Snyder Loses Style Points With Michigan Media

Journalists, whether perceived as leaning to the right or left, share some common expectations of state and local leaders: they demand transparency, and adherence to the democratic process. Lawmakers have already earned the ire of editorial boards across Michigan over their repeated efforts to block voters from participating in citizen-driven ballot questions.

Now, it’s Gov. Snyder who’s drawing their scorn over transparency — a development that bodes poorly if he expects to gain endorsements in his bid for re-election, especially as he continues to slip in the polls.

The Grand Haven Tribune recently expressed skepticism over Snyder’s executive action moving oversight of the $145 million Aramark prison food contract to the governor’s office. The inept private food service company has demonstrated, in both Michigan and Ohio, that they are unable to live up to the conditions of their contract. They have been fined twice by both states for the same infractions: understaffing, food shortages, improper food substitutions, smuggling of contraband, unsanitary conditions, and hanky-panky with the inmates.

Gov. Snyder opted to turn a blind eye to many of these offenses, in fact, he referred to the numerous infractions as mere “hiccups” when asked about them on a recent visit to Marquette. Additionally, he expressed concern that these incidents were possibly manufactured by inspectors who were sympathetic to the 370 union members that lost their jobs due to the contract. In a remedy designed to avoid a massive public policy failure so close to an election, he transferred oversight to his office where they are subject to the shroud of executive privilege. From the Grand Haven Tribune editorial:

So, now that the duties of monitoring the Aramark contract have been shifted to the governor’s office, what will be done differently? Will it stop this unacceptable behavior and service? Union officials are skeptical and believe the governor seeks to shield the contract from public scrutiny because his office is exempt from the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

As taxpayers who pay for the contract with Aramark, we have the right to know how that contract is being serviced, and that only those services within the contract are being rendered. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case.

Ohio has developed a process of accountability that remains open. The Toledo Blade editorial board offers praise of the system, while still calling for termination of the contract:

To its credit, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) has put in place a rigorous monitoring system. Still, ending the state’s two-year, $110 million contract with Aramark would best serve Ohio’s $1.5 billion prison system. If not, the General Assembly must directly oversee the state’s contract with Aramark, ordering regular reports from DRC and holding public hearings.

Another related concern was expressed by John Lindstrom, publisher of Gongwer News Service. In his blog, he challenged the notion that government should be run like a business — a core principle of the Snyder administration. Lindstrom cited some of the recent scandals that are, in part, due to that ethos:

In recent weeks, Mr. Snyder has been battered by two scandals involving top officials. First, there was the matter of Scott Woosley, former head of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, who racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses. Then there was Rich Baird, one of Mr. Snyder’s closest advisors, who was getting primary homeowner tax breaks on a house here and another in the Chicago suburbs. Mr. Woosley has resigned his post, and Mr. Baird has paid the taxes he owes here.

He cautioned:

Government does things more slowly, there are more rules and regulations to follow largely because all parties and all sides want to be sure that taxpayer dollars are protected, theoretically anyway, that all points of view are considered and that the decisions are in the best interest of the greater public. 

The Aramark contract oversight has fallen victim to that same business mindset — potentially blocking citizens (and journalists) from access to the particulars –hiding them behind boardroom doors.

Lest we forget, Snyder’s 2010 campaign promise:

Snyder 2010 platform

The Michigan Dashboard has also lost that new car smell, with few recent statistics for public review, and some of them as old as 2010-11. Snyder certainly isn’t earning style points among media watchdogs when it comes to transparency and public accountability.

The governor has demonstrated that, when the rubber hits the road, he is unsuited for public sector service.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Michigan Democracy on the Endangered Species List

Don’t care about wolf hunting? Think again.

Democracy Denied.

The GOP-led Michigan House voted today to deny voters their democratic right to have a say on yet another ballot proposal. In a predictably partisan vote of 65 to 43, they waved through into law, a petition drive from a select group of pro-hunting advocates to codify wolf hunting in the state. Lawmakers did this for two reasons: to appease some far right elements, knowing that a popular vote would likely have protected wolves, and also to suppress democratic voter turn-out in November — when they all face re-election.

The initiative becomes the law of the land without the governor’s signature, as prescribed by the constitution.

Outrage Over the End-run on Democracy.

Kristi Lloyd, democratic process activist and proponent of protecting wolves, had this to say:

It is beyond comprehension that the Michigan legislature, once again, took action to preclude the voters from participating in the democratic process. The lies and misinformation, exaggerations that were given as reasons to hunt wolves and circumvent 400,000+ registered MI signed petitions circulated by Keep Michigan Wolves Protected had a reasonable expectation to have their constitutional right honored. But as seen with other issues in MI they catered to a very small, but well-financed group that pushed for a wolf hunt. I would like to have been surprised today, but I am not disappointed either. I had very low expectations for this GOP-dominated legislature.

A Possible Loophole?

