Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Where inmates ‘live’ could affect redistricting

Capital News Service
​LANSING – When lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional district lines this year, it’s unlikely that Michigan’s nearly 46,000 prison inmates will come to mind.
​But there’s a question as to whether to count them where they currently live – in prison – or in the community where they lived prior to incarceration.
​Prisoners in Michigan are now counted at the address where they spend most of their time.
​Although felons behind bars cannot vote in elections in Michigan, counting them as residents can inflate the population of districts with prisons.
​With state House districts of about 90,000 residents and Senate districts of about 260,000 residents, counting them at their last known address could alter representation and have an impact on the partisan breakdown of the Legislature for future elections.
​The new lines will take effect for the 2012 elections.
​In New York, Delaware and Maryland, however, prisoners are counted at their last known address.
​William Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a weekly political newsletter, said he couldn’t see the practice in some East Coast states being adopted in Michigan anytime soon.
​Wayne County Democrats, he said, simply don’t have the leverage to push through that kind of a change.
​Ballenger said he doubts there would be a sizable impact on representation if a change occurs, but it could have a potentially sizable impact on federal funding nearly immediately.
​While a change in counting prisoners at their last known address isn’t likely in the current political climate, were it to be approved, implementation might not be difficult.
​John Cordell, a public information specialist for the Department of Corrections, said prisons aren’t always provided a last known address, but such situations are uncommon.
​He said the emergency contacts prisoners provide could make it easier to gather that information.
​“Whether those prisoners were counted in terms of the Census would have no significant impact on our operations,” he said.
​Overall, the 2010 Census found that 39 of Michigan’s 83 counties lost population over the previous decade. Detroit’s loss of 25 percent of residents between 2000 and 2010 contributed to Wayne County losing 11.7 percent of its population.
​According to Cordell, Wayne County sends the most inmates to the state prison system, followed by Oakland, Genesee and Kent counties. While Wayne County hosts two correctional facilities, Oakland, Genesee, and Kent have none.  
​Gratiot County, which has the largest single state prison, Central Michigan Correctional Facility, with nearly 2,400 inmates, had a Census population increase of 0.4 percent since 2000.
​State Prisons in Jackson, Ionia, Chippewa and Gratiot counties house the most inmates in the system, according to Cordell.
​Ballenger said the political shifts would be hard for politicians to analyze.
​“A long-term policy would be needed to yield results,” he said. “It’s like turning an ocean liner around.”
​“If we were starting from scratch, I might say it makes more sense for prisoners to be counted at their last known address,” he said, “but that is not the law.”


Filed under: Politics

Governor draws praise for Urban Initiatives plan


Capital News Service


LANSING—Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to create an Office of Urban Initiatives will help development in cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, experts in Southeast and West Michigan say.

It will be a “frontline” office to assist communities with grant applications and urban planning, as well as redevelopment of downtown areas and brownfields, Snyder’s office said.

“This is a very positive step for Michigan,” said Andy Schor, assistant director of the Michigan Municipal League.

Focusing on development of cities is a great way to bring young people into the state and keep those who are already here, said Schor, whose Ann Arbor-based organization represents cities and villages.

He said cities now have to deal with too many state agencies.

“We want this office to be a one-stop shop that communities can go to for help,” Schor said.

While many urban areas share similar problems, he said each city has its own issues that the proposed office should deal with.

“There is no distinct urban agenda,” Schor said, “Alpena has different needs from Detroit or Grand Rapids.”

He said the league wants the office to function as a “catch-all for urban issues” and looks forward to collaborating with the state to improve urban areas.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said he is enthusiastic about an office allowing the city to work directly with the state to solve problems.

“We are excited to have a state office that will be good at public policy and do more than just scheduling,” Heartwell said.

According to Heartwell, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm had staff in Grand Rapids but no one who dealt directly with the city’s policy issues.

“It’ll be great to have a public policy pipeline from the state to west Michigan,” Heartwell said.

Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said he’s excited to see a new unit to address key urban issues.

“Right now, Southeast Michigan and Detroit are struggling to provide core services, especially in places that struggle with low-income families and a high population of elderly,” Tait said.

He attributed that struggle partly to a 32-percent drop in property tax revenue and a 20-percent drop in revenue sharing from the state, among other economic problems.

The office should address the economic prosperity of cities as its main priority, Tait said.

“Our urban areas have the greatest concentration of jobs, which makes them very important to our future,” Tait said.

