MDOT’s 2.7 Billion Dollar Boondoggle

Detroit mapWhile Michigan lawmakers continue to collectively sit on their hands over the critical issue of road funding — including the pressing need to resurface highways across the state — the Michigan Department of Transportation is advancing a $2.7 billion unnecessary and wasteful project to widen a short stretch of I-94 in Detroit based on traffic data from over a dozen years ago.

A report released this month from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund (Public Interest Research Group), titled Highway Boondoggles, Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future, cites the I-94 widening project as among the most needless in the nation. The report calls for state and federal decision-makers to reevaluate it, along with ten other pointless projects.

“With the Federal Highway Trust Fund on life support, states struggling to meet basic infrastructure needs, and growing demands for investment in public transportation and other non-driving forms of transportation, America does not have the luxury of wasting tens of billions of dollars on new highways of questionable value.”

Among the states, Michigan ranks dead-last in per capita highway funding, so dollars spent there must be put to the best possible use. One need only possess a driver’s license, a car and a brain to know the top priority should be fixing the crumbling roads. Michigan residents bear an estimated $7.7 billion annually in costs related to poor road conditions in the form of vehicle maintenance, lost time and wasted fuel. Detroit motorists shell-out a whopping $1,600 per year due to road problems across the city.

With over a third of Michigan roads that receive federal funding being in disrepair, throwing-away money on a $2.7 billion boondoggle is criminally irresponsible.

roads pie chart

Despite a marked decline in traffic volume, and in Detroit’s population, Michigan highway planners continue to cite useless 2002-03 data to buttress the I-94 expansion as necessary — predicting an increase in traffic volume of over 11 percent by 2025. Instead, the road area in question has seen a 14 percent decrease in traffic over time. Using 2012 numbers, the PIRG report shows that traffic volume is significantly down from the year 2000 along the stretch of I-94 slated for expansion.

I-94 traffic data

The report goes on to assert that the seven mile-long expansion will likely hinder the Motor City’s economic recovery by making it “more difficult by further separating two neighborhoods that have been leading the city’s revitalization”. 

Midtown and New Center neighborhoods have been key to the rebirth of Detroit. Growth in cultural arts, commercial and retail development, along with innovative planning — like the recently launched $140 million streetcar project – will be put in jeopardy by bisecting these newly flourishing meccas. Under the MDOT plan, eleven bridges linking the neighborhoods would be removed, causing pedestrians and bicycle riders to travel an additional six blocks just to cross the road.

In late 2012, The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments conducted a survey of Detroit-area residents finding they reported no vexing problems with traffic jams, and they “would rather live with current levels of congestion (63 percent) than pay more to reduce traffic congestion (37 percent).” A wiser use of the federal funds would be to resurface crumbling roads which would have a positive impact on the wallets of Motor City commuters — saving them at least a portion of the $1,600 they sacrifice to pot holes every year.

Additionally, expanding I-94 will not alleviate the flooding issues that recently plagued the city. Those were the result of another infrastructure problem — MDOT reports that 58 percent of its pump houses are in poor condition, 20 percent are in fair shape, and only 22 percent are operating at optimal level. Of the 165 pump houses across the state, 139 are located in the metro-Detroit area.

A widened I-94 will only make a wider river to forge after the next downpour.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Snyder Aide Fires Michael Moore Via Voicmail

Michael MooreHe won’t fire Rich Baird, his corrupt “Transformation Manager”, or Aramark, the even more corrupt private food vendor in Michigan’s prisons– but Gov. Snyder blithely kicked Michael Moore to the curb via voicemail — from a perky aide, no less.

Nancy, from the governor’s office made the call, and left this 28 second message:

“Hello Mr. Moore. My name is Nancy, and I’m calling from Gov. Snyder’s office. I’m calling on behalf of the governor to thank you for your time and service on the film commission, and to let you know that your term has come to an end, and the governor has made new appointments. So, we just wanted to say thank you for all the time you spent on the commission, and all that you did for the state, and all that you do for the film industry in Michigan and around the world. Thank you for all your time and service. Have a great day. Bye.”

