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by Nick Smith, Staff Writer

Gilchrist Provides Senate Dems An Ally For Procedural Floor Games

Posted: February 15, 2019 1:39 PM

Senate Democrats were able to showcase Thursday the benefit of having a new ally in their corner in the era of divided state government that allowed them to keep Republicans on their toes during a contentious vote with Democratic Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist presiding over the chamber.

This was highlighted beginning when Senate Majority Floor Leader Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) moved to suspend the rules to bring HCR 1 *to the floor.

The concurrent resolution was to reject Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer's proposed restructuring of the Department of Environmental Quality and elimination of three oversight boards the Republicans passed last year and have dug in on preserving.

Majority Republicans adopted the resolution to overturn the executive order – the first time the Legislature has done so in 42 years – but not without some procedural hiccups for Senate Republicans along the way.

When Mr. MacGregor moved to suspend the rules a voice vote was required to begin the process.

Republicans of course when the question was called said "aye" and Democrats in their turn as expected called out "no." The volume of the calls from each side were close, the side with the louder call being the side that is ruled in the majority.

But wait! Mr. Gilchrist ruled in favor of the minority Democrats. Viewing the Senate session video one can make out the Democrats off-screen seemingly catching the Republicans off-guard by getting the best of them in volume.

This forced Mr. MacGregor to quickly call for ordering the yeas and nays, to get a roll-call vote on suspending the rules to move forward. For the past eight years, the Democrats were the ones who had to request the yeas and nays. Now that's something the Republicans will have to get used to seeking.

Along party lines by a 22-16 vote the rules were suspended and HCR 1 *was brought to the floor.

Six Democrats spoke in opposition to the resolution. The first, Sen. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, began his speech and was notified by a hand-written note mid-speech to verbally mention his words were his no-vote explanation, thus allowing him to exceed the five-minute time limit before his mic would have been cut at the podium.

This procedural verbal notice of their explanation in favor or against a bill was later turned against the lone Republican speaker who delivered a speech defending the resolution, Sen. Ed McBroom of Vulcan, who did not verbally note his explanation of his support for HCR 1*. As he was nearing the close of an impassioned defense of the three panels that Republicans want to preserve, his mic was cut at the five-minute mark.

Following speeches, HCR 1 *was up for a voice vote, as is normal procedure for resolutions.

Again, Republicans called out yes and, again, Democrats called out no, with the volume.

But Mr. Gilchrist struck again, calling the vote in favor of the Democrats, prompting Mr. MacGregor to order the yeas and nays.

Following the successful ordering of yeas and nays, a party-line roll-call vote of 22-16 was recorded and the resolution passed. It was the first time the Legislature had completely rejected an executive order since 1977.

With Mr. Gilchrist presiding over the chamber, the historic vote experienced some procedural speedbumps, easily overcome. But it served notice that Senate Republicans will have to remain on their toes on contentious items before them as the Democrats have an ally presiding who can afford them procedural advantages.

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No Early Partisan Fireworks In Advice And Consent Process

Posted: February 8, 2019 4:37 PM

Having a specific committee for advice and consent of the governor's appointments to departments appeared prior to session to be a setting where both parties, facing divided state government for the first time in eight years, might see some partisan fireworks.

So far, no fireworks have been launched during the first week of hearings held by the Republican-controlled Senate of appointments made by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

In fact, the hearings, each having lasted between 45-90 minutes, have been largely cordial, with members only occasional pressing for more specifics.

When the Senate Advice and Consent Committee was announced it appeared that Ms. Whitmer's appointees may face a harsher spotlight than those under Republican former Governor Rick Snyder. That is, when hearings, mostly pro-forma, were held.

Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba's hearing was largely a conversation about how terrible Michigan's roads are and what funding levels, if anything beyond the Legislature's 2015 plan for more funding that reaches $1.2 billion in 2021, would it take to make a serious dent in repairs. Mr. Ajegba dodged multiple questions on specifics of Ms. Whitmer's plans to fix the state's roads, preferring the governor to roll out plans in the coming weeks in her State of the State speech and budget presentation.

Mr. Ajegba faced several questions about various programs and laws enacted by the Legislature that appeared more of a way to get district-specific matters on the director's radar. Not the most earth-shattering material, but good for the director to know the Legislature will be studying his budget closely when Ms. Whitmer rolls out any specifics on how to "fix the damn roads."

Flat budgets were a question raised of Treasurer Rachael Eubanks, who essentially called the question a budget matter that will need to be figured out by the Legislature. Questions were also raised on addressing pension shortfalls.

For Department of State Police Director Joseph Gasper, the focus was on attraction and retention of staff, partnerships with local law enforcement to improve public safety in historically violent urban areas and making sure the MSP's crime lab is not falling behind on processing evidence.

And in the case of Children's Ombudsman Lisa McCormick, the focus of her hearing was on her independence and some background questions on her knowledge of complaints against Larry Nassar while working as an assistant prosecutor for the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office.

Committee chair Sen Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township) said he did not expect a major change in process, but the key would be to determine competency of appointees and making sure there are no red flags meriting their rejection.

So, unless an appointee has some past financial troubles or legal history that might cause considerable heartburn for lawmakers, it appears most if not all appointees should have little problem staying on after the 60-day period provided for lawmakers to approve or reject a department head.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who has in the past pushed for having more thorough advice and consent hearings, said they should be conducted regardless of the party structure in the Capitol.

Mr. Ananich succinctly summed up the process to reporters this week: "If you put forward people who can't handle questioning … than they don't belong in that position."

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Senate Office Musical Chairs Contrasts With House

Posted: January 18, 2019 4:15 PM

Among the many quirks that set both legislative chambers apart, one need not look much further than the setup in both the House and Senate office buildings.

For House members, office locations by district are specifically assigned and remain in place in the Anderson House Office Building regardless of who is elected or from which party.

It's a different story in the Connie Binsfeld Building that houses Senate offices, where after each four-year term a sort of game of musical chairs unfolds in the office selection process for members, which Senate staff explain is a lottery process.

This means guests, lobbyists and reporters coming to find members who hail from certain districts with the new four-year cycle having just begun will have to brush up on which member from which district is located where when paying a visit.

A look at the office assignments from the last four years compared to the makeup of offices for the recently sworn-in Senate shows a significant shuffling of offices: 29 of 38 offices by district were in different locations than they were in the previous four years. Even the phone numbers have changed in many instances for new senators compared to their predecessors from the same district.

There are a number of reasons for that level of shakeup along with the lottery itself being in place. Term limits is a major driving factor.

Only eight members who have served one term are back for a second. Many of the new senators are past House members, while others are newcomers to state politics. Among the new senators, a few of them also beat incumbents.

With that level of turnover comes a whole new slate of majority and minority party leaders being elected within their caucuses who assume offices inside the Capitol. Leadership status does not stick with any particular district, so that tosses some districts' offices back to the Senate Office Building while others move over to the Capitol.

Also, only offices located on the side of the Senate Office Building facing West Allegan Street provide a panoramic view of the Capitol building across the street.

If an incumbent senator, or any member for that matter, could try and snag an office with a great view, who can blame them?

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First Introduced Session Bills: A Mixed Bag Of Bright Shiny Objects

Posted: January 11, 2019 1:47 PM

Lawmakers in the early days of session are ready to get to the task of beginning to legislate, which leaves reporters wondering what early priorities individual members want to start with.

In most sessions the first bill introduced in each chamber is a sort of statement of leadership priorities, also a sort of bright shiny object for reporters and others to watch for prior to being introduced.

A look at the last 10 legislative sessions as it relates to the first bills introduced in the House and Senate, however, shows a mixed bag in terms of success in getting those early session priorities to the governor's desk.

On Wednesday the House introduced a pair of civil asset forfeiture bills that have bipartisan backing and the support of Attorney General Dana Nessel. The first Senate bill of the session will be introduced sometime next week and what it will be has not yet been revealed.

In the previous two legislative sessions, no first bill introduced in either chamber made it to the governor's desk. Former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof failed in both of the last two sessions to have bills repealing the state's prevailing wage to pass, while now-House Speaker Lee Chatfield last term introduced the income tax rollback that narrowly failed on the House floor.

The last bill that was the first introduced in either chamber during a session to be signed by the governor was during the 2013-14 session, introduced in the House by now-Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. He introduced legislation that changed the formula for calculating fees for Freedom of Information Act requests, capped at 10 cents the per-page cost of copying documents and allowing for individuals to file suit if a government body delayed or declined a FOIA request.

In the last 20 years only once did both the first House and Senate bills make it to the governor's desk: during the 2007-08 session. The first Senate bill that year requested a federal waiver to provide certain incentives for Medicaid recipients to adopt healthier lifestyle behaviors. On the House side, transparency legislation was signed that required disclosure and reporting of legal defense fund for elected officials involved in criminal, civil or administrative matters. The House bill was passed in response to the text-message scandal that led to the resignation and imprisonment of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

During the 2005-06 session the first House bill providing tuition waivers at public universities for children of deceased or disabled members of the armed forces was signed into law.

Before that, during the 2001-02 session, the first Senate bill was signed into law, eliminating the statute of limitations for certain cases of criminal sexual conduct in which DNA evidence was obtained.

And during the1999-2000 session the first Senate bill was a bill allowing for a state income tax cut of 0.1 percent in 2002. The bill was part of a series of bills introduced in both chambers that put together cut the state income tax rate from 4.4 percent to 3.9 percent by 0.1 percent per year over five years.

The mixed bag continues the further back one goes the mixed bag continues.

One of the more influential first bills was the first introduced in the Senate in the 1993-94 session. The tax legislation eventually led to Proposal A and the state's current system for school funding.

Will the first bills in either chamber this session be signed, or have anywhere near the broad sweeping impact of that 1993-94 bill? That chapter in the state's history has not yet been written.

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Time Will Tell If Gutting Paid Sick Time, Minimum Wage Prompts Backlash

Posted: November 30, 2018 6:28 PM

Proponents of minimum wage increase and paid sick time initiative petitions took a risk in putting measures before a Republican Legislature and governor and are paying for it with the now almost certainly to be successful legislative gutting of their adopted proposals.

Two questions will be posed immediately after the legislative deed is done: what next, and will the risk being taken by those who helped draft and pass the changes eventually result in a backlash?

