Congressman wants $1.9 billion for special interest projects
Earlier this month, Michigan news outlets heralded Flint-area Congressman Dan Kildee's first sponsored bill, which proposed using $1.9 billion to fund demolitions throughout the United States.
MLive ran with the official narrative about the Democrat's proposal, publishing an article claiming that the "First bill proposed by Congressman Dan Kildee would help Flint, other cities eliminate blight."
The bill was cast as a request for more funding for the demolition of vacant buildings throughout the country. However, the text of the bill reveals that the legislation may be an attempt at providing funding to "land banks," which are government entities that acquire tax-foreclosed property. According to the bill, government land banks and government corporations could use up to $1.9 billion to acquire more property, as well as to fund demolitions.
Though Rep. Kildee's press release says the bill will reduce blight, it is impossible for Michigan land banks to eliminate "blight," since every property they acquire is deemed legally blighted for perpetuity.
Rep. Kildee's bill is unsurprising, given his history of advocating for the expansion of land banking throughout the United States.
The Democratic congressman started the Genesee County Land Bank, Michigan's first government land bank. A few years later, he left to found an entity called "Center for Community Progress," where he pulled more than $230,000 to pitch land bank legislation to state governments across the country.
Rep. Kildee has characterized land banks as the "smartest and luckiest speculator," though a more accurate portrayal would be "the most privileged and powerful speculator." Land banks are given every advantage over private developers in Michigan.
Moreover, land banks have not proven to be especially good at speculation. Instead, they are vehicles for government to amass property. Bridge Magazine reports that the Genesee County land bank now owns 15 percent of all property in the city of Flint. St. Louis, Mo., home to America's oldest land bank, has a long history of failure and cronyism and is the city's largest landholder.
Of the $1.9 billion Rep. Kildee is proposing spending, up to $124 million would be spent in Michigan. Ostensibly, the purpose of the bill is to help demolish vacant buildings throughout the United States. However, the timing of Kildee's bill happens to help government land banks access additional funding — just as they are running out of federal money.
In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded nearly $224 million to Michigan for land banking activities. Money was used to expand land banks and to acquire property. The last phase of the federal grant expired in February 2013. This is likely putting financial pressures on land banks throughout Michigan.
More federal money should not be awarded to government land banks, most of which Rep. Kildee and his nonprofit organization helped create through advocacy. Instead, there should be a thorough review of the $224 million in federal money already spent on Michigan land banking (not to mention local and state tax dollars). Have land banks reduced vacancy in a meaningful way? Would private-sector development have produced better results? What did we get for $224 million?
It is an open question whether government land banks are stemming the spread of blight, or making it worse. In Michigan, some land banks have prevented private development and have favored some businesses over others.
Rep. Kildee's former land bank just approved a discriminatory pricing policy that favors government employees over private buyers. Occupy Wall Street sympathizers might be particularly incensed to learn that some financial institutions have used land banks as a way to unload and demolish foreclosed homes.
It's time to take a closer look at land banks, instead of bailing them out.
Congressman says both parties would break promise
According to the Chicago Tribune, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee and 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, told the newspaper’s editorial board that states should not count on those increased federal Medicaid match-rates promised by Obamacare to lure states into expanding this program. Moreover, given federal budget realities, the promises are likely to be broken no matter which party is in charge.
Here’s part of what Ryan told the editors:
The fastest thing that’s going to go when we’re cutting spending in Washington is a 100 or 90 percent match rate for Medicaid. There’s no way. It doesn’t matter if Republicans are running Congress or Democrats are running Congress. There’s no way we’re going to keep those match rates like that.
This is not the first such warning from federal lawmakers. See “Trust not in Obamacare Medicaid Promises” posted here on April 9.
What does this mean? Simply that it’s highly likely that if Michigan legislators go along with the Obamacare Medicaid expansion — a decision they will make as part of a budget process slated to be finished by late June — starting in 2020 or even sooner, taxpayers here may find themselves on the hook for big tax hikes, or alternatively, will find Medicaid “crowding out” state spending in other areas lawmakers think are important, like schools, roads and public safety, to name three.
Hat-tip to Michael Cannon.
Concerns about "backroom dealings" insincere
A group of charter public school advocates, private-sector business people and state employees have been meeting to come up with ideas on how to provide better public education at a lower cost through technology and competition. The group hopes to provide a “value school” model costing about $5,000 per pupil, reports The Detroit News, which broke the story.