The award-winning filmmaker’s four-year term was up on the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council, so Snyder replaced him with a businessman, Ted Serbinski, from Detroit Venture Partners, which as the name implies — is a venture capital firm. Another council member whose term was also up, corporate executive Bill Ludwig, was reappointed to a new term.

While Moore certainly is a political lightening rod, he is also a valuable resource in the film industry, and firing him will be a loss for the state.

However, on the bright side, Moore may now take a greater interest in criticizing the Snyder administration — and we welcome that.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Listen to the voicemail here.


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The Snyder Camp Earns a Deserved Editorial Battering

Updated 9-23-2014

Gov. Snyder’s been on the receiving end of a much-deserved blistering critique in the media over the past few days — given his ongoing epic public policy gaffes, neatly coupled with the continued failure in his campaign strategy — both served as easy candy in an enticingly hittable editorial page piñata party.

The Detroit Free Press excoriated his bungled handling of the troublesome Aramark prison food contract. Leading with the word “Disgusting” – the editorial board wasn’t talking about the maggot-riddled slop for food or the sex acts in the kitchens, they instead referred to the oversight (or lack there of) in the privatization disaster. Freep called Aramark the “poster child for failure”, and elaborated with this:

Too often, privatization is an ideological darling, waltzed into budget negotiations predicated on the idea that government is inherently inefficient and burdened by bureaucracy. But free-market lust is dangerously dismissive of the very purpose of some government services — like prisons, for instance — whose operations require attention to social and cultural imperatives that don’t show up in a balance sheet.

Next up was columnist Tim Skubick, who likened the Aramark scandal to a Chinese water torture, with one administrative blunder after another — just anticipating the next drip.

And then there was this from Nolan Finley, editor of the Detroit News, speaking  on MiWeek last week about the governor’s staggeringly incompetent campaign missteps:

[H]e’s allowed Mark Schauer to paint the impressions of him, to define him.The governor’s response to the Schauer attack ads have been weak. His entire campaign has been sort of disjointed, not aggressive enough, not strong enough…His campaign ads have been as bad as any I’ve ever seen. This race should not be this close.

Gov. snyder 4Finley also referred to the governor as “dull as a valiumed-up dental patient.” Ouch! That’s a pretty sound condemnation coming from a traditionally conservative source.  

Susan Demas didn’t mince any words either in her recent commentary. In fact, her’s was the most damning, calling Snyder “One Smug Nerd” for his refusal to debate and his disengaged campaign style:

And Snyder is not exactly a man of the people. He’s most comfortable lecturing folks from afar like the former CEO he is.

Schauer may not have the folksy charm of George W. Bush, but he can comfortably don the plaid shirt for the parade circuit. He revels in going door-to-door and talking with people.

While poking commentary fun at Snyder’s foibles and follies is a pleasure in and of itself, Nolan Finley made a more salient point — many of these gaffes are the result of a poorly run campaign. Enter the misguided defense of why Snyder will be conducting scripted town hall meetings with hand-picked audiences instead of debates. Kyle Robertson, the governor’s inept campaign manager, went on the record with this lame excuse, questioning Schauer’s smarts:

“Mark Schauer lacks the intelligence to keep up with him in a format like a town hall.”

A statement like that brings into question the mental capacity of Robertson himself, not to mention the bubble-boy strategy he’s mapped-out for his candidate.

First, if the claim were true, then Team Snyder would be all-in for as many candidate on candidate extemporaneous encounters they could possibly squeeze-in between now and November. Second,  them’s fightin’ words — creating an open challenge for the media, and Schauer, to capitalize on by demanding debates as proof. Robertson’s amateur comment handed his boss a lose-lose conundrum, when all he had to do was just keep his mouth shut. Campaign managers should neither be seen nor heard.

Aficionados of the television show West Wing will recall the episode when incumbent candidate Jed Bartlett accidentally/purposely called his challenger dumb while on a hot mic, saying “He has a .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world.” Of course, the genius that is Aaron Sorkin understood that his fictional candidate would have to prove it — and that’s just what he did when he smartly swept the floor with his opponent in a debate.

Snyder simply isn’t that clever, and neither is the brain trust of his crash-and-burn campaign.

