The Costly Xenophobia of Michigan GOP Lawmakers

Donald Trump’s got nothing on Michigan’s GOP xenophobes. Just as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Sen. Gary Peters, and Gov. Rick Snyder put out the welcome mat encouraging Syrian refugees to consider calling the Motor City their new home, churlish Republican lawmakers in Lansing have introduced legislation to prevent cities, counties, villages, and townships from creating sanctuaries for international refugees.

Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees Oct. 2, 2015, Photo: M. Fleming, UNHCR

Senate Bill 445 would prohibit communities from offering sanctuary to individuals lacking proper documentation. If passed into law, it would require local law enforcement agencies to act as gatekeepers, with a laundry list of onerous regulatory burdens, including regular reports to the Legislature proving they are laser-beam focused on throwing-out “illegals.” Failure to comply is not an option, the entirety of a municipality’s annual revenue sharing would be forfeited if they buck the proposed law. The not-exactly-liberal Michigan Municipal League had this to say about it:

“In addition to the bill’s obvious attack on local control and the needless unfunded mandatory reporting, the committee heard testimony from multiple individuals expressing concern about the message that a bill like this will send to the immigrant community. Municipalities and their employees could face increased liability and it decreases law enforcement’s discretion to perform their jobs.  Most troubling, though is the attempt to penalize every community in Michigan, regardless of size or their involvement in this issue, by holding revenue sharing hostage.  Even communities that do not offer their own law enforcement services would be subject to these mandates and potential penalties.”

There are already too many federal regulatory hoops for Michigan to jump through impeding its ability to welcome refugees — the state is currently limited to accepting no more than 4,200 per year. Pile on the political animus that seems to be core to the GOP presidential slate, and the displaced Syrian middle-class may just take their considerable talents and work ethic elsewhere.

However, international law may trump Trump and the Michigan Senate. These leaders all display a fundamental misunderstanding of the basics.

Let’s start with how frequently we hear the casual conflation of the terms “migrant”, “immigrant”, and “refugee” — words that have distinctly different legal meanings. Per the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR):

“Refugees are forced to flee because of a threat of persecution and because they lack the protection of their own country. A migrant, in comparison, may leave his or her country for many reasons that are not related to persecution, such as for the purposes of employment, family reunification or study. A migrant continues to enjoy the protection of his or her own government, even when abroad.”

International law on refugees is clear as dictated by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and as further amended to expand its scope in 1967 to define and protect refugees worldwide. That body of law itself is sufficient to afford safe harbor to those in need.

No Person is Illegal

“No Person is Illegal” Austrian kids protest, photo: M.Fleming, UNHCR

The UNHCR provides a short list of basic human rights protected under international law for refugees:

  • The right not to be expelled
  • The right not to be punished for illegal entry
  • The right to employment
  • The right to housing
  • The right to an education
  • The right to public relief and assistance
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to access the courts
  • The right to free movement
  • The right to be issued identity and travel documents

Over a quarter million Syrian citizens have lost their lives* in the civil war. Syrian leadership, now with the help of Russia, has made flight a do-or-die imperative. Those fleeing the crumbling nation have certainly earned the title “refugee”, with the vast majority having been taken-in by neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. By comparison, the European and American response has been pathetic.

UN tweet

The shameful irony of the concerted efforts to thwart the resettlement of these war-weary refugees is that prior to Syria’s internal conflict that nation was host to many times more desperate expats than any single European nation is currently being asked to absorb. In 2010, Syria hosted over 1.3 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Iran. They were not held in the squalid camps, but were integrated into communities, poor as the Syrians were. Children were enrolled in schools. Healthcare, food assistance, and vocational training were made available, additionally, micro-loans and grants were offered to help families start a new life. The cost was in the millions — with UNHCR support, $90.1 million was spent in Syria as of 2010.

And now it’s our turn. There are currently more than 4 million UNHCR registered Syrian refugees, just over half of them are children, and with the stepped-up bombing campaign, these numbers are sure to continue to swell.

Michigan lawmakers must get out of the xenophobia business and allow these families to find a home in our state. If they’re truly worried about the threat of terrorism, they should focus on the white American male demographic instead.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Want to help? Click HERE to make a tax-deductible gift to UNHCR.

Updated 10-7-15. *The estimated number of Syrians who have lost their lives varies depending on the source.

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Democracy Tree Offers Michigan-related Resource and Media Library

The depth of research behind Democracy Tree is significant, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive, nor inaccessible to the general public. It’s all out there if you know where to look, and we’re happy to help!

cluttered bookshelf

So, for all you political junkies and policy wonks, here’s a short list of some great “go to” sites, including databases, think tanks, public policy groups, surveys, blogs, and a bit of progressive social media thrown-in for good measure. Available 24/7 and updated regularly, readers may access the library by clicking on the above “Resource and Media Library” in the header, or jump in right now with its content posted below.

(NOTE: This library will include some Republican sites and sources, as they are also necessary to reach informed conclusions and make sound arguments.)


Research and Survey Groups, Public Policy Think Tanks, Media

Searchable Databases

Government Resources and Public Databases – Michigan


Blogs and Commentaries

Social Media Groups, Pages, and Communities

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Lansing Must Tell Courser and Gamrat that NO MEANS NO!


