Forfeiture is a big issue in Michigan
The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear a case on whether government should be able to receive forfeited property without a criminal conviction. But that hasn’t stopped Justice Clarence Thomas from taking a big swipe at civil forfeiture laws across the nation.
In most states, including Michigan, law enforcement officials can transfer property to the government, even if the rightful owner has not been convicted of a crime. (In fact, the owner may not even have to be charged with a crime.) That’s because forfeiture involves charging the property, not a person, with a crime. Justice Thomas calls this a legal “fiction.”
This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights. In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.
These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.
Michigan has its share of horror stories as well (read about them and how the forfeiture system works in the Great Lakes State here). And since up to 100 percent of the funds from assets being forfeited go back to local law enforcement, there are misplaced incentives that cause innocent people to lose their property.
The answer to this problem is for Michigan to join New Mexico, North Carolina and Nebraska in ending civil forfeiture and permit law enforcement to seize assets only from people who have been convicted of a crime. Learn more at www.mackinac.org/forfeiture.
Bills would subject legislators, governor to FOIA and require salaries be made public
Next week is “Sunshine Week,” and some Michigan legislators are celebrating by introducing transparency bills.
Almost the entire Michigan House has signaled support for a package of bills that would subject legislators and the governor to open record laws. While there may need to be some loopholes — for some legislative discussions and people sharing personal information with elected officials — these bills would, if enacted, put Michigan on par with most of the states.
Another proposed law, House Bill 4301 from Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo, would require the state to make public the name, position, and salary of every state employee. This would add on to a bill from 2016 requiring the state to list organizational charts, as well as a bill from a few years ago mandating that school districts make public their contracts, budget, superintendent’s salary and more.
Broad-based transparency laws will often need a few exceptions. But governments should be as open and transparent as possible in how they spend money, and these bills are a few more steps in that direction.
SEIU Healthcare Michigan has a history of problems
The union responsible for skimming tens of millions of dollars from home caregivers has been placed under an emergency trusteeship to investigate alleged financial malpractice. It‘s just another issue in the ongoing saga surrounding SEIU Healthcare Michigan.
This union is not new to scandals. SEIU Healthcare Michigan secretly unionized tens of thousands of home caregivers, most of whom were taking care of their relatives, in order to, in President Marge Faville's words, ”make sure Democrats get [elected].” The “dues skim” took $34 million of state aid meant for the poor and disabled and was ultimately ended by the Legislature.
But the union didn’t quit: It orchestrated a ballot proposal that would have given them a constitutional right to force private citizens into a government union so it could collect their “dues.” In the process of running this proposal, the union broke campaign finance laws and paid one of the largest fines in Michigan history. The ballot proposal failed 56-44, and after caregivers could no longer be forced to belong to the union, SEIU Healthcare Michigan membership dropped 80 percent.
Real health care workers in Michigan have been breaking away from the SEIU and repeatedly alleging corruption and nepotism on the part of Faville, the union head. One local union of about 200 members split with an almost unanimous vote, claiming SEIU Healthcare Michigan was spending little on bargaining while blowing money on parties and a brand-new SUV for Faville. Members also said the union was paying for her apartment.
There was an attempt to remove Faville from office, but she held the election by mail, which helped her as the incumbent. Union members who worked at hospitals were increasingly upset about the union’s scheme to “fake represent” home caregivers, most of whom did not know they were unionized or received any benefits from the union. The election fight got nasty with allegations of people losing their jobs for opposing Faville. Three different ballots were sent out, and one Middle Eastern union member compared the SEIU Healthcare Michigan election to Bashar Assad getting "elected" again and again in Syria. Ultimately, Faville prevailed and still heads the union today.
Most of the problems mentioned above took place before Michigan became a right-to-work state. So this tale is just another example of the positive side of the worker freedom law: Nobody should be forced to give financial support to an organization as riddled with problems as SEIU Healthcare Michigan.
Lawmakers can afford to lower taxes
Michigan’s 2007 income tax hike has cost the typical Michigan household about $1,000. This is the total cost over the decade, and while it might not sound like much to some people, it is a significant sum to others.