Update: Snyder has agreed to one town hall style debate in front of independent and undecided voters on Oct. 12th.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

In the mood for a little West Wing flashback?  Watch a clip of the open mic incident here, and the debate clip here.


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Michigan: The Rich Get Richer, with Help from a “Gini” in the Bottle

EXPLAINED: Today’s U.S. Census Report on Income, Poverty, and the Gini Index for Michigan

The latest income and poverty figures were released today by the U.S. Census Bureau, and it’s a mixed bag for Michigan. Just like Gov. Snyder said in his “road to recovery” TV spot, while some are already feeling a new sense of prosperity — for others though…meh, not so much. Although, he did attempt to assuage those struggling Michiganders with a conciliatory “you might not feel it yet, but you will soon.”

Thanks Rick, but let’s just stick to the numbers.

Census figures indeed show a slight uptick in the median income for the state from $47,447 in 2012 to $48,273 in 2013, yet Michigan is still lagging behind the national average of $52,250. Year-after-year, the Great Lakes state has consistently been losing ground — after a high of $54,500 in 2006. Bear in mind that these amounts are not indexed to the consumer price index, meaning — it’s worse than the raw numbers indicate.

Not surprisingly, the largest strides were in the already affluent neighborhoods of Oakland County, with West Bloomfield spiking at an 18 percent gain. Ann Arbor similarly fared well with a 16 percent boost in household income. Flint, also moved the needle 16 points, but in the wrong direction — they now earn $23,100. Compared to West Bloomfield at $97,000 — that’s less than 25 cents on the dollar.

The census poverty numbers didn’t budge much for Michigan. In 2012, there where 1,685,178 living in poverty, and that number decreased by only 0.4 percent — to 17 percent. Childhood poverty changed marginally also, going down from 25Jeanie to 23.8 percent.

Another indicator of note is the Gini index. Pronounced jee-nee, it’s a measure of income inequality based on an equation developed by an Italian statistician named Corrado Gini. While the calculations are painfully complex, all we need to know is the meaning of the end result.

The U.S. Census Bureau explains it thusly:

Gini definedMichigan’s Gini rose slightly from 2012 to 2013, from 0.462 to 0.464 — a small increase, and well within the margin of error for the census sampling, yet worth noting in the face of the governor’s rosy forecast. Michigan was not among the 15 states that saw statistically meaningful increases in income disparity. The national average leaped from 0.476 to 0.481 — a jump the Census Bureau termed “significantly higher.”

It’s all part of a world-wide trend, with a few “socialist” leaning countries bucking the norm:

Gini world

Also trending: Democracy Tree has developed a sudden craving for baguettes, and fine French wine. Norway, Canada and Italy are looking particularly fetching too.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Michigan: A State of Hunger

imagesCA6E0JPT(Updated 9-18-14)

The Snyder administration is defending their decision for Michigan to become one of only four states that will not act to forestall cuts to food stamps this November, by claiming it was either food assistance or heating assistance — but not both.

Earlier this year, Republicans held the Farm Bill hostage to achieve cuts to the national food stamp program by closing a loophole that allowed recipients to receive an additional allowance if they also participated in a federal heating program — termed “heat and eat.”

Sixteen states, including Michigan, would have been affected. All but four took action to retain the current level of assistance.

Republicans are crying foul, although the states are simply following the provisions of the GOP Farm Bill, which now mandates a minimum of $20 per year in heating aid — up from the $1 perviously required.

Spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Human Services, Bob Wheaton, said of the decision that they didn’t want to “create a new loophole even beyond the loophole that previously existed.” The purported concern was that they couldn’t spare the federal heating assistance dollars, especially in such a northern climate.

However, Maine — one of the 12 states that will increase heating assistance to the new $20 minimum, says it won’t cost that much at all. Maine has a mean temperature several degrees below that of Michigan. Peter Merrill, Deputy Director of Maine Housing, said they expect the decrease in heating aid will amount to only $4 per year per affected household.

Granted, Michigan has a much larger population living in poverty, and of the 170,000 currently receiving food assistance, about 34,000 will lose some benefits — which will average a decrease of $76 per month for a family of four.

