Feb 26, 2008

Recall developments continue as the clock ticks

Recall developments continue as the clock ticks

The recalls of Michigan lawmakers saw a few new developments this week as one group launched a court challenge and another saw its recall language rejected.

The Michigan Taxpayer Alliance (MTA) is attempting to recall primarily Democratic lawmakers who voted to increase taxes in October, and the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) is retaliating by going after a Republican in a leadership position.

On Monday the Oakland County Election Commission rejected the petition language for House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, as unclear for a second time. The recall cites his vote against repealing the state's pharmaceutical company immunity law that allows consumers to sue drug companies who cause death and injury through negligence, and the recall is being led by the MDP. Under current law Michigan is the only state where residents cannot sue drug companies for damages.

Lawyers for MTA’s campaign to recall state Rep. Robert Dean, D-Grand Rapids, decided Monday to appeal a Kent County Circuit Court judge’s Feb. 14 ruling that refused to allow out-of-district residents to collect signatures for the recall petition, according to the Grand Rapids Press. Under Michigan election law, the people collecting the recall signatures be registered voters in the district of the person being recalled. Circuit Judge James Redford ruled the state laws governing recalls did not infringe on political speech. Redford ruled that state could restrict recall drives to residents of the affected district.

Under election law there must be no more than 90 days between the first and last signature, and the Dean recall began in mid-December. The MTA has until mid-March to collect the 8,714 signatures to place the up or down recall question on the next ballot.

Language has already been approved in the recalls against Rep. Marty Griffin, D-Jackson; House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township; Rep. Marc Corriveau, D-Northville; Rep. Ed Gaffney, R-Grosse Pointe Farms; Rep. Steve Bieda, D-Warren; Dean, and Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi, D-Farmington Hills.

Recalls pending against lawmakers who had recall language rejected include Rep. Mike Simpson, D-Liberty Township, Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak; DeRoche; Sen. Jerry Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores; Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, and Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Muskegon.

Senior citizen advocates say nursing home takeover by Carlyle Group is troublesome

LANSING - The controversy surrounding the acquisition of HCR Manor, a large operator of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, by the Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms, is shaping up as the classic tension between profit and the best care possible.

The Michigan House of Representatives' Health Policy Committee and the Senior Health, Security and Retirement Committee held a joint hearing on the situation Thursday, and the age-old balance between profit versus the common good was on prominent display.

“The question is how do we maintain good, quality care for our seniors in this situation,” said Rep. Robert Jones, D-Kalamazoo, the chair of the senior health committee. “We are also very interested in maintaining transparency in this process.”

Some Republicans on the committee were upset that a for-profit company was being cast in a negative light just because it is trying to make a profit for investors.

“It’s hard not to be aggravated because this entire conversation is about profit,” said Rep. Kevin Green, R-Wyoming. “There is nothing wrong with making a profit because making a profit is what made this country great and fueled innovation and efficiency.”

Health Policy Chair Rep. Kathy Angerer, D-Dundee, said it’s not wrong to profit from providing health care, but that profit should never come at the cost of cutting quality health care.

“I am not against anyone making a reasonable profit, but not at the expense of the health care and the well-being of our senior citizens,” she said.

Sarah Slocum, the Michigan Long-Term Care Ombudsman, testified that the main problem she sees is that Carlyle Group is not a health care provider, and its main goal is to return a profit to investors.

“Their mission is to produce a profit for investors, not to maintain quality,” she said. “There are opportunities to squeeze certain areas to make more of a profit.”

Slocum said 75 percent of the costs in a nursing home are medical expenses paid for by Medicaid but the other 25 percent are what can be squeezed and cut to increase profit. Those include staffing costs, linens, vendors, supplies and food. She said the investment group could just put the word out to operators to increase profits and cut costs, not caring how that’s done.

Toledo, Ohio-based HCR Manor operates more than 500 nursing and rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities, outpatient rehabilitation clinics, and hospice and home health care agencies all over the country employing some 60,000 people. The ownership transfer of HCR Manor has already taken place.

Rep. Fulton Sheen, R-Plainwell, said he is a licensed financial planner, and investment groups like Carlyle Group buy companies in varied fields that are already profitable and well-run. He said the management team that operates the nursing homes will stay in place, and more government regulation will only cause more problems and increase costs.

“For 20 years I have watched and read about what Carlyle has done,” he said. “There is a lot of misinformation about what the Carlyle Group does.”

But Slocum said it is because the people in nursing homes are so vulnerable that there are such strict regulations governing them.

“I think the regulations are hard to meet, and that’s the way it should be,” she said. “The regulations are there for a reason.”

Mark Cody, an attorney with Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, a nonprofit group that protects the human and legal rights of people with disabilities, said the problem with large corporations and investment groups owning nursing homes is it’s hard to find out who is responsible or who actually owns it when a problem occurs, and he urged the committees to enact strict transparency rules.

“I recently looked at booking hotels online for a family vacation,” he said. “I found more information about the hotels I was considering than a nursing home I was considering putting my mother-in-law in.”

Neither committee took any action, and more hearings will be held on the transfer.

