One Newspaper Editorial Board Said “NO” to Snyder

thumbs downSocial media has been abuzz with questions and complaints over mainstream media’s political endorsements in Michigan this week. Last Sunday, the traditional day for many print newspaper gubernatorial endorsements, produced a monoculture of opinions — all supporting Gov. Snyder (spare one), most accompanied by a variety of convoluted explanations and complicated caveats.

A number of Michigan’s major publications that gave Snyder their support are owned by, or affiliated with the holding company Gannett Inc. — including the Battle Creek Inquirer, Lansing State Journal, Port Huron Times Herald, and the Detroit Free Press. And for twenty-five years now, The Detroit News, also affiliated with Gannett, has operated under an agreement with the Free Press, merging operations as a combined company called the Detroit Media Partnership. Their editorial boards were supposed to operate independently, with firewalls, but that no longer seems to be the case.

The Free Press endorsement of the governor is a tortured exercise in cognitive dissonance, with the bulk of the column inches devoted to slamming his every last policy move, while praising Schauer’s values and priorities. It was a particularly curious endorsement in light of previous op-eds that read like directives for the electorate to send the governor packing in 2014.

In December of 2012, the Freep editorial board collectively penned an op-ed titled “A Failure of Leadership”, bemoaning Snyder’s about-face on right-to-work legislation as a gross betrayal of voters. In January of this year, Freep editor Stephen Henderson authored the screed, “Snyder’s broken promises don’t give us a reason to trust him” — describing how the governor would need electoral “forgiveness” or “forgetfulness” to get re-elected.

It’s not just the Gannett-owned papers though.

In a blatant quid pro quo, The Michigan Chronicle gave their nod to Snyder, with this qualifying statement:

Arriving at this decision has not been easy for the Michigan Chronicle. Mark Schauer is an attractive candidate in many respects, and we agree with him that some of the priorities of the Governor and his party were wrong and, at times, patently undemocratic. Like many Michiganders, it is hard for us to forget the rank power plays of our legislature’s last lame duck session, later signed into law by Governor Snyder. No doubt that episode disappointed many and tarnished his appeal.

In the summer of 2013, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr awarded Real Times Media a $4.1 million contract, through a closed process, with no details available to the public. Real Times Media is the parent company of The Michigan Chronicle. As reported in The Michigan Citizen:

The $4.1 million would represent a significant revenue boost for the weekly publication. According to a pension board proposal in 2006, Real Times Media’s total sales was $9.8 million for all of its media properties, including the Michigan Chronicle, Chicago Defender and Pittsburg Courier.

Not all editorial boards are bought and paid for in Michigan — at least one isn’t.

John Lindstrom, Publisher of Gongwer News Service, brought to our attention that the Traverse City Record-Eagle may be the only sizable paper in the state that did not endorse Gov. Snyder. Lindstrom wrote of the Freep endorsement, as compared to Record-Eagle’s refusal to renew their support for the governor:

That the paper criticized Mr. Snyder almost more than it praised him, didn’t really bother Mr. Snyder’s campaign, which issued an email release saying Mr. Snyder was “running the table” on endorsements from Michigan newspapers (the Toledo Blade, which has many readers in Monroe and Lenawee counties, endorsed Mr. Schauer).

Except for one Michigan newspaper – one ball if we continue the billiards analogy – sitting in the middle of the table, seemingly untouched by the cue ball at any point.

The Record-Eagle, a corporate outlier, is the only Michigan paper owned by Community Newspapers Holdings Incorporated. Formerly owned by Dow Jones, the Northern Michigan paper’s editorial board has a history of independence, and a reputation for boldly playing with fire.

In a multi-year series of articles the paper exclusively reported on, they exposed a scandal involving Meijer Corporation and their manipulation of a local government — an exposé that cost the paper dearly. The former editor of the Record-Eagle, Bill Thomas, described the critical lack of coverage of the story by other papers. As reported in MLive:

Thomas criticized statewide Michigan media outlets, suggesting that other newsrooms tiptoed around the story for fear of reprisal by Meijer, which pulled its Sunday ad circular from the Record-Eagle and gave it to a community feature-driven upstart paper “less interested in the messy business of journalism.” The move cost the Record-Eagle about $250,000 in annual advertising revenue.

He alleges that local politicians tried to “throttle” the coverage by lobbying Dow Jones & Co. executives to have him fired during the paper’s reporting.

With this week’s pan of the Snyder administration, the Record-Eagle has clearly demonstrated its independence anew, apparently being the only paper in the state bold enough to tell the emperor he has no clothes. In their words:

Though he promised voters that right to work legislation wasn’t “on his radar,” he immediately signed right to work bills that had been shamefully rammed through a lame-duck Legislature in a single day with no hearings and zero public input. It was a dark day for democracy in Michigan.

Snyder oversaw a $1 billion tax break for businesses, much of it at the expense of new taxes on retiree pensions. He failed to convince Republican lawmakers to make any meaningful headway in fixing Michigan’s crumbling roads, his No. 1 agenda item.

Publishing in a moderately conservative market-area, the Record-Eagle editorial board can hardly be described as a bunch of lefty idealogues — they gave Snyder their full support four years ago. But, not so this year.

At least one newspaper isn’t under the corporate thumb.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Read the full Record-Eagle op-ed Here.