A good number of those affected will be veterans. Michigan has 680,000 veterans, and ranks 46th in terms of veterans care — spending 75 cents on the dollar compared to the national average. Food security is a nation-wide problem for current and former service members. In the article “Food Lines from Front Lines”, Insurance News describes it this way:

A lot of these families are making difficult choices between food and paying for utilities, or food and transportation and medication. It’s not just a food shortage – it’s struggling to make ends meet and making difficult trade-offs.

Children will also be negatively impacted by Michigan’s refusal to patch the assistance gap. Gov. Snyder’s Michigan Dashboard shows about 25 percent of children in the state live in poverty. (Update: new census figures released 9-18-14 indicate a childhood poverty rate in Michigan currently at 23.8 percent, with the overall poverty rate remaining the same — 17 percent)

From the Dashboard:

Mi children:poverty

That’s over half a million hungry kids.

Yep, more Pure Michigan for you.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin





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Aramark Employee Arrested for Smuggling Drugs

St. Louis Correctional FacilityThe Aramark scandal continues to grow in Michigan as another serious incident occurred at the mid-state St. Louis Correctional Facility. An Aramark employee has been arrested for smuggling contraband, including heroin, marijuana, cocaine and tobacco. Drug searches found 39 packets of illegal items in the possession of five inmates.

Several months ago, an Aramark employee was caught attempting to smuggle marijuana into the Cotton Corrections Facility in Jackson. Within hours of the Michigan pot arrest, another Aramark employee in Indiana was also arrested for possession of marijuana at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. The two incidents were unrelated and not the result of a sting operation. It was just another Thursday.


Aramark has contended that they are the victim of “an ongoing political and media circus about anti-privatization”, yet they remain mute on this latest incident.

Similar occurrences in Ohio prisons recently prompted the state to slap the company with a second fine for non-compliance with their $110 million contract — signed at about the same time as Michigan’s three year $145 million deal. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections sent a letter to Aramark levying a $130,200 fine citing maggots, staffing shortages, improper food substitutions, transport of contraband, and sanitation problems at five prisons in the state since the company received their first warning last April when they were fined $142,000.

The Daily Times reports the chief of the Ohio prison oversight committee, Joanna Saul, blamed the problems on underpaid employees:

“You’re making $10 to $11, you can bring in a pack of cigarettes and sell it for $300 — what are you going to choose?”

Michigan has fined the company twice, but only collected on one of the levies, having waived a $98,000 penalty without public disclosure. The second fine of $200,000 will pay the $160,000 salary of Gov. Snyder’s hand-picked corrections watchdog, Ed Buss.

Originally, Buss was to have worked out of the office of the governor, where his findings would have been subject to executive privilege. Under media pressure, Snyder placed Buss in the Department of Technology, Budget and Management. Buss comes to Michigan via a private prison vendor, Corrections Healthcare Companies, and prior to that, he was fired from a similar oversight position in Florida.

Snyder transferred oversight away from the Department of Corrections after allegations of bias were floated by those supporting the Aramark contract.

The governor surprised many last month when he did not take action to terminate the contract with the private vendor, although electoral politics certainly weighed heavily on his decision.

View the complete Aramark Rap Sheet here.

View a list of the multiple lawsuits against the company here.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Richard Baird — Snyder’s Official Cry Baby and Chief


Richard Baird, Michigan’s “Transformation Manager”, and cry baby and chief, has broadened his temper tantrum to include legal threats to newspapers for printing op-eds about his double-dipping on his primary property tax exemptions. True, it was subsequently found that a township clerical error was technically responsible, and the situation was properly remedied as prescribed by Michigan law. However it is worth stating, this is the kind of error that should not occur under the watchful eye of a high level public servant.

He recently threatened Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-23), and AFL-CIO President Karla Swift, with SLAPP suits claiming false light over their public criticism of his ethics, and we now learn he’s sending out additional nasty-grams to the Detroit Free Press and the Lansing State Journal demanding retractions.

Thing is, Baird lacks cause of action — that’s legalese for he ain’t gotta a leg to stand on in court. His threatened suits are simply meant to harass — a particularly stupid move as November looms.