Republicans adopted the One Fair Wage and Michigan Time to Care group petitions in September with the intent after the election to make changes requiring only a simple majority and a governor on their side of the aisle rather than waiting and having a three-fourths majorities needed in the House and Senate and Democratic Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer providing a firewall against such moves come January.

The minimum wage law raises the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2022 and eliminates the lower tipped minimum wage to bring those workers in line with the regular minimum wage by 2024.

Senate Republicans Wednesday passed SB 1171*, spreading out the minimum wage increase to $12 per hour until 2030 *instead of by 2022, essentially erasing the effect of the initiative because under the previous minimum wage law the current minimum wage adjusted for inflation would have been about $12 per hour anyway. SB 1171 *would also return tipped employees back to a lower minimum wage with their minimum wage rising to $4 per hour by 2030.

The paid sick time bill, SB 1175*, changes the law by requiring one hour of paid sick time earned for every 40 hours worked instead of every 30 hours and caps sick time at 36 hours annually instead of 72. The bill also limits the application of the requirement to employers with at least 50 employees, as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides. Far more workers would be covered under the initiated law.

Officials who spearheaded the minimum wage have questioned the legality of doing what they are now doing during lame-duck session, citing a 1964 attorney general opinion that declares an initiative petition enacted by the Legislature cannot be amended until the next legislative session. Attorney general opinions can be overturned by the courts.

One Fair Wage leaders in September threatened to sue if the Legislature amended the law during lame-duck session and Michigan Time to Care said this week it will do the same.

Democrats say 1964 attorney general opinion has been generally accepted precedent while Republicans counter there is no reference to the Constitution or past legal cases in the 1964 opinion, adding they are on safe legal ground.

If there is a legal battle it will be an epic one once waged.

Bringing the proposals back for the 2020 election to take advantage of having Ms. Whitmer in office if they get the necessary signatures is the obvious fallback move, something the Michigan Time to Care organizers are already preparing to do. This time, the Legislature would likely let the initiative go to the ballot because it could only pursue the adopt-and-amend strategy if Ms. Whitmer agreed to any changes.

So, while things are flaring up now during the lame-duck session, the battle is far from over and time will tell whether the risk taken by Republicans pushing the changes to the new laws end in a similar reckoning.

The risk of course is that the business groups that are pushing the changes may misfire by going too far, prompting the proponents of the original proposals to bring back the same proposals again in 2020, protected by a Democratic governor from adopt and amend and a three-fourths majority requirement for changes if voters approve that would be all but impossible to achieve.

If measures are placed on the 2020 ballot the risk for those advocating the changes now might be having to face measures that go even further as well, forcing an expensive effort to urge voters to reject a future proposal. The public, either way, could be having the debate and vote that was originally intended.

Or negotiations could be held before a vote in the House with Democrats to pull back somewhat from what passed the Senate to something all parties could live with.

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U.S. Senate Candidates: U-M Or MSU? 'Inquiring Minds Want To Know'

Posted: October 19, 2018 4:16 PM

It was a house divided inside the MotorCity Casino in Detroit this past Monday when the most important question of the final debate between Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican challenger John James was asked by the moderator.

"There is one question, inquiring minds want to know, I'm going to guess this room is split about 50-50. Saturday's a huge matchup: Michigan – Michigan State. Who's for Michigan? Who's for Michigan State? Do tell," moderator Carol Cain with CBS Detroit and the Detroit Free Press asked.

Of course.

The question came after candidates had been sparring for nearly an hour on immigration, the economy, recreational marijuana, health care and other issues.

Ms. Stabenow (D-Lansing), a Michigan State University alumna, noted the game will be a wonderful contest after both teams pulled off impressive wins last weekend.

MSU, which has struggled this season, upset No. 8 Penn State 21-17 in the final minutes of their game, while No. 12 Michigan started slow but thrashed #15 Wisconsin 38-13.

The win put MSU's season (4-2) back on track and lifted them to No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings and Michigan (6-1) rocketed to No. 6 following a series of Top 10-ranked upsets last Saturday.

The game will go a long way in determining whether MSU is in the hunt for a Big Ten title, and whether Michigan is finally rebounding after a decade of mediocrity coupled with an inability to come through in big games.

"We're split right down the middle," Ms. Stabenow said of her family. "My son went to U of M, my daughter went to Michigan State, one brother U of M, one brother Michigan State. But I've just got to say, 'Go Green.'"

Ms. Cain was right about the split within the audience, with about half the crowd applauding her, while Mr. James, a Farmington Hills business executive and Iraq War veteran, playfully gave a thumbs-down and booed before responding.

Mr. James, knowing like everyone Michigan has had a rough past decade and that MSU has won the rivalry game in eight of the last 10 years, cracked jokes about the state of the university where he received his second Master's degree after attending West Point.

"I was really excited to see Coach (Jim) Harbaugh win a big game against a ranked opponent. That was really exciting," Mr. James said.

Michigan, as fans of both teams in the rivalry likely know, has lost 17 consecutive road games against ranked teams dating back to 2006. Saturday's game is the latest opportunity to break one of the longest active streaks in college football.

"I think we won maybe negative one game the time I was there," Mr. James said. "So, I had to claim Michigan, but I, uh, I'm 'Go Blue' all the way."

About half the crowd, the other half cheered. A house divided, indeed.

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Here's A Logo Yoopers Will Appreciate

Posted: October 12, 2018 1:19 PM

For Rep. Scott Dianda, the Upper Peninsula is clearly way bigger than it's given credit for in the overall scheme of things.

That is apparent in the campaign of Mr. Dianda (D-Calumet) and in his legislative priorities serving the 110th House District, and, he hopes, serving the 38th Senate District after next month's election.

He outlines his love of the U.P. concisely in his latest television advertisement that came out October 4.

Too much loss of funding. Too much population and brain drain. Too many jobs moving to more populated regions. He promises to fight for keeping the remaining mining and logging industry jobs where they are and to expand technical training programs needed to attract and retain the next generation of workers.

The line in the ad that drew attention was over his vow to "stop sending our money to bail out Detroit," a reference to his vote against the Grand Bargain to bring Detroit out of bankruptcy. He later said he was comparing himself to his opponent, Republican former Vulcan Rep. Ed McBroom, adding he wants more money in the U.P. to provide more opportunities in his backyard.

The bailout line was noted recently, but one thing to take note of is a symbol of Mr. Dianda's reverence for the U.P. as a whole: check out the scale of the U.P. and the Lower Peninsula in his campaign logo at the end of the ad.

Those who know their geography know the U.P. is smaller, just over 16,450 square miles out of the more than 56,800 square miles making up the landmass that is Michigan. The size of the Great Lakes is more than double that of the U.P. at more than 38,500 square miles.

Michigan's population was also estimated at 9.96 million in 2017, with the U.P. having around 300,000 of that total, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures released in May. This is about 3 percent of the state's total population.

The U.P.'s population has been in decline since 2000. Reports from media outlets in recent years have highlighted a series of plant closures in the region in the past few decades and the departure of young people for college or jobs who never come back.

For Mr. Dianda, the logo is worn as a pin while on the campaign trail and is on his identification pin when on the House floor.

Whoever wins the 38th Senate District race, which has been an extremely tight fight for months, will need to continue being the biggest champion for the U.P. and work to make the U.P. as big of a presence as Mr. Dianda tries to portray in his logo and pin.

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Could Third-Party Candidates Burn Dems In November Again?

Posted: September 21, 2018 3:12 PM

As the general election approaches one thought has to be in the back of the minds of Democrats, confident in their chances of making significant gains in the state Senate, with some even daring to dream of their first majority since 1984: could third-party candidates burn them again?

It's happened before.

The closest the Democrats have come to flipping the chamber was 2006, a wave election for the party where control of the House flipped and then-Governor Jennifer Granholm won re-election in a landslide. Democrats, meanwhile, sat at a 22-16 minority and needed three pickups to secure a 19-19 tie in the Senate, allowing them the tie-breaking vote via the lieutenant governor.

Democrats only took a single seat. Why? Green Party candidates played spoiler in the other two key races, that's why.

In the 13th Senate District in Oakland County, Republican former Rep. John Pappageorge beat Democrat Andy Levin by 776 votes. The Green Party candidate Kyle McBee took 3,118 votes, likely the difference.

The same was true in the 32nd Senate District, then consisting of Saginaw and Gratiot counties, where Republican Rep. Roger Kahn defeated Democratic Rep. Carl Williams by 520 votes. Again, it was a Green Party candidate, Lloyd Clarke, who was the likely difference by earning 2,326 votes.

The Republicans came away in 2006 holding the chamber with a 21-17 majority, with that majority growing in the years since to the 27-10 majority it now holds, with one vacancy in a heavily Democratic Detroit-area seat that will be filled by a Democrat in November.

With a look at the Senate map for this November, where Democrats have multiple key opportunities for picking up seats and others that are edging into play, an unsettling pattern for Democrats, or perhaps Republicans, emerges.

Nearly every competitive seat on the table for the Democrats has at least one third party candidate running that could siphon away votes.

In the 29th Senate District race featuring Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) and Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township), the Libertarian Party is running Robert Vannoller of Lowell and Louis Palus is running for the Working Class Party.

Up the in 38th Senate District where Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet) and Republican former Rep. Ed McBroom of Vulcan are slugging it out, the Green Party has Wade Roberts of Wetmore in the mix.

The Libertarian Party has Mike Saliba of Clinton Township running in the 10th Senate District, a hotly contested race between Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) and Republican Michael MacDonald of Macomb Township.

See the pattern? It continues further down the list of prime Democratic targets they will need to win to flip the chamber.

For the Libertarian Party, they recruited Joseph LeBlanc of Plymouth for the 7th Senate District, Jeff Pittel of Sylvan Lake in the 12th Senate District, Chad McNamara in the 17th Senate District, Katie Nepton of Dimondale in the 24th Senate District and Max Riekse of Fruitport in the 34th Senate District.

Not all third party candidates will hurt Democrats, however. Mr. Riekse is a conservative who has run as a Republican in the past, for example. Libertarians can hurt Republicans more than Democrats depending on the type of Libertarian candidate. And some good news for Democrats is far fewer Green Party candidates this time.

