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Kate Davidson

Janae Jodway owns Body Works Medical Massage in Laingsburg

LAINGSBURG, Mich. – Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder gives his second State of the State address tonight.  He’s already signed more than 300 public acts.  That’s a new law for almost every day in office.

Over the next few weeks, Changing Gears is looking at how changes in state government are impacting lives and wallets across the region. Here in Michigan, people are riveted by some of Snyder’s big ticket changes, like giving emergency managers the power to strip control from elected officials in failing cities and school districts.

But this story is different.  It’s about one Mid-Michigan town and all the small, drowned-out changes that deeply affect people’s lives.  People like Janae Jodway.

“Well, this is Laingsburg and I am a hillbilly,” she says.  “Before you got here I had to take my pink bib overalls off.”

Kate Davidson

Correction: A previous version of this caption misidentified Janae Jodway's Dutch Shepherd. He is Sirius, not Serious.

Jodway is a hillbilly-(her word!)-masseuse.  And a trained one.  She owns Body Works Medical Massage. The place is guarded by a Dutch Shepherd whose sole focus in life is his made-in-the-USA chew toy.

Every client here has a story about the economy.  Taundra Mitchell-Faynor runs a daycare center where about a third of the kids come from low income families.

“I’ve had a lot of tearful interviews in my office to tell parents that they have to pay more because the state is cutting back,” she says.

Under the current budget, Michigan has reduced subsidies to help low wage parents pay for child care while they’re out working.  Mitchell-Faynor says she tries to cut those parents breaks, even though her own bottom line has sunk.

“We raise a lot of these children from two weeks to twelve years so I’ve watched these kids grow up,” she says.  “And it’s a heart business, it’s not a money making business.”

Neither is the business we’re sitting in.  Masseuse Jodway’s rates are rock bottom, because most of her clients pay cash, but nobody has much.

She says she has older customers who “bring their own sheets in, because they can’t tip us and they feel bad, and they bring their own water. So I see how tight everyone around here lives. I figure someday we’re going to be licensed, and then we can make some money.”

Michigan passed a law in 2009 requiring massage therapists to be licensed, like chiropractors or physical therapists.  That regulation would allow Jodway to bill health insurance plans.  But three years later, there still no rules, no standards, and no application to get licensed.

“If we were to be licensed so that I knew what our finances were going to be every month, I would take on two more masseuses and a receptionist right now,” she says.  “Right now yesterday.  But I don’t, so I won’t.”

Up the road from Body Works is Laingsburg’s library.  It’s actually the perfect illustration of how retirement is changing in Michigan.  On one side of the room, a circle of white-haired elders discuss the book of the month.  (It’s by Zane Grey.)

These folks fall under the old rules: They won’t pay taxes on their pensions.  But across the room, part-time librarian Vicki Veith lives by the government’s new rules.  She doesn’t get a pension but her husband’s will now be taxed as income.

“I would have thought of retiring myself, but I won’t now,” Veith says.  “I won’t because of this.”

Last year, Gov. Snyder promoted his steps to reduce business’ burden based on the idea it was hampering job growth. His critics, however, accuse him of funding a huge business tax cut at the expense of retirees and the poor.

Businesses are expected to save more than $1 billion dollars this year.  But in small-town Laingsburg, I actually had to look pretty hard to find a business that will benefit from the tax overhaul.  Luckily, there’s Subway.

Valerie Meder owns the Laingsburg franchise.  She says she’ll save about $500 this year because of the business tax changes.

“It seems like a small amount, but that’s still money that I can put towards upgrading my equipment,” she says.

That includes the thermostat and those plastic bins that hold the vegetables.  Meder says business is actually good enough to open a second Subway down the road.

“A few years ago I might not have considered that.  Now it’s actually a reality,” she says.

Valerie Meder says she just feels like Michigan is getting back on track.  Tonight we’ll hear if the governor agrees.

It’s been a year since new Republican governors were elected in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. We all know the headlines.

Associated Press photo

Wisconsin and Ohio were wracked with union protests over efforts to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Michigan enacted a strict new law giving enormous powers to emergency managers, including the one that might run Detroit.

But life has changed in other ways, as well.

Starting tomorrow, Changing Gears presents STATES, a three-story series looking at people in each of our states and the ways they’ve been affected.

Kate Davidson kicks things off with a look at Laingsburg, Michigan, a small town north of the state capital where the big news camouflaged some small, but meaningful changes.

Listen for our reports on our partners WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio and ideastream Cleveland, and stop back here to see the people you’ll hear about on the air.

For years, billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun has defied court orders regarding the bridge he owns between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. (Yes, a private businessman owns an international border crossing.) Now, Moroun is in jail, in the latest chapter in the saga of the Ambassador Bridge.