A 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, New York Times Co. V. Sullivan, found that public officials can’t just willy-nilly file defamation suits against individuals or newspapers. Explanation from Cornell Law:

Held: A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice” — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.

Factual error, content defamatory of official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements unless “actual malice” — knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth — is alleged and proved.

The moment he officially went on the state payroll, Mr. Baird became a public sector figure, and subject to this ruling.

Proving “actual malice” requires iron-clad evidence that the defendant had prior knowledge that the information was false, and then used it with the intent to do harm. The burden of proof is on Baird, so unless he has some super-secret information indicating a conspiracy, he hasn’t a case. It is curious how the parties he’s accused could have had any prior knowledge of the township’s clerical error, before the township clerk even knew, and reportedly, Baird himself.

Surely his lawyers, (presumably he’s been in close consultation with them on the matter), would have carefully advised him that his threatened suits were legally hollow and could result in political embarrassment to his employer, and possibly draw counter-suits from any future defendants over his vexing and frivolous complaints. And since Baird used an official email to send one of the threats, that opens-up the state to be named as a defendant in a counter suit.

Baird email to Richardville

Curious too, is that among Baird’s multiple threats, sent by fax, snail mail, second-party email, and voice mail — they were all generated by himself, and not a law firm…not even copied-in to one. Odd behavior for someone entrusted with top-level state business.

In closing, Democracy Tree would like to thank Mr. Baird for creating a situation in which newspapers across the state will likely harbor ill-will towards him, and by the power of transference, his boss — Gov. Snyder, for not firing him in a timely manner.

Yep, timing is everything in election season. Pissing-off the media is just the ticket to motivate editorial boards when it comes to endorsements.

Plus, it puts Snyder in the position where he either must admit failure by dumping his top aide, or take the political fire for not doing so.

And Rick thought he could just sit this one out.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin



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Michigan School Fires Gay, Pregnant Teacher

Democracy Tree is going to stray from its regular subject matter and address a topic outside of watchdogging the public sector. This story surfaced last week, and since it involves my alma mater, and runs contrary to my personal experience there, I feel compelled to speak.

Although not Catholic myself, or religious at all for that matter, I attended Marian High School, sister school to Brother Rice, in upscale Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

In the 1970s, I was among many non-Catholics to attend the parochial school. Our reasons were various — mine was to avail myself of their outstanding fine arts curriculum. The smaller learning environment was a bonus which suited my personality. The other options were the teeming hallways and overflowing classrooms at Groves or Seaholm High Schools, both top-notch alternatives too.

Last week, Marian was in the news, and not for their academic excellence. School administrators pink-slipped Barb Webb, a respected chemistry teacher, who just happens to be gay, and expecting a baby. Marian officials did not give a reason for her termination, but it is widely believed it was due to her unconventional pregnancy. The Detroit Free Press reports:

Webb told the Free Press last week that her termination letter did not give a reason for her dismissal, but previous conversations with administrators pointed to a morality clause allowing firing over public conduct of “lifestyle or actions directly contradictory to the Catholic faith.”

Kristen LasWebb has taught at Marian for nine years, and her sexual orientation was never a secret. She has been in a long-term relationship with her partner, Kristen Las.

Back in the ’70s the student body was quietly aware that a number of teachers were not living, what then would have been called, traditional lives. This is nothing new to the school.

On the school’s website, the President of Marian, Sister Lenore M. Polchelski, describes the school environment as a place encouraging students to be open to all:

Our students represent a diverse population, each bringing her individual talents to school, each student enriching the others.  Marian High School is a place to grow – intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and physically.  We invite you to join us and experience what it is to be empowered to explore and excel.

The argument is that Webb’s pink-slip was not due to her orientation, but instead the result of her pregnancy. Neither should be reason for her termination. This development is wholly antithetical to the inclusive and supportive attitude of nearly 40 years ago. Something’s changed in the Marian culture.

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were a tough tribe of badass nuns who fought hard against sexual discrimination, among other injustices.

Non-Catholics were given free study time during mid-day Mass which was every Thursday, conducted by a visiting Brother Rice Priest in the on-site Marian chapel. For a brief time in 1975, the nuns locked-out the good brother and celebrated their own service, including offering the Eucharist. They continued to block the brother’s access to the school, with the exception of one young priest who coached basketball, whom the students found rather dreamy, and perhaps the nuns and novices did too.

