Around Michigan & State Government

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

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.

The mayor of Waukesha, Wisconsin, is on a tour of state capitals in the Great Lakes region. Mayor Shawn Reilly’s first stop was Monday in Lansing to press state officials to support his city’s request for permission to make a large diversion of water from Lake Michigan.

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:


Grand Traverse County

Grand Traverse County’s financial problems have reached crisis level. The county administrator says an emergency manager would be the next step, if the county can't get its financial house in order.

A big part of the problem is there’s not enough money to fund retirement and health care promises made to former employees.

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.”

 


Someone should resign.

That was the message delivered by members of a congressional oversight panel looking into the drinking water crisis in Flint. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder testified, along with EPA chief Gina McCarthy. Despite that general agreement that someone high up ought to get fired or quit, Republicans and Democrats disagreed on exactly who that should be.


Sarah Razak - Flickr

The charge has been leveled that state and federal officials put salvaging their careers ahead of making sure kids in Flint had safe drinking water.

I guess being a government agency means never having to say you’re sorry,” said Virginia Tech researcher Mark Edwards, who helped sound the alarm on the lead contamination crisis.

There were tense and angry moments at a congressional hearing on the water crisis in Flint.

The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee convened for the first of two hearings on the Flint water crisis today. Former Mayor Dayne Walling and former emergency manager Darnell Earley, who were in their positions when the tainted water crisis began, were scheduled to appear at the hearing. Here & Now‘s Robin Young checks in with Rick Pluta of the Michigan Public Radio Network about what was learned at the hearing.

Morgan Springer

Republican presidential hopeful and Ohio Governor John Kasich spoke to a couple hundred people at a Traverse City town hall on Saturday morning.

The Republican's main message was to pay attention to each other because "we need to be connected with one another."

Jill Coverdill of Grawn says she’ll vote Kasich in Tuesday's Michigan primary because the other Republican candidates are "frightening."

Bills to ease penalties for minors who are caught with alcohol have cleared the state Senate.

Under current law, a first minor-in-possession (MIP) offense comes with a misdemeanor charge and possible jail time. The legislation would make it a civil fine. The state Senate approved the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Supporters say one MIP offense can make it tough for young people to get a job.

“This is outrageous, criminalizing young people for having a beer or even a beer in their system,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge).

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.

 


Courtesy of Tom Stobie campaign.

Tom Stobie has ended his bid in the 101st state House District, leaving former Rep. Dan Scripps as the only Democrat left in what should be a competitive race in November.

“The major reason that I’m withdrawing is, I’m having some health problems,” Stobie said in a conference call. “They’re not life-threatening but they would prevent me from campaigning at 100 percent and I believe that you need 100 percent and probably more to be successful in this campaign.”

U.S. Forest Service

The Pine River is one of the fastest flowing rivers in Lower Michigan and one of the most popular. Heavy traffic in the summer has created a problem the U.S. Forest Service wants to fix.

The project would mean the end of a sandy bank, about 160 feet high, that attracts crowds of paddlers. It’s an issue that pits peoples’ enjoyment of the river against the river’s health and even public safety.
 

The bank is just above Low Bridge, about 20 miles east of Manistee. It’s almost almost pure sand from top to bottom.

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year pays a lot of attention to Flint’s drinking water crisis and the state’s infrastructure shortcomings.

Snyder had to push past a throng of protesters as he prepared to present his budget plan for the coming fiscal year to state lawmakers.

“Drink the water, Rick!,” they shouted, and: “Fix the pipes!”

The chants of the protesters just outside the doors could be heard inside the room throughout Snyder’s budget rollout.

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.


Peter Payette

Mark Baker announced in December he was selling his farm. But now he says he has a new plan: he wants to help other military veterans take up farming.

 

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.


Department of Environmental Quality

Michigan has more than 280 contaminated sites that are “orphans.” That means the company that made the mess no longer exists and the state has to deal with it.

But Michigan is running out of money to tackle these environmental problems. That was not good news for Antrim County, home to one of the largest contaminated sites in the country. State management of an underground plume of trichlorethylene (TCE) has been crucial here for years and will be needed in the future.

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:


Pages