2015 was a depressing yet hopeful year politically. Depressing, because it further emphasized the economic disparity throughout America that is ripping our country apart at the seams through the polarization of extremes on both sides of the spectrum, which in the process has squeezed out rationality. Hopeful, because on several fronts of the local, national, and statewide landscape, people were looking outside the mainstream for ways to fix the system.
In the aftermath of the United Citizens decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, unfettered influence peddling continued to define the direction of our democracy; and today the simple reality is that principal trumps-out principles. Six of the largest financial institutions in the United States today currently have assets of about $10 trillion, which represents 60% of the GDP of this entire country. A sobering fact, indeed.
Within this context, is it really surprising that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump dominate the polls in the 2016 Presidential race? They may appear worlds apart, are both cast as party extremists & outsiders, yet in terms of economic policy, both support an end to tax loopholes on corporations that avoid paying their fair share of taxes, such as those that allow money laundering in offshore tax havens in the Caymans; so amidst the chaos of 2015, it appears one characteristic that did distinguish the political climate of 2015 is the idea that Populism is anything but dead.
While there were a myriad of pivotal stories happening on the political front this year, here’s a look at several that drew our attention, and hopefully will also draw yours.
State of Michigan
State Voters Reject Sales Tax Increase
Last December the legislature placed a proposed constitutional Amendment on the ballot for a May election. Millage, bond and tax proposals are often passed in “stealth elections.” The expectation was that a low turnout election would favor a “yes” vote to increase the sales tax to 7%, with the main purpose being road repairs.
The “yes vote” advocates spent over $10 million on the campaign, bankrolled primarily by the major road construction contractors who stood to profit from road repair contracts. The increase would have raised about $2 billion in revenue each year, the largest proposed tax increase in Michigan history. Postcards and commercials depicted dangerous road and bridges all over the state.
Saginaw activist Paul Mitchell funded the “no vote” campaign with about $500,000 of his own money, and handed the government an 80%-20% defeat by holding citizen town hall meetings across the state and even by telephone. This David and Goliath faceoff turned out to be historic, despite the low turnout, off-cycle election held on a rainy day. Proposal one turned out to be the most one-sided loss ever for a proposed constitutional amendment in Michigan history.
State Legislature Passes Road Package
Six months after voters rejected the $2 billion tax increase proposal in May, Governor Snyder signed a $1.2-billion road funding package that will hike fuel taxes and registration fees and also take $600 million a year from the state's general fund to fix and maintain Michigan's roads and bridges.
Vehicle registration will jump by 20%, and the fuel tax, which currently is 19 cents per gallon, will increase by 7.3 cents/gallon. The bill signing ceremony took place November 10 at the “Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association” in Lansing, a group that provided most of the campaign cash for the failed Prop 1 sales tax proposal, and whose members stand to get lucrative construction contracts for road repairs.
The tax hikes don't kick in until 2017 and the plan doesn't start cutting from the general fund until 2019, after most of the current legislators will be term-limited out of office.
Courser-Gamrat Scandal Plays Comes Full Circle
State Representatives Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, both married with ties to the Christian right, rose from obscurity to infamy in 2015. They began as political allies who had an affair, and someone was sending extortion text messages to Courser threatening to expose the pair. Todd Courser was so desperate to cover it up that he illegally used state office staffers to send “false-flag” emails designed to be so outlandish that they were expected to erode the credibility of other forthcoming allegations against him.
By the time the dust settled, Coursor resigned and Gamrat was removed from the legislature. Incredibly, both ran for re-election and lost. Shakespeare himself could not have dreamed up this ending – it was recently revealed that Cindy Gamrat’s jilted husband Joe was the perpetrator of the initial text messages to Courser, and that he was in cahoots with the fired staffers all the time. Joe was motivated to end the ongoing affair between his wife and Todd Courser. The employees involved have sued the state of Michigan for losing their jobs in the scandal, and will no doubt cash in on the taxpayer’s dime.
Local & Regional
Freeland School Bond Proposal Rejected by Voters
The Freeland School District placed a $23 million bond proposal on the ballot for November 3, 2015. Since no other candidates or proposals were on the ballot in this off-cycle election, the school district had to reimburse the county for the $10,000 cost of the election. That was all part of a typical plan to push through a huge property tax increase while voters were not watching, and the board expected an easy victory with quiet low turnout election.