(Note: This writer’s family was personally involved in the Record-Eagle series on the Meijer scandal. The story in Harper’s magazine is Here.)

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Betsy Coffia – A Democratic Powerhouse With Strong Principles

A little over a year ago, several public policy and watchdog groups assembled in Traverse City, Michigan for a statewide conference on campaign finance reform. One of the event organizers was local resident Betsy Coffia, a democrat, who is now running in a tight race for the 104th Michigan House seat against Republican Larry Inman.

Milliken & MooreHome to the Milliken family, the Grand Traverse County district is moderately conservative, and among one of the few places in the state that has not been thoroughly ravaged by the Great Recession.  In the small town atmosphere, it’s not uncommon to cross paths with former Republican governor, Bill Milliken, or to bump into filmmaker Michael Moore — sometimes at the same event.

The 2013 campaign finance conference featured a number of distinguished speakers — among them were a couple of former Michigan Supreme Court Justices — Elizabeth Weaver and Alton Davis.

Davis served for a brief time when appointed under Gov. Granholm after Weaver had stepped-down. One of the more passionate speakers at the event, he described his shock and horror over the campaign process back in 2010 when he lost, in spite of the dizzying $6 million spent in supportJudicial panel of his re-election — the bulk of it in the form of negative third-party issue ads. He lamented “It’s corrupted by money. It’s absolutely corrupted by money.”

In the Q & A session that followed, I asked Davis whether, as a judicial candidate bound by the tenets of the Michigan Judicial Code of Conduct, had he considered demanding the third-party sponsors pull their negative and untruthful ads? He seemed utterly dumbfounded by the question, and was unable to supply a direct response. Presumably, the notion had not even crossed his mind as a plausible remedy. He’s not alone in his inaction though.

It would indeed be a remarkable thing for a candidate for public office to turn-away unsolicited support based on principle alone.

Yet, that’s exactly what Betsy Coffia has done this week.

Her opponent, a well-known, mild-mannered Republican with 22 years of public service, has a consistent record of moderate public policy positions — well in keeping with the “Milliken Republican” tradition. The community was shocked, and a little bit appalled this week, when the Michigan Democratic Party’s State Central Committee launched a blistering attack campaign against Inman, which flagrantly mischaracterized his record as extreme.

In truth, it was surprising that they took an interest in the race at all — a rarity for the 104th, historically being considered a GOP lock. The attention is likely attributable to Coffia’s robust and well-organized grassroots campaign — a model for how it should be done. Additionally, the state party had recently conducted a push-poll in the district, and it seems the results impressed them. Yet, had they taken the time to speak with their candidate, or even spent a moment on her campaign website, they would have discovered how poorly their negative approach would be received.

Betsy speakingCoffia’s swift response to the toxic ads came as no surprise to her supporters. From her website:

These ads were run without our campaign’s knowledge, consent or approval.

I strongly oppose these ads, along with all negative political advertising.

Negative ads are part of the problem with politics today. I decided to run for office with a very clear commitment to doing things differently for different results. These negative ads represent business as usual and I reject them. I believe they are offensive to all who have worked so hard to help build a positive, people powered campaign. I immediately called the state party chair when I learned of these ads and urged him to remove them. These ads in no way represent this campaign.

Not one for half measures, Coffia went-on to launch a call-in campaign urging people to contact the party asking them to stop the ads.

Betsy Coffia

(Watch her Youtube video here. In less than two days, it’s had well over 1,200 views.)

Coincidentally, Coffia isn’t alone in experiencing a difference with her party. Inman felt abandoned by state Republicans when they left him twisting in the wind in an eight-way primary, rife with various Tea Party elements. But, he is now flexing the strength of his new-found independence — today telling the Traverse City Record-Eagle: “They’re not going to tell me how to vote.” Coffia, however, came by that same conclusion well prior to this recent incident. Her principled response to the negative ads is sound proof of that.

Find Betsy on Facebook here, and her website here.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Gov. Snyder – The Nation’s Poster Child for Privatization Gone Wrong

As News of Another Aramark Scandal Breaks, A New Report Nails Snyder Over his Failed Privatization Policies

When it comes to monetizing the public sector, Michigan’s governor is the worst of the worst. In a recent Source Watch report from the Center for Media and Democracy, titled Pay to Prey: Governors Facilitate the Predatory Outsourcing of America’s Public Services, Gov. Rick Snyder was singled-out of the group of seven privatization-minded governors, and held-up as a template for how to get it all wrong.

The report describes the 2010 “electoral landslide” of corporate-sponsored governors bent on pushing the “envelope of outsourcing and privatization, selling public services to for profit firms.” The privatization debacles of each of the seven governors are detailed in the report, but Snyder received top-billing with his misdeeds consuming the bulk of the report’s introduction. Michigan’s failed Aramark prison food contract, along with ALEC-based legislation the governor signed into law expanding the destructive growth of cyber schools, earned Snyder the notoriety.

Snyder fooled many into thinking privatization, much like Right-to-work, wasn’t on his radar. He achieved this policy hoax through semantic chicanery. The governor initially said “I don’t believe in privatization. I believe in being competitive.” He carried the deception further with: “Simply privatizing a prison is not on my agenda.” For all his claims of not being a politician, the governor certainly understood that the label “privatization” needed some rebranding — in the form of a free market definition makeover.

