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Emergency managers in Michigan’s most troubled communities have new powers — and the emergency manager of Benton Harbor has become the first to carry them out. Joseph Harris, who was appointed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm to run the city, issued an order late last week stripping city officials of their authority.
All decisions by boards, commissions and other authorities now require his approval. Changing Gears partner Michigan Radio has the story.
The new law, signed by current Gov. Rick Snyder earlier this month, has received national attention and generated the ire of unions. The law allows the state’s emergency managers — appointed when a city is in dire shape — to void provisions of public employee contracts, and to ask the state for permission to cancel them. It also gives emergency managers far more authority than in the past.
Snyder, a Republican elected last fall, signed the bill amid a budget crisis in the state. He has asked communities to make cuts that will help the state eliminate a $1.8 billion deficit. (Read Changing Gears’ reports about Michigan and other troubled Midwest states here.)
Harris, in Benton Harbor, cited the new law in his order taking control away from public officials. “Absent prior express written authorization and approval by the Emergency
Manager, no City Board, Commission or Authority shall take any action for or on behalf of the City whatsoever” other than calling meetings to order, approving meetings and adjourning meetings, Harris’ order said. The action takes effect immediately.
Benton Harbor, in the state’s southwest corner, has long been known as the center of Michigan’s fruit belt. But it has been in poor financial shape for years. Granholm appointed an emergency manager in 2010 after a series of attempts to revive the city. There are three other emergency managers in Michigan, including those supervising the cities of Ecorse and Pontiac, and the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools.
What do you think of Harris’ move? Do you expect to see other emergency managers take similar steps? What should the courts rule?
Springtime in the Midwest means slightly less snow, hopefully more flowers, and movie crews rolling into town. We kicked off Changing Gears with several stories about the region’s efforts to attract movies to film here. Well, the movie buzz is back, although there are some questions about how long our film incentives may continue, given the poor economy.
Nonetheless, it’s finally warm enough to film in the Midwest again, and in several cities the cameras are already rolling.
Southern Ohioans from Oxford to Cincinnati were snapping cell phone pix of George Clooney and Ryan Gosling as they filmed “The Ides of March” in late February and early March. The movie looks at a mythical presidential campaign, and has an award winning cast, including Marisa Tomei, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.
There also have been plenty of Clooney and Gosling sightings in Ann Arbor and Detroit, where a building on Griswold Street is serving as the fictional candidate’s campaign headquarters. If you’re in Michigan, and hoping for a peak at the film’s stars, there is a complete list of filming locations over the nest few weeks here.
Fear not, Ohioans. George Clooney and his crew may have moved on, but “The Avengers” has announced it will be filming in Cleveland. Ohio’s tax credits have been credited with attracting the Marvel studios movie, the second one filmed in Cleveland since parts of Spider-Man III were shot on Euclid Avenue.
It looks like Michigan might not get as many celebrity sightings in the future. Governor Rick Snyder has proposed capping the amount of tax credits given to movie studios to film there. He said the state isn’t getting enough in return for the tax break, about 30 cents to the dollar. Supporters of the tax credit the big gain is in temporary jobs.
Illinois also got a bit of bad movie news recently. Chicago will not be playing the ever important role of Gotham City in the upcoming Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” It lost that honor to Pittsburgh.
However, Chicago still played host to the cast and crew of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which was filmed last summer and is scheduled to hit theaters July 1. The Fox show, The Chicago Code, has been shooting there and a new Starz TV show, “Boss,” starting Kelsey Grammar will also be filmed in the Windy City.
ANN ARBOR — So what do the words “Scott Walker,” “Madison,” and “Maddow” have in common? They are among the search terms included in an open records request for the emails of labor studies professors and staff at three public universities in Michigan – Wayne State University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.
The Freedom of Information Act request comes from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. The center is also asking to review any emails to or from the professors that refer to the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin. At first, Ken Braun, the man behind the FOIA request, wouldn’t say why.
