The Detroit Free Press. Nov. 10, 2015
Michigan Legislature, heal thyself.
Since convening 10 months ago, the current Michigan Legislature has cracked down on local minimum wage requirements, authorized commercial quadricycles to serve alcohol, and even addressed (however inadequately) the chronic underfunding of state roads.
But state lawmakers have so far ignored what has all the appearances of a five-alarm fire in their own kitchen: a credibility deficit that earned Michigan a last-place finish in a national study of governmental ethics and transparency.
In a survey conducted by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and its nonprofit partner Global Integrity, Michigan earned failing grades in 10 of 13 measures of governmental accountability. Besides finishing dead last in four categories (executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, and pension fund management), the Great Lakes State posted the lowest cumulative score — just 50.5 out of 100 possible points, lowest among the 11 states that received failing grades.
The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions about transparency and accountability. Besides pension management and each branch's overall accountability, the ethics report card looked at public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, and ethics enforcement agencies.
Michigan's abysmal showing won't surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the incumbent Legislature's reflexive secrecy and hostility toward greater public disclosure of political spending, potential conflicts of interest, and the inner workings of government. Remember, Michigan's governor and Legislature are not subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act.
On the rare occasions when elected officials like Secretary of State Ruth Johnson have taken steps to assure more timely disclosure of what special interests are spending to influence elections and the legislative and rule-making processes, lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, have countered with measures to preserve the anonymity of their party's benefactors.
The public's distrust for Lansing's elected leaders was made manifest last spring, when voters rejected the cumbersome road funding formula state lawmakers outlined in Proposal 1 by a historic margin. The Center for Public Integrity scorecard reveals the well-founded reasons for that mistrust, and suggests the steps lawmakers will have to take to dispel it.
It remains to be seen whether legislators will address the public's crisis of confidences in Lansing's integrity with the same urgency they brought to quadricycle liquor sales.
The Detroit News. Nov. 13, 2015
Michigan growing, but not fast enough.
Michigan has regained 400,000 jobs over the past five years, roughly half what was lost during the Lost Decade at the start of this century. Its economy is growing along with employment, and its business climate ranking has strengthened.
It has come a long way. There is still a long way to go. The state must not become complacent with the progress it has made, and more critically, it must not backslide on the reforms and discipline that made growth possible.
That's the message of the Business Leaders for Michigan's 2015 Economic Competitiveness Benchmarking report, released Thursday.
There is plenty of good news in the report, and it is certainly a solid indication that Michigan is heading in the right direction. But there are also some sobering reminders that the job of recovery is not anywhere near finished.
First the good news. Michigan ranks 10th in corporate business climate, and 13th in overall business climate. That's a positive indicator of future growth.
The state's population is growing, if slowly. That reverses a decade-long trend of decline. More jobs are being created in high-skill, high-wage industries, such as advanced manufacturing. Its rate of growth is outpacing nearly every other state.
It needs to, because of the depth to which Michigan had fallen.
The bad news is that in real terms, Michigan remains a bottom tier state, ranking 36th overall in per capita income, 34th in per capita gross domestic product (GDP), 31st in entrepreneurial activity, 28th in economic development expenditures and 29th in electrical costs.
Moving into the Top Ten in every category will require a sustained and focused commitment.
One major obstacle blocking Michigan's progress is the poor performance of its education system. The state ranks 31st in educational attainment. Its residents are not getting the education and skills they need to compete in a high-tech economy.
Reforming education has been a priority for 20 years or more, but the efforts have not produced results, largely because there has not been unity in how to attack the problem. Agreeing on a strategy for making schools better is the first big step in competing with the most economically successful states.
An urgent effort is necessary to upgrade skills of those workers who aren't prepared for available jobs. Greater support of community colleges is essential to toppling this obstacle.
Infrastructure also lags. Urban road conditions are 39th worst in the nation — actually it's a surprise that they aren't 50th. The road funding package passed this month will help a little, but its slow roll out assures it won't have a meaningful impact for years to come. Roads are just one need; water and sewer systems are also in serious need of upgrading. The state can not compete with a broken infrastructure.
The explosive growth Michigan requires depends on cohesion. All areas of the state must cooperate in attracting jobs and development, and industries must exploit ways to work together.
Finally, Michigan must resist the temptation to undo the reforms that got it growing again. Currently, some labor unions are circulating petitions for a ballot initiative that would sharply raise the corporate income tax, a move that would destroy the state's business climate rankings.
Michigan is growing again. It needs to grow faster. That should be the single-minded focus of the entire state.
The Midland Daily News. Nov. 10, 2015.
VA program reaching underserved population.
When people think of veterans, they usually think of specific images. Men standing at attention at a parade. Men in uniform coming home from a deployment.
What is missing from this picture?