Sharp observers will note to this point I have left out the 20th Senate District, where Sen. Margaret O'Brien (R-Portage) is facing former Democratic Rep. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo, where Ms. O'Brien defeated Mr. McCann by 61 votes in 2014. A race Democrats would love to have back.

In 2014 the Libertarian Party ran Lorence Wenke of Galesburg, who earned 7,171 votes and was the difference in the race, though there was some evidence he hurt Mr. McCann too by pulling votes in Kalamazoo.

Mr. Wenke is running again on the Libertarian Party slate, although in the August primary (where Mr. McCann took more than 9,000 votes more than Ms. O'Brien) he only received 202 votes.

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Jones Juggling Options To Stay Involved After Senate Term Ends

Posted: September 14, 2018 3:55 PM

One of the Michigan Senate's most vocal (and for reporters quotable) members may be term-limited, but he promises he will be remaining active in the community once his term expires at the end of the year and possibly still involved in Lansing politics.

So those among the Capitol community (or reporters at outlets large and small that never are denied a solid quote) who are jonesing for regular one-liners after the end of the year may be in luck.

Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) recently told Gongwer News Service he is weighing multiple options for once his responsibilities at the Capitol cease.

That comes as no surprise given Mr. Jones, who is term-limited in the 24th Senate District, has been a sort of bill-introducing machine during his time in Lansing while also churning out bills in the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs at a prolific rate.

The quips, canned comments and being able to stop dead opposing testimony in committee with bizarre lines are well-documented.

His sharp comments sometimes have landed him in hot water, such as in 2012 when he compared long-time Lansing public relations company owner Kelly Rossman-McKinney, who is now running for the Democrats to fill his seat, to a prostitute.

Nonetheless, Mr. Jones appears ready to jump in the fire come the end of the year.

"I would love to work for Governor Schuette, if successful," Mr. Jones said.

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette is in a highly competitive gubernatorial race with former Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer. The race is considered a toss-up, although recent polling has shown Ms. Whitmer with the lead.

Another option he is weighing is being a consultant for a group combatting female genital mutilation.

Mr. Jones was the sponsor of a bill among a package of legislation signed into law in July 2017 strengthening penalties for performing female genital mutilation and helped shepherd it through the Judiciary Committee and the Senate.

The package was in response to several cases of mutilation that were discovered in the Detroit area that drew statewide and national headlines. Female genital mutilation is already illegal under federal law, but the package passed last year increases penalties to further crack down on and eliminate the practice.

In March, Mr. Jones was invited to England to speak about the Michigan legislation at a workshop at the University of Oxford.

"Now they're interested in me helping other states or nations pass similar legislation," Mr. Jones said of the group.

Mr. Jones, 66, said he has no interest in slowing down once his legislative duties are over.

"I have to work," Mr. Jones said, adding every morning he gets up and wonders "how much fun can I have today."

During the current legislative term covering Mr. Jones, he has been in classic form on numerous occasions.

In May, when challenged on a bill to ban marijuana-infused beer in Michigan over stifling entrepreneurship that is being allowed in other states and Canada, he replied: "I'm so happy that instead of becoming stoners in Michigan, they'll go to Canada or they'll go to California."

And in July 2017, when asked about legislation to end the ability for state employees to extend their health insurance benefits to someone living with them, he responded that if a state employee's boyfriend or girlfriend want to enjoy state benefits to "make a commitment and get married. If you want it, put a ring on it."

Several more examples come to mind. Depending on his next gig, my peers and I may continue to get such lines for some time.

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Johnson Contradicts Contrition In Upcoming Documentary

Posted: September 7, 2018 4:24 PM

“It’s b-llshit.”

That’s the statement by former Highland Park Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson in an upcoming documentary on the charges against him in a corruption case that cost him his 2nd Senate District seat, flying completely in the face of his brief, contrite apology in federal court Thursday morning when being sentenced.

This was the meat of his apology before U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman Thursday when apologizing for his conduct and putting his past legislative work in doubt in the eyes of the public: “My breach of the public trust puts all that in question. I never should have hired Glynis Thornton. This is my failing and it’s on me.”

So which is it?

The timing of the documentary trailer’s release, which features Mr. Johnson denouncing the case against him, comes one day after being sentenced in U.S. District Court to 90 days in prison, two years of supervised release (with the first 90 days spent in home confinement) and 240 hours of community service within the 2nd Senate District he previously represented along with restitution.

Keep in mind Mr. Johnson’s sentence was lighter than the recommended sentence of between six and 12 months imprisonment, three years of supervised release and restitution.

Mr. Johnson in the trailer explains how he was voted to a job to work on behalf of a state with 10 million people while trying to make a difference and be a voice for the people.

He speaks of working in Lansing every day, but the record reflects that Mr. Johnson had a poor attendance record during his time in office.

“And somebody want to take it away from you. Somebody wants to say ‘you’re not the guy anymore.’ Frustrated is not the word. It’s bullshit,” Mr. Johnson said.

<p><a href="https://vimeo.com/288624898">Bertram Johnson vs The United States of America - Teaser</a> from <a href="https://vimeo.com/atlasindustries">Atlas Industries</a> on <a href="https://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>

The upcoming documentary “Bertram Johnson vs The United States of America” was produced by Southfield-based video production company Atlas Industries. The film features Mr. Johnson from the time of his indictment, guilty plea and conviction.

It is unclear in the trailer when the statements by Mr. Johnson were made but likely were weeks or months before his apology in federal court. Whenever he was filmed he strongly denies the single felony count of conspiracy to commit theft from a federally funded program he pleaded guilty to March 2 and the second more serious charge of theft from a federally funded program that was dropped as part of a plea deal.

Mr. Johnson claims he is still the same guy that served in the House and was elected to the Senate in 2010. He resigned his seat after his guilty plea in March.

Mr. Johnson’s case stems from hiring a woman as a part-time community liaison from March 28, 2014 through January 2, 2015. According to the indictment from a federal grand jury, Mr. Johnson hired her to repay her for a $10,000 loan she gave him, but she was not required to do any work while on his office payroll. The employee was paid more than $23,000 during her employment in Mr. Johnson’s office.

However, his painting of Ms. Thornton in a negative light and deflecting blame while on camera is also telling. In spring 2017 a secret recording of Mr. Johnson speaking about the agreement and asking her not to discuss the arrangement with federal law enforcement authorities was released.

Mr. Johnson refers to the fallout in the case in the trailer: “There’s just someone willing to say anything scurrilous about me because she’s in trouble.”

The trailer also shows Detroit television station clips of his being indicted in April 2017 and reporters attempting to ask him his thoughts on facing up to 10 years in prison.

Mr. Johnson also takes a swipe at the media in his comments.

“The media’s not in a race to be right, they’re in a race to be first,” Mr. Johnson said. “People actually believe this stuff. If it’s on the internet it must be true. If it’s on the TV and if a white guy says it about a black guy? It must be true!”

Well, what happens when Bert Johnson says it? In a federal court before a judge. Is that true?

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Could Intra-Party Divisions Undercut Dems Shot At Blue Wave?

Posted: July 3, 2018 3:29 PM

Enthusiasm for months has been high among Democrats, watching the party score special election victories across the country. While dreams of a blue wave in November are on party member’s minds, there are a number of things the party must guard against to see their plans come to fruition after experiencing failures in the last few elections.

Among them would be intra-party divisions, more specifically between the establishment and the party’s more liberal wing – the progressives --which came home to roost in 2016 in losing the state to then candidate now President Donald Trump in the fall, a result few saw coming.

Much has happened since then. A sharp spike in enthusiasm among Democrats has brought new blood into the party. But while party officials have in recent months touted their renewed efforts to improve its outreach and party infrastructure the division between the two wings of the party is still something to watch and should be a concern among party faithful.

The most visible example of the divide among Democrats this cycle has been in the gubernatorial primary between the establishment pick Gretchen Whitmer and newcomers Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar who have sought to tap into the Bernie Sanders more liberal wing of support.

Last week’s decision of Anthony Kennedy, 81, to retire from the U.S. Supreme Court, has also reopened the divide between the two wings of the party across the country, with supporters of both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders pointing their fingers at each other for allowing Mr. Trump to win and putting the country in the situation where he gets to pick a more conservative replacement to the long-time swing vote in the 5-4 conservative high court majority. It’s a situation Democrats worry about, but Republicans and social conservatives delight over.

Another recent example is last week’s move by the Michigan Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus releasing its definition of the word “progressive.” The response on the Caucus’ Facebook page quickly turned into an argument over who designed the definition and how, with further debate on centrist Democrats or more liberal members undermining the party.

It still is out there on the legislative level as well.

Among the most frequent comments I’ve heard, mainly from non-establishment Democratic candidates, in recent weeks while putting together primary election stories, are those stating that the party needs to be more open to the new wave of people coming to the party in light of the 2016 election. That the establishment turned off rank-and-file supporters in 2016, allowing Donald Trump to win the state. And that the party runs the risk, or has to an extent, taken its base for granted in recent years.

One candidate told me she has supported the party for a number of years and it would be beneficial for the party to “embrace them with open arms” in speaking of newer, more liberal wing of voters trying to become involved in recent years.

Another candidate spoke of hearing a number of instances of long-time Democratic voters while he was out knocking on doors that increasingly do not identify with the party and feel the party is taking them for granted.

Despite all the talk about enthusiasm, another key fact to remember is the Republicans are just as fired up, regardless of the spotlight shining on Democrats in recent months. Mr. Trump rallied the GOP ahead of the 2016 election and despite the seeming inevitability of a Ms. Clinton presidency the Democrats were socked top-to-bottom on the ballot.

Republicans have quietly scoffed at the Democrats’ optimism and gone about their business in preparing to defend their majorities and hold on statewide offices in November.

The Republicans could very well surprise again: they have more money to spend, a deeper bench and the message of presiding over the state’s reversal of economic fortunes in the past eight years. Throwing in intra-party divisions, potentially undermining a prime opportunity for electoral gains, is exactly what the Democrats should hope to avoid.

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Potshots Large & Small: Campaign Season Is Hitting Its Stride

Posted: June 15, 2018 2:48 PM

What’s one clear sign that campaign season has arrived in full force? The growing stream of emails announcing every last thing a candidate is doing, saying, announcements of a candidate’s growing popularity or lead in polls (mainstream or internal) and of course the large and small tit for tat shots.