Time to Pass a Non-Binding Resolution: Courser and Gamrat are Not Welcome in Lansing

Now that disgraced former lawmakers Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser have declared their intent to run for the House seats they forfeited over gross misconduct — Courser resigned, and Gamrat was expelled — their former colleagues are now in the proverbial political pickle in the event the two miscreants should win their districts again.

While the House is considering potential legislation that would prevent expelled and resigned lawmakers from running for the same seat, even if enacted, it would apparently not apply to Courser and Gamrat.

The legislature currently has two options before them: refuse to seat the fallen officials, thereby depriving both the 80th and 82nd districts of representation, or seat them, but ostracize them, also denying both districts due representation. It’s a political lose-lose for Republican lawmakers, but yet still more of a loss to those constituents affected.

The special primary election is slated for Nov. 3rd, with the general on March 8th of next year. A crowded primary field may give them the edge, as it brought the two to power in 2014. The next regular election for the Michigan House is the August 2016 primary, followed by the November general — meaning there’s no time for another go-round if the House rejects the two.

The House does not have the option of a second expulsion for Gamrat, at least over the same offense. Article IV, § 16 of Michigan’s Constitution prohibits double jeopardy acts of that variety. They certainly could expel Courser though.

Is there another option available? Maybe.

Democracy Tree does not typically dabble in the dark art of composing “model legislation”, leaving that nefarious task to groups like ALEC. Yet, here’s a suggestion of sorts, one which should certainly require appropriate vetting to check its constitutionality — but little snags like that have rarely hampered recent GOP-led Michigan legislatures, who have a storied history of ignoring that document. All that’s required is a little political gumption.

The notion is to pass a pre-emptive non-binding resolution in the House vowing not to seat either Courser or Gamrat in the event they win re-election. The beauty of this idea, if legal, is to send an unmistakable message to voters in both Gamrats’s and Courser’s districts: a vote for them is a complete waste of their time, and their taxpayer dollars — especially now knowing that Courser made it clear from the beginning that he and Gamrat weren’t there to serve the people, telling their shared staffers: “Let’s get it straight boys, we’re not here to pass legislation, we’re here for messaging moments in media.”

Alrighty then, here goes my experiment with model legislation — borrowed heavily from the legislative expulsion resolutions. (Expeditious readers may wish to cut to the chase by reading only the first and last paragraphs in italics, scrolling through the laborious “whereases” enumerating the high crimes committed by the two naughty former lawmakers.)

A resolution to declare this legislature’s intent to refuse to seat (insert name here) if re-elected by the voters of the (insert number here) District, State of Michigan, in the special election following their (expulsion/resignation).

Whereas, Article IV, Section 16 of the Constitution of the State of Michigan of 1963 provides, in relevant part: Each house, except as otherwise provided in this constitution, shall choose its own officers and determine the rules of its proceedings… Each house shall be the sole judge of the qualifications, elections and returns of its members; and

Whereas, Each Representative has a duty to conduct himself or herself in such a manner as to justify the confidence placed in him or her by the people and must, by personal example and admonition to colleagues, maintain the integrity and responsibility of his or her office; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser resigned pending imminent expulsion/Gamrat was expelled) from this distinguished body; and

Whereas, The House Business Office conducted an investigation into the conduct of Representative (Courser/Gamrat) and found that (he/she) committed misconduct in office and misused state resources, as discussed below, in violation of the Standing Rules of the House of Representatives and state statute; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) engaged in an extramarital affair with another sitting representative; and

Whereas, An investigation by the House Business Office found that Representative (Courser/Gamrat) engaged in deceptive, deceitful, and dishonest conduct to misdirect people away from her extramarital affair; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) admitted to an attempt to recruit a state employee to send a false email from an unidentified source in order to provide cover for (his/her) personal misconduct and deceive and distract the people of the state of Michigan; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) repeatedly discussed the affair and cover-up with (his/her) staff on state property during office hours, to the dereliction of (his/her) legislative duties; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) continually demonstrated a cynical view and disdain for the process and procedures of the Legislature; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) combined offices with another sitting Representative with whom (he/she) engaged in an extramarital affair and failed to stop (his/her) staff from being bullied, berated, and threatened to perform, as state employees, inappropriate tasks by that Representative; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) misused state resources by impermissibly mixing the work of the people with personal, political, and campaign matters; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser’s/Gamrat’s) pattern of conduct has drawn national attention and disgrace to the state of Michigan and the Michigan House of Representatives, shaking the public trust and confidence in this legislative body, staining the honor, dignity, and integrity of this body, and distracting from the serious policy issues and debates in front of this body; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) has abused the office of state Representative, as evidenced by the specific behavior and actions cited in this resolution, and has damaged the institution to which (he/she) was previously elected; and

Whereas, Public trust and confidence in government are prerequisites to the functioning of a democratic society; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser/Gamrat) of the (insert number here) District, State of Michigan, has conducted acts inconsistent with the trust and duties of a state representative. (He/She) failed to maintain the integrity and responsibility of this office and to meet (his/her) solemn obligation to the people of the state of Michigan; and

Whereas, Representative (Courser’s/Gamrat’s) acts were so egregious and atypical that they undermined the confidence of the citizenry in (his/her) truthfulness and judgment and brought disrepute and ridicule to this institution, and resulted in Representative (Coursers/Gamrat’s) (disgraced resignation/expulsion) from this esteemed body. Representative (Courser’s/Gamrat’s) (resignation/expulsion) has restored the integrity and public trust to this legislature; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That in accordance with the above-cited provisions of the Constitution of the State of Michigan, the Michigan House of Representatives hereby determines and proclaims that, if re-elected by special election, former Representative (Courser/Gamrat) of the (insert number) District, State of Michigan, will not be seated as a member of this esteemed legislative body to the office of Michigan State Representative.