Women veterans are an underserved population of the military community and the Aleda E. Lutz Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Saginaw is working to reach out to them. One of the difficulties in reaching female veterans is that they don't often identify themselves as veterans or realize they could qualify to receive a variety of medical services through the VA.
About 30 female veterans from across the Great Lakes Bay Region gathered together in the facility's auditorium during Celebration of Sisterhood for two sessions of relaxation, meditation and education hosted by VA staff and volunteers. Coy Landrum envisioned a female-focused celebration after attending a similar event in Chicago. She has served as the federal women veteran's program manager for the past two years and is a part of the Saginaw VA's Equal Employment Opportunity program.
According to a 2013 report by CNN, more than 200,000 women are in the military in an active duty role. Those active members are future veterans and should receive the services that they have earned.
The VA programs focusing on women are a good way to reach this population and we are happy to see this become a concerted effort. It will take different techniques and events to reach these veterans, and the VA is stepping up.
Female veterans can learn how to enroll for care at the Saginaw VA facility by calling 800-406-5143, ext. 13120 or 13121 or visit www.ebenefits.va.go. Learn more about the Saginaw VA facility and its community-based outreach clinics by visiting www.saginaw.va.gov.
The Petoskey News-Review. Nov. 13, 2015
Statue project deserves flexibility on council's part.
With the significant role that tourism has in Northern Michigan's economy, we can't imagine why local leaders wouldn't make the most of history that has a potential draw for visitors.
With one of the 20th century's great authors having frequented this region in his younger years and drawn inspiration from it, it seems puzzling that a community here wouldn't accept a valuable offer to help convey this.
To put a finer point on it, we're surprised at the Petoskey City Council's tepid approach this fall when it comes to cementing a donation of an Ernest Hemingway statue.
Petoskey native Robert Dau has offered to commission a statue depicting famed writer Hemingway and donate it to the city. When the city council began considering the donation, staff proposed a site along the east side of Pennsylvania Park, along the rail corridor roughly midway between Lake and Bay streets.
When the council evaluated this site and others around downtown and the waterfront, though, another location at the northwest corner of the park garnered stronger support from members, who reached a 5-0 vote on it with some compromise. Dau initially showed some willingness to consider this other site — along Bay Street across from Stafford's Perry Hotel — but more recently firmed up his committment toward the spot along the railroad tracks.
In September, Petoskey resident Ernie Mainland — a nephew of Hemingway — spoke on Dau's behalf to the city council, indicating that use of this site was a condition for the donor to move forward with the project. A circa-1919 photo of Hemingway — taken in Petoskey around the time of a train trip — emerged as a possible model to follow for the statue, and Dau has said he sees the site along the track as a better context for this approach.
In more recent discussions of the project at council meetings, a majority of members have stood by their chosen site at the northwest corner of the park, although member Jeremy Wills has expressed willingness to reconsider the site to the southeast. In a phone interview, mayor Bill Fraser said he was open to use of that site as well.
As noted during the recent council discussions, letting a donor direct placement of public art might not be a suitable ongoing policy. With this in mind, we'd reiterate a point made earlier in this space — that it's important for Petoskey and other communities to develop public art guidelines addressing questions such as site selection.
In the meantime, a bit of flexibility on the city's part doesn't seem out of order when it comes to the Hemingway statue. Located along the perimeter of the same park, the donor's specified site is roughly 200 feet southeast of the one selected by the council — and well within sight of it. And by accepting the site along the railroad track, the council wouldn't be caving in toward some baseless whim.
The donor's favored site is located along the future route of the Downtown Greenway, a linear park which city officials hope to develop in phases as funding becomes available. It's situated near a proposed pedestrian connection between Pennsylvania Park and the Elks parking lot to the east. A concept shown in a city parks master plan identifies a "welcome plaza" as a possible future amenity for that area, which could include a special feature such as a sculpture, and the city's parks and recreation commission and downtown management board have been supportive of placing the Hemingway likeness there. As we've said before, a human-sized statue isn't likely to alter Pennsylvania Park's overall character as a green space.
Carlin Smith, the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce's president, recently made his own appeal to the council to give the donor's site some further consideration. In doing so, he made a solid point. While the statue likely wouldn't transform the local economy for the better on its own, it would have an impact as a new point of interest — one that would reinforce Petoskey's status as a "Hemingway community."
And like Smith, we see the statue gift as a unique opportunity that Petoskey would be unfortunate to lose out on. If it would help make the statue project a go locally, we'd even make space available outside our State Street office -- with its proximity to the railroad -- for the author's likeness.
Located amid landmarks that date back to Hemingway's time in Northern Michigan, Pennsylvania Park still seems a well-suited site choice for the statue. But if there's no agreement on a workable spot there, we'd invite the donor or a representative to contact us about our offer.