering is a term you hear a lot about every ten years or so, when state legislatures across the country start to redraw legislative districts after the census. It happens when districts are drawn in a way that favors one political party against another.

In Michigan, Republicans have controlled the redistricting process during the past two censuses, and Democrats have accused them of gerrymandering. Now some Democrats are pushing to change how redistricting is done, which they say would make it less political.

Baldwin Community Schools

In schools throughout Michigan, students aren't the only ones who get grades. Teachers get a report card, too, and the way that teachers are evaluated could be changing in Michigan.

A bill passed the state Senate this past spring that would reform how evaluations are done, giving local school districts more power to decide how they want to grade teachers. The bill would also reduce the importance of standardized testing to teacher evaluations.

Jake Neher, Capitol bureau reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, explains the bill:

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