Is this doable? That’s for the experts to determine. Is it a good idea? Yes. Voters in both districts deserve to be made aware that attempting to reseat Courser and Gamrat would likely be in vain, resulting in the reopening of a rather nasty wound, just now beginning to heal. They must find a fresh face to send to Lansing.

It may be a trite maxim, but the “definition of insanity” certainly applies here.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Michigan Planned Parenthood Punches Back

Jim Norton

Jim Norton, President and CEO of West and Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood (A.Hardin)

“Let me be perfectly clear — Planned Parenthood does not sell fetal tissue. But, none of these truths, these facts, seem to stop some politicians from using these tapes to advance their own agendas.” — Jim Norton, Interim President and CEO of West and Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood.

The 2015 Planned Parenthood Healthy Families Luncheon in Traverse City today was packed with supporters — opening their checkbooks, and eager to share their stories and concerns over the recent smear campaign ignited by the misleading and heavily edited tapes released by the bogus organization, the Center for Medical Progress.

Fully one-third of the Tuesday afternoon event’s attendees were new supporters, energized by the injustice perpetrated against such an important family health resource. Similar rallys have taken place in Grand Rapids, Marquette, and Petoskey, with another upcoming gathering in Muskegon this year.

PP crowd

Traverse City Planned Parenthood Healthy Families event (A.Hardin)

Jim Norton, the Interim President and CEO of West and Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood, slammed the extremists at the Center for Medical Progress for their unscrupulous tactics and specious claims, explaining that its leadership has close ties to known terrorists who have committed serious crimes, including violence and fraud — setting-up phony companies and using fake government I.D.s to conduct illegal covert surveillance.

Norton abandoned his prepared remarks after discussions with participants during the reception prior to his taking the podium.  He went off script to recognize the grievance and outrage over the callous political pandering which has put Planned Parenthood funding at risk. He opened with acknowledging that “unfortunately, not everyone shares our vision”, personally admitting that the “job can be challenging, lonely, and sometimes scary.” Expressing his own frustration, he explained that fighting these swift-boat tactics “takes time, energy, and money away from the important work we should be doing.”

Michigan supporters of Planned Parenthood are not unique in their concern. Nationally, the organization has a long history of broad public patronage. In the wake of recent GOP efforts to defund the free healthcare provider, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found results that Republicans should take seriously — Reuters suggests that there are political “risks for Republicans criticizing Planned Parenthood as part of the 2016 campaigns.” GOP leaders mistakenly took the feigned outrage over the Center for Medical Progress’ doctored video tapes as license to move to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood, in spite of the fact that no federal dollars go to abortion services. By a margin of slightly over 2 to 1, poll respondents favored continuing federal funding of Planned Parenthood services.

Michigan’s Planned Parenthood is not standing still, they are adapting to meet the new challenge. They had previously been comprised of six affiliates, but through consolidation, are now two — West and Northern Michigan, and South Michigan. These two organizations just filed the necessary paperwork to merge into one stronger and more resilient whole — uniting their human capital and resources to protect the vital services they perform.

For more information on how to support Michigan Planned Parenthood click HERE.

Jim and Amy

At the Selfie Wall

Amy Kerr Hardin



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Michigan Lawmakers Propose Bill to Prevent Practicing Condom Use on Bananas

Lansing: The Good, the Bad, and the Just Plain Silly

While Michigan’s roads aren’t getting fixed, here’s what Lansing’s been up to.

banana 3

Dire threat

Starting with the Silly — The Bananarama Bill

Rep. Thomas Hooker (R-77), joined by his social conservative buddies — 9 out of 10 banana owners, including Tea Party Rep. Gary Glenn (R-98) — proposed legislation to make it illegal for public school students to put a condom on a banana, or any other produce of choice. House Bill 4883 amends Public Act 451 of 1976 to prohibit this form of hands-on-learning. From the proposal:

“A person shall not dispense or otherwise distribute, and shall not allow a pupil to practice with, a family planning drug or device in a public school or on public school property.”

And Now for the Bad

Oh look, it’s HB 4883 again. It seems these same lawmakers also wish to prohibit professional instruction on a basic reproductive right — abortion. A key impetus behind the 1976 law was to provide education on the full array of family planning options available, but conservative lawmakers apparently believe that if we simply don’t discuss it, it will magically go away.

Want to prevent abortion boys? Try practicing putting on condom on something other than a banana.

Finally, the Good — aka, Bills Doomed to Die … except for a few, can you pick the winners?