The competitive bidding process was how Snyder justified signing onto the Aramark contract, although ironically, recent reports indicate the governor does seem to enjoy his fair share of private sector favoritism through a series of no-bid contracts.

The Aramark deal was ushered along by Tea Party lawmaker, Rep. Greg MacMaster (R-105), the chair of the House Department of Corrections subcommittee. He pushed hard for privatization, claiming a potential savings of $100 million for the state. privatization mag

The genesis of widespread privatization in Michigan, particularly in the corrections sector, has roots that go back decades. The conservative group, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, spearheaded the movement with a publication on the topic targeting elected leaders over the course of many years.

The Michigan Privatization Report, a quarterly magazine, abruptly disappeared with its final issue five years ago — at about the same time the term “privatization” took on an ominous connotation with the public — coinciding with the devastation of the middle-class as the Great Recession brought a deep distrust of corporate America.

Issue after issue of the magazine touted the benefits and savings to be had through privatizing Michigan’s public sector services and assets. Not just the usual suspects — prisons, utilities, and public safety — the list included parks, civic centers, zoos, airports, lighthouses, teacher certification, museums, road systems, bridges, dormitories, ice arenas, fair grounds, animal shelters, cultural arts, ports and marinas. If the public owned it, there was a profit-center to be tapped by the private sector.

Mackinac Center celebrated its first real inroad into privatizing prisons in its March 1997 issue when legislation was passed allowing private companies to open prisons in Michigan. At the time, they predicted 10 to 15 percent in taxpayer savings. Subsequent issues regularly peppered their readership with promises of vast savings — always citing multi-million dollar estimates.

One article assured public officials that the free market would keep private vendors in check, claiming the stock market would demand accountability. By way of example, they referenced a major prison break at an Ohio facility in 1998 under the watch of the private vendor, Corrections Corporation of America. The market spanked the company with a 25 percent drop in stock value, and a downgrade from PaineWeber.

Fast forward to 2014 — not so Aramark.

Post Great Recession investors simply don’t care about accountability. They know there are no real consequences to be had for corporate corruption and incompetence. Indeed, in the case of Aramark — they reward it. A recent glowing market analysis of Aramark, earned the company a “Bull of the Day” rating. Aramark CEO, Eric J. Floss, effused with this statement:

“I am pleased to report another quarter of strong business results achieved within a challenging consumer and economic environment. Our performance reflects solid execution against a sound strategy and was broad-based across the segments and geographies of our portfolio. Based upon this strength and our overall business momentum, we are increasing our full-year 2014 earnings outlook.”

Yet, hardly a day goes by where the private food vendor isn’t in the news over some form of scandal — incompetence, corruption, quality of service, breach of contract, among other illegal activities.

Today, another story of Aramark mismanagement in Michigan’s prisons is making the news. The Detroit Free Press reports a former employee of the company has filed an OSHA complaint against Aramark, claiming:

“[She] was harassed and retaliated against for complaining about a lack of temperature monitoring in cooking; the serving of raw or undercooked meat; falsified records related to dishwater temperature and cleaning solution quality; the serving of meat that had been dropped on the floor; changing the dates on stored leftover food so it could be served after its throw-away date; suspected inflating of the count of meals served.”

It’s not just prisons, though.

Schools are suffering under Aramark contracts. Just this week, students at prestigious American University in Washington DC launched a protest over Aramark’s abusive and inappropriate treatment of student workers in campus cafeterias. Referring to it as a “culture of disrespect”, a student group hand-delivered a letter to Aramark outlining their grievances. From the AU student paper, The Eagle:

“The letter detailed workers’ complaints about potential mistreatment at AU’s dining facilities. The Student Worker Alliance was informed by one or more dining facility employees that managers were saying homophobic and racial slurs to workers. There were also incidents of managers yelling at employees in front of other employees, according to Sean Reilly-Wood, a senior in CAS who participated in the demonstration.”

Aramark handles food contracts at schools and universities across the world, including Chicago Public Schools, where earlier this year they failed to adequately respond to a Freedom of Information Act request. A local radio station inquired about the ingredients in their chicken patties, to which the response was: “chicken patty, and bun.”

Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Aramark to clean-up their act in Chicago Public Schools where they also hold a $260 million janitorial contract. Citing reports of  “filthy conditions, including dead rodents and bugs, and mouse droppings”, the Sun Times quotes the mayor:

“Aramark’s job is to clean the schools, so our principals and teachers can focus on their fundamental responsibility: education. They will either live up to that contract and clean up the schools or they can clean out their desks and get out.”

In Michigan though, Aramark has been mostly getting a pass from Gov. Snyder, who wishing to avoid a public policy failure so close to an election has referred to troubles with the private vendor as mere “hiccups.”

Even a dusty 1997 issue of Mackinac Center’s magazine advised public officials that they should know when to fold’em on a failed contract. From the article:

“Contracting out by government to private companies carries the same risks and benefits that private businesses assume when subcontracting to outside firms. For example, a private company might contract with a janitorial service because it believes the service can clean at less cost and higher quality than the company’s in-house janitors. The company in essence transfers to the janitorial service payroll costs including wages, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and benefits. If the janitorial service fails to properly clean the building or if the company fails to pay the negotiated price, the contract may be breached and become a matter of litigation.”