In fact, shortly before beginning to type this blog I had a campaign donation email roll in from the campaign of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing). It was one of multiple legislative and statewide campaign emails that came in a steady drip-drip-drip throughout the morning.

The Republican U.S. Senate primary race between Farmington Hills business executive and Iraq War veteran John James and Grosse Pointe business executive Sandy Pensler appears to be slowly heading in that direction, with a few light warning shots being fired from each side in recent weeks.

Most recently was when the Pensler campaign sent out a tweet acknowledging the U.S. Army’s 243rd birthday Thursday. The James campaign quickly pointed out the photo used in the tweet, which is no longer available, was a stock photo of the U.S. Marine Corps.

James campaign staff proceeded to pile on, with campaign consultant Stu Sandler posting tweets and calling the image something or someone else. A picture of New York City was posted saying “Sandy Pensler wishes a happy birthday to Grand Rapids” as well as tweets of actor and comedian Steve Martin and actress Jennifer Aniston, claiming Mr. Pensler wishes actor Tom Hanks and actress Courteney Cox, respectively, a happy birthday.

Pensler campaign spokesman Tom Shields dismissed the gaffe as “inside baseball kind of issues” that “makes volunteers feel good” and are not significant.

Stock photo gaffes occasionally happen in campaigns in Michigan and elsewhere. Sometimes they are of more consequence, although this one would seem to be relatively minor.

The Twitter exchange is of less consequence than the back-and-forth on debates in recent weeks, with one tentatively close to being confirmed for July 6. Debate on debates? Also a common primary campaign tactic.

One of the first more direct attacks came earlier this month when the candidates questioned each other’s conservative credentials by pointing to past campaign contributions to Democrats.

Mr. Pensler recently began running a campaign advertisement citing a $500 campaign contribution to Detroit City Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez in 2015.

It was quickly pointed out that Mr. Pensler donated $1,000 to former Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia in 2002 and gave $500 to former U.S. Rep. Bob Carr of Michigan in 1994.

Clearly, opposition research is alive, well and starting to bear some initial fruits.

With a little over seven weeks before the August 7 primary the two will without a doubt get several far more significant practice reps in before one of them must begin taking much sharper swings against the seasoned Ms. Stabenow.

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Peters Gets Bad Lip-Reading Treatment In Zuckerberg Hearing

Posted: April 30, 2018 4:25 PM

Between the awkward questions and the slow drinking of a water glass during questioning, it was inevitable highlights of the April 10 appearance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before a joint session of the U.S. Senate commerce and judiciary committees would end up being treated to a spirited dubbing with different wording.

Bad Lip Reading, a popular YouTube channel that spoofs various television shows, movies and political footage, gave the hearing a new flavor last week called “Interrogating Zuckerberg.”

In the original hearing, senators grilled Mr. Zuckerberg over how Facebook has handled user data, stemming from a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. Millions of Facebook users’ data was improperly shared with the firm that worked with President Donald Trump’s campaign; the company has reportedly said the data was legally acquired and did not use any of the data for its 2016 campaign work.

With hours long questioning condensed down to nearly six minutes, the YouTube clip features senators dubbed asking foolish and irrelevant questions with the narrator using intentionally mocking, folksy voices, with Mr. Zuckerberg looking at them and awkwardly replying.

And an exchange between U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) and Mr. Zuckerberg is included, beginning at about the 1:40 mark:

Mr. Peters” “I’d just like everyone to know that my van is for sale.”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “Great.”

Mr. Peters: “I don’t know how you feel about that. But if you guys would kind of like drive it and stuff, then, I’m pretty sure you’d wanna buy it.”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “No.”

Mr. Peters: “Well, cuz’ this van, I mean, it’s special.”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “No”

Mr. Peters: “No, hey, I’ll send you a picture and you’ll say ‘I want this in my driveway.’”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “No, please don’t send anything.”

Mr. Peters: (whispering) “Ok, well then I guess you’re stupid.”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “It’s just a van!”

Mr. Peters: (raising voice) “I told you, it’s a special van!”

The video also makes fun of footage of Mr. Zuckerberg slowly drinking from a glass of water which was widely panned during the hearing. The YouTube video makes it sound as though he’s loudly slurping the water and then blowing bubbles, prompting one senator to threaten to punish him with a spanking.

Other highlights of the altered footage include Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington asking if she should shave her head, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont asking if World War I was a horrible event, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asking Mr. Zuckerberg if he would like to be friends after the hearing and if Mr. Zuckerberg has ever smelled a girl’s feet.

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Snyder Opposition Could Give GOP Free Vote On Medicaid Work Rule

Posted: April 20, 2018 5:03 PM

Following this week’s committee and full Senate vote on legislation that would allow for filing to obtain a federal waiver to enact work requirements for Medicaid recipients, the only thing that is certain is that the vote is a politically safe one with the increasing likelihood that Governor Rick Snyder will not support the legislation.

Even before SB 897* passed the Senate 26-11 Thursday with a single Republican defection, several additional exemptions were carved out and the process for reporting income was softened a bit, among other changes.

Outside of a small number of relatively evenly divided swing districts where such a vote could cost someone a few votes in November there is little political risk in taking such a vote, especially with the possibility the legislation will not become law this term. Not doing so for nearly all members of the caucus might be worse in that it could upset their base.

A spokesperson for Mr. Snyder issued a statement saying the bill is not a reasonable or responsible change to the state’s social safety net, adding the stability of Healthy Michigan, the state’s Medicaid expansion program, should not be jeopardized by major changes.

Although the statement said negotiations will continue, one could read that as being a veto threat if the bill is not significantly watered down.

Mr. Snyder’s major achievements in office include overhauling the state’s tax code, helping craft the deal to get Detroit out of bankruptcy and Healthy Michigan. Clearly he’s not going to let one of his signature accomplishments in office be drastically changed, especially if there’s the risk of it being damaged in the long run.

Regardless of whether the legislation goes the distance, Republicans can at least vote and take a stand on an issue that resonates with their base in what increasingly appears to be a potentially rough election year. This is also the year to try and accomplish such a change: if Democrats were to take the House or the governor’s office it would be a long time before they are in a position to make a go of it again.

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Engler’s Standing With Nassar Victims Damaged

Posted: March 16, 2018 4:40 PM

Michigan State University Interim President John Engler’s reiterated Thursday that the embattled university likely will have to come to some sort of settlement with victims of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse.

However, while that’s a much different approach than former President Lou Anna Simon, those words were largely lost when Mr. Engler asserted that legislation providing a wider statute of limitations for victims and removing some government immunity has negatively affected negotiations with victims.

Victims and their attorneys slammed Mr. Engler’s statements, calling him a “liar” about the status of negotiations.

Mr. Engler, facing questioning from the Senate Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee, echoed a legal analysis the university had commissioned which said the legislative package passed Wednesday by the Senate would expose universities, religious institutions, local and state government as well as businesses to massive liability and at risk for lawsuits totaling billions of dollars.

He also said the statute of limitations and governmental immunity provisions are a way of “changing the leverage at the table of negotiations” in the middle of the process and killing momentum for coming to a reasonable solution. That did not sit well with the senators on the subcommittee.

Mr. Engler has a difficult balancing act in protecting MSU from legal exposure, protecting students and in fixing a campus culture that led to Nassar not being stopped from abusing young girls and women for 20 years despite several university officials being told of his conduct.

Mr. Engler is right: The Legislature is moving to change the rules affecting these cases.

However, Mr. Engler is also trying to have it both ways.

He sounds supportive of compensating Nassar’s victims by saying he wants a settlement by the end of the current semester while Ms. Simon asserted the university’s right to file motions to dismiss those cases on the basis of the statute of limitations, government immunity and other reasons. Yet by opposing the legislation, Mr. Engler also is making the case the university should retain the right to seek the lawsuits dismissal on those technical grounds.

Acknowledgment that the university will inevitably have to settle on some level, and that he would like to do so by the end of the spring semester, is a commendable goal. It may be an unrealistic timeframe given he effectively burned the bridge, or at least charred it a bit, in terms of receiving the benefit of the doubt from victims that on his watch MSU will negotiate in good faith.

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Combs Appointment Creates Tough Confirmation Hearing Choice

Posted: February 9, 2018 3:22 PM

The appointment to the Civil Rights Commission of a person with a history of opposition to same-sex marriage and other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights issues presents a dilemma for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and the Senate.

Governor Rick Snyder recently appointed Jackson pastor Ira Combs to one of three vacancies on the eight-person panel.

Since the 1980s Republicans have controlled the Senate and the overwhelming majority of hearings for gubernatorial appointees when the governor also is a Republican, when they are held, typically lack drama and are pro-forma. Gubernatorial appointments to most boards and commissions, and department director posts, take effect unless rejected within 60 days by the Senate.

With Mr. Combs, a charged and contentious hearing is all but certain if Mr. Meekhof (R-West Olive) were to choose to schedule one.

Years ago Mr. Combs unsuccessfully sought to prevent Jackson High School students from forming a local Gay-Straight Alliance chapter; last year he was among those who opposed the city of Jackson from adopting a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes the LGBT community. He has also has filed amicus curiae briefs in anti-LGBT lawsuits.

The appointment has drawn sharp opposition from Equality Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, all three openly gay Democratic members of the House as well as several other Democrats.

Earlier this week Mr. Meekhof told reporters his party’s caucus was still discussing whether to hold a hearing on Mr. Combs’ appointment. On Friday a spokesperson for the majority leader said there was still no decision.

The Senate has very little history in recent decades with controversial appointments. During Governor John Engler’s administration such hearings were not held, but they were during Governor Jennifer Granholm’s administration with relatively few issues.

Few hearings have been held during Mr. Snyder’s administration and those that have been held have not been controversial.

Mr. Snyder has defended the appointment, citing Mr. Combs’ past body of work on race issues and those regarding people with disabilities.

“Let’s see his service on the commission and again hopefully we’ve got a commission that’s open to having open discussions on all different kinds of topics and people can learn from having a different perspective,” Mr. Snyder told reporters when asked about the appointment following his budget presentation Wednesday.

If Mr. Combs were to be subject to a hearing it would bring up a number of questions.

Among them is whether the level of diverse views Mr. Snyder and supporters speak of would be healthy or would it create problems whenever LGBT-related issues come before it.

