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by Danielle Emerson, Staff Writer

Johnson Sponsors Wage Garnishment Bill

Posted: April 28, 2017 12:16 PM

Earlier this week, Senate Democrats unveiled a large package of bills aimed at equal pay and prohibiting certain forms of employment discrimination. They were all sent to Government Operations, presumably to languish and die, but one bill stuck out to me: wage garnishments, sponsored by Sen. Bert Johnson.

Mr. Johnson (D-Highland Park) has been in the news a lot lately, and especially so last night with the unsealed search warrant that had been executed on Mr. Johnson’s home and Lansing office regarding allegations he hired a no-show employee as a way to repay her for a loan.

The warrant revealed that Mr. Johnson had asked Glynis Thornton, convicted of being part of a kickback scheme with the Education Achievement Authority, for a $10,000 loan to pay for his son’s high school tuition (See Gongwer Michigan Report, April 27, 2017). She obliged, but he never paid her back, and eventually Mr. Johnson allegedly concocted a scheme in which Ms. Thornton would be a part of his staff but not have to do anything except receive a paycheck – what has become referenced as a “ghost employee.”

Sources I’ve talked to about their dealings with Mr. Johnson and especially his lack of paying people all have something in common: They want his money, and he avoids showing he has any. So it’s ironic that Mr. Johnson is the lead sponsor of a bill introduced earlier this week that revises the notice period employers must give to employees about garnishment of wages without written consent.

Now, let’s be clear: It doesn’t appear he would gain anything from this legislation, so this is genuinely ironic. His bill, SB 328*, revises the time period during which an employer may deduct without written consent to be the greater of one pay period or, his bill includes, 10 business days. Some of the sources seeking Mr. Johnson’s money say much of it already is under garnishment. How much, we don’t know. The Senate has refused to provide that information.

It’s also worth noting that most of the Senate Democratic Caucus agreed to co-sponsor the legislation with him, as he is also a co-sponsor on other bills in the equal pay package.

Regardless, there’s no getting around how it looks – Mr. Johnson, fighting for those like him having their wages garnished. But there’s also no getting around how it would’ve looked if, say, one of his colleagues was the primary sponsor and then he or she opens himself or herself up to an argument of doing Mr. Johnson a solid (even if that would not have been the case).

Talk about having an elephant (or donkey?) in the room.

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Yanez Wants You To Get Some Rest

Posted: March 17, 2017 2:15 PM

The date of March 17 is generally synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day, but one state representative wants you to remember to get some sleep too.

Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) has sponsored a resolution (HR 40*) declaring today as World Sleep Day in Michigan to encourage people to understand the importance of sleep to safety and healthy living.

In a statement, Mr. Yanez notes that the National Traffic Safety Administration reported drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths in 2013, “although they also believed the number of deaths were vastly underreported,” the statement indicates.

“Sleep deprivation also hinders productivity. It is estimated that American companies lost $63.2 billion every year due to lost productivity,” the statement noted. “Researchers have also linked chronic sleep deprivation to accelerated aging of the brain, and increased risk for heart attacks and strokes as well as other serious health conditions.”

The National Sleep Foundation also recommends the following amounts of sleep every night for different age groups:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours each day
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours each day
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours each day
  • School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours each day
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours each day
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours each day
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours each day
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours each day

So here’s to hoping people get their sleep before they hit the pubs, because let’s be honest, intoxicated drivers are bad enough – they don’t need to be sleep-deprived on top of it. Here’s to also hoping that the next time the House (or the Legislature generally) decides to pull an all-nighter, Mr. Yanez encourages people to have enough sleep first.

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Open Records Expansion May Be A Matter Of Time

Posted: February 3, 2017 4:11 PM

This week, nearly every member of the state House attended a press conference announcing legislation to expand open record laws to include the Legislature and the governor’s office, but across the Capitol, some were less keen on the idea.

That includes Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), who was reluctant to say much on what his chamber would do – if anything – with the House package until he sees the actual language of the legislation.

Last term, the legislation introduced and passed by the House landed in the Senate in mid-October 2016. There were few, if any, session days remaining by that point before the November general election. Of course, after the general is when “lame duck” starts to come together, and with such major items as energy law overhaul and several debated changes to retirement systems for public employees, it was a longshot to expect the Senate would take the items up.

Plus, Mr. Meekhof has maintained, his members had questions about the legislation that were not able to be resolved in time to vote on them.

But the issue of passing this legislation may not be a question of “if” so much as it is “when.”

Mr. Meekhof is one of 26 members of the Senate that will be termed out of office come 2018, and if history has anything to say about that, House members past and present will fill the upper chamber next. After all, 35 of the current 38 senators served in the House at some point, the exceptions being Sen. Ian Conyers (D-Detroit), Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton Township) and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing).

You need 20 votes to get something through the Senate, so if the team of 26 comes in – presuming they are all from the House previously – and decides to take up legislation to expand open record laws together then, they’ll succeed on their own.

Of course, the reality of an emptied-out Senate is, in real time, two years off. While that may not seem like a long time to folks in this town, to an outsider, that’s a long time. Different issues will come up in Michigan and in the nation that will have to be dealt with, and priorities will be set accordingly.

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The Story Behind Secretary of State Johnson And Her Kangaroo

Posted: January 13, 2017 3:59 PM

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has a new, non-native sidekick that wants to save you time by going online to for your typical Secretary of State needs.

“Kangaruth” debuted on YouTube two days ago and is getting some attention on social media with almost 2,000 views so far. The video features various clips of Secretary of State Ruth Johnson “rapping” about saving time and hopping online, complete with a kangaroo that is edited into the video throughout.

And yes, the kangaroo is real, so when Ms. Johnson appears to be leaning on it toward the end of the full video and it gives her a nibble, it actually happened.

“The secretary has a friend that had access to a kangaroo, and one thing led to another, and someone got the idea to encourage customers to ‘hop online,’” Department of State spokesperson Fred Woodhams told Gongwer News Service.

The video was produced in-house.

“I know that will surprise you,” Mr. Woodhams joked. “It’s something we’ve been working on. It’s light-hearted. People are definitely talking about it and will remember it.”

The full-version video is roughly a minute and a half, but there are shortened versions that will indeed be used to advertise Mr. Woodhams said the department doesn’t usually do advertising but it made a small cable television ad buy – costing less than $10,000 – for this one. It will run for a few days and was intended to coincide with the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We’re making do with fewer staff and need to encourage people to go online to do their secretary of state business,” Mr. Woodhams said. “The more people that can go online, they will not only help themselves but other customers who might be required to come in for a photo, for example.”

As someone who will have to renew her tabs at the end of the month, I only wish there might also be a follow-up video with Ms. Johnson and her kangaroo thanking me for using the online service. Just a suggestion, though.

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Capitol View Building Renamed…Sort Of

Posted: December 9, 2016 4:48 PM

What was previously the Capitol View Building will soon be the Michigan Senate…something, we have to assume.

I drive past the construction on the building every morning, but it was only in the last two or so days this week that I noticed the “Capitol View” namesake had been removed and replaced with “MICHIGAN SENATE” on the west-facing portion of the building on top of the glass lobby windows. Work has also begun to put the name at the top of the building on the north, Capitol-facing side.

Senate Republican spokesperson Amber McCann said the chamber is still on track to begin moving after next week’s final three session days of lame duck. If all goes according to plan, senators should be working in their offices by January, we reported earlier this year (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 30, 2016).

Coincidently, it was almost two years ago now that former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville spearheaded the effort to move office locations.

Ms. McCann did not have further information on the possible name of the new Senate building. One thing I remember Mr. Richardville saying, though, when asked about the matter at the time, was that he was sure, “It won’t be something stupid, like SOB,” he quipped, poking fun at the widely-used acronym for the House Office Building – HOB.


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‘Humans of New York’ Comes To … Michigan?

Posted: November 16, 2016 12:43 PM

For frequenters of social media, the photography project/blog called Humans of New York should ring a bell and perhaps excite you that, announced Monday, the man behind the project has decided to take his storytelling on the road to Michigan – and Macomb County specifically.

For those that don’t know, Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010 for its founder, Brandon Stanton, a Georgia native. As he puts it, the initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and create a montage of the sorts of the city’s inhabitants. Eventually Mr. Stanton began interviewing the subjects, making it (in my humble opinion) all the more compelling.

The decision to come to Macomb, he said in his announcement, was due to the increased news coverage it got as a result of the election. Indeed, the very blue collar county voted decisively for President-elect Donald Trump last week, helping propel Mr. Trump’s victory in Michigan and the historic moment that a Republican had, for the first time in almost 30 years, won the state in a presidential election.

“Many pundits have pointed to this shift as representative of a greater movement among America’s white working class. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting stories from Macomb County,” Mr. Stanton said in making the announcement Monday. “I didn’t ask anyone who they voted for. Very few of the stories even touch on politics. And while the series cannot presume to be representative of an entire region, hopefully it will introduce you to a few of the people who live there.”

Macomb County is indeed very diverse compared to other similar counties, especially because parts of it now arguably look, feel and act a lot more like the traditional vision of Oakland County and its residents. Other parts of it are the same old Macomb County you know and remember. Is it representative of the white working class electorate? Well, hold on a minute…

As a matter of establishing authority on the matter, I grew up in Macomb County. My parents, as well as a significant portion of my extended family, still live there, so I’m not terribly removed from it. And while I agree that Macomb’s electorate is definitely not what it used to be, whether it’s representative of a broader shift nationally, well…

For starters, the attitudes of the people of the county haven’t really changed – the people have just gotten older and in some cases (namely in Northern Macomb) wealthier since anyone last took their voting pulse seriously in a presidential election. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it is. A lot of life and economy has happened in the process.

That leads me to my second and potentially more important point. As Mr. Stanton pointed out in his announcement, the auto industry is still a HUGE DEAL there. Many Macombers have deep ties to the industry (nearly all members of my family/extended family there included). And that’s not just Ford, Chrysler and GM – that’s suppliers for the auto industry too. It’s not just factory workers anymore either; it’s higher-ups like engineers and executives too.

Accordingly, things like NAFTA continue to be a big deal, and Mr. Trump ran on a platform ripping things like NAFTA, TPP, and the rest of the trade alphabet soup. By contrast, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did not. And in conversations with family back home, they hadn’t forgotten the time in the 1990s that they faced layoffs they attribute to trade deals.

Macomb County is also home to a growing swell of companies that have an interest in the defense industry, for what that’s worth too.

Third, let’s look at the presidential primary. The clerk’s office’s official numbers show Ms. Clinton barely won Macomb over her primary competitor, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) by 1,351 votes. Another roughly 3,500 people were uncommitted or voting for another candidate. In hindsight, we can certainly say Mr. Sanders won Michigan due in part to the support he got in Southeast Michigan especially on his stance on certain trade deals past and present.

And Republican votes in the primary? Mr. Trump blew everyone else out of the water, taking nearly 60,500 votes in Macomb County, or nearly 50 percent of all votes cast for a Republican nominee at all.

And finally, younger generations that voted overwhelmingly for Ms. Clinton instead of Mr. Trump last week are few and far between in Macomb County. They prefer the likes of cities that feature their contemporary interests which find themselves placed in Oakland County.

So is Macomb representative of a greater shift among the white working class? Well, while us small town folk would be pleased people thought so highly of Macomb, I’d argue it’s a stretch.

The thing is, there are tons of other factors worth consideration when looking at voting demographics, and even then, as many found out last week – or as I did in a particularly painful college course – statistics only tell a fraction of the story. And as another great professor once told me, there are more than even two sides to a story.

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Flint vs. Everybody

Posted: November 4, 2016 12:43 PM

The Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee met this morning and of all the discussions, one thing was clear: Flint’s elected officials and the folks leading Lansing still appeared to have differences of opinion about Flint’s recovery.

Case in point: Tensions ran high during a presentation about expenditures in Flint (available online for all) and questions about the inclusion of certain projects in those categories.

Specifically, Dr. Laura Sullivan, from Kettering University, questioned state officials about why the renovation of Flint’s Capitol Theatre was included in the expenditures related to Flint’s water crisis recovery. State officials responded that the renovation had already been in the process of happening before the water crisis even happened, and that only seemed to light the fire even more for Flint’s elected officials.

Why was a project that was already in the works part of expenditures on the city of Flint, and specifically expenditures listed on a website that’s supposed to be all about the Flint water crisis?

City Administrator Sylvester Jones made clear early in the meeting, and again during this discussion: The people of Flint want clean water. They want to see the progress toward clean water. Everything else – including economic development – is secondary, even if important to Flint’s long-term big picture. So when state officials tried to explain why certain initiatives were included in the Flint expenditure spreadsheet even if they have nothing to do with clean water, it practically fell on deaf ears.

State officials said when the water crisis occurred, the administration went to departments to ask what they could do for Flint. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston defended that move, saying his department (at least) then went to the Flint residents to get answers to that question.

But it was not clear whether all of the departments did that, or to what extent. And state officials continued to defend things like the theatre or the Flint Riverfront project by saying that legislators – who have been appropriating taxpayer dollars toward Flint – have asked for a breakout of all the money that has gone to Flint, regardless of whether it was directly related to the water crisis.

Mr. Jones was peeved. He expressed discontent with the apparent defensive nature of state officials on the matter and reminded them that he represents the people on the ground dealing with this crisis every day.

“The questions we’re asking are so we can carry information back to residents and share information that’s as accurate as possible … People are still wrestling with this thing and we’re still asking for power, asking for Flint to be part of the decisions,” Mr. Jones said. “I’m asking you again, can we share that space with you so we can represent the interests of residents?”

Enter Rich Baird, mediator between the people of Flint and the state’s top officials as Governor Rick Snyder’s top emissary to the city. He tried to explain to state officials the perception that he too is hearing on the ground and how perception can become reality. He then turned to Flint officials to explain that renovation of the Capitol Theatre, for example, did not mean any less attention would be paid to the overall goal of getting clean water and removing pipes.

“There is immediate emergency, immediate recovery and long-term sustainability, and we’re not trading off one versus the other,” he said to the room.

But it’s probably a valid question for Flint officials to ask. If state officials are going to tout how much money they’ve spent on a, b and c categories related to Flint whenever they talk to the media, for example, should the state break out those numbers more concisely? Mr. Jones made clear where the people of Flint stand on that one.

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Legalized Marijuana Use Hits New High

Posted: October 14, 2016 5:03 PM

It’s hard to talk about medical marijuana usage and regulation in Michigan without following it up with the question of when marijuana will just be legalized altogether. And while that’s more in the hands of the federal government right now, there are some local ordinances in Michigan that permit the possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults over a certain age.