They did not count on a pair of community activists, Kathy Dwan and Catherine Zemaneck, organizing a grassroots opposition to the bond proposal. By the time of election day, the “no” voters beat back the proposal by an astonishing 2-1 margin, all on a paltry $700 campaign budget. The school district advocates focused lots of time and taxpayer’s dollars to push a yes vote; they sent flyers home with school kids, allowed yes vote signs on school property, and the administrator even used the school emergency communications system for a rob call the night before the vote took place.
The citizen opposition went door-to-door with their message that the bond proposal was “just too much” to ask of citizens already beleaguered by high taxes, especially since the proposal did not seem to be aimed at necessary expenses. For instance, some of the bond money was slated to replace 10-year-old roofs still under warranty, and to buy IPad computers for the school kids.
Epidemic of Public Employee Lawsuits Continues
Government employees enjoy many advantages over their private sector counterparts, and lawsuits by disgruntled public employees are all the rage. These suits seem to be taking on a new and insidious political aspect. Would be political candidates and their willing pawns have noticed that the government seems to settle most employment claims rather than spend money on the legal expenses of trial, which can be considerable.
This year, the county settled out of court on several major cases against the sheriff’s department, and all of these have the stink of political vendetta. Sheriff Federspeil now faces two primary challengers in the upcoming elections. Then in November, the Prosecutor’s Office faced another lawsuit by an employee likely motivated to soften the first term Saginaw prosecutor for a primary challenge.
These employee lawsuits seem now to be perpetrated to embarrass public officials more than anything else, and set them up for election defeat. Not that the employees don’t want the money damages they seek – but now they have learned to expect a handsome payoff before they have to prove their cases in court.
The media reports these cases, and they open up the officials to distraction and second-guessing. The court system is set up so that any he-said she-said allegations require a jury to sort out the truth from the lies. To defend a case through a jury trial can cost well north of $100,000.
Naturally, appointed county officials just want to stop the bleeding, so they are motivated to cave in regardless of whether a case has merit just to save attorney fees. Never mind the reputations that are ruined when false claims are validated by payoffs, or the fact that appeasement only encourages more bad behavior by tomorrow’s plaintiffs.
Mid Michigan Waste Authority Introduces One-Step Recycling
Mid Michigan Waste Authority made recycling easier than ever for residents in the 35 Saginaw Valley communities served by the Saginaw-based authority. As of January 1, residents no longer had to sort recyclables into different recycling containers: paper, plastics, metal and glass could now all be placed together in one can or bin. MMWA made curbside recycling even simpler by accepting all plastics #1-#7, and by allowing residents to use up to a 35 gallon can for their recycling container.
The year also saw the return of MMWA's household hazardous waste collection program. To provide area residents with more opportunities to properly dispose of or recycle three kinds of troublesome residential wastes: household chemicals, computers and unwanted medications, MMWA unveiled an expanded and collaborative new Community Toxics Prevention program at the organization's Community Resource Recovery Center in James Township. Over a period of six collection days, area residents dropped off nearly 52 tons of hazardous and problem waste items.
The authority also added several new programs to its slate of community outreach projects. including the Holiday Light Recycling Drive, which runs through January 15, 2016, and the REMarketplace Holiday Art Fair in November, which featured recycled, repurposed and reimagined items beautifully handcrafted by local artisans.
City Polling Consolidation in time for the First ‘Even’ Year City Council Elections
STARS millage was renewed in August 2015, with the lowest turnout in Saginaw history; only 6% turned out to vote. Low turnout has been a key feature in Saginaw for 50 years. Voter turnout is usually about 50% in presidential years, and about 32% in mid-term election years. Non-partisan city council elections have always been held in odd years, and the voter turnout in those elections is usually around 15%.
Now the City of Saginaw has changed its election cycle to coincide with state and federal general elections in even numbered years. The immediate result will be that City Council candidates will need to appeal to more voters to win elections. The first election for City Council under the new scheme will take place in November 2016, and more than 15,000 registered voters should actually participate.