If it works, this would mean an education at substantially less than the $13,000 school districts receive now in per-student revenue or even the roughly $7,000 per pupil they receive strictly from the state.
Most of the criticism of the program has been partisan in nature or has come from public-sector unions that will, of course, fight any threat to their virtual monopoly. While it is correct to say that it is in the self-interest of charter public school operators to expand school choice, it is just as true that it is in the unions interest to restrict choice, competition and even technological advances if it would mean fewer union jobs.
In their own words, the education unions candidly admit that they exist for their employees; not the educational interests of students.
But the criticism of the program in the media reveals somewhat of a double-standard.
For example, the Detroit Free Press editorialized to “keep backroom dealings out of the classroom.”
It’s fine to take input from across the spectrum, but these are not conversations that should happen behind closed doors. If [Lansing Attorney and Mackinac Center board member, Richard] McLellan and the others have great ideas for education in Michigan, they ought to put them out on the table with everyone else’s, and entertain a reasonable public discussion about where the state should be headed.
In the meantime, just a few days ago, Michigan Capitol Confidential broke a story revealing that the 86 school districts in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties were funneling money through the Oakland Schools ISD to be used on actual political lobbying. Through public information requests, it was shown that the ISD operates as a type of front group to get money to the Tri-County Alliance, an advocacy group run by the former chief-of-staff for the Senate Minority Leader.
No other media have picked up on that story, but one can find dozens of articles on the “skunk works” group — though the former involves taxpayer money and actual lobbying while the latter is simply individuals trying to come up with an educational plan in discussions amongst interested parties.
Amidst the debate, one thing is most important to keep in mind: The “value school” model and charter schools in general can only happen if parents willfully choose to send their kids to those schools. If there are ways to provide just as good or better of an education at a cheaper cost to taxpayers, it should be pursued.
Group seeks ed reform, but misses mark on charters
A new report from Education Trust-Midwest lays out an “education roadmap” for improving average standardized test scores in Michigan. Before describing the roadmap, however, the report goes to great lengths to criticize state policies that have enabled parents to enroll their children in public charter schools. But its case against charter schooling is weak, and the report ignores the best available evidence on the impact charter schools are having in Michigan.
The report states that “…charter schools often perform below traditional public schools that serve exactly the same kind of students.” The evidence provided for this claim is a chart of the 2012 average proficiency rates in reading and math on the state standardized test of some high-poverty schools in Detroit.
This analysis has two major shortcomings. First, it assumes that these test scores from Detroit charter schools are a fair representation of the performance of all charter schools in the state. There’s no other evidence provided to indicate that this is the case. Second, it does not measure the growth that students (in both charters and conventional schools) may be producing over time. Individual students could be making substantial learning gains in schools reporting low overall average scores.
Oddly, the report makes no mention of a recent study from Stanford University that used a much more sophisticated method to analyze charter school performance in Michigan. It measured the growth that individual students in charter schools made in reading and math over a five-year period and compared the learning gains to those made by these students’ “virtual twins” in nearby conventional schools. It included 273 different charter schools from all around the state, not just those in Detroit.
The results were almost entirely positive for charter schools: students made an average of two additional months’ worth of learning gains in both reading and math compared to their peers in conventional schools. Ironically, the charter schools in Detroit did even better than the state average — posting average annual individual learning gains of about three additional months.
Of course not all charter schools are success stories, but the best evidence indicates that charter schools have had a net positive impact on public education in Michigan. Because of charter schools, more parents are able to choose a school they feel better meets the needs of their children, and on average, students are learning more. This latest report’s criticism of charter schools in Michigan inexplicably ignores this evidence and fails to provide sufficient proof to the contrary.
Comprehensive reform of liquor control laws needed
Research and analysis by Mackinac Center experts dating back more than 15 years forms much of the basis for this Detroit News editorial calling on the Legislature to change Michigan’s alcohol control policies.
In particular, the editorial cites calculations by Michael LaFaive, director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative, showing that Michigan’s regulatory regime leads to a 37 percent mark-up on spirituous liquor compared to neighboring Indiana.