Most recently that has come to fruition in East Lansing, and boy has the conversation been ongoing in social media.

But a recent study by the Pew Research Center, released earlier this week, shows that East Lansing officials, and others like them, may be on to something. In fact, support for marijuana legalization has hit a near complete reversal over the last 10 years, Pew says.

It reports that some 57 percent of adults support the legalization of marijuana use, while only 37 percent say it should be illegal. A decade ago, that was nearly the exact opposite, Pew points out: just 32 percent of adults surveyed favored legalization while 60 percent were opposed.

A lot has happened in a decade, to be sure. Most notably, an entire generation has grown into working adults with life experiences and now more (vetted) opinions.

That’s right – one of the biggest drivers of increased support for legalized marijuana use is the substantial support it has from the largest generation in the nation: millennials.

And we’re talking substantial in every sense of the word: over the course of the last decade, support from millennials – whom Pew categorizes as those ages 18 to 35 currently – in particular on legalized marijuana use has gone from roughly 34 percent to 71 percent in 2016.

Many of their parents (the Baby Boomers, categorized as between 52 and 70 years of age) also have increased their support for legalized marijuana use to 56 percent, up from around 34 percent a decade ago as well, and up from just 17 percent in 1990.

While the public policy question of legalized marijuana use may be debated for years to come in Michigan, the substantial effect this generation has had on this issue alone (even Pew states young adults have “disproportionately driven the shift toward public support”) begs the question of what else they might be capable of too. And with an election around the corner, maybe we’ll be talking more about them very soon.

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The Elusive Flint Committee Report

Posted: September 2, 2016 11:31 AM

When Sen. Jim Stamas, chair of the Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency, effectively concluded the committee’s public hearings nearly four months ago, he said he hoped to have a report on the committee’s findings by the end of that month.

Then the logic seemed to shift to perhaps work on the report over the summer, but as Gongwer News Service discovered earlier this week in a discussion with Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), those discussions have been scarce, if any (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 31, 2016). Mr. Ananich went easy on the matter, saying he’d rather the report be done right than be hurried for the sake of saying they got it done. But he also said his neighbors and constituents continue to expect something to come of the committee that took months to create in the first place.

So where is this report?

Several attempts to reach out to Mr. Stamas or his staff on the issue have yielded a response instead from Senate Republican spokesperson Amber McCann saying there is no timeline on the report but that Mr. Stamas expects to address certain issues in it – issues that are largely the same as what had been named in another statement in early June (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 3, 2016).

Mr. Stamas is not solely the reason for the tardy report. In fact, a rough review of the timeline of actions taken by the Legislature since Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged a problem with Flint’s water last October show a willingness to appropriate money to help the recovery but far less interest in policy changes to prevent it or any similar situation from ever happening to other communities again.

Skimming through our archives, Mr. Ananich first called for legislative hearings on November 5, 2015. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) discussed the possibility of hearings on February 17. Mr. Meekhof and House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) created the Joint Select Committee on February 23. The committee had its first hearing on March 15, and it went to Flint itself on March 29.

On March 23, Mr. Snyder’s appointed emergency task force released its report and analysis of what went wrong in Flint, brimming with 44 recommendations after five months of interviews and investigations (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 23, 2016).

The joint committee held six hearings over two months before effectively concluding its work.

Of course, there’s also the issue of an election year, and so the unfortunate reality – for Flint residents living through the water crisis – is that, as area reporters had long ago suspected, little on the report is likely to happen before November 8.

So the next question is: Will anything happen before the end of the year? Maybe the report will finally be released, sure. But acting on those conclusions/recommendations is, well, anyone’s guess at this point, and again likely tied to the outcome of state races in the general election. Will Flint still be a priority? Will a revamp of infrastructure across the state be at the top of the agenda? Will the emergency manager law that the governor’s own task force said needs to change actually be changed?

As I review our coverage on these things past and present, it’s almost ironic to recall what our first headline of the first joint committee hearing said: “More Questions Than Answers.”

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In Which Donald Trump Makes A Call To African-American Voters

Posted: August 22, 2016 3:01 PM

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited mid-Michigan last Friday with a variety of messages for his thousands of supporters, but one that I wasn’t expecting at all was his question to African-American voters: What the hell do you have to lose?

I and numerous others could probably talk for hours about that question and its answer. But let’s boil it down to the most simplistic: The atmosphere of the event.

While the national Republican Party has raised the issue here and there about the need to attract a more diverse audience generally, the reality is African-American voters will take many election cycles and the type of realignment that occurred from the 1930s through the 1960s that caused African-Americans to leave the Republican Party for the Democratic Party. Mr. Trump hardly seems suited to be such a transformational figure.

Mr. Trump’s feigning ignorance during the spring about David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, in the days prior to a series of primaries in the South was not exactly the formula to win support among African-Americans. That’s on top of a long history of statements and alleged statements that clearly would cast him in a negative light among African-Americans. Leading the charge to question the citizenship of the first African-American president probably didn’t score him any points, for example.

When Mr. Trump spent a significant portion of his speech trying to make this appeal, the head scratches from the print media were rather visible, and when his speech ended, it was the highlight among broadcast media – the latter is a point we’ll get to in a minute.

The thing is, U.S. Census Data will tell you that Windsor Township, where the speech was held, had a mere 2.7 percent African-American population when the census last reported in April 2010. A July 1, 2015, estimate is “not applicable,” the page shows. And even if we’re generous and include the 2010 census data for those reporting as two or more races (forgive for a minute the fact that, of course, not all two-or-more race folks are, for example, black and white), that’s another 1.8 percent, the data shows.

So all told we can maybe say 4.5 percent of Windsor Township would consider itself not solely white or solely Hispanic. The community’s reported population from 2010 census data was 6,838, so our estimated black population, albeit using six-year-old statistics and some generosity in stats, suggests that maybe some 307 people in the community are African-American.

I promise you, not nearly that many were at the Trump rally on Friday. Not even close. Not even a little bit.

By comparison, Lansing, which is a mere 15-minute drive from the location of the rally, has a significantly larger percent of its population that is African-American. Again using just the known 2010 statistics, Lansing’s African-American population is 23.7 percent, or more than 27,000 people.

But to the broadcast point: national networks like CNN and Fox News were there, naturally. The rally start time was pushed to 5 p.m., which makes his speech a potential top story for the 6 p.m. news (given he took about 40 minutes to speak overall). Mr. Trump did rearrange his schedule so he could visit Louisiana, which has suffered devastating floods.

If Mr. Trump wants to make an appeal to African-American voters, he has a long ways to go, and making the case in Windsor Township did not seem the place to get started on his goal of winning 95 percent of the African-American vote if and when he runs for re-election in four years.

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Dingell Shares Wisdom On His 90th Birthday

Posted: July 8, 2016 11:58 AM

Listen more than you talk, treat Republicans with dignity and respect, and change is something we must all accept, including and especially if you’re an “old coot.”

That’s some of the advice of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who turns 90 today. He celebrated his birthday in Washington, D.C. Wednesday afternoon with a party in the John Dingell Energy and Commerce Committee Room in the Rayburn House Office Building, a statement from the office of his wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, said.

His video included his opinions on working with Republicans, the importance of change, how he feels about turning 90 and his advice to young people.

“I hope I make it. Ninety’s a great age, 100’s better and I’m going to try to stay around you (referring to Ms. Dingell) and this business and public service and the 12th District of Michigan and the Congress of the United States just as long as the Lord will allow me,” he said of turning 90.

On his advice to young people, Mr. Dingell referenced his father’s advice to him: “He’d say listen a lot and talk a little. He’d say that if you were supposed to be talking all the time, you’d have two mouths and one ear, and we don’t need to do that. You don’t learn while you’re talking, you learn while you’re listening. It’s a wonderful, wonderful world, and it’s a place where you can learn if you use the opportunities that God gives each of us.”

Mr. Dingell also said treating Republicans with dignity and respect will, “in most instances,” yield favorable response.

“Most of ‘em are decent people and they really do want to do what is right for the country,” he said.

Finally, on change in the world, he opined, “I find that change is something that must be accepted by us all, even and including and especially old coots like me. Who have to learn to live with the change that we confront so we can always be in the forefront of doing the things that need to be done for the country and the people.”

But, true to his word, Mr. Dingell hasn’t done all the talking on his birthday. Dozens of people – including U.S. House representatives from Michigan and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan – have submitted video well wishes to the longest-serving congressman via Ms. Dingell’s Twitter account.

Also true to Mr. Dingell himself – a devout University of Michigan fan, to say the least – one of his favorite video submissions so far seems to be a message from U-M football coach Jim Harbaugh, which Mr. Dingell retweeted on his Twitter account in all caps, saying, “COACH HARBAUGH RECORDED A BIRTHDAY VIDEO FOR ME.”

Surely, though, there is one more thing that would make a fantastic birthday for Mr. Dingell: a W for the Detroit Tigers tonight. Here’s to hoping.


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A Postscript On The Senate Scene During The DPS Debate

Posted: June 17, 2016 4:13 PM

Senate Minority Floor Leader Morris Hood III is hardly someone who puts himself in the public spotlight. But that changed quite a bit last week when he ripped into Republicans in giving his no-vote explanation to a package of bills on Detroit Public Schools.

The speech itself is well-known by now – calling out Republicans as “cowards” for not including a single legislator from Detroit on the negotiation of such a major issue to their constituency. It was a heated speech to be sure, emotion dripping from every word.

And that should have been expected too. Aside from being one of only several Detroit-specific lawmakers in the chamber, Mr. Hood (D-Detroit) could be seen pacing back and forth prior to taking to the podium. Even when he spoke, he spoke with his voice breaking here and there, tears filling his eyes.

But perhaps less seen was the scene around him. About 10 feet away, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) stood for the whole speech. That’s highly unusual. Senators generally are seated at their desks on the floor unless they are speaking with staff or other senators on other issues. He had little expression on his face; if anything, he looked to be listening rather intently. This wasn’t the case for any other opposition speaker that night (in the sense that Mr. Meekhof did not stand by them during their speech).

Asked after session that night about standing by Mr. Hood and why he did so, Mr. Meekhof told the media, “I want to remind him that personal attacks and name-calling isn’t becoming of senators.

“When folks from the other side speak, we don’t question them or call them out on those types of things,” Mr. Meekhof said. “I had a nice talk with Senator Ananich after and I’m sure we’ll have that cleared up.”

Session went by largely without a hitch the next day, indeed. There were no statements, no DPS hangover when the chamber adjourned for the summer. Whether that was from fatigue, disbelief, eagerness to leave, or that there were simply no words left to say is anyone’s guess, of course, because most people could still feel the raw emotions in the air anyway.

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Chicago Fed Sounds Off On Medicaid Expansion

Posted: June 3, 2016 2:28 PM

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has released “A Fiscal Checkup” on Medicaid expansion in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, and while it doesn’t actually include specific savings for any of those states so far, it does have a few other interesting figures.

The publication primarily reviews the differences in each system of the aforementioned Midwest states which are all contained within the Seventh Federal Reserve District it oversees. Oddly, although Iowa is part of the district, there is no mention of what Iowa did or did not do in terms of compliance with the federal Affordable Care Act’s provision on expanding Medicaid (though that could be due in part to their back-and-forth on the decision since its implementation).

The publication is pretty short and is a pretty simple read, but had some things of note even without savings figures.

For starters, both Michigan and Illinois dramatically underestimated enrollment. Take what political argument you will about what that means on grander social and economic scales, but the fact still remains that Michigan originally estimated 322,000 low-income enrollees and it currently has stabilized around 600,000.

And for Illinois, the initial project was to enroll 342,000 low-income people through Medicaid expansion, but as of January, some 622,000 were enrolled, the report said.

Also of note, among the adult enrollees in Michigan, 47 percent are under the age of 35 and 80 percent have incomes below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, and about one-sixth of all new enrollees live in rural areas, the report states.

While there have been many benefits, the paper says, to expanding Medicaid, one of the most challenging remaining pieces is devising new payment and delivery systems. State governments are experimenting on this front, it says, but most of the approaches focus on managed care, chronic disease prevention and payments based on health outcomes to reduce costs and increase accountability among patients and providers.

The report also outlines the impact of the ACA on mental health and substance abuse treatment but only cites sources in Illinois. Still, the expansion of Medicaid eligibility has changed the Illinois system’s payer mix from 32 percent with Medicaid and 55 percent with no insurance in 2013 to 50 percent with Medicaid and 33 percent with no insurance in 2016, the report concluded.

This change has, it says, generated enough funding to significantly reduce the taxpayer subsidy to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System from $481 million in 2009 to $121 million in 2016.

See the full report online.

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‘Casperson’ The Bear

Posted: May 13, 2016 2:26 PM

Sen. Tom Casperson has always been proud of his “Yooper” roots and even jokes about his accent at times, but the true honor for a Yooper is to be named after a bear, apparently.

Earlier this week, Mr. Casperson (R-Escanaba) headed up a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing to discuss legislation that would – among many, many other things – limit the amount of land the Department of Natural Resources can buy and preserve as state land, as well as to make further assurances the state makes its payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) payments to those land owners.

The debate on the legislation got pretty technical at some points, so it was something of a relief to hear from more ordinary people on the matter. Enter Dean Oswald, owner of Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Newberry.

It’s no surprise that Mr. Oswald and Mr. Casperson are tight. In 2013, when the ranch was shut down for a period of time after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials alleged Ms. Oswald was operating his bear ranch in violation of Michigan’s Large Carnivore Act (which prohibits animal shelters from allowing public contact with large animals like bears and lions), Mr. Casperson came to the rescue to amend the law so the facility could be reopened.

So on Wednesday, when Mr. Oswald teleconferenced in to the Senate committee to speak in support of SB 39* and SB 40*, he did so with overwhelming admiration and appreciation for Mr. Casperson.

“Whatever Tom Casperson wants, he gets,” Mr. Oswald said, Mr. Casperson visibly flattered by the statement.

Some in the committee room laughed a bit, but Mr. Oswald upped the ante: “I’ve got a bear named Casperson.”

And that’s the mark of a good Yooper, Mr. Casperson said, tweeting: “True Northern MI honor to have a bear named after you. Honored and grateful for the Oswald’s support over the years.”

Considering Mr. Casperson is a devout Green Bay Packers fan, it also seems ironic. I thought cheese heads and bears don’t get along?

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John Proos, Chief Complaint Officer

Posted: May 6, 2016 11:27 AM

Kids say the darnedest things.

Sen. John Proos (R-St. Joseph) hosted a group of fifth grade students from his district on Thursday, as legislators do, but the questions he got and the responses he gave – a portion of the Capitol tour we don’t always see and hear in the media – were one-of-a-kind.