To grow, cities need to attract 25-to-35-year-olds but a lack of urban amenities pushes them out of the state, he said.

Tait also said that while Southeast Michigan needs attention, the Office of Urban Initiatives should also work with other urban areas to fuel growth.

“Its not just Detroit,” Tait said. “We’re all in this together.”

Snyder’s deputy press secretary, Ken Silfven, said the office will advance programs and opportunities across the state.

“We want people to look forward to living and working in Michigan’s cities,” Silfven said.  “Our urban areas are crucial to the health of our entire state.”

Silfven also said the state will partner with private and nonprofit organizations to revitalize cities.

Silfven said the proposal “has piqued a lot of interest in our cities, which bodes well for Michigan’s future.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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Earmark ban in Congress may hit Michigan projects

Capital News Service

LANSING – When U.S. Rep.-elect Tim Walberg returns to Washington in January after a two-year hiatus out of offices, the Capitol’s anti-earmarks mood will be far different than he experienced there before.

That’s because the incoming GOP majority in the House agreed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks, the controversial process in which members of Congress designate specific home-state projects for funding rather than leaving the selection to federal departments and agencies.

During the Tipton Republican’s first term, he sponsored or co-sponsored 44 earmarks for the 2008-09 fiscal years, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. The group is a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that opposes “wasteful and corrupt subsidies, earmarks and corporate welfare.”

Democrat Mark Schauer of Battle Creek, who beat Walberg in 2008 but lost re-election in November, sponsored or co-sponsored 18 requests during his two years in office. His six solo requests included $400,000 for a public health dental clinic in Hillsdale and $450,000 to improve the terminal at an airport in Coldwater.

Earmark critics say the practice encourages political favoritism and waste of public funds, while supporters say it gives Congress greater discretion on how tax dollars are spent.

Oakland University political scientist David Dulio said hometown projects play an important role in helping incumbents keep their seats.

“For decades, members of Congress have relied on their constituent service to deliver votes for them at the polls,” said Dulio, who is working with colleague Peter Trumbore on research into 2002 and 2004 campaign ads.

Incumbents use the ads to tout the benefits they’ve brought to their districts — “and they’re not ashamed about it,” he said.

Such advertising may claim, “I fought to save jobs at this plant or this base, or I fought to bring this or that project and it’s benefited you in terms of 4,000 jobs,” Dulio said. “It’s a common practice.”

However, eliminating earmarks alone won’t automatically reduce federal spending if overall appropriations aren’t also cut.

“The irony is that doing away with earmarks does hardly a bit of good for the federal budget picture because it’s reducing so little,” Dulio said. “If the Transportation Committee writes an authorization to spend $50 billion, somebody’s going to have to direct that or divvy it up or send it to a particular place. It may be the Transportation Department.

Walberg was the sole sponsor of four earmark requests totaling $2.8 million, including mass transit projects in Jackson and Marshall.

Walberg and Schauer were by no means alone among Michigan Democrats and Republicans, Taxpayers for Common Sense data shows.

On the GOP side, Rep. David Camp of Midland sponsored or co-sponsored 18 requests totaling $7.9 million for 2008-10, including five as solo sponsor. Among them was $250,000 to replace buses for the Big Rapids Dial-A-Ride-program.

Requests can cross party lines. For example, Camp joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow in asking for about $1 million for transportation projects in Clare County. Meanwhile, Republican Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, jumped in with Levin and Stabenow on a number of requests, including money for airports in Pontiac and Lansing, a water treatment plant in Mason and a Lansing Community College job training initiative.

Camp is in line to chair the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Another Republican, Candice Miller of Harrison Township, introduced or co-sponsored 53 earmarks seeking $28.6 million for 2008-10. Among her 26 solo requests were $394,000 for the Lapeer Regional Medical Center, $300,000 for the Sterling Heights Police Department and $100,000 for the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Department.

Earlier this year, Miller announced her support for a one-year moratorium, saying that although she doesn’t think “all earmarks are bad” and “some provide funding for worthy projects, there is no doubt that the process is broken and many unworthy projects are still funded.”

In Southwest Michigan, Rep. Fred Upton, R- St. Joseph, sought more than 30 earmarks for 2008-10 with a potential $33.2 million price tag. He was the lone sponsor of nine requests, including $142,500 for the St. Joseph County Transportation Authority and $150,000 for Lake Michigan College.