In order of introduction: (link to bills HERE)

HB 4865   A bill to exempt from sales tax the purchase of back-to-school clothes and supplies.

HB 4866   Bans the use of drones over correctional facilities.

HB 4870   Would prevent law enforcement from setting-up voluntary motor vehicle check points.

HB 4872 & 4873   Adjusts the formula for calculating the School Aid Fund per pupil allotment, allowing districts, including those on the fiscally distressed list, to choose from the current year’s student count or the previous year’s — whichever is greater.

HB 4875   Bans sky lanterns.

HB 4876   Bans flame throwers. (Seriously, who wouldn’t want one of these on occasion?)

HB 4877   Decriminalizes pot. (Flame thrower now extra cool.)

HB 4878 & 4881   Advances renewable energy policies and fair compensation for customer electric generation.

HB 4885   Exempts wrongfully imprisoned individuals from paying state income tax on compensation received.

SB 497 – 499   Requires foster care and adoption agencies who contract with the state to serve all applicants.

SB 501   A bill to render as perfunctory the recognition of foreign-issued drivers licenses. Current law requires the Secretary of State to determine which countries Michigan will recognize.

Some interesting legislation there. No roads bill yet.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Are Private Toll Roads Coming to Michigan? It Could Happen

Now that the Courser-Gamrat scandal has been put to bed, albeit in the signature Jr. High fashion expected out of Michigan’s 98th Legislature, they can forthwith move on to the larger issue of roads. Columnists across the Great Lakes State are spending their days silently writing two different lines of commentary on a possible legislative deal — one scenario for passage of a plan, and the other for failure. However, for the latter, they can probably just resurrect the funeral dirges composed over Prop 1.

Here Be Dragons

Yet, there’s a monster lurking over the horizon that few seem to be talking about. Toll roads — the privatization of Michigan’s highways remains a very real possibility if the state fails to put a viable long-term fix in place. The high priests at the Mackinac Center for Privatization, er…Public Policy, will certainly preach their private sector gospel as a perfectly fungible alternative, but that’s not entirely accurate of what other states have found with their toll road experiences.

The Michigan Department of Transportation’s official stance on toll roads has been:

MDOT on tolls

Still, there’s been renewed toll road talk this year, with the notion dating back much further than legislation introduced as recently as the 2013 push to put a fix on the state’s infrastructure funding conundrum. The proposed bill, stalled in committee and now dead, clearly set-out to deceive — borrowing the thinly veiled language of cell phone companies, with terms like “user fees” and “ancillary charges” as substitute for the word “toll.”

The proposal was sponsored by a Democrat — an outlier perhaps? Not necessarily. Lest we forget, the Clinton administration championed privatization of public assets and services as part of their “National Partnership for Reinventing Government” campaign. While progressives have since soured on the concept, many Republicans (but not all) have taken-up the mantle, and there seems to be no end in sight to their zeal to part-out the commons like an old Buick. Not for nothing, the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships (NCPPP) proudly asserts that “desperate government is our best customer.”

Rich Lane, Poor Lane, aka — “New Capacity” Projects

Currently, MDOT enjoys the legal prerogative to enter into Public-Private Partnerships which include an array of basic contracting authorities, yet they lack license to engage in Public-Private Agreements — the legal vehicle necessary to create private toll roads. Even if granted this higher-level of authority, MDOT would be prohibited from converting existing roads to a toll status. Still, there remains the very real potential for so-called “new capacity” roads to be privately tolled. “New capacity” is a catch-all term that includes newly constructed lanes on existing crumbling highways. In essence, instead of the state embarking upon a full-scale upgrade of its standing transportation infrastructure, it could create a two-tiered system — one with a piecemeal publicly-maintained patchwork of lagging upkeep, adjacent to a premium set of privatized lanes.

Michigan does not now have any toll roads, but about 30 states currently do, including Indiana, whose experiment with this form of privatization became a rolling public policy nightmare — the Hoosier State’s Aramark.

It’s not just the rust belt economy driving the problem in the Midwest — the U.S. Highway Trust Fund is bust, contributing to a 15 percent increase in toll roads across the nation over the past decade. There are currently more than 5,000 miles of pay-to-drive highways and byways, with those numbers expected to continue to grow.

toll booth


The U.S. PIRG Education Fund report, Private Roads, Public Costs, explains the pressures and pitfalls of privatization. Strangled budgets, combined with the opportunity to score political points, are key drivers of the toll road movement. The short-term political and budgetary windfalls of privatization are particularly alluring to term-limited politicians — they won’t be around to answer for the long-term harm to the public good.

Some of the pitfalls PIRG sites are:

  • Loss of public control, including over-burdensome non-compete and compensation clauses preventing the state from upgrading its publicly-held infrastructure, and demanding steep financial compensation for contract violations.
  • Profit-driven transportation planning, including safety-related contract provisions such as allowing higher speed limits on toll roads.
  • Dangerous and costly traffic diversions: Again, it becomes an issue of rich lane vs. poor lane when private owners raise tolls beyond the capacity of many drivers to pay, forcing them on to roads not meant to handle the traffic, particularly that of trucks.
  • No guarantees of state-of-the-art safety and maintenance.
  • Private investors have higher capital costs which are passed-on through higher tolls.
  • Shareholder profits drive the decision-making process.
  • Private companies often engage in risky financial schemes.
  • States become locked-in to excessively long contracts.
  • Lack of transparency and inadequate oversight.