But the size of this tax hike is not the problem. The real issue is that lawmakers are taking more from Michigan residents without needing to. Thankfully, some legislators are working to try to let people keep more of their own money.
The 2007 hike raised the personal income tax rate from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent. It was expected to take an additional $826 million from taxpayers for the 2008-2009 fiscal year.
However, the tax dollars didn’t come in as planned. The economy has a large impact on tax trends. Total income tax revenue actually fell from $7.2 billion in fiscal year 2007-2008 to $5.9 billion in fiscal year 2008-2009. The tax increases probably meant more revenue for the state than would otherwise have been the case. But the hike also punishes people for earning more, so this effect may also explain why there were fewer dollars generated by the tax after increasing its rate.
The tax hike was sold as a temporary increase, and the legislation included reducing the rate back to 3.9 percent over time. However, as part of Governor Snyder’s 2011 tax reforms, the planned rate declines were halted and the current rate is 4.25 percent.
House Republicans held a vote on a bill that would have lowered the rate back to 3.9 percent over the next few years. Unfortunately, they were not able to garner enough votes to pass it, with 12 Republican legislators voting against it and one Democratic house member supporting it.
The state can afford this reduction. With Michigan’s recent economic growth, the income tax is collecting more from taxpayers. The state received $9.4 billion from this tax in fiscal year 2015-2016, up $3.5 billion since 2009. The state budget is expected to grow another $777 million this year, and the reductions rejected by lawmakers would only have reduced this amount by $195 million.
Over the longer term the modest decline in the tax rate would still leave the state government with more revenue. Annual state revenues are expected to increase by $1.7 billion over the next four years, well above the cost to the state budget for allowing people to keep more of their money. Thus, even if the Legislature lowers the income tax, the state will continue to increase its budget.
Many lawmakers promised they would lower the income tax, both back when it was increased in 2007 and on the campaign trail. Let’s hope they agree to get this done before the state takes more of people’s money unnecessarily.
Unique rural community bolstered by college focus, innovative initiatives
Isolated and poor, Baldwin, Michigan, doesn’t offer abundant opportunity to a native son with a freshly minted college degree. But Ferris State grad Duane Roberts returned home because he wanted to help those who were coming behind him.
Baldwin is the smallest of the state’s eight “promise zones” that offer a combination of public and private scholarship funds for every local high school graduate who attends a Michigan college or university. In Baldwin, graduates can receive $5,000 a year for four years, above and beyond other available financial aid.
Roberts, a 2008 Baldwin High School graduate, is back in school as the district’s Promise Zone Coordinator. In this role he oversees the district’s College Access Center, created in 2011. Because of his background, faculty members at the school say, Roberts has built strong relationships and credibility with students. Like his predecessor, he leads middle school students on college day trips and older students on overnight trips. He also has helped plan and coordinate elementary field trips that put the idea of college before even younger students.
The district’s deep and relentless focus on demystifying and breaking down the barriers to college has raised the bar on academic expectations. The school regularly hosts on-campus events with different university representatives. The emphasis on postsecondary learning is obvious throughout campus, including the student commons area that prominently displays flags from many of Michigan’s colleges and universities.
Baldwin Senior High School stood out as the seventh-best district high school on the Mackinac Center’s recently released Context and Performance Report Card, earning a solid A. The distinction doesn’t come from high raw achievement scores but by preparing students better than a demographer’s tables would predict. In other words, the school helps students beat the odds. Nine in 10 kids are poor enough to qualify for free lunch subsidies, at or below $31,590 a year for a family of four. Baldwin’s “CAP” score shows they are doing much better than their student poverty numbers would predict.
Four members of the senior class I met were all seriously grappling with decisions about which college acceptance letters to take. Two members of student government, including a star of the boys’ basketball team, want to be pre-med majors.
Postsecondary preparation is a strong emphasis at Baldwin, but high school principal Calvin Patillo is quick to point out that it takes different forms. “College is not a destination for every student,” he said, adding that the district offers students skilled trades and career education programs.
