Blog Posts For The Week Of July 23, 2015 Through July 29, 2015

Whiston Lands In Testing Morass
By Christopher Klaver
Staff Writer

Posted: July, 29 2015 11:38 AM

When new Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston was being interviewed for the job, he said a key focus for him would be testing, and a good thing since that will likely be a key focus for the department and legislators, at least tangentially for the coming legislative term.

Mr. Whiston’s primary effort will be on shorter tests. He said several times during his interviews, and since, that schools are spending too much time on testing. A number of school officials complained, particularly during the most recent round of testing, about both the actual number of hours required for the testing and about the disruption to the school to meet the requirements.

Department officials have said some of that will be addressed, at least for high schools, with the change to the SAT, which will more closely meet Michigan standards and so will require less added content.

But that also leaves Mr. Whiston dealing with a brand new test next year. And not just new to Michigan. College Board is developing a new exam due out in March 2016 and giving Michigan input on the process.

Much of Mr. Whiston’s first year, then, will be working with high school leaders and teachers assuring them there will be no hitches in the change.

He can also expect to spend some substantial time answering concerns from colleges and universities about having to change their admissions policies. Many have used the ACT, which had been the college entrance portion of the high school test, as their admissions standard for decades (this reporter had to submit his scores to Michigan State University back when the Michigan Educational Assessment Program was not a high stakes test).

Questioning from legislators on the issue is also likely not done, as they prohibited using the Smarter Balanced Consortium test only to have much of that content incorporated into the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. There are also likely to be questions if Mr. Whiston upholds his predecessor’s ruling that new priority (low-performing) and focus (too much gap between high- and low-performing) schools will not be added to those lists until 2018 because there have been too many changes in the tests to compare the results.

If he does not uphold that ruling, there will likely be much crying and gnashing of teeth by school officials.

Testing will also play into the ongoing effort for statewide teacher and administrator evaluations. Part of those ratings were supposed to come from student growth as measured by the state tests, but, in addition to the ongoing battle over what the correct percentage should be versus observation of their teaching and leadership practices, there are always lingering concerns whether the tests accurately measure student growth.

The swirling of all these issues on testing will surely put Mr. Whiston, ahem, to the test in the coming months.

Pondering The Endgame Of Ballot Proposal Raising Corporate Income Tax
By Zachary Gorchow

Posted: July, 28 2015 2:40 PM

A trio of unions made big news last week with a proposed voter-initiated act to raise the Corporate Income Tax from 6 to 11 percent and put the resulting $900 million in new revenue to roads.

If those unions and other supporters successfully collect at least 252,523 signatures from registered voters, then their proposal will go before the Legislature, which would have 40 days to enact it, approve a competing proposal or do nothing and let it go on the November 2016 ballot.

Once Citizens for Fair Taxes collects those signatures, and given the organizational and financial strength the group has, it likely will, the next actions will be fascinating to watch.

While there is no doubt that Democrats, unions and liberals remain incensed at how the 2011 tax changes reduced the amount of direct state taxation on business activity to almost nothing (the CIT raises about $900 million, but refunds paid out under the old Michigan Business Tax almost wipe out that revenue), this proposal is not happening in a vacuum.

No. 1, conservatives are in the process of collecting signatures to bring a voter-initiated act before the Legislature to repeal the prevailing wage law where all state construction projects pay union scale wages for that area. And No. 2, the discussions on road funding in the Legislature remain almost wholly contained within the Republican majority leadership with Democrats on the outside looking in.

When House Democrats proposed increasing the CIT to 9 percent as part of a road funding plan, House Republicans laughed them off.

Right now, Democrats have no leverage on the issue and are powerless to stop the prevailing wage repeal once it lands in front of the Legislature. The Senate already has passed a repeal, so the votes there seem assured, and House Republicans have made it a caucus priority, making passage there seem likely.

But if Citizens for Fair Taxes gets the signatures it needs, what happens then? Now the Democrats would have some leverage.