Mysterious? Perhaps not. Braun is the senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center’s online newsletter. In one post from last year, Braun wrote this of the Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University:
“This obscure corner of the taxpayer-supported university does a lot that resembles progressive political agitation rather than teaching and research.”
I asked Ken Braun whether his FOIA request had anything to do with that entry, titled “Wayne State’s ‘Wholly Owned Subsidiary’ of Big Labor”.
“I don’t comment on FOIA investigations,” he said. “That is an interesting article, however.”
Here was Rachel Maddow’s take on the whole Mackinac matter (pronounced “mackinaw” by Michiganders). Remember, Maddow is one of the search terms in the Michigan FOIA.
Michigan academics aren’t the only ones under scrutiny. Last month, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested emails from William Cronon, a historian critical of Governor Scott Walker’s push to weaken public sector unions.
In both states, the lines got drawn fast. On one side: an apparent concern about the use of public resources for political advocacy. On the other: fear of academic intimidation and reprisal in a politically charged climate.
Cary Nelson is the National President of the American Association of University Professors. He falls in the latter camp.
Nelson is also an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He says that, in academia, FOIA requests for financial documents and contracts are fairly common, while broad requests for emails are not. But when asked for an example of an academic FOIA request that revealed serious wrongdoing, he told this story about his own institution’s use of email:
Over at U of M’s Labor Studies Center, the staff says they have nothing to fear or hide. Billie Rohl is the center’s program administrator.
Ken Braun of the Mackinac Center says intimidation is not his goal. Just yesterday, Braun went on an AM radio program and revealed the specific motivation behind his FOIA request. He said that he was indeed investigating what he called partisan political activity at Wayne State University’s Labor Studies Center.
Marick Masters, Wayne State’s director of labor studies, previously told The New York Times that, “This looks like an attempt to embarrass us. I haven’t engaged in any partisan activities here.”
In the past, the center has described itself like this:
“The Labor Studies Center is a comprehensive labor education center committed to strengthening the capacity of organized labor to represent the needs and interests of workers, while at the same time strengthening the University’s research and teaching on labor and workplace issues.”
But you won’t see that description on the center’s website today. As of this morning, the site is under construction.
April 4th, 2011
Personal income per capita has grown nationwide over the last ten years by 5.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Yet, Americans are not really any better off, because that growth is due to an increase in tax-exempt benefits. That’s what Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan Institute for Research on Labor, Economics, and the Economy has found. For a look at how Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio residents are faring, scroll to the graphs below.
Tax exempt benefits, also known as nontaxable transfer payments, include programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance, unemployment, welfare and disability benefits provided by the government and employers. It you subtract those nontaxable transfer payments from the equation, U.S. income actually decreased. In fact, U.S. taxable income per capita fell by 3.4 percent, from $32,403 in 2000 to $31,303 by 2010.
Grimes said the personal income data as calculated by the BEA is misleading, “because it’s including all of these transfer payments and so it’s essentially artificially inflating our sense of well-being.”
Grimes said the bad news does not end there. Nontaxable transfer payments continue to grow, while taxable income continues to shrink. Essentially, more and more people are relying on programs like Medicare and Medicaid, while the population paying for those programs is shrinking.
He said if this trend continues, “we would eventually end up in a crisis where all of the earned income is taxed in order to pay for the transfer benefits. At some point the benefits that people are getting in terms of transfer payments has to grow at a much smaller rate. It’s sad, but it’s just a mathematical inevitability.”
Grimes said even returning to 2000 level tax rates, before the tax cuts imposed by former President George Bush and extended by President Barack Obama, would not be enough.
The situation may be even worse in the Midwest. Even before the recession, the region has struggled with attracting and keeping its youth, while the older population is increasingly relying on those nontaxable transfer payments like Medicare and Medicaid. Around our region, that disparity between the number of people relying on nontaxable transfer payments and the number people paying for those programs is growing especially quickly.