Also, can a commission dedicated to investigating discrimination against Michigan residents be undermined when one member has a publicly documented opposition to one segment of the population?

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Success For Self-Funded Candidates In Michigan A Mixed Bag

Posted: January 12, 2018 5:33 PM

Each election season brings candidates who opt to primarily use a sizeable chunk of their personal fortune to fund their campaigns for higher office.

This year is no different in Michigan politics, with U.S. Senate candidate Sandy Pensler, a business executive, entering the Republican primary and dropping $5 million into his effort.

Quickly the campaign of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) cried foul in fundraising email blasts, accusing Mr. Pensler of trying to buy a Senate seat. Mr. Pensler has called Ms. Stabenow ineffective while in office and says the infusion of funds is necessary to get his message out since the incumbent has nearly $7 million in the bank already for the race.

Such efforts to quickly get a large-scale campaign rolling and the countering accusations are par for the course in Michigan and nationally. The trend toward federal and state candidates choosing to risk large sums of their own money grows more common with each passing cycle.

The Washington D.C.-based non-profit, nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics, has a well-compiled list of self-funded candidates for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and presidential candidates for each election cycle dating back to 2000 at www.opensecrets.org. Candidates listed are those who put in $500,000 or more of their money in a race.

The list is compiled based on Federal Election Commission campaign finance reporting data and lists several Michigan examples of candidates tossing in six and seven-figure sums for congressional races.

Most recently, U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden Township) won the 10th U.S. House District seat in 2016 by spending more than $3.6 million of his own money.

In 2014 it was a similar story for U.S. Rep. David Trott (R-Birmingham), spending $3.62 million of his own money to win the 11th U.S. House District seat.

Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land lost to now-U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) after spending $3.6 million of her own money.

Mr. Mitchell lost the GOP primary in an earlier bid for the 10th U.S. House in 2014, putting $3.56 million into that year’s race, while Grand Rapids businessman Brian Ellis self-funded just over $1 million in an unsuccessful 3rd U.S. House District primary against U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township).

In 2012, former Democratic state Rep. Steve Pestka of Ada spent $1.6 million in his loss to Mr. Amash.

In 2006 former Detroit city councilman Keith Butler put more than $544,000 into a failed Republican U.S. Senate primary to Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, who went on to lose to … Ms. Stabenow.

And Detroit-area lawyer David Fink, a Democrat, dropped $1.2 million into a failed 9th U.S. House District bid in 2002.

Gubernatorial races in recent years are a mixed bag as well, with Dick DeVos spending tens of millions in his failed 2006 bid against former Governor Jennifer Granholm and in 2010 Governor Rick Snyder spent $6 million to win his race. And in this election cycle, Shri Thanedar has put $6 million into his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, though he has spent a fraction of it so far.

Candidate quality, overall campaign, a candidate’s opponent and the prevailing political winds are all key factors in whether or not a self-funded candidate can succeed. The debate over “buying” a political office or being well-funded to get one’s message out is also common and bound to happen.

Between 2000 and 2016 nationally, the success rate of candidates putting $500,000 or more of their own money on U.S. House, U.S. Senate or presidential campaigns is 18.6 percent out of nearly 390 total candidates.

The odds are long, but it does happen, and opting to go that route has a mixed track record in Michigan of getting one across the finish line. Something to chew on as races begin heating up.

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Election Year: Play It Safe Season Has Arrived

Posted: January 5, 2018 2:35 PM

It’s an election year, so those who follow politics and know how the legislative process works know what that means: it’s time to play it safe.

Year-end stories I and other reporters have written list goals for what to try and push through or take initial steps on in the coming year.

But we all know that there really isn’t a full year to get many of these items moving. The time has come, once budget work begins in earnest in February, for there to be a marked drop-off in pushing for any major initiatives, until it’s safe after Election Day or in 2019.

Unless there’s some emergency need to tackle a pressing issue, most major proposals, especially controversial ones that may require a tough vote will not get very far after January or February.

So if the Legislature wants to act on matters such as, say, driver responsibility fees, they are likely going to have to hit the ground running once they return on Wednesday and be close to a final compromise within a month or so.

Another matter that may need heavy lifting with a short turnaround period would be the response to the new federal tax law that could result in the estimated $1.4 billion in additional state revenue. The federal law essentially did away with the personal exemption in favor or expanding the standard deduction. Since Michigan’s income tax law allows state personal exemptions only if there are federal personal exemptions, the state might be in line for the extra revenue.

State officials have already been saying a fix is needed to offset the windfall. Lawmakers will either need to push through some sort of quick fix or find a compromise to take in some or all of the money and put it to good use in a way that won’t upset taxpayers. Again, how best to play safe and not upset the very people who will determine whether they have a job at the end of the year?

One can otherwise expect the myriad of non-controversial smaller and mid-level pieces of legislation going through the process to continue with a fair share of them eventually being passed and signed.

Even though almost none of them will go anywhere, expect members on each side of the aisle to also periodically roll out bills that are little more than red meat for their respective base. Par for the course, but it’s always interesting to see what new versions of bills that will not pass will be unveiled at taxpayer expense.

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Municipal Retirement Fix Complex, Elusive For Many Reasons

Posted: December 8, 2017 3:32 PM

Call it a missed opportunity on municipal retirement system changes. Call it a fair treatment for first-responders who risk their lives every day. A first step in finding a solution. Or even accepting political reality.

Depending on who you talk to, this week’s overnight session in which Republican leadership in both chambers removed a controversial enforcement measure from a proposed municipal retirement package and replaced it with the content of a task force report can be seen in a number of ways.

A few things were made clear after leadership realized they did not have anywhere near the votes for enacting a process, pushed by Governor Rick Snyder, to allow more state intervention in underfunded community retirement benefit systems.

The controversial final step of what was originally proposed, to enable the use of a financial management team – similar to an emergency manager – with broad local budget authority to make changes if retirement funds were not being funded adequately, was not politically feasible.

From the beginning it was known there would be no Democratic support unless the legislation mirrored the task force report.

For Republicans, there are a number of caucus members in both chambers that could have been put in an awkward position to vote on what was the original proposal given the vehement opposition by police fire fighters, both rank-and-file and management. Their caucus has a member in each chamber running for the party’s nod for attorney general. A gubernatorial candidate. Some members are weighing runs for higher office such as Congress as well as many running for re-election. Others still have backgrounds in the very professions they sought to legislate.

Voting for something that could have, arguably, negatively affected health care and pensions for those who protect the public each day likely would have been a major problem.

Police and fire fighters fall in a nonpartisan category, like members of the military, in which politicians are virtually always supportive of, want to be seen as supportive of and to have their political support. They are an important, powerful constituency to have on your side in elections.

Making broad sweeping changes to the benefits of public safety officers, who may be one’s neighbors or friends, is also more difficult politically than justifying changes to pensions for, say, teachers. Educators and educator groups have significant sway as well. However, educators, more so in recent years, tend not to enjoy nearly the same level of positive public perception granted to police and fire fighters. Unlike the municipal employee retirement bills, potentially stronger changes to teacher benefits did pass earlier this year.

What passed may have been a missed opportunity, or as Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) put it, “a few first downs” rather than a touchdown.

Following the task force report, despite no enforcement mechanism with teeth, was an obvious first step.

Should the municipal employee retirement benefit situation worsen, however, despite the bills passed this week, public safety officers may find themselves facing a similar, or what they might argue worse, solution staring them in the face in the future.

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Regional Millages Further Expose Partisan Charter School Rift

Posted: October 27, 2017 3:03 PM

Legislation to allow charter schools to have access to regional enhancement millages has led to a familiar story unfolding: Republicans promoting strengthening school choice while Democrats decry it takes away from traditional public schools and hands free money to charters to slip into corporate shareholder’s pockets.

Get some popcorn, pull up a chair and watch the remaining fireworks. Barring some stunning upset vote in the House or a veto, those who have watched charter schools take hold over the past couple decades know SB 574* is likely to go to distance.

Policy debates over charter schools are a sure bet, hot-topic in Michigan where one can expect passions to run hot and virtually no one ever being convinced to move an inch, much less change sides. Topics such as guns, abortion, religious freedom matters and unions, among others, easily come to mind.

It’s an example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

Which makes the largely muted opposition from traditional public school groups and associations somewhat puzzling.

SB 574* would enable charter schools to be eligible for funds made available by regional enhancement millages. Up to 3 mills can be approved for intermediate school districts by a vote of the public to benefit schools within their roughly county-sized districts. The bill would allow charters to get a share in new and renewed millages. The six existing ISDs with them already in place would remain as-is out of fairness to what voters at the time of their approval supported.

The fact that the millages are purely optional on a local level even if the bill is passed could be a reason behind the lack of open opposition. Perhaps there are simply bigger battles for such groups to fight on this or other policy matters. Or perhaps with charters being a reality for nearly a quarter century, it’s simply inevitable that such funding policies would begin to be pursued.

Regardless of the reason, both Republicans and Democrats, on cue, dug in on their respective sides.

Both sides to a degree have a point.

Republicans and charter school officials have said since they pay their fair share of taxes in their community they should have the choice to allow those dollars to benefit all.

Democrats have expressed deep concerns over charter school transparency and the possibility of money not benefitting students but out-of-state companies.

For now it’s a matter to watching the show as it winds its way through the Legislature and waiting for the next battle to begin.

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Driver Responsibility Fees: A Showdown Between Snyder, Legislature?

Posted: October 20, 2017 12:49 PM

As the Legislature plots a course on forgiving driver responsibility fees on some, if not all, of the more than 300,000 Michigan drivers saddled with them, a story we’ve heard before is beginning to emerge: the potential for butting heads between Governor Rick Snyder and his fellow Republicans who run both legislative chambers on a fiscal issue.

The Senate moved Thursday on amended legislation that would forgive about half of the state’s outstanding driver responsibility fees, or those six years or older. The Department of Treasury would be tasked with enforcing payment of those less than six years old as the program is phased out.

Meanwhile, the House is on track to move on a proposal of its own within the next couple of weeks. However, House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) remains dedicated to full forgiveness, wanting a clean break with a program passed in 2003 that a number of lawmakers consider a mistake for their predecessors to have passed in the first place.