Typically, of course, groups visiting the Capitol get to go up the center aisle on the House and Senate floor and take a picture with their state representative or senator, but in this case, Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart) and the media had taken that aisle up to talk about the House DPS proposal from early Thursday morning, so Mr. Proos instead took the kids around the west end of the Senate floor, keeping them off camera.

After scrums with various senators, the Capitol Press Corps went back to sitting in the media section of Senate, right behind the group from Mr. Proos’ district. It was there that he let the kids ask any questions they might have, and boy did they have them – they could’ve been reporters there were so many.

One of the most humorous exchanges came as Mr. Proos described what he does as a state senator. I didn’t hear the question, if there was one, but Mr. Proos said, “I’m kind of like a chief complaint officer, but that’s okay,” reiterating the importance of people being a part of government.

He moved with the group to the center aisle to take a picture and took more questions.

“Do you have kids?”

Proos: “I do. How did you know I have kids?” he joked to the child. “Do I look weary?”

“Are you married?”

Proos: “Yes, my wife works at Whirlpool.” (Not surprising of course, given Whirlpool is headquartered in in his district).

“Do you want to be president?”

Proos: “Do I want to be president? No,” he answered confidently.

“Would you rather be bit by a poisonous snake or stung by a wasp?”

Proos: “I think I’d rather be stung by the wasp. I don’t know how I’d recover from the poison. I think that’s the first time anyone has ever asked me that though.”

Clearly the senator can work a crowd. If only we could hear all the questions kids ask of their representatives, we might learn so much.

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A Cheat Sheet For Your Next Energy Hearing

Posted: April 28, 2016 2:06 PM

The Senate Energy and Technology Committee on Tuesday adopted a pair of substitutes in its two-bill proposal to revamp Michigan’s laws governing the structure of the energy market, and with it came a few new words we haven’t heard before, as well as others that were less frequently used.

Since it looks like energy policy is kicking up once more with a very real possibility that something gets done by the end of the year, if not by summer recess, we’ve put together a handy guide for to navigate the alphabet soup of acronyms and terms so jargon-centric they seem to be in a language other than English. For better or worse, this list only scratches the surface.

Regulated utilities: Sometimes referred to as an incumbent utility. There are primarily two types of utilities/electric providers/energy providers in Michigan – those whose operations are overseen by the state’s Public Service Commission (see below) and those who are not. Most frequently, people think of DTE Energy and Consumers Energy as the chief regulated utilities, namely because they control a whopping majority of the state’s energy market.

Public Service Commission/PSC/MPSC: The entity, housed within the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, composed of three members appointed by the governor who serve staggered six-year terms. Their primary goal is to make sure folks are paying the most reasonable price they should be for energy and that any kind of requests by utilities are not overly burdensome on the consumer.

PSC is the chief governing body when it comes to reviewing rate cases and usually brings utilities down from self-implementation of rates (in which the utility literally sets its own rates to adjust for various other factors). They also ensure reliable energy and telecommunications services, though the latter part of that is not relevant here.

MISO: Although they’re spelled the same, legislators are not talking about the soup you get at the sushi place. This stands for Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which oversees the functions and operations of energy, from whatever source, in several Midwest states including Michigan. They’re not allowed to tell utilities to build generation nor can they build themselves. MISO is overseen by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Renewable energy/RPS: Things like wind, water and sun that are built in a manner that produces electricity. The state, in 2008, mandated a specific renewable portfolio standard, thus the acronym RPS, that further defined permissible renewables and how much of them. The Senate is now talking about a blended goal that combines a utility’s use of renewables and their participation in energy optimization (see below). Also sometimes referred to as clean energy.

Energy choice/retail open access/AES: All right, this is a long one – lots of components and controversy. It’s a reference to the 2008 energy law (see below) that, depending on your point of view, required or limited 10 percent of the energy-supplying market be reserved for alternative electric suppliers, also known as an AES.

This is a highly contested part of the state’s previous energy law because purportedly there are lots of customers in the queue who are waiting to pay usually cheaper prices to receive their energy from that AES. But there is also the question of whether those alternative companies should have to pay their proportionate share to play in the game, if you will. You also sometimes hear the terms fully regulated market or deregulated market here. Michigan is considered to have a hybrid system because of the choice provision.

The 2008 law: This refers to the last time Michigan enacted a new energy policy, and it is essentially what is currently being rewritten in the House and Senate because some of the provisions have expired or outlived usefulness. Among its key provisions are requiring that all regulated utilities generate 10 percent of their energy through renewable resources by 2015 – which they’ve achieved – and reserving 10 percent of the market for ratepayers to get their energy through an alternative supplier. It also established some goals for energy optimization (see below) that are far less contentious than other parts of the law, and those too are being reviewed.

Energy optimization/energy efficiency/energy waste reduction: The Senate proposal renames energy optimization programs to energy waste reduction programs, a term first coined by Governor Rick Snyder when he gave his special message on energy. Energy optimization (EO) programs were established in the 2008 law that required gas and electric utilities to implement programs to reduce overall energy usage by certain targets that then relieve load management for the utilities generating, buying and selling that power to you. The utilities have long since achieved their targets, so those are obviously under review as well.

Also relevant here is the idea of on-bill financing, which is a loan made to a utility customer to pay for energy efficiency improvements, which are then paid back by the customer over time.

Resource Adequacy: Quite simply the ability of a utility to demonstrate that it has enough energy for its customer base.

Net metering/Distributive generation: One in the same. For some reason, the Senate decided to rename it. Net metering is a program that allows customers of utilities, cooperatives and an AES to develop on-site renewable energy electric generation to meet some or all of their needs and then reduce their electric bills in doing so. This also, in theory, reduces the load that utilities have to be responsible for, though utilities say it does not address the fact that the grid is still technically in use at some point in the process. Great infographic here on PSC’s website.

Also possibly relevant here is a Power Purchaser Agreement, known as a PPA, which is a contract between the person or company that generates electricity and one looking to purchase the electricity. Some companies have this with utilities because those companies are producing their own power, such as through the use of solar panels.

Integrated resource plan/IRP: Very big component of the Senate proposal. It’s essentially a planning process utilities would have to go through before they could purchase new facilities for new generation or retrofit others to better serve their customers. Interveners are those who are not incumbent utilities who can file their own motions on the ability to provide such electricity in an ideally cost-effective manner.

Certificate of need: A process through which a utility can recover its expenditures on certain projects, like a new generation facility, through a power supply cost recovery (PSCR) factor.

Local Clearing Requirement/LCR: This requirement represents the amount of resource capacity, measured in megawatts, which must be cleared in a particular Local Resource Zone (read: region) in order to meet certain MISO standards for that zone.

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Springsteen Has A Special Message For Lawmakers

Posted: April 15, 2016 2:41 PM

The Boss was in metro Detroit last night, and he left a message for Governor Rick Snyder and lawmakers: Don’t be North Carolina.

According to reports, at one point, Mr. Springsteen paused to talk about having recently cancelled his show in North Carolina because of a new law, known as the “bathroom bill,” requiring people to use bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificate rather than the one with which they identify. That has come under fire from those in the gay and transgender community as being discriminatory, especially for transgender individuals.

And it’s also relevant for Michigan, as the State Board of Education considers a guidance document to help schools create a “safe and supportive learning environment” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students by allowing them to use restrooms based on their gender identity, as well as ensuring staff are trained to address issues facing such students.

Several legislative Republicans have targeted the board’s action and called for it to rescind the guidance.

And Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) has said he will introduce legislation requiring Michigan students only use the bathrooms and locker rooms matching their birth gender, just the same as North Carolina. Mr. Casperson said he also expected to sponsor a resolution to urge the proposed policy be rescinded.

“It is hard to believe that a state board, which is clearly out of touch with Michigan residents, got assistance from equally out of touch unelected bureaucrats to develop such a document to fundamentally change Michigan’s public education system without the public’s prior knowledge or consent,” Mr. Casperson said in a statement at the time. “In the pursuit of social justice, this so-called draft guidance document creates numerous problems, from the elimination of parental authority and notification to threatening student safety and beyond. My bill would stop this policy dead in its tracks.”

Mr. Springsteen didn’t care for that attitude.

“On behalf of the LGBT people and many caring people in this state, we hope the bill doesn’t pass, because we love playing in Michigan,” he said at his show. “So keep your heads up.”

Naturally, one has to wonder how many Springsteen fans are serving in the Legislature, and if Mr. Casperson is one of them.

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Booher: London Chic

Posted: April 8, 2016 4:09 PM

Sen. Darwin Booher once introduced a bill to allow drivers to keep roadkill without first obtaining a permit, so it certainly came as something of a surprise to hear the 35th Senate District senator also gets clothing from across the pond.

To be fair, Michigan already allows you to claim an animal killed by a car, but only after first obtaining a permit from law enforcement. And in a previous blog I’ve written, Mr. Booher (R-Evart) is apparently a master deer hitter, as he’s hit 11 deer with his vehicles since first serving in the Legislature in 2004, so who can blame him?

But back to his fashion, Mr. Booher was speaking to reporters earlier this year after a Senate Appropriations Community College Subcommittee meeting about his shirt, and it turns out he – well, his wife – has a unique fashion secret.

“(My wife) goes to London every year, and my daughter, for Christmas shopping, and I get a tie or I get a shirt,” Mr. Booher told reporters. “I’m colorblind, so … my wife picks out my shirt. For 52 years guys, I haven’t done it.”

That’s both impressive and admirable for two reasons. One, the obvious length of time and the dedication of his wife to picking out his outfits, and two, Mr. Booher was also a banker for 41 years, which isn’t exactly a “dress-down” profession.

Traveling as far as he does to serve as a state senator (it’s 115 miles by vehicle between Evart and Lansing), Mr. Booher sometimes brings a bag of clothes for the week with him.

“This time, I opened up the bag today, and all three shirts were from this year’s purchases out of London,” he told reporters. “So I’ve no choice, I’ve got to wear them.”

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No, You Can’t Say Goodbye, Mr. Smith

Posted: April 1, 2016 4:02 PM

The apparent end of Sen. Virgil Smith’s legal proceedings on Monday brought a sigh of relief.

I say “sigh of relief” because of another serious news topic: the Flint water crisis.

From the time the courts were trying to decide whether to bind Mr. Smith over for trial, it seemed clear what the ultimate ending would be. Mr. Smith had, after all, turned himself in and admitted, based on a police report The Detroit News obtained, long before his plea agreement to shooting up his ex-wife’s vehicle last spring.

Then of course came the plea agreement in mid-February in which Mr. Smith pleaded guilty to just that – malicious destruction of property $20,000 or more, with conditions, including his forced resignation.

It could’ve stopped there. The judge could’ve accepted the agreement the two parties had worked on for months. Instead, he had to mull it over. Then he ruled he couldn’t force his resignation. That didn’t make the prosecutor happy, and it led to an about-face from Mr. Smith’s attorney on some of the agreement too.

What seemed to be sealed up broke open again – would he go to trial? Neither party seemed to have the desire to, but a deal is a deal for a reason. All the while, the Smith trial took attention away from the very serious matter in Flint.

Such is the course of news, one could say.

But then there was one very somber moment at the end of Mr. Smith’s trial that brought back the gravity of the situation.

Mr. Smith’s father and mother had been present, in my recollection, for at least a portion of every hearing on their son, and Monday was no different. Wayne Circuit Judge Virgil C. Smith Jr., a former member of the House and Senate, and his wife, Elizabeth sat quietly in the back of the court waiting to hear whether their son’s proceedings would continue or if this would be it.

As we know now, this was it, and in light of that was a very vulnerable moment for Mr. Smith and his family we hadn’t seen before. Mr. Smith had earlier laughed when his ex-wife prayed for mercy on his soul at his second-to-last hearing, but there was no laughing this time. He was headed to jail for 10 months, and his parents wanted some closure.

So Mr. Smith’s dad asked Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Talon if he and his wife could hug their son before he was taken away.

Of everything Mr. Talon had taken his time on up until this point, this one was different. The answer was pretty simple. With a hesitant sigh, Mr. Talon said, “Unfortunately, I have to treat him like I would anyone else, so I’m sorry, but no.”

And that was it. I can’t recall if Mr. Smith looked back at his parents or not as he was escorted away, but the vibe of the courtroom changed quickly.

I walked past Mr. Smith’s mom when I headed back to my car after the conclusion of the hearing – she was sobbing, a friend trying to console her. I can’t pretend to know everything that was going through her head but one could certainly imagine.

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In Which The Politician Is Fed Up With Politics

Posted: February 8, 2016 2:42 PM

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and his fellow Flint colleagues in both the state House and the federal government have advocated tirelessly on behalf of their community since tests by Hurley Medical Center have proven elevated blood lead levels among residents, and as we’re all humans, you have to imagine there being a breaking point for them at some point.

I tried to gage those emotions in a year-end interview with Mr. Ananich (D-Flint) in December but to no avail. He maintained an even keel about the administration’s response to his hometown’s water crisis, what it has been like in his community since the national news had been coming in and out, and what people have been saying to him in his hometown about all of it.

But last week Mr. Ananich seemed to let his guard down as he spoke about a second supplemental appropriations bill for $30 million that unexpectedly rushed through the Senate and awaits action in the House.

Speaking before final passage of SB 136*, Mr. Ananich also had a few things to say about an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) that essentially includes Treasury oversight and its ability to release such funds to the city for the intended purposes of reimbursing residents’ water bills. Mr. Ananich began by saying the amendment put “additional roadblocks” in the way of getting relief to the people who need it the most, chiding the chamber for suddenly caring about oversight (he has asked majority Senate Republicans to hold hearings on the Flint water crisis, and so far they have not).

He shifted topics a bit from the amendment to the good intention behind it to the appreciation for the swift action the Legislature has taken to help his city and then back to the supplemental as a whole. He criticized the amount of the money, stating concerns about how it was too little, saying, “No good business person would expect only a partial refund for a product that was not only unfit for use, but actually poisoned them. Of course I will be voting for this … But I live in this community. This issue is very real to me and my constituents.”

He paused for a minute, though the chamber hadn’t got much quieter in the process.

“I think we have a duty to make sure we do these proposals right,” he said.

Another pause.

“I’m done.”

I asked Mr. Ananich after session about his emotions, and he gave a very honest answer: “The frustrating part for me is that … I feel like I have to have a press conference and write scathing letters to get any action in my community. This isn’t political for me. As much as people are making it political, when I walk my dog down the street and my neighbor comes out crying because they don’t know if their three or four-year-old has lead poisoning, this isn’t a game to me.”