The petition language had an appropriation attached, which renders the law referendum proof. However, that may prove to be the constitutional undoing of the law. There’s something called the “single object clause” which governs the content of laws in Michigan. Article IV, Section 24 of the constitution states the following:single object clauseA constitutional challenge to the new wolf hunt law could be based on the fact that the enacted law threw-in a couple of enticements, including an un-necessary $1 million bonus package to fight asian carp, plus a clause to allow active duty military personnel to get free hunting and fishing licenses. The purpose of the appropriation, and the sympathetic gimme, was to insulate the law from referendum and to lure petition signers who may have been interested in combating the invasive species or do a kindness for service members, but didn’t give a flip about wolves.

Michigan lawmakers are among the worst in the nation when it comes to derailing citizen-driven initiatives. Earlier today, the Diane Rehm show focused on the subject of ballot initiatives. The show cited Michigan and Missouri legislatures to be the rising stars of the most corrupt in thwarting citizen-driven causes, and shuttling-through corporate and politically motivated measures.

Editorial Boards Flex Some Muscle

Let’s have another look at the growing list of scathing editorials Michigan lawmakers have earned, as we await the list to grow exponentially by this coming Sunday:

The Chicago Tribune

Traverse City Record-Eagle

Livingston Daily

Petoskey News

Port Huron Times Herald


Tim Skubick


Lansing State Journal

Battle Creek Enquirer

Jack Lessenberry

Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe

Detroit Free Press

These editors and pundits will remember, as endorsement season looms.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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MICHIGAN: Democracy at Stake — This Wednesday

Rep. TownsendRep. Jeff Irwin (D-53) weighs-in through his Facebook page on the upcoming House vote this Wednesday, August 27th, over the various wolf hunt ballot initiatives:

On Wednesday, the Michigan House is scheduled to vote on a citizen initiative, supported by a petition drive, to authorize the Dept of Natural Resources to set hunting rules for wolves. This initiative is an attempt to nullify the efforts of another citizen petition drive to prevent the hunting of wolves as authorized by legislative action last year. If this new measure passes the House, as it has already passed in the Senate, citizens will face ballot questions on wolf hunting, but those questions will be meaningless. If the legislature takes no action, that allows the pro-wolf hunting initiative to come before voters alongside the anti-wolf hunting proposal.

Advocates of the proposal argue that DNR has a strong record of success with scientific management of fish and wildlife habitat and that the decision whether and when to hunt wolves should be decided by the Natural Resources Commission (the governing body of the DNR). Also, supporters argue that wolves are wreaking havoc in the Upper Peninsula, damaging property and threatening schoolchildren. This may seem alarmist, but these were the arguments made on the floor of the House and Senate in support of a similar measure, passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, that authorized a wolf hunt and set off this series of citizen initiatives.

Opponents of the most recent proposal argue that, with the wolf only recently coming off the Endangered Species List, the population of wolves in Michigan is insufficient to support hunting. They argue that scientific management of wolves would dictate that Michigan packs are not ready for a hunting season and that the NRC only approved the last hunt because of political pressure from certain lawmakers and the Governor. The only scientist on the NRC, a biologist, was the lone dissenting vote against scheduling the 2013 wolf hunt. Further, opponents of the measure argue that the claims of wolf/human conflict are exaggerated. They point out that a huge percentage of the livestock killed in the UP were the result of one farmer who has a history of farm management violations (such as not cleaning up carcasses on his land). Even further, they point out that one Senator had to apologize for exaggerating stories of wolf/human conflict when debating on the Senate floor.

I think you see where I’m at on this issue. I’m no opponent of hunting, far from it. I see the value of scientific management of fish and wildlife. In most instances, the DNR has been a trusted steward. I also know that almost all of the conservation resources in Michigan have come from hunters and anglers and that our best environmental policies come from an era when environmentalists and conservationists were in strong alliance. Nonetheless, in the present instance the NRC has buckled to political pressure and reacted to exaggerated stories and now we have multiple petitions, signed by hundreds of thousands of citizens asking to vote on the matter.

I think we should let voters decide.

His opinion is a reflection of the party platform — supporting the democratic process in Michigan through citizen-driven ballot initiatives and referendums. Irwin is not alone in that view. A growing number of editorial boards are slamming GOP lawmakers for their increasingly bold usurpation of voters rights.

These are the same editors, commentators and community leaders that will be calling the endorsement shots prior to the general election this November. A sampling:

The Chicago Tribune

Traverse City Record-Eagle

Livingston Daily

Petoskey News

Port Huron Times Herald


Tim Skubick


Lansing State Journal

Battle Creek Enquirer

Jack Lessenberry

Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe

Detroit Free Press

Kristi w: Schauer

Listen here to our recent Michigan Policast interview on the issue with wolf activist and proponent of the democratic process, Kristi Lloyd, from Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Schauer v. Snyder on Education Dollars — Time for Some Fact Checking

The Michigan Truth Squad’s ruling on Mark Schauer’s first TV ad needs a little work, at least where it comes to a meaningful accounting of education spending. It certainly is a complex issue, but it is not impervious to explanation.

They call-out Schauer with a “warning” over his assertions about economic growth and jobs, saying that since there has been some improvement under Snyder, admittedly anemic (unemployment inched-up last month), it may be disingenuous to only mention where Michigan stands check markcompared to other states without also recognizing some progress. Okay, that makes sense on the surface, but, seriously, it’s a campaign folks — candidates give no quarter.