A judge ordered Moroun and his associate, Dan Stamper, the president of the Detroit International Bridge Company, jailed on contempt charges. The company was under a court order to complete the Gateway Project, which was meant to allow motorists to enter the bridge directly from Interstate 96.

The project was supposed to be finished two years ago, but Moroun’s company constructed duty free shops that were not authorized as part of the project. Instead of zipping onto the bridge and over to Canada, motorists have to wind along a service drive and backtrack to toll booths.

State transportation officials estimate it will take about a year to dismantle Moroun’s additions and build the lanes, ramps and other features that the $230 million Gateway Project called for.

The chaotic courtroom scene comes as Moroun, 84, has been campaigning to build a second bridge adjacent to the Ambassador Bridge, something the state of Michigan would like to do itself.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and a number of local business officials argue a new bridge is needed so the state can remain competitive. But Moroun has lobbied against it in the state capital, blocking legislation that would authorize a second bridge.

I wrote about the push for the new bridge last year for The Atlantic Cities. That project remains up in the air.

The Right to Work law debate is in the national news — Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney insists it would be good for the country — and it’s a big topic right here in the Great Lakes, too.

Right to Work laws mean employees can’t be required to pay union dues, even if a union is formed in their workplace. There are 22 states around the country with Right to Work laws, many in the South, but there are none in the Great Lakes states, which have long been union strong holds.

On Tuesday, the governors in Michigan and Indiana, who’ve faced off in the past, weighed in on the subject with sharply differing views. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, said passing a Right to Work law is not a priority for him this year, even though some lawmakers say they plan to push for it.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

Rick Pluta, at our partner station Michigan Radio, reports Snyder says a Right to Work debate would distract the state from the repair work it needs to do on the economy.

“…to get into a very divisive debate like that, you create an environment where not much gets done and I would point to Wisconsin, I’d point to Ohio. If you look at Indiana, that’s kind of consuming all the dialogue in that state,” Snyder said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

In Indiana, Democratic lawmakers have refused to let the legislature consider the Right to Work law that Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed last month.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Daniels previously had resisted the same efforts Snyder faces. But in his state of the state address, Daniels said,

“Everyone knows that, among the minority favoring the status quo, passion on this issue is strong, and I respect that. I did not come lightly, or quickly, to the stance I take now. If this proposal limited in any way the right to organize, I would not support it. But we just cannot go on missing out on the middle class jobs our state needs, just because of this one issue.”

Daniels faced protestors during his speech, who shouted, “kill the bill” and marched outside the state capitol rotunda.

Where do you stand on Right to Work? Do our Great Lakes states need it to be competitive?

Wrangling over the potential recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is heating up, as a Jan. 17 deadline to turn in recall petition signatures approaches.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

On Thursday, Waukesha County Circuit Judge J. Mac Davis ordered the State Government Accountability Board to pro-actively screen signatures on the recall petitions of Walker and five other state officials.

In the past, those gathering the recall signatures were the only ones responsible for ensuring signatures on petitions were not fake or otherwise invalid.

Walker’s campaign committee and the state Republican Party brought the suit against the Accountability Board, claiming concern over fake and duplicate signatures.

The Board warned that the extra verification could take up to eight additional weeks or $94,000. It’s unclear if the state will need to spend that amount of time or resources.

But there was a major caveat in the court ruling. The judge gave the board some breathing room in its decision, saying that their obligation to verify the signatures will be limited by the resources they have or can reasonably find.

Those organizing the recall drive are confident they will have enough signatures on the 17th to allow the recall process to move forward. They’ll need just over 540,000 or one-quarter of the number of voters who cast in the November election. Whatever the review process, it’s likely that more court challenges to the recall drive will happen after signatures are filed.

Walker, who took office a year ago, was at the center of a bitter battle over stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Voters subsequently recalled some of the lawmakers who voted in favor of a new law, but Republicans retain control of state government.

Read Changing Gears’ coverage of Walker and Wisconsin politics here.

On Saturday, Gary, Indiana officially swears in its new mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson. She’s actually been on the job since last weekend, though, with a long agenda of big and small goals.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson

Freeman-Wilson is the first African-American woman mayor in Indiana, where she served as the state’s attorney general. She’s a Gary-raised, Harvard-educated lawyer who has worked in Washington, but feels an obligation to her hometown.

“I know about the good things and the good places. It’s irresponsible to know about the good, to know about the potential, and not do anything about it,” Freeman-Wilson says.

I talked to Freeman-Wilson for this profile in The Atlantic Cities. She also spoke with our partner station WBEZ late last year about the challenges that she’ll face, namely a high crime rate, shrinking population, and citizens who feel they face obstacles in getting what they need.