Student pregnancy was rare but openly accepted at Marian. In an age when public schools would send students sporting a baby bump home for the duration, the nuns were tolerant of unwed mothers, which was certainly an “unconventional pregnancy” at that time. My graduating class of 160, had two expectant mothers.

The nuns weren’t afraid of politics either. My international relations teacher, Sister Elizabeth, travelled the globe, and was able to speak first-person about world leaders she had met. One time she returned from an absence to report that she’d brown-bagged lunch in the oval office with President Ford. She explained she had a few thoughts to share with him.

Even the novices were a cheeky bunch. They took advantage of the newly offered personalized license plates in Michigan, with their Chevy Nova sporting “NO VICES.”

All students were required to take religious instruction, which initially gave non-Catholics pause, but the curriculum focused on religious diversity, and the exploration of commonalities. Catholicism was not promoted over other faiths, in fact, more time was devoted to the tenets of Buddhism and Taoism, and what could be learned from eastern thought.

The art department offered extra-curricular classes, which included figure drawing with nude models. If a K-12 school offered that nowadays, it would land some people in prison. That just goes to show how uptight our culture has become about the human body.

Supporters are rallying around Webb, and pressure on school leadership is mounting. The administrative decision to terminate her flies in the face of the teachings of Pope Francis, who was named 2013 Person of the Year by The Advocate, a leading LGBT publication. The Pope has been clear about his views on the matter:

“If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

If Webb’s termination is truly based on her condition alone, then the school is sending a message that pregnancies outside of traditional marriage are not welcome at Marian, but that is not the policy applied to expectant students — at least not in the 1970s, when they were actively encouraged to carry their pregnancies to term and stay in school. And since the Pope discourages discrimination over sexual orientation, there’s got to be another reason.

Could it be fear of community pressure — that enrollment could decline as parents transfer their daughters to nearby Mercy High School? Is this the decision of bean counters?

You can support Webb on the Facebook Page “I Stand By Barb Webb“, or by signing a petition here. Webb left this message of gratitude on her Facebook page:

Barb Webb

It’s time for the Sisters of the IHM to get their badass on again.

Democracy Tree will resume the public policy beat as lawmakers return to Lansing tomorrow — with a special eye on legislation Rep. Frank Foster (R-107) intends to introduce to include sexual orientation and gender identity rights among the protected classes in the state’s existing anti-discrimination law. Conservative groups are against it, and there is question as to whether the bipartisan-supported bill will include a religious exemption.

Webb may find herself the poster-child in this fight.

DiplomaAmy Kerr Hardin




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Snyder’s Trickle-Down TV Ad Doesn’t Add Up

As is the case with all scams, they propagate by constantly rebranding themselves — changing their name every so often. And that’s exactly what Gov. Snyder has done in his latest campaign ad titled “Michigan’s Road to Recovery.” No longer the “one tough nerd”, he’s now a bean-counting “accountant.”

But it’s not just Snyder himself who’s assumed a minty-fresh nom de guerre, he’s also given a make-over to his failed economic policies.

The ad refers to building a “strong foundation” as the key to economic recovery, which he claims is “what you have to do first.”  Snyder’s massive corporate tax cuts, paid for through increased taxation on individuals and families, along with (contrary to the his claims and calculations) a sizable reduction in dollars flowing into classrooms – are the shifting sands of the governor’s foundation. It’s unlikely working families would agree that his policies will underpin their future financial stability — yet Snyder went on to explain in his characteristically simplistic tone:

“We’re on the road to recovery for every Michigander. You might not feel it yet, but you will soon.”

“Strong foundation” — sound familiar? How ’bout for example, supply-side economics, laissez-faire, trickle-down theory, Reaganomics — and a personal favorite, borrowed from the 1890s, the horse and sparrow theory. The latter works Snyder ad 2like this: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrow. Perhaps that’s what the governor means by “road to recovery” — a prescription for Michiganders to eat, er, road apples.

