National presidential politics and the Flint water crisis captured international attention in recent months, pushing many other stories off the radar.
March 8 Michigan Presidential Primary
For the first time in decades, both of Michigan’s major political parties will have a 2016 open primary that allows voters to choose a party ballot and then vote that ballot only. Also that day there will be an open primary in Mississippi, closed caucuses for Republicans in Hawaii and Idaho, and a closed caucus for Democrats Abroad. There will be 140 local millages in some jurisdictions on the ballot as well.
Michigan’s primary is sandwiched between Super Tuesday March 1 when 14 states will be voting and Mini-Super Tuesday March 15 when seven large states go to the polls or caucus sites.
The GOP and Democrats will hold 22 and 18 primaries and caucuses, respectively, ahead of the Michigan primary. There are 13 Republicans on Michigan’s primary ballot but only 9 left in the race at this writing on February 7. There are 4 Democrats on the ballot but only two with active campaigns. By our primary several GOP candidates may drop out or a single candidate could emerge in either party.
Michigan debates — Michigan will play host to two presidential debates. Republican candidates will debate issues at the Fox Theater in Detroit on March 3 televised at 7 p.m. on local Fox News Channels and across other Fox platforms at 9 p.m. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will face off in Flint on March 6 hosted by CNN at a yet unannounced time and place.
Flint Water Crisis
Every day brings new headlines about the Flint water crisis. By now we all know that the City of Flint, then under a state-appointed emergency manager, decided to switch its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Authority to the Flint River as an interim measure before linking to a planned new water source. The Flint River water was not treated appropriately and was corrosive to water service lines, causing lead and other substances to be released into many people’s tap water. Despite complaints and documentation for 18 months, some local, state, and federal officials denied or ignored the problem putting residents in danger of lead poisoning and other health issues. In January, both a state and federal emergency was declared.
Flint Demographics — Flint officials estimate that more than 40% of residents live below the poverty line and 50% of the homes have been abandoned. The U.S. Census Bureau says that Flint is 57% black, 37% white, 4% Hispanic and 4% of mixed race.
Money Help — Michigan lawmakers have unanimously approved nearly $40 million for recovery efforts such as bottled water, faucet filters, testing kits, additional school nurses, medical treatment, and help with the city's unpaid water bills. There are also funds to hire outside experts to figure out whether Flint's water infrastructure needs to be completely replaced. An additional $30 million is proposed to provide water bill relief for individuals and businesses. Budget recommendations on February 10 propose additional resources to address long-term health, education, and infrastructure challenges. A new Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Council has been appointed by the Governor to oversee response activities.
Investigations — Meanwhile criminal investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Michigan Attorney General are underway. The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a televised hearing on February 3 in Washington, DC. as part of its investigation. Testifying were persistent citizen activist Leanne Walters, a mom with a medical tech degree who relentlessly pursued the issue and Dr. Marc Edwards, a MacArthur fellow and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University who used his own and VTU’s resources to verify the lead poisoning. City of Flint, county, state and federal officials also testified. Busloads of Flint and Detroit residents were at the hearing. More Congressional hearings are promised.
Darnell Earley, recently-resigned Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager and an ex-Flint Emergency Manager, and former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman who resigned over the mess, have been subpoenaed to testify. Seven state employees have resigned or been dismissed because of the matter.
EPA and State Hotlines — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set up a hotline, 1-800-426-4791, and email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) for information about its water sampling efforts in Flint. The federal agency is still encouraging Flint residents to have their water tested to be sure lead levels are below 150 parts per billion after filtering. Flint residents who need crisis counseling can call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. This 24/7 resource is provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Michigan DHHS.