5 candidates are up for re-election, and each voter can cast a vote of each of the 5 at-large positions. Now, the city has lowered the number of voting locations to only 10 locations, with 5 on the east side and 5 on the west side. The restructuring is estimated to save just over $10,000 each election, resulting in a new total per-election cost of about $33,000.
Wondering where to vote now? See the list below:
Precinct 1: Arthur Eddy Academy, 1000 Cathay
Precincts 2 and 3: Word of Faith International Ministries, 500 N. Washington
Precincts 4 and 5: YMCA, 1915 Fordney
Precincts 6 and 8: Saginaw High School, 3100 Webber
Precinct 7: New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, 3121 Sheridan
Precinct 9: Merrill Park School, 1800 Grout
Precinct 10: St. Dominic School (St. Stephens), 1300 Malzahn
Precincts 11 and 16: Thompson Middle School, 3021 Court
Precincts 12 and 15: SASA (West Genesee Avenue entrance), 1903 N. Niagara
Precincts 13 and 14: Christ the Good Shepherd Parish (St. Helen's), 2415 N. Charles
Saginaw YMCA Ends ‘Silver Sneaker’ Program.
As the Saginaw YMCA continued to expand its community outreach programs throughout 2015, they also discontinued their Silver Sneaker program for Senior Citizens that was administered through Healthways, a third party insurance provider. While many seniors were concerned with the move, according to the YMCA’s Doug Temple, “our commitment to Seniors remains strong and we’ve added more adult classes for seniors with the idea of growing the number of people we want to see get healthy.”
“The Bay City YMCA never had the Silver Sneaker program and most YMCA’s do not have it,” he continues. “This would have been our third year with the program, but because it’s managed by a third party provider, they would pay the YMCA based upon the number of individuals actively coming for up to 10 visits per month. We went to Healthways and explained how we already have a membership program and would like to align the 250 members involved with Silver Sneakers into our 6,000-plus member system so we could deliver more continuity, but could not come to an agreement with them.”
““Many members using Silver Sneakers were coming to use the pool two or three times a month and that was about it,” states Temple. “The majority of people getting into Silver Sneakers were not that active, and the whole idea is to keep seniors active, so our Board made a conscious decision after looking at the program that is was not doing what it was brought on board to accomplish. Besides, all our memberships are income based, so we can actually offer better services to seniors that align more with their health and activity goals now than we could previously.”
“As it stands right now, we’ve added more classes for seniors; and moreover, if anybody wishes to walk in and engage in our Aquatics program, for example, they can simply walk in and pay $5.00 and don’t even need to be a member,” he concludes. “Our adult memberships only run $37.25 and if people need financial help, we can get that range down to $22 per month.”
Design for Saginaw Fairgrounds Park In the Works
MSU Extension has accepted an application for the Sustainable Built Environment Initiative aimed at visioning and creating a plan for the currently abandoned 54-acres Saginaw Fairgrounds property.
This is an opportunity for MSU students to collaborate with community members in designing a beautiful park within the city of Saginaw. The current site has been a source of blight and this plan will add tremendous value towards the revitalization effort in East Saginaw. Envisioning a park that provides recreational opportunities will promote health, well-being, and youth development for the city residents.
The first of four community meetings took place in November, with three more scheduled. Watch The Review for more details.
It was an odd year in Bay City. Actually, being 2015, it was an odd year everywhere – but in Bay City odd years mean elections for City Commission and this year, Mayor. With Chris Shannon’s time as mayor ending due to term limits, the Mayoral race included two well know names in Bay City politics. Kathy Newsham had previously served as a City Commissioner and was Mayor from 1997 – 2003, who faced off against Chris Girard, former 6th Ward Commissioner and Commission President.
As apparent from yard signs and direct campaigning by the candidates, this race was one of the more hard-fought in recent times. When the results were in Newsham won the seat, with nearly 60% of the vote. She has already stated that she plans to embrace the role of “Face of the City,” from greeting businesses that may move to the area to exercising the Mayoral privilege of performing marriages.
Given its long term impact, the most underreported story of 2015 was the completion of a $50 million project to build a new water treatment plant for Bay County. In a cooperative effort between Bay County cities and townships, the plant employs a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system With the well-publicized issues in Flint, it displays forward thinking that Bay County banded together to shore up water supply for the foreseeable future.