Feb 25, 2008

Medical mariujana clears Michigan ballot hurdle

A citizen initiative that will allow people with serious illnesses to legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes appears to the first of many possible initiatives to make it on the November ballot.

The Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care (MCCC) turned in 474,752 signatures -- 304,101 were required -- for the measure to go on the ballot, and the deadline for any group or citizen to challenge the validity of signatures has passed. All that is left is for the secretary of state's office to do a statistical study of a sample of the signatures before it's sent to the Michigan Legislature.

“They are in the process of verifying the signatures, but they are not under any hard deadline to complete it,” said Dianne Byrum, the spokesperson for the MCCC. “We have a very high degree of certainty that they will be verified.”

Under Michigan election law, once the signatures are verified the initiative will be sent to the Legislature, where lawmaker will have three options. Within 45 days they must enact it, reject it, or do nothing and it will be on the ballot. If they reject it, it will also go on the ballot. If approved by voters it will become law.

According to the MCCC, the initiative is passed it will allow terminally and seriously ill patients who find relief from marijuana to use it with their doctors' approval by protecting them from arrest and prosecution. It will permit qualifying patients or their caregivers to cultivate limited amounts of their own marijuana for their medical use. The law will create registry identification cards, so that law enforcement officials could easily tell who was a registered patient, and it will establish penalties for false statements and fraudulent ID cards. The initiative also will allow patients and their caregivers who are arrested to discuss their medical use in court.

There does not appear to be any organized opposition to the initiative, but there seems to be plenty of support. Just this month the American College of Physicians, the nation's largest medical specialty organization and the second largest physician group in the United States, released a report supporting the use of medical marijuana for seriously ill people.

The Michigan measure is part of a nationwide effort by the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which has been successful in passing medical marijuana initiatives in 12 states. The MCCC raised $1.074 million, and the nonprofit MPP donated more than $1 million of that.

Bills advocating medical marijuana have been introduced in almost every legislative session since 2002, but they have gone nowhere. The latest attempt is House Bill 4038,introduced on Jan. 22, 2007, by Rep. LaMar Lemmons Jr., D-Detroit.

“It has reached a point where it is not a question of health or research, it’s a political question,” Byrum said.

Opponents have argued that state medical marijuana laws put the states in violation of federal law, but Byrum said states are free to determine how they penalize drug offenses. State governments cannot directly violate federal law by giving marijuana to patients, but states can refuse to arrest patients who grow their own. She also said the other states that have enacted medical marijuana laws have been left alone, and 99 percent of drug enforcement is by local law enforcement agencies.

“The feds could come in for enforcement, but it is highly unlikely that the feds would come in and arrest a person for using medical marijuana,” she said.

Some critics have charged that this and other marijuana initiatives bypass the strict federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) drug approval process. Byrum said there is already enough scientific evidence to establish that marijuana is a safe and effective medicine for some people, and it has been used in the past for medicinal purposes. It was legal for medical purposes until 1942, when it was removed because federal legislation made the drug illegal.

“The federal government has put up a wall to further research, and you can’t even get past the federal government to do any more research on medical marijuana,” Byrum said.

Feb 22, 2008

McCain campaign co-chair indicted for corruption

On the heels of Republican Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain defending his alleged improper role with a lobbyist, the Bloomberg News is reporting the Arizona co-chair of his campaign has been indicted for corruption.

U.S. Rep Rick Renzi, a Republican from Arizona, was indicated by a federal grand jury Friday in an alleged scheme to profit from a land deal. He is also accused of embezzling money from insurance clients to fund his congressional campaign.

The U.S. Justice Department alleged in the 35-count indictment that Renzi offered to sponsor legislation to help a company seeking to swap land with the federal government if it purchased property owned by his alleged co-conspirator, real estate developer James Sandlin. The indictment also includes charges of conspiracy, money laundering, insurance fraud and wire fraud. The arraignment will be on March 6 in U.S. District Court in Tucson, according to the report.

The Renzi investigation was highlighted during a congressional inquiry last year into the Bush administration's firings of nine U.S. attorneys. One of the dismissed prosecutors, Paul Charlton, had been in charge of the probe. Democrats claimed then that the firings might have been carried out to slow or stop public corruption cases against Republicans.

On Wednesday the New York Times reported in a front page story that McCain might have done legislative favors for the clients of a lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. The Huffington Post is also reporting that lobbyists are playing a major role in McCain’s campaign, and he has at least double the number of lobbyists in major roles in his campaign than any of the other three leading presidential candidates.

Feb 21, 2008

MDP names new Communications Director

The Michigan Democratic Party will have a new person crafting its outgoing message with the hiring of Elizabeth Kerr of Lansing as the party’s new communications director.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, announced from the Senate floor Thursday that Kerr will be leaving her position as deputy communications director for the Senate Democratic Caucus to take the new post.

The position at the MDP has been vacant for the past month after former director Jason Moon left to become the public information officer at the Office of Financial and Insurance Services (OFIS).

Kerr will be responsible for all party internal communications, including the party newsletter, the Web page and e-mail alerts, and perhaps more importantly she will be responsible for getting the party’s’ message out to the media via press conferences, press releases, press briefings and advertisements.

