Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

CNS budget – 9/18

To download the budget click here.

CRANBERRIES: Michigan could see a twenty-fold increase in cranberry acreage under wetlands legislation designed to encourage growth in the industry. Most of the current 250 acres of bogs are in or around Cheboygan, the Upper Peninsula and Southwest Michigan along the Lake Michigan coast. A Saugatuck senator says the measure would encourage out-of-state growers to do business here. We also talk to the Michigan Farm Bureau and Southwest Michigan Extension. By Jordan Travis. FOR HOLLAND, CHEBOYGAN, MARQUETTE, SOUTH BEND, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS, STURGIS, THREE RIVERS & ALL POINTS.

PRISONS:  Higher incarceration rates don’t already lead to lower crime rates, experts say, and too many nonviolent offenders are kept behind bars at a cost to taxpayers of $45,000 each. By Quincy Hodges. FOR MICHIGAN CITIZEN, LANSING & ALL POINTS.

ECONOMICGARDENING: With Michigan’s desperate economy, small communities, including those in Gladwin, Osceola and Huron countries are looking to existing businesses to weather the economic storms with help from Saginaw Valley State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The process of “economic gardening” focuses on companies already there rather than recruiting new businesses. The Gladwin Chamber of Commerce and Gladwin County Economic Development Corp. explain how it works. By Nick Mordowanec. FOR GLADWIN, CLARE, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS, CADILLAC & ALL POINTS.

COMMUNITYCOLLEGES: A Holland senator wants to give community colleges the option to switch their employees from the state public school retirement system to a contribution plan where benefits would depend on how well the stock market performs. The Michigan Education Association calls the idea financially risky, but the president of Bay de Noc Community College and the Michigan Community College Association endorse the idea as a cost-savings measure. By Caitlin Costello. FOR MARQUETTE, HOLLAND, LANSING & ALL POINTS.

ITEMPRICING: As the only state requiring item pricing, some claim Michigan is at a competitive disadvantage in keeping and attracting retailers, but new scanner technology can adequately safeguard consumers. The United Food and Commercial Workers union in Grand Rapids and the Michigan Retailers Association are on opposite sides. Senators from Fawn River Township, Algonac, Kentwood, Gainsville Township and Saginaw Township want a major change in the law, but Gov. Granholm and ex-Attorney Gen. Frank Kelley argue the current law is essential to protect the public from unscrupulous and careless merchants. By Adam DeLay. FOR GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS, GREENVILLE, STURGIS, THREE RIVERS, BLISSFIELD, SOUTH BEND, LAPEER, OAKLAND, LANSING, MICHIGAN CITIZEN & ALL POINTS.
CLIMATECHANGE: Michigan federal and state lawmakers are fighting over climate change. U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of  Lansing and Carl Levin of  Detroit support climate change legislation that is awaiting a Senate vote. In the U.S. House, Rep. Sander Levin of Southfield voted for it, but Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia opposed it. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township wants more focus on Great Lakes hydropower. Meanwhile, the state House has asked the Senate to pass the measure, while the state Senate wants it killed in Washington. By Mehak Bansil. FOR OAKLAND, ROYAL OAK, MACOMB, LANSING, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS & ALL POINTS.

CHILDABUSE: A Constantine legislator wants to make it easier for judges to impose tougher penalties for child sexual exploitation crimes, including Internet child porn. We also hear from the Michigan Child Death Review Program in Okemos. Co-sponsors are from Allegan, Oakland, Macomb, Eaton, Clinton, Ottawa, Berrien and Grand Traverse counties. In a U.P. federal case, an Iron River man received a 33-year sentence for child exploitation crimes. By Hyonhee Shin. FOR STURGIS, THREE RIVERS, LANSING, SOUTH BEND, HOLLAND, MICHIGAN CITIZEN, OAKLAND, ROYAL OAK, MACOMB, TRAVERSE CITY, MARQUETTE & ALL POINTS.
EARLYCHILDHOOD: Michigan could save huge amounts of money in future prison costs by investing more now in early childhood education, which can avert advocacy groups say. The Lapeer County prosecutor says it makes long-term sense to fight crime by setting children on the right path early. A Holland senator says school districts need to be more creative in using donations to maintain early childhood programs. By Vince Bond Jr. FOR LAPEER, MICHIGAN CITIZEN, LANSING, HOLLAND & ALL POINTS.

