2012 * THE YEAR IN POLITICS

Posted In: Politics, National, State, Local,   From Issue 761   By: Robert E. Martin & Chris Thompson

20th December, 2012     0

This pivotal year in politics, culture, and community set new standards in terms of divisiveness, despite the fact that in a landmark Presidential election year, largely driven by a decisive new coalition of Hispanics, African-Americans, young people, single women, and old-time union types, Barack Obama became the first Democratic president since FDR to get re-elected with 50 percent of the vote.
 
Romney never saw it coming. And while conservatives assert that Obama targeted 'takers' with 'gifts', what the President actually did was bridge the divide between social & economic issues that has long plagued Democrats: he framed reproductive issues of women as pocketbook issues; and Obamacare in fact was supported by 61 percent of the electorate.
 
But as the year wound down, you wouldn't know if from the way Lame-Duck sessions of Congress were acting, both at the national and state levels of government. The 'Grand Old Party' - clear loser of the presidential election - has instead acted like a spoiled rich child out of touch with most of America, as it continues efforts to stymie progress on behalf of all citizens.
 
As former Saginaw News columnist Chris Thompson puts it: “When I started college in the Eisenhower era, I voted Republican because of a belief that the party was one of common sense with a practical, middle-of-the-road approach favoring a government that worked to serve the majority. Today the party has lost my trust because of its obstinate far-right swerve favoring the few.
 
The GOP has been persistent in its push to keep tax breaks for the well-off, threatening to drive us off the 'fiscal cliff' as the year comes to an end, just as it has shrugged off middle class struggles and concerns of the elderly, and cold-shouldered America's barely surviving poor. To add injury to insult, Republicans then turned their backs on the world's disabled.
 
Sadly, party leaders haven't owned up to the reality that they put two costly wars on the national credit card while giving away surplus government funds that could have repaired our crumbling infrastructure. To reduce the deficit they had a major hand in creating, Republican leaders want drastic cuts in entitlements earned by retirees and less health assistance for the poverty-stricken, while ignoring huge amounts of taxpayer money (and lives) that continue to be blown up in a costly and un-winnable war, while persisting to focus massive federal gifts to hugely profitable oil companies and allow Wall Street the freedom to gamble with investor funds, profiting without penalty for the fraud they perpetrated.
 
Conservatives have shoved party moderates aside and appear to favor predatory laissez-faire practices of the past that have favored the rich. Boilerplate law recommendations are being sent nationwide to state legislators in an effort to tilt the rules in a right-wing direction.
 
Obviously, if this country is to endure, Americans need a ship of state steered on a cooperative middle course so that every citizen has a decent shot at prosperity - not just the wealthy.
 
At the state level this has translated into a series of bills & moves by the State Legislature with historic ramifications:
 
* Right to Work - Passed & Signed by Governor Snyder. Right-to-work legislation passed both the House and Senate on December 11th, which was pushed through by the Lame Duck session of Congress without any public vote. The bill allows workers to have the option of not joining a Union and allows companies to have access to a cheap, strike-free work force. Moreover, the bill was attached as a rider to an appropriations bill, which makes it nearly impossible to overturn through referendum.   On Dec. 11th, thousands of Union supporters converged on the State's Capitol in Lansing to protest the measure. They were held back by The Michigan State Police with Billy clubs and pepper spray. Interestingly, the State Police Union has been left exempt by Snyder and the bill, and its Union allowed to continue without 'Right to Work's interference.
 
* Blue Cross Blue Shield Changes - Sent to the Governor for signature. New legislation passed both the House & Senate in changing Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan into a mutual non-profit company and is on its way to Governor Snyder for his signature. This legislation will require them to pay state taxes, which they currently do not, which will bring in an additional $100 million dollars into Michigan's revenue stream. It also is reducing an eventually eliminating the tax the Blues put on the business community's healthcare claims in order to subsidize certain healthcare plans for seniors, which will likely result in placing the burden back on the backs of those that need it the most. The legislation also mandates the Blues to create a Health & Wellness Foundation of $1.5 billion dollars that will be purportedly used for those that need financial assistance with healthcare and educational programs.
 
* Personal Property Tax - Sent to the Governor for signature. The personal property tax repeal has made its way through the legislative process. This legislation exempts businesses whose tax liability is $40,000 and under, begins a gradual elimination of the tax that is paid on non-permanent business property. It also uses a dedicated 1.5% of the state's $1.2 billion that it receives from the use tax to reimburse impacted local units of government as the PPT is set to phase out over a period of 10 years.
 
* Health Insurance Claims Tax - At bay until next year. The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed legislation that would allow the 1 percent claims tax rate on employees healthcare to become a variable rate. This legislation was introduced due to insufficient funds collected from the initial 1 percent tax on businesses health insurance in order to help fund our state's Medicaid Fund. The committee did not take any action due to push back from business associations, including the MBPA. This issue is to be considered again in 2013.
 