Just a day earlier, key lawmakers were on the fence about what had been Mr. Snyder’s $30 million proposal. It needed “time”; it needed “vetting”; there were “questions to be answered.” Then without any warning, the Senate was passing it.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it’s a lot easier to work together to try to solve a problem in my community than it is to try to do press conference, action, press conference, action. That’s a really stupid way to do things. And I just don’t want to do it that way. I want to find solutions that help the people in my community, not try to get better headlines,” he said.

“Obviously some folks are more concerned about that … we don’t’ need that. We need solutions. It’s just frustrating that when there’s an opportunity to do this right politics comes into play. Politics in this case benefits my community, so we’ll take it, but we need to do it right.”

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‘Anonymous’ Yields Warning To Snyder, City Officials On Flint

Posted: January 22, 2016 2:33 PM

The hacktivist group known as Anonymous – which has previously made headlines for threats to expose members of the terrorist organization ISIS and cheating spouses using the website Ashley Madison – has set its sights on a new target: Governor Rick Snyder and other public officials who took too long to act on the Flint water crisis.

In a video published earlier this week, an automatic, computer-like voice speaks for several minutes about the crisis in Flint, how long it’s been going on, and warns, “We must remind the city officials of Flint that we do not forget and we do not forgive. The crimes committed by Governor Snyder as well as other city officials will not go unpunished.”

The video came online the same day Mr. Snyder released almost 300 pages of emails he sent and received on the Flint water crisis in 2014 and 2015.

The governor and the Legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act – one of only two states in the nation to enjoy such an exemption – and Democrats especially have been calling for a change to that law, especially as more news develops about what Mr. Snyder’s administration (and he himself) knew and when about the crisis in Flint.

“It’s clear to us that Governor Snyder needs to be reminded that he is a servant for the very same people he has poisoned and made sick, or perhaps he never forgot. Perhaps corruption is at play here. In that case, he is now simply going to be shown the error of his evil ways,” the video says.

It’s not immediately clear if those behind the #OpFlint video (see below) actually do intend to hack state computers systems for more information or not. But late last night, MLive reported that Hurley Medical Center confirmed it had been the victim of a cyberattack of the sorts, though said patient care had not been compromised, which of course seems a strange coincidence given the timing of the Anonymous video.

The individual in the video – who is not shown nor easily identifiable by voice – suggests that Mr. Snyder be arrested and charged with either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

“Anonymous will stand beside you,” the video says. “We will amplify your voice where the mainstream media will surely fail you, as it has in the past.”

See it for yourself:

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Snyder Acknowledges Flint Water Is A Crisis

Posted: January 12, 2016 12:20 PM

There were a handful of revelations made by Governor Rick Snyder on Monday at his press conference in Flint, but there remains at least one thing, potentially, that was overlooked (perhaps because it’s been obvious to everyone else): Public acknowledgement that the water crisis in Flint is, in fact, a crisis.

Up until that point, the governor, his staff and some departments have avoided use of the word “crisis.” In its place has been “challenges,” “situation,” “issue,” and so on.

But on Monday, the framing changed. Just before Mr. Snyder opened his news conference, his official Twitter account put up a link to a livestream of the news conference with the message in the tweet, “This is a crisis.”

Public and elected officials at all levels of government, for better or worse, have to be careful about every single thing they say. Much like the nation likes to point to the president when the economy goes sour, for instance, Mr. Snyder is taking the heat as the highest ranking official in the state for every step he makes and every word he says on this issue.

But I think there are few who would disagree: This IS a crisis.

It has made national news. All of the sudden, family and friends who do not live near Flint or have moved out of the state have begun talking with me about it in our conversations, as if this is some kind of new revelation, even though the state and city have been dealing with it for much longer. Michigan is on the national stage right now for its inability to respond quickly and appropriately to problem with something that we, as a nation, largely take for granted: Clean, safe drinking water.

We don’t know how many people will ultimately be affected by the lead now and into the future. But doesn’t that uncertainty also give it some crisis credibility?

The point is, you don’t realize how much you use water until you don’t have it. Our bodies are predominately composed of water. You bathe with water, cook with water, clean with water, brush your teeth with water. The degree to which we use water in our daily lives is overlooked and underappreciated – so how could contaminated water, even if restricted to a certain area, be anything but a crisis?

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Wildlife Or … Wildlife?

Posted: January 8, 2016 3:34 PM

Governor Rick Snyder is scheduled to give his annual State of the State address on January 19, but before then, he needs help picking a program cover for it. He’s narrowed submissions down to the top five, and they’re as diverse as can be.

The designs vary from a giant heart in the middle of the state to a drawing of wild animals around a campfire and a 3D-looking model with various state landmarks. They can all be viewed on the governor’s Facebook page in a photo album named State of the State Program Covers.

To vote, one gives a “like” to his or her favorite design, and the design with the most likes by 5 p.m. today will be the winner.

The one with a substantial lead right now (about 5,100 likes at the time of writing this) draws out the mitten state and has a picture of a deer (or elk?) crossing a river with a fish, tree log and turtle on the log. The submission comes from Alaina, a seventh grader in New Baltimore.

In second place at the moment is …. more wildlife. With about 1,500 likes, a picture of wildlife around a campfire, from Emma, a ninth-grader in Gwinn (in Marquette County), will look to win.

The winner and a guest will be invited to Lansing to meet the governor and attend the State of the State address.

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John Dingell Reflects On Pearl Harbor

Posted: December 11, 2015 12:17 PM

“These are dangerous times, and we’re going to have to pull together. This business about saying, ‘pardon me, but your end of the boat is sinking,’ we can’t do that. We’re all in this damn boat together, and if your end of the boat sinks, my end is going down with it.”

That’s U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s take on the differences between the world when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor and today, as provided in a radio interview with the Detroit Free Press’ Stephen Henderson.

Mr. Dingell was in a potentially envious position (for those of us who enjoy history, at least) at the time of the attacks – he was a page in the U.S. House of Representatives the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress about going to war, and he recalled every detail about that vote – and the atmosphere of the country – in a radio interview on Monday for Mr. Henderson’s segment, “Detroit Today.”

“It was a terrible, terrible time. Everybody marched off in World War I thinking this is going to be fine, we’re going to be great. It turned out it wasn’t great. It put a black halo on every event that occurred,” Mr. Dingell said. “Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Japan were able to do terrifying things to take over the world.”

According to the interview, Mr. Dingell was actually in charge of recording the vote on going to war with Japan. He said technically, he was instructed to ensure a conservative radio host could record the speech of the president in addressing Congress, but not the proceedings of the House.

“I thought the history of this was sufficiently important, so I let him just run it, on steel tapes,” Mr. Dingell recalled.

“On the day the president came up, he spoke to the Congress at about 12:30, at which time he came in – he was handicap, he had polio – and he had to be helped in, walked on legs that were supported with steel braces.

“There was only one vote against it in the House, that was Jeannette Rankin. She voted against World War I and World War II pressure. She was from Montana, said she couldn’t commit her troops to war.

“There was a great fuss on the floor about letting her speak, and of course there were all the … people who didn’t want the U.S. to be involved in that, wanted to keep the U.S. isolation policy in place,” Mr. Dingell recalled.

Mr. Roosevelt never did get her vote, Mr. Dingell said, “and she wound up being the only vote in the House against it.”

In the Senate?

“There were some absentees in the Senate who could not get back to Washington for the vote,” he said.

And Mr. Dingell also said he could also see similarities in the fight against fascism then and the fight against global terrorism, especially ISIS, now.

“That’s quite the situation. Was, is, is going to be. Terrorism is not new,” Mr. Dingell said. “We still have it growing and brewing in the background. The United States is big and powerful and strong, but we are not so big and powerful and strong we can dictate and rule the world. We have to lead.

“The United States is going to have to continue participating with our friends or there’s this terrifying danger of all the things you see. It isn’t just the crazies that are hijacking an aircraft or killing a bunch of people – some of it is coordinated, organized, and some is not. ….it’s a time of huge risk to the United States, and it’s a time of risk of things we don’t full-well understand,” he continued. “We’re going to be spending untold sums of money with the indication that the wars are different now than they were during World War I or World War II. (Those) were fairly orderly, simple things to understand. These are now much more complex and complicated and different than they were then.”

As Mr. Dingell told Mr. Henderson, his recount of history and what lessons could be learned from what parts of it could go on and on – “I’ll go on as long as you want, because history is something spend my times studying,” he told Mr. Henderson. But the full interview is worth the listen for your lunch break – Mr. Dingell’s part begins around the 10:25 mark:

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Conservation Officers Saving Lives, And The DNR Knows How To Tell It

Posted: December 4, 2015 12:27 PM

It turns out there may be one or more very good storytellers at the Department of Natural Resources.

Earlier this week, the department sent out a newsletter telling the very detailed story of a conservation officer in Mackinac County who located a missing hunter who had left his hunting blind to track a deer he wounded.

The story begins in Clark Township on Sunday afternoon, according to the DNR. In searching for the animal, a 67-year-old man from Sault Ste. Marie became disoriented as daylight began to diminish. A little before 5:00 p.m. (about 4:50 p.m., the DNR story says), the man called 911 from his cellphone, reporting he was lost.

Deputies from the Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office and Clark Township Fire Department personnel responded to the scene and began searching, and DNR conservation officer Jon Busken soon arrived to help after hearing radio traffic about the search effort.

You’re hooked, right? There’s more (and I’m not even doing justice to their storytelling).

The story goes on to detail how the man was fortunate to be able to get cell phone reception; how the conservation officer and a member of the lost man’s hunting party were able to position themselves to shout to the lost hunter; the direction the hunter moved and when he again became disoriented; and a quote from the conservation officer about the appearance of the lost hunter, who at some point wound up in a swamp.

It took two hours for the men to make it back to Mr. Busken’s patrol truck, the DNR further described, and it was nearly 1 a.m. by the time the man was safely back at his camp.

Then there’s some generic quotes about the importance of conservation officers and suggested tips so you don’t end up like the lost hunter.

But wait, what about the deer?

After more than 600 words, the news release closes simply, “The wounded deer was not recovered.”

A complete story, indeed.

Of note: This isn’t the first story of its kind this year. The DNR, about two weeks ago, also found a lost hunter and deer tracker in Gladwin County. The battery had died on a global positioning satellite unit the lost men had with them.

That story is arguably as detail-specific from start to finish, and their wounded deer was also never found (in case you were wondering).

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Booher: A Master Deer Hitter

Posted: November 20, 2015 12:00 PM

As the Legislature takes a break until December to celebrate the state’s deer hunting season and the Thanksgiving holiday, the question most years is, who got the most deer?

The Senate GOP, on its blog, has likely already determined a winner for that: Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart).

But unfortunately for Mr. Booher, he hasn’t got deer in the traditional hunting manner. Instead, he has actually hit 11 deer, with his vehicles, going to and from his work in Lansing since first being elected to the Legislature in 2004.

“I am just lucky I guess, or is that unlucky?” Mr. Booher says in the blog.

Mr. Booher said he’s totaled five vehicles hitting deer since joining the Legislature and wrecked three others, including one especially bad incident that set off both air bags and almost caused him to go off the side of a bridge. The average he had to pay to fix his cars not totaled was around $3,800.

October and November historically have the highest number of vehicle-deer crashes in Michigan, the blog notes. Nationally, through December, drivers have a 1 in 169 chance of hitting a deer. In Michigan, those odds are 1 in 197. And in Mr. Booher’s district, the odds are 1 in 60.

For all of 2014 in Michigan, there were nearly 46,000 car-deer crashes that resulted in 1,329 injuries and eight deaths. Annually, there is an average of 134 deer-vehicle crashes each day.

The problem for Mr. Booher has become so frequent that he says he just buys used cars instead.

“Now, I just buy used cars that are dependable, but not all that pretty. I like big Mercurys,” he said. “They hold up pretty good. That way, if I hit another deer, it won’t be so expensive.”

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Michigan Lottery Looks To Cash In On Friday The 13th

Posted: November 13, 2015 1:30 PM

Some people make a big deal out of Friday the 13th – the day, not the movie – and others don’t. But one thing we now know is the Michigan Lottery does.

The Michigan Lottery sent out a press release on Thursday noting that the supposedly unlucky date is historically quite the opposite for Michigan Lottery Mega Millions players. In fact, they say that since 2009, lottery players have won more than $95.5 million in big prizes playing the multi-state game on any given Friday the 13th.

And two of those players won Mega Millions jackpots on said days – one individual from Kalamazoo won a $27 million jackpot on Friday, May 13, 2011, and another from Port Huron won the game’s $66 million jackpot on Friday, June 13, 2014.

Among a list of Friday the 13th Mega Millions winners since 2009, it looks like the average winnings were about $10,000 for individuals from Au Gres, Muskegon, New Boston, and another Muskegon in 2012 (the first was from 2010).

Two people from southeast Michigan each won $1 million on December 13, 2013, as well, but otherwise there was no clear track record of whether more winners came from the west side, east side, or the north (though it does seem safe to say, sadly, that no winners since 2009 have come from the general Lansing area).

The jackpot for tonight’s drawing is slated for around $200 million, and while each Mega Millions play is only $1, tickets are sold in 44 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

If only we could know the common link, if any, among the numbers these people picked, too.

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‘Charles Hertel’ Debating ‘Paul Colbeck’

Posted: October 16, 2015 12:21 PM

No, that’s not a horrendous error on the part of Gongwer News Service about two sitting senators, Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr.

But it has become a bit of a Senate joke in the last couple of days when Mr. Colbeck (R-Canton Township) tweeted to his followers that Mr. Hertel (D-East Lansing) had accepted his challenge from last week that Mr. Colbeck debate any colleague in the House or Senate that believes tax increases are a necessary part of a road funding solution (since he does not share that sentiment, of course).

The conversation began on Wednesday, and it went something like this:

@pjcolbeck: We have a taker on road debate challenge – Senator Charles Hertel (D)

@CurtisHertelJr: @pjcolbeck looking forward to it Senator Paul Colbeck (R)

Hours later, Mr. Colbeck realized the mistake he had made, tweeting: @CurtisHertelJr Sorry Curtis … long day. I appreciate opportunity to hear why you believe tax increases are needed to fix roads.

Mr. Hertel was graceful about it all, responding that he is looking forward to the discussion, and Mr. Colbeck returned with thanks, telling Mr. Hertel to have a blessed weekend. But that obviously hadn’t stopped others from chiming in on the slip-up.

In fact, Mr. Hertel (or his staff, he claimed Thursday when talking to reporters) showed off his pop culture knowledge by tweeting a link to a song called “That’s Not My Name” by The Ting Tings.

And Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) had tweeted, “Charles? Technically, I think Colbeck has already lost the debate. #mileg #thisiswhywecanthavenicethings”

Mr. Colbeck responded to Mr. Singh, “I’m much better with numbers ;)”

The debate is open to the public and is scheduled for an hour, beginning at 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 20. As of Thursday, the pair had still been working out the details of where, but it appears that Mr. Colbeck has since said it would be in Room 110 of the Farnum Building.

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The Debut Of A Dog Into Paw-litics

Posted: October 12, 2015 4:27 PM

Last week, a certain boxer-mix rescue dog celebrated her fourth year of adoption in a very special way: Posing with House Appropriations Committee members, including committee chair Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville).

Bryndle, the pup in question (seen in this picture with Mr. Pscholka), belongs to Anna Heaton, who used to work communications for the House Republicans before her current position in the communications office of Governor Rick Snyder.

Bryndle and Mr. Pscholka pose for a photo on the capitol lawn.

Bryndle posed for several pictures that would be sent out in a press release about legislation by Rep. Mike McCready that would provide funding to address and properly regulate large-scale pet breeding facilities. In the pictures were Mr. McCready, Mr. Pscholka and Rep. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo), the vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

That legislation is now scheduled to be taken up this week for a vote by the committee.

While it’s evident by the pictures that Bryndle is a natural at striking a pose, one has to wonder how she got there in the first place.

It turns out Bryndle goes to doggie daycare a couple days a week at a place in town, as does the dog of another senior staffer in the House, and so it was decided to bring Bryndle on over.

“She’s really well-behaved. She can be off a leash and listen to whatever I say,” Ms. Heaton said. “They thought it would be a really good idea, and who doesn’t love a cute picture of a dog?”

Spoken like a true dog lover. Apparently Bryndle was happy to pose for the pictures – “She loves the attention,” Ms. Heaton said – and had never met any of the representatives prior to her photo shoot despite Ms. Heaton’s experience in the House.

As the Senate reporter for Gongwer and mother to an adopted dog myself, I can only hope that the Senate decides to take a page from the House and involve a dog at some point should the legislation afford the opportunity.

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Amash Gets A Nod From Conservative Publication

Posted: October 2, 2015 3:47 PM

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township) is getting a nod to become the next U.S. House speaker in the wake of the resignation of outgoing U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

A columnist with The Week is suggesting that Mr. Amash take the lead in Washington.

He is indeed a new breed of Republican, as the article points out – “he was elected at the height of Tea Party fervor, but he’s better described as a libertarian Republican, more in step with millennials’ concerns about privacy, peace and personal liberty” – and has a passion for the basics of the institution.

Mr. Amash certainly hasn’t declared he’s running (though he did tweet the article) and there doesn’t seem to be any speculation that he would. But it is an interesting point: the future of any party relies on bringing up the next generation, and Mr. Amash is in a unique position in that he’s not too old to not be able to relate to young folks, but he’s not too young to be ignorant.

During the Boehner speakership, Mr. Amash was an outcast, clashing with the speaker, who booted him from key committees.

But depending on the next speaker, Mr. Amash could become more of a key player.

That said, one of the most overlooked things about a leadership position is that sometimes you have to do things you personally do not want to do. Your role is to promote the caucus and its will. You need to get stuff done so that your members can take results back to their constituents – and your national party can say they’re doing something at all – but you can’t do too much, especially with the opposing party in a position like the president, because they’ll want to take credit too.

It would certainly be a new and challenging role for Mr. Amash in the unlikely event he chose to take it on.

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Huizenga Scoops Everyone On Boehner Departure

Posted: September 25, 2015 2:09 PM

Whenever U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) leaves office, he might consider a career in news because it was the third-term Republican from Zeeland who first broke the startling news Friday that U.S. House Speaker John Boehner would resign from his post and from Congress at the end of October.

According to our counterparts at Gongwer News Service/Ohio Report – and the timestamps on Twitter agree – Mr. Huizenga was the first to reveal publicly the Boehner resignation news when he hit “tweet” at 9:26 a.m. on a post that said, “Speaker Boehner just announced in Conference that he will resign as Speaker and from Congress at the end of October.”

Four minutes later, The New York Times tweeted its article on the Boehner resignation and the story was off and running.

In an interview with Gongwer News Service, Mr. Huizenga said he was actually shocked that he was the first to break the news.

“We live in a social media world,” he said. “I figured there were probably simultaneous press releases being sent from the speaker’s office.”

Within 30 minutes, Twitter had exploded about the news. Mr. Huizenga’s spokesperson, Brian Patrick, said his office was “inundated” with phone calls when I first called to try talking with the representative.

“I felt it was clearly newsworthy and timely. I felt it was important to get that word out,” Mr. Huizenga said. “It wasn’t like he was saying this was a secret … it was something that clearly he would’ve not made the announcement to us if he wasn’t serious.”

Newsworthy. Timely. Spoken like a journalist. He’s even got promotion down, as he exclaimed at the end of our conversation, “Watch my Twitter!” as to what’s next for his caucus.

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Social Media On The Mackinac Spat

Posted: September 18, 2015 3:06 PM

Two Republican campaign officials are making headlines for themselves, and by extension, their respective GOP presidential candidates, after one tweeted Friday morning the other had punched him in the face at a bar on Mackinac Island prior to the Republican conference officially getting underway.

To be sure, there ought to be some good news to come out of the conference, namely as it relates to the numerous GOP presidential candidates that have decided to attend. Arguably few, however, could have seen a bar brawl as the first headline off the island.

John Yob, who is working for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky, was allegedly punched by Rich Beeson, the deputy campaign manager for Florida U.S. Marco Rubio’s campaign. A video has popped up on the website of the National Journal (keep an eye in the left corner) of the apparent incident that occurred just after midnight, Friday, at Horn’s bar (the video is also on YouTube).

Mr. Yob, on his Twitter, has called for Mr. Rubio to fire Mr. Beeson immediately after the spat, which has garnered national headlines.

But perhaps the best responses have come on social media, most poking fun at the ordeal, and some mocking the media headlines that suggest it was “bar brawl” or even a “fight,” when, as the video shows, it looks more like a quick sucker punch.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney of the Truscott-Rossman firm, tweeted, “Surely this is not the first time someone has wanted to land a punch somewhere in the vicinity of John Yob’s mouth.”

And Sam Inglot, spokesperson for Progress Michigan, tweeted a meme of what appears to be two grown men at a soccer match being separated by referee during a dispute, the ref who casually attempts to push one man away from the fight and in turn dramatizes that he had been hit in the throat. “Here’s how it went down on the island,” he says.

About an hour later, Inglot also says, “If that was a ‘punch’ that Yob took, then my cat ‘punches’ me every day when we wrestle.”

Former Republican Rep. Chris Ward, now an analyst for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, posted on his Facebook, “The last time someone got punched at Horns during a GOP Conference, they became Senate Majority Leader and a member of Congress. Looking for big things from John Yob.”

Indeed, as the Detroit Free Press reports, in 2003, at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference on Mackinac, now-U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (then a state senator), was punched as he attempted to board a carriage near Horn’s Bar.

Here’s to Day One on the island.

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Ken Horn For … Dogs?

Posted: August 28, 2015 2:17 PM

Sen. Ken Horn loves dogs. That’s incredibly evident to anyone who checks his Facebook page, where he fairly regularly posts pictures of his own dog, Riley, sometimes accompanied by a dialogue he and his dog have had. But Mr. Horn took his love for dogs a step further recently to help out a pooch in his hometown.

According to his Facebook page, Mr. Horn (R-Frankenmuth) had decided to pitch in another $500 of his own money for information leading to the arrest of the individual(s) responsible for the abuse and abandonment of a dog, who has since been named Lucky, on the side of a road in Mr. Horn’s hometown of Frankenmuth. The dog appears, in an article by Mlive, to have been emaciated, and the Humane Society is offering a $5,000 reward as a result.

Apparently, Lucky has been adopted out and recovering at a vet’s office. Happy tails!

But it doesn’t stop there. Yesterday, Mr. Horn stopped by the animal shelter where Lucky was recovering – apparently at the request of his own dog – to check in on the abandoned dog and drop off “extra treats that clogged up our puppy-supply closet,” he wrote.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) also posted a picture on his Twitter feed of his dog, Maddie, on National Dog Day on Wednesday, noting that Mr. Ananich’s favorite part of the day is taking her for a walk.

In the wake of all this Courser-Gamrat scandal and no agreement on road funding stuff, it’s refreshing to see a bit of light-heartedness come from these two legislators (and I’m sure plenty others, apologies for those I didn’t catch).

I wonder what the chances are that the two might team up for some bipawtisanship in the near future?

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Courser’s Cryptic Messaging

Posted: August 21, 2015 12:54 PM

Earlier today, embattled Rep. Todd Courser posted a quote to his Facebook page by the second president of the United States, John Adams, speaking about ruin, which has since been removed.

“I have accepted a seat in the (Massachusetts) House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.”


As mentioned, the post has since been removed from his Facebook page, though he still links to it on his Twitter (and I’m not sure how much longer that will be true once this gets published).

The quote is somewhat cryptic, to be sure, but is Mr. Courser (R-Silverwood) calling his own fate? That may not be surprising as an investigation into the potential use of state resources between he and Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell), with whom he had an affair, expects to wrap up within the next few days.

Or is he warning a successor?

Mr. Courser has since posted a statement on his Facebook thanking those who have sent messages of support to him and his family.

“Your path is yours, you will have many who will walk parts of it with you, and some who will walk it against you, but none can walk it for you - I appreciate all of those who have been praying for me and my family and who have sent blessings of support! I can't tell you how much they have meant to us!”

Further complicating matters, The Detroit News reported late last night that a private investigator hired by Ms. Gamrat to identify the individual who owns the phone number used to send her and Mr. Courser text messages threatening to expose their affair if Mr. Courser did not resign is supposedly close to revealing that name pending a second confirmation. Which perhaps is like saying I will announce I won the lottery pending a second confirmation, but also, does it matter who sent the texts since they don’t rise to the level of blackmail or extortion given the texter never asked for money or anything else of value?

In any case, the spokesperson for Ms. Gamrat told the News the name is not Ms. Gamrat, her husband Joe, Mr. Courser, Mr. Courser’s brother, or any of the legislators’ former aides, Keith Allard, Joshua Cline and Ben Graham.

Is it just me, or has this whole ordeal felt an awful lot like the game Clue?

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The Gamrat News Conference Scene

Posted: August 14, 2015 4:35 PM

I have to give the Abood Law Firm proper kudos on their interior design, which was both rustic and modern at the same time – a personal favorite, especially as an avid HGTV watcher. But it’s a tough sell as a location for a press event of the magnitude that is Rep. Cindy Gamrat speaking publicly for the first time about her dirty laundry being aired out in the news media during the past week.

Water provided to reporters at the Gamrat news conference. I promise it’s water.

First off, I don’t want to give the impression that I just complain about these types of events/their locations. To be fair, it’s hardly documented when something goes well in these press event ordeals, and that happens way more frequently than it does not, generally by people who specialize in that sort of event planning thing.

But even Abood admitted this was their first crack at such a big-time news conference-type event.

A reporter asked one of the Abood attorneys whether they had done something like this – a press conference – before, to which Mr. Abood confidently answered “Yes.” Asked if they had handled anything of this magnitude, of this circus-like atmosphere before, Mr. Abood honestly and straight-faced said “No.”

The Abood firm has handled its share of high-profile local criminal cases, but this was an event of statewide magnitude with interest from four media markets.

And it was a bit of a circus. My colleague and I arrived more than an hour early for the event, and it’s good we did, because being among the first 10 or so people to enter what would be our small press conference area proved to be critical. Still, that’s pretty unheard of to arrive an hour early for a news conference on something that doesn’t involve the governor, a gubernatorial candidate, the president or a presidential candidate.

There was no security clearance, no ID check, nothing would typically warrant the need to be there so early, and yet it was so necessary: Eventually a crowd of roughly 30 reporters and camera persons piled into what would basically be considered a sitting room or a lobby even. The area was roped off where Ms. Gamrat would speak (we’re still not sure why, but I guess it’s beneficial for those camera folks). There were no chairs (which also makes sense – more room). And the screen behind Ms. Gamrat was bizarre. It had her name, but behind her name (and perhaps symbolically ‘standing’ behind her, then) was the name of the law firm repeated over and over in synchronized lines.

And again, to be fair, I’m told the firm had prepared an overflow if necessary, but who wants to be in the overflow room? Reporters would rather pack themselves into a small area like sardines and share breathing space with one another than be in overflow. (Note: PR people please don’t take this too much to heart – continue to offer overflow rooms when necessary).

Ironically, what Ms. Gamrat was staring at beyond the dozens of news cameras was an American flag art piece, potentially done on a palate or some kind of wood. In my experience with these events, that seemed like it would be a better focal point than the TV screen that emits light every camera has to balance.

All in all, though, the people were very nice, and they did offer us some water – even if it looked like a pint of vodka (see picture) – or pop. Yes, that was a little weird too – the vodka-looking water, not the offering itself. Though at the end of a week like this, a bit of vodka doesn’t sound bad either.

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Republicans Suddenly Dislike SCOTUS

Posted: July 31, 2015 11:58 AM

Following major end-of-term rulings by the Supreme Court regarding the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, unfavorable opinions of the Supreme Court have reached a 30-year high, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center has found. And, opinions about the court and its ideology have never been more politically divided, it says.

Generally speaking, Pew found that 48 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the Supreme Court currently while 43 percent view the court unfavorably. While the latter is only up slightly since its last poll in March (when 39 percent logged an unfavorable opinion), the most striking difference comes in the views from Republicans.

Just 33 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of the court, while 61 percent have an unfavorable view, Pew found.

Since March, the share of Republicans viewing the court favorably has fallen 17 percentage points (from 50 percent to 33 percent), while the share with an unfavorable impression has jumped 21 percentage points (from 40 percent to 61 percent), making Republicans’ views of the Supreme Court more negative than at any point in the past three decades.

But it’s no wonder. While I’m (sometimes regrettably) so immersed in state politics to be following things at the federal level in nearly as much detail, it’s not rocket science that the last two major rulings have been a dagger in the hearts of some of the most conservative Republicans.

What I like about Pew, among other things, is they know how to read a journalist’s mind.

The center’s poll compared this rate of Republican dissatisfaction since essentially the start of President Barack Obama’s term. According to their numbers, roughly 80 percent of those surveyed identifying as Republicans viewed the court favorably in 2008, compared to 64 percent for Democrats. When Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed between 2009 and 2010, that began to trickle down, but Democrats could argue that the Citizens United decision on campaign finance kept Republicans pretty stable until their arch nemesis decision in 2012 regarding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act came.