Grimes predicts some painful decisions have to be made on the Federal level very soon to answer his question, “where are we going to get the money to pay these transfer payments?”
You can see some of the data Grimes collected in some maps below. “Modified personal income” equals personal income with social insurance taxes (such as social security, Medicare, Medicaid) added back in. Be sure to play around with the data through time by changing the year in the bottom left drop down menu.
New laws on collective bargaining are in the spotlight across the Great Lakes. In the past few weeks, Michigan, Wisconsin and now Ohio have taken steps to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Indiana and Illinois are having their own debates. How do the measures compare, and what could come next? Our friends at PBS Newshour have the latest, and Changing Gears answers your questions.
Q: Why is there such a focus on collective bargaining rights for public employees?
A: Budget crises and politics. Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin all face large budget deficits, and their new Republican governors have laid out proposals that include wide-ranging cuts. In Wisconsin and Ohio, Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. John Kasich campaigned on promises to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees, saying that would give the state and its communities the greatest flexibility to cut costs.
Unions, on the other hand, have seen these efforts as a matter of political philosophy rather than cost-saving measures. They say these politicians have used unions as a scapegoat for deeper problems caused by the weak economy.
In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has avoided calling for the elimination of public employee collective bargaining rights, although he has proposed steep spending cuts in his state budget proposal. But, he still signed a law affecting some public employees.
Q: What has each state done? (Thanks to Tracy Moavero for the question)
A: In Wisconsin, Walker signed legislation that eliminates collective bargaining rights for most state employees, with the exception of police and firefighters. The legislation originally was contained in a broader budget proposal, but Democratic lawmakers left the state in order to prevent a vote on that bill. After days of vehement protests at the state capitol, the appropriations provisions were stripped from the bill. That led to passage of the new law.
In Ohio, the legislature appears on the verge of final passage for Senate Bill 5. The state House approved an amended version on Wednesday that may soon go to Kasich for his signature. (Our partner ideastream has the latest.) It will limit collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public employees, including police and fire personnel. Unions can negotiate wages, hours and working conditions, but cannot bargain collectively for benefits. It also eliminates binding arbitration and bars public employees from striking. State employees can decline to pay union dues, and vote more easily to decertify a union.
In Michigan, Snyder signed legislation providing sweeping new authority to emergency managers, state-appointed administrators who take charge of the operations of a troubled community or its school system. Three communities — Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor — have emergency managers, as does the Detroit school system.
Under the law, the emergency managers have the authority in 2012 to cancel provisions in contracts covering public employees. An emergency manager can request to have an entire contract thrown out, and a decision would be made in conjunction with the state’s treasurer. (Michigan’s treasurer is Andy Dillon, a Democrat, who was speaker of the Michigan House.)
Q: What kind of workers are affected by the new laws? (Thanks to Amanda Black)
In Wisconsin, about 420,000 people are employed by the federal, state and local governments, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Federal employees are not affected by the new law, and estimates are that Wisconsin has about 175,000 state and local public employees. Walker excluded most public safety officers from his proposal, saying that the state had to ensure its residents’ security.
In Michigan, the law affects only employees in communities that are run by a state-appointed emergency manager. For Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor, that means public works employees, animal control officers and others. Detroit has approximately 5,000 full-time teachers affected by the law.
Ohio’s public employees include police, fire, teachers, school custodians and many other types of jobs.
Q: What has been the reaction?
A: The Wisconsin law was immediately challenged in the courts. A judge issued and renewed a restraining order blocking its implementation. But Walker has implemented some of its provisions, including one that stops payroll systems from automatically removing union dues from public employee checks. State officials say they do not think the courts can enjoin the new law.
However, Walker said Thursday the state would stop implementing provisions of the law pending the outcome in the courts.
In Michigan, unions have staged protests outside Snyder’s office over the emergency manager law, which he signed over the objections of Michigan Democratic lawmakers.
More questions? We’ll be happy to answer them. Post in the Comments section, tweet us @ChGears or post to our Facebook page.
