Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Bill would require cleanup of future school sites

By JULIET WANG
Capital News Service

LANSING—A new Senate bill is aimed at keeping schools from being built on contaminated soil.
It would require the owner or operator of a school to conduct an environmental assessment of the property to determine whether a cleanup is required.

Or if the property had a large amount of hazardous substances, no school could be built.

Jeff Minore, chief of staff for Sen. Michael Switalski, D—Roseville, said the proposal was prompted by a front-page article in USA Today about air quality testing near schools.

Hugh McDiarmed Jr., communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), said, “This bill is one of many tools need to clean up and redevelop new sites. Some poor school districts may want to build a school on contaminated land, so we have to be careful of that.

MEC said polluters should be responsible and pay for any clean up.  “The polluted land won’t do anybody good, it won’t provide jobs or generate revenue. Sitting as vacant land. No good for anyone,” McDiarmed said.

Irvin Poke, director of Michigan’s Bureau of Construction Codes, said. “The bureau has only been regulating school construction since 2003. There is not any requirement to be notified and we don’t do environmental assessments.

“We review the plans for construction and no one is obligated to report to us. If we knew of contamination we would do future investigating, but there is no knowledge of school sites being contaminated,” he said.

Environmental consultation is not the bureau’s responsibility,” said Poke.

The bill is pending in the Senate Education Committee.

Filed under: Education

Chemical ban stays stalled in Senate

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News ServiceLANSING – Sara Talpos, an Ann Arbor mother who breastfed her children, is concerned about the presence of toxic chemicals in the breast milk of American mothers.

Talpos and several Michigan environmental groups say the Senate has unjustifiably delayed a bill to ban a chemical linked to brain damage among breast-fed children.

New research shows increasing concentrations of flame retardants in women’s breast milk in the Great Lakes basin.

One of those chemicals, deca-BDE, would be outlawed under the stalled measure. It’s used in consumer products such as electronics, furniture and baby’s toys.

Studies show the chemical can harm human health and is finding its way into soil, water and wildlife in Michigan.

“Children are particularly vulnerable,” said Tracey Easthope, the environmental health director of the Michigan Ecology Center and Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health in Ann Arbor.

Flame retardants can damage children’s brain system and retard their learning and memory abilities, Easthope said.

Talpos, an activist on the issue, nursed both of her children. She became aware of the problem of such chemicals after she had her first baby four years ago.

The state banned two other flame retardants in 2004.

Rep. Deb Kennedy, D-Brownstown, introduced the bill to phase out the manufacture, sale and distribution of deca-BDE in Michigan by the end of 2013. The bill passed the House by a 94-6 vote last January.

“It would be a true victory for children and the environment if we could get it through this year,” Kennedy said.

But the bill is stalled in the Senate and it is not likely to pass in 2010.

Matt Marsden, press secretary for Sen. Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, said the bill isn’t among the Senate’s top priorities.

“I don’t expect they would be taking this bill up at all until the budget is out,” Marsden said.

Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Network, said he doesn’t understand why senators are not willing to take a stand on the bill.

Schettler testified about the adverse effects of deca-BDE before the House’s Great Lakes and Environment Committee last December.

He said the chemical has been found in fish and sediments in the Great Lakes region, and levels have increased dramatically in the past three decades.

“It gets into people, pregnant women and babies,” Schettler said. “The Senate apparently doesn’t agree with that.”

The Ann Arbor-based environmental organization claims that the Senate is “under pressure from special interests to kill the bill.”

Some out-of-the-state deca-BDE producers “may have hired lobbyists in Lansing to put pressure on the Senate”, said Rebecca Meuninck, the organization’s environmental health campaign director.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started a deca-BDE phase-out initiative last year. The two U.S. producers of the chemical, Albemarle Corp. in Louisiana and Chemtura Corp. in Connecticut, and the largest U.S. importer, ICL Industrial Products, Inc. in Israel, committed to end all uses of deca-BDE by the end of 2013.

Kennedy said, “Michigan is trying to be a leader in phasing it out earlier.”

Talpos said she will now think twice before letting her children eat Great Lakes fish.