The Plague of 'Double-Dipping' - The White Elephant in the Room (or how sucking on the public teat will come to a fruitless end once the nipple is chewed off)
 
While Republicans & Democrats are quick to point fingers at union wages or rich fat-cats not paying their 'fair share' to fund government, the most corrupt practice that they fail to reform centers around the epidemic problem of government salaries and pensions that volley back and forth to create an epidemic of double-dipping: the well-established practice of public workers collecting government pensions and salaries at the same time - especially during these trying times of strained budgets and an eroding middle class falling through the safety-net.
 
At a state agency in Michigan, the executive director is receiving a $123,000 per year salary and also drawing 80% of a prior salary, as he has for the past eight years. In another struggling Michigan school district, 10 administrators retired, started drawing pension checks and returned immediately as contract employees. Indeed, one school administrator in Illinois makes a combined $409,000 a year in pension payments for overseeing a public boarding school.
 
Even as some states have begun curbing the practice, a review by The Associated Press found that tens of thousands of state and public school employees across the country are drawing government salaries along with pensions.  In five states alone - California, New York, Texas, Florida and Michigan - at least 66,000 government retirees also receive taxpayer-funded paychecks.
 
The practice has come under fire not just because of the cost involved with paying both a pension and a salary to the same person, but because it strains public pension funds because the rehired retirees draw from them but do not contribute while taking the place of workers who otherwise would be paying into the system. Of particular concern are people who retire early, only to take another government job and draw pensions for many more years than they otherwise would.
 
State governments already have a combined $690 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, meaning they do not have enough money coming in to meet their future obligations; not to mention how much this level of corrupt greed-infused 'taking' from the public service sector would do in terms of contributing to address the needs of infrastructure and well-being of our society.
 
Indeed, a good example of this fiasco exists with the recent Saginaw County Prosecutor race that resulted in the battle between Democratic incumbent Mike Thomas and newly elected prosecutor John McColgan.
 
During the August primary, McColgan made a campaign issue out of the fact that Thomas had employed Howard Gave as Chief Assistant Prosecutor, making a salary of $103,458. In 2008 Gave 'retired' from the county and began collecting his full retirement of $78,500. He was then hired back by Thomas at a salary of $65,000.
 
Now that Thomas is out of a job and eligible to collect his own retirement from the County, Attorney General Bill Schuette has offered Thomas a job as a 'Special Assistant' to the AG, targeting the I-675 corridor at a salary purported to be in $100,000 range. 
 
Meanwhile, Saginaw County district judge Chris Boyd, who has served on the bench since 1989 will take an early retirement to serve as McColgan's Chief Assistant Prosecutor, rather than serve out the remaining four-years of his elected term on the bench. The chief assistant position carries a salary of $82,918 that can top out after seven years at $103,458
 
To his credit, Boyd has said that he will refrain from collecting his pension on top of his new salary; but there is nothing legally that would prohibit him from doing so, if he so elected. And this is the reality that must change; especially in a community such as Saginaw, where in the City of Saginaw there exist less than five-dozen officers and one detective working issues of serious crime beleaguering the city.
 
“I don't see any private entity that would allow this to happen, and I don't see why government should allow it to happen,” says Kenneth Sheets, a state representative in Texas who tried unsuccessfully to end the practice in his state earlier this year.
 
Some states have dealt with this issue by imposing lengthy waiting periods on retired public employees seeking to return to their positions, in hopes the jobs will get filled before retirees get a chance to re-occupy them. Others have placed limits on how much of their pensions retired employees can receive if they come back to work.
 
Local municipalities and the State of Michigan must act immediately to curb this onerous practice. No single agency collects data on government retirees who are also receiving public paychecks; and many states to not provide the information publicly. In Michigan, for example, data is available for double-dipping educators, but not for other state employees. And states that do provide figures typically have data for state government workers or teachers, but not for city and county employees.
 
Medical Marijuana
 
When voters in Colorado & Washington state legalized recreational marijuana in November, with new laws that compel the states to license private businesses to cultivate and sell pot and to levy taxes on the proceeds, together the two states expect to reap some $600 million annually in revenues for schools, roads and other projects. The only losers in the deal being the Mexican drug lords, who currently supply as much as 2/3 of America's pot.
 
But the war over pot is far from over, as other states such as Michigan have also discovered insofar as the Obama Administration has shown no signs of backing down on its full-scale assault on pot growers and distributors. Although the president pledged to go easy on medical marijuana - now legal in 18 states - he has actually launched more raids on state-sanctioned pot dispensaries that George W. Bush; and has threatened to prosecute state officials who oversee medical marijuana as if they were drug lords.
 
A big reason for this stance is that federal agencies like the DEA are staffed with hard liners that make $700 billion & rising from the War on Drugs. Michele Leonhart, a holdover from the Bush Administration whom Obama has appointed to head the DEA, continues to maintain that pot is as dangerous as heroin.
 