Would business groups, fearing the possibility that the voters would flock to a tax increase on businesses, be willing to deal to get the proposal dumped?

Could that mean an agreement to shelve the prevailing wage repeal in exchange for shelving the business tax hike?

Could that mean that business, similar to what has happened on the minimum wage in the past, would grudgingly accept a smaller increase to the CIT as part of a roads solution to see the ballot proposal shelved?

Recall that twice liberal activists have sought to increase the minimum wage via voter initiated act and both times Republican majorities in the Legislature decided to raise the minimum wage by a lesser amount on their own to ward off the more generous proposals.

And might the specter of a 5 percentage point business tax increase be what finally forces the Legislature to agree upon a solution to the road funding question?

Business groups, as would be expected, unleashed a torrent of criticism on the proposal.

The question they will have to decide sometime in the late fall or early winter is whether the risk of voters passing the proposal is too great and instead strike a deal of some sort or take their chances and go all-in to defeat it at the polls.

A Curious House Republican Analysis Of The Roads Situation
By Alethia Kasben
Staff Writer

Posted: July, 27 2015 2:21 PM

A House Republican blog post boasting that the caucus has found $1.2 billion for roads from the General Fund in the last five years without raising taxes is perplexing.

The blog touches on other points as well – like continuing to work across the aisle to look for a solution and criticizing the handling of road funding in previous administrations during the first decade of the 2000s, what Republicans often refer to as the “lost decade.”

Some of these claims are difficult to reconcile.

On the point of contributing the $1.2 billion in General Fund dollars without raising taxes, House Republicans have in fact voted raise taxes with its plan that raised the diesel tax by 4 cents per gallon and to increase registration fees for hybrid and electric vehicles. These are much smaller tax increases than the 15-cent per gallon gasoline tax hike that passed the Senate, but still, they are tax increases.

House Republicans also voted to repeal the Earned Income Tax Credit, which gives low-income workers a credit on their state income tax equal to 6 percent of the federal EITC they claim. Republicans have labeled it “tax fairness,” but nonetheless, if enacted it will result in a tax increase for those workers.

It’s also confusing to post about continued work with Democrats when one week before the post House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) told Gongwer News Service he was not confident the House Democrats would play a huge role – or a role at all – in a road funding solution.

And since then, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) has said he and Mr. Cotter have not met in person to discuss roads. Both parties have lambasted the other’s road funding proposals.

Finally, criticizing the “previous administration” – i.e. former Governor Jennifer Granholm -- isn’t necessarily fair. True, Ms. Granholm never pushed hard to raise revenues for roads and did not put forward a specific plan to substantially boost road funding.

But to rip her for not putting General Fund money into roads, and that is the specific criticism in the blog, overlooks the reality that Republicans controlled the House for seven years of the previous decade (2000-06) and the Senate for the entire decade. And a Republican, John Engler, was governor for the first two years of the decade, and he did not support putting General Fund into the roads either.

In fact, it was a point of pride for legislative Republicans not to turn to the General Fund for roads.

Mr. Engler relied on a 1997 gasoline tax increase and a huge billion dollar bond program to pay for road needs.

Also, when the economy crashed, the General Fund was hardly flush with cash to put toward roads.

Democratic Activist/Strategist Ken Brock Has Died
By Zachary Gorchow

Posted: July, 24 2015 12:23 PM

The outpouring of grief since word spread Thursday that longtime top Democratic strategist Ken Brock had died at the age of 55 has been immense.

In almost 17 years of following Michigan government and politics, I can only recall one other death that left so many so sad and that was when former Rep. Frank Fitzgerald, a Grand Ledge Republican, died, also at a young age. Then, as now, the tributes and grief were heartfelt and from those of both major political parties.

Given that, I thought it appropriate to make public the obituary Gongwer News Service published Thursday for subscribers, written by John Lindstrom. That follows in a bit.