Feb 18, 2008

Former GOP speaker speaks out against recall attempt

Former Republican Speaker of the House Rick Johnson, R-Leroy, has published an editorial denouncing the recall attempt of Rep. Mike Simpson, D-Liberty Township.

The Michigan Taxpayer Alliance, led by Republican Macomb County Commissioner and former state Representative Leon Drolet, is leading recalls against primarily Democratic lawmakers who voted for the increase of the income tax and the sales tax on some services -- since repealed -- that avoided a government shutdown and helped balanced the state budget last October.

Johnson’s editorial defending Simpson was published in the Feb. 14 edition of the Jackson Citizen Patriot, and Johnson calls Simpson “an outstanding public servant who puts the people of mid-Michigan ahead of partisan politics.”

Johnson was first elected to the House in 1998, and he served two terms as the Speaker of the House until 2004. He served with Drolet, but Johnson had some harsh words for Drolet’s effort, calling his group extremist and radical.

“Now, an extremist group wants to recall Mike — by any measure a dedicated public servant who has acted in the best interests of our citizens. This radical group wants to tear our community apart and divide our citizens through misrepresentations, distortions and deception. While Mike invests in our common future, this group wants to send Michigan backward.”

Also on the recall effort, the leaders of the Republican caucus in the Michigan House and Senate - House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester - called for no state party to take action to issue a recall at the Michigan Republican Party convention in Lansing on Friday. The Michigan Democratic Party is pushing a - some say - token recall against DeRoche in retaliation for the recall launched against Democratic Speaker of the House Andy Dillon.

Although the Michigan Republican Party is not officially involved in the recalls, party officials have been hauling a prop around the state called the “Michigan Taxpayers' Check” to the districts of Democratic lawmakers where recalls are going on.

Earlier this month the MTA filed new recall language against Simpson after the Jackson County Elections Commission rejected six previous petitions for not having clear language. Also earlier this month the Oakland County Election Commission filed an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals after a Circuit Court Judge ruled that the recall petition language against Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, was unclear. In other recall attempts, the same Oakland County Commission rejected the petition language for DeRoche, and Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi, D-Farmington Hills, is appealing his approved language to circuit court.

Recall language has already been approved in the recalls against Rep. Marty Griffin, D-Jackson; House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township; Rep. Marc Corriveau, D-Northville; Rep. Ed Gaffney, R-Grosse Pointe Farms; Rep. Steve Bieda, D-Warren; Rep. Robert Dean, D-Grand Rapids; and Vagnozzi. Recalls pending against lawmakers who had recall language rejected include Simpson, Donigan, DeRoche, Sen. Jerry Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores; Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch; and Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Muskegon.

Minor political parties hope to move up to the big leagues

The race for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees has captured the nation's attention and taught us some new words, such as caucus, delegate counts and super-delegates.

But what about the nomination process for the so-called minor parties such as the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Natural Law Party? Each political party sets their own nomination process, and that may include an election, a caucus or a convention. Each state sets the standard for how the party appears on the ballot. Just gaining access to and getting on the ballot is often the biggest hurdle for most third parties, and rarely does the party gain ballot access in every state.

In Michigan, the Republican and Democratic parties are designated major parties, and as such they are the only parties that will appear on the ballot for the Aug. 5 primary election when the two parties will choose their candidates to run in November for local partisan offices and state representative. The standard for a major party to appear on the primary ballot is to have at least 5 percent of the votes received by the winning Secretary of State candidate in the election, which is held in even-numbered years. The hurdle from the Nov. 7, 2006, election was 186,096 votes.

For the minor parties to appear on the ballot for the Nov. 4, 2008, general election, the top-of-the-ticket candidate – whether it’s a presidential candidate or a hopeful for a statewide office such as a university trustee position – must receive at least 1 percent of the vote the successful Secretary of State candidate received in the Nov. 7, 2006, general election. The parties qualified for this November are the Green Party of Michigan, the U.S. Taxpayers Party of Michigan, the Libertarian Party of Michigan and the Natural Law Party. That only applies to Michigan, and even though the Green Party, for example, may have a strong presidential candidate, the candidate may not be on the ballot in a more conservative state.

A coalition of the state minor parties have partnered with the Michigan Third Party Coalition (MTPC) to try to end public funding of primary elections and to push a Voters Bill of Rights to end political discrimination against independent voters.

“We are calling it discrimination,” said Will Tyler White, a member of the Libertarian Party of Michigan executive board. “If you are not a Republican or Democrat, you are discriminated against.”

White said the presidential primary fiasco in Michigan really illustrates their point, especially in light of talk that the Democrats are considering holding a caucus because the national Democratic Party refuses to seat Michigan delegates.

“This is a waste of millions of tax-payer dollars for a private entity,” he said.

Those parties that did not meet the necessary threshold in November 2006 can still qualify to be on the general election ballot with a petition drive. They must first file as a new political party even if they have been around for many years. The party must collect petition signatures equal to 1 percent of the votes cast for the governor. That comes out to 38,013 signatures, and the deadline for turning in petitions is 4 p.m. July 17, 2008.

