Around Michigan & State Government

Coverage from across Michigan and  the state Capitol with the Michigan Public Radio Network and Interlochen Public Radio.

It is now a new year. With the State House and Senate adjourned until Jan. 11, it's time to get our bearings on what’s likely to be bubbling away on Lansing’s front burner this year.

Michigan Radio’s It’s Just Politics team of Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta joined Stateside to discuss.

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.

 


This is the final day of lame duck in Lansing.

The proverbial midnight oil was burned as lawmakers worked all through the night, took a quick break, and then headed back to their chambers for more work.

Michigan Radio's Lansing Bureau Chief Rick Pluta joined Stateside today live from the Capitol.

This week marks the final few days of the 2015-2016 session of the state Legislature. Soon it will be “curtains down” on lame duck.

As Zach Gorchow of Gongwer News Service puts it, it’s time to see which bills are dead, which are “extremely sleepy” and which are alive in these final days of lame duck.

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. 

David Cassleman

State Republicans want to reform the retirement system for public school teachers by eliminating pensions.

Since 2012, new teachers have received a hybrid retirement plan that blends a traditional pension with a 401(k). But legislation being debated during the lame-duck session would close the traditional pension system for future new hires and would offer them a 401(k)-style plan only. 

Republican lawmakers say the goal is to create a more reliable retirement system. The old pension system has unfunded liabilities totaling $26.7 billion, according to the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency. 

 


A state elections board officially declared Republican Donald Trump the winner of the presidential election in Michigan. That starts the clock on a request for a statewide recount that has been called for by Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The campaign has until 2 o’clock Wednesday afternoon to file the request.

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:

 


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:

 


Rick Pluta

There are now two desks on the floor of the state House draped with black ribbon and bedecked with flowers.

Lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Tuesday to the news that state Representative Peter Pettalia (R-Presque Isle) was killed Monday evening in a motorcycle crash. The desk of state Representative Julie Plawecki (D-Dearborn Heights) also remains vacant after she died this summer from a heart attack.

The northern Michigan lawmaker who sponsored the bill to repeal Michigan’s mandatory helmet law has died in a motorcycle crash. It’s not known if state Rep. Peter Pettalia (R-Presque Isle) was wearing a helmet when he died.

Authorities are releasing few details. Pettalia was riding on  M-33 in Montmorency County. The Michigan State Police and the Montmorency County Sheriff say they will release more information in the morning. 

Pettalia's district included much of the northeast part of the Lower Peninsula, including Alpena. He chaired the state House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He was serving his third and final state House term, and briefly considered a run for Congress earlier this year. Pettalia was 61 years old.

A fatal car crash in August of 2015 near Buckley has resulted in lawsuits against the State of Michigan. Family members of the victims, Anthony and Deanna Erving, say the stretch of M-37 with two 90-degree curves was not safe, and highway officials ignored the problem.

The Ervings died when a car crossed the centerline and struck their motorcycle.

George Thompson is representing the son of Anthony Erving in one of the lawsuits against the Michigan Department of Transportation. He says the Ervings were not the first people killed on that stretch of road.

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. 

Kelly Clark

Libertarians want to make government smaller, which usually means reducing spending and cutting programs. But Libertarian Kelly Clark, a Traverse City Area Public Schools board member, says he would vote to spend more on early childhood development.

Clark is a retired teacher who is running for the state’s 104th District. He also owns a Traverse City-based restoration business.

“I think probably if there is an area where we really need to spend more resources, it’s in early childhood development,” Clark says. “And all of the data and research supports that.”
 


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.

David Cassleman

Republican Jason Gillman sees many problems with the way Lansing works these days. Gillman, a former Grand Traverse County Commissioner, is taking on incumbent Rep. Larry Inman in the 104th District’s Republican primary.

He says lawmakers made a mistake last year with the roads funding package by throwing money at the problem irresponsibly. Gillman is also targeting the recent $617 million bailout of Detroit Public Schools, which he says was a misstep.

“[The district] should have gone to bankruptcy,” Gillman says.

He favored a plan that along with bankruptcy would have offered more charter school options to Detroit students.

Gillman has run for the 104th district seat before. In 2012, he took on incumbent Wayne Schmidt in the Republican primary — he lost.

Gillman sat down to talk with IPR News Radio earlier this month:


Grand Traverse County’s state representative said he was somebody who could help end gridlock in Lansing when he was elected two years ago. It was a time when voters wanted lawmakers to find a way to fix Michigan’s roads.

Two years later, state Rep. Larry Inman has a roads funding package to tout as he runs for re-election. The billion dollar plan passed last fall after a bitter debate.

Inman says he deserves another two years representing the 104th district.

“Overall I think for a freshman just learning the system … I think I did pretty good,” Inman told IPR News Radio in an interview.
 

Inman has a Republican challenger on the primary ballot this August, Jason Gillman. Gillman is a former colleague of Inman’s on the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners.

On the Democratic side, Betsy Coffia is running in the primary unopposed after Megan Crandall dropped out of the race. Coffia, who has run twice before, won 47 percent of the district’s vote in 2014.

Kelly Clark, a Libertarian candidate and  a Traverse City Area Public Schools board member, is also running.

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.
 


Detroit Public Schools

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a $617 million dollar bailout of the Detroit Public Schools – which he says represents a fresh start for the financially and academically struggling district.

The plan creates a new debt-free Detroit school district, which will focus on educating the district’s 46 thousand students while the old district pays down the old debt. 

The bills signed by the governor also return control of the district to a locally elected school board following seven years of state control that saw it sink deeper into debt.

 “So I think we’re on a positive path and I look forward to hopefully watching that process happen,” the governor said.

The Michigan Department of Treasury is projecting a $99 million net loss in revenue due to an increase of tax refunds to businesses across the state.

Teachers at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City say they’re being punished for forming a union. Faculty pay has been frozen while teachers bargain for their first union contract. The group filed a complaint with the state over the issue in late April.

The complaint addresses two types of pay increases that have been typical at NMC for teachers in the past.

It says increases for teachers based on seniority, called step increases, should continue because NMC is required to maintain “status quo” during contract negotiations.  

A federal judge has approved a settlement to end litigation over a state law that stopped local officials from talking about ballot questions.

The law adopted late last year said local officials can’t use public resources to communicate on ballot questions. Local officials challenged the law and won a preliminary injunction.

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:


There’s something brewing around Lansing’s City Hall.

On March 4, Lansing’s city attorney Janene McIntyre resigned voluntarily, but the Lansing State Journal reports that McIntyre was still paid $160,000 in salary and accrued benefits. McIntyre and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero have repeatedly declined to discuss the details about why she left and why she was given such a substantial payment by the city.

An environmental group opposed to an oil pipeline beneath the Great Lakes has requested that state leaders shut down the pipe due to alleged safety violations.

The group Oil & Water Don’t Mix says the company operating Line 5 — Enbridge — is violating an easement granted by the state more than 60 years ago. The easement allows Enbridge to move oil and natural gas under the Straits of Mackinac.

A letter sent to the governor and attorney general's offices alleges several violations of the easement, including corrosion on the pipeline walls and failure to meet thickness requirements.

Enbridge says the group is making false assumptions, but environmental leaders say the evidence is clear.

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