CASE STUDY: Highway to Hell in Indiana

Nearly a decade ago, Indiana entered into a 75 year, $3.8 billion cash-and-carry contract with the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company (a consortium owned by two entities from Australia and Spain) to privatize toll services on I-80 — a deal that earned broker Goldman Sachs $20 million. The scheme was the brainchild of newly elected Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels as part of his 10-year roads plan. An important trucking route, the 157-mile east-west stretch of highway links the Ohio Turnpike to the Chicago Skyway.

Over the years though the tolls have doubled, with the privateer contractually permitted to continue to raise tolls under a number of formulas: a flat 2 percent, or an amount indexed to the gross domestic product or the consumer price index — whichever is greatest. The investors had anticipated having low debt service costs upfront, and as they grew, refinancing was the game plan.

Enter the Great Recession.

As the economy collapsed and commercial trucking dwindled, their scheme crumbled, forcing the consortium to eventually file for bankruptcy. None of the above mentioned toll equations were able to spare their capital venture, although they certainly did nick drivers in the meantime. However, the driving public is at least somewhat shielded from the ill-conceived business plan, yet the state remains trapped in the contract for decades — or as FOX News spins it with faux optimism: “Failed Toll Road Privatization Leaves Indiana in Driver’s Seat.”

Motor City State Not (Yet) in the Driver’s Seat

A 2014 In the Public Interest report titled Shift: How Taxpayers Began Reclaiming Control of their Public Services describes how states are steering away from negligent privatization. At the time of the study, 19 states had legislation pending to “reign in reckless outsourcing and promote responsible contracting.” Michigan was not yet prepared to join that movement.

But by June of 2015, a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers introduced a six bill package designed to provide oversight and create more transparency in the privatization of state services and assets. The Great Lakes State saw some rare across-the-aisle cooperation inspired by the spectacular failure of the Aramark prison food contract, which was terminated the following month. All six bills are currently in the House Committee on Government Operations. (See HB 4700 – 4705)

Even with state leaders across the nation, along with the NCPPP, insisting they are adhering to best practices, hasty and costly privatization schemers continue to feed at the public trough. Earlier this summer, a U.S. District Court judge ruled invalid the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of the Illiana Expressway — a $1.3 billion public-private tollway venture between Indiana and Illinois. The court found that the science and math on which the project was based was deeply flawed. Proponents of the highway produced wildly inflated traffic projections and failed to consider the most basic of environmental impacts. Not mincing his words, Judge Jorge Alonso characterized the FHWA’s record of decision as “arbitrary and capricious.” The two states and the FHWA have filed an appeal.

In a Diane Rehm Show interview late last year, Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, expressed concern over the less tangible aspects of toll roads on our nation. He believes that the “partitioning-off of the roads” will have negative consequences for our national integrated transportation system, not to mention create a cooling effect on public transit as a whole.

Time to put the brakes on the excesses of transportation privatization.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Big Box Store Bullies Prey on Michigan’s Most Vulnerable

The “Dark Store” Bait and Switch — A Corporate Scam

Big box stores across Michigan are gaming the system on property taxes — threatening the core fiscal stability of townships in every corner of the state. Like the archetypal playground bully, major retailers are demanding tax refunds from some of Michigan’s most vulnerable communities, and they’re getting away with it under the tacit approval of the Snyder Administration.

Meijer, source- J. hollinghead

Another Michigan “Dark Store” ( J. Hollinghead)

Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Meijer, and Menards are just a few of the corporate bullies cheating municipalities and school districts out of revenues, a feat accomplished with the help of the governor’s hand-picked five-member Michigan Tax Tribunal Court. And, this evil has been metastasizing across the state — taking hold among smaller corporations who are now arguing that they too deserve the same special treatment.

The Mechanics of the Scheme

Retailers are employing the “dark store” argument to reduce their taxes. Here’s how the scam works: Developers propose construction projects that often include plans for multiple super-sized stores. Part of the pitch to local officials includes the enticement of increased revenues due to the development. Subsequently, the plans are approved, the boxes are built, and before the paint is dry on the LaGuardia tarmac proportioned parking lots — Bam — the mega-retailers file suit to have their taxes reduced to a level similar to that of abandoned structures in the community. The tax tribunal rubber-stamps the grievance, and carte blanche, grants their wish. Scam complete.

Rationale? They claim that their buildings are meant to be ephemeral, and therefore are depreciating at an accelerated rate. Worse than driving a shiny new car off the lot — these corporate thugs are demanding to be taxed as if they were already at the gates of the junk yard.