Michigan has become the first state to reduce unemployment benefits to 20 weeks from 26 weeks. Will other states in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere follow its lead?
The move came in legislation signed Monday by Gov. Rick Snyder that extended federal unemployment benefits to state residents. Without the extension, those unemployed residents would have lost federal benefits on Friday.
But the legislation also contained an amendment, backed by Republicans, that reduces state-financed unemployment benefits, beginning with new filers in 2012. People who lose their jobs also would remain eligible for federal assistance.
The state’s unemployment rate is 11 percent, down from a peak of 14.3 percent in 2009, but roughly two percentage points higher than the national unemployment rate of 8.9 percent. Democrats had called on Snyder to veto the bill and return the measure to the legislature. After Snyder signed it on Monday, party members voiced their displeasure.
Snyder’s action is getting national attention, as in this front page story from the New York Times.
Michigan’s move may be followed quickly by other states including Florida, where the state house has approved a similar move.
The cut in unemployment benefits comes as Snyder is proposing deep cuts in the state budget as well as other changes aimed at saving the state money. One of his more controversial steps, signed into law last week, gives more power to emergency managers to change or even eliminate union contracts. Those moves have angered union members, who are regularly protesting outside Snyder’s office.
What do you think of the reduction in unemployment benefits? Should other states follow suit?
March 25th, 2011
Republican governors in Midwest are gaining a reputation as union battlers – but Michigan’s new Governor Rick Snyder did not set out to be one. Despite his own state’s budget crisis, he’s tried to keep the debate over public employee benefits and compensation from boiling over.
But that hasn’t stopped thousands of angry union members and other protesters from showing up at his doorstep, just as they’ve done in other states. Michigan Public Radio’s Rick Pluta brings us this report.
Snyder’s message has been one of, “We’re all in this together,” and he has insisted it will take sacrifices on everyone’s part to fix the state’s budget, revamp government, and revive the economy.
“People do embrace the idea of change – until it actually comes, and then the first reaction is a negative one,” he said this week. “And anyone who is involved will find the line item or the issue they don’t like the answer to.”
Just three months into his term, those unhappy with Snyder include seniors upset with his proposal to tax their pensions, teachers mad at education funding cuts, and public employees who do not like the new sweeping powers that have been given to emergency managers in some of the state’s worst-off communities. Their unions say his plans are a back door attack on them – one that they didn’t see coming.
Snyder says he can convince them to see his points. But, on many days, the governor can look out from his office across the street from the Michigan Capitol and see there are plenty of protesters who want him to change his mind.
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” the protesters shouted this week.
Union members say they don’t buy Snyder’s concept of shared sacrifice, since businesses will get tax cuts while seniors on pensions will pay taxes on that income, and government workers are being asked to pay more for their benefits.
“He’s nickeling and diming us,” said Ray Holman, a state employee union lobbyist. “He’s not necessary calling for ending collective bargaining or making Michigan a right-too-work state, but, in essence, it’s having the same effect because he’s doing all these smaller things and it’s coming after us and taking away our rights just the same.”
He says Michigan’s new emergency manager law is a case in point. The law gives sweeping authority to state-appointed emergency managers who basically run local governments in financial trouble. That includes amending, or in the worst case scenario, throwing out union contracts all together.
David Gronenboom, an alternative education teacher, was shepherding a group of students through the state Capitol this week. Gronenboom says he’s voted for Republicans and Democrats, but he does not like what he sees coming out of Lansing. He says proposed budget cuts make it more likely that cities and school districts will run into budget troubles that will lead to insolvency.
“You remove money from cities, and then cities need help, and then puts the government in the position to make decisions directly about bargaining rights and contracts and wages and all those kinds of things. That’s how I see it going.”
But Snyder insists he is not going after collective bargaining rights – certainly not like his counterparts in Wisconsin and Ohio have. Wisconsin’s new public employee bargaining law requires unions to win re-certification votes every year, for example. Wisconsin and Ohio Republicans want to restrict what public employees can bargain for in contract talks.