Republican favorability for the court appears to have dipped more over the appointment of Justice Elena Kagan than it did for Ms. Sotomayor, but when polled slightly after the Kagan appointment, 52 percent of Republicans still had a favorable view of the court. That ticked up ever so slightly until 2012, at which point favorability of the court shot down to 38 percent while Democrats still hovered around 64 percent.

Again, Pew shows us an uptick in 2013 when SCOTUS made its ruling on the Voting Rights Act and striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (38 percent Republican favorability), and a big surge for Republicans when Hobby Lobby came down last year.

And then, the rest is history.

Interestingly though, Democratic favorability of SCOTUS has never gone below about 50 percent since 2008. The survey was conducted July 14-20 among 2,002 adults.

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Smith’s December Trial Leaves Issue Lingering

Posted: July 9, 2015 1:52 PM

Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) was arraigned today on charges relating to a May incident involving his alleged shooting of his ex-wife’s Mercedes Benz after also allegedly getting into a domestic violence dispute with her, among other charges. His trial was set for … wait for it … December 7.

The issue has been a major distraction for Senate Democrats who are, even just 11 members in the 38-seat Senate, trying to be heard on any array of issues they can. And it seems unlikely that the Senate GOP will truly push Mr. Smith into resignation absent a felony conviction because he has been lending his vote to the party, especially on tough issues like road funding.

Case in point: Had Mr. Smith voted no on a pair of bills hiking the gasoline tax that ultimately required Lt. Governor Brian Calley to break a tie, the bills -- assuming no other change in votes – would have been defeated, albeit barely, but defeated. But of course, hindsight is 20/20.

To be sure, Mr. Smith has pleaded “not guilty,” and his preliminary exam focused heavily on whether or not Anistia Thomas, his ex-wife, forced her way into Mr. Smith’s home or if she was invited in.

The difference is significant, too. If Ms. Thomas did in fact force her way into the home, then maybe Godfrey Dillard, Mr. Smith’s attorney, has a chance with his “self-defense” argument after all. If she was invited, obviously that doesn’t bode well for Mr. Smith.

Needless to say, Mr. Smith has his right to due process of the law, a fair trial and remaining innocent until proven guilty as the justice system demands.

It remains to be seen what happens, if anything, with Mr. Smith between now and his trial on December 7, but that gives the Senate, and especially the GOP, virtually the rest of the year to lobby Mr. Smith for his vote, and argue that they’re “letting the process run its course” before making a decision on his role in the chamber.

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Oh, Those First Bill Hijinks

Posted: March 12, 2015 12:13 PM

It’s Thursday. Temperatures are above zero, and even above 20 degrees, on a consistent basis, so it certainly feels like spring is in the air. The general feel on the Senate floor on Thursdays (and I’d imagine in the House as well) is usually pretty relaxed, but I had no idea what shenanigans were about to take place.

Today, Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) had his first bill passed in the Senate, SB 112*, part of a package of several bills that removes the phrase “crippled children” from state law. And Mr. Hertel, in urging his colleagues to vote yes on the bill, tried to stick to that point prior to voting.

Good try, senator.

After Mr. Hertel explained his bill, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) rose to speak at the podium, congratulating him on what would inevitably pass as his first bill in his first term as a Michigan senator, but also to remind him of the long-standing tradition that comes with such an honor. If you haven’t already guessed – I’ve never seen this tradition before, but apparently it involves requiring the bill sponsor to return to the podium multiple times and also buy lunch for all of his or her colleagues.

The Senate has kept this tradition alive because it generally only comes up once every four years and, given the 38-seat size of the body, is relatively infrequent. The House mercifully scrapped the tradition a few years ago after the term limits era – producing roughly 35-40 new members every two years – basically turned the first six months of the term into a constant parade of first-bill “jokes” that ceased to be funny and made anyone in the chamber when it was occurring question whether he or she had made the wrong choices in life, according to one of my colleagues.

In response to Mr. Meekhof’s calling on the tradition, Mr. Hertel responded, “Any time we’re doing something for children that should be our own reward.” After getting a response from his colleagues that clearly they wanted more, he continued, “But at the same time, I have talked to a local restauranteur in my district, Beggar’s, that may be providing lunch for members and their staff sometime in the near future.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall (R-White Lake Township) then rose to the podium.

“I’d like to remind the junior member of this Senate that there is a chain of events, and it’s deep in tradition in this Senate,” he said, adding that there is a “food chain” in the chamber. “You have to remind yourself where you stand in that food chain.”

Then Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) rose to the podium to respectfully remind Mr. Hertel of his love of food.

“I want to thank my good friend from Flint,” Mr. Hertel responded, referring to Mr. Ananich. “I know of his strong desire to have food from my local area, or anyone’s area really. I appreciate and know my place in the food chain. With only 11 members here, it’s hard to forget that. I would appreciate your full consideration as this (bill) is for the children, and how could we forget them?”

Then it was Sen. Joe Hune’s (R-Whitmore Lake) turn. He said that he appreciated Mr. Hertel bringing the bill forward, but noted that he “did not get to the MEAT (emphasis added) of the matter” and therefore the bill should be passed for the remainder of the term.

“I know what a fan of animals my colleague from Livingston County is,” Mr. Hertel responded, likely referring to the exotic animal farm that Mr. Hune and his family operate. “I can promise you there will be no camel meat, but at the same time, while we are promising a full lunch – there will be salads, there will be an entree, and there will be a dessert – and I think that should be enough for everyone. And again, this one is for the children.”

Lt. Governor Brian Calley, presiding as the president of the Senate, flipped on his mic.

“Senator Hune is felling generous. He said you can skip the salad,” Mr. Calley said.

And with that, Mr. Hertel’s bill passed unanimously, with a majority of the chamber of course first voting in opposition and switching by the time the shot clock ran out. Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit) missed out today, and I’d imagine the tour guides had a little more explaining to do for guests in the gallery.

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The Unscripted Randy Richardville

Posted: January 2, 2015 12:56 PM

Former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville has tried to be no one other than himself during his tenure in leadership, and he reflected that in his farewell speech two weeks ago, saying he hoped to be known back home “simply as Randy, the guy from Monroe.”

But it’s impossible to be off-the-radar in a leadership position, and Mr. Richardville had a flair with words.

He maintained a relationship with the news media such that he was as open and honest as he could be about the happenings of the Legislature, and he never shied away from an opportunity to speak to, clarify, or defend what was or was not going on.

As such, he developed, at least with the press, a way of answering-but-maybe-not-answering your question – a challenge for any reporter. He knew how to be careful, somewhat unassuming, but still a real person. Though he had a spokesperson at his side just in case, there was little stopping him when he got going and he still generally said whatever was on his mind – a refreshing concept (when it did happen) in a world of sanitized written statements.

Below is a handful of some of the more unscripted things he’s said, whether as part of a whole scrum after session or not, in the past couple of years:

When asked about his position on energy choice legislation in the House: “I believe there are enough choices out there and you have to make up your mind. You have to make a choice. There is no man’s land. In the Book of Revelation, they talk about either the water has to be hot or cold, but not lukewarm.” (pause, with laughs) “Sorry about that reference.”

“Let me see if I can make this better. The average age of a power plant in Michigan is between 50 and 60 years – which is where most men reach their peak by the way – but not energy.” (pause, with laughs) “Snuck that one in there!”

On not giving immediate effect to Medicaid expansion: “It’s kind of like we had this really big dinner. We got the dinner done and now some people are asking for dessert. We’re going to skip dessert on this one and move forward.”

On not knowing the plan for Detroit’s Grand Bargain: “It’s like someone saying ‘this soup is great’ but not telling you what’s in it.”

On who he thinks would play him, other than himself, in a movie about his career: “William Shatner.”

Right before voting on the Detroit bankruptcy package: “Some people watch The History Channel. Here, we make history.”

On whether he has enough time to complete a road funding package with a week before summer break: “Oh yeah. God created the world in what, six days? And we’re only halfway there, so.”

On not voting on a term limits resolution: “I’ve said all along that we’re not going to push things through this lame duck just to push them through unless they are politically expedient for me. (pause) That’s just a joke."

On whether the chamber will vote on former House Speaker Jase Bolger’s (R-Marshall) Religious Freedom Restoration Act (one week before the final session day): “I haven’t teed that up yet. I’m not even in the tee box. But I’m on the golf course!”

On finding a road funding solution (one week before final session day): “I’d really like to get to a solution, maybe two or three solutions, but there’s no new work to be done here. Not much anyway. Most of it is just rehashed ideas and making hard decisions. How long does it take to do it? It’s really about having the chutzpah to do it.”

On his enthusiasm to vote on a bill involving removing certain public notices in newspapers: “I’m still an old-fashioned guy. I like to have my coffee and my paper, do the crossword puzzle in the morning. I’m not really thrilled with it, but (the sponsor has) got a whole ‘nother term. … I personally think it goes too far, so I’m not excited about it becoming a priority over here.”

On a subject that Mr. Richardville declined to name for the record: “If it was an eighth-grade science project, it would have to be sent home because it’s so bad.”

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Transportation Funding: Taking A Page From History

Posted: May 23, 2014 1:48 PM

“Whether Michigan’s Legislature breaks this week for its summer recess may depend in large part on whether the executive office, lawmakers and interest groups can reach agreement on a transportation reform program to help rebuild the state’s deteriorating road system.”

It has been said that history repeats itself, but somehow it’s more striking when history-repeated is staring you right in the face. The previous quote is from a story from the Gongwer News Service report for June 30, 1997, but clearly it could be easily transposed to apply to the current debate at the Capitol nearly 20 years later in 2014.

Skimming through the report for the next two weeks or so of 1997 (the House eventually cast the final vote on its own bill that increased the gas tax 4 cents on July 15, 1997 “just before 5 a.m.”) is like following the debate now with different names: Stories of frustration and deals collapsed every other day; negotiating votes in support of the increase in exchange for this or that; and quotes of bipartisanship when the bill finally passes.

And some of the bargaining chips are similar: “The leaders have apparently agreed that in exchange for a four-cent a gallon gas tax increase to take effect August 1, the state’s personal exemption will be increased by $100 and tax credits will be given on child care and college tuition.” That one is from July 8, 1997, and Senate Democrats are using similar arguments now before lending their support: increase the minimum wage, repeal the pension tax, or restore the Earned Income Tax Credit.

An interesting point throughout is the name of then-Governor John Engler and his role in rallying support for what veterans will say was Engler’s plan to begin with. There are meetings in the middle of the day, at midnight, and at 1 a.m. before the House voted on what would become PA 83 of 1997.

And another point of interest is how fast it moved: What eventually became the gas tax hike was introduced at the beginning of June 1997 and was signed into law in September (though the Legislature completed its work on the measure in July, it was not presented for two months), records show.

Governor Rick Snyder has presented a plan to increase road funding for the last several years of his first term in office and legislators have only recently begun to get serious about it (many say due in large part to the harsh winter the state experienced this year). Yet some have questioned how hard Mr. Snyder is working to capitalize on the momentum the House has provided to the matter in recent weeks.

Republicans in the House took the lead then, and they have again now – when then-Majority Leader Ken Sikkema was offered the chance to amend the eventual gas tax bill to include the tax hike, he didn’t, instead making technical changes and leaving it to the House Democrats to include the tax increase language.

Currently, the entire package awaits action in the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) has vowed to take some of the most significant bills up come next week. He has shown a dedication since receiving the House plan to getting it done before the Legislature breaks for summer too, but one can only imagine that interested parties are hoping not to see this 1997 headline rehashed: “Tax Proposal In Flux As House Acts, Senate Bolts.”

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Schauer’s Surprise Appearance Brings Together Two ‘Brits’

Posted: May 15, 2014 4:03 PM

Since it’s an unusual sight to find Governor Rick Snyder on the Senate floor during or immediately following session, one might argue it would be just as unusual for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer to be on the floor – except for the fact that he’s a former state senator.

With that distinction comes the ability to visit your old stomping grounds whenever you please, and Mr. Schauer used that to his advantage on Thursday when he swung by the press corps box to “say hello” and compliment current Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) on passing legislation “almost identical” to a proposal he himself had presented (and the Democratic Party is already jumping all over that in the wake of the passage of the minimum wage increase in SB 934*).

But just because you’re allowed to come on the floor doesn’t mean you’re welcome, especially when you’re a Democrat entering the Republican side, or vice versa.

In fact, when Mr. Schauer dropped by, there were looks of bewilderment from many top Republican staffers, and looks of concern from Republican senators. “What is he doing here and what’s he going to say now?” appeared to be feeling most readable on the faces of those on the right.

Of course, the media hopped right up from its chairs to talk to Mr. Schauer in spite of frantically typing away news updates about the chaos that had just ensued. After all, in a matter of days, Mr. Richardville had gone from minimum-wage “villain” to applause-worthy by presenting a bill that found support from 10 of the 12 Democratic senators and 14 of the 26 Republican senators.

But what Mr. Schauer had to say undoubtedly surprised a lot: “I’m thrilled. This is the kind of bipartisanship we need at the state capitol.”

As he wrapped up talking to the media, Mr. Richardville jumped in with a firm handshake and what one can only guess was a greeting perhaps familiar to the two Albion College alumni.

“Hey congratulations,” Mr. Schauer said to Mr. Richardville. “I’m here to say thank you.”

Enter the sigh of relief from Mr. Richardville’s spokesperson, Amber McCann, and other Republican staffers listening in to Mr. Schauer’s remarks to the press. Everything was cordial.

Mr. Richardville accepted the gratitude and responded, “Doesn’t mean I’m endorsing you or anything, okay? Don’t get me wrong.”

It’s still unclear at this point the fate of the bill in the House or more, a signature of approval from Mr. Snyder. But at least for now, the two Albion Britons gave us something to talk about.

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Long-Shot Candidate Seeks Divine Intervention

Posted: May 2, 2014 4:31 PM

While many legislators, candidates and others may talk about their belief in God and gratitude for Jesus, one candidate for the 4th Senate District has taken that a step further in his extremely uphill bid with a one-of-a-kind committee name: God Jesus Elect Howard Worthy State Senator.

For added measure, Mr. Worthy made the acronym for his campaign committee TGBTG – To “God” Be the Glory.

Typically, campaign committees are called something more routine, like Friends of Joe Smith or Committee to Elect Janice Jones.

Based on his previous runs for the Legislature, Mr. Worthy won’t have much of an impact in the heavily Democratic 4th where Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) is the incumbent and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) is Mr. Smith’s top competition for the Democratic nomination.

In 2010, Mr. Worthy ran for the 14th Senate District seat where Sen. Vincent Gregory (D-Southfield) won a crowded primary and Mr. Worthy placed a very distant third (about 3.77 percent of the vote). Then in 2012, Mr. Worthy decided to run in the 35th House District seat where Rep. Rudy Hobbs (D-Southfield) won by an even larger margin and Mr. Worthy again placed third (9.23 percent of the vote).