The U.S. Taxpayers Party of Michigan will choose its candidates at its state convention on May 3 at the Okemos Christian Center. Party Treasurer Joe Sanger said more than 50 people have expressed an interest, and the party hopes to have more than 100 candidates from county commissioner to state representative on the ballot.

“We have a nominating committee, and they will be nominated at the convention,” he said. “We try and get them vetted before the convention.”

The U.S. Taxpayers Party is part of the conservative Constitution Party. The official name of the party was changed from Taxpayers Party to Constitution Party in 1999, but many states still carry the Taxpayer name. The Constitution Party advocates a Bible-based platform, which it claims reflects the original intent of the U.S. Constitution and the principles of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Sanger said some tenets of the platform include eliminating the federal income tax in favor of a tariff. The national party will hold its convention April 23-26 in Kansas City to choose its presidential candidate.

“We expect to have a large delegation from Michigan,” Sanger said.

One of the largest third parties in the country is the Green Party, and it has reached major-party status in some states, meaning its candidates are on the primary ballot. The party attracts many liberals and environmentalists. The party had a big effect on the 2000 presidential election between former Vice President Al Gore and former Texas Gov. George Bush. Many Democrats claim Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader siphoned off Democratic votes for Gore in many states, helping Bush win.

Green presidential candidates took part in four primaries on Super Tuesday, and former Democrat U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney from Georgia won in Arkansas and Illinois. Nader took California. The Green Party will hold its 2008 national convention in Chicago from July 10-13.

A party that has the potential to drain voters from the Republican Party is the Libertarian Party. Republican presidential candidate Texas Congressman Ron Paul was the party’s presidential candidate in 1988, and he garnered 432,179 popular votes. The Michigan group has a message on its Web site inviting Paul supporters to join the Libertarian Party. However, Paul said he plans to concentrate on his presidential campaign as a Republican, but that could always change by convention time in Denver.

“He brought a lot of visibility to the party,” White said. “There are a lot of Libertarians supporting him.”

The Libertarian Party has a strong conservative bent, and its traditional platform includes minimum regulation, strong civil liberties, open borders and non-interventionism in foreign policy that respects freedom of trade and travel to all foreign countries.

The party will hold its national convention to choose its presidential nominee May 22-26 in Denver. The Libertarian Party of Michigan will hold its state convention June 7-8 at the Best Western Gateway Hotel in Romulus.

The Natural Law Party was founded in the United States in 1992 in Fairfield, Iowa, by a group of educators, business leaders and lawyers who practiced Transcendental Meditation. Despite growing ballot access, the Natural Law Party officially disbanded its national organization on April 30, 2004, although a few state parties still remain active. The state party does not have a Web site, and the party chair did not return repeated phone calls.

There are numerous other smaller third parties in the country, but only four in Michigan - the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Natural Law Party - have ballot access. Currently, there are no parties seeking ballot status, according to the Michigan Secretary of State. One party not on the ballot in Michigan is the Reform Party of Michigan, and the party stands for a balanced federal budget. However, party officials in Michigan said they do not plan to try to get on the ballot this election.

“It takes a major effort to get on the ballot,” said Matt Johnson, of Ironwood, the vice chair of the party in Michigan. “It generally takes a big name and lot of money to do it.”

Boston founder tells Huckabee to sing a different tune

Another Republican presidential candidate has been called out for the unauthorized use of a rock song as part of their campaign. This time it’s former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Boston founder Tom Scholz objecting to the use of the ’70s hit “More than a feeling.”

Huckabee has even performed the song with one-time Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau - who played briefly with the band in 1980 – at campaign events with Huckabee on bass. Scholz formed the band in 1975. The former MIT graduate and mechanical engineer had recorded most of debut album in his basement studio, and he wrote “More than a feeling” and played all of the guitar parts in the song that reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts in 1976.

Scholz is a Barack Obama supporter. He wrote a letter to Huckabee asking him to stop using the song, and he also said playing with Goudreau does not imply permission.

“Boston has never endorsed a political candidate, and with all due respect, would not start by endorsing a candidate who is the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for,” Scholz wrote.

Earlier this month liberal rocker John Mellencamp objected to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain using his songs at presidential rallies, causing McCain to sing a different tune.

Feb 13, 2008

Petition drive to eliminate state income tax in favor of an increased sales tax kicks off

LANSING -- Saying Michigan was broken, state Rep. Fulton Sheen, R-Plainwell, held press conferences across the state to kickoff the petition drive to place an amendment to the state constitution on the November ballot that will allow implementation of the Michigan Fair Tax Proposal.

The Fair Tax Proposal would completely eliminate the recently enacted Michigan Business Tax (MBT), personal property tax, the 6-mill business education tax and the Michigan Income Tax in favor of a 9.75 percent sales tax on goods, food and services purchased in Michigan. That's a 3.75 percent increase from the current 6 percent sales tax. Business-to-business transactions would be exempt.

"Michigan is broken," Sheen said. "At this point in time we have a 7.6 percent unemployment rate while the nation is at just 4.6 percent. The entire national economy is headed for trouble, and that will have even more of a negative effect on Michigan."