The inspiring story of Sir Nicholas Winton
I recently spent 96 mesmerizing minutes viewing the latest film release of the story of Sir Nicholas Winton at the Detroit Film Theatre within the Detroit Institute of Arts complex. “Nicky’s Family” (http://www.menemshafilms.com/nickys-family) portrays the bold actions of a young British businessman who saved 669 Jewish children from almost certain death in the days before World War II broke out on Sept. 1, 1939.
The story of determination is amazing. The story of a humble man is inspiring. I am sure some in the theatre were learning of Nicky’s actions for the first time. The film shares the story of 1939 in clips and through interviews of many of those 669 precious souls saved. It weaves around these clips the horror of the separation of parents and children as well as the concentration camps that followed for many of those same parents. It also portrays the modern day Nicholas Winton, who turns 104 next month and still maintains his own home — and has a decided glint in his eye. Surely the folks learning of his long ago deeds left the theater with admiration and thanks in their hearts.
We at the Mackinac Center first learned of Nicky when then-President Lawrence W. Reed met and interviewed him. For more of this remarkable story please read www.mackinac.org/8160.
For some of us, this is a more personal story. I will be forever grateful that I have met Nicky. I have been a guest in his home. I have waved a Union Jack with him in a box at the famed Royal Albert Hall as we listened to some of the most awe-inspiring music ever written. In addition, I have met three of those 669 in three different countries of the many they now inhabit. Yes, to me it is a very personal story.
“Nicky’s Family” is a story of triumph. Triumph over tyrants. Triumph of freedom which means everything to many of us. The children saved and their descendants now number more than 5,700. These people, down to the young grandchildren, have been contributors to our society and have done amazing things. Many feel the need to emulate Sir Nicholas Winton in doing good works wherever they are needed.
Thanks must be given to writer director Matej Minac for once again bringing this story to the big screen. His documentary, “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” tells more of this incredible man. It and “Nicky’s Family” are both narrated by Joe Schlesinger of CBC fame. He too has a personal view of Nicky and his goodness. Yes, he was one of the saved children.
Unfortunately, “Nicky’s Family” is in limited release. But no matter how far you must drive to see this movie it will be decidedly worth every mile.
Some people make sweeping statements. Others live them. From a letter written in 1939 by Sir Nicholas Winton:
….there is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger and not merely leading an exemplary life, in the purely passive way of doing no wrong.
Michigan Capital Confidential reported in October 2012 that concerns had been raised that Traverse City Area Public Schools possibly violated state law by using tax dollars to print and mail a brochure to voters urging them to “support the continuation of TCAPS’ long-term capital infrastructure improvement plan by authorizing a bond proposal on November 6, 2012.”
TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins told Capitol Confidential at the time that the district “consulted with its lawyers” about the brochure.
“In our opinion, the statement is factual in nature in that the board of education is asking voters to continue to support the long-range strategic plan for capital improvements on a district-wide basis,” he said in an email.
Interlochen Public Radio has now reported that the Secretary of State issued a letter saying the brochure violated the Michigan Campaign Finance Act and has requested more information from the district. The state hopes to resolve the matter “informally” by May 6, according to IRP.
The letter says the district “urged voters to take specific action” and that state law prohibits “the use of public resources” in such instances.
The $100 million bond was ultimately defeated by voters, according to IPR.
Michigan is unique among states in that it has both no-fault insurance and unlimited personal injury protection for automobile drivers. That results in car insurance rates among the highest in the nation.
However, that may soon change.
Gov. Rick Snyder has unveiled a proposal to reform the law. According to the Detroit Free Press, the plan would cap benefits from the state accident fund at $1 million and could save the average family $250 per year. Under the current law, insurers are reimbursed for all costs above $500,000 from the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association (MCCA), which is supported by an annual fee of $175 (soon to be $183) from drivers. The change would still leave Michigan with the nation's most generous auto medical coverage.
No other state guarantees unlimited, lifetime benefits. As a result of the mandate, the Insurance Industry Institute reports that the average cost per no-fault claim is $45,016 — more than twice that of the second most expensive state, New Jersey. The average claim in Michigan has tripled since the year 2000.
The reason is a lack of incentives. Unlike private insurance companies and other government programs, there are limited cost controls on the amount medical providers can charge for care when it comes to injuries sustained in automobile accidents.
According to the state's catastrophic claims association, the comparative average hospital billings for the same procedures are much higher for the patients receiving no-fault coverage than those on Medicare or workers' compensation. For example, the average cost of an MRI is $484 for someone on Medicare; $766 for a person on workers' compensation; and $3,279 for an individual with no-fault coverage.