There are some Michigan leaders who, in the face of the negative reports on Aramark, are putting the brakes on privatization contracts. Oakland University’s custodial service contract is on hold after board member, Ronald Robinson, expressed concern over recent reports about the vendor:

“As a trustee, one of the factors in deciding how I will vote on a controversial matter is assessing the university’s reputational risk associated with my vote. Two reputational risk factors associated with the vote are the impact on our employee relations and the implication of inviting an outside contractor to campus to be a part of the university community after the contractor has been associated with serious and controversial problems.”

Mr. Robinson appears to possess more basic business acumen than the self-described accountant and nerd who wishes to again earn Michigan’s vote for four more years at the helm.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Lynn Mason — A Democrat to Watch in Michigan’s 86th District

lynn mason 2Say what you may about money in politics — but the reality is, in the absence of serious reform, it remains a pay-to-play game. Lynn Mason, democratic candidate for the 86th House seat in Michigan, knew from the get-go that her ability to grassroots fundraise would be key to her success in unseating two-term incumbent Republican Lisa Posthumus Lyons this November.

When we met over coffee earlier this year, Mason related (without wincing) she anticipated her campaign would need to raise an amount in excess of the annual salary of the position she hopes to attain. True to her word, she recently surprised the media with a campaign finance report that bested her well-heeled opponent’s efforts. Mason raised $84,202 in this election cycle, compared to Lyons’ $70,972. That’s a whopping 19 percent differential — especially notable since her Republican adversary’s campaign finance report is a who’s-who list of big-money special interest contributors. Mason did take-in a sprinkling of union contributions — no surprise there, in light of her being a retired public school teacher and union member, yet the bulk of her contributions came from individual donors.

As a Democratic challenger, her war chest is even more remarkable when compared to other House races across the state. Rich Robinson, of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a non-partisan watchdog organization, crunched the numbers:

Among the 220 House candidates who advance from the August primary to the November general election, 41 had filing waivers which mean they do not intend to raise or spend more than $1,000.

The average amount raised by the 179 primary winners who raised money was $50,223. The average amount raised by the 68 incumbents who won was $67,224. The average amount raised by the 111 winning non-incumbents who raised money was $38,853.

Mason out-raised, by a factor of over two, the average non-incumbent primary victor.

(Update 10-20-14: Mason has now raised over $100,000 for her campaign)

Incumbent Lyons has some expensive long-term political plans of her own. She’s squirreling-away corporate cash for her next big endeavor, no doubt either the Michigan Senate, or some other elected office. She came into this election cycle with a hefty bottom-line, and as of a few weeks ago, was sporting a balance on-hand of $70,751. Combine that with her PAC booty, the Posthumus Lyons Leadership Fund, which boasted $128,820 as of mid-summer, the Republican has amassed a sizable corporate largesse for 2016 — win or lose this November.

However, Mason brings another valuable kind of currency to this race — more important than dollars — her extensive experience in public-sector, community, and union leadership roles handily trumps that of her opponent.

Mason’s no slacker — a native of Belding, she has a Masters in Education from Grand Valley State, went on to a successful 30-year teaching career in Belding Area Schools, where she served as president of the Belding Education Association, and was on the board of directors for the Michigan Education Association and the National Education Association. She is currently serving her fourth term as an Ionia County Commissioner, and is the chair of the Ionia County Democratic Party. Mason additionally leads the Clinton, Eaton, Ingham County Mental Health Substance Abuse Advisory Committee and chairs the Midwest Michigan Rail-Trail Authority.

Opponent Lyons came by her current position as chair of the House Committee on Education with no relevant experience, touting a thin resumé in real estate and a degree in agriculture from MSU. As a GOP legacy of her father, Dick Posthumus, Lyons was appointed to lead the committee after the former chair, Rep. Paul H. Scott (R-51), was drummed out of office in a recall election — financed in large part by the MEA, spurred by their concern over school funding problems under his watch.

In retaliation, Lyons was given marching orders to attack the MEA and its members at every opportunity — a goal which she clearly attempted, yet mostly failed to deliver on. Her most ignoble moment was when she referred to Michigan’s teachers as swine (employing both the words “pigs” and “hogs”) in a heated back-and-forth on the House floor over the controversial forced closure of fiscally distressed Buena Vista and Inkster school districts. The childish outburst earned the impudent lawmaker the wrath of those not typically interested in education issues.

Lyons has been pushing two unpopular pieces of legislation — expansion of the troubled Education Achievement Authority, and the implementation of a letter grading system of schools. The EAA expansion passed with different versions in both the House and Senate, yet failed to attain agreement between the houses, and the letter grading plan remains stalled in committee. In addition to attacking teachers, Lyons has focused on legislative efforts to monetize Michigan’s public school students through privatization, or public-private partnerships.

The Republican lawmaker also raised eyebrows and ire when, while supporting Michigan’s Right-to-work law in the 2012 lame duck GOP legislative orgy, she attempted to have corrections officers exempted — Lyons’ husband works in corrections.

Although, Lyons took the Norquist Pledge three years running, she still signed-on to Gov. Snyder’s tax increases on retirees and working families. Mason said of Lyons’ tax record: “My opponent has done a terrible job supporting the hard-working taxpayers of the 86th district. It’s wrong to raise taxes on citizens — at the same time cutting taxes on corporations and the rich.”

If elected, Mason hopes to sit on the education committee to turn-around Lyons’ retrograde policy path.