There was a twist to the water supply plans in November when Essexville voted to construct a direct line to the water plant, rather than tying into the system in Bay City. A debate has risen about the Essexville plan, from distribution of operating costs within the system to the long term expenses of maintenance and upkeep.
In business news, the Uptown project formally opened and is nearly at full capacity. With cornerstone tenants, in some ways the development is self-supporting, with tenants frequenting the restaurants and other businesses in the complex. New businesses, such as the Real Seafood Company, have quickly become established as part of the City’s culinary scene. Early tenant the Fix has grown into one of the hot hangouts for a new generation of coffee drinkers.
Economic development, in general, has been a key topic in the County in 2015. Bay Future has a new CEO in Mark Litten. Led by Bay Future and Bay City management, there is effort to regionalize economic development.
In a significantly different way, private businessmen have also helped identify potentially successful businesses through the Bay City Shark Tank, modeled on the TV show of the same name. Businesses ranging from Divaltution radio show to the Bay County Business Accelerator small business incubator have received funding from these “angel investors.”
The most talked about problem in Bay City this year is without doubt roads. All parties admit that local roads, as a whole, are in abysmal condition. Much of the issue relates to the ownership of two of the drawbridges and the cost to upkeep them. These costs leave a smaller portion of the road improvement funds allocated to the City to actually maintain the City road system.
The signing of a new road bill by Rick Snyder may finally provide an opportunity to address the funding of bridge maintenance. Mike Green, long an advocate for Bay City on this issue, has begun the process of introducing legislation that will ease the burden of Michigan cities that own and operate articulated bridges.
A creative method of addressing a small portion of the issue was seen in the Washington Ave business district in downtown Bay City. A joint project between the city and the Downtown Development Authority resulted in the repaving of several streets. With the State also completing the downtown portion of Center Avenue, these streets are now in good shape and present a good face for those visiting for shopping or local events.
News breaking at the end of the year relates to Dow Corning & Dow Chemical. Rumors existed all year that Dow Chemical would buy out Corning, becoming the sole owner of Dow Corning and its subsidiary Hemlock Semiconductor. In early December the stakes were raised when a mega-deal was announced that Dow Chemical and Dupont would merge, with the inclusion of Dow Corning. The plan is to first unite three businesses and the split them into three standalone businesses – agricultural sciences, specialty products and materials science.
Dow CEO Andrew Liveris will stay on as the Executive Chairman of the newly minted Dow/Dupont; a company that will have a market capitalization of approximately $130 million. This deal bears watching as Dow Chemical is clearly the largest economic entity in this region.
And on the National Front.
Unsustainable Pension System
Rhetorical pleas to save the planet for future generations are insufficient to overcome the conflicts over economic distribution between rich and poor countries that exist in the here and now. It is the slow march of demographics - which is driving up the ratio of retirees to workers - and not current policy, that condemns the public finances of the United States to sink deeper into the red.
According to the Congressional Budget Office's "alternative fiscal scenario," which takes into account likely changes in government policy, public debt could rise from 44 percent before the financial crisis to a staggering 716 percent by 2080.
In its "extended-baseline scenario," which assumes current policies will remain the same, the figure is closer to 280 percent. It hardly seems to matter which number is correct. Is there a single member of Congress who is willing to cut entitlements or increase taxes in order to avert a crisis that will culminate only when today's babies are retirees?
Gun Violence in the United States
By one estimate, there has been more than one mass shooting – defined as an incident in which at least four people are shot – for every day of this past year of 2015. A sobering reality, indeed. According to the Brady Campaign, seven children are killed by guns each day.
After the Newtown school shooting in 2012, there was a push to get a pair of modest bills through Congress – a ban on some assault weapons and the closing of background-check loopholes – but it failed. And the reality is that the barriers to atrocity are so low there are now as many guns in private hands in America as there are people.
The problem in America right now is that the pro-gun side swerves between total complacency about gun violence that is happening so rabidly on the one hand, while also advancing undeniable fears that the government is simply using this as a pretext for confiscating all guns.
One thing that could be done to address the issue is close the loophole that now exists for gun shows that enables guns to be sold to people without a background check. Even though it may not be in vogue, this is common sense.
But unfortunately, reason is a longshot in today’s political climate.