Bill Ballenger, founder of Inside Michigan Politics, told Jonathan Oosting of MLive that Snyder’s “happy talk” may not go over well with voters, saying:

“If he continues to just tread water or act like all he has to do is be governor, I think he’s going to have real problems on November 4.”

Punditry and politics aside, what do serious policy wonks predict for Michigan’s working families?

Let’s start with the compromise legislation to increase the minimum wage in Michigan which took effect this week. Although the new law indexes the state’s minimum wage to inflation, the starting point for the phased-in increases does not accurately reflect decades of inflationary pressure, leaving Michigan workers at a distinct disadvantage well into the future.

The Michigan League for Public Policy issued a report this week, Pay Falls for Low-Wage Men, yet Women Still Far Behind. Their research found that working class males have lost significant earning power, when adjusted for inflation, and women are still lagging far behind:

Back in 1979, the typical low-wage man in Michigan earned an inflation-adjusted wage of $17.23 per hour. Full-time year-round work at that wage was enough to allow him to support a wife and two children.

Low wages are a contributing factor to the persistence of a gender wage gap – which is the difference between men’s and women’s earnings, expressed as a percentage of male earnings. Over the past 35 years, the wages of men have dropped significantly (31% for low-wage men, and 16% for mid-wage men). At the same time, women’s wages have increased slightly (4% and 10%, respectively).

Despite dramatic wage losses for men and some gains for women, Michigan women earn just 74 cents for each dollar a man earns. The gap is even bigger for women of color: 67 cents for African American women, and 54 cents for Latinas.

The compromise on minimum wage has set the state up for continued failure.

Looking back another decade, in 1968 when the prevailing minimum wage was $1.60, it equaled the purchasing power of $10.71 in 2013 dollars. It’s hard to believe it now, but that was enough money to survive on 46 years ago. Minimum wage earners in Michigan have lost nearly one-third of their purchasing power over the ensuing years. value min wage graph In another recent report, Raising the Minimum Wage: Good for Working Families, Good for Michigan’s Economy, published prior to the compromise law, the MLPP put it this way:

Since 1968, the real value of the minimum wage has dropped by 31%, despite nominal increases from the mid-1970s to 2008. If no steps are taken to increase and protect the value of the minimum wage, by 2024 its real value will be just $5.81 in 2013 dollars, an additional drop of 15%.

Instead of addressing the problem, Michigan took baby steps, and is selling its citizenry, and its economy, short with a minimum wage that hasn’t kept-pace with the value of the dollar. As more and more families slip into poverty, the state’s businesses suffer too.

So, how then does Michigan size-up against states with differing economic policies? The MLPP studied those numbers too — weighing midwest states’ statistics and economic policies. Midwest wages Minnesota’s flourished, while Michigan tanked. What made the difference?

Make no mistake, Michigan has a deeper and longer recession to claw its way out of, but instead of looking for new economic growth models, the Snyder administration took a trip down memory lane and gave tax subsidies to manufacturers who had little intention of investing back in the state. In fact, the governor’s $1.8 billion corporate tax give-away resulted in, by the governor’s estimate, 300,000 new private sector jobs — costing the state $6,000 per new job annually. This does not factor-in the substantial loss of public sector jobs in the state, nor the quality of the new jobs.

Michigan simply lacks a forward-looking economic plan and a progressive tax structure necessary for success. The conclusive statements on the MLPP report say all we need to know:

While deindustrialization and the near collapse of the domestic auto industry were, to some extent, unavoidable and greatly impacted Michigan’s economy – something that Minnesota was mostly spared – that alone did not set these two states is such diverging economic paths. Policy choices have played an important role in their differing outcomes.