“When I look at students I see potential, where my opponent sees dollar signs. I believe in building-up our public schools instead of tearing them down.”

The 86th, recently gerrymandered to protect Lyons, is roughly a 60/40 Republican/Democrat mix. But that’s not standing in the way of Mason’s bid for leadership.

Mason’s also an apple farmer — 48 acres.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Find Mason’s website here.

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Snyder’s Latest Ad Tortures the Facts

Gov. Snyder, who has been howling mad about Mark Schauer’s assertion that he cut education spending by a billion dollars, has some ‘splainin to do about his latest ad claiming he invested “a billion dollars in our kids.”

The ad features Pam Williams, a retired public school teacher who just happens to moonlight as a key GOP operative. Jeff Salisbury, of the Town Broadcast, reports:

[Williams is the] vice chair of the Oakland County Republican Party. Her bio reads: “Pamela also is a precinct delegate and on the Executive Committee for the Oakland County Republican Party and the 9th District. She serves as Scholarship Chair for the Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan and is a grassroots campaigner having volunteered for numerous local, state and congressional candidates.”

Pam Williams 2

She’s also playing fast and loose with the facts. In her ad, the Snyder campaign cherry-picks a line from a Paul Egan opinion piece that appeared in the Detroit Free Press on Feb. 2, 2014, as printed on the screen below her schoolmarmish face.

Williams then makes this claim:

“The Detroit Free Press says that Rick has increased education funding every year since [elected], investing a billion dollars more in our kids since taking office”.

In fact, Egan does say those words as printed on the television screen — but the writer’s clear intent was to illustrate that, while it may be technically true, it does not reflect reality in the classroom. The entirety of the piece was about how classroom spending is down, not up. The increased funding was absorbed by retirement costs that had been underfunded.

The money did not go to “our kids” as Williams’ mischaracterization claims. Here’s how Egan put it in the Free Press (note: it is atypical for Democracy Tree to quote at such length, but context is what is called for here):

More money, but not in classrooms

According to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, by relying in part on a downward determination of what was spent in the last Granholm budget, Snyder can truthfully say he has increased state funding for K-12 education each year since he took office. State school funding grew to $11 billion in 2013 and $11.4 billion in 2014.

But the state’s budget director, John Nixon, doesn’t deny that it won’t seem that way to school districts, which were being strangled by retirement costs that spiked because of 2009 market losses and a 2010 early-retirement offer to teachers.

Those costs were forecast to jump from 25% of payroll to 35% of payroll statewide. The state moved to cap those costs at 26% of payroll and pledged to cover increases beyond that, which won’t level off until 2017. The budget that Snyder presents Wednesday will include $270 million just to cover those increased MPSERS costs above the cap, Nixon said.

That “extra” money doesn’t get to the classroom because it’s “matched by a bill from the Office of Retirement Services,” said Marcia Wilkinson, director of community relations at Birmingham Public Schools.

Salisbury also called-out Williams for her failure to do research on her own former school district. Again, from the Town Broadcast, the per pupil foundation allowances for Romeo Schools:

In Ms. Williams’ former district at Romeo, per-pupil funding looks like this the past six years:
2009-10… 7,692, under Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
2010-11… 7,676, Granholm
2011-12… 7,376 under Gov. Snyder
2012-13… 7,376 Snyder
2013-14… 7,429 Snyder
2014-15… 7,479 Snyder

The Munetrix Public and Charter School database supports Salisbury’s facts* and goes further to find that Romeo School’s fiscal rating went from zero risk to a level three, and then a two, under Snyder’s budgets.

Romeo Sch rating

If you would like learn how your school district has fared under the Snyder administration, visit the easy to use Munetrix database.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

* Slight variations in foundation grant figures occur depending on which database is cited. Here’s another one from the Senate Fiscal Agency. Trend-lines remain the same.

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MICHIGAN: 20 Questions For the Zombie Voter

Will Low-Information Voters (After an even lower information “debate”) Choose Michigan’s Next Governor? 

While it turns out the Snyder-Schauer mano-a-mano town hall debate was more lame-o than anything else, its effect on the clueless voter is the larger concern.

In the space of 57 minutes, literally twenty questions were asked of the challengers, resulting in little more than an exercise of short bursts of rehearsed talking points. By design, the risk-free format evoked few interesting responses that could be of use to the fresh-faced audience of the self-identified undecided, aka — low-information voters.

Undecided voters

It was a moderator hack job, intended to lightly touch on key public policy issues — with “lightly” being the operative word, as no substantive content was forthcoming.

Snyder’s answers averaged 72 seconds each, and Schauer really went to town with 80 second-long screeds. It didn’t help that moderators Nolan Finley, of the Detroit News, and Stephen Henderson, of the Free Press, gave each candidate the bum’s rush the few times they strayed past the one and a half minute mark, apparently fearing viewer information overload. Although to be fair, both Snyder and Schauer also cut themselves short with disappointing regularity.