ALEWIVES: Managing invasive alewives in the Great Lakes, especially lakes Michigan and Huron, is like walking a tightrope: Too many stymie native lake trout reproduction. Too few cripple the profitable salmon fisheries. We learn why from the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority in Sault Ste. Marie, Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, DNR’s Lake Michigan basin coordinator in Plainwell and the Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor. By Jeff Gillies. FOR ALPENA, CHEBOYGAN, MARQUETTE, PETOSKEY, TRAVERSE CITY, LUDINGTON, HOLLAND, SOUTH BEND & ALL POINTS.

w/ALEWIVESPHOTO: Alewife. Credit: NY D.E.C.


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Crime doesn’t pay, but neither does prison

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Capital News Service

LANSING — In terms of cost and benefits, imprisonment isn’t the best way to reduce crime, according to a report by the Department of Corrections.

With the average prisoner costing taxpayers around $45,000 per year, cutting prison terms could save money to invest in programs to better the public, said President James Hallan of the Michigan Retailers Association.

The freeing of non-violent offenders could benefit the local and the Michigan economy as they work and pay taxes, Hallan said.

Currently, there are 46,600 prisoners in Michigan, according to the department, which is working on an Oct. 1 deadline for $28 million in budget cuts according to public information officer Russ Marlan.

Another $50 million may be cut from corrections spending, but that is in the hands of the Legislature, including prison reform and policy changes, Marlan said.

Between 2003 and 2009, the department cut $500 million by closing prisons and reducing staff.

It’s a slow process when it comes to corrections reform, said Marlan.

With prisoners being released back to society, Marlan said the savings need to be reinvested in hiring parole officers and implementing new programs for ex-prisoners.

“We have one of the highest spending on corrections in the country,”
said Craig Thiel, director of state affairs of the Citizens Research Council.

He said talking about prison reform, means talking reducing the prison population.
That will reduce costs for health care, electricity, food and personnel, he said.

Thiel said studies have shown that lower prison rates doesn’t necessarily mean higher crime rates, nor do higher incarceration rates always lower crime rates.

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Advocates warn early childhood cuts could promote crime

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Capital News Service

LANSING- A home built on a crumbling foundation is sure to fall.

And lawmakers should follow the same philosophy when dealing with the development of children, says K.P. Pelleran, director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Michigan.

Nearly 95 percent of a child’s brain develops by age 5, so it’s vital that the Legislature consider the impact of early childhood education instead of “balancing the budget on the backs of babies,” Pelleran said.
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Michigan is a nonprofit anti-crime organization composed of 350 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and other law enforcement leaders.

Endeavors such as the 0-3 Secondary Prevention Initiative, which provides grants to programs focused on improving school readiness and parent/child interaction, and the Great Parents, Great Start Continuation Grants that fund programs to educate parents on child development, could fall victim to $200 million in cuts to funding.

Instead of boasting about the number of criminals he locks up each year, Lapeer County Prosecuter Byron Konschuh said it is more logical to fight crime by setting children on the right path during crucial developmental years.

“It makes long-term sense,” Konschuh said. “We won’t see it in a year or two, but in 10 to 15 years we may see an increase in crime. Statistically, people who do well in school are more likely to be law-abiding citizens.”

Pelleran said continuing to support early education could prevent youngsters from turning to lives of crime and potentially shave Michigan’s $2 billion-a-year incarceration expenses by $500 million annually.

“Kids who have access to these programs are less likely to not fail a class,” Pelleran said. “They will normally have higher salaries and they become part of the tax base instead of the tax burden. We’re going to pay now or later, but it’s a whole lot cheaper early.”

Senate Education Committee Chair Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, said school districts will have to be more creative with donations to maintain early childhood programs.