The Houston-based Americans For Fair Taxation (AFFT), formed in 1995, is helping finance the ballot initiative with an eye on making the system national. But Sheen is pushing the Michigan Fair Tax Proposal Committee. AFFT has close ties with Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor is a big promoter of the tax plan, and the group has a large presence at his events, handing out literature and other activities. AFFT's former Chief Operating Officer recently left AFFT to work on the Huckabee campaign.

The committee held press conferences in Lansing, Pontiac, Flint and Grand Rapids Tuesday, and the committee has to collect the signatures of 381,000 registered voters before the 90-day window expires on July 7. The committee hopes to collect up to 500,000 signatures to be safe and to withstand any possible challenges.

"Today is an important day, an historic day," said Rep. Rick Shaffer, R-Three Rivers. "It's going to have a snowball effect, pardon the pun. When people see the benefits of the fair tax, people will support it."

Sheen introduced House Joint Resolution L on May 8, 2007 with 36 Republican co-sponsors, and the resolution was referred to the House Committee on Tax Policy where it is awaiting a hearing. Sheen said he introduced the resolution three years ago because the Legislature said one of its goals was to reform the tax system to make it more streamlined and simple.

The resolution has little chance of getting any traction in the Democratic-controlled House, but no proposal has been introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"What we have when the governor will not listen and the Legislature will not act, then way to go is the ballot proposal," Sheen said. "Why is it in Michigan the very same thing it wants to attract it taxes, jobs."

Sheen said Michigan residents make all of their purchases with after tax dollars, but with the fair tax proposal all purchases will be made with pre-tax dollars. He said although the sales tax increase is 3.75 cents for every dollar, taxpayers will instead keep 4.35 cents from every dollar. All Michigan residents would receive a monthly rebate to offset the additional items that will be taxed, such as food and services that are not now subject to the sales tax.

Sheen said the sales tax would also cash in on Michigan's vibrant tourism industry because a large amount of our tax burden would be picked up by non-residents who spend money here on goods and services while on vacations.

"Every person who comes here to fish, hunt or boat will pay the tax," he said. "We will export out tax."

Feb 11, 2008

Low-birth-weight babies and infant mortality becoming problems in Michigan

LANSING -- Fewer Michigan teens are binge drinking and smoking, but more children are overweight and exercising too little.

That's the finding of the 2007 Kids Count in Michigan report, which warns that unless the state acts more decisively in the next few years, it will fail to meet many national standards for healthy children, families and neighborhoods.

Jane Zehnder-Merrell, senior research associate at the Michigan League for Human Services (MLHS) and project director, recently presented the report's finding to the Michigan Legislature Children's Caucus. The report had both good and bad news for Michigan policymakers and children's advocates.

The report examines 18 wide-ranging health goals for children and teens that are set by the Healthy People (HP) 2010, a national initiative to advance health and well-being. The report points out Michigan is making progress, but it is not fast enough to meet the goals in many areas. Minority children and youth are further behind in meeting most of the targets.

Of the 18 objectives, Michigan met three indications. They are immunization of toddlers, teen pregnancies and physical fitness. Michigan is also making substantial improvements in lessening binge drinking and tobacco use, but it has not yet met the goals.

“The good news is we have met three of the indicators,” Zehnder-Merrell said. “This is an indication of what can be done when we address the issues.”

Michigan is performing even worse in four indicators: low-birth-weight babies, high school students being overweight, a lack of vigorous exercise, and confirmed victims of abuse and neglect. The state is also showing little or no progress in these four indicators: infant mortality, asthma, young child deaths and prenatal care.

“It goes to show the lack of support for young families,” Zehnder-Merrell said. “It behooves us to look at child health in Michigan.”

Infant mortality and low birth weight are major concerns in Michigan. The report points to the $4 billion in cuts to the state budget since 2000 as a reason for the problem. Michigan has also seen a 36 percent increase in child poverty between 2000 and 2005.

Zehnder-Merrell said the report should also be taken in the context of the United States’ position in child well-being among industrialized nations -- 21st.

The Michigan League for Human Services (MLHS) is a statewide nonprofit organization consisting of more than 1,900 member organizations dedicated to education, research and advocacy for the benefit of low-income and other vulnerable citizens.

Feb 10, 2008

Recall efforts continue to take twists and turns

The old saying that “you need a scorecard to know the players” can apply to the recall efforts against primarily Democratic lawmakers.

Developments occur almost daily over the attempt to recall lawmakers who voted for the increase of the income tax and the sales tax on some services – since repealed - that avoided a government shutdown and helped balanced the state budget on Oct. 1., and all of it is going on as the clock ticks toward the November General Election when all recall efforts – at least for state Representative – will become moot.

The Michigan Recalls Organization, another recall effort headed by Republican Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, helped file new recall petitions against Rep. Mike Simpson, D-Liberty Township, after the Jackson County Elections Commission rejected six previous petitions for not having clear language.

However, the Jackson County commission did approve recall language against Rep. Marty Griffin, D-Jackson, last week.