But, it is the Truth Squad’s ambiguity about education spending that is most in need of remedy. Through omission, the implicit message is that the question as to whether education spending is up or down under Snyder is an unknown — due to the controversy over the metrics used to measure actual funding levels.

Cleverly leveraged misdirection through semantics is exactly the ploy the Snyder camp hoped would work with the media, and thereby, on voters this November. Few journalists have attempted to tackle this thorny issue. (Ugh, math!) This is why the Truth Squad must be clearer with their explanation. They needn’t even render an opinion, but a fully fleshed-out primer on the subject would be welcome from a trusted source, especially in an election year.

Schauer’s ad says “(I’ll) reverse Gov. Snyder’s education cuts”, prompting the squad to render this thought:

In his first year in office, Snyder approved a budget that resulted in school funding$930 million lower than the previous year. But about $500 million of that cut was from the loss of federal funding, a loss that was not made up for by the state. Snyder and the Republican-dominated state Legislature increased school funding in subsequent years.

Schauer’s claim is a continuation of a fight between Snyder and Democrats over whether school funding is up or down, with both sides able to point to data to back up their view.

Both sides are right then?

Let’s unpack the data, starting with the language. If we are to presume to be precise, when we say “education” what does that mean, both in technical terms, and in common expectations?

The Merriam-Webster definition of “education” is pretty straight forward:

education definition

The common understanding of the word simply does not stray from that primary meaning.

“Education spending”, by definition, is understood as money dedicated to “the action or process of teaching” — meaning dollars flowing into classrooms is the popularly accepted definition of the phrase.

Schauer was referring to real money in the classroom, while Snyder was adding-up the sum total of all educational related expenses — which aren’t as cut and dried as one might think.

For a deeper look at the numbers, let’s revisit an explanation Democracy Tree published a few months ago on the two opposing opinions, based on an extensive study conducted by the Citizens Research Council.

Excerpted from the Democracy Tree post on the subject, February 2014:

Gov. Snyder claims education spending is up, and his Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer, avows just the opposite, leaving much of the state at the mercy of their political allegiances to decide who is right.

The intrepid fact-checkers at Michigan Truth Squad from Bridge Magazine accurately called it — saying both gubernatorial candidates were technically correct due to a “gray area on the subject”. Their brief clarification explained that each camp was merely citing different measures: total K-12 appropriations versus real classroom dollars. For additional details, they provided a link to a more knotty two-page explanation by the former director of the Michigan House Fiscal Agency.

How about a more decipherable explanation?

Enter the policy wonks and budget geeks at the Citizens Research Council — a non-partisan organization that untangles the big mess and lays-out the numbers neatly in an easy to digest format. That’s what they do.

First up, the apparent argument from the Schauer camp:

Below is a bar graph that illustrates the funding numbers Democratic contender Schauer is citing. (As a matter of practicality, the chart uses the most common per pupil funding level in the state — the lowest. Also, note the final two years are based on executive budget proposals.)

The graph takes into account Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System (MPSERS) costs, for both the state and the school district. A 2012 law capped school districts’ allowable MPSERS portion of payroll to 20.96 percent, making the state liable for the growing difference.

The full bar represents total Michigan K-12 per pupil funding — divided by source. Broken down: The ecru-colored portion shows real dollars from the state going directly to the classroom, and the light blue part is the school district’s MPSERS obligation — those two add-up to the state’s per pupil foundation grant allowance to the district from the State School Aid Fund (SAF). The shaded dark blue portion at the top is the growing state portion of legally required MPSERS funds.

But, the important number here is tracked by the red line — this measures the actual classroom funding adjusted to the Consumer Price Index — dollars after inflation.

In the real world, candidate Shauer is correct.

CRC - Effect of MPSERS on foundation grant

Snyder’s view is probably something more like this:

The governor’s economics employ a broader view of overall spending, including federal dollars, not differentiating between various end-uses of the appropriations — without, for example, breaking-down what money actually flowed into the classroom or was directed towards MPSERS, or other K-12 education policy initiatives.

The graph below demonstrates total K-12 appropriations and divides them on a per pupil basis, even though not all went to students. It includes monies from the SAF, state MPSERS contributions, minor supplements from the state general fund, federal contributions, and in 2009-11, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) funds. Once again, the red line is adjusted for inflation.

As you can see, this graph shows spending is up, even though, as shown in the previous graphic, actual money flowing into classrooms is down, adjusted for inflation.

CRC - total state per pupil funding incl MPSERS and various other funding

What about higher education in the state? How’s their funding doing under Snyder?

When the governor took office, one of his first executive moves was to shift money from the SAF to universities, then reduce their funding to help off-set his business tax cuts. (Law prevented him from moving the money directly out of the SAF for that purpose, so he took a more circuitous route through higher ed.)

The chart below shows how university funding was cut by the governor and supplemented with SAF monies (in green). Michigan’s institutions of higher education have taken a double whammy under Snyder budgets. First, in real dollars they are receiving less, and adjusted for inflation (red line) their bottom line is down considerably. (Again, the last two years on the chart are projected based on the governor’s proposed budget. This is an election year so budget proposals are politically skewed.)

CRC=-University Funding

End of excerpt.

