The battle for the 95th District State House of Representatives seat is certainly one of the hottest contested primary races to be determined on August 8th.
With a field that consists of Democrats Andy Coulouris, Joyce Seals, Charles Braddock, Terry Sangster, and Roma Thurin, recently The Review submitted a series of questions to each of the candidates.
Out of this field, only Coulouris and Seals bothered to address the issues presented to them in the interest of informing the electorate about their positions.
Given the many problems and challenges facing the City of Saginaw in the years ahead, we trust you will find this exchange both informative and enlightening.
Review: Briefly state your background and qualifications in terms of how you feel it prepares you to represent the 95th District?
Coulouris: I was born here in Saginaw and grew up, just like a lot of folks in town, as a recipient of welfare, in a home struggling to leave the ranks of the working poor. I went to college and law school determined to return and fight for the future of my hometown.
We have all seen our community endure setback after setback, and I know that getting more of the same from government will leave us with the same old results. I ran for and served on Saginaw City Council for three years hoping to help turn things around. Three years at City Hall taught me that finding a "quick fix" to our problems wouldn't do.
I'm not satisfied with the direction we're headed in as a community, nor am I satisfied with the direction we're headed as a state. We need to see broad, systemic change in our state economy before we can see long-term, meaningful progress in our community. This is why I decided to run for the state legislature.
As a City Councilman I worked hard to keep police on our streets, and was a strong voice for public safety in our community. In addition to my duties as Councilman, I was also Chairman of the City's Water Policy Committee, Vice-Chair of the Downtown Development Authority, and also served on the Board of the Saginaw County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. I have also been an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Saginaw County for three years.
Seals: I believe that having lived here for over 53 years gives me a keen understanding on the needs of the 95th District. I have had hard times and better times, which gives me a prospective of both those who have and those who have not. I am also a parent and understand the needs of a family and the importance of a good education. I have raised my family here, 7 of my children have completed a college education and my 8th child is a senior at CMU.
I graduated from the University of Michigan where I received a degree in education. This gives me the skills to keep up with rigorous reading and analysis that will be required. I am also a graduate of the MSU Political Leadership Program, which brings together, independents, Democrats, and Republicans to learn and discuss governance, budgeting, policy making, and public private ventures. I was exposed to opinions on issues from various viewpoints from conservative as well as liberal perspectives. All participants visited various sites around the state to see and learn.
I worked for the State for 26 years and was a strong member of the Saginaw City Council where I specialized in making sure that the citizen understood the facts behind decisions and that the facts were articulated in an understandable way. Most importantly, I understand the meaning of public service. I served as a VOLUNTEER on the Lake Huron Area Boy Scout Council and Board of Directors, Current Chair of the Good Neighbor's Mission, Former Treasurer and Board member of the Shabazz Academy for 7 years, Current president of the Ezekiel project of Saginaw, and a Right to Life Candidate.
Review: What are the three biggest priorities that need to be addressed in Michigan, not necessarily from a statewide perspective so much as how your involvement in Lansing could impact the 95th District?
Colouris: First, developing and keeping good jobs in our community. Clearly the economy is and should be everyone's focus. Making our State attractive to employers means more than simply restructuring our tax system - it means investing in Michigan. I applaud efforts at the state level to begin aggressively funding the expansion of the "life sciences" economy in Michigan, and to build on the medical sector economy starting to take hold in our region, but there's much more to be done.
Michigan's economy depends on our ability to educate and retain our workforce. We currently rank 9th in the nation for number of science and engineering degrees produced, but too many of our college graduates move away, pushed by the economic pressure of too few jobs at home and pulled by the higher quality of life in cities in other states. I want to make sure our state's budget priorities reflect our shared commitment to developing and retaining the next generation of economic leadership in Michigan.
Second, public safety. For me, this is and always has been a centerpiece issue. Crime has and enormous impact on our local economy, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our families. Citizens in this district are crying out for help, and we're not receiving enough resources to provide the level of public safety we deserve. Many people think of this as a local issue, and they are partly right. It is important to have adequately funded and staffed police departments paid for with local tax dollars. But there's more to the story.