Based on that track record, maybe Mr. Worthy has the right idea turning to Providence for help.

Howard Worthy’s statement of organization naming his campaign committee.

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Hune Has A Little Fun With ‘Hump Day’

Posted: April 9, 2014 3:24 PM

Wednesday has hardly been anyone’s favorite day of the week, and camels are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when someone answers “what’s your favorite animal.” But Geico Insurance arguably breathed new life into both those, airing a commercial over the last year with a camel walking through an office full of tired people in cubicles and bothering anyone he can to respond to the question “Guess what day it is?” with “hump day.”

Photo courtesy of Sen. Joe Hune

And Sen. Joe Hune (R-Hamburg Township), whose family owns an exotic farm (with camels, of course) has taken that even-toed ungulate humor to a new level.

It seems almost every Wednesday since the beginning of last November, Mr. Hune posts a picture of a camel and a caption reminding everyone that “it’s hump day!”

Today, hopefully in the spirit of a beautiful spring day and baby animals being born during the spring, he did it again, this time with (admittedly) an awfully cute baby camel (pictured left):

“@joehune: Our new baby camel said: It’s Hump Day!”

By the way: Caleb, the Geico camel, was just ranked by Forbes as the fourth most popular spokes character for a company behind the Budweiser Clydesdales, Snoopy for MetLife, and Dean Winters – better known as “Mayhem” – for Allstate Insurance Company, respectively.

No worries Caleb, I’d imagine it’s a tough fight against a bunch of horses that refuse to let a puppy go to a new owner (SuperBowl ad, anyone?)

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President, In Ann Arbor, Tries To Make Amends On Hoops Bracket

Posted: April 2, 2014 5:13 PM

ANN ARBOR – It’s a time-honored tradition that a president, any president, will encourage his crowd at a university by saying a few of the university’s chants or recognizing the mascot or whatever.

I thought this particular visit by President Barack Obama to the University of Michigan would be interesting given he picked Michigan State University’s basketball team to win it all this year in his annual Barack-ology. Here he is, facing a crowd of supporters, despite overlooking U-M’s team this year.

To make it even more interesting, a few of the stars of U-M basketball, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III in particular, were in attendance for the president’s speech at the university’s intramural facility.

And sure enough, the president opened by chanting that phrase – which a Spartan like myself would not dare repeat – associated with U-M (I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t “Go Green”). But the president didn’t stop there. He said his bracket was a mess (though I suspect he shares that with a majority of Americans) and that he would not root against the Wolverines again.

That was met, of course, with cheers so loud you’d have thought the windows would break.

Rivalry aside, the president played well to a mostly college-aged crowd. He talked about more affordable and accessible higher education; staying on your parents’ health care until 26 under the Affordable Care Act; and that some 7 million people registered for affordable health insurance.

As for the rivalry – here’s to a better year next year, for both of us.

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Ten Words Or Phrases One Is Almost Guaranteed To Hear In Lansing

Posted: March 11, 2014 4:29 PM

Journalists love a good quote like kids love Christmas morning. A whole story could be built up or shaped around a single, solitary quote from a legislator or lobbyist.

But on the other side are the, frankly, overused, shop-worn, exhausted words and phrases that are seized on endlessly.

Okay, reporters are guilty of typing up a tired phrase too, but isn’t it time for lawmakers and their scribes to exercise the frontal lobes and work up some new phrases? These now commonplace comments (collected by the Gongwer staff) highlight almost every debate, committee meeting, press release or soundbite :

  • “hardworking men and women/seniors/families of Michigan,”
  • “concerns,”
  • “across the aisle,”
  • “for the children,”
  • “taxpayers,”
  • “it’s possible” (with no further explanation),
  • “win-win,”
  • “common-sense solution,”
  • “underserved,” and
  •  “laying the groundwork.”

Let’s lay the groundwork instead for new, lively, more expressive words and phrases. Try overburdened instead of hard working, for example.

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Wild Day In Senate After Secretary Johnson’s Issue Ad Proposal

Posted: November 14, 2013 4:06 PM

As Secretary of State Ruth Johnson announced a proposal for a huge rule change that would mean groups funding so-called issue ads about candidates for office to disclose their donors and spending activity, Senate Republicans were already working feverishly to defy it.

The story begins last night, when allegedly both Ms. Johnson and Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) were in discussions with Governor Rick Snyder and his administration about the proposed rule change. Mr. Meekhof would be discussing his bill SB 661*, which doubles campaign contribution limits and increases reporting requirements for certain groups, in the Senate Local Government Operations Committee the next morning.

The committee met this morning at 8 a.m., started 10 minutes late (which is not unusual but perhaps noteworthy since notice of Ms. Johnson’s proposal was sent out around 8 a.m.), and recessed after 20 minutes until 9:30 a.m. By 9:40 this morning, the committee had reconvened and took votes on a series of bills, including Mr. Meekhof’s SB 661*. The committee seemed rushed.

Mr. Meekhof had proposed an amendment and subsequently an S-2 substitute to his bill, but refrained from explanation on either of them – usually a sure sign of partisan intrigue. By a 3-1 vote, with Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit) voting against, the bill was sent to the floor.

Upon the adjournment of committee, Republican members hastily left the room, leaving no time for media or attendee inquiry as to what those changes included. And the committee clerk told members of the media that she could get copies of the amendment and substitute to them later, but she did not have any extras at the time and had to get a move on filing the bills.

The Senate in quick-draw fashion passed the bill. Prior to the vote, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) asked for an explanation of it. When a member asks for an explanation of an amendment or a bill, usually as a courtesy, he or she gets one from the sponsor or the floor manager. In this case, the response was silence and the voting board then opened.

Session ended and reporters were, of course, was hungry for answers. But getting those answers would prove incredibly difficult, even from the voluble Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) and the bill sponsor, Mr. Meekhof, who was virtually stone-faced as he responded to the peppering of questions.

The following is part of a transcript of that five-minute exchange with reporters.

Reporter: Was the amendment a direct response to Secretary Johnson’s new proposal?

Meekhof: Well, simply what we did was codify existing administrative rules. I don’t know that you would say it’s in response to, but it’s something we were willing to codify.

Reporter: Well did you stop the committee meeting to take into consideration what Ms. Johnson did?

Meekhof: There were several stops and starts along the way. That happened to be one of them.

Reporter: And that was one of the reasons why?

Meekhof: Not necessarily that one in particular, why the committee stopped, but there were several iterations of this campaign finance to help look at the transparency and codify these rules.

Reporter: Does the amendment in effect undo what she’s trying to do?

Meekhof: I don’t know that I can speak to that, but…

Reporter: Why not?

Meekhof: I put it in there because we’re codifying existing administrative rules.

Reporter: Why was it important to codify those rules?

Meekhof: Because we believe those are the rules we’ve been operating under and we wanted to codify them.

Reporter: What do you think of Secretary Johnson’s proposal?

Meekhof: I can’t speak for her so I guess you’ll have to ask her. She’s been on plenty of media stuff so you guys will probably have got her opinion somewhere.

Reporter: Sure, I know her opinion. I’m asking what you think of her proposal.

Meekhof: I haven’t read it all. I got a head’s up last night of the things that she was going to do. I haven’t read all of it so I don’t want to comment on it until I’ve read it all.

Reporter: But you were not trying to do an end-run?

Meekhof: We’re trying to codify, improve transparency, and modernize the system, and that’s what we did today.

Reporter: So you’re not for disclosure?

Meekhof: That’s not true.

Reporter: Well what is true?

Meekhof: We modernized the system. We increased transparency. And we codified the rules that are existing.

Reporter: Is there more disclosure under this?

Meekhof: You’ll have to measure that. I can’t answer that for you.

Reporter: Do voters have the right to know who is financing issue ads?

Meekhof: The issue ads are people who want to speak and educate the public. And they should have every right to do those issue ads, to educate the public on an issue.

Reporter: Do voters have the right to know who is paying for them?

Meekhof: That’s your opinion.

Reporter: No I’m just asking a question. That’s not an opinion.

Richardville: Actually the Supreme Court already made this decision. The Supreme Court made the decision that these don’t have to be disclosed and so we codified what the Supreme Court, which is kind of a supreme voice, has already said. So this is just straight-forward codification of something that’s already in place.

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Rick Jones Goes Quiet

Posted: October 31, 2013 1:08 PM

Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) is not one for shying away from the media, but when the Senate swiftly passed a controversial bill putting Court of Appeals judges in charge of the Court of Claims (SB 652*) yesterday, he was nowhere to be found for further comment after session, nor was there a statement from his office on the bill’s passage.

In fairness, Mr. Jones has never complained, nor has he not met a deadline for comment on a story in my dealings with him. I expect he will still. But his lack of commentary – short of defending the bill in session against Democratic criticism – on the Court of Claims bill was certainly unusual. Generally, he can be found sticking around after session, finishing work or being available to reporters. But this time, he vacated the floor.

Whether that was purposeful or due to another commitment is unknown and possibly irrelevant. But at the very least, we can say it was unusual to not hear from him on his legislation.

Fortunately, he was back to his normal Rick Jones self on Thursday, boasting about the bipartisanship on SB 629*, a bill requested by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero with regard to building authority refunding bonds.

Ironically, the Democratic co-sponsor on the bill is Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), who ripped into Senate Republicans for pushing the Court of Claims bill, SB 652*, so fast through the chamber you might miss it if you blink.

That co-sponsorship is also unusual. Maybe it’s due to Halloween, maybe it’s just the nature of the bill, but maybe it’s also due to that special time of year – the big Michigan State vs. Michigan football weekend -- and the two senators representing neighboring districts both being Spartan alums.. Spartans unite?

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Young Redefines Community Service

Posted: September 18, 2013 12:02 PM

It was not unexpected that Senate Democrats would attempt several amendments prior to taking a vote on final passage on SB 276*, a bill that would codify requiring recipients of public assistance to do community service to receive the assistance, but Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit) took his amendment to a new level in redefining community service.

Mr. Young ultimately withdrew his amendment while calling the legislation “garbage,” but a copy of it was made available to media attending session: “As used in this section, ‘community service’ means working on Democratic issues or campaigns and excludes any Republican causes or charities.”

Sen. Joe Hune (R-Hamburg), sponsor of SB 276*, had already been to the podium twice before to urge defeat of two amendments, but his third time was a little different. When given the okay to speak after Mr. Young withdrew his amendment, Mr. Hune laughed some, joking that he was so prepared to speak to the amendment that he had to temporarily shift to speaking to the bill.

Normally, Mr. Young is known for giving a statement nearly every session about repealing the emergency manager law, and usually starting with a quote. Unfortunately, senators and those in attendance did not hear “Mr. President, I’d like to start with a quote…” today.

The bill ultimately passed 27-9, with two senators absent and two Democrats voting with Republicans in support of the bill. Not surprisingly, Mr. Young was not one those Democrats.

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Walker, Say What?

Posted: September 17, 2013 1:38 PM

To take a line from former president Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

That’s the way I’ve always thought of Sen. Howard Walker (R-Traverse City), and perhaps others do as well, given he is generally not one to issue press releases or run to the media at the first available opportunity to promote something, yet he has a leading role as chair of the Senate Appropriations K-12, School Aid and Education Subcommittee – a pretty newsy committee every budget cycle.

So when a video surfaced from Watchdog Wire Michigan of him telling a luncheon participant “screw you” in response to being called a “weak Republican” for his yes vote on Medicaid expansion, my reaction was much the same as the folks in the audience: What?

The article says the exchange, between Mr. Walker and radio host Brian Sommerfield, took place at a luncheon in Petoskey. Essentially, Mr. Sommerfield builds an argument for why Mr. Walker should have voted no only to hear a short, pointed response from Mr. Walker.

“You know, screw you as far as weak Republicans, dude,” Mr. Walker says.

Cue nervous laughter from the crowd, followed by confused voices: “What?”

Mr. Walker repeated himself to the inquisitor and clarified what he meant: “I said screw you as far as calling me a weak Republican.”

After Mr. Sommerfield says the comment is based on Mr. Walker’s record, Mr. Walker responds: “Heck with you. I stood by my campaign commitment and I think I did what was right. It was a lot easier saying no than it was saying yes on that. It was a very tough vote.”

Indeed, his explanation on his vote remains the same (albeit less flowery) as it was the day the Senate took a vote on the law: He doesn’t agree with Obamacare, but essentially it was the right thing to do (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 27, 2013).

The video, which cuts out right after, is posted by a user Isabel Lyman, who according to a quick Google search is a Petoskey-area writer and as recently as late June contributed a piece to the Heartland Institute. She also wrote the Watchdog piece.

The video has already received some unfavorable comments on YouTube, but considering Mr. Walker has already determined he is not running for re-election in 2014, perhaps his PR team can rest a little easier.

According to the article, Mr. Walker apologized to Mr. Sommerfield after but said he “resented the reference.”

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An MEDC Quirk In Pure Michigan Detroit Ad

Posted: August 22, 2013 1:07 PM

The new Pure Michigan advertisement touting downtown Detroit includes an homage to the Detroit Tigers that contains a very subtle nod to some longtime Michigan Economic Development Corporation staff as well.

At the very end of one of the ads, “First Time Feeling,” there is a shot of three “players” wearing Tigers’ home jerseys running out onto the Comerica Park field, the Old English D on the grass as they begin to run. Admittedly, I’m only recently a Tigers fan, but I do know most of the roster pretty well (names, not necessarily numbers). In watching the ad, a sudden thought interrupted the ubiquitous Pure Michigan theme music: Who are those Tigers?

I played the video back a couple times and tried to pause on the frame with the three individuals – which the MEDC confirmed are actors – and read at least one of the names on the jersey, Remer. I was sure the Tigers do not currently have, nor have had in at least the last five years, a player with the last name Remer.

I asked our editor, Zach Gorchow, if he was at all familiar with the name. He was not. So he too watched the ad, noting a more familiar name on the back of another jersey: Zimmermann, possibly as in George Zimmermann, vice president of Travel Michigan. It did not take much of an Internet search to find that Remer could belong to Melinda Remer, the now-retired director of Travel Michigan.

And the name of the third “Tiger” running onto an empty field in an empty stadium? That belongs to Ken Yarsevich, MEDC spokesperson Michelle Begnoche said in an e-mail inquiring about the names. Mr. Yarsevich is an advertising specialist and manages the partnership program, she said.

But other than having pretty important titles at the MEDC, why those names?