Volunteers — Since October, plumbers with United Association Local 370 in Flint have been volunteering to install filters and faucets to get lead out of people's tap water. More than 300 plumbers driving in from Lansing, Detroit, Saginaw, and other cities across Michigan have come in to help. Numerous celebrities, organizations, and communities have shipped water to Flint residents. National Guard units have been called in to help. By the end of January over 200,000 cases of water, 100,000 filters, and 30,000 water testing kits had been supplied to Flint residents. To donate to various agencies helping Fllint, go to www.helpforflint.com.
Future Needs — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has promised removal of lead service lines to high risk homes but how this potential $1.5 billion cost will be paid for is not certain. Former Michigan State Treasurer Bob Kleine opined in the Washington Post that the origins of the crisis go back decades to disinvestment and neglect of cities. He said what would help Flint in the long term would be increased state revenue sharing funding along with the city becoming part of a joint consolidated metropolitan government with the rest of Genesee County.
Lawsuits — Crain’s Weekly reports that at least nine lawsuits have been filed over the past three months in Genesee County Circuit Court, U.S. District Court in Detroit and the Michigan Court of Claims over lead contamination, a surge in Legionnaires' disease or other public health issues connected to city water drawn from the Flint River over 18 months.
Most are brought as potential class-action suits on behalf of all city residents and businesses that might be affected by corrosion or contamination of the city's aging water infrastructure. And while legal experts think governmental immunity and court precedents in Michigan make suing Flint and the state a longshot, some are taking a novel approach by instead targeting companies that contract with Flint or operate in the city, or specific government employees.
These are just a few activities surrounding the Flint water crisis. It is clear that the crisis will be with us for months and years ahead.
Detroit Public Schools
Detroit Public Schools, charged with educating 47,000 children, have been under state Emergency Managers for 15 of the last 17 years. Yet it has $3.5 billion in debt and long-term liabilities. By April, reports predict, it will be out of cash and creditors will likely begin to sue.
The Situation — DPS had 162,693 students in 2000, so enrollment is down 72 percent. Of the 113,200 students in the city of Detroit, 41 percent attend DPS, 30 percent attend in-district charter schools, 15 percent attend out-of-district charter schools, 9 percent do schools of choice outside the city and 5 percent are in the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state-run entity.
Charter schools were supposed to serve as innovative competition to spur improvements in traditional public schools, but obviously the reverse has happened in Detroit. When a student leaves a traditional public school for a charter or a school of choice, the state's per-pupil allotment travels with her, reducing the previous public school’s revenue. Because enrollment declines are spread across the district, not concentrated in buildings or classrooms, public schools are unable to make quick cuts commensurate with revenue loss. And charters do not have to contribute to the school employee retirement system, depriving that system of revenue for the school employee pension fund, so-called stranded costs.
Two bills — On January 14, initial versions of two DPS reform bills were introduced. They would separate the district into old and new entities while creating a framework for an elected school board on the November 2016 ballot. SB 0710 and SB 0711 are sponsored by Senate K-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Goeff Hansen (R-Hart). The first hearing on the bills in the Senate Government Operations committee was held on February 4.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan testified that any Detroit education system should be based on parental choice and local school governance but with a mayor-appointed Detroit Education Commission (DEC). The Governor also supports a DEC concept but it isn’t included in the two bills.
The DEC is needed to oversee the opening and closings of all public schools Duggan contends. In the last seven years, 164 schools have opened or closed in Detroit because there are too many authorizing agencies. Meanwhile, schools are not spread out equally throughout the city. Duggan noted that on the city's northeast section there are two high schools for some 6,000 neighborhood kids but in the downtown area, 10 schools exist for 1,800 students who live nearby. The charter school community opposes relinquishing their independence to a politically appointed board.
Duggan supported a financial rescue, noting the district is currently paying almost as much ($26.1 million) in monthly debt service as it is for total payroll and benefits for a mere 6,000 staff ($28.1 million). The Governor has supported over $700 million in aid to Detroit schools.