“My hope would be that school districts would figure out ways to integrate private foundation money and corporate money into early childhood education programs at the local level,” he said.

The percentage of Michigan’s 70,000 inmates who received quality instruction in their formative years is “miniscule,” said Elizabeth Arnovits, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
A study that followed 123 poverty-stricken African-American children in Ypsilanti from ages 3 and 4 to 40 found that students who didn’t enroll in a preschool program were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers by age 27 than those who did.

By age 40, those who didn’t participate were twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes, four times more likely to be arrested for drug felonies and 85 percent more likely to have been sent to prison or jail.
Many youths in the juvenile system lacked the necessary support early on that could’ve aided their “ethical and mental development,” Arnovits said.

Early childhood education “provides kids with a step up on the learning process and identifies disabilities and learning problems,” Arnovits said. “The majority of the children are below the level they should be at. A sizable proportion has a learning disability, and if you don’t catch them, it can be a lifelong problem.”

Many students who drop out of school and commit crimes come from broken homes where parents aren’t around, said Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, a member of the House Education Committee.
Students may struggle because the school setting “is the only normalcy will see,” Sheltrown said. “They’re significantly behind. If we get to them early, we can have great success.”

Pelleran said supporting early childhood education has become a moral issue.

“Our members know we can’t build more prisons to solve the problem of crime,” Pelleran said. “These kids don’t have a high-priced lobbyist in Lansing. What does that say about us as a society?”

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Smaller counties embrace ‘economic gardening’ to grow

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Capital News Service

LANSING – With Michigan’s economy in despair and jobs hard to come by, smaller communities are looking to existing businesses to weather their own economic storms.

A process known as “economic gardening” is being used to further that goal in low-population counties like Gladwin, Osceola and Huron.

Rather than trying to lure big businesses and retail outlets to boost employment and increase property values, these counties are focusing on companies already within their areas and seeking ways to make them more attractive to the public.

“The chamber of commerce supports shopping locally,” said Tom Tucholski, the executive director of the Gladwin Chamber of Commerce.

“Shopping local keeps the money in the community, to the benefit of the business community. The business community can then give back more to the community that supports them, to the benefit of all the people,” he said.

Such a plan is easier said than done, but sometimes cities have to start small. To achieve positive economic growth, communities must understand the basics, a local official explained.

“To increase jobs, we have to increase production,” said Frank Starkweather, the director of Gladwin County’s Economic Development Corp. “We’re working with small businesses to hire more people. In order for businesses to become more productive, they have to increase sales and they need to find new markets for the firms.

“We’re focusing on companies already here,” he said.

Gladwin City Manager Bob Moffit said such businesses include shoe stores and clothing outlets.
The economic gardening philosophy is meant to spur commerce on many levels, from retailing and service to more complex industries like manufacturing.

Focusing on small businesses already in the area allows counties to concentrate on future possibilities. Rather than worry about the possibly expensive prospects of encouraging businesses from other areas to relocate and start anew, economic gardening promotes growth from within.

Saginaw Valley State University is helping Gladwin, Osceola and Huron county agencies develop with the economic gardening goal in mind.
Gladwin has received more than $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for physical improvements.

“These are three counties with the intent and capacity to grow,” Starkweather said.
“We are looking for companies with bold futures and contracts with research companies with exclusive, expensive databases. We want them to buy products from our companies. If the program is a success, more counties with more money will participate,” he said.

Moffit said it can be difficult to compete with large “big box” businesses that offer more products at lower prices, but small businesses offer their own advantages, such as providing incentives for people to stay in area.
Tucholski said, “To keep consumers shopping locally, businesses can employ a number of strategies. Innovative marketing will let consumers know a local option exists for a product. Top-notch customer service will bring back a consumer every time.

“Businesses also have two strong allies,” he said, “the saving of gas and the saving of time.”
Moffit, a former economics professor at Saginaw Valley, says a myriad of things must happen for a community to get back on track and see positive economic growth.

“Most of the work is being done in Washington, D.C.,” said Moffit. “We are working with consultants on our willingness to grow. We want to put manufacturers in a position to expand and grow. We are still looking to get $25,000 from Lansing.