She said there’s no excuse not to pass the bill.

“As a parent I would like to think that I have the right to decide what goes into my children’s body,” she said. “I feel like that right hasn’t given to me right now.”

Filed under: Uncategorized

What’s behind bid to ban Bridge cards at casinos?

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite a unanimous vote in the Senate to prevent the use of Bridge cards at casino ATMs, welfare advocates worry that poor people in Michigan are being unfairly targeted for their lifestyle.

The bill, which now goes to the House, would require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to create a program for ATM providers to reconfigure their machines to reject Bridge cards at casinos.

However, ATM vendors would not be required to participate.

Eric Bush, executive director at the Michigan Gaming Commission, said that the three privately owned Detroit casinos, MotorCity, Greektown and MGM Grand, have cooperated with DHS in anticipation of the bill’s passage. All 42 ATMs accepting Bridge cards at those casinos have been identified for reprogramming.

The Bridge Card Program was started to replace food stamps with cards that resemble a debit card and help users avoid the public stigma of using food stamps, said Sharon Parks, president of the Michigan League for Human Services.

The league is a non-profit policy and advocacy group that works on issues involving low-income state residents.

The sponsor, Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood, said he heard a news report earlier this year about public assistance recipients withdrawing large amounts of money from California casino ATMs.

He acknowledged that recipients would still be about to withdraw cash at other ATMs and spend it in casinos, “but I think it’ll give pause to the compulsory gambler,” Hardiman said.

According to Hardiman, Bridge card users withdrew $87,000 from ATMs at Detroit’s Motor City Casino since Oct. 2009. Hardiman said that he has not heard of Bridge card use at any other Michigan casinos.

There are two kinds of uses for the Bridge Card: One is for food only.

The second is for cash assistance payments, intended to meet a family’s other basic needs and can be used at designated ATMs.

The program places no restrictions how the money is used.

Use of the card for legal gambling is “unfortunate, because it’s in relatively low numbers, and people who are being helped really need that help,” said Parks.

“Anything like this — the card being used at casinos or for alcohol and tobacco — gives the program a bad name,” Parks said.

Hardiman said public support for welfare programs drops when taxpayers perceive that their money is used in the wrong way.

Marian Kramer of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization in Detroit said Hardiman’s proposal is only one part of a bigger picture of poor people being unfairly singled out for scrutiny.

For example, a bill to ban lottery ticket vendors from accepting Bridge cards was introduced in December, but is still in a Senate committee. The lead sponsor is Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy.

In addition, the Auditor General’s office is reviewing complaints about Bridge card use at the request of Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and three other legislators, said Deputy Auditor General Scott Strong.

Kramer said that some politicians are trying to divert attention from the real issues of unemployment and poverty.

“It’s just another way of utilizing something irrelevant like this to blame the poor, when our lives have been gambled away by this government,” Kramer said.

Jerry Johnson, associate professor of social work at Grand Valley State University said that it’s a fairness issue – why the poor are placed under more scrutiny than people who don’t receive public assistance.

“Just because people are poor, undue rules are unfairly put on them that aren’t put on other people,” said Johnson. “My entire salary is paid for by taxpayer money but no one says anything about the way I use it.”

Filed under: Legislation

Burbot boom may be bust for lake trout

By JEFF GILLIES

LANSING — Burbot, fish native to the Great Lakes, are slimy, big-mouthed bottom feeders.

And they’re threatened in many parts of the world, according to Martin Stapanian, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Lake Erie Biological Station. That reality makes the story of the species’ Great Lakes collapse and recovery even sweeter.

But new research shows that the burbot revival could hamper a multi-million dollar effort to restore lake trout, another Great Lakes native.

In the 1950s, commercial fishing and the invasive sea lamprey wiped out Lake Michigan’s lake trout. Burbot populations dropped drastically, too, but the species hung on in small numbers. Biologists say that’s at least partly because burbot were never popular among for commercial fishers.

The small commercial burbot harvest doesn’t mean that few burbot were in the lake.

“There were a lot more burbot than that in the lake,” said Randy Eshenroder, a science adviser with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor.