The main worry about reforming the system is for the small number of people needing lifetime medical care costing more than the state cap of $1 million. Everyone should be allowed to buy insurance guaranteeing unlimited medical care if they so choose, but if they do not, the governor's proposal would shift many of those to Medicaid. At the same time, a review of bankruptcy filings by state shows no correlation between a higher auto insurance cap and a lower rate of financial failings or lower mandated coverage resulting in a higher rate.
Catastrophic car accidents are horrible and the issue of insurance is touchy because it involves people who experience life-altering circumstances. But there is no free lunch in life or public policy and the state should strive to consider the effects on all people. And one major problem with the current system is the cost to low-income residents.
Since they have less disposable income, sky-high car insurance rates harm poor Michiganders the most. In Detroit, car insurance costs $3,059 to $8,403 per year. That makes owning a vehicle difficult, which in turn keeps many people in poverty. It's hard to have a job when you don't have a vehicle and it's hard to have a vehicle if the insurance costs are too expensive.
There are plenty of ideas for how to reform Michigan's auto insurance industry. Gary Wolfram, a Mackinac Center adjunct scholar, and D. Joseph Olson, a board member, authored a study a few years ago on the problems and some proposed solutions. In it, they summarized a main issue:
Consumers are not allowed to choose a policy that fits their risk preferences, and are forced to buy more expensive insurance than they would choose. This is a particular problem for low-income residents, who when faced with high insurance premiums may choose to evade the law and not purchase insurance. The fact that Michigan ranks so high in its number of uninsured drivers can be explained in good part by the inability of drivers to choose less expensive policies.
The result of the current system has been the high cost of Michigan automobile insurance. This can be better solved by more closely aligning the incentives of those buying car insurance, the insurance companies providing it, and the medical providers caring for those who get in accidents.
When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, there was much cause for concern. From burning rivers and smog to the contaminated Lake Erie and trash-lined highways it seemed our environment was on the brink of complete devastation. At least it did to a young fifth grader who commemorated the inaugural Earth Day with his classmates by embedding nails to the bottoms of dowel rods to pick up litter throughout the small town where I grew up.
How far we’ve come since those days: the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the advent of the catalytic converter and cleaner burning gasoline were among the immediate benefits of the new environmental consciousness that enlightened our country and state. Things turned around rapidly, and the anthropogenic toxins formerly spewed into the atmosphere and waterways of our great country abated significantly.
Mind you, there have been setbacks along the way as well. But no sooner had these backward steps been addressed than another, much larger problem was promulgated by certain scientists and their acolytes in both the media and politics: global warming or, as it’s been softened over the years, climate change.
Depending on which climate change believer you read, listened or talked to, the degree of warming caused by human activity was different but the anticipated results were usually catastrophic. Something, they said, needed to be done, something drastic. Indeed so drastic as to cripple the economic engines of the developed world.
Those who challenged the climate change crowd were subjected to ridicule, condescension, name calling and — when it turned out the skeptics might be gaining ground — criminal activity. What became increasingly clear was that there was no such thing as “scientific consensus,” nor could there be on a topic so complex.
But something happened over the past several years since catastrophic climate change was declared settled science. The New York Times recently folded its climate-change blog; The Economist, the London Telegraph and German newsmagazine Der Zeit have all walked back on their respective assertions that global warming was the single most troubling worldwide threat.
The most intellectually honest of those scientists who once warned about significant warming also have backtracked. London’s Daily Mail quotes Piers Forster, climate change professor at Leeds University: “Global surface temperatures have not risen in 15 years. They make the high estimates unlikely.” And this from Dr. David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation: “Global warming should no longer be the main determinant of economic or energy policy.” Finally, from Professor Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology: “Climate models are running too hot…current flat trend may continue for two more decades.”
Got that? Global average surface temperatures have not risen since 1997, and may not for the foreseeable future. The same goes for the oceans, which is where some scientists assumed all the heat they were predicting was concentrated. Except that it wasn’t.
Of course, none of the recent data conclusively proves or disproves whether climate change alarmists are completely correct or totally wrong, rendering it unseemly to gloat over their grave miscalculations of the past 15 or so years.