The negative impact on Michigan’s communities is deep and lasting. In 2013, a Meijer store in Okemos won a tax settlement from Meridian Township. The municipality was nicked for $320,165 by the megastore. The bulk of the money was pilfered from the Okemos Public School budget.

chart on meijer tax refund

It’s not just Okemos though. Here’s a map showing some of Meijer’s other recent tax appeals:

Meijer Tax appeals

Source: The Meridian Times

And, it’s not just Meijer. The Lansing State Journal recently reported that Home Depot and Lowes got in on the action alongside Meijer, and their combined reassessments are costing Mason County $300,000 in lost revenues, and Ottawa County is losing $745,000, with an additional $612,000 at risk. As reported in Bridge, Menards tagged the City of Escanaba for a $121,000 refund, and Lowes took Marquette Township to the cleaners for a $755,000 refund — an amount so significant to the function of their community, that the local library had to cut its hours

A Legislative Remedy on the Way?

Sen. Tom Casperson (R-38), Rep. Ed McBroom (R-108), and Rep. John Kivela (D-109) are poised to introduce legislation to reign-in the excesses of the big box bullies facilitated through the continued acquiescence of the state tax tribunal. As it stands, few of the thousands of municipalities in harm’s way have taken preventative measures at the local level. Some have made modest changes to their codes, and others have additionally written into the permitting process a requirement for developers to demolish abandoned structures in a timely manner and make the property whole again.

That is why it falls on state lawmakers to remediate the problem. Kivela spoke strongly in a recent interview about his upcoming legislation. Having worked hard on closing the tax loophole for two years now, he described the opposition thus:

“The Michigan Chamber has been very vocal, they view this as a tax increase.”

And his take on the scope of the tax scam in Michigan:

“Some of the things that are happening are just so egregious. Menards, whose home state is Wisconsin, gladly pay $69 a square foot in valuation in Wisconsin, but they seem to think their stores in Michigan are only worth $25 a square foot.”

“It’s gotta be fair, because if Target is paying less, Menards and Lowes are paying less, that means mom and pop’s at home have to pay more.”

The Real Cost to Michigan’s Communities

The repercussions of continued inaction at the state level will further put Michigan’s already fiscally distressed communities into untenable positions — contributing to the possibility of more shuttered schools, municipal bankruptcies and/or emergency management, worsening roads, decaying downtowns, and eventually creating more impoverished, high crime, low employment, food deserts.

It’s simply cheaper for these mega-retailers to walk away from a property and build elsewhere than to rework existing facilities. During the 2007 Walmart push to upgrade their stores, doubling their size to “supercenters”, they shuttered millions of square feet nationally, with Michigan being among the hardest hit — host to between 800,000 and 1,300,000 in square footage of ghost stores.

vacant walmarts

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance cites some of the associated costs of dark stores to communities:

  • they become magnets for crime and vandalism;
  • lower property values nearby;
  • undermine the vitality of nearby businesses;
  • create a negative image of the town that deters new businesses and investment.

The organization has prepared a “toolkit” for local government officials intended to assist communities with actions they can take to avoid the dark store blight. Among their recommendations are:

  • limit retail development zoning;
  • adopt a store size cap;
  • insist on multi-story, mixed use buildings;
  • create an economic impact review standard;
  • require developers to post a demolition bond;
  • adopt a dark store ordinance.

All excellent suggestions for municipalities looking forward, but many communities in Michigan are already overwhelmed with shuttered stores. The Flint-area township of Mt. Morris is suffering a rash of big box and grocery store closures, leaving many members of that community of color unemployed and worried about where they will get their food. In the wake of both Kroger and Meijer shutting-down their stores, residents are now faced with substantial commutes for basic needs and groceries.

It’s time for Michigan lawmakers to put a stop to the big box dark store menace.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Learn more about other ways big box developers prey on Michigan’s townships: Bear Creek’s story HERE, Acme’s story HERE.

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Michigan’s Local Leaders Turn Against Zombie Republican Lawmakers

The Courser-Gamrat affair, while tawdry in its details, remains the act of two nutty freshmen lawmakers, and simply does not rise to the ethically criminal category found in the dereliction of duty of Republican leadership in Lansing.

Blame, Only Where Blame is Due

As predicted, the Michigan shit show known as the Courser-Gamrat Affair is now slated to suck all the oxygen out of the legislature, preventing the already inept body from getting around to roads, among other apparently impossible legislative aerobic feats. The recalcitrant Tea Party duo’s refusal to step down will certainly occupy the whimsies of the less-than-august, term-limited body of lawmakers well into their fall session.

The House committee appointed to further investigate on the topic of any tangential wrongdoing stemming from Gamrat and Courser’s original sin, will likely recommend either censure or expulsion — culminating in days, if not weeks, of moral posturing, amid promises to act quickly over concern that the continued presence of the lusty lawmakers will further erode the legislature’s already subterranean approval rating among voters.

But, it will not be the Tea Party twosome that ultimately tanks public opinion on Michigan’s 98th Legislature — lawmaker’s themselves should really earn full credit there, plus bonus points, for their inertial bankruptcy.

Local leaders are publicly saying as much.

It’s the Zombie Lawmakers, Not the Lovebirds, Destroying Lansing’s Image


Approximation: Michigan’s Republican Leadership

City, county, and township leaders across Michigan are increasingly fed-up with month after month of ideologue-based blather and inaction out of Lansing. The no-new-tax Norquist-pledge-takers have rendered a sizable number of elected officials as mere zombie lawmakers — do-nothing placeholders for their locked-in districts, priority issues be damned.