Minnesota is a high-tax state, which enables it to invest more in its residents. Since the early 1970s, Minnesota lawmakers have made the conscious choice to implement and protect various tax and fiscal reforms – collectively known as the “Minnesota Miracle” – that succeeded in curbing disparities in the quality of public education, and shifted more of the burden of financing local governments from property taxes to state income and sales taxes.40 Minnesota has a progressive state income tax rate that varies between 5.35% and 9.85%, with the higher tax rate reserved for wealthier Minnesotans. In contrast, Michigan has a flat income tax rate of 4.25%, which applies to everyone – rich or poor. In combination with other state and local taxes, Minnesota’s tax structure allowed it to collect $5,016 in taxes, per capita, in 2011. In contrast, Michigan’s combined state and local taxes, per capita in 2011, was just $3,655. Minnesota’s enhanced ability to collect revenue also allows it to spend more on services for its residents compared to Michigan: $4,443 per capita in Minnesota vs. $2,813 in Michigan.41

Minnesota’s spending priorities include early childhood education, K-12 education, higher education, the state’s social safety net, infrastructure and public transit – all of which are funded much more generously than in Michigan,42 and all of which help prepare its workforce for the demands of the modern global economy and give Minnesotans a chance to succeed – even in bad times.

The stark differences in wages seen in Minnesota and Michigan, therefore, should not come as a surprise. Minnesota’s wage gains are in great part the result of the state’s resolve to invest in the public good, while Michigan’s wage declines are the result of both a shift in the global economy and, most importantly, of policy choices that have hurt its working men and women.

How ’bout them apples?

Post Script: As long as we’re talking about roads, 25 minimum wage fast food protestors were arrested in Flint today – for blocking the road in front of a McDonalds. Video here, courtesy of Nayyirah Shariff.

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Snyder’s SLAPP-Happy Aide Makes Legal Threats

Not once, but twice in the space of a week, Gov. Snyder’s “Transformation Manager”, Richard Baird, has threatened his critics with SLAPP suits — aka Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It’s a form of litigation with the intention to censor, intimidate and silence activists and critics through costly, frivolous, and un-merited litigation, typically claiming libel, slander, or false light.

In the wake of reports that he had claimed two homestead property tax exemptions, and the subsequent revelation that it was a township clerical error, and not of his doing, Baird paid back the past due taxes, totaling $16,700 — nearly $5,600 for each year of the exemption — an amount, it’s safe to say, most reasonable people would have noticed as possibly due.

Although Baird claims he had no idea of the error, he certainly was proactive when it came to making legal threats against those that criticized him.

Starting with Karla Swift, AFL-CIO President, who penned a guest column in the Detroit Free Press saying his double exemption “forced his neighbors to pay more for police, fire, roads, schools and other services.” Baird left her a nasty-gram on her answering machine warning “You better be careful. I may be suing you.” (Listen to the voice mail recording at the Detroit News.)

Next up was Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-23). She had referred to him as a “crook” on public TV. Claiming he was unable to find her publicly available email address, Baird attempted to relay his threats through an email to Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-17). Here’s an excerpt:

Baird email to Richardville

Note that he used his email account. (Media is going to have a field day submitting Freedom of Information Act requests on that account.)

Baird has found himself in the media before for his facilitating the secret “skunk works” education program, linking-up Snyder’s furniture-selling cousin with the right people in the administration, finagling huge raises for some Treasury Department officials, and for recruiting Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s emergency manager. (Whom, you may recall came from the silk-stocking law firm of Jones-Day, which similarly recently threatened a SLAPP suit against a local blogger for making satire of their involvement in Detroit’s bankruptcy.)

Baird was originally paid out of the governor’s secret-donor NERD fund, but when Snyder disbanded the account under political heat last year, Baird was put on the state’s payroll, and given a forty percent pay raise. There is some speculation that during his tenure under NERD dollars, he was in violation of Michigan’s lobbying rules.

Regardless, we have an important message for Mr. Baird: Welcome to the Public Sector! Unlike the private sector, public servants are subject to intense, and often unfair, criticism. The public at large can, and will, rip you up one side and down the other — and if you can’t handle it, you’re in the wrong job.

Threatening litigation is unprofessional and decidedly unstatesmanlike. Snyder should take Baird behind the woodshed over his recent conduct. Given the governor’s propensity to ignore all forms of criticism, he surely must be baffled by Baird’s self-righteous tantrums.

“Oh, Blame not the bard.”  That’s a quote from St. Thomas More, a 16th century philosopher, statesman, and close advisor to Henry VIII, until the king grew tired of him and lopped-off his head.

Twenty-first century public servants have it easy.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Read Detroit News article here.

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