“Because rosters frequently change, we didn’t want to use the names of real players that may quickly end up outdated,” Ms. Begnoche said. “We also wanted to make sure we were using names that were not currently players in the MLB, which would require going through an additional round of approvals and permissions. At the time, there were no Zimmermanns Yarsevichs or Remers playing in the MLB.”

The only hitch is there actually is a Zimmermann – same spelling – currently in the majors. And he’s good. Jordan Zimmermann is a starting pitcher for the Washington Nationals. He has a 14-7 record with a tidy 3.37 earned run average on the season.

Given the Nationals’ disappointing season – they were expected to contend for the National League Pennant but instead are 15 games out of first place in their division with a sub-.500 record – Jordan Zimmermann probably wouldn’t mind having the chance to don a Tigers uniform.

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Purple Heart Recipient Will Start Pure Michigan 400

Posted: August 15, 2013 3:51 PM

In recent years, the Pure Michigan 400 has become a big event for NASCAR fans across the state and region. And when the annual event kicks off on Sunday, U.S. Army veteran David Balestrino Jr. of Youngstown, Ohio will wave the green start flag in honor of his six year-old son whose first year of life he missed due to serving overseas between 2003 and 2009.

Mr. Balestrino also received a Purple Heart during his service in Iraq. He was picked from a Facebook contest in which fans submitted entries of 50 words or less explaining why they should be selected as honorary starter. Mr. Balestrino’s entry received more than 800 votes and was chosen by Pure Michigan from the 10 entries with the most fan votes.

“We are honored to have David here to wave the green flag on the Pure Michigan 400,” said MIS President Roger Curtis in a statement. “He will truly experience the thrill of the start of the race as the cars pass under him. We want to thank our friends at Pure Michigan for giving David the chance to become an integral part of the NASCAR experience.”

TV star and Traverse City native Carter Oosterhouse is serving as the grand marshal of the race.

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New Senate Chambers Have Original Senate Feel

Posted: August 14, 2013 12:26 PM

The Senate returned to session Wednesday and it did so to a chamber that, when complete, will have modern conveniences with historical vision.

This summer, much of the Capitol has been under construction. In fact, the last time the Senate met in its chamber, senators were welcomed with no carpet, holes in the floor, no desks, microphones to speak in like at a concert, and caution tape identifying a center aisle and the media sections.

On Wednesday, the desks and chairs were prepared and the carpet most certainly installed. And the carpet may be one of the most fascinating features of the renovations: According to Secretary of the Senate Carol Viventi, the carpet pattern matches that of the original flooring in the chamber in the 1800s.

Two days after the 1990s renovations were complete and the building was re-opened to the public, a woman with knowledge of the chamber’s original carpet pattern (though it was unclear whether this was by having the actual carpet or a picture) came in and showed some people the pattern. It was decided then that the next time the Capitol underwent major changes, that original pattern would be reinstated in the Senate chamber.

“This, to me, really finishes the restoration,” Ms. Viventi said.

Specifically, the carpet is much lighter in color and matches the wall color a little better. On the House side – which has historically always had different carpet than the Senate – there is unfortunately no visual evidence of what the chamber looked like back in the 1890s. Until there is, the House side will make do with the same carpet pattern it had before the renovations.

The desks are original to the chamber, but the credenzas on which legislative aides usually place a laptop are being re-made. When they were first installed, they were used for computer towers. With every senator and their aides using laptops, there is a different kind of need now. More plugs are also expected to be installed for cell phone or laptop chargers as well, and much of the technological wiring is being updated.

The new carpet pattern is a replica of the original chamber’s carpet.

The new Senate chamber, from the gallery.

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Bare Senate Chamber Is One For The Books

Posted: July 3, 2013 3:14 PM

It was a unique moment for everyone that attended the Senate session on Wednesday, seeing the chamber as it has rarely ever been seen by anyone residing in the state: Stripped down to only cold, dusty, concrete floors with “caution” tape marking the points of separation among the press areas, Republican side and Democrat side.

The barren Senate floor, stripped of carpet and wiring for renovations, during Wednesday’s session.

As the Capitol undergoes renovations, it seemed odd for the Senate to meet in its typical chamber. Without carpet, the smallest sounds were heightened. There were only two microphones, one for Democrats and one for Republicans, and a pair of speakers for those speakers, the kind you might see at a small, outdoor concert.

Attendance was taken by voice record, which also proved to further elongate session when Senate Minority Floor Leader Tupac Hunter (D-Detroit) called for the yeas and nays (record roll call vote) on two different motions. That there was no voting on bills was a catch-22 of the sorts, because it moved what was meant to be a procedural session day along, but there were still well more than the usual handful of media outlets in attendance in anticipation of the discussion on Medicaid.

Without the carpet and furniture to absorb sound, Lt. Governor Brian Calley reminded those on the floor to keep their conversations quiet because the noise from those side discussions made it harder to hear the speakers.

The renovations were already apparent on the fourth floor of the building, where in the winding-down weeks of the Legislature prior to summer break it was closed for use while the work was underway. On my way to the Senate Government Operations Committee Wednesday morning in a fourth floor room in the Capitol, I can say there was a noticeable difference in the padding under the carpet at the very least.

What was previously a carpet and walls that showed the wear and tear of water damage from a leaking roof looked and felt fresh and ready for modern-day use, much as it is expected the House and Senate chambers will appear when they are ready as well.

Though Capitol Facilities has estimated work will be ongoing until the fall, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) told media after Wednesday’s session that he’s hopeful the chamber will be ready for use in a couple of weeks, if not by the end of July, when he hopes to have made substantial progress on a Medicaid bill his members can support.

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Senate Memorial Ceremony Takes On New Meaning

Posted: May 23, 2013 3:01 PM

The Senate on Thursday held its 19th annual Memorial Day session, which I had hoped would be less emotional to get through than the one I attended last year, my first. I recall last year being taken aback by the whole thing, and again this year it was an interesting sight to see the attention paid to the flags of this country’s armed forces and the sounds of “Taps” being played to remember the fallen.

Unfortunately, this year was no less emotional hearing the name of a soldier with whom I went to high school as his flag was placed in basket with eight others who also died since the last ceremony. In all fairness, I didn’t know the guy very well. I graduated with more than 600 classmates at Utica Eisenhower High School, and yes, there were people who walked across the stage that I had never seen or met before.

But I do remember Todd Lambka, who rose to Army first lieutenant, in particular was well-known for being a nice guy. It didn’t matter who you were or what clique you were part of, everyone knew he treated others with kindness and respect and encouraged others to act the same way.

It seems unfair for me to go on about him since undoubtedly others could say the same about someone they knew who died in combat. Needless to say, the experience brought a whole new meaning to the ceremony for me. I kept thinking, “This is one day and one hour of my life. I can’t pretend to imagine what those families go through.”

Indeed, the Senate gallery was packed to the gills with the families and friends of those who had died in combat and were to be honored, as well as other general onlookers. Glancing up at them throughout the ceremony was equally as fascinating as that first ceremony I went to last year in that while you could tell that this was obviously difficult for them, it was also something that meant a lot. Their body language suggested some level of pain when all they had to look at was that tri-folded flag being placed in a wicker basket instead of the lively face of the one they knew.

But the ceremony was very humbling, too. Hearing Todd’s name at the ceremony also was a jolting reminder that so many of us have ties to members of the U.S. armed forces, something worth remembering heading into the Memorial Day holiday in between the parades and barbecues.

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Wetland Protection Program Reform – Not Yet

Posted: May 16, 2013 11:03 AM

Thursday was expected to mark the day that a bill putting Michigan better in line with federal expectations for the state-run Wetland Protection Program would get moving in the Legislature until some members of the Senate Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Committee announced this morning was the first they had seen of a revised version of the bill.

After another hour of testimony that saw various parties switching their position on the bill from opposition to neutral or even support, the committee seemed ready to take the bill up for a vote.

Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), minority vice chair of the committee, took a moment to state for the record that the bill sponsor, Sen. Mike Green (R-Mayville), repeatedly said in discussions that there would be a substitute to the bill. But then she said she could not vote for it because she had just received the 48-page substitute for what was originally a 28-page bill despite some who testified at the meeting saying they received it last night.

“I asked to see the substitute and was never afforded the opportunity to see the substitute,” she said. “I understand that you’re in the majority and sometimes that can happen, but I am unable to support the substitute.”

Committee members appeared to freeze up after her comments and Mr. Green, who appeared befuddled at Ms. Warren’s comments, retorted that he had opened all discussions of the bill up to every one of the senators on the committee. The back-and-forth between Mr. Green and Ms. Warren kept up for a solid minute or two and included both asking Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit), the other minority member, if he had received the substitute in more advance.

Mr. Hood said he had not and Mr. Green continued to question the situation. Mr. Hood, perhaps attempting to end the debate, stated each of his words singularly: “I. Did. Not. Get. The. Substitute.”

Then Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), the committee chair, stepped in.

“My intent is to vote this out,” he said. “Based on what I heard this week, we’re going to wait a week.”

Meeting adjourned.

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Defining ‘Access’ In The Open Meetings Act

Posted: April 3, 2013 3:38 PM

According to Judge William Collette, history was made that day in December 2012 when hundreds were locked out of the Capitol, effectively barring the public from being able to witness in the legislative proceedings that would send right-to-work legislation to Governor Rick Snyder.

In fact, he asked Assistant Attorney General Michelle Brya in court on Wednesday when, in the history of the Capitol had it ever been shut down. She said she could not answer the question, and so he answered it for her: Once – this disputed instance.

But Ms. Brya came back with an interesting point: The Legislature’s session was on television. Even the judge noted such was an interesting question: What constitutes “access” to a meeting with all the technology today? Whether or not this becomes a focal point as the lawsuit moves forward is certainly too soon to tell, and other factors remain that are relevant to the case at hand, so I’ll leave that to the lawyers.

But on that note: According to an Open Meetings Act handbook, “the right to attend a public meeting includes the right to tape-record, videotape, broadcast live on radio and telecast live on television the proceedings of a public body at the public meeting.” So the law allows for the use of technology, but how that technology equates to practical access – and by extension, possible violations of the Open Meetings Act – doesn’t seem clearly defined. But should it be? Does the simple notion that the proceedings were televised mean the rights of all those who were physically locked out of the capitol were not trampled on?

On the other hand, the fact remains that the Capitol was closed to the public – including protestors, supporters, and even the media – for part of that day. Whether that was for safety purposes or not depends on whom you ask, of course, and will no doubt be part of the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union going forward. There is also the issue of the capacity levels of the Capitol building, which was also brought up in oral arguments.

But before everyone knew it, Judge Collette stopped the arguments and simply gave the case merit. The Department Attorney General will respond to the complaints filed by the ACLU and others on Monday, and the parties will have a scheduling conference April 11. Who takes what defense and how going forward remains to be seen…on your phone, your iPad, the newspaper, or in person.

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Tiny Venue Makes For Tricky Coverage On Detroit Announcement

Posted: March 4, 2013 3:12 PM

Governor Rick Snyder likely will soon name an emergency financial manager to run the city of Detroit, and hopefully when he does the venue will be a little larger than the place he made the declaration that the city is in a financial emergency.

I know the governor is a big fan of town halls and I respect his decision to make such a huge announcement in that format, but unfortunately, considering the magnitude of the announcement, the location was not ideal.

That the city of Detroit is in a state of financial emergency wasn’t exactly breaking news, even by the governor’s own admission.

Regardless, the announcement that an emergency manager will soon oversee the largest city in the state is a major one. News outlets from around Michigan, both traditional and non-traditional, were covering the event. The turnout was big – and it seemed bigger than the administration anticipated.

On the upside, at a smaller venue, you can have the town hall discussion, you can use a television studio, it’s in the affected area, there’s less of a chance for protesters, and security can better control the atmosphere. And that security was everywhere. I’m not sure I’ve seen as much since now-President Barack Obama came to the campus of Michigan State University as part of his first campaign for the presidency.

On the downside, the media horde that responded to the RSVP for the event went on the fritz about who got to have floor access for the event and who did not. Spokespersons for the governor tried to manage it all on an as-needed basis or who responded first, but even that didn’t seem to provide a sense of organization – and many people were an hour or more early to the event.

To their credit, spokespersons were running around frantically to be sure all media were receiving all materials in a timely fashion. But the space itself did not lend itself to having prime-time access to the top political figure in the state for potentially one of the biggest announcements this year. Had it done so, perhaps things may have been a little less frantic. Mitt Romney understood when he spoke at Ford Field in Detroit that giving an important speech meant holding it a place that had enough capacity.

Okay, the 65,000-seat stadium was a little over-optimistic, and Mr. Romney was mocked for speaking at too big a venue, but you get the idea.

In the end, Mr. Snyder was in his element with the town hall-style event. And after his speech, Mr. Snyder took part in three separate media scrums – one for television, one for radio, and one for print – so there was plenty of opportunity to ask questions.

But maybe there’s a happy medium between a tiny television studio and Ford Field?

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From The Windowsill: The Most Awkward Moment Of State Of The State

Posted: January 16, 2013 10:33 PM

As I sat on my six-to-eight inches of windowsill observing my first on-floor State of the State, I got the sense that it was much like an annual holiday party your friend invites you to: You know a chunk of people, meet some new ones, and everyone is mingling like they never see each other outside of this single, solitary event.

What also struck me as similar was the host thanking everyone for being there, for their help in x, y or z, and generally reflecting on the year that is about to (or in this case, already did) pass. And while it’s important to reflect, the host usually realizes in his or her address that it’s also important to look forward, which of course in the news industry is considered the real “meat” of the State of the State. And still like a holiday party, I thought, it doesn’t necessarily matter how good the party is, but how sustainable it becomes.

In the case of the holiday party, maybe you meet someone new or catch up with an old friend, leaving each other with the intention of doing a better job of keeping in touch this year. I sensed that same cautious optimism at one of the (what I thought to be) most awkward moments when Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the “difficult” and “divisive” experience of lame duck 2012.

“I hope we can work together,” Mr. Snyder said. “We can have policy differences…but ultimately we’re hired by the citizens of Michigan.”

It was an olive branch from Mr. Snyder, but the awkward moment came when Republicans roared in support of the governor’s comments and most Democrats merely sat in their seats, looking at the governor, not reacting.

On one hand, the governor had somewhat acknowledged that he may have upset some folks, and I’m not sure how many times that’s been done before, especially in an address like the State of the State. Yet at the same time, he wanted to instill a sense of hope that he and the Legislature might move forward, kind of like the hope that “next year will be even better than this one” at the holiday party.

After the speech, Democratic lawmakers said what counts is actions, not words.

Regardless, the fact remains that Mr. Snyder laid out more ideas for how to grow the state than I can count on two hands (he admitted about a dozen). But much like the roads the governor wants to fix, there will no doubt be bumps ahead.

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