The Truth Squad might wish to consider taking a moment to closely review the two views, side-by-side, then devote the necessary column inches to helping their readers understand. While an impartial explanation would be a start, Democracy Tree believes it would be a disservice to make this another climate change-type issue — wherein both sides are falsely presumed valid because one can create a veneer of credibility, in the face of reality. The squad must dig deep for the answer.

We trust the fact checkers to get it right.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Sign of Our Times: SCOTUS to Rule on Political Signs

It appears Michigan’s municipalities are headed for a rewrite of their political sign ordinances, or court — if the American Civil Liberties Union has their way, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court will predictably rule in an upcoming case that such signage is a protected First Amendment right, and not subject to special limitations.

Among the approximately 1800 cities, villages and townships in Michigan, many have sign ordinances with pretty much identical boiler plate language intended to place specific limits on political signs — particularly as to the temporary nature of their display. The reasoning has nothing to do with politics — it’s all about aesthetics and blight control.

The Detroit Free Press reports that Macomb Township recently retracted their restrictive ordinance under threat of possible litigation after receiving a letter from the ACLU. The township had been confining display of political signage to 30 days prior to an election, and seven after.

Ordinances singling-out and regulating political signs rarely survive a legal challenge, yet the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a municipality’s ordinance limiting another form of speech. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, involves a church in Arizona which is under special restrictions regarding its temporary signage to advertise their services. Like many towns across the country, Gilbert has rules unique to political signs, and to non-profit signs, including churches, among others.

Although the high court may have taken this case in part because it involves religious speech, its greater impact will be on political speech.

By way of example…

Here’s an ordinary group of political signs found on August 16th, eleven days after Michigan’s primary election.

political signs

They are placed just a few feet over a township line, and were standing in a municipality that prohibits political signs seven days after an election, but allows them up to four months prior — in this case the general election in November. From the East Bay Charter Township Sign Ordinance:

East Bay Twp political sign ordianance

Had they been placed across the road, in Acme Township, they would have been illegal:

Acme Twp political sign ordiance

And these rules are by no means unique. Here’s a random sampling of a few ordinances, from Plainfield Charter Township, Saginaw Township, and Oakland Township:

Plainfield Twp political sign ordianance

Saginaw Twp political sign ordianance

Oakland Twp political sign ordinance

A search of most any local unit of government will turn-up similar language, with rare exception. Sometimes the exception is even more restrictive, as in the case of Lyon Township, where a permit is required to post political signs. They generously waive the filing fee though:

Lyon Twp permit

Looks like that will soon be one fewer form to fill out, as local officials scramble to repeal these restrictive ordinances in short order.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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MICHIGAN: Women and Wolves Denied Democracy

The wolves and women of Michigan can now claim something in common — democracy denied. And GOP Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville thinks it’s cause for humor.

Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers denied voters the right to decide whether insurance should cover legal abortions, forcing women to purchase a special rider policy for the procedure — a form of insurance that is not even available. They enacted the veto-proof law after Michigan Right to Life successfully completed a petition drive to put the question on the ballot. Knowing the measure did not enjoy popular support, lawmakers bypassed democracy and forced their archaic views on the public, compromising the health of Michigan’s women.

Yesterday, the Senate voted to do the same with the wolf hunt initiative, approving it in the face of certain voter disapproval. The measure now heads to the House, where it is expected to get the same treatment. Even those that may support the hunt should be outraged that they will be denied their democratic right to vote on this contentious issue. Voters sign petitions with the expectation that a popular vote will take place. The provision allowing lawmakers to bypass that process was intended for use when a measure already enjoys broad popular approval. This one, just like the abortion insurance initiative, does not have that kind of support.

Snubbing the democratic process will be the legacy of this legislature.

When voters repealed the emergency manager law in 2012, GOP lawmakers already had a nearly identical version of the law written and ready to go, with an appropriation attached to make it referendum-proof. They passed the doppelgänger version within weeks of the repeal, in spite of the fact that doing so is unconstitutional under the provisions of the referendum process.

They similarly made an end-run around a successful citizen-driven effort to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The initiative was to amend an existing statute, but GOP lawmakers rendered their efforts moot by repealing that law, and replacing it with a take-it-or-leave-it “compromise” bill which offered a lower increase, thereby ensuring it will never keep pace with the cost of living.

It’s a pattern of pure arrogance, illustrated at its ugliest through the “joke” passed along to the press corps in the Senate yesterday. As they were condemning Michigan’s wolves to an expanded hunting season that is most certainly not grounded in science, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville took a moment to strut his hubris. MLive reporter, Jonathan Oosting, posted this in the comments section of his article on the topic:

Richardville howling quote

Richardville is right in one way, editorial boards and voters across the state will be howling about their lack of statesmanship as we run-up to this November’s general election.

The Chicago Tribune

The on wolf hunt.

Tim Skubick on wolf hunt law.

MLive editorial on wolf hunt law.

Lansing State Journal on wolf hunt.

Battle Creek Enquirer on wolf hunt.

Jack Lessenberry on wolf hunt.

Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe on wolf hunt.