Among Democrats, retiring Rep. Bart Stupak of Menominee sought $136.2 million for 102 earmarks over the same period. They included $190,000 for Mackinac Straits Health System in St. Ignace, $250,000 for the Upper Peninsula 9-1-1 Authority and more than $1 million for Pellston Regional Airport.

In March, Democrat Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township advocated a moratorium on congressional earmarks and promised not to submit any requests of his own for 2010. He said the savings should go toward reducing the federal deficit.

As a result, Peters didn’t seek any solo earmarks during his first term but co-sponsored 15, totaling $12.3 million. Most were requested by fellow Democrats, but he signed onto a $1,025 million request from Rogers, the Brighton Republican, for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.

The only Michigan member of the Appropriations Committee, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Detroit, was the sole requester of 14 earmarks worth a potential $6.5 million. They included $2.7 million to the city of Detroit and $500,000 for the Chapel Hill Children and Youth Art Center in Detroit. In all, she backed 95 requests.

Kilpatrick failed to win renomination in the Democratic primary.

Earmarks can be bipartisan, including times when members of both parties jointly push presidential earmark requests. For example, retiring Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, Walberg and re-elected Rep. John Dingell, D-Trenton, were among the co-sponsors of multimillion dollar earmarks that President Barack Obama wanted to construct barriers on the Chicago River to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes.

It remains difficult to predict the actual impact of the impending GOP-led moratorium on House-sponsored earmarks because the Senate hasn’t adopted a similar policy. The Senate will have a smaller Democratic majority in January, but even some GOP senators still support the earmark practice.


Filed under: Politics

Most lame duck bills quack and die

Capital News Service

LANSING – The phrase ‘lame duck’ was originally used to depict the lack of power and influence of bankrupt businesspeople in the 18th century.

It describes the same characteristics in legislative sessions today, which raises questions about why senators and representatives still bother to introduce legislation during this largely ineffective post-election period.

“Hope springs eternal,” said Jack Holmes, a professor of political science at Hope College. “If it’s fairly routine and noncontroversial, it may have a better shot in lame duck than it does when some fundamental changes are being made in Michigan government in January.”

That’s the reason Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, said he introduced a bill that would allow NASCAR race sites to apply for a single liquor license covering all the venues that sell alcohol.

Currently, each venue must apply for a separate license, although the same company owns and operates all of them.

“It’s noncontroversial. We just weren’t able to find a bill to add it to earlier,” Walsh said. “We all know it needs to be done. Now we have the time to do it, so why not do it?”

Walsh unsuccessfully tried to add the measure to a package of bills regarding liquor control passed earlier this month.

He predicted the new bill will make its way to the governor’s desk before the end of the year since the Senate already passed one version.

Walsh added that although he was re-elected, he chose not to wait until next year because there will be more important issues to discuss then.

“Bills like this can be introduced, but I’ve got to be spending my time on things like the budget, tax issues and regulatory reform in the new year,” Walsh said. “So let’s do the small stuff now.”

Not all legislation introduced in the lame duck period is likely to pass, however.

Sen. Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, recently introduced the “Hunting Heritage” bill that would eliminate the minimum hunting age and provide training to educate parents and their children on safe hunting practices.

Two years ago, the minimum hunting age for firearm deer season dropped from 14 to 12.

Richardville acknowledged he doesn’t expect the latest bill to pass.

“I think that it will require more attention and public commentary,” Richardville said. “My guess about what’s going to happen is that it will bring people’s attention, and it will be reintroduced next session.”

Sen. Judson Gilbert, R-Algonac, also predicted that his recently introduced legislation won’t pass this year. It would transfer leftover sales tax revenue from aviation fuel and products to the state aeronautics fund.

“We need a lot of infrastructural work on airports,” Gilbert said. “But the reality is there’s no chance that this is going to be passed because there’s not enough time to get it through this year.”

Gilbert won’t return to the Senate in January since he is term-limited, but said he’d been approached during the election break and asked to introduce the proposal.

“Hopefully it will create some discussion because a lot of legislators aren’t quite aware of the problem,” Gilbert said.

During this lame duck period, legislators have also introduced bills such as the “Puppy Protection Act” by Rep. Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens, which would regulate treatment of dogs at large breeding kennels, and a bill by Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, that would eliminate Michigan’s film incentives. Both are term-limited and couldn’t seek re-election this month.

Hope’s Holmes, said introducing bills during the lame duck period without expecting them to pass is common, and agreements that wouldn’t happen during normal sessions may happen during lame duck periods.