Adding another layer to the proceedings is Mr. Snyder’s opposition to forgiving the fees. His administration has pointed to a $35 million hit to the state budget as well as concerns over inequity in allowing some to be forgiven.

All of this sets up what could be an interesting showdown when it comes to negotiations between both chambers and Mr. Snyder.

Support for eliminating a program long bemoaned as being unfair to residents and keeping hundreds of thousands of drivers from having reliable access to get to work is bipartisan and strong. A number of lawmakers who see it as a poorly conceived money grab used to help plug budget gaps in the 2000s under the previous administration say it has to go. Time has also shown the negative affect it’s had on residents.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) was right when he said all sides are “in the same book, they’re just not on the same page yet.” The House and Senate more than likely can hash out a plan that would pass both chambers with a strong majority.

Except, Mr. Snyder opposes the plan, at least the one that provides full amnesty. And the governor seldom declares support or opposition to any bill until it formally reaches his desk, so he clearly feels strongly about the matter.

The most recent example of this story playing out was when Mr. Snyder vetoed legislation that would have accelerated the phaseout of applying the state sales tax to the value of a trade-in when purchasing a vehicle. Mr. Snyder tends to draw a line in the sand on budgetary matters such as these. For now, the Legislature appears to have blinked, last month putting a potential veto override on that legislation on hold.

Which brings me, finally, to the crux of the matter. If the Legislature were to pass driver responsibility fee legislation that were to be vetoed, would Mr. Snyder’s fellow Republicans want to move on a rare veto override and embarrass a governor of their own party?

Consider the fact that the Legislature has a number of moving parts and, theoretically, over time that $35 million Mr. Snyder has pointed to could be leveled off in the budget by other legislative action.

Also key: what if the most recent attempt at auto insurance reform disintegrates, failing as it has multiple times in recent years? Forgiving driver responsibility fees and putting the program in the dustbin of history could provide Republicans, and really to an extent Democrats as well, a much-needed major legislative accomplishment to fall back on before the election season starts next year and the desire for large policy action falls to the wayside.

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Colbeck Vs. The World (Or Caucus)

Posted: October 13, 2017 12:39 PM

Political insiders were able to bear witness this week to a bizarre as well as rare if not unprecedented public rebuke of a lawmaker when Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof stripped Sen. Patrick Colbeck of his committee assignments.

Chatter was widespread around the Capitol halls and committee rooms following the move, largely centered on what’s been described as ongoing friction between Mr. Colbeck (R-Canton Township) and the other 26 Republicans of the Senate majority caucus.

Lack of courtesy notification by Mr. Colbeck of being in other members’ districts during his gubernatorial campaign. Openly criticizing caucus actions while on the campaign trail. Accusations of being uninterested in advancing caucus goals.

All were cited on background as being part of a growing chasm between Mr. Colbeck, Mr. Meekhof (R-West Olive) and the rest of the caucus, which came to a head during a closed caucus last week when he voiced displeasure over his treatment, prompting a sharp rebuke from other members.

Mr. Colbeck and the rest of the caucus are elected by the majority of voting residents in their districts. Like any other profession, one is held to certain standards of conduct and be part of a team. Lawmakers, of course, are public officials and are to be held to an even higher standard.

Was Mr. Colbeck not being part of the team? Was he going his own way, having built a reputation during his time in office as one of the most outspoken and most conservative members of the Republican caucus? The background from sources seems to point in that direction.

If I, or anyone reading this blog, were to repeatedly break rules or engage in what would be considered insubordination, one would be subject to discipline or sanction.

Mr. Colbeck was already given a first slap on the wrist by Mr. Meekhof by being the only caucus member not given any committee chair posts this term.

Whether this latest punishment fits the crime is the ultimate question. Political insiders and reporters have been unable to point to an instance of a lawmaker being permanently stripped of all committee assignments who wasn’t in any sort of legal trouble.

Mr. Colbeck is still able to meet in caucus; could that have been an option before taking away committee assignments? Mr. Meekhof’s spokesperson said the majority leader doesn’t want to get into “a public about caucus dynamics.” So whether this was an option is unclear.

The fact of the matter is Mr. Colbeck’s ongoing actions, and Mr. Meekhof’s reactions, affect the former’s ability to do his job and serve the 7th Senate District he represents. As Mr. Colbeck pointed out it’s going to take much more work to do district business. He’s effectively been cut off at the knees and to an extent it was his own doing.

Mr. Colbeck says the action was a swipe at his gubernatorial campaign. He’s been running as an outsider, so I’m not sure how this doesn’t have the base of support he’s gathered further solidify around him. The only question is whether he can build out beyond the conservative wing that’s in his camp.

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The Trott Ripple Effect On State Senate Races

Posted: September 15, 2017 11:59 AM

It’s one thing that this week’s announcement by U.S. Rep. David Trott not to run for another term shakes up the 11th U.S. House District race in creating a potentially crowded GOP primary field.

But there’s a major side effect – Mr. Trott’s decision could result in the shakeup of as many as four state Senate races on the GOP side.

Take the 12th and 13th Senate districts in Oakland County.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) in a statement following Mr. Trott’s announcement said he’ll be strongly considering his options. Mr. Knollenberg is up for a second Senate term and would likely win in the Republican-leaning district.

In June, Rep. Michael McCready (R-Bloomfield Hills) said he’s been considering moving “two blocks” out of the 13th Senate District to Bloomfield Township, which is in the 12th Senate District, so he’d be eligible to run to replace term-limited Sen. James Marleau (R-Lake Orion) instead of taking on an incumbent Republican in Mr. Knollenberg.

If Mr. Knollenberg were to enter the congressional race, Mr. McCready likely wouldn’t need to move to run for a Senate seat. He could stay put and run in the 13th. If he were in the 12th Senate District, Mr. McCready would face Rep. Jim Tedder (R-Clarkston) in a primary.

Also consider the 7th Senate District in northwest Wayne County.

Term-limited Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton Township) is in the race for governor.

Rep. Laura Cox (R-Livonia) is considered a top choice to run for the seat and the favorite if she does. Ms. Cox is among those seriously considering running for Congress in light of Mr. Trott’s decision.

If Ms. Cox opts for a congressional run, that could open up the GOP field in the 7th Senate District to other possible candidates such as Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Plymouth) or Republican former Rep. Laura Toy, a slew of local officials. And perhaps Democrats would give the Republican-tilting district a serious look if they weren’t facing the popular Ms. Cox.

Then there’s the 15th Senate District in western Oakland County.

Term-limited Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall (R-White Lake Township) has already formed a committee to run for secretary of state, but has expressed interest in the congressional seat.

Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township) and Rep. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) are also considering entering the congressional race. Mr. Kesto appears likely to do so.

Mr. Runestad and Republican former Rep. Hugh Crawford have filed committee paperwork to run for the 15th Senate District, while Mr. Kesto has been considered a potential candidate.

If Mr. Kesto and/or Mr. Runestad were to enter the congressional race it could clear a potentially crowded primary for Mr. Crawford, who’s not weighing a run for Congress.

For each race it’s too early to tell how things will shake out. Mr. Trott gave everyone plenty of time to consider their options prior to next April’s deadline to file.

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Sometimes Bills Just Need Some Seasoning

Posted: September 8, 2017 12:17 PM

During a press conference this week I was reminded that not every bill introduced by lawmakers is perfect and ready for prime-time.

“Legislation sometimes takes a season or two,” Sen. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said in re-introducing legislation he sponsored in the previous term to allow what are known as dental therapists to perform some procedures like filling cavities.

That comment made me think back to seasoned legislation I’ve covered prior to arriving in Lansing as well as Michigan legislation that I’m told can be considered old friends.

Quite often one hears lawmakers talk about bills introduced being an effort to update or improve on passed legislation. The fact that some ideas aren’t quite up to snuff on the first go-around or that it’s just not the right time politically to get something across the finish line shouldn’t be a surprise with that in mind.

Some legislation comes up time and again but goes nowhere. One topic that I covered in North Dakota that also comes up in Michigan is expanding civil rights law to provide protections against discrimination toward members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Banning smoking in public buildings was one that took significant effort over several years to achieve. Legislatively in Michigan, through ballot measure in North Dakota. Efforts in North Dakota to raise the tax for a pack of cigarettes from being among the lowest in the nation continues to fail both at the ballot box and in the Legislature, however.

Other legislation in Michigan that took several years or longer to finally pass include the repeal of the mandatory motorcycle helmet law, online retailers being treated the same as brick and mortar stores for sales tax purposes and providing compensation from the state for the wrongfully convicted.

A quirky one I had to cover in North Dakota was attempts at repealing the state’s Sunday morning business closing laws, also known as blue laws. Outside of fast food restaurants, gas stations and hospitals, virtually nothing in the state is open before noon on Sunday. Although some changes allowing some restaurants wanting to serve alcohol at 11 a.m. was passed, the law remains.

Each session opponents talk about unfairness to retailers and being unfriendly to business. They’re countered by lawmakers urging there to be a set-aside half day per week to be with family, go to church or avoid the rat race in general. Democrats came within a couple votes of finally overturning it earlier this year but couldn’t twist the arms of a couple members of their own caucus in the Senate at the 11th hour and it failed once again.

Sometimes all it takes is seasoning, and the political winds shifting course, for an idea to finally have its day.

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Keep ’Em Coming: Quirky Bills And Items Keep Session Coverage Fresh

Posted: September 1, 2017 1:58 PM

As the fall session is set to start, the push begins to get significant policy proposals across the finish line before the end of the year and election-year activity kicks into high gear.

The flurry of fall activity will no doubt wear out even the most energetic of souls involved in the process.

One approach to avoid burnout I learned during my first legislative session in North Dakota is to keep it fun. One way to do it is watching for the inevitable quirky, bizarre niche pieces of legislation that are to be introduced.

Where did that take me?

Rather than getting bogged down too early covering gavel-to-gavel a thorny agency budget, I found myself in 2013 listening to debates stretching for half a day on why North Dakota should allow the sale of bottle rockets within the state.

You’d be surprised how many people will step to a podium to wax nostalgic over their childhood summer nights during Fourth of July weekends firing off bottle rockets, only to be countered by medical professionals displaying graphic pictures of eyeballs hideously damaged in accidents stemming from the tragic flight paths of errant rockets.