James Hallan, president of the Michigan Retailers Association, said, “It’s no easy solution. Smaller communities have to find their niche, find the core of that niche and build around it.”

Eric Rule, the association’s vice president, said, “Smaller cities have to find a way to differentiate themselves from everyone else.”

The economic gardening program began in the three counties in August, and is scheduled to end in July 2010.

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Retailers, union clash on item pricing changes

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Capital News Service

LANSING — For consumers, being able to check the price tag on an individual item at a store is a convenience. For retailers, however, marking every item carries a costly price tag, a business association leader says.

State law requires that most items on store shelves be clearly marked with a price tag. If a scanner charges more than the tagged price, the seller must pay the difference plus a bonus of 10 times the difference — at least $1 and a maximum of $5.

Sen. Cameron Brown, R-Fawn River Township, has introduced a bill to exempt non-food products from item pricing if the price is clearly marked nearby. It also calls for automated checkout systems to meet accuracy standards.

“This bill can not only save money for businesses in the state, but also give businesses the ability to reinvest that money to create new jobs,” he said.

Marv Russow, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 951 in Grand Rapids, counters that the jobs of labelers would be at risk.

“Potentially these workers could lose their jobs if item pricing is eliminated,” said Russow.
Eric Rule, vice president of government relations for the Michigan Retailers Association (MRA), says that if item pricing were eliminated, labelers wouldn?t lose their jobs but would be moved to different jobs.

“A retailer in Michigan has the same number of workers as a store in any another state. Stores would be able to move employees to different positions, such as customer service,” Rule said.
Russow, however, says he doesn’t think stores would reassign employees rather than lay them off.

“My experience in other states has been that they have the same level of customer service, the same level of other positions, and they don?t have this law,” said Russow.

Rule also says that Michigan, the only state with such a law, imposes an additional expense on businesses that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

“Michigan has built in artificial pricing that increases costs and hurts businesses who want to locate or expand in the state,” he said.

“The cost to comply with the law for larger retailers can get into the millions of dollars, and that?s a conservative estimate,” he said, adding that some smaller businesses are also adversely affected by the law.
Businesses that failed to comply have been heavily fined. In 2006, drug store chain Walgreen’s was fined $550,000. In the same year retail chain Wal-Mart was fined $1.5 million, according to Attorney Gen. Mike Cox’s office.

Supporters of the existing law, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, say item pricing is necessary to make sure that consumers know the price of what they’re buying.

“It’s all about consumer rights and being able to protect consumers,” said Megan Brown, deputy press secretary to Granholm.

“Item pricing is a necessary benefit to consumer protection,” said former Attorney Gen. Frank Kelley, who was in office when the law was enacted. Kelley says that 30 years ago, scanners were highly inaccurate, and that even though they are more accurate today, they need to meet accuracy standards.

“I don’t think we would need the law if their scanners, cash registers and other technology have a 98 percent accuracy rate,” he said.

The retailers association said that because scanners would be effective, it would support doubling the penalties for stores that overcharge customers with a scanning system.
But Kelley suggests that retailers should have to prove themselves before item pricing can be eliminated.

“They have to prove that their scanners can have a 98 percent accuracy rate. Give them one or two years to do that, and if their scanners pass the test, then great. If not, the law should remain in place. Also, we must increase the fines before eliminating item pricing,” he said.

Sen. Brown, however, says that the bill could serve to improve consumer protection.

“By re-evaluating the technology and laws, doubling the fines, having accuracy standards, mandating clear signage and making audits quarterly, we would be doing a lot for consumer protection,” he added.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Jansen, R- Gainsville Township; Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood; Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac; and Roger Kahn, R- Saginaw Township, and is pending in the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee.

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Berry good news as plans gel for cranberry bogs

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Get out the hip waders: Michigan may be growing more cranberries in the future.
Five thousand acres’ worth of new bogs, to be exact.