Tucked away in placid tourist country along the edge of the sprawling Manistee National Forest, a popular fishing destination, the small rural western Michigan school may be one of a kind. Only a few miles from the school, Idlewild was founded in the early 20th century by middle-class African-Americans who had been excluded from other rustic resorts by racial segregation. It became known as the “Black Eden of Michigan.”
Today, the Baldwin school district is more racially diverse than other districts in the region. Nearly as many minority students as white students are enrolled, largely coexisting in harmony. Patillo and guidance counselor Stewart Nasson emphasized the absence of cliques in the school culture as one key reason for academic success.
Both Patillo and Superintendent Dr. Stiles Simmons, two African-American educators with years of experience in Detroit Public Schools, emphasize the differences between urban and rural poverty. In a place like Baldwin, poverty means fewer harmful distractions and less pressure to conform. But the sense of isolation from opportunities is greater. The school is the place for students to take part in organized athletics and extracurricular activities.
Several of the superintendent’s initiatives have borne fruit. Among other things, Simmons led an overhaul of the curriculum. He also got teachers to help in meeting a state requirement to develop meaningful evaluations of professional staff.
A trio of high school teachers highlighted the challenge of keeping parents connected with their child’s educational experience. They said that through bonding and observation, they know what students need to do. Sometimes, one teacher said, that requires them to act like “helicopter moms” to make sure children do what they need to do. That doesn’t mean, though, that the district has given up on students.
“Educators can use vocabulary and authority to keep families at arm’s length,” Simmons acknowledges, and he has tried to chart a different path. In an effort to create a more welcoming atmosphere for parents, Simmons hosted community meetings every month for two years so he could hear from students’ families and understand their concerns.
Talking with people in the community has improved home-school relations. It also has resulted in holding open gym nights and having a partnership with Feeding America, a mobile food pantry for some of the community’s neediest residents.
Simmons’ latest and perhaps proudest initiative is the balanced calendar, launched in the 2015-16 school year. The calendar now has a two-week break in the fall and spring. The change shortened summer vacation to six weeks — no small feat in a community dependent on summer tourism. Staff members see the change as mostly positive. It creates a modest challenge with scheduling the SAT. But it has improved the timing of end-of-semester exams and helped to reinforce programs that have reduced the number of punishable student infractions.
Under Patillo’s tenure, Baldwin High School has begun offering Advanced Placement courses. It offers economics and environmental sciences, and computer science is scheduled to come online next year. In 2016-17 the school added a robotics team to its slate of extracurricular opportunities. These changes have started to shift the campus culture so that peer pressure increasingly pushes kids toward classroom success and on-time graduation.
Based on its current trajectory, the school will keep beating the odds and give more students the chance to build bright futures.
Corrections Department could hire former prisoners under proposed bill
A new proposal from the Michigan House of Representatives would allow the Michigan Department of Corrections to hire ex-offenders. Research suggests that the more difficult it is for ex-offenders to find legal employment, the more likely they are to reoffend. This proposal could provide a lifeline for an offender who is trying to turn his life around — something lawmakers should keep in mind when considering the bill.
Until 20 years ago, the department was allowed to hire people with felony convictions as long as the department director approved the hire. This changed when the Legislature passed a 1996 law prohibiting anyone with a felony record or facing felony charges from being hired for or appointed to a position in the department.
The House proposal would relax that prohibition by creating an exception to the rule while leaving the ban on the books. But it requires the department to create a policy to describe when it could hire a person with a felony conviction and not disturb its operations or create a risk to public safety. The policy, which would require extensive background checks and multiple layers of approval, would dictate when exceptions to the ban could be made.
In 2014, nearly 49,500 people in Michigan were convicted of a felony. Felons face major barriers to employment, especially when they try to enter the military or get a license to practice one of many professions. While few ex-offenders would be hired by the department as a result of a new law, the policy would show that the state is interested in helping former offenders safely and permanently assimilate back into productive society.