The lack of commercial interest may have helped burbot survive tough times, but it’s also gotten the fish in trouble around the world.

“The overall lack of commercial and sport interest in burbot has undoubtedly contributed to its being ignored or regarded as a ‘trash’ fish by some management agencies,” according to a report that Stapanian co-authored.

Burbot populations were listed as “secure” in only four of 24 Eurasian countries surveyed in the report, and in 10 of the 25 U.S. states.

In the Great Lakes, management apathy toward burbot has played out much differently.

The lakes’ burbot couldn’t have rebounded without the massive sea lamprey control program coordinated by the commission, said Stapanian, who is based in Sandusky, Ohio. The drop in invasive alewives, which feed on burbot larvae, was also essential.

Even without a stocking program, burbot have recovered in all of the lakes except Ontario, where alewives remain too plentiful, Stapanian said.

That’s not the case for other Great Lakes natives.

Since 1965, managers have stocked Lake Michigan with an average of 2.7 million lake trout per year in an effort to reestablish a naturally reproducing population. Since 1986, many of those fish were stocked in the lake’s two lake trout refuges where fishing is off limits.

The refuges are relatively shallow and have rocky bottoms that were historically fruitful spawning sites. Biologists hope that the fish will return to the refuges and lay eggs once they’re fully grown.

So far, it hasn’t worked very well. Biologists aren’t sure why, but they often blame invasive species like sea lamprey and alewives.

But a study published this year in of the Journal of Great Lakes Research shows that the resurging burbot may have something to do with it.

One lake trout refuge sits between the Leelanau Peninsula and Beaver Island, and people are particularly interested in getting lake trout to spawn there, said Greg Jacobs, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor.

“So we wanted to get a good idea on whether burbot might have an effect on that,” he said.

To do that, scientists checked the stomachs of 95 burbot caught in northern Lake Michigan from 2006 to 2008. They found the effect they were looking for in burbot caught near lake trout stocking sites: Burbot eat small lake trout.

It’s not yet clear how big of a drain burbot are on lake trout stocking because no one is sure how many burbot hang out around the lake trout refuge, Jacobs said.
But studies in other lakes and other sections of Lake Michigan give scientists a range of how many might live in a given area.

If northern Lake Michigan burbot are on the high end of that range, it may be lights-out for the refuge’s lake trout.

“It could be entirely possible that they could eat all of the lake trout that are stocked out there within 30 days,” Jacobs said. That’s about how long would take for a lake trout to figure out how to escape the burbot.

Any stocked fish are an easy target for predators already in the lake, Eshenroder said. “They’re coming out of hatcheries, they’re naive, kind of bewildered, you might say. They’re disoriented.”

Perhaps there aren’t enough burbot to eat all the lake trout. But even if there are only enough to wipe out a quarter of the stocked fish, that would impede lake trout restoration, Jacobs said.

Biologists need more studies of burbot density and behavior before they can be sure how big that impediment is.

“Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of real good burbot research,” he said. “Mostly because nobody’s really interested in catching them.”

Jeff Gillies writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Filed under: Uncategorized

In tough times, unions, agencies, target young workers

By TRENTON JOHNSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – As young job seekers continue to face serious barriers, unions and public agencies are trying to help them succeed.

Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, said, “It’s a challenge for young people seeking employment. The worst time is for young workers between the ages of 16 and 26.

“Many young workers are being passed over in favor of older workers with more experience,” he said.

Help is available from a variety of organizations.

Gaffney said the national AFL-CIO has an outreach program that provides assistance in seeking employment.

A similar program is being developed for the Michigan AFL-CIO, which has built a corps of young leaders across the state, including Traverse City, to help young people improve their skills.

Sean Egan, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 275 in Coopersville, said, “Our members work as construction electricians and go to other areas for employment temporarily. Members also find a way into college to gain other skills that they didn’t have before.”
Other organizations are involved as well.

For example, Michelle Socha, business liaison for Northwest Michigan Works! (NMW) which covers Benzie, Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, said, “We give out a number of interest surveys and hold workshops on career research offered at no cost.”