A new poll by Michigan Public Policy Survey, conducted by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy out of the University of Michigan, found rising ire and frustration among local units of government over the incompetence and incessant political incantations at the state level.

Just how poorly are Michigan’s lawmakers perceived? MPPS has been tracking it over the years. There was a significant shift with this new legislature — in the wrong direction.

Local on the legislature chart

Source: Michigan Public Policy Survey, August 2015

Here are some local leader comments on the problems with Lansing published in the August 2015 MPPS report:

“Legislators are not governing. They are beholden to special interests and short-term issues. There isn’t any political will to address the structural issues facing the state. The State cannot cut its way out of the situation.”

“Priorities of the current legislature are too focused on an extreme partisan agenda rather than what’s best for the State.”

“The State of Michigan has taken money away from local governments through reductions in revenue sharing and personal property tax revenue. They then said it is the local governments’ fault for having financial woes. They are trying to lead from a top down approach to restrict local government autonomy to make decisions. They need to focus on reducing laws and regulations that restrict growth and waste business and people’s time.”

“While we are led to believe things in urban areas of Michigan and Michigan in general are improving, there is no indication of this at all in my area. High unemployment, no job opportunities, very low wages, nothing has changed. If anything gotten worse due to suspension of unemployment benefits and still no jobs, no sign of changes are seen. As most who live in this area have said, we are always in a recession so we never know any different, we live the same all the time. I think the things that have been changed to allow politicians to profess the false claims of improvement are things that affect normal everyday people trying to make a living.”

In recent months, MPPS has also conducted a number of other surveys of local leaders to take their temperature on specific Michigan issues. Back in February, they queried on the topic of roads and infrastructure funding. The results were stark — roads are a major priority in the state. Some comments:

“Have been just patching, but it is a losing deal. We’ll have to go to gravel for a quarter of roads within two years!”

“We put more money from the general fund into roads and streets this year. I’m concerned that we’re not paying down enough for our long term pension obligations and OPEB to maintain the roads.”

“Cut costs on operating and cut departments such as our police department.”

“Our roads have deteriorated and we have gone from well-maintained, properlyDSCF1045 repaired roads to quick fixes and cheap patching. We have a 1.5 extra voted millage that helps, but support from [the] County for road maintenance has greatly diminished.”

“Turned 4 miles of local hard surface roads back to gravel. Reduced road improvement miles due to increased costs and less general fund money to use on road projects. Delayed, indefinitely, ditch cleaning and maintenance due to lack of funds and reduced man power.”

“We apply for as many grants as are available. All our local and major road work in the last few years has been done with grant dollars or it does not get done.”

“Allowed roads to deteriorate [and] undertake some borrowing to ensure cash is available to match federal funding.” 

The Courser-Gamrat affair, while tawdry in its details, remains the act of two nutty freshmen lawmakers, and simply does not rise to the ethically criminal category found in the dereliction of duty of Republican leadership in Lansing.

Not surprisingly, a March 2015 MPPS survey found that more than 4 out of 10 local officials question the ethics of Michigan’s lawmakers.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Must-See Video: Projected Disaster at the Enbridge Line 5 Pipeline

“Water is the blood of our Earth Mother.” – Cecil Pavlat of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians

For all those kayaktivists and walkers who are attending the upcoming Pipe Out Paddle Protest and Walk rally at the Straits of Mackinac this Sunday and Monday, and those who can’t make it, but care deeply about protecting the Great Lakes, here’s a must-see video. Produced by the University of Michigan Water Center and the National Wildlife Federation, it projects the impact on the Straits area from a 12 hour spill over a twenty day period. (Note: the video is in various short segments: demonstrating a central break in the pipeline, and one at the north end, then the south end.)

And that’s just modeling a half day rupture. According to Oil and Water Don’t Mix, conservatively, at least one million gallons of oil are in the 62-year old double pipeline at any given time. Currently, Enbridge is pumping 540,000 barrels of oil per day, up from the previously allowed 490,000. At the time of the 2013 increase, retired DOW Chemical engineer Gary Street said that the 10 percent bump in volume will exert a 20 percent increase in pressure on the aging system. He explained to the Petoskey News:  “That’s alarming. I’m really concerned about their integrity, and now you’re going to increase pressure on those lines.”

On July 15 of this year, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that Line 5’s “days are numbered.” Well that number is still counting, and Michigan is waiting.


Pavlat at 2013 rally (A.Hardin)

Many have been waiting much, much longer though. At a rally held two years ago, Native American leaders expressed growing impatience. Cecil Pavlat of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians spoke passionately.

“We speak, but they don’t listen. Water is the blood of our Earth Mother.” 

Invoking the Anishnabek tradition of tribal leaders thinking seven generations ahead about the impact of their decisions, Pavlat warned of the pending crisis with this plea: “If not soon, it will be too late”.