The Oakland County Election Commission was also busy last week. Just the day after an Oakland County Circuit Court Judge ruled that the recall petition language against Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, was unclear, the commission, led by clerk and former Republican state Representative Ruth Johnson, filed an appeal of that decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The same Commission rejected the petition language for House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi. The recall cites his vote against repealing the state's pharmaceutical company immunity law that allows consumers to sue drug companies who cause death and injury through negligence. Additionally, another Oakland County lawmaker, Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi, D-Farmington Hills, is appealing his approved language to circuit court.

According to Michigan election law, the petition circulator must collect only those signatures of voters registered in the House District of the lawmaker being recalled, and the person collecting the signatures must also be a registered voter in that district. The petitions must contain the signatures equal to at least 25 percent for all the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in the district of the lawmaker being recalled. That comes out to 7,627 signatures to force a recall vote for Griffin and 8,700 signatures for Simpson.

The clock may even be a bigger factor in the recall effort. Michigan Election Law says that a recall petition cannot be filed against an elected official during the last six months of the officer's term of office, and that puts the drop-dead date in May for the November ballot Additionally, the language is good for 180 days, but the actual petition drive for signatures must be within 90 days. In other words, there must be 90 days between the first and last signature.

Recall language has already been approved in the recalls against Griffin; House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township; Rep. Marc Corriveau, D-Northville; Rep. Ed Gaffney, R-Grosse Pointe Farms; Rep. Steve Bieda, D-Warren; Rep. Robert Dean, D-Grand Rapids; and Vagnozzi. Recalls pending against lawmakers who had recall language rejected include Simpson, Donigan, DeRoche, Sen. Jerry Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores; Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch; and Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Muskegon.

Feb 8, 2008

Legislature gets first look at Governor’s proposed budget

LANSING – The budget process began Thursday when State Budget Director Bob Emerson presented Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s 2009 Executive Budget to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Appropriation Committees.

The path to approving the current budget was cloaked in controversy, strife, anger, a brief government shutdown and tax increases that spurred recalls of lawmakers. But all parties expect the next budget that must be approved by Oct. 1 to go much smoother. The $44.8 billion budget goes a long way toward eliminating the structural deficit facing the budget over the past five years, and it contains no new taxes or new fees.

“You have set an aggressive schedule,” Emerson told the two committees. “We look forward to working with you to make these deadlines.”

The presentation was low key, and the chairs of the two committees only allowed members to ask questions instead of making statements, for the most part. That’s in sharp contrast to last year when the state faced a deficit in the current budget and a projected $1.8 billon deficit in the then pending budget.

“On the surface, I am encouraged that there are no new taxes and fees for the first time in my tenure here,” said Rep. Daniel Acciavatti, R-Chesterfield. “But I am concerned with all the one time money.”

Emerson said higher than expected revenue, lower cases loads in many departments, tight spending controls and refinancing debt at lower interest rates helped eliminate the structural deficits. The budget includes a $100 million deposit in the “Rainy Day” Fund – the Budget Stabilization Fund - and it’s the first deposit in the fund in five years. It also includes $235 million in additional reductions, savings and reforms and a two-year economic stimulus package of more than $1.8 billon.

“The solution we chose stops putting the fix into the future,” Emerson said.

The budget includes an increase in the per pupil foundation grant of $108-$216 and a 3 percent increase in funding for Michigan’s colleges and universities.

“The increases will take another step toward closing the funding gap between school districts,” Emerson said.

The budget also calls for a 4 percent increase in statutory revenue sharing after years of cuts. This is money that goes to local units of government, and they use it to fund a number of local services, such as police and fire services. Since 2001 Michigan has lost more than 1,600 police officers because of budget constraints.

“This is the first time revenue sharing has been increased since 2001,” Emerson said.

Another measure to help local governments is the creation of Mental Health Courts that will ease overcrowding of local jails. The budget calls for $3.35 million to fund five pilot programs. Often, non-violent people with mental problems end up in local jails where the get no treatment and the problem gets worse.

“I applaud the money for the mental health courts,” said Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor. “I think it’s historic.”

Feb 7, 2008

Recall against Donigan derailed

An Oakland County Circuit Court Judge ruled Wednesday that the recall petition language against Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, was unclear, putting a stop to almost three months of work by Stop Hurting Michigan's Kids to recall her.

The three-person Oakland County Election Commission approved recall language on the petitions that were to be circulated by a vote of 2-1 back in November, but this ruling negates that decision. The Michigan Taxpayer Alliance is leading a statewide effort to recall primarily Democratic legislators who voted to increase the state income tax and place a since repealed sales tax on some services that helped balance the state budget and erase a $1.8 billon budget deficit.

Recall language has already been approved in the recalls against House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township; Rep. Marc Corriveau, D-Northville; Rep. Ed Gaffney, R-Grosse Pointe Farms, and Rep. Steve Bieda, D-Warren; Rep. Robert Dean, D-Grand Rapids; and Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi, D-Farmington Hills.

Recalls pending against lawmakers who had recall language rejected include Sen. Jerry Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores; Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch and Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Muskegon.

McCain his sour note with rocker Mellencamp

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain can officially start his campaign for President after his nearest competitor, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, bowed out, but McCain will have to change the tunes he plays at his campaign events after liberal rocker John Mellencamp pulled the plug on McCain using his songs.