Traverse City Record-Eagle on wolf hunt.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin



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The Embarrassing Story Behind Michigan’s Aramark Contract

How two professors produced a study favorable to privatization — paid for by a private prison vendor, and one Michigan lawmaker convinced the state to sign a disastrous contract.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, call me Rick Snyder…

Yep, Governor “Relentless Positive Action” has chosen to take no meaningful action in the face of what’s becoming one of the worst policy decisions under his watch — the privatization of Michigan’s prison food system through the scandal-plagued vendor, Aramark.

Instead of dumping the dangerously incompetent company, Snyder opted to deliver yet another flaccid slap on the wrist (the second one this year) with a $200,000 fine, and a tsk-tsk in the media. Claiming the maggots and food poisoning were not the fault of Aramark, because they surely ordered the underpriced food-stuffs with no inkling that the quality might be compromised — the governor swept all other offenses under the rug. After all, in an election year, one mustn’t admit failure.

Shooting the messenger, he further agreed to replace the current state monitors whom he believes are biased against the food vendor because they are sympathetic with the 370 union workers who lost their jobs due to privatization.

Love is in the Air

Little was said of the other breaches of contract, including food shortages, understaffing, unacceptable food substitutions, smuggled contraband, and of course the Aramark crème de la crème — quickie humpity-bumps in the kitchen with inmates.

The cook

Aramark has a rap sheet a mile long, so how did Michigan policymakers fall for this privatization scheme gone wrong?

One Tea Party Lawmaker

It all started with one Tea Party lawmaker who found himself in a place of authority way above his paygrade, coupled with a widely shared “study” funded by a private prison vendor, now under investigation.

When former television weatherman and current state legislator Rep. Greg MacMaster (R-105) was recently stomped in his primary bid for the 37th state senate seat, Michigan should have collectively heaved a great sigh of relief, but his defeat came too late for the state’s Department of Corrections.

In his brief stint as a lawmaker, acting as chair of the House Department of Corrections subcommittee, MacMaster conceived of, and spear-headed the disastrous Aramark prison food contract — a policy boondoggle that conceivably could end-up costing Michigan more than the promised savings. He originally sold the idea as a means to squeeze-out dollars for roads funding.

Seventeen months ago, MacMaster suggested to the Appropriations Committee that finding money for Michigan’s crumbling roads was as simple as privatizing prison food services. By his estimate, more than $100 million could be found through outsourcing to the lowest bidder.

In fact, last year he and his fellow lawmakers were so set on the idea of private bidding that they introduced a bill to prohibit the public sector from competing for bids wherever there was a private sector entity that could perform the task — a legislative initiative that is thankfully doomed to die a quiet death in committee.

Another piece of legislative genius sponsored by the lawmaker, at about the same time, was to revise the request for proposal (RFP) process for privatizing state services, with the intent to completely privatize some prisons. It had a provision allowing private bidders to have access to the state’s actual costs for a service prior to the bidding process. MacMaster trumpeted his bill, voicing a concern for the private sector, and their ability to be a viable competitor:

“Some of the latest RFP’s that have been put out have given a clear indication they have no intent on anybody winning the bid because if any business did they could go bankrupt and that’s not fair to the people of Michigan and those that are paying their money to the state of Michigan in taxes, I want to make sure that the RFP process is fair and it is not fair.”

Fortunately, for the sake of Michigan taxpayers, his bill got a necessary re-write in the House Oversight Committee where they struck-down the stipulation for divulging actual costs. (Conservatives often tout private sector principles as something the public sector should aspire to — by that logic, any business that revealed its cost structure to vendors would be, well, stupid). With the revision, it subsequently passed in the House, and is currently stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In the meantime, by late Spring of 2013, the RFPs received at the Department of Corrections to privatize prison food services statewide all failed to meet the mandatory 5 percent savings required by the state. MacMaster demanded a second look at the bids, employing a new set of metrics that favored private vendors.

Not to be deterred, Aramark lobbyists lavished lawmakers and state officials with more than $600,000 over the years leading up to the privatization. Aramark proudly proclaimed in their 2014 second quarter report the success of their North American prison food and support services as “particularly notable as new business wins”.

Academia to the Rescue

The whole endeavor to privatize prison food service was buoyed through the sketchy research of two Temple University professors who kept themselves busy writing op-eds across the country espousing the savings to be had under privatization.

A June 7, 2013 op-ed, titled Data Shows Running Prisons for Profit is a Win-winpenned by these purportedly impartial experts was printed in the Detroit Free Press. They promoted the concept of “managed competition” through the bidding process as a panacea for budgetary woes:

In addition to the savings generated by the private facilities themselves, we also found that competition yields better performance for both private and public facilities. As more contractors compete, both groups work to provide lower cost and higher quality service.

Furthermore, the adoption of “managed competition” could foster even greater efficiency in managing state prisons. In this model, public workers and private contractors engage in a competitive process to provide public services. By doing so, both groups have an incentive to search for managerial and technological innovations and offer services at competitive pricing.

The professors went on to reassure that private vendors would provide the highest of quality in services and personnel:

Critics of contractor-operated prisons argue that they generate savings at the expense of quality. Our research, however, found no evidence of this. Private facilities generally met industry standards established by the independent American Correctional Association and, in several cases, private facilities offered more rehabilitation programming than their public counterparts. Michigan, a state that is a leader in reducing recidivism rates, knows well the importance of providing this type of quality programming.