The discussion on the proposal has been measured but, appropriately, optimistic. “[The bill] will not open up every job,” says MDOC Legislative Liaison Kyle Kaminski, “but we want to have the opportunity where it makes sense.” Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, agreed. He noted that a job at the department might make a lot of sense for a recently released inmate trying to make a successful re-entry as a prison teacher, for example. Pagel added, “Who better to go back in and talk to inmates about life experience and redemption than someone who’s actually done it themselves?”
March 3, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report
Senate Bill 119, Transfer prison property to NMU for forensic anthropology: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate
To transfer a piece of unfenced Marquette state prison land to Northern Michigan University, which will use it for a new forensic anthropology program. This is a field whose techniques are useful in crime and disaster investigations.
Senate Bill 152, Increase reimbursement caps for sexual assault exams: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate
To increase the cap on how much a state victims services commission may pay for sexual assault medical forensic examinations, from a total cost of $600 to $1,200.
Senate Bill 49, Accommodate new model for protected individual guardian duties: Passed 36 to 0 in the Senate
To revise caps on how much can be paid to a professional guardian or conservator appointed by a court to act in the interest of a developmentally disabled, incapacitated or protected individual or a ward. The bill would accommodate a system being tried by some counties of giving these duties to a bureau staffed by public employees, because hiring outside professionals has become harder.
Senate Bill 118, Expand DNR role in “Rails to Trails” projects: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate
To allow the state Department of Natural Resources to become a National Trails System sponsor for the purpose of taking over unused railroad right-of-ways, or paths along operating rail lines. The DNR would assume liability, for which the railroad would have to pay.
SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit http://www.MichiganVotes.org.
Ideas for the city in advance of the Detroit Policy Conference
I’ll be at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference today.
I’m especially interested in the panel “Strengthening Detroit: Partners in Economic Development.” With Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, city Planning Director Maurice Cox and vice presidents from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and Detroit Regional Chamber on the panel, it’ll be up to moderator Stephen Henderson from the Detroit Free Press to bring any skepticism to the discussion about the value of command-and-control “economic development” programs for the people of Detroit. As we’ve pointed out time and again, broad-based economic liberty drives economic growth more than targeted subsidies to politically connected developers.
As a Tigers and Red Wings fan, I mourned the death of Mike Ilitch and look forward to hearing Chris Ilitch speak about the development around Little Caesars Arena. But my sports fandom doesn’t mean I can overlook the fact that it’s my ticket purchase and not my taxes that should be paying for those teams’ stadiums. (That goes for the Pistons, as well.) Unfortunately for sports team owners and the government officials who love to give them free money, academics continue to disprove the concept that stadiums drive economic growth in a community. Rather, they’re “an expensive psychological boost.”
It will be very interesting to hear Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy talk about the city’s criminal justice system. In addition to being a moral endeavor, preventing crime is one of the most fiscally responsible things a local government can do. Post-conviction, there are policies such as reformed juvenile justice solutions, “swift and sure” parole accountability and other ideas that reduce recidivism, fiscal cost or both.
For more insight from Mackinac Center policy experts on issues of interest to Detroit:
- Detroit’s taxes and regulations are standing in the way of its own recovery.
- Detroit Public Schools Community District deserves credit for meaningfully complying with the state’s merit pay law.
- “Targeted economic development” – a more palatable name than “corporate welfare” – doesn’t work and won’t be good for Detroit.
- The proposed MLS stadium at the “fail jail” site should be built – if it’s built at all – at no additional cost to taxpayers and with no public subsidies.
- Future transit planning should focus first on coordination between existing systems and meeting the needs of the people who need it the most.
- Detroit’s schools show the importance of school choice.
- Detroit’s professional licensure system makes it harder to find skilled tradespeople
- Does Detroit have a modern payroll system?
- Putting police on foot builds relationships in the community to the benefit of police and local residents alike.
- Here’s $1.1 billion in state budget savings for 2017.
- Wayne County’s taxes are too high, and Detroit’s are worse.
I’m especially proud of the stories we’ve told through our “Working in Detroit” series, celebrating entrepreneurs who are succeeding in the city. See their stories at www.Mackinac.org/Detroit and then make plans to join us to meet the next generation of entrepreneurs at the Detroit Children’s Business Fair co-hosted by the Mackinac Center and Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan. This year’s event will be held at the Detroit Historical Museum in Midtown on May 13. Learn more at www.DetroitChildrensBusinessFair.org.