Gay Marriage Answered in 16 seconds! Education — Afforded Not Much More

Meaningful debate should have included numerous pointed follow-up questions, but only one was asked — during a question over same-sex marriage. Finley inquired of their thoughts on what might happen if the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court ruling that struck-down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. Snyder responded that he will wait to hear what the court decides. As a follow-up, Finley asked “Where do you stand on the issue?”. Snyder repeated his stand: “Well again, I’m waiting for the outcome from the courts”. What’s truly remarkable about the exchange is not the governor’s obfuscation, it’s that his entire two-part answer occupied only 16 seconds of the broadcast. That’s all he had to share on one of the hottest topics of the midterms across the nation

The complex and thorny issue of education spending was afforded a whopping three and a half minutes combined between the candidates. It is a puzzle that required an hour and a half for the Citizens Research Council to unravel in their webinar on the topic. School funding is one of the top election issues in the state, and the town hall produced completely meaningless sound bites for its target audience of uncommitted voters.

Zombies are the Deciders

zombiesLike it or not, the uncommitted bloc may very well be the demographic that picks Michigan’s next governor. A Free Press poll conducted at the end of September found that 16 percent of women and 10 percent of male voters had not yet made up their minds. Typically, this group will break for the challenger due to existing doubts about the incumbent. So, that gives Schauer a slight statistical edge with the category.

“Undecided”, “uncommitted”, “low-information”, or even “zombie” voter are the polite terms for the group. Bill Maher has another name for them:

“Can we please stop treating them like they’re somehow more noble and discerning than the rest of us? For example, you know who is an undecided voter? The Octomom. And that, in a nutshell is America’s celebrated undecided voter. Put on a pedestal by the media, as if they were Hamlet in a think tank, searching-out every last bit of information, high-minded arbiters pouring over policy positions and matching them against their own philosophies. Please…they mostly fall into a category political scientists call low-information voters — otherwise known as dipshits.

Maher advises the “ignorant jackasses to “stay home because you probably couldn’t find your polling place anyway.”

Who are these “ignorant jackasses“?

A 2012 survey of 11,455 undecided voters conducted by Civic Science  revealed 99 distinct characteristics and preferences of the wafflers among us. Here’s the short list:

  • They’re more likely to be women.
  • They’re younger.
  • They are least likely to be black.
  • They have less formal education.
  • They earn less.
  • They save less for retirement.
  • They’re more likely to be young parents.
  • They’re less likely to be married.
  • They’re more likely to be unemployed.
  • They have a lower home ownership rate.
  • They’re not gun owners.
  • They don’t donate to campaigns.
  • They don’t read political websites/blogs. (Safe bet, I’m not offending any readers)
  • They don’t watch much news or sports.
  • They don’t travel much.
  • They’re not big on technology, mostly for financial reasons.
  • They like to sleep-in.
  • They’re not big readers, especially of non-fiction.
  • They avoid political polls.
  • They like to clean their houses.
  • They like cornball movies: 3-D, horror (Walking Dead?), slap-stick.
  • They like to pay with cash.
  • They prefer (but can’t always afford) expensive off-the-rack brand name fashions.
  • They love non-luxury cars, but aren’t very enthused about Subarus.
  • They, counter-intuitively, like to shop high-end food and groceries.
  • They pack their lunches.
  • They prefer Pepsi over Coke.

The group does take pride in performing their civic duty on election day though, so let’s just hope they can muster a little common sense and make some wise choices, even if only by random accident.

Bring on the zombies.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Michigan’s Privatized Camera-Cops? Really Bad Idea

traffic cameraMichigan lawmakers are once again considering allowing the installation of traffic cameras as a source of revenue enhancement. It’s not their first attempt.

Last year, Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-104) introduced a bill to permit municipalities the use of red light cameras at intersections — a legislative initiative the lawmaker quickly threw in reverse in the face of strong public opposition. Turns out, red light cams tend to increase accidents.

The latest push would allow spy-cams to catch speeders, and this time they’ve polished it up a bit with the thinnest veneer of actual concern for public safety. The photo radar cameras could only be placed within a half mile of “schools” and “institutions of high learning,” (more on that later).

So, is it really all about protecting the kids?

Not a chance. The school zone provision is little more than a guise designed to make the operation more palatable to the public.

The surveillance systems would be installed and maintained by private vendors such as American Traffic Solutions, Xerox, and Redflex Traffic Systems. The latter corporation, an Australian firm, recently made the news when one of the company’s principals, Karen Finley, was indicted on bribery charges by a federal grand jury in Chicago. The (“A journal on the politics of driving”) reports shenanigans at Redflex cost a small fortune:

Defending against the Chicago bribery investigation cost the company $2.4 million. Being caught underpaying workers in California and settling the New Jersey class action suit cost another $1.5 million. School bus cameras have flopped, costing $4.3 million. The biggest hit of all was the $9.5 million lost from the Chicago red light camera contract, which removed 384 cameras on top of a net loss of 85 cameras in other cities. Overall, Redflex is operating 22 percent fewer cameras than it did last year.

The scandal ridden company responded by appointing a new CEO, hand-picked by a hedge fund manager out of New York, who is also chairman of the board at Redflex. Their new leader, an Aussie named Paul Clark, comes fresh from Melbourne Water — a utility with a scandal of its own — they over-charged customers nearly $300 million. At his new gig, Clark will pull-down $400 thousand a year, plus bonuses ranging between $180 and $400 thousand.

Shades of Michigan’s on-going Aramark scandal.

The new traffic camera bill, (SB-1063), was introduced by Sen. Virgil Smith (D-4). Sold as a means for cash-strapped municipalities (and Michigan has plenty) to create a steady revenue stream from speeders, but without the expense of live traffic cops — it sounds like a win-win. Curb expenses, enhance revenue, and keep the kiddies safe — what’s not to like?