Instead of covering as many hearings on Medicaid expansion or abortion restrictions as I could have, I found myself covering the successful move to purchase the childhood home of Lawrence Welk to keep it operating as a state-owned tourist site.

I won’t lie: I had very little idea who he was initially prior to looking him up. I only recognized the name at the time because of a scene from the movie “American Beauty” when Kevin Spacey’s character, following a fight at the dinner table, complains about the dinner music playing in the background by saying “I’m tired of this Lawrence Welk s--t!”

My Capitol pressroom mentor from The Associated Press I’ll always remember for sniffing out stories on quirks around the building. One of his best was a story on how the House Appropriations Committee room smelled like body odor. Another was when a dress code for media appeared in the pressroom telling reporters not to wear items including bib overalls and tube tops. Neither is my style.

Earlier this year, prior to my move back to Michigan, the North Dakota Legislature was a little light on the quirky bills due to a budget crunch.

But it was entertaining to hear a lawmaker admit on the House floor during debate on an unsuccessful bill to go from having two license plates on motor vehicles to one that he not only didn’t put a front plate on his sports car for a long time but also had a sort of wink and nod comment about having a lead foot on the interstate.

Another time, after multiple incidents of freshman lawmakers had made awkward public or social media comments that drew fire, I was able to get my hands on a memo Republican leadership had provided their caucus, a sort of “how to talk to the media for dummies” kind of deal.

It’s an entirely new cast of characters here in Michigan, but I’m sure keeping an eye out for items to keep the daily routine from getting too mundane will bear fruit in time.

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Nothing’s Perfect: Solar Energy Down During Eclipse

Posted: August 25, 2017 12:37 PM

While a majority of Lansing and Michigan residents Monday afternoon were looking skyward (hopefully with proper protection) to witness the solar eclipse that was visible throughout the country, an observation on the event’s impact on solar power generation was quietly observed closer to ground level.

Michigan Public Service Commission and Michigan Agency for Energy spokesman Nick Assendelft pointed out the following day on social media the effect the brief period of roughly 80 percent blockage of the sun had on the solar array located outside the offices of the two agencies outside of Lansing.

The solar panel array at the PSC/MAE offices was operating with an output of 15.881 kilowatt-hours at 1 p.m. Monday, according to charts and data Mr. Assendelft posted on Twitter the next day.

“There was a dip in production at 1:30 p.m. that was most likely due to cloud cover. Otherwise, it does appear that the array “saw” the eclipse,” an analysis stated in Mr. Assendelft’s tweet.

Data bears out the affect. By 1:30 p.m. when the cloud cover mentioned had hit the output of the array was at 4.934 kilowatt-hours.

The lowest ebb in output was recorded at 2:15 p.m., when it was at 2.169 kilowatt-hours. This was shortly before the peak eclipse viewing time in Lansing at 2:24 p.m.

Output steadily returned as the moon moved out from in front of the sun, with the array back at 8.878 kilowatt-hours and climbing by 3 p.m.

Solar energy company SolarEdge provided a map showing the effect across the country with the hundreds of thousands of arrays of different sizes at www3.solaredge.com/us/pveclipsetracking.

The eclipse also highlights a challenge with solar power: how to make it feasible when the sun isn’t shining.

Like wind energy, where obviously it’s not windy all the time within the range where generation is possible, the main problem is how to store power generated for when conditions aren’t right. Storing in batteries and a number of other experimental methods are being explored.

Of course, all forms of energy have their shortcomings. No amount of technology will ever make coal and natural gas completely clean and free of emissions regardless of the ad campaigns and lobbying of recent years to promote clean coal and natural gas.

For nuclear, rising costs in recent years has been a significant hurdle, as have been the safety concerns and where to store radioactive waste.

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Justice Served To Wrongfully Convicted Better Late Than Never

Posted: August 18, 2017 12:00 PM

Two Michigan men this week became charter members of what will in the long term be a small but slowly growing fraternity in the state: those wrongfully convicted who are compensated by the state financially after release.

The orders to provide money to Edward Carter and Marwin McHenry for being victims of the occasional mistakes made in the justice system come after a 12-year process to put what became PA 343 of 2016 on the books.

Mr. Carter will receive more than $1.76 million for a rape conviction that was overturned in 2010 after spending more than 35 years in prison. Mr. McHenry will receive more than $175,700 following a wrongful conviction for a 2012 shooting in Detroit.

Better late than never, although nothing can fully make up for time away from family as well as the stalling or derailing of a career in the workforce.

Michigan is now among 32 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with some form of compensation law on the books, according to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Compensation varies by state. Texas allows payment of up to $80,000 for each year wrongfully served while Wisconsin pays $5,000 a year with a capped maximum of $25,000, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Under Michigan’s law those with overturned convictions can pursue compensation of up to $50,000 a year for each year of imprisonment plus costs for legal fees.

Mr. Carter and Mr. McHenry, under the orders issued by Judge Michael Talbot, will receive 20 percent of their compensation within 30 days. Once they’ve proven their lawyers have been paid their legal fees they’ll receive the rest of their money within another 15 days.

Mr. Talbot said it seemed like a quick turnaround for state government.

I’m not sure what was on either of their minds in the courtroom in Detroit Wednesday when they received their compensation; I didn’t catch Mr. McHenry afterward and Mr. Carter didn’t take questions from the media.

Laws such as this one are just one example of an evolving justice system following the tough-on-crime days of decades past.

Most states in recent years have been grappling with ways to reduce criminal justice system costs by expanding treatment and alternatives to incarceration to reduce recidivism and the ballooning costs of holding prisoners.

Reporters were told the next hearing for compensation for a wrongfully convicted individual will be heard in Grand Rapids next month rather than in Detroit. The reason? He couldn’t afford the cost to travel to Detroit for his own hearing.

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Pothole “Fix” By Michigan Woman Catches On Globally

Posted: August 7, 2017 1:13 PM

If local and state leaders were able to provide funding to plug the high number of potholes dotting streets across the state, attempts at activism and art such as those started by a Michigan woman in 2015 and have become a global trend would no longer be catching people’s eyes.

The issue of one of motorists’ most common gripes, and what some creative individuals have chosen to do about it to make a point about the need for a fix, was highlighted Monday in a piece at www.openculture.com.

The website references a 2015 effort by Hamtramck artist and student Paige Breithart who planted flowers in a number of what she considered an endless number of potholes in her community.

Following local media coverage at the time, the idea has caught on.

The effort to highlight fixing what can be a safety hazard for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians alike has since gone global. The website shows how similar forms of protest over bad roads have sprouted up in other states, Canada, Great Britain and Bosnia, among others.

The story also references local officials being irritated by the discreet form of public protest over constituent concerns with local services. Officials are correct that seeing an obstruction in the road, albeit a colorful one that’s pleasing to the eyes, could cause a distraction or potential accidents.

What’s interesting is the story notes how quickly the potholes are typically fixed once attention is brought to them to not only eliminate the hazard but also what may be an embarrassment.

It makes one wonder what such attempts at art and public involvement would evolve into if local and state officials were able to make the significant road improvements the public and even lawmakers harp on quite frequently.

Perhaps at some point one will start to see public artwork emerge made out of litter along roadways, for example:

I remember my brother once had to do a regular segment for a television station he worked at in another state, documenting complaints in residential neighborhoods where a majority of drivers would speed regularly. The use of a television camera and radar gun didn’t seem to work; his reporting on the angry responses and gestures by motorists was amusing, but unfortunate. Sometimes highlighting things in a public way doesn’t work.

Perhaps in that case staging fake ducklings, rabbits or turtles crossing the road might get people to watch what they’re doing rather than a camera.

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Scaramucci Visit To Area Last Year Recalled

Posted: July 31, 2017 6:34 PM

Blink and one may have missed the 11-day tenure of White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci prior to his ouster on Monday.

Mr. Scaramucci’s brief stint front and center in the administration of President Donald Trump had one Lansing-area politico reminiscing recently about an even more brief appearance, this one a visit to Lansing last summer by the former Wall Street financier.

Rick Cole, who served as press secretary and chief of staff for part of Democratic former Governor Jim Blanchard’s administration, took to Facebook on Friday to describe a business luncheon last summer in Lansing at Capital Prime, a suburban Lansing steakhouse. Mr. Scaramucci appeared at the luncheon.

He said following a “rather entertaining presentation” by Mr. Scaramucci, Mr. Cole decided to ask about Mr. Trump and his knowledge of the economy.

In his post, in what was referred to as a rough quote, Mr. Cole said he asked: “You are here with people who have put a great deal of their hard earned money in your trust. And now you tell us you are on Donald Trump’s council of economic advisors. Everyone in the room knows that Donald Trump is among the most unethical businessmen anyone has ever heard of. How do you square that circle?”

Mr. Scaramucci replied that if Mr. Trump were elected he’s going to need someone with extensive economic expertise at his side to assist him. Mr. Cole said Mr. Scaramucci seemed to imply the president wasn’t very knowledgeable.

Mr. Cole said he had a pleasant conversation with Mr. Scaramucci afterward and had a copy of his most recent book autographed.

Mr. Scaramucci came into the communications position with press secretary Sean Spicer being pushed aside. Mr. Scaramucci quickly drew headlines over threats to fire those leaking information to the press as well as receiving sharp criticism over a vulgarity-laced rant to a reporter with the New Yorker.

Mr. Cole said in his Facebook post that during the brief visit with Mr. Scaramucci that he had no thoughts that he would rise to become Mr. Trump’s communications chief.

Fewer people likely expected Mr. Scaramucci’s tenure to be so brief.

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There’s Nothing Wrong With An Intraparty Fight

Posted: July 14, 2017 2:13 PM

A split Republican caucus in the House with help from a number of Democrats was able to push through a tax incentive package designed to attract large new businesses to the state despite the House Republican leadership opposing the package.

Now it’ll be up to those running for office next year to make the case as to why he or she voted the way they did regardless of whether the incentives draw a Foxconn or other major players to the state or not.

Supporters say the package keeps Michigan competitive while opponents said it’s an attempt at choosing favorites.

Between the amendments adopted and the allegation made by the House speaker that the Democrats and Governor Rick Snyder had come to some sort of deal, some intraparty differing of the minds likely led to the caucus split in the House as well.

Such debates are healthy to not allow political policy to become stagnant and to keep lawmakers on their toes.