“Sometimes they’re just trying to make a point,” Holmes said, “but sometimes there’s a compromise that wouldn’t happen regularly. There’s so much to be done – the incoming governor has got to make some very critical and difficult decisions, and legislators might feel they might not have as much attention to these noncritical things during that time.”

Walsh, of Livonia, agreed that the Legislature will shift its focus on Jan. 1 when Republicans control the House, Senate and governorship.

“My intention in January, and I think this is the intention of all of us that have been elected, is that we have serious work to do, and we need to get to it immediately,” Walsh said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Politics

New histories mine Copper Country, disgraced governor

Capital News Service

LANSING – From the miners who dug copper ore from the frigid depths of the Upper Peninsula to the youthful governor who may deserve redemption from the scarlet letter of ignominy, new books are shedding light on Michigan’s past.

In illuminating 150 years of connections between mining companies and communities on the Keweenaw Peninsula, Larry Lankton tracks the birth, boom and bust of the industry that once dominated the nation’s copper production.

When the last mines closed in the 1960s, thousands of workers were left jobless, tax revenue dried up, businesses shut down and families moved away, wrote Lankton, a Michigan Technological University history professor whose examination of the U.P. mining industry began with a 1978 National Park Service project at the Quincy Mine in Hancock. The mine site is now a popular tourist attraction.

“No economic activity on the Keweenaw stepped in to take the core role once played by the mining industry,” he said in “Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, 1840s-1990s” (Wayne State University Press, $34.95).

Even so, the book points to some lingering advantages of the now-defunct copper operations, including historic preservation and tourism. “Perhaps only the natural environment benefited from the economic decline,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Gary Kaunonen, a graduate student at MTU, takes a different approach to mining in the U.P.

He focuses on the immigrants from Finland who, with others from elsewhere in Europe, worked in the mines, and the strife between labor and management.

“Challenge Accepted: A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan’s Copper Country” (Michigan State University Press, $39.95) culminates with a bitter 1913-14 strike.

Almost a century later, the strike is most remembered for tragedy, not for the underlying conflict over unionization and the Finnish workers’ socialist philosophy. That tragedy killed almost 80 people at a crowded Christmas Eve party for multiethnic strikers and their families at Italian Hall in Calumet.

The victims were trampled to death when someone believed to be a management provocateur who falsely yelled “fire” at the party.

Finally, consider the story of John Swainson as a lesson about how perceptions of Michigan history can change.

Swainson, a severely injured World War II veteran, was elected in 1960 as the state’s youngest governor since the 1830s. Although he lost a bid for a second term, he was later elected to the state Supreme Court.

But his judicial career nose-dived with the 1975 federal indictment accusing him of perjury and bribery. Naïve enough to hire a civil rather than criminal defense lawyer for the trial, he was convicted of lying to the grand jury.

Thus Swainson lost his judgeship, his law license, his sobriety and most importantly, his reputation. Although he later served as president of the Michigan Historical Commission, his reputation never fully recovered.

But a new book by Lawrence Glazer, a former Ingham County judge and legal adviser to Gov. James Blanchard, strongly suggests that Swainson was wrongfully convicted.

“Wounded Warrior” (Michigan State University Press, $39.95) doesn’t go as far as saying Swainson was absolutely innocent. However, Glazer attributes the conviction to Swainson’s confusion during his grand jury testimony, the incompetence of his lawyer and the self-interest of the key prosecution witness against him.

“Few have been as worldly and yet as ingenuous as John Swainson,” Glazer writes. “Few have paid a higher price.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Politics

More candidates tweet, post and blog this campaign season

Capital News Service

LANSING—Political candidates in Michigan are increasingly using social media to lure potential voters and share tidbits of information.

One such medium is Facebook, which now boasts more than 500 million users, said Facebook.

The website that once was open only to users with e-mail addresses ending in “edu” now has an average user aged 44, a study by the National Association if State Chief Information Officers said. The study said 61 percent of users are 35 or older.

Other popular social media include Twitter, whose users average 39 years old, according to the survey, and YouTube, which did not have an average age listed.

Michigan is among a dozen states the study identified as “moving full speed ahead” in social media.

State political candidates began using social media seriously in the 2008 election.

Professor Cliff Lampe of the Michigan State University Department of Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media, said he’s been studying the use of social media in politics since early 2005.

“It started full-force in 2004,” he said. “It was really actively used by both parties in 2008.”