Our public safety crisis is a state issue, too. Every year the state legislature cuts state revenue sharing to cities and counties. That means cities like Saginaw get fewer dollars to pay for police and fire protection. This has to change. I intend to be an ardent voice for public safety in Lansing.
Third, fixing our health care system. Approximately 1.8 million people in our state are without coverage for prescription drugs. Businesses and local governments are unable to cope with skyrocketing health care costs. Our population is aging and the health care system of old is no longer working for us.
Other states have started to face down similar situations, and there's no reason we can't learn from their experiences. For example, Massachusetts just passed legislation that guarantees health insurance for everyone in the state.
Businesses and residents share the cost. Grassroots and business interests alike supported this reform. (You can learn more at MassACT.org.) We should pull together in the same spirit in Lansing and work towards comprehensive, bipartisan health care reform.
Seals: There are many issues that face the 95th District and the State as well. One of the biggest is unemployment and lack of good paying jobs. We currently have a window of opportunity as a result of the signing of the Transportation Bill of 2005. There is a 6 year window that provides federal funding and Incentives for job training and apprenticeship programs through unions and other entities: to 1% of a project can be used for these purposes. This section of the Act also allows for 30% local hiring.
With our I-675 exit project, we could take advantage of this provision. There is a lot of work yet to be done on this effort, but it is feasible. It has already been done in Missouri! All federal projects are affected. This is a good possibility for those who have been laid off and looking for opportunities. This would be approached from both the state and local levels simultaneously.
The other issue is health coverage. Too many residents of the 95th do not possess health insurance. I propose to investigate the Massachusetts model where they now offer universal health care. If corporations want to be a part of their system, they can, but if not they can continue to provide their own.
I would request that the governor of Michigan in 2007 also convene a "health care financing committee" to starting gathering the resources to pay for universal health. This is how Mass began their process. This is a high-ticket cost to all businesses and could give them some relief.
The last issue is Education. We need to look at alternative ways of financing education in Michigan. Better-prepared students will be ready to compete in a global market place. But we must stabilize the funding and provide for students who need a little more help. We can't afford to waste any mind. When we don't do provide for our students at every level, our prisons end up full of students who did not make it in the education system.
The University of Michigan conducted a study that demonstrated the correlation of juvenile delinquency and failure in elementary school. We have enough research. We need the strength and fortitude to make it happen. It is cheaper to help a student at the elementary level than to put in him/her in prison for over $30,000/year. We have to reform education funding and acknowledge that some students may need a little more help. Let's pay on the early elementary end. It is definitely cheaper.
Review: When discussing the direction education is going the biggest debate is over whether charter schools do a better job than public schools. Which do you favor and why?
Colouris: I am a product of the public school system, and I'll stand by that system. I'm supportive of looking into creative ways to improve education, including charter schools, but my first priority regarding K-12 education, will always be improving public schools.
Did you know that nationwide about 46 million students attend public K-12 schools, compared to about 5 million in private K-12 schools and just fewer than 700,000 K-12 students in charter schools?
I'm very excited about some of the victories we're seeing in charter schools, but I think we need to keep our energies focused on the places where 89% of our kids are educated, even if we are hearing great things from the 1% or so of kids in charter schools.
I know the problems students, parents, and teachers face in our public schools. Our teachers are doing the best they can, but as a community, and certainly as a government, we are not providing our children with the educational environment they need to succeed. In too many schools we have a difficult time keeping our kids safe from bullying and gang violence. It's easy to understand why some teachers suffer from low morale.
I think our response to this situation, though, is to dig in and commit to fixing the system, not to look for an alternative to the system as a whole. I don't say that as a piece of political ideology, just as an issue of sheer numbers - regardless of what you think about charter and private schools, those systems were never designed to scale up enough to take pressure off the public system.
Seals: My children attended public schools in Saginaw and for a short time in Grand Ledge, MI. Therefore, public schools have been wonderful places for all 8 of my children to attend. I have no problems.