“We’re going to do collective bargaining for the state for the concessions that we’re asking people to make,” Snyder said. “So I’ve been very pro-active in talking about collective bargaining being a part of our culture, our society, and doing it well in our state.”
Democratic leaders in the Legislature have asked Governor Snyder to prove it by endorsing their proposed amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee collective bargaining rights. Snyder’s refused. He says it’s not necessary and it puts the focus on labor strife instead of his top priorities of balancing the budget and creating jobs. But meanwhile, the protesters remain outside his door.
ANN ARBOR — Property values have plummeted across the region. That means cities and towns have watched their tax revenue plunge as well. But many homeowners and businesses think their property taxes are still too high. The result is a double hit. Local governments are in fiscal crisis. And the tax courts of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are clogged with people who want refunds.
People like Donald Betlem.
Betlem’s been knocked hard by the economy. His auto work dried up. He lost a home, has tons of debt. But in 2008, he saw an ad for a 667 square foot house in Detroit.
“I just happened to find it in the Sunday classifieds,” he says. “And they only want five thousand.”
So he bought it. But a year later, the city told him his house was actually worth $50,000 on the market, and he had to pay property taxes at that level.
“I told myself, I can’t just walk away from this now. But I was really wondering what I would do, to prove that I’m being overcharged,” he says.
Many Michiganders found themselves in similar situations when the market crashed. They watched the true cash value of their homes (what they could actually sell for) fall faster than their taxable value (the amount used to calculate property taxes).
Kimbal R. Smith III chairs the Michigan Tax Tribunal. He sums it up like this:
“As the economy in the state of Michigan, and for that matter nationally, went in the tank, the number of filings at the Michigan Tax Tribunal have increased substantially.”
Smith says the tribunal has more than 40,000 pending cases. For comparison, homeowners and businesses filed 5,449 property assessment appeals during fiscal year 2000 (see small cases here and large cases here). Last year, the tribunal received 24,199 property appeals. Smith says those numbers aren’t even final, because the tribunal is still counting appeals that were filed last summer.
The same trend is playing out regionally. The Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board is working through about 30,000 pending cases. The Ohio Board of Tax Appeals reported more filings last year than in almost two decades. Officials in both states say that staff cutbacks have made matters worse.
But the backlog isn’t the only problem. Property assessment appeals can cover anything from a single family home to a General Motors plant. So refunds can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of millions of dollars in the biggest cases.
It all comes down to a property’s taxable value, the actual amount you pay taxes on. Bob Daddow is the deputy county executive for Oakland County, which he says has $3.9 billion in taxable value in dispute at the tax tribunal.
“We aren’t gonna lose the full 3.9 billion,” Daddow says. “But we aren’t gonna lose zero.”
If that number seems huge, it is. Oakland County has already lost billions of dollars in taxable value. Now the county has put about $12 million aside, in anticipation of tax refunds. Officials in Flint and Lansing say those cities are also saving money. But Bob Daddow worries other governments will be caught unprepared.
“Most people don’t recognize what’s going to happen,” he says. Even when the residential market starts to come back, “The commercial and industrial losses, the significant losses, haven’t yet been felt. So about the time they’re gonna feel comfortable that things are starting to return to normal, these losses are gonna start flowing back in again.”
Losses that could stress local governments even further.
In the case of Donald Betlem, the laid-off engineer, he got some much needed relief. Detroit eventually agreed that his little house was worth not $50,000 but $7,500. He’ll get a tax break of hundreds of dollars.
It helps. Donald Betlem knows he’ll never strike oil.
“If you remember the Beverly Hillbillies, it’s not a mansion in California,” he says. “But it’s home for me, so. I’ll try to make the best of it.”
But it’s not quite over. Donald Betlem recently got his 2011 assessment in the mail. Somehow, his home’s value shot back up, to $40,000.
In the end, this case is probably headed back to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.