Additionally, in terms of staff quality, we found that private correctional officers are generally paid comparable wages and receive substantially similar training to their public counterparts. Private contractors typically offer workers matching contributions up to 5% of their salaries for their 401(k) accounts, which is in line with other corporate entities.

So, who funded this study and its seemingly wizened advice?

The authors of the research, Temple University economists Simon Hakim and Erwin Blackstone, did not disclose their funding sources as they were submitting op-eds from coast-to-coast. In fact, they failed to include it in their research notes. Temple University is currently investigating the two for possible ethics violations. Cary Nelson, an expert on faculty conflict of interest issues, and the former president of the American Association of University Professors, observed the following:

“It’s quite disingenuous to say the funding source shouldn’t have gone on the working paper.”

The project was partially funded by Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country. When the truth came out after an investigation through the Philadelphia Inquirer, the professors turned to CCA for a statement of support. Spokesperson Steve Owen defended the research:

”It’s very telling that not one person has yet to say one thing critical about the validity of the research and the findings.” 

Not so fast. A researcher at the University of California-Berkley, Christopher Petrella, found their conclusions specious. The report showed suspiciously enormous savings under privatization, particularly for California.

Temple study findings

Those numbers didn’t sit well with Petrella, who told

“Over the past year or so, many organizations have rightly underscored the conflict of interest inherent in the industry paying for a study that it then cites. But I wanted to take a closer look at the study’s actual content — what are its starting assumptions? What methodology did they use? And what I found was striking. If you actually dig into this study, you find that it fails to account for dramatic demographic differences between the adult population housed in public prisons and CCA’s privately operated facilities.”

Petrella discovered that the Temple professors failed to note that a California CCA contract cited in their research had a clause that excluded prisoners with illnesses, mental health issues and behavioral problems. Petrella found the cost of housing healthy, young prisoners is one-tenth that of caring for a sicker, older population. Petrella:

“It’s an exercise that inoculates the company from having to house these high-cost prisoners, which artificially deflates the cost [per prisoner] in CCA’s private prisons, and inflates the costs of those that remain in the public system, which can’t cherry-pick which prisoners it houses.”

In a similar scam, when Aramark sought the Michigan contract, they low-balled their bid, counting on an increasing number of no-shows in the food line due to the poorer food quality. At the time, Nick Ciarmitaro of Detroit’s AFSCME Council 25 said the following of the new metrics used to award the contract to Aramark:

“We’re now allowing an outside vendor to come in and pretend that they’re saving money because not every prisoner eats every meal. They cook the books to show a one-time savings.”

Detroit Free Press article supported Ciaramitaro’s claim:

A 2007 report by the Florida Department of Corrections Bureau of Internal Audit found that a large number of prisoners stopped showing up for meals after Aramark took over the contract, “creating a windfall for the vendor and reducing the value of the services provided without a proportionate decrease in … rates charged to the department.

The Michigan Office of the Auditor General must conduct a thorough audit of the Aramark contract, employing sound accounting practices that were absent in the RFP process. Unfortunately, the only Department of Corrections audits currently in progress are for prisoner education programs and for prisoner healthcare.

And, let’s send MacMaster back to reporting the weather, where he has a better chance of getting it right.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Another Michigan School District to Face Emergency Management?

DSCF0951As we await election results after performing our civic duty at the polls today (which Democracy Tree is sure all of its readers have done), now is a good time to contemplate those beleaguered communities across Michigan that have lost their democratic right to home rule under emergency management, along with the increasing number of municipalities and school districts teetering on the edge of fiscal crisis.

Last week we learned that Benton Harbor Area Schools have fallen under the specter Public Act 436 — the emergency manager law. This, on the heels of the city recently escaping the harsh realities of the same law. As elected officials transition back to home rule — now they’ve come for the community’s schools.

The district has been struggling financially for quite some time, having filed two Deficit Eliminations Plans — the first one being rejected by the Michigan Department of Education for containing “assumptions that were not acceptable”. A subsequent plan, which projected deficit elimination to stretch to 2027-28, was submitted last February to the MDE for their consideration.

Much like hurricanes, the MDE uses a category system to rate the level of fiscal stress of school districts. As of earlier this year, Benton Harbor had been rated Category 2 — as a district that began FY2014 in deficit, but was projected to end the year with a reduced deficit. In 2011, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan had been ready to pull the trigger on emergency management under Public Act 4, but upon learning the district had taken some serious actions indicating they were prepared to tackle the problem, he gave them a reprieve. School leaders did the following:

• Closed two buildings at semester end in January 2012,

• Closed the District’s 5-6 grade center at year end,

• Approved the layoff of 13 teachers, an administrator, and several support staff,

• Hired Plante Moran to manage the District’s financial services,

• Approved the Berrien County Land Bank to demolish six vacant District buildings and sell others,

• Worked closely with the City of Benton Harbor emergency manager and major corporations to help facilitate the deficit elimination, and

• Teacher acceptance of a 10% reduction in pay for the second semester and increased copays.