Socha said NMW has service centers in Petoskey and Traverse City that offer computers for job searches and assistance in filling out applications and posting resumes on Michigan Talent Bank.

NMW also runs business camps to help people prepare for new career opportunities.

Socha said the agency has a staff of youth advisers who work with 16-to 21-year olds, schools and local employers to provide services, including specialized youth programs in 10 counties.

Dana Venhuizen, a youth adviser for NMW in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, said, “We help young people with getting their GED and high school completion. We provide online career services and career assessments. Our program also offers experience and training in different career fields.”

Venhuizen said youth advisers offer an employability workshop as well as provide assistance in skill development, resume writing and interviewing skills.

Participants get a referral from their school to work with the advisers.

The programs also help at-risk youths, high school dropouts and pregnant teens who fall within certain economic guidelines.

In another initiative, Gaffney said, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan based in Detroit is helping young workers at non-unionized businesses.

Gaffney said employees who work with the ROC-MI get free training to help improve their skills and their income.

Filed under: Economy

Got milk? Got controversy!

By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – Got milk? Unpasteurized milk, that is.

Whether consumers should be allowed to purchase unpasteurized milk has been a hot topic in Michigan for years. Although its sale is illegal in the state, the debate over its availability and health risks is ongoing.

There’s no pending legislation to permit its sale, but farmers can legally provide unpasteurized milk through so-called “herd share” agreements.

Herd sharing is an arrangement where consumers pay farmers a boarding fee, which makes them partial owners of the cows and gives them the right to their milk.

More than 50 Michigan farms, including ones near Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Clarkston and St. Johns, sell herd shares to customers who want unpasteurized milk, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, an organization that promotes raw milk.

But due to legal uncertainties over herd sharing, some participating farmers choose not to be publicly identified.

“It’s a touchy subject,” said Fae Presley, a Marquette chapter leader of the foundation. “There are farmers in the Upper Peninsula doing shares. Farmers are concerned that if there’s any legal difficulty, they may lose their farm.”

Presley said farmers who offer shares to the public are generally found by word-of-mouth. But it isn’t finding customers that’s an issue – many of them have difficulty meeting the demand for raw milk.

Since it’s produced on smaller farms, unpasteurized milk is typically available to herd share customers at quantities of one or two gallons per week. Many farms have waiting lists for their shares, and consumers such as Presley travel as long as two hours to buy milk.

According to Ted Beals of Waterloo, a member of the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup, raw milk consumers value small-scale farmers.

“The relationship is special,” Beals said. “One principle is that they’re not looking for high volume, they’re looking for high quality.”

The workgroup discusses how consumers should have access to unprocessed milk and is exploring whether herd sharing will allow small farms to develop a lucrative revenue stream.

For farmer Bob Sprong of Cradle Knoll Farm in Bliss, herd sharing was a last resort.

After 10 years of producing Grade A milk, the Michigan Milk Producers Association told Sprong it could no longer pick up his milk, making herd shares for unpasteurized milk his only option.

Elaine Brown, executive director of the Michigan Food & Farming Systems and member of the workgroup, estimated that 10,000 people in Michigan drink raw milk.

Even so, the debate over potential health risks and benefits is ongoing, she said.

Advocates argue that pasteurization, the process of heating milk to a specific temperature to kill pathogenic bacteria, strips milk of nutrients and enzymes.

Presley said consumers find raw milk easier to digest than pasteurized milk and believe it can cure allergies.

“Many people have found they are able to thrive on it. I like all the natural goodness,” she said.

But according to John Partridge, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University, there’s no scientific proof of such benefits, and the risks may be severe.

“The risk for a healthy individual is minimal, but it can be serious for the very old and the very young,” he said, noting the dangers for consumers with weak immune systems. “For a healthy, robust individual making a choice on their own, if they’re willing to take a risk of a little salmonella, that’s the choice they make.”

And even farmers who adhere to safest practices can’t control unexpected contamination, Partridge said.

“The issue is that you have a product that has bacteria. You can’t see the bacteria to be sure there aren’t any pathogens in it,” he said.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), raw milk may contain pathogens such as e. coli, listeria and salmonella.