First, I also wanted to include a link to an old story former Gongwerian Chris Gautz shared today that he wrote for the Jackson Citizen-Patriot that demonstrates just how honorable Mr. Brock was.

Additionally, one thing that really stood out to me as I looked over the tributes on Mr. Brock’s Facebook page was just how many Democratic activists and strategists he mentored going back to his first years with former U.S. Rep. Howard Wolpe’s campaigns. In sports, one term often mentioned is a “coaching tree” when referring to all the assistants of a high-profile coach who have gone on to become successes on their own.

There clearly was a Ken Brock Tree.

Rest in peace, Ken. Michigan politics will miss you.


Ken Brock, one of the state’s best-known Democratic activists and campaign strategists who worked with a number of gubernatorial and congressional candidates over his career, died Wednesday night.

A cause of death was not revealed by his family or former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, who announced Mr. Brock’s death through social media.

Mr. Brock was 55 but could have argued that he was 13. He was born February 29, 1960, and was, of course, a leap year baby.

He was an Ann Arbor native and studied politics at the Gerald Ford Institute for Public Service at Albion College, where he and Mr. Schauer met.

Mr. Brock was an energetic and passionate Democratic activist, but also able to objectively look at his campaigns and isolate where mistakes may have been made. He could slip in the knife to opponents when necessary, but never seemed to enjoy it. He respected his opponents, and maintained friendships with conservatives and Republicans. He could easily assess and rank the multiplicity of issues that could affect a campaign and explain what effect each could have.

He was the campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. Howard Wolpe’s gubernatorial campaign in 1994. He worked with former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, and when Mr. Schauer won election to the Senate in 2003 became Mr. Schauer’s chief of staff. He then handled Mr. Schauer’s successful U.S. House campaign in 2008, then was Mr. Schauer’s chief of staff in Congress (possibly the only time in his life he regularly wore a tie) and worked on the unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2010.

He was a top strategist on the pro-collective bargaining Proposal 2 of 2012 and then helped on Mr. Schauer’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Always gregarious, Mr. Brock was a big man, who often struggled with his weight, but that seemed to have no effect on his energy or enjoyment of life.

Mr. Brock also mentored many an up-and-coming Democratic strategist, and that community in particular grieved his death.

A memorial will be held, but a date and time have not been set.

Same-Sex Weddings Could Be A Tax Windfall For The State
By John Lindstrom

Posted: July, 23 2015 12:40 PM

Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. Obviously not everyone is happy about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, and, as there has been every time we have seen major social change, many people are worried about the collapse of civilization. But while we await general pillaging and sacking by vandals, barbarians and Ohio State fans, why not rake in some profit as well?

Could same-sex marriage prove to be a tax boon to the state?

Stateline, the newsletter covering the states by the Pew Charitable Trust, raises an intriguing question in a recent article. Could a rush to wedding business mean extra tax revenues to the states in the form of sales taxes and income tax withholdings? The article says yes.

According to some forecasters, same-sex weddings could mean nearly $3.2 million in additional taxes to Michigan over the next three years. As same-sex weddings become more of a common event, some of that additional revenue will taper off.

But initially, economists and fiscal officials are projecting a rush of same-sex couples to get married. And a big wedding means spending big money: on reception halls, caterers, dresses/tuxes, limos, invitations, DJ’s or bands, hotel rooms, and yes, wedding cakes. That adds up to sales taxes, income taxes paid by newly employed people, hotel taxes, etc.

The article forecast that California, New York, Texas and Florida will see the biggest boom (California could see more than $31 million, the article projects), but Michigan’s take could be pretty decent.

When same-sex marriage was allowed in Florida some months back, tourist organizations ran a series of ads highlighting same-sex marriage and encouraging people to plan their weddings for Florida.

Why not here, then? Mackinac Island is a popular wedding destination, why not promote it as such for same-sex weddings as well? Soft-focus romantic shots of couples along a Great Lake shoreline? Couples holding hands against the autumn leaves? This could be worth a few coppers to our treasury, so why not?

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