The McCain camp has been playing Mellencamp hits “Our Country” – which Chevrolet uses very heavily in its TV ads – and "Pink Houses." Mellencamp is a liberal, and he most recently supported former North Carolina Democratic Senator John Edwards for president before he dropped out of the race.

Apparently, Mellencamp had his publicist contact the McCain campaign to ask them to stop using the songs, and published reports said Mellencamp wanted to know why someone who is trying to woo the conservative vote would want to be associated with songs that glorify the working man and labor. The McCain camp quietly stopped using the songs.

Mellencamp hails from the border state of Indiana, growing up in the small town of Seymour. His impressive body of work that has earned him enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month has solidly identified him as a icon of bedrock small town, Midwestern values, singing about the plight of farmers, small town life and poverty.

He has been an activist for the poor and the farmer, and in the '80s Mellencamp teamed up with country singer Willie Nelson to raise money for farmers with the Farm-Aid concerts.

No word on what music we can expect to hear at future McCain events.

I wonder who Bob Seger is endorsing?

Feb 5, 2008

Ballot questions could swamp November ballot

It appears the November ballot will be crowded with numerous ballot proposals that range from the popular to bordering on the ridiculous.

On Monday the Michigan State Board of Canvassers approved the language for form for six ballot proposals. That’s in addition to two that were approved in December and one that has already collected enough signatures to go on the ballot to bring the number to nine possible ballot proposals facing voters on Nov. 4.

The four-person partisan board approved the petitions for language only, and that allows the committees to begin collecting signatures. The language is good for 180 days, and petitioners have 90 days between when the first and last signatures are gathered to turn the petitions in to the Secretary of State.

Those petitions approved Monday include The Michigan Fair Tax Proposal Committee, which is proposing to replace three of the state's major taxes with a 9.75 percent sales tax. It would replace the state income tax, the new Michigan Business Tax and the state personal and real taxes on business property for school funding. The current sales tax is 6 percent. The ballot committee has planned a series of press conferences around the state on February 12 to pass out petitions, and they will be held in Pontiac, Flint, Lansing and Wyoming.

The Stem Cell Research Committee is pushing a proposal that would allow the use of stem cells from donated human embryos less than 14 days old. The embryos would have to have been created for "fertility treatment" and would otherwise have been discarded. The person seeking the fertility treatment would have to give written consent for the embryos to be used for research.

The Proportional Senate Committee would expand the Senate to 50 members at-large statewide instead of having Senators representing districts, with each having a vote proportional to the popular vote each received during the election.

The Personal Education Account Committee would require lawmakers to provide every child with "funding to support education on a per pupil basis which shall be controlled by the parent(s) or legal guardian(s) of each child respectively."

The Committee to Turn Michigan Around would require that legislative sessions end by May 31 each year, with no more than 100 regular session days. The governor, Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House could call a special session each year of no more than 15 days.

The People's Choice Tax Repeal had language approved Monday after being rejected in December. It would amend the state constitution to mandate an election if the Legislature creates a new tax, continues a tax, reduces a tax deduction or tax credit, or increases the effective rate or base of tax.

Those petitions approved in December include Madison Heights-based Health Care for Michigan that would amend the state constitution to require the Legislature to pass laws to ensure that "every Michigan resident has affordable and comprehensive health care coverage through a fair and cost-effective financing system."

Saginaw-based Part-Time Legislature Ballot Question Committee was also approved in December. It calls for a part-time Legislature; calls for cutting the salaries of lawmakers from $79,650 to $40,000 a year with a 1 percent deduction for each day absent; eliminates post-service pensions, retirement benefits, medical or life insurance; sets the legislative session from March to July; limits special sessions to just 20 days per year and requires the governor to submit a budget within the first three days of session.

The Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care has already collected enough signatures to place the question on the ballot to allow the medical marijuana.

Gift of life killed: State orders doctor to stop giving unused drugs to poor

HOWELL – Some people consider it a crime to throw away perfectly good prescription drugs that can cost as much $200 and that can be used to save someone who can’t afford their own drugs. Howell physician Louis "Pat" May is one of those people.

But the semiretired general practitioner, who is 85, found out recently he might be committing a crime. He was visited by a supervisor with the Michigan Department of Community Health after it was discovered he was illegally recycling unused drugs to his low-income patients.

“Doc” May, as he is affectionately known around the city where he has been practicing medicine for almost 60 years, began advertising in a local newspaper last month seeking donations of used medical equipment and unused drugs. And that apparently brought the long arm of the law to his office door.

May has agreed to stop accepting drugs; he will continue to accept medical equipment. He is, however, disappointed at not being able to give the drugs to his patients. May sees patients two hours a day for a small office-visit fee, and for two hours each Sunday morning he sees patients for free. Most of his patients do not have health insurance so he charges what they can afford.

“I would prefer not to deal with insurance companies anyway,” he said. “We see a lot of people with no insurance, and we can vary the price for them.”

Although May has only sought recycled medical supplies for less than a month, he has gotten a great response. He said a lot of the giving has been from people who lost loved ones and no longer need the supplies. “I personally think that is part of the grieving process,” he said. “It’s one of the perceptions for grief.”