Again, not so fast.

Cities and towns teetering on the fiscal cliff may be tempted to sign a multi-year contract with one of these companies. Especially vulnerable are those numerous municipalities that have experienced long-term fiscal stress and then subsequently sacrificed much of their skilled leadership and institutional memory — a condition which tends to result in a downward spiral of poor decision-making and mounting debt. And the benefit would be small, if existent at all. Under this legislation, the lion’s share of each traffic fine would go to the private vendor, leaving only the scraps for the municipality.

But, as deficits grow, bills go unpaid.

A recent example is the case of the City of East Cleveland, Ohio, one of the poorest cities in that state. A defunct traffic camera company out of Rhode Island, Nestor Traffic Systems, successfully sued the city for $638,000 in past-due bills — that’s 75 percent of the city’s annual property tax revenues. They’re going down.

The proposed legislation in Michigan has plenty of legal protections built-in for private vendors, and precious few for citizens.

Example — after an ordinance is enacted, residents would have only 30 days in which to conduct a formal petition drive to reject the measure. That’s clearly not enough time to educate a community, let alone take the temperature of the electorate on the issue. From the proposed bill:

SB-1063 Excerpt

Plus, the definition of a “school property” in SB-1063 leaves open the possibility for the contract to include sites that would not normally be considered as such, like private trade schools, karate dojos, and beauty schools, — as was the case in Washington, DC, where the administrative office of the Fashion Institute of Design was turned into an automated speed trap to make money for a corporate contractor.

Other perks for the private vendor in the Michigan proposal include:

The bill exempts speed camera vendors from the requirements of a private investigator, a move designed to head off legal challenges. The bill declares the records submitted by the speed camera vendor as automatically authenticated as prima facie evidence of the guilt of the vehicle owner, preventing any challenge to the foundation of the evidence. The law requires cities to destroy all evidence after 90 days, making it impossible to conduct an after-the-fact audit of accuracy, such as the one inBaltimore, Maryland that found 36 percent of the tickets issued were “questionable.”

This legislation sounds like an invitation for trouble. Let’s hope Sen. Smith sends it packing just as Rep. Schmidt did his red light bill.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Battleground Michigan: The War on Women

As the global war on women rages-on under the guise of religion, there are some hopeful signs here in Michigan, and across the nation.

Despite the unending state-by-state GOP attacks on reproductive rights, the affordability and availability of contraception is on the rise under the Affordable Care Act. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute published in the Contraception Journal found that national out-of-pocket expenses for all forms of prescription birth control have plummeted.

For those using the pill, the number paying no out-of-pocket expenses went from 15 percent to 67 percent, and those that still have a co-pay typically spend about $6.50 for their prescription. Other forms of contraception saw similar reductions in cost.

Guttmacher Chart

Yet, Michigan remains a battleground in the GOP war on women, and Democratic lawmakers are fighting back.

Readers may recall when Attorney General Bill Schuette filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Michigan, and 17 other states, in support of Conestoga Wood as part of a companion case in the Hobby Lobby decision. The court ruled that “closely-Gretchensheld” (family-run) corporations may exercise a religious exemption from the ACA requirement to provide abortion-inducing forms of birth control.

The “Gretchen Caucus” will have none of this, and they’re fighting back with legislation.

Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D-52) and Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-23) have introduced identical bills titled the “Reproductive Health Coverage Information Act” which would require potential employers to disclose up-front that they are taking a religious exemption:

HB-5797 excerpt

Rep. Driskell made the additional point that contraceptives aren’t always just about birth control, as they are frequently “prescribed to women for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with contraception but address serious medical issues.”

Driskell went on to explain: “Whether or not a company’s contraceptive coverage is comprehensive can be an important factor for a family to consider when making decisions about a job prospect…that way, the market can decide what kind of coverage employees value.”

Another market-based legislative remedy has been proposed to counter the so-called “rape insurance” law from earlier this year. The law requires women to purchase a special rider policy to cover abortion, even in the case of rape, incest, or to save the woman’s life. Stemming from a Right-to-life, church-backed, initiated law petition drive last year, it was enacted by GOP lawmakers as a by-pass to the ballot process. They knew it wouldn’t survive a popular vote.

Special abortion riders are not even offered by health insurers.

So, Rep. Pam Faris (D-48) and Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-18) have proposed matching bills to require insurance companies to offer optional abortion coverage:

HB-5858 excerpt

All four of these bills will predictably remain stalled in committee.

As an added insult, Michigan’s women may experience more GOP assaults on their reproductive rights in the upcoming lame duck session — all indications show it will be another GOP free-for-all.

Who knows what egregious things they have in store?

Republican women know.

By way of illustration, we offer the GOP propensity to put women out front to deliver each new dose of misogyny, as so well evidenced recently.

Snyder date adThe tone-deaf patriarchy of Republicans was brought into sharp focus last week when they promoted an on-line ad that was an out-right insult to the intelligence of Michigan’s young female voters. The now infamous “Say Yes to the Rick Snyder” campaign spot is not the first of its kind — the College Republican National Committee also produced an equally repugnant spot titled “The Candidate” styled after another inane reality TV show.