The Senate is considering a wetlands management bill that calls for the Department of Environmental Quality to identify at least 2,500 acres of land suitable for growing cranberries. The DEQ would consult with the Department of Agriculture to find the land.

Once 2,000 of those acres are developed, the two departments would then look for an additional 2,500 acres. That would mean an increase of Michigan’s current cranberry acreage — nearly 250 acres — by more than twentyfold.

Most cranberry farms are in the Upper Peninsula, near Cheboygan and in Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties, according to Michigan State University Extension.
The new bogs would be located in upland areas and on land that has been drained for farming. No undisturbed wetlands or sensitive natural areas would be included.

The sponsor, Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, said the bill would give security to existing farms looking to expand, as well as encourage new growers to move into the state.

“Farmers want certainty,” she said. “They want to know if they’re still going to be able to make money two years down the road.”

The bill would formalize a 2008 agreement between the DEQ and Agriculture to expand cranberry farming.
Matt Smego, legislative council for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said that the bill would help those who are looking to grow cranberries. The former agreement, he said, dealt with potential locations on a site-by-site basis.

Currently, growers are charged $1,000 for a pre-application site visit by the Department of Environmental Quality. This bill would eliminate that fee, he said.
Michigan’s recognition that cranberries depend on wetland would be changed to water-dependent, the current federal standard.

“This bill would assist individuals who want to grow cranberries and create development zones” with minimal environmental damage, Smego said.

Mark Longstroth, the Southwest Michigan District Extension fruit educator and a cranberry expert, said the proposal surprised him.
“Well, I guess it’s not that big of a surprise,” he said in hindsight.
The interest in growing more cranberries is there, said Longstroth, who is setting up a cranberry school in South Haven. Extension also has a team of experts who can determine whether a site is suitable for growing the berries.

Longstroth has seen similar plans materialize — and fail.

The Rural Development Council of Michigan’s fall 1998 newsletter told of a plan to turn 1,850 acres of Muskegon County land into a cranberry farm. Feasibility studies showed that the project would be profitable in the long term.

However, Longstroth said, interest evaporated when prices for cranberries fell sharply.
But Birkholz said a lot has changed since then, and many companies have expressed interest in growing cranberries in Michigan.

Ocean Spray is one of them, said Longstroth. The cooperative, headquartered in Massachusetts, expressed interest at last year’s Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo.

States with the largest cranberry production are Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Michigan has a long history of growing the berry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Lack of technology and the draining of land had nearly eliminated the crop by the 1930s. Instead, blueberries were grown in the same soil.

The USDA says that demand for the cranberry is likely to increase for the foreseeable future.

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Tougher penalties urged for child sexual abuse

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LANSING – Lawmakers are pushing to increase penalties for child sexual abuse, including a focus on Internet crimes related to child pornography.

The proposal by Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, would toughen sentencing by totaling each depiction of a child who was placed in danger of abuse, physical injury or death.

“It would allow persons with multiple images stored on their computers to be scored differently than someone with just a few child porn pictures,” said Lori, referring to the way sentences are calculated. “The higher score for multiple images would lead to a longer jail or prison term.”

The goal is to enhance the current law’s lack of clarity and to provide more directed sentencing guidelines, said co-sponsor Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph.

“It’d help prosecutors bringing charges handle those crimes,” said Proos. “Continuing use of Internet trafficking of sexually abusive material is horrific for our society.”

The bill’s other co-sponsors are Reps. Lesia Liss, D-Warren; John Walsh, R-Livonia; Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge; Sharon Tyler, R-Niles; Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck; Paul Opsommer, R-DeWitt; Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City; Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights; and Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake.

According to the Children’s Protective Services in the Department of Human Services, there were 29,638 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect in Michigan from Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008. That reflects a 4.6 percent increase over the previous year.

Also, the Michigan Children’s Trust Fund said that more than 337 child abuse and neglect complaints were reported every day in 2008. Nationally, four children die each day as a result of child abuse.

Shannon Stotenbur-Wing, director of Michigan Child Death Review Program in Okemos, said child abuse cases don’t often lead to death — but there have been fatal injuries.