Enbridge insists their safety record on Line 5, also known as the Lakehead Pipeline, is outstanding. Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation begs to differ. She is the author of a report titled Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes. Wallace lists a number of significant incidents that have already occurred on the Lakehead Pipeline system. There was a spill in 1999 in Crystal Falls, Michigan in which 226,000 gallons spilled from line 5. Enbridge disposed of the oil by lighting it on fire. Here’s a partial list of spills on the Lakehead system that were hushed:

  • July 2002: A pipeline in Itasca County, MN spilled 252,000 gallons of crude oil causing $5.6 million in damages
  • Feb. 2003: Monroe County, MI where a 5,460 gallon spill caused a quarter million in damages
  • Oct. 2003: Bay County, MI 21,000 gallons of crude spilled
  • Jan. 2005: Another Bay County spill of 4,200 gallons
  • Jan. 2007: A leak in Wisconsin spilled 50,000 gallons on farmland
  • Nov. 2007: Oil and gas from a ruptured line ignited near Clearbrook, MN, killing two workers. Enbridge was fined $2.4 million for failing to follow safety rules.
  • Jan. 2010: 126,000 gallons were leaked in Neche, North Dakota
  • July 2010: A ruptured pipeline near Marshall, MI dumped one million gallons into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.
  • Sept. 2010: a broken pipeline near Chicago spilled 250,000 gallons of oil
  • July 2012: In Grand Marsh, WI, a rupture sprayed 50,000 gallons onto a farm, including the home and livestock.

And that’s just a short list of the 80 spills the federal government has documented on the Enbridge Pipeline since 2001.

Time to shut it down!

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Mackinac Center for Public Policy Fails at “Research” Goal

Michigan is rife with right-wing gaffes this summer.

As if the Courser/Gamrat affair weren’t enough to entertain the electorate, we also have the anticipated perennial dose of BS from the “research” organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to amuse us — with apologies though, it completely lacks a good sex scandal, and yet… remains utterly comical.

After the MCPP’s historic lawsuits of recent years, with threats of additional litigation piling-on against the Michigan Education Association over the particulars of their teacher “opt-out” policies, we now find some small humor in the ongoing story through an apparent error on the part of MCPP operatives.

Once again, “Opt-Out August” is upon us, bringing with it a barrage of propaganda directed at those few naive public school teachers urging them to drop their MEA membership. The folks at MCPP try to make this look as painless as possible, providing an online form with instructions and encouragement on how, where, and when to submit the request. Here’s their latest social media blitz:

Aug opt-out

Last week, Dan Armstrong, spokesperson for the MCPP went on the Vic McCarty WMKT Show podcast to complain about a shocking change in the MEA opt-out policy. Apparently earlier this year, the union consolidated their procedures and directed their members to use a new P.O. box specifically set-up for that purpose. Because the requests are time sensitive, the organization sensibly didn’t want them landing randomly in local mailboxes all over the state and possibly not being forwarded in a timely manner. They made the address change in the springtime, and provided the information on the “members only” page of their website:

mea dealineBut, it seems the “researchers” at MCPP didn’t get that memo, and thus failed to pass along this key piece of information. Armstrong told McCarty “we found out just last week”, and he went on to stutter “I don’t know if they just recently commandeered this, this P.O. Box.” (An interesting choice of words by Armstrong — “commandeered.” So, did the MEA acquire the P.O. box at gun point?)

Continuing to blame the MEA for the MCPP goof-up, Armstrong conceded that they have now helpfully changed their forms so those using them “will have the correct address.” 

McCarty further nudged Armstrong to reveal if the MCPP might attempt to seek “legal remedy.” Although, the MEA has done nothing wrong in asking members to follow a prescribed procedure for opting-out, Armstrong was quick to assure that “look, we’re no strangers to lawsuits.” He continued his argument by referring to the P.O. box information as being somehow “hidden” on the website, and therefore a reason for potential litigators to emerge. McCarty then prodded to know if there was a “lawsuit in the offing”, with Armstrong affirming that, yes, “there’s a likelihood of that.”

From the earliest days of the Right-to-Work initiative, the folks a MCPP have persisted in taking it to the edge.

The MEA just released an August 2015 report on the MCPP campaign against public sector workers. Not surprisingly, the Mackinac Center is heavily funded by the Dow, DeVos, and Prince families. The self-described non-profit “research” organization, seems to direct the bulk of its substantial resources to attacking the concept of collective bargaining, with a special animus directed at the MEA. In a leaked 2011 email, from the MCPP to a former Michigan Republican lawmaker, Tom McMillin, they boldly stated their goals:

MCPP:McMillan email

Source: MEA

That sure doesn’t look like any form of scholarly research we know of.

Christopher Klaver of Gongwer News Service opined today on the possible impact of the anti-union movement under Michigan’s Right-toWork law.

Though there are some organizations that would like to see it (you know who you are), it is unlikely that state employee unions will disappear. As the teacher unions have experienced, they are likely to lose some members, but, also as the teacher unions have experienced, they are likely to retain enough members to remain forces in setting wages and benefits for employees.

Although the long view remains uncertain, it’s still fun to take a little swipe at the MCPP’s bumbling attempts at their dream of a union-free public sector. Sorry Mackinac Center kids — you’re out in the hall on this one. Just because you didn’t do your “research” on the correct mailing address, doesn’t mean the MEA is at fault. Litigation would surely highlight your negligent hand in the misdirection of opt-out candidates.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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