Moreover, 750,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges last year - 87 percent for simple possession. The costs of this prohibition are staggering - nearly $8 billion a year wasted on police & prisons alone, with billions more squandered by not taxing pot like alcohol or tobacco.
 
This needs to change in 2013.
 
 
The Scourge of Hydro-Fracking: 
Vampire Blues & the End of the Great Lakes as a Fresh-Water State
 
 
Topping the list of ignorance and rapaciousness in 2012 is the ill-advised push towards hydraulic fracturing of 'Fracking' here in Michigan, as in numerous other parts of  the Union with the exception of New York & Pennsylvania, whom have instituted a moratorium and ban on the practice.
 
Fracking involves taking huge volumes of water, chemicals and sand 10,000 feet underground to create fractures through which methane gas can flow for collection.  While the fracking process has been utilized in Michigan for thirty years, this latest process of horizontal deep-shale methane gas extraction is a new technology that is less than six years old and significantly more dangerous.  Every state involved with horizontal fracking, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania has experienced serious damage to drinking water, human health, livestock and wildlife, freshwater aquifers, rivers, and air pollution. 
 
Yet in July of this year officials in Kalkaska County approved for Encana Oil & Gas a barracks-style work camp that could house 40 gas field workers, with more camps on their way.  The barracks is located about a half hour from Encana well pads in Excelsior and Oliver townships, with only one residential neighbor located within 300 feet of the work camp. 
 
JoAnne Beemon of Don't Frack Michigan breaks it down this way: “What we're really concerned about is this is happening under the radar and in a very planned way to get fracking entrenched in Michigan without anyone being alarmed.” 
 
The process involves a deep well drilled vertically, followed by a horizontal well that is drilled out for over a mile into a shale where there is believed to be natural gas. Water, sand and a mixture of chemicals are forced into the well at high pressure to break fissures into the shale and release natural gas. The concern is with the incredible volumes of water involved in fracking and the potential for serious environmental harm when that water returns to the surface. “What they don't talk about is at least 40 percent of the chemicals injected into the well come back to the surface,” Beemon notes. 
 
23 permits have been issued for horizontal wells in the Collingwood shale in Kalkaska, Missaukee, Cheboygan and Antrim counties and permits for 16 other wells are pending, according to state DEQ records. Moreover, each deep shale fracking operation uses around 6.7 million gallons of water that is contaminated and cannot be returned to the aquifiers, so if we move forward with this, millions of gallons of water will be contaminated in order to expedite an oil and gas rush that will be here and gone within a few years. 
 
“It will line the pockets of energy barons for 10 years at the cost of our water and tourism,” states Beemon. Moreover, fracking corporations have admitted that 60 chemical compounds are used in this process, but have only disclosed two of them: sand and benzene, a potent carcinogen.  
40 - 70% returns to the surface as “flowback fluid”. This water, now mixed with toxic chemicals, cannot be returned to the watershed and will be disposed of in injection wells. But presently Gas companies are exempt from Michigan water withdrawal rules.   
 
The laundry list of toxic chemicals injected into the ground during hydrofracking should be enough for State legislators to put an immediate halt to this latest move in Michigan, especially in light of the Orwellian and irresponsible move navigated by ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, who managed to navigate legislation through the U.S. Congress that exempts regulation of this practice - as well as identifying the chemicals - from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which is known as The Halliburton Loophole. 
 
Horizontal fracking has been banned in Quebec, and temporarily in France.  India refuses to lease land to gas drilling.  Pittsburgh and Buffalo have banned fracking.  New York has issued a moratorium on its use. New Jersey is considering a ban. Ohio is considering a moratorium.  
 
Citizens groups in every state where fracking takes place are organizing against its use, yet only Michigan is far behind these other states.   
 
The only resource that Michigan has left these days is clean & safe water and the strength and majesty of its natural resources.  An imminent injunction must be requested from the State Supreme Court due to the reality of irreparable harm that fracking presents, as clean & safe water is a basic property right and contaminated ground and surface water will negatively affect both property values and the heath of our citizenry. 
 
We MUST safeguard that which makes Michigan so unique. 
 
Michigan's marketing campaign, 'Pure Michigan' is all about the quality of our exquisite natural resources. Indeed tourism generates $17.5 billion in annual revenue in Michigan.  Yet legislators have jeopardized all that by leasing off over 300,000 acres of land for a measly $181 million dollars. 
 
This insanity needs to stop now.  Time has run out. Write to your legislators and Governor Snyder or sign the online petition available at DontFrackMichigan.org.  Donations can also be sent to: Don't Frack Michigan, P.O. Box 65, Afton, Mich. 49705.
 
While there were many more stories that impacted us politically in 2012, in our opinion these were the most significant.  For a more complete breakdown, check out the Review Online Archives at www.review-mag.com.

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