What caught my attention in speaking this week with Republican current and former House members running for Senate seats in 2018 were the references to someone being able to compromise versus having someone with a consistent, unbending ideology in Lansing.

There’s something to be said about someone that sticks to his or her guns and doesn’t bend on certain deeply held principles. There’s also something to be said about understanding that you win some and you lose some and not everything is going to specifically benefit your district.

Finding the right balance of compromise and sticking to one’s guns is a major challenge a lawmaker faces.

When I was in North Dakota there were always a few lawmakers from each side of the aisle lobbyists and officials knew were incapable of being swayed on issues, which led to a degree of isolation and unwillingness to even deal with them. There were also a handful at the other extreme, being opportunistic on legislation to the point where it was obvious they were angling for their next job or office.

I’m sure over time I’ll observe a similar dynamic at play here as well.

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Which Is Better? A Government Insider Or An Outsider?

Posted: July 7, 2017 5:35 PM

In the early stages of the new campaign season one of the most common talking points is already being thrown around: a candidate touting outsider status and not being part of the political establishment.

One of the most recent examples was when former Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr. announced his candidacy in the Republican race to challenge U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.

Business executive Lena Epstein quickly pounced, calling herself an outsider and saying Michigan voters want outsiders like her with business experience. She pointed to Michigan going for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election as an example.

Such statements are an old friend to candidates, reporters and the public alike during campaign season. It raises the question of which is better, an insider with experience or an outsider to shake things up?

Calling oneself an outsider is the go-to catchphrase to draw attention, since the idea of change is what is always at issue in an election.

Likewise, one who says their experience in government will allow them to jump right in and make a difference without as much of a learning curve can also be appealing.

It’s important to remember that all politicians were outsiders at one time. The voters have to give a candidate a chance to move from outsider to insider.

That’s the appeal of outsiders: they bring new perspectives to the equation through their personal as well as private sector experience.

For insiders it’s about being able to continue their work and, for some, moving up the ranks in terms of seniority.

One needs to look no further than former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump as recent outsiders to win the presidency.

Mr. Trump had decades of business experience and was an entrepreneur with his ventures and television show. Mr. Obama served as a state senator in Illinois prior to joining the U.S. Senate for less than one term before entering the White House.

Closer to home, Governor Rick Snyder was a consummate outsider with no elected office experience before winning the governorship. When John Engler won the governorship in 1990, he was an insider in the sense he was the Senate majority leader with 20 years of experience in the Legislature. But he was challenging the incumbent governor, Jim Blanchard, so perhaps that made him the outsider in that race, or at least the change candidate.

During my career I covered a mayor once in Ohio who had previously been a soap opera actor years earlier. In North Dakota one of the city commissioners I covered was also my dentist for a time.

In that U.S. Senate race, Mr. Young was an outsider when he arrived on the Michigan Supreme Court in the 1990s. Now his opponent, Ms. Epstein, is saying those 20 years on the court make him an insider. Mr. Young says he would be a disruptor.

Ms. Epstein is running as an outsider, but she’s joined at the hip to Mr. Trump as a strong supporter who co-chaired his 2016 Michigan campaign, so is she an outsider as someone not holding elected office but an insider as someone tied into the White House?

Sometimes whether one is an outsider or an insider is in the eye of the beholder.

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Too Long Or Not: Campaign Length Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Posted: June 30, 2017 5:17 PM

One thing that catches my attention each election cycle is the traditional set of talking points over the length of political campaigns.

In reaching out to potential candidates people fall into two camps: those who think election cycles are becoming too long and those who think it’s never too early to lay a foundation.

I would say both claims have long become a moot point as we’ve entered the era of permanent campaigning.

One needs to look no further than how as one election ends, another begins, particularly on the federal level.

After Republicans won in November, the Democrats immediately began to juggle not only licking their wounds but developing plans to resist the incoming administration’s agenda and start looking for 2018 candidates.

Republicans clearly aren’t resting on their laurels as it concerns 2018, and just this week President Donald Trump already held his first 2020 reelection fundraiser.

Four years earlier the roles were reversed, with Republicans conducting their 2012 “autopsy” and Democrats not wanting to get complacent.

Already this cycle there already are a number of House and Senate districts across the state with potential wide open fields emerging.

The oft-used line for those who say it’s too early is that the public hates long drawn-out elections and don’t pay attention until the very end.

True.

However those with campaign experience as well as those without name recognition know it’s the smaller number of hardcore party faithful that do the lion’s share of the initial legwork to decide on who ends up as their nominees on the ballot.

Therein lies the rub: when does one get their ducks in a row, enter the fray and gain the most momentum? Timing is everything, as with location in real estate.

One positive aspect of having long campaign seasons is that there’s at least a portion of the public that cares and is actively engaged in the process.

Most would agree regardless of how long a campaign lasts an active and informed public is healthy to keep the system in check.

The negative would be the endless barrage of advertising.

Or, in the absence of advertising, what happens on both sides of the political aisle: a sort of daily outrage among people over something said or done on the other side, initially spreading like wildfire through social media.

Despite a large swath of the public’s supposed distaste for endless politicking, no one seems to be able to look away, sort of like a car wreck.

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Some Insight On A Part Time Legislature

Posted: June 23, 2017 6:23 PM

When I was completing my final weeks covering North Dakota politics before coming home to Michigan one of the first questions sources and friends out west asked me was what type of Legislature Michigan worked under.

I’d explained it as a full-time professional Legislature somewhat like Congress. So it was interesting in the final days before I left to see the petition drive announced May 30 to change Michigan to a part-time Legislature.

It’s interesting, the possibility of shifting twice in a couple years from a part-time citizen Legislature in North Dakota to a full-time professional one here to a part-time Legislature again if the proposal pushed by Lt. Governor Brian Calley is successful.

When I was in North Dakota the system is rather simple compared to Michigan. That happens when you have a state with an estimated population of 758,000 compared to 9.9 million in Michigan.

In North Dakota legislative session is limited to 80 days every two years in odd-numbered years. If the Legislature has extra days left when they complete their work they can come back if needed. The governor can also call special sessions.

During the interim they organize a number of interim committees. A number of studies, usually 40 or 50-soms, are parceled out between the committees to review and draft legislation prior to the actual session.

The majority of lawmakers there are farmers, business owners, bankers, lawyers and retirees.

Outside of retirees who have the time, other legislators have to work out how to manage their professional lives in order to serve from early January to usually late April or the first few days of May every other year.

Those who aren’t fans of the part-time Legislature model, as well as those who may want to run but don’t believe they can, point to efforts to address their professional lives as a shortcoming of the system. Another is the perception that it limits the pool of people with the resources to serve.

In a sparsely populated state with a number of towns with 30, 20, 10 or even fewer people, the argument might hold more weight than in a state like Michigan.

The full-time Legislature idea isn’t very appealing among North Dakotans, who prefer the idea that really anyone could serve if they have the drive to do it. The state is more of one big community and the idea of a professional Legislature to them puts more of a barrier between them and their elected representatives in their mind.

One thing that did catch me off guard in my final weeks in North Dakota was when I spoke to a number of lawmakers and state officials in my talks about Michigan.

North Dakota doesn’t have term limits. Multiple officials I’d spoken with said they used to be supporters of term limits but changed their minds. At least one lawmaker said, coincidently, it was conversation with Michigan lawmakers on term limits that made him revert opposed.

Not exactly the same topic, but what I found from those conversations was that sometimes all it takes is getting information or feedback from those who operate under a different system to find out if it works for you as well.

We could find out eventually how many minds in this state are ripe for a possible legislative change.

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An Introduction From The New Guy

Posted: June 16, 2017 5:57 PM

Learning the ropes and the political landscape as I take on my new role here with Gongwer News Service is like drinking water from a firehose, but I’m glad to be here to do it.

I joined Gongwer this week after more than eight years away from Michigan, working as a reporter in North Dakota.

To back up a bit, I was born in Port Huron and moved to Davison while in grade school. In spring 2007 I graduated from Central Michigan University.

I’m also not the only reporter in my family. My younger brother Matthew Smith reports for WXYZ Detroit. My twin brother (fraternal, not identical) started out as a reporter, working in Kentucky and in Michigan before leaving the business. He’s a high school history teacher in Adrian.

After a couple short reporting stints, one in Davison and the other in Tiffin, Ohio, I found myself looking for work and took a leap of faith by moving to Williston, North Dakota in spring 2009.

North Dakota currently produces more than 1 million barrels of oil per day. They would be second after a little state called Texas.

I knew if I could successfully report on an oil boom it could open any number of doors professionally. So far, the rest is history.

There was no shortage of stories, with swarms of people came from all over the country for oil work, an increase in crime and the lack of affordable housing. Some reports at the time put rental prices on par with prices in Manhattan.

Luckily I never endured such rent. But I was busy. I saw my first couple of gray hairs. And a number of times when I’d go grocery shopping there would be entire shelves virtually picked clean as though the store had been bought out prior to a hurricane.

That punched my ticket to The Bismarck Tribune and nearly five-and-a-half years of covering the statehouse.

Even in my first week in Lansing I can already notice significant differences. The process of passing a bill is a bit more complex. In North Dakota a major difference is that every bill receives a hearing and a floor vote; in the three sessions I covered there were approximately 850 to 950 bills per session.

Unlike Michigan, North Dakota is a part-time citizen Legislature. They meet for up to 80 days in odd-numbered years.

In 2013, my first session, they reached the 80-day constitutional limit for the only time in state history. I still remember arriving at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning for Day 80 and not leaving until 6 a.m. Saturday. What wasn’t fun about that was that I had to be to work at a weekend side job in retail at noon that Saturday. What was fun was checking my bank account the next pay period after racking up about 20 hours of overtime.

So from the wind-swept prairie back to my home state it was when the opportunity presented itself.

Needless to say I’m thrilled to be back and being able to continue with state government reporting.

I have no doubt I’ll enjoy learning the lay of the land, I’ll also enjoy rooting for the Tigers, Red Wings, and Wolverines without being so wildly out of place in terms of my allegiances.

Well, I’m sure I’ll catch some grief being in Spartans territory, but I digress.

That’s my story as I begin to dive in here in Lansing. I look forward to begin hearing more stories of those I meet and cover as I get acquainted with my beat.

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