May is not happy with the ban and the control the state has on physicians, and he hopes the law can be changed. He said the price of some prescription drugs is outrageous and he feels pharmacists have surpassed medical doctors in importance and freedom.

“In the state of Michigan they are trying to control everything from aspirin to Alka-Seltzer,” he said.

But recycling drugs in Michigan is not unprecedented. The Cancer Drug Repository Program allows unopened drugs to be donated to a pharmacy, hospital, nonprofit clinic or health-care professional that elects to participate in the program.

There is a bill in the Michigan House of Representative that would allow all drugs except narcotics to be donated for indigent patients. House Bill 4897 was introduced by Rep. Lisa Wojno, D-Warren, last June but it’s stalled in the House Health Policy Committee.

News of May’s troubles reached all the way to Oklahoma, where retired physician Gerald Gustafson of the Tulsa County Medical Society heard about it. He helped put that state’s drug recycling statute in place, and he wrote May to urge him to try and find a legislative fix.

The Oklahoma program goes much further than Michigan’s proposed law. It allows the transfer of opened prescription drugs from nursing homes to the Tulsa County Pharmacy for distribution to low-income patients, with the exception of controlled substances.

Gustafson said the program has won national awards and has lowered the cost of medication for indigents in Tulsa County. It has also removed pollutants from the sewer system, lessened labor at nursing homes and relieved family, friends and nonprofit agencies from paying for the medications, allowing their funds to be applied elsewhere. Since the program began in 2005 it has filled prescriptions for indigent patients worth more than $3.5 million.

“In Tulsa, charity clinics accept bottles of prescription medications that have been opened, but not liquids or controlled drugs,” Gustafson said in a letter to May. “My gosh, if you are dying of pneumonia and need some antibiotic and no one will help, is death of an indigent more important that being perfect in the eyes of a regulator?”

Gustafson said when the program was under consideration there were fears of liability problems for pharmaceutical companies, nursing homes, county government and doctors, but that has never been a problem.

“Critics can say how do you know someone didn’t lick every single pill or inject LSD in the pills,” he said. “I don’t know where they get this stuff.”

California adopted a program like Oklahoma’s in 2005, and other states are considering adopting a drug recycling program or have already done it.

May said he expects a visit from the state regulator in another month and he has no intention of losing his medical license. The Howell icon, who recently had a city park named after him, has enjoyed his image as a country doctor since the day he received his medical degree from the University of Georgia in 1947.

He also operates a greenhouse and helped create the famed Howell Honeyrock melon on his farm that is the basis for the annual summer Howell Melon Festival, which he helped start. He is a proponent of natural cures, as well, and even sells his own brand: Doc May’s Soy Sense.

Feb 1, 2008

Global warming debate at MSU heats up climate change question

Despite the world’s scientific community agreeing that climate change and global warming are occurring, there are still people who claim climate change is not happening. That will be the subject of a debate set for Wednesday, Feb. 6.

Students for a Free Economy will host the debate set for 7 p.m. Feb. 6 in Room 105 of South Kedzie Hall at Michigan State University. The event is free and open to the public.

The featured speakers are Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and attorney who has represented members of Congress on environmental issues before the U.S. Supreme Court. Horner is a frequent guest on national conservative talk shows speaking about global warming, and he is also the author of the book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism.”

On the other side is Peter Sinclair, creative director of Greenman Studio, a multimedia production company in Midland and presenter for former Vice-President Al Gore's Climate Project. The former Vice-President personally trained some 1,000 presenters in 2006 in Nashville who traveled across the country with copies of his 330-slide climate slide show customized to the state the presentation is held in based on his Academy Award wining film "Inconvenient Truth." The unpaid volunteers set up projectors in living rooms, church sanctuaries and VFW halls to show the presentation.

The event will begin with the two speakers' opening statements, followed by questions from the audience, and then the two speakers will give closing remarks.

Students for a Free Economy is a “nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to promoting the benefits of free markets, civil society and individual liberty” sponsored by the conservative Michigan think tank, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, also located in Midland.

Health Care petition drive looks to nonprofits for help

Health Care for Michigan is looking to Michigan’s progressive, nonprofit and human service community to help with its petition drive to force a ballot initiative to require health care for all residents.

Health Care for Michigan is already a coalition of labor, religious and activist groups, but it wants to get more petitions into the hands of people by going to the numerous organizations and advocacy groups out there.

The coalition wants to amend the state constitution to require the Legislature to pass laws to ensure that "every Michigan resident has affordable and comprehensive health care coverage through a fair and cost-effective financing system." In order to do that, they must collect the valid signatures of registered voters equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast for all candidates for governor in the last election. That comes out to 380,126 signatures that must be collected by July 7 to put the measure on the November general election ballot.

“Part of my job is to get petitions to the various groups out there and have them returned them to me,” said John Freeman, chairman of the of the ballot committee.

The petition drive really got going during the Jan. 15 Michigan Presidential Primary election, and it was the best opportunity to get that many registered voters in one place.

“We had people on the street during election day,” Freeman said. “They were all registered voters, so it was a good opportunity to get the signatures we need.”