“Child abuse usually has a pattern so it occurs repeatedly over years and years,” she said. “Increasing the penalty for those who are convicted of child abuse itself is not enough to prevent future activities.”

“The people do have to be penalized for doing that, but there need to be areas where mental health and psychological treatments are provided, because they tend to abuse themselves too,” said Stotenbur-Wing.

A 2005 study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 40 percent of arrested child pornography possessors had both sexually victimized children and possessed child pornography, meaning they were “dual offenders.” Another 15 percent of dual offenders tried to victimize children by soliciting undercover investigators who posed as minors online.

In a Michigan criminal case last year, Kenneth Miller of Iron River was sentenced to more than 33 years in federal prison for child exploitation crimes.

Miller pleaded guilty to transporting, receiving and producing child pornography. He also used a hidden camera to produce pornographic images of an underage girl, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lori, who was St. Joseph County sheriff for 20 years, said such crimes are a serious issue in all areas of the state.

“While statistics may show child sexual exploitation crimes going down, some of that hopefully is due to new changes in the law, but crimes are still out there,” he said.

St. Joseph County Commissioner Rick Shaffer said he supports stronger penalties for such crimes.

“We certainly need to step up,” he said. “I wouldn’t say our numbers are particularly high, but it’s more important to continue education to the public and make sure all the cases are reported, for consequences of individuals involving the crimes.”

The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

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Benefit change could aid community colleges

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Capital News Service

LANSING– Community colleges would save money in the public schools employees retirement system if a Senate bill passes, according to the  sponsor, Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland,

The bill would give community college boards the option of providing a defined contribution plan instead of defined benefits, said Mike Hansen, president of Michigan Community College Association.

Laura Coleman, president of Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba, said, [The public schools system] “continues to cost the college a tremendous amount of money, because we pay so much into a system that many employees don’t even get benefits from.”

In a defined benefits system employers and employees contribute a set percentage of salaries and know how much their benefits will be when they retire. Under a defined contribution system, both still pay in but will depend on investment results, according to House Fiscal Agency.

Under the proposed option, community colleges would save money because they would not longer have to make up for investment losses, said Hansen.

The union representing many community colleges faculty and other employees oppose Kuipers’ bill. Kerry Birmingham, a media relations specialist at the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said the change would jeopardize the financial stability of existing plans.

But Kuipers and Hansen said that taking so few people out of the state system would have little to no impact on its stability.

“If you took a bucket of water out of Lake Michigan, theoretically the water level goes down, but with such a small amount taken out at a time, you will hardly be able to notice. This idea works the same way,” said Hansen.

Community colleges account for less than 5 percent of the state program’s participants so it would be a good way to move toward a contribution benefit plan for all public school employees, Kuipers advocates.

Kuipers said there would be up-front costs to move all public school employees to a combined benefit system, but it would be worth it in the long run.

“If we had additional money to put into this, it makes a lot of sense to do for the long term stability of the educational retirement system,” he said.

Legislation to take all public school employees out of defined benefit plans has been unsuccessfully proposed before, Kuipers said, so now the focus is on community college employees.

Coleman, Bay de Noc president, said state university employees were allowed to withdraw from the defined benefit system previously, so community college employees should be given the choice too.

But, MEA’s Birmingham warned that, new community college employees would lose benefits under the switch.

“When you take away benefits from any employees you’re going to have a harder time recruiting the best and the brightest to work at community colleges,” she said.

Coleman said the most Bay de Noc employees would prefer the option of a contribution plan, because they would get immediate pay back for money they put in, instead of having to wait at least 10 years to become eligible for defined benefits.

Hansen also stressed that local boards would be able to decide whether to enter the contribution system or stay in the current system.

The legislation is supported by a number of Michigan organizations, including Detroit Renaissance and Center for Michigan, Hansen added.

“As the budget continues to deteriorate, we need to enact some kind of structural reform, and this could be it,” he said.

The bill is pending in the Senate Education Committee.

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Alewives challenge Great Lakes fishery managers

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Alewife. Photo courtesy of NY D.E.C.