More recently, he’s seen a trend of social media use in campaigns where candidates link to news sources and pull people into looking at websites and blogs.

“They really see it as a way to micro-broadcast,” Lampe said.

Senate candidate Chuck Fellows, D-Green Oak Township, said that as a nonincumbent politician, he sought campaign advice from a friend and got a three-word answer: “Internet, Internet, Internet.”

“I use the Web and my website as a major communications device and a major vehicle in communicating my issues to the public,” he said.

Fellows links articles to his Facebook page and website and creates video blogs on YouTube.

Fellows is running against Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, who has Facebook and Twitter and Todd Richardson, Libertarian-Brighton, has Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

The importance of social media in his campaign, Fellows said, is to answer voters’ “whys” and “to allow a teachable moment.”

Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, a Senate candidate, uses Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

“It’s been very helpful in reaching a section of the population that we normally don’t reach,” he said.

Proos said he uses social media to help people understand his policy positions by linking to information sources and to personalize himself by discussing personal matters and posting family pictures.

“I think perhaps they’re informed in snippets,” he said.

Proos’ opponent, Scott Elliott, D-Benton Harbor, doesn’t have a campaign website.

Lampe said he doesn’t expect tweets and status updates, known as sound-bite politics, to increase political awareness or get more voters to the polls because a quick Google search can produce the same information.

“Swaying votes is more of the incentive,” Lampe said.

Fellows, however, said sound-bite politics is what he’s trying to avoid and that’s why he isn’t on Twitter.

“It gets easy to make things trivial, to simplify things,” he said.

Proos said only time will tell whether social media increases voter participation, because this is only the second time social media has been used extensively in Michigan political campaigns.

Lampe said one positive effect is that it’s much easier for voters to see information. However, because a candidate’s followers or “friends” tend to belong to the same political party, they don’t get information arguing against the candidate’s viewpoint.

“I think the real value is a citizen-to-citizen group,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Truth Squad targets false campaign claims

Capital News Service

LANSING—Politicians across the state need more than persuasive advertising to draw voters. They now must be more cautious about the accuracy in their ads.

The Michigan Truth Squad, a nonpartisan project founded by the Center for Michigan, says telling the truth and having the facts aren’t a given for some candidates.

The Center for Michigan is a nonpartisan Ann Arbor think-tank.

The Truth Squad, new to voters this year, investigates claims made through advertising, websites, mailers and other campaign material.

Five Truth Squad referees investigate claims. Based on the findings, referees make a call. Those calls range from a basketball-style flagrant foul to technical foul, regular foul, warning or no foul.

So far, four state House candidates, 16 Senate candidates and both gubernatorial candidates and major parties are among those who’ve had their ads analyzed. Ads by other groups, such as unions and political advocacy organizations have been scrutinized too.

Politicians have mixed reactions to the scrutiny.

“We’ve had candidates who’ve not been pleased that we’ve called fouls on their ads,” said Truth Squad referee Susan Demas. “At the same time, opponents have used that in their own message.”

Whether the reaction is favorable or unfavorable, Demas said politicians pay attention to the assessments.

“Voters depend on candidates having truthful information in their political advertising,” said Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Norton Shores, whose advertising underwent Truth Squad review and received a “no foul” call.

“Being able to verify the truthfulness of political ads helps voters make sound judgments about who to vote for,” she said.

Bruce Vanden Bergh, a Michigan State University advertising professor, said he’s seen a national trend to review political claims on TV shows like the “Keeping them Honest” segment of the Anderson 360° Report on CNN.

“There seems to be a reaction to this blatant exaggeration and distortion that’s happened in the news media,” he said.

But standards aren’t the same for campaign and non-campaign ads because of the First Amendment right of free speech.

“When it comes to politicians, it’s different than commercial advertising that sells a product,” said Vanden Bergh. “When political speech is protected, you can lie in it, as long as it’s not libel.”

Senate candidate David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, received a “technical foul” because he failed to elaborate on how he’d reform tax structure, revitalize the economy and keep education funding.

The Truth Squad criticized him for having agendas, but no plans on acquiring more funding for the projects.

“Higher taxes and/or spending cuts in other areas of the budget would be needed, but LaGrand doesn’t say if he favors higher taxes and/or deep spending cuts,” the Truth Squad said. “He calls for cutting the 22 percent surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax, but doesn’t say how he would make up for the approximate $500 million annual revenue loss.”