What these miscalculations hath wrought in bad public policy over the years, however, should anger each and every taxpayer in the country. This includes everything from bureaucratic overreach at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; massive taxpayer-funded boondoggles for solar and wind energy, electric cars; coal- and nuclear-energy plant moratoriums and ethanol mandates; and lengthy legislative debates over cap-and-trade schemes to waffling over hydraulic fracturing and the Keystone Pipeline.
Despite the best efforts, however, politicians and other warming alarmists have been stopped short before they could permanently apply the brakes to progress. As noted by David Gregory, research and policy analyst for The Cornwall Alliance:
Standard of living has risen everywhere across the planet and continues to rise. Total wealth is also up. The cost of almost everything is down relative to income, including even the cost of catastrophe. There has never been less hunger or disease. Nothing is likely to stop this trend—unless it’s environmentalism, particularly because it plugs high-cost, low-reliability “renewable” energy over low-cost, high-reliability fossil fuels and nuclear.
Various means of trying to limit energy have been proposed, from a carbon tax to total cessation of fossil fuel use. All limit economic development, crucial to standard of living, and with it human health and well being.
Let’s hope Earth has dodged the real threat to its inhabitants — the stagnating, regressive economics proposed by climate-change “solutions.” And let’s hope scientists and legislators think twice before sparking once again worldwide hysteria.
Y = Yes, N = No, X = Not Voting
Senate Bill 35, Authorize criminal penalties for nonpayment of “administrative hearing bureau” fines: Passed 35 to 1 in the Senate
To authorize additional penalties for failing to pay fines imposed by “administrative hearing bureaus” that most cities are allowed to create for enforcing "blight violations" under a 2003 law. Under that law, cities already have the power to place a lien against the property. The bill would authorize additional fines of $500, 93 days in jail for a second offense, and up to a year for a third offense.
Senate Bill 38, Authorize wage garnishment for nonpayment of “administrative hearing bureau” fines: Passed 35 to 1 in the Senate
To allow a local government to garnish the wages of a property owner who has failed to pay fines imposed by “administrative hearing bureaus” that most cities are allowed to create for enforcing "blight violations" under a 2003 law.
Senate Bill 39, Authorize foreclosure for nonpayment of “administrative hearing bureau” fines: Passed 35 to 1 in the Senate
To allow a local government to foreclose on property owned by a person who has failed to pay fines imposed by “administrative hearing bureaus” that most cities are allowed to create for enforcing "blight violations" under a 2003 law.
Senate Bill 218, Repeal sunset on borrow-and-spend "water resource improvement authorities": Passed 92 to 16 in the House
To eliminate the sunset on local governments creating new "water resource improvement authorities," which use extra property tax levies and “tax increment financing” schemes to divert other taxing units' property tax revenue to cover debt service payments on debt they incur for various recreation and development projects. The bill would also expand the scope of activities and geographic limits of these entities, letting them borrow and spend for dredging among other things.
House Bill 4126, Revise horseback riding liability waiver: Passed 59 to 48 in the House
To revise a law limiting the liability of stables and equine event organizers for injury, death or property damage resulting from an inherent risk of an equine activity, by changing an exception allowing suits for “negligence” so that it instead only allows suits for “willful and wanton disregard” for participants' safety.
House Bill 4002, Increase interest to taxpayers owed refunds: Passed 107 to 0 in the House
To require the state to pay 3 percent in interest (annual rate) to a taxpayer who is due a tax refund because of an overpayment (including excessive "withholding"), starting 60 days after the claim is filed.
House Bill 4147, Revise basis of public-safety “special assessment” levies: Passed 57 to 50 in the House
To allow local police and fire "special assessment" levies that are imposed on top of regular property taxes to also be imposed on a flat-rate per parcel basis, rather than just on the assessed taxable value of each parcel (which is called “ad valorem” in the tax laws). Special assessments were originally intended to only fund improvements that especially benefit properties within a certain "district," but today are often imposed for core government services like public safety, and differ little from regular property taxes, except they are not subject to a vote of the people and other constitutional restrictions.
House Bill 4138, Ban Mich. National Guard or police from executing federal “indefinite detention”: Passed 109 to 0 in the House
To prohibit members of the Michigan National Guard or other state and local government employees and police from participating in the investigation, prosecution, or detention of any person under a recent federal law giving the President the power to order the indefinite detention of persons arrested on U.S. soil, without charge or trial (“section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012”).
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.