LANSING — Managing invasive alewives in the Great Lakes is like walking a tightrope:
Too many stymie native lake trout reproduction. Too few cripple the profitable salmon fishery. And some biologists say they face an impossible task.

“You can’t manage on that fine of a line,” said Mark Ebener, a fish assessment biologist with the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority in Sault Ste. Marie. “It’s an impossible tightrope to walk.”
But the state agencies that manage Lake Michigan are giving it a shot.

“In Lake Michigan we are definitely trying to strike this balance,” said Jim Dexter, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources in Plainwell.

The managers have recently stocked fewer salmon to ease the pressure on alewives. At the same time, they aim to boost lake trout stocks in shallow, rocky sections in the middle of Lake Michigan. Lake trout laid eggs on those mid-lake reefs before the species collapsed in the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s too soon to tell whether the plan will work, but early signs are positive, Dexter said. Anglers are catching salmon, and lake trout aren’t so plagued by alewife-driven ailments.

One of those ailments is a vitamin deficiency. Lake trout that eat too many alewives have babies that die early. Lake trout vitamin levels are up in Lake Michigan because they’re eating another invasive fish – the round goby, Dexter said.

Even if managers strike a middle ground between salmon and lake trout, they can’t take much credit for the success, he said, because the Lake Michigan ecosystem is too big for people to make large-scale changes.

“Mother Nature really holds all the keys,” he said. “We just try to work with it as best we can and try to nudge things as we can.”

The best evidence for their lack of control over the past five years is in Lake Huron. The alewife population there collapsed in 2004, and the salmon fishery went with it.

“It wasn’t like management planned that,” said Charles Madenjian, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor. “It just happened.”

Now native fish like lake trout and walleye thrive in Lake Huron. Alewife critics like Ebener say that’s because the invaders’ die-off cleared the way.

“It’s no accident in Lake Huron that when alewife collapsed, lots of good things happened with reproduction of native fishes,” Ebener said.

If clever fish management didn’t kill the alewives in Lake Huron, what did?
Biologists have a few suspects. Two are zebra and quagga mussels, Eurasian alien species that snuck into the Great Lakes in the ballast of ocean-going ships.

The invasive mussels sit on the lake bottom and suck tiny plants and animals out of the water. Nutrients in those plants and animals used to make their way up the food chain to alewives. But mussel colonies locked them up at the bottom of the lake, and the alewives went hungry.

Those that didn’t starve were eaten up by a massive influx of naturally born salmon.

Madenjian said that Lake Huron managers plant around 3 million hatchery-raised salmon annually. The year before alewives collapsed, another 12 to 13 million wild-born salmon inundated Lake Huron from tributary streams and rivers.

“That’s probably more salmon than the lake had ever experienced in the past,” he said. “And it looks like they were able to do a real big cleanup job of the alewives.”

If Lake Michigan managers want to give native species a boost, they could engineer an alewife collapse by ramping up salmon stocking, he said. That move could polish off the alewives and leave the salmon to find something else to eat — or die off.

While that could be a boon to the lake trout population, it could be a bust for state fishing revenues.
The salmon collapse in Lake Huron cost the lake half of its charter fishing industry, said Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council in Elmhurst, Ill.

“Licenses are in decline for fishing in Lake Huron,” he said. “If you don’t have a fishery, you don’t sell fishing licenses.”

So Dexter said that Lake Michigan managers will continue trying to walk the line between too many and too few alewives. But while that plan may work now, there’s no guarantee for the future.
“When you’re on a tightrope you can fall off either side really quick,” he said.

Jeff Gillies writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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About CNS

CNS reporters cover state government — issues and personalities.

Covering stories of meaning to their member papers, they come in contact with the important newsmakers of the day, from the Supreme Court justices and the governor to members of the Legislature and the people who run the state government departments, to lobbyists and public-interest organizations.

Then they also talk with “real people” — the individual citizens and businesses in communities to get their reactions to what’s happening in Lansing.

In addition to weekly news stories, CNS students write in-depth articles on issues facing state government and their impact on taxpayers.