Among the other legislative candidates whose ads have been fouled are Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, and Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.

Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, received a technical foul, which means a statement needs additional explanation, for “exaggerated claims about state spending and for vague solutions to problems Schuitmaker identifies in her plan for reforming Michigan government.”

Vanden Bergh said it’s possible that the Truth Squad will affect votes because younger generations get most of their information from the Internet.

The public can check the calls at

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Politics

Dueling bill would cut benefits for legislators

Capital News Service

LANSING – The House may soon vote to repeal retirement health care benefits for current legislators.

Rep. David Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, is the sponsor of a bill that would block those benefits for legislators elected after February 2003. That measure would affect only current lawmakers.

“We’re asking people to take cuts and we’re cutting a lot of government programs, and I think we need to lead by example as the Legislature,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s just too generous of a benefit. Nowhere else in the private sector can you work for six years and receive that kind of a health care benefit.”

Under the current system legislators are eligible to receive retirement health care benefits after serving six years in the House or eight years in the Senate. Legislators are eligible for the benefits at age 55.

The House approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Dian Slavens, D-Canton, to end retirement health care benefits for future legislators beginning with the 2010 election. The bill passed by a near unanimous vote of 103-1 with Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit, as the lone dissenting vote.

Rep. Jennifer Haase, D-Richmond, said that while she wouldn’t vote against Hildenbrand’s bill, his legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that Michigan lawmakers receive lifetime health care after just six years of work, all while our taxpayers foot the bill,” Haase said. “Like the legislation passed by the House, it doesn’t go far enough to get rid of this excessive perk.”

Haase said she will press for Slavens’ new bill, which would abolish legislative benefits for post and present legislators.

“In the meantime, I’ve chosen to voluntarily give up the extravagant benefit,” Haase said.

Hildenbrand said one concern is whether it is constitutional to repeal benefits for current and former lawmakers.

He said the House encountered a similar problem last year when it attempted to reduce the salary of current legislators, and the attorney general ruled that it would be illegal to do so.

Attorney General Mike Cox’s office did not respond to requests for information regarding the issue. If it were unconstitutional, the Legislature and voters could amend the constitution to repeal the benefits, Hildenbrand said.

House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford, and other party heads are leaning toward excluding current and former members, Hildenbrand said.

In 1996, the Legislative Retirement Service (LRS) provided retirement health care benefits to 199 former legislators, their spouses and dependent children at a cost of $6 million. An additional 48 retired lawmakers were entitled to the benefits, but were ineligible to receive them because of the age limitation.

In 2006, 276 people were covered under the LRS, a 39 percent increase, costing approximately $13.9 million. Another 51 retired legislators were entitled to the benefits, but too young.

The annual cost of the current system will continually increase due to the high turnover rate caused by term limits, Hildenbrand said.

“It will save the state millions of dollars in the long run, especially with term limits,” Hildenbrand said of his proposal. “There is a lot of turnover and a lot of people serving six years and then they’re gone. When they turn 55, they’re going to get these benefits and ultimately it’s going to accumulate into a huge liability for the state.”

Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, said he would vote for Hildenbrand’s bill, but is concerned about the way the issue is absorbing the Legislature’s attention.

“It takes our attention away from setting policy,” Haveman said. “These discussions are all just political games played by legislators aimed at making people on the other aisle look bad.”

“They’re not really based on policy, although they might be policy. They’re more about political fights between Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

Haveman said he wished the House bill included current legislators.

Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he supports Hildenbrand’s bill. Jones is also the sponsor of a bill to reduce legislative retirement health care benefits.

Under Jones’s bill, legislators would earn 3 percent annually toward their retirement health care benefits. Legislators who serve six years in the House would not be eligible for benefits although those who also serve a minimum of 10 years in the Legislature would be eligible for 30 percent.

Rep. Richard Ball, R-Bennington Township, said he would vote to eliminate current and former member’s benefits but believes the Legislature needs to compromise.

Ball is the sponsor of another bill to restructure benefits based on time served that would allow legislators to earn 5 percent annually toward their retirement health care benefits.

Under Ball’s legislation, a lawmaker who served six years in the House would receive 30 percent coverage, and a legislator who served an additional eight years in the Senate would receive 70 percent coverage.

“You cannot justify what we have now, but on the other hand repealing all benefits isn’t fair either,” Ball said. “So I don’t favor the total ban. I would rather structure it similar to the state’s system.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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