On a grander scale, she wants to increase service at Gary’s under-served airport, which sits adjacent to Interstate 90; land a major hotel for downtown and spur broader economic development activities.

Freeman-Wilson has collected a series of advisers ranging from Newark’s former business administrator, Bo Kemp, who headed her transition team, to Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., a Gary native who is now a law professor at Harvard.

Freeman-Wilson says she’s going to hunker down for the next few months to focus on her new job. But if she sees any success at all, she’s likely to become a visible player on the political scene. One of her mentors is Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, who faced a Gary-like situation when he took office a few years ago.

The new Gary mayor says her Newark counterpart told her, “You really have to understand the difference between campaigning and governing. You have to understand your constituency and communicate with them.”

At least Gary residents know she understands their city. Along with her new job, her biggest priorities are her ailing mother, who lives with her family, and helping her 17-year-old daughter Jordan choose a college (finalists on her list include Columbia University, Howard, and Emory).

It’s been a tumultuous year in many of the Great Lakes states.

Wisconsin State Capitol

New Republican governors in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio have pushed for legal and policy changes. Illinois has faced a fiscal crisis. And Indiana’s governor is now backing a Right to Work law.

We know what the political debate has been like. But we’d like to know how the changes are affecting you. What did state government do that mattered to you?

Let us know, and then check in as Changing Gears covers how these leaders are changing the way things are in our states.

Last month, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels finally put his weight behind years-long effort to pass a Right to Work law in Indiana. He is making it a priority in the new legislative session in Indianapolis, and is facing immediate opposition from Indiana Democrats.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Democrats stalled business on Wednesday, the first day of the 2012 session, when they did not report to the House floor, according to the Associated Press. They continued to block action Thursday on a bill that would make Indiana the first state in a decade to enact a Right-to-Work law.

The laws bar private sector unions from automatically collecting dues from employees that do not join organized labor groups. None of the Great Lakes states, long union strongholds, have Right-to-Work laws. Some economic development proponents say Midwestern states need them to compete with the Right-to-Work friendly South.

The Indiana Democrats aren’t getting off easy: last year, Indiana lawmakers enacted a $1,000 a day fine for not showing up. The fines could take effect today.

Meanwhile, protestors are beginning to gather at the state capitol in Indianapolis, much as they did in Wisconsin and Ohio last year when governors sought to strip state employees of collective bargaining rights.

Michael Puente at our partner WBEZ reported this week on what’s at stake in Indiana.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Detroit’s finances a long-term problem. In the past 45 years, the city of Detroit has recorded 19 budget surpluses and 26 budget deficits, according to the Detroit Free Press. Experts tell the newspaper the city’s debt is now so high that the city could default on unpaid bonds soon, a prelude to bankruptcy. State officials will begin a formal review of Detroit’s finances in January, which could lead to the appointment of an emergency manager. Gov. Rick Snyder said the city faces both a short-term cash-flow shortage and a longer-term structural deficit. “We can’t continue this process because Detroit has been in a financial crisis of some fashion for decades,” he tells the newspaper. “We need a long-term solution.”

2. 2011′s dubious housing distinction. The year 2011 will likely be the worst in history for new home sales. The Commerce Department said it expects the adjusted annual number to reach 315,000 by the close of this month, fewer than the 323,000 sold last year, the worst year on record dating to 1963. That’s less than half the 700,000 new homes economists tell the Associated Press are necessary to sustain a healthy market. The projection comes even as new-home sales rose 1.6 percent in November. December would need to mark its best monthly sales total in four years to avert the dubious finish.

3. Unemployment up in Chicago area. Chicago’s unemployment rate rose in November to 9.8 percent, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The rate ticked upward one-tenth of a percentage point from 9.7 percent in October, and was up 0.9 percent year over year. The unemployment rate dropped in nine of Illinois’ 12 metro areas in November compared to 2010. Chicago’s rate remains slightly lower than the state’s overall 10.0 percent unemployment rate, which has remained nearly flat for three consecutive months. The state’s lowest unemployment rate was found in the Bloomington/Normal area, at 6.8 percent, according to the newspaper.

Michigan residents have long lamented the “brain drain” that takes place when students educated inside the state leave for opportunities elsewhere.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder fought back.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

Chicago has been a popular landing site for those fleeing Michigan, and Snyder challenged those residents to stay put. “Do you want to be another yuppie in Chicago, or do you want to make a difference in Detroit?” he told the Detroit Free Press.

Snyder urged Michiganders to stay and help revitalize the city.

“No disrespect to Chicago, but they’ve got lots of young people, and you’re just going to blend in and be another person there,” he told the newspaper.

How could Snyder be so certain? He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1982. He worked in Detroit for seven years before accepting a job with Coopers & Lybrand out of state. Guess where? Chicago.