Currently, Michigan has no regulations that require individual farmers to have their raw milk tested for pathogens.

Beals said a process called competitive exclusion naturally fights off the bacteria in raw milk. In the process, beneficial bacteria push harmful bacteria out of the milk, ridding it of pathogens, he said.
Partridge counters that the bacteria levels in milk aren’t high enough for that process to occur.

“I’m not going to sit and condemn people for drinking raw milk,” Partridge said, “but the data on outbreaks related to raw milk is relatively eye-opening.”

According to the FDA, from 1998 to 2008, a total of 85 outbreaks of multiple human infections resulting from consumption of raw milk were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those outbreaks included 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths nationally.

In April, Michigan health officials reported that 13 people in Cass County became ill with a bacterial infection called campylobacter after consuming unprocessed milk from a farm in Indiana.
Organizations such as the Michigan Farm Bureau and the milk producers support the FDA’s stance that it’s unsafe to consume raw milk.

“The current system is the best process that’s out there,” said Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist for the Farm Bureau. “It’s important that you truly are marketing that product based on truthful information and not perceived information.”

Sprong, the Bliss farmer, said he hopes to one day expand his production but won’t be able to until the misconceptions about raw milk dissipate.

“I’d like to be able to take my milk to farmer’s markets,” he said.

To Presley in Marquette, the decision to drink raw milk should be one consumers make, not the government.

“It’s important that consumers have the right to choose what foods we eat,” she said “It’s a fundamental value. We have the right to buy alcohol, cigarettes, but we don’t have the right to buy milk.”

Filed under: Social Policy

Southwest Michigan hunts for Pure Michigan alternatives

LANSING—Crisp, clean waters and breathtaking nature trails have been hooking more tourists and reeling them into Michigan during the last five years.

Those images will no longer glow from TV screens because of state budget cuts, but Southwest Michigan will cast other lures to keep the steady catch of travelers.

The state’s Pure Michigan campaign took a 37 percent budget cut two years ago, and spending dwindled from $17 million for 2009-10 to $5.4 million for the twelve months that begin Oct. 1, said Dave Lorenz, manager of public and industry relations for Travel Michigan, the state’s official tourism promotion unit.

Lorenz said a 2009 study of the national ad campaign showed the state collected $2.23 in taxes for every dollar spent on Pure Michigan.

With the ads gone, some tourist agencies are unsure whether state revenue will be in jeopardy.

Some Southwest Michigan communities actively pursued tourists on their own even while Pure Michigan was running. Among the lures were the recently built carousel and interactive fountain in St. Joseph, Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo and the Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor.

“In Michigan’s great Southwest, we’ve been supporters in the Pure Michigan campaign because we believe it created a positive image for the state,” said Cornerstone Alliance President Wendy Dant Chesser.

Cornerstone Alliance is a Benton Harbor-based nonprofit economic development organization and one of three groups that funded the golf course.

“Although our area benefits from the Pure Michigan campaign, we are hopeful that the momentum that we’ve seen through the summer of 2010 will continue into next year,” Dant Chesser said. “We locally have spent a lot of efforts to establish ourselves as a tourism destination.”

Cornerstone Alliance advertised independently in Chicago and Indiana through billboards and trade shows, she said.

“The Pure Michigan campaign added to what we were doing,” she said, adding that it will be difficult to separate the impact of eliminating the state portion.

But some business owners in the area, including Kay Barlow-Segrave, owner of American Preferred Realtors in St. Joseph, said the loss of the state ads would have little impact.

Barlow-Segrave said she’s seen an increase in people, especially those from out of state, wanting to buy second homes in the last six months.

However, she doesn’t attribute that demand to Pure Michigan ads.

“The St. Joe-Benton Harbor area has done a ton of advertising on their own,” she said. “We’ve added amenities that have made it more popular.”

St. Joseph County has a variety of assets that attract tourists, said Deb Herring, president of the River Country Tourist Council.

Dotted with small lakes and rivers and home to Amish communities and agriculture, St. Joseph County attracts a slightly different mix of tourists than Lake Michigan resort areas.