Both ads are making the rounds on Michigan campuses — but as a joke.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Read HB-5797 and SB-1044 on corporate disclosure of religious exemptions. Read HB-5858 and SB-1095 on requiring insurers to provide special rider policies.


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FIGHT BACK! Challenge 3rd-Party Issue Ads and Win!

Arm Yourself with the Citizen’s Guide on How to Fight Back Against False 3rd-Party Ads

prize fighterGov. Snyder is trying to fight an attack ad, although his sucker-punch probably won’t hit home. Yet, there are plenty of third-party ads attacking Michigan Democrats that can, and should, be taken off the air — and you have the power to do it! (See the 3-step guide below).

But first, today’s news brings word that the Snyder campaign is demanding television stations take down a Democratic Governors Association ad that claims his administration cut education spending by a billion dollars.

Third-party issue ads are subject to FCC rules requiring them to be substantially factual. Protocol is for the stations to contact the challenged ad’s sponsor to provide supporting evidence — to show their math.

In the case of education spending, even fact-checkers have had difficulties explaining the complexities of the issue. Earlier this year, the Citizens Research Council expertly tackled the problem, explaining that money flowing into the classroom is down under Snyder, but total spending, when pension funding is factored-in, appears to be up. However, in terms of real dollars, especially when adjusted to the Consumer Price Index — classroom education spending is down significantly under Governor Snyder.

MLive’s Jonathan Oosting recently summed it up this way:

A large chunk of state spending now is going to retirement costs and doesn’t necessarily make it into the classroom. The minimum per-pupil funding allowance is down since Snyder took office, and many schools have fewer students.

The DGA should be able to support the veracity of their ad — based on the numbers, but there is no guarantee that television executives will agree. They don’t like being put on the spot, and there’s lots of money at stake for the stations.

What Can You Do to Stop Ads Attacking Democratic Candidates? Plenty!

Time to revisit the easy, 3-step citizen’s guide Democracy Tree published earlier this year:

SAVE and SHARE — You’re going to want this information at your fingertips over the upcoming weeks.

Do you utterly despise the Americans for Prosperity Super PAC, loathe the Koch brothers, and long for the day that Citizens United is overturned? There’s finally something you can do about third-party issue ads that play fast and loose with the facts.

While candidate committees are in a special legal category, permitting them to pretty much get away with saying anything they want, — not so third-party issue ads (like those from Americans for Prosperity). They are bound by the same rules as all other advertisements — they must be truthful.

Ordinary citizens can, and should, do exactly what U. S. Representative Gary Peters recently did when he stopped the patently false claims made in an AFP third-party issue ad. Here’s how it was done:


scoldingAds in which the facts just don’t add-up, or cannot be verified, are prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission. They will exercise their authority by ordering stations to pull them from the air — but they cannot do so without your participation.

A legitimate complaint must be filed from a member of the viewing/listening public. A complaint is necessary before officials are prompted to investigate.

Anyone can do it — it doesn’t have to be a government official, or a person unfairly smeared in an ad.

The people at (a division of focused on citizen education and activism) make the cogent argument that when ads with factual errors are pulled in just a few market areas, it results in the same ad being pulled across the board.

A little bit of activism can go a long way.

As reported in the in the trade journal TV News Check column “Legal Memo”  they explain it thus:

The FCC has a long history of expecting stations, as part of their overall obligation to operate in the public interest, to avoid knowingly airing false claims in commercial advertising. That principle spills over to political ads, at least by noncandidates when a station has been made aware of the alleged falsity.

There can also be potential liability [for the station] for money damages, cease and desist orders, libel and slander, and the bother and expense of answering a complaint filed in court or at the FCC, by a candidate who claims to be the victim of false statements broadcast in noncandidate political ads.


Step One: Gather a few facts.

  • Identify the questionable ad with the name of sponsor (“paid for by…”) and a brief description — a YouTube hyperlink would help. Make sure it’s a third-party ad, and not a direct candidate ad. The fact-checker sites listed below will make that important distinction.
  • Determine what T.V. or radio station affiliates ran the questionable ad in your area.
  • Determine the time, and show during which the ad was aired — keep a pen and paper ready while watching T.V. or listening to the radio.
  • You must specify the questionable material or known lie(s). Although not required, it helps to cite a reliable fact-checking source in the media disputing the veracity of the ad. If sourcing a specific fact-check site, offer a hyperlink or a web address. Here are three reliable fact-checker sites: Michigan Truth SquadThe Washington Post Fact Checker; and

Step Two: File an online FCC complaint.

  • Go to the FCC complaint page found at
  • Check the “Broadcast (TV and radio), Cable and Satellite Issues” option.
  • Next, check the “Deceptive or unlawful advertising or marketing by a communications company”.
  • Next, indicate you wish to file online.
  • Then proceed to Form 2000A, where you will supply some basic contact information before describing your complaint, which is limited to 1000 characters..
  • If you are citing a TV or radio ad, complete the second section of the form. Located at the bottom of the page is a spot to attach files if you wish.

Step Three: File a separate complaint with the TV or radio station(s). While not required by the FCC, this is an important way to put them on notice and move the investigation along. provides a user-friendly site with links to email for all the stations in the United States. When you describe your complaint, be sure to mention that it has also been lodged with the FCC.

That’s it. You’ve performed an important service in the name of democracy. Good work!


Amy Kerr Hardin

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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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