March 22nd, 2011
The U-S Census Bureau released the latest population count for Michigan this week. And, like other places in the Midwest, Michigan’s biggest cities shed population.
Chicago’s population declined by almost seven percent in the 2010 census numbers, and Cleveland’s dropped by about 17 percent. But Detroit lost a quarter of its population over the last ten years.
It now has the same population that it had in 1910, before the auto industry boom. Robert Ficano, the Executive for Wayne County, home to Detroit, said, “now’s not the time to look in the rear view mirror, now’s the time to look in the future and say ‘ok, what do we do to recover and what do we do to stabilize ourselves here?’”
Ficano said he’s not surprised by the population decline, given what’s happened to the auto industry. He said going forward, economic diversification is key to Detroit’s success.
A few Midwest cities gained population, including Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana.
View Midwest Census 2010 Results in a larger map
CHICAGO – There are billions of dollars in business that flow every day between the Midwest and Japan. As Japan tries to recover from the devastating natural disaster there, companies located in the Midwest are starting to assess out how this will affect business here. Here, this report on how deep the economic ties are between our region and the island nation.
Think of economic ties between the Midwest and Japan and household names like Toyota or Honda immediately come to mind.
In all, there are more than 160,000 people across the Great Lake states that directly work for Japanese businesses. To give you an idea, that’s almost two and half times the entire U.S. labor force for General Motors.
And there are many large American corporations – think Caterpillar in Peoria – that in turn are employing Japanese workers there.
Now that’s it’s been a week since the earthquake and tsunami, those companies are trying to figure out where they stand.
“We Toyota people here in North America, we have a lot of friends in Japan,” said Mike Goss, a general manager with Toyota North America.
Toyota has 10 plants in the United States and another four in Canada and Mexico. Every year those facilities buy about $25 billion from suppliers – many of those based in the region, Goss pointed out:
“In Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky – we do have a huge impact. What we’re hoping we can is minimize any kind of shutdowns but really the only way we can take a first step on that is the truly assess the situation in Japan,” he said.
In Toyota’s case, even as they’ve just started those assessments, some operations on the U.S. side have already been curtailed.
About 15 to 20 percent of the parts needed to build Toyota cars here in the U.S. come from Japan.
Goss said there were some parts already in the pipeline built and shipped before the earthquake. But, for now, the company plans to stop overtime work to enable those parts coming in to last longer.
Caterpillar Inc. is based in Peoria, Illinois, but about a quarter of its annual $40 billion of sales and revenue comes from its Asia-Pacific region.
Caterpillar has 5,000 employees at a two big manufacturing facilities in southern Japan and an office in Tokyo that serves as country headquarters.
Spokesman Jim Dugan say initial reports are that Caterpillar’s Japanese workers and facilties are ok – and now, Caterpillar is focused most on helping with the relief effort.
“Corporately, as well as our dealers, we’ll provide a range of assistance in the form of equipment, sometimes expert operators,” Dugan said. “Equipment and those operators are often used in the rescue and recovery efforts after a natural disaster.”
Dugan says the company already donated more than $1 million worth of equipment, generators and its employees’ time to helping Japan recover.
Takeda is Japan’s biggest drug company. Its North American operations are based in Deerfield, just outside of Chicago – more than 1600 people work there. The company has been able to account for all its Japanese workers. Business operations at its manufacturing facilities and research and development labs in Western Japan are continuing. And its US employees say clinical trials here and regular sales and marketing works is going fine.
Michael Moskow is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He says it’s important to take a longer view.
“When you look at natural disasters like this, they tend to not change the longer term trend of economic development, whether it would be in Japan or the Midwestern part of the United States,” said Moskow, who is also the chairman of the Japan-American Society of Chicago.
Moskow says it’s hard to predict how long Japan’s business sector will take to recover from this. As it does, there will be business opportunities in construction and other rebuilding efforts. Eventually, he sees business there stabilizing.
So, that means even the slowdown in production at American plants like Toyota’s could be made up later on.