Sickouts — Meanwhile DPS teachers have sued DPS and the state over deplorable physical conditions in the schools and have been having selective “sickouts” that resulted in closing of two-thirds of DPS schools. The teachers say the district is allowing health and safety concerns to go unaddressed, in addition to maintaining excessive class sizes. Black mold, dead rats, inconsistent heating and cooling systems, and generally dilapidated building conditions were documented. Michigan law prohibits teachers from striking, but the district's superintendent must file a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to begin the process of stopping a strike and punishing teachers who struck. DPS has sought an injunction to halt the sickouts with a hearing scheduled for February 16.
Teacher strike bills — The Senate Education Committee reported on a party-line vote a three-bill package on February 2 to respond to the Detroit Public School teachers’ sickouts. SB 713 requires the state superintendent of public instruction to notify the Michigan Employment Relations Commission of a possible strike and then the Commission would hold a hearing to determine whether a strike was occurring. SB 714 would allow for a teacher’s teaching certificate to be suspended for two years or permanently revoked under certain conditions. And SB 715 allows for a fine to be imposed from an employee’s annual salary, the district or intermediate school district to forfeit a portion of their state school aid under certain conditions. Substitutes adopted to some of the bills also included provisions on decertifying a union if certain conditions on a strike are determined to exist.
Gag Order Law Enjoined
U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O'Meara recently granted local governmental officials' request for a preliminary injunction on the portion of new PA 269 of 2016 that is known by local governments as a “gag order” on communicating about local ballot questions for 60 days before election day. O’Meara said the law was unconstitutionally vague. The ruling impacts about 120 school boards and local governmental entities with 141 money-related ballot questions in 67 of Michigan's 83 counties on the ballot March 8.
The former SB 0571 was heavily amended on the last day of session in December to include the so-called “gag order” language, among many other provisions. It received little open debate on either the House or Senate floor before it was passed into law with Republican majority support. Even some Republican legislators complained they didn’t have a chance to read it before voting on it.
Gag order clarification bill advances — The House Elections Committee approved changes to PA 269 of 2016 to clarify what local governments are permitted to communicate. House Bill 5219, introduced by Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto) removes the 60-day limit and also would allow “factual and strictly neutral information concerning the direct impact of a local ballot question on a public body or the electorate, except if the communication can reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to influence the outcome of a local ballot question.”
Campaign Finance Reports
The February 1 campaign finance reports required under state law revealed that Senate Republicans doubled Senate Democrats in campaign contributions for the fourth quarter even though the Dems had the most successful non-election year ever. Senate Republicans had almost double the cumulative contributions for the year over the Dems at $1.6 million.
House — In the House, the Republicans head into the 2016 election with $1.35 million on hand, while the Democrats have $908,722 on hand. All 110 seats in the House will be on the ballot in November; 9 seats would need to change from R to D and the Dems would have to retain current seats to take control of the chamber.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the House Republican Campaign Committee raised $1.79 million in 2015. Of that total, $720,000 — or 40 percent — came from 18 donors who each gave the maximum yearly amount possible, $40,000.
Half of those 18 donors were members of the DeVos family. Daniel DeVos, Helen DeVos, Elisabeth DeVos, Pamella DeVos, Cheri DeVos, Richard DeVos Sr., Maria DeVos, Doug DeVos and Richard DeVos Jr. all provided maximum contributions.
The other nine maximum donors included John Kennedy III, president of the Autocam Corp.; Nancy Kennedy; the political action committee of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Meijer Inc.; and Matthew T. Maroun, manager of the Liberty Bell Agency.
SERA Recent News — If you are a SERA member, you are eligible to receive SERA Recent News, a periodic e-mail about breaking news and media stories of interest to state employees and retirees. Write to email@example.com, giving your name and chapter.
Editor’s note: Mary Pollock is the Lansing SERA Chapter and SERA Council’s Legislative Representative. She may be contacted at 1200 Prescott Drive, East Lansing, MI 48823-2446; Phone 517-351-7292; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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