Now let’s solve the problem for the rest of government workers
In the push to offer new school employees a 401(k)-type retirement package, the most common response by those opposing the idea has been some variation of the question, “Why should teachers not receive pensions when politicians do?” But state policymakers and their staff do not receive pensions or health care once out of office.
Legislators receive a defined contribution, 401(k)-type plan. Like all state employees since 1997, 4 percent of their salary is deposited into an individual retirement account and the state will match up to 3 percent more.
In 2011, the Legislature closed the state’s other post-employment benefits plan. Any lawmakers elected after Jan. 1, 2007 no longer qualify for state-paid medical insurance in retirement. The state is also attempting to prefund the remaining benefits still out there for people who are in the system from before the law changed.
Michigan’s pension systems are underfunded by at least $40 billion. Whether at the state or local level, it has been proven time and time again that politicians don’t properly fund defined benefit pension systems. The best way to solve this problem is to close the system by offering new members a defined contribution plan, protect current retirees and workers and pay down the debt.
The Environmental Policy Initiative (EPI) at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy will attempt to answer two key questions with its work. They are:
- What unique geographical and environmental features does Michigan have that could contribute to improving the well-being of its residents?
- How can the state maximize the value of those unique features, promote a balance of environmental health and economic vigor, and secure citizen access to natural resources and the benefits they provide?
Six basic principles will guide EPI’s research, writing and policy suggestions as we attempt to answer these questions.
- Human-centered: People are our most important resource and people determine the relative value and weighting of various natural resources – from protected areas, to dynamic ecosystems, clean fresh water, reliable and affordable energy, readily available building materials, or abundant food production. History demonstrates that those things most valued by humans are more likely to enjoy protection and proliferation.[*]
- Prosperity is healthy: Access to abundant, reliable and affordable natural resources, such as fossil fuels, water and minerals, is a necessary precondition for human flourishing. Policies should be aimed at improving access to, and sustainable use of, these resources. Policies should not unreasonably interfere with or stifle their consumption.[†]
- Economic freedom and free markets: Voluntary competition and cooperation – not command-and-control-style management – fosters innovation, efficiency and wise use of natural resources. Free markets encourage the efficient use of raw materials and should be the default mechanism for ensuring the sustainable use of Michigan’s abundant natural resources.[‡]
- Property rights and personal liberty: Property rights are "the most basic of human rights and an essential foundation for other human rights,” and environmental management is most effective when property and tenure rights are secure.[§][**] Protection of property rights within a free market system encourages innovation and experimentation in the management, use, and conservation of Michigan’s natural resources.[††][‡‡]
- Science-based and site-specific: Science should be a primary tool in the management of Michigan’s natural resources. Attention must also be given to local and historical knowledge. Effective managers recognize that natural resources are resilient and respond well to management techniques that are tailored to specific ecosystems and specific populations.
- Positive benefits at an efficient cost: Environmental regulation must transparently and efficiently demonstrate positive environmental benefit.
[*]Spencer, J. (ed.) Environmental Conservation: Eight Principles of the American Conservation Ethic. The Heritage Foundation, 2012.
[†]Oliver, A. Energy and Environmental Policy at the Independence Institute. Independence Institute, (unpublished).
[‡]Anderson, T.L. and D.R. Leal. Free Market Environmentalism: Special 20th Anniversary Edition. PALGRAVE, 2001.
[§]Friedman, M and R. Friedman. Two Lucky People: Memoirs. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
[**]Hayes, J. “Secure tenure & property rights as an effective tool to encourage conservation.” master’s thesis., University of Calgary, 2007, http://sirsi1.lib.ucalgary.ca/uhtbin/cgisirsi/0/0/0/5?library=UCALGARY-S&searchdata1=%5EC2866445.
[††]Thierer, A. Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom – Revised and Expanded Edition. Mercatus Center (GMU), 2016.
[‡‡]Goklany, I. The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environmental Risk Assessment. The Cato Institute, 2001.