That apparently wasn’t enough to avoid triggering PA 436. The school district’s revenue to deficit ratio is a disturbing negative 46 percent, rivaled only by Pontiac Schools who are at negative 60 percent. With a deficit of $14.7 million, the tiny district, which receives the lowest allowable per pupil funding for its 2,680 students, is sinking fast. Although they were on schedule with the state’s Category 2 prediction of ending the school year with a lower deficit than it began, the review team’s report still flagged them as in financial crisis.

The law gives district leaders ten days to opt between emergency management, a consent agreement, neutral arbitration, or bankruptcy.

At this time, the district is not subject to the possibility of state-mandated dissolution under Public Act 96 — but that could change, and quickly. Benton Harbor schools have seen a 46 percent reduction in enrollment over the past decade, but they are still above the maximum of 2,500 students to trigger the dissolution law. However, emergency management, in-and-of-itself, is an enrollment killer.

The law may be invoked if all of these four criteria are met:

  1. Failure to submit a deficit elimination plan or failure to win state approval of their plan.
  2. The district is determined as not fiscally viable.
  3. Student population is under 2500.
  4. The district incurred a 10 percent, or greater, decline in enrollment in the previous school year.

Benton Harbor has already met the first two qualifications, and the last two are a very likely outcome.

Democracy Tree reported earlier this year on the failings of the dissolution plan — findings that were echoed in a report from the Citizens Research Council which found the law deeply flawed, and worried over possible future applications. The CRC painted PA 96 as a poorly thought-out fiscal boondoggle in which the cure is worse than the disease. They asserted that emergency management was even preferable to dissolution.

State government, through its adoption of the new policy, is signaling that some financial problems cannot be solved without the aid of additional funds. If this is the case, then it might be appropriate to provide these resources sooner, through an emergency manager process, rather than as a last resort.

Democracy Tree posits that the state shouldn’t even wait until emergency management is invoked — they should fund schools properly in the first place. And, it appears there’s only one way to accomplish that goal — by voting for leaders who support our schools.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Something’s Rotten in Aramark

PrisonWhile the Michigan Department of Corrections and Gov. Snyder weigh their options in deciding the fate of the controversial three-year, $145 million Aramark prison food service contract in the wake of a string of contractual breaches and findings of employee misconduct, leaders now have even more to consider.

Just yesterday, Ohio prison officials, who have been experiencing similar problems with the private food vendor, slapped the company with a second fine for non-compliance with their $110 million contract signed at about the same time as Michigan’s. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections sent a letter to Aramark levying a $130,200 fine citing maggots, staffing shortages, improper food substitutions, transport of contraband, and sanitation problems at five prisons in the state since the company received their first warning last April when they were fined $142,000.

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

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

Ninety-six employees have been banned in Ohio. Michigan has given the boot to about eighty so far. Michigan also recently fined the vendor $98,000 for numerous problems — yet instead of improving, the service appears to be deteriorating. Weekly reports of employee misconduct and sanitation problems continue to plague the vendor.

Earlier this week, the Alger Correctional Facility had to pitch 4,000 pounds of potatoes after they were found to be infested with maggots.

Pressure is mounting as lawmakers and activists continue to urge the governor to dump the vendor before Michigan experiences a prison riot. The Correctional News reports that a decision will be within days.

Aramark has been attempting to deflect the criticism claiming it’s “an ongoing political and media circus about anti-privatization.”

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Aramark rap sheet.

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Michigan’s Baffling Ballot Question Explained

(Edited: July 31, 2014, 3:30 p.m. to include Ernst & Young graphic map)

A week from today, Michigan voters will head to the polls to perform their democratic duty by selecting party candidates for the November general election. They will additionally face a ballot question that requires, at the very least, the rosetta stone to decipher.

Proposal 14-1, the brain child of the Michigan legislature, reads like this:


prop 1 mailerBy golly, that sounds positively delightful — a “yes” vote will modernize the tax system and create new jobs! If you’re thinking that sure sounds like more trickle-down GOP-speak, you may be right.

There’s no organized opposition to the proposal, and Democratic State Senator Gretchen Whitmer recently wrote a Detroit News op-ed in support of the measure. She qualified her come-lately endorsement of prop 1 explaining that she initially had concerns, which have since been put to rest:

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the assurances I needed to answer those questions as the legislation was hurried through without the opportunity for any real debate, leading me to be one of only two senators to vote against it at the time.

Since then, however, the analyses done by local government officials and fiscal agencies have answered my questions and addressed my concerns. Now that I have those assurances, I’m confident Proposal 1 is right for Michigan.

Let’s take a closer look at what we are being asked to swallow — time to un-encrypt the murky language and parse its potential impact.

Although the proposal doesn’t spell it out, the measure is about eliminating personal property taxes on businesses — instead the ballot language just alludes to “modernizing” business taxes. Lawmakers are asking voters to approve the phase-in of a specific part of legislation they passed a couple of years ago as part of a package of bills, known as Public Act 80, designed to give tax breaks to Michigan’s businesses.