Herring said the county has seen more short stays by tourists and more visitors at town and county fairs and festivals in recent years.

“We are sorry to see that funding go,” she said. “We do feel that Pure Michigan is helping.”

Herring said the county is looking for ways to make up for the lost state-aid advertising.

Filed under: State Agencies

Unions seek ways to link with younger workers

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – Union activism has dropped among younger workers, a trend that may bring innovation into union management.

“We don’t communicate the way our parents did,” said Sean Egan, 32, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers West Michigan Local 275. “Leadership needs to be more accessible.”

Most of the executive board of Egan’s local, based in Coopersville, is between 26 and 35, and its volunteers are about 35, so it has more participation from this age group than most, Egan said.

Egan became president of the local when he was 25 and served in that position for four years.

Egan is an example of a young union member who actively participates, said Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Many, however, don’t because they don’t see anyone in union leadership who looks like them – all the leaders are older.

For example, most unions still publish newspapers or newsletters to communicate with their members instead of using social media like Facebook, Gaffney said.

And that’s not how much of the younger generation communicates, he said.

The drop in union activism isn’t uncommon, said David Reynolds, a labor historian at Wayne State University.

Union activity regularly goes through cycles, Reynolds said.

When unions’ influence is ebbing, they have less of a presence in new industries and jobs, which is where the majority of the younger workers are, he said. When unions grow, they generally grow in the same new areas and with a strong young worker presence.

The Great Depression is a great example, Reynolds said.

At the end of the Depression, young workers mobilized the union movement and began unionizing quickly. Once people saw that unions could benefit them, it encouraged others to try the same thing at their own workplaces, and within three months, three million workers were organized, he said.

That seems to be happening now, Reynolds said predicting that younger workers will become more involved in the future.

But that won’t happen without some help, the AFL-CIO’s Gaffney said.

The drop in active participation is a challenge for unions across the country, Gaffney said, but those in some states are doing better than others in attracting younger workers.

New York, California and Colorado unions all have more participation among younger workers, Gaffney said, and have done a more effective job marketing themselves to younger members.

Now Gaffney is taking up the charge to move Michigan in that direction.

He plans to reach out to younger leaders for advice on how to inspire younger members.

Egan said younger workers are important because they bring new perspectives and they have a better understanding of work-life balance than older colleagues.

If they don’t become engaged, the role of unions may diminish, Egan said. Unionization rates are going down, and it’s up to the young workers to find a system that works well.

Having someone who looks and talks like them will help spark their interest, Egan said.

For example, his local is moving toward monthly or quarterly webcast meetings so all members can take part, regardless of where they are.

There needs to be more communication between leaders and young workers and e-mail and texting could help bridge that generational gap, Egan said.

Filed under: Economy

Lawmakers move to boot bootleggers

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

LANSING – The word ‘bootlegging’ brings to mind images of Prohibition-era gangsters wearing fedoras and smoking cigars.

It’s not an issue most people expect to encounter in 2010, but Rep. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, begs to differ.

“There are people who are absolutely making a living off of bootlegging,” Johnson said. “Not the smart wholesalers or distributors or retail outlets, but the ones that are unscrupulous believe that it’s an act that they can participate in, so we want to stop it.”

Johnson is the primary sponsor of a bill that would raise penalties for those who sell, deliver or import liquor into the state without going through Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission (LCC).

A 2008 study by the LCC estimated the average bootlegger brings about $30,000 worth of products over state lines, two to three times a week. That results in a revenue loss for the state of between $1 million and $2 million annually in liquor taxes.

In 2007, a bootlegger was arrested while driving a van carrying about $30,000 worth of liquor into Michigan. He told a reporter from a Detroit television station that he intended to sell it on street corners out of the back of his van and did so regularly, about three times a week.

The bill is predicted to earn $9.1 million annually for the state’s general fund, primarily from fines of $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the amount of liquor involved.  Under the current law, the maximum fine is $1,000.

The School Aid Fund and Convention Facilities Development Fund would each receive another $900,000 annually under the bill.

The bill passed through the Senate and House by votes of 30 to 7 and 77 to 28, respectively.

Now, all that remains is for the governor to sign it, which she is expected do before the Oct. 1 state budget deadline, Johnson said.

Johnson said the potential tax revenue, in addition to the lack of major objections, was the main reason why it passed so quickly.

Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, a co-sponsor, said an updated bootlegging law is necessary.

“We need an increased penalty, a more modern penalty, a penalty that wasn’t decided back in 1978,” Meadows said. “It may have been good at the time, but inflation has taken it out of the realm of being a real disincentive to illegal action.

“Some of these individuals do this because it’s just the cost of doing business,” Meadows said. “They get caught once, but if they’re moving a lot of shipments and a lot of alcohol, it might be worth the penalty.”

A companion measure, also awaiting Granholm’s approval, would make it a felony to illegally sell, deliver or import spirits.

Lance Binoniemi, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), said the large gap between Michigan’s liquor tax and that of surrounding states adds to the lure of bootlegging.

The MLBA represents businesses with liquor licenses.

“We are the sixth-highest taxed state in the country when it comes to distilled spirits,” Binoniemi said. “Our tax rate is four times higher than Indiana’s, and over three times higher than Wisconsin’s.”

In Michigan, the liquor tax is about $10.09 a gallon, compared to about $2.68 in Indiana and $3.25 in Wisconsin. That means a fifth of vodka that costs $17.02 in Michigan would cost only $15.54 in Indiana.

Therefore, Binomiemi said, a large profit can be made by buying liquor in another state then smuggling it into Michigan for resale.

“Although we support increased penalties for illegal importation of alcohol,” Binoniemi said, “we don’t think the legislation addresses the real problem, which is the enormous tax burden that we have in the state on distilled spirits.”

Binoniemi added that the MLBA has concerns about the other major component of the measure, which would allow designated retailers to provide consumers with samples of alcoholic beverages of up to one-third of an ounce.

“It allows for consumption of alcohol off the premise – party stores, grocery stores, that kind of thing,” Binoniemi said. “If a grocery store or a party store wants to be a bar, they should go out and get the same license that a bar has to get.”

Officially, the association is neutral on the overall legislation, but opposes the sampling aspect, Binomiemi said.

Steve Robinson, director of financial management at the LCC, also expressed concerns about the idea of sampling, although he said the commission is neutral on the proposal as a whole.

“It seems to be too open, allowing too much sampling,” he said. “It was set up to allow all the liquor vendors to do three samplings a month at a licensed establishment. But we have 170 to 190 vendors. So if every vendor could do three at one place, that would be an awful lot of samplings.”

John David, president of the Michigan Spirits Association (MSA), said another provision that would permit manufacturers to package nonalcoholic carbonated beverages with spirits would be most relevant with the sale of gift baskets or similar products. For example, liquor could be packaged with ingredients for a gin-and-tonic or scotch-and-soda.

His group, which represents companies that sell, market and deliver liquor, fully supports the bills.

“With bootlegging, the penalties have not been strong enough to deter a person from doing it again,” David said. “We wanted to increase the penalty so it would set an example for those that are caught, that you can’t just pay a small amount of money like a traffic ticket and go on your way.”

Johnson added, however, that the legislation wouldn’t affect consumers who bring liquor from other states into Michigan solely for personal consumption.

“If you bought a really nice bottle of scotch,” Johnson said, and you happened to be in Indiana and brought it back, I can’t see where you’re part of the problem.”

Filed under: Legislation

Ecosystem in jeopardy if state’s bats die off

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan’s bats are under attack – not from tennis racquet-swinging bat swatters or vampire-hunters but principally from a deadly fungus with the potential to disrupt the ecosystem.

Indiana bat (credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).

Other serious threats come from wind turbines and habitat destruction, scientists say.

Eastern Michigan University biologist Allen Kurta said the disappearance of bats, which play a crucial role in controlling crop and forest pests, would raise a major question: “How will it affect our agricultural economy and forest economy?”