Why would this legislature, renowned for thumbing their nose at the electorate, opt to seek such approval? It’s required by Michigan’s Constitution. Article IX, Section 31, requires voter approval for certain types of changes to the tax code. Because PA-80 is composed of a series of pieces of legislation that are tie-barred to each other, if prop 14-1 goes down, so goes the entire package of tax relief measures for business.

Before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of the ballot measure, let’s first be clear that the primary beneficiaries of this are large corporate entities, not the mom and pop businesses the language implies. GOP lawmakers never grow tired of their rhetoric on tax cuts for “job creators” — although Michigan has yet to see evidence of a correlation between making the rich, richer and growing its economy. Yet, there’s plenty of hard data to refute the Republican mantra.

Owen Zidar, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, found the only kind of tax cuts that generate economic growth are quite different from what Republicans would have us believe:

The empirical relationship between tax cuts for the top 10% percent and job creation is negligible in magnitude, statistically insignificant, and much weaker than that of equivalently sized tax cuts for the bottom 90%.

Another Republican myth is that Michigan’s business taxes are among the worst in the nation. In fact, a 2012 state-by-state comparison compiled by Ernst & Young, in collaboration with the Council on State Taxation (COST), found that Michigan business taxes, as a percentage of state revenue, are the third lowest in the nation. The national average is 45.2 percent, and Michigan businesses pony-up a mere 35.8 percent.

E&Y tax map

Source: Ernst & Young report

Additionally, Michigan is notorious for cutting sweet multi-million dollar tax give-aways to attract and maintain business. In their report, Megadeals: The Largest Economic Development Subsidy Packages Ever Awarded by State and Local Governments in the United States, Good Jobs First found that Michigan had made fully 29 outrageously over-the-top corporate tax give-aways — making the state the national leader, with New York coming in second at 23. Michigan forfeited a whopping $7,101,236,000 (yes, billion) to mostly large fortune 500 type companies in return for little, if anything at all.  These bonuses were untethered to any real and measurable job growth — they were nothing more than a trickle-down wish and a prayer.

Understanding this ballot proposal requires knowledge of what the personal property tax is, and who pays it. The PPT is a tax on business equipment collected by local units of government as a substantial portion of their operating budget. Lawmakers want to repeal the PPT and replace it with a more reliable revenue stream for local governments from the 6 percent State Use Tax — not to be confused with Michigan’s sales tax. The state describes the use tax this way:

The use tax is a companion tax to the sales tax. Use tax of 6% must be paid on the total price (including shipping and handling charges) of all taxable items brought into Michigan or purchases by mail from out-of-state retailers. Credit is given for tax paid to another state. Use tax is also applied to certain services such as telecommunications and hotel/motel accommodations.

Use tax revenues are more than double those collected from the PPT. One-third of the use tax goes directly to the School Aid Fund, with the remainder sent to the state’s general fund. The plan is to re-allocate a portion of those general fund revenues back to local units of government, and possibly short-change other state budget priorities, say roads, as an example. Yes, it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The League of Women Voters provides a clear explanation of what the referendum intends to accomplish and what its fiscal impact is expected to be:


Another salient question is whether lawmakers can be trusted to fully fund local units of government under this tax reform. The possibility for monkey business remains — we need look no further than education funding in Michigan. GOP leaders insist that K-12 spending is up, but real dollars flowing into the classroom are down, especially after being adjusted for inflation.

Local units of government are struggling already and, in spite of the Michigan Township Association’s support of this ballot measure, a Nov. 2012 Michigan Public Policy Survey found that local leaders are wary of the plan:

MMP PPT survey

This proposal provides no constitutional cover for municipalities. With most of them already living on the edge, even a small drop in local government revenues would result in either a decrease in services or an increase in debt, or both — leading to the kind of fiscal death-spiral Michigan’s cities are known for.

Another anomaly about the referendum language is who wrote it. Lawmakers designed this camel, which goes a long way in explaining its cryptic nature. Typically, ballot language would be crafted by the office of the Secretary of State.

Craig Thiel, of the Citizens Research Council points out a potential impropriety with the language:

Article XII, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that questions pertaining to proposed constitutional amendments [even though this is not one] be described in not more than 100 words and “consist of a true and impartial statement of the purpose of the amendment.”  Further, Section 485 of the Michigan Election Law states, “The question shall be clearly written using words that have a common everyday meaning to the general public.  The language used shall not create prejudice for or against the issue or proposal.”

…[O]ne phrase in the language could be interpreted to advocate for passage of the proposal, “. . . modernizing the tax system to help small business grow and create jobs in Michigan.”  Further, some people have pointed out that this phrase is not entirely clear….  It is not clear the phrase comports with the “common everyday meaning” requirement of state law.

And to top it off, there is a gross error in the ballot question itself. The final point of the measure says a “yes” vote would “Prohibit total use tax rate from exceeding existing constitutional 6% limitation”. The state use tax is not locked by the constitution. Although the use tax does bear some constitutional caveats, it is ultimately governed by Public Act 94 of 1937, which allows lawmakers to raise the rate without bumping into constitutional limitations.

Voters will certainly find the ballot question baffling — and its fate will likely be decided along party lines due to the vague, yet loaded GOP language.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Read the comprehensive CRC analysis of Prop14-1.


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