Bats are largely unappreciated by the public, said Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs at the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath, although “they eat way more mosquitoes than the much-celebrated purple martins that people have been putting up houses for.

“It has a trickle-down effect through the whole ecosystem,” Rusz said.

Their appetite for bugs has major implications for Michigan agriculture, according to Rob Mies, director of the Organization for Bat Conservation based at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.

“Bats are the primary predators of nighttime insects,” including moths and beetles that damage corn and other commodity crops, Mies said. “With less bats, we have more insects, which means more pesticides.”

They also eat ash borers, the beetles that are devastating the state’s ash trees.
Michigan is home to nine bat species, some common, others rare and one – the Indiana bat – classified by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as endangered. All are legally protected.

Most of the state’s large cave-dwelling bat populations are on private land in the western Upper Peninsula, where they roost and hibernate in abandoned mines that provide the proper mix of temperature and air circulation.

The state has few natural caves, but hundreds of abandoned iron, gold and copper mines are accessible to bats, said Bill Scullon, a Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) wildlife biologist based in Baraga.

Scullon said major challenges include identifying the locations of former mines, which may be “out in the middle of nowhere sometimes,” or a mere “crack in the hillside,” and the safety hazards of getting inside to monitor their bat populations.
In the UP, the Millie Hill Mine in Iron Mountain and the Caledonia Mine complex near Rockland are major “hibernacula,” or hibernation sites, for an estimated 85,000 to 100,000 bats, many of which migrate there in the fall from hundreds of miles away.

The only major Lower Peninsula hibernation site is at Tippy Dam in Manistee County between Wellston and Brethren. It has an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 bats during winter hibernation season.

Eastern Michigan’s Kurta, the author of “Bats of Michigan” (Indiana State University Press), said cave closings can eliminate crucial habitat and, if done at the wrong time, could entomb those already inside.

DNRE works with county mine inspectors and private landowners to install gates that allow bats access to abandoned mines but keep people out.

The cave-dwelling bats are threatened while they hibernate by a fast-moving disease known as white-nose syndrome. The fungus grows on the animals’ ears, wings and nose.

Mies said, “The fungus doesn’t kill them but wakes them or keeps them awake.” As a result, infected bats are use more of their stored body fat and starve to death.
And Rusz said, “It’s one more example of an exotic disease from Europe. An exotic disease has landed here and could be spreading.

“Sometimes you’ll get an environmental scare and scientists aren’t sure what will happen,” he said. “Here they know what’s going to happen: You’ll end up with a lot of dead bats.”

Nationwide, white-nose syndrome has wiped out an estimated 1 million bats since it was initially seen in a New York cave in 2006. Since then, it’s been identified in 14 states and two Canadian provinces and is moving westward.

Experts warn it could reach Michigan in the next two years, being spread both bat-to-bat and by human tracking the fungus into caves and mines on their shoes.
A DNRE team is developing a federally funded white-nose syndrome response plan for Michigan.

In New York, state health officials recently announced the discovery of drugs and antiseptics that can treat the fatal fungus and decontaminate infected areas.
However, Kurta is wary of how feasible it will be to implement any such discoveries.

“There have been various attempts at seeing whether topical applications can kill the fungus,” Kurta said. “In reality you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands, millions, of animals. Who’s got the time and money to apply a topical fungicide to a million bats?”

Meanwhile, the growing popularity of wind turbines and wind farms also poses problems for bats, especially when they’re migrating, according to biologist Brian Carver at Northern Michigan University.

“Wind energy companies and individuals researchers are looking at ways to reduce those impacts, including placement, spacing between turbines, slowing or stopping turbines during low-wind periods or acoustic deterrents,” Carver said.

Tree-roosting species, like the Indiana bat, also are in jeopardy when the large dead trees they favor are removed and their habitat is disturbed in other ways.

Carver said that despite their biological importance, much about bats remains unknown. He works with rare species in swamps and bottomland forests, studying such questions as how bats choose where to roost and how long they live.

“White-nose syndrome has brought attention to the fact that there’s “a lot of basic information about the life history of bats that we don’t know,” Carver said.

Filed under: Environment

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