I also was a board member of a charter school academy in Lansing from 1997 to 2004 or 5. I was the Treasurer for most of that time. Charter Schools have their issues, too. Most Charter Schools that have the same population as urban schools districts face some of the same academic challenges. This is firsthand!
Our school in Lansing was on probation with CMU and went through corrective actions just as we see schools doing in this area. As a result of these challenges, the state legislature at one time limited the number that would be opened. You should also look at the number of Charter Schools that have closed. I know of at least one in Lansing-Walter French! If you look at the socio-economic levels of any school, whether charter or public schools, you will see that there is a correlation between academics and test scores. Challenged students can do well, but you have to put in more effort and provide extra supports. It can be done in either venue.
Review: Michigan has been in a "one-state recession" for several years, while every other states, except those slammed by hurricanes, have experienced impressive growth. Only a handful of states levy all three of the following: a sales tax, a personal income tax, and a business tax. Each of these states are economic growth laggards. A movement is underway to eliminate the 'Single Business Tax' insofar as it is often cited as the worst business tax in the nation; it's rate is very high and it is filled with perverse incentives (for example, employers who provide health insurance pay more tax). Yet, its elimination will draw $1.85 billion out of the general fund. Do you favor eliminating the SBT? If so, how should the budgetary gap be replaced?
Colouris: Anyone who has spent time working to retain and create jobs in our community knows how important taxes are in determining where jobs go and, if they're already here, whether they'll stay.
There seems to be unanimity in the business community that the SBT isn't helping us grow our economy. I would be in favor of replacing the SBT with a new business tax system that addresses the red flags that have been raised while providing the revenues needed to run our state.
In other words, I will only support repealing the SBT if we can fashion a revenue-neutral replacement. Those who suggest that repealing the SBT without regard to lost revenues will be the fix our economy needs are simply shortsighted.
Repealing the SBT without some form of replacement means taking $2 billion out of parks, local police, and the school system - the state's core functions. More than ever before, companies look to locate jobs in places where peoplewant to live, and people want to live where there is a high quality of life. What do you think happens to our local quality of life when we're faced with less police protection, fewer state and local parks, diminished K-16 educational opportunities, and so on and so forth?
I'm not saying I know what the right answer is. I don't. I can say, though, that anyone who tells you there is an "easy answer" to the problems our state faces just doesn't understand how deep and complicated those problems are - and that's not the person I want sitting in Lansing working on solutions.
A better approach is to work hard and work together. We should be open-minded, we should use any and all tools at our disposal to fix our economy, and - most importantly - to be brave enough, honest enough and patient enough to say that no matter how complex our challenges are, we'll never hide behind sound bites and ideas tailored to fit on a bumper sticker. We'll work our way and think our way through this, however long it takes.
Seals: The answer is a complex one. I believe that small businesses are under extreme pressure and need relief and SBT is one of those possible relieves.
In saying this, I must grapple with how do we make up the 2 billion dollars? I would like to explore the possibility of a raise in the sales tax. This would spread the burden on all people in the state and give relief to small businesses. Most states around us already have a higher sales tax.
Our state budget is already been cut drastically, and I cannot see this state cutting the STATE POLICE or ISD's. The State Police support our local police forces and the ISD's support our small districts to provide needed services, which they cannot provide themselves. This is good business.
Review: Recently Saginaw County enacted a controversial 'anti-smoking' ordinance. Additionally, there have been recent attempts in Lansing to enact legislation that would ban smoking in bars & restaurants throughout Michigan, even though in Saginaw County alone the Food & Beverage industry is the third biggest employer in the County. In states that have banned smoking in restaurants & bars, the industry has recorded substantial reductions in revenue. Are you in favor of these attempts to ban smoking statewide, or do you feel it is an encroachment on the property rights of business owners and the freedom of individual choice?
Coulouris: I take very seriously the threat posed by smoking and second-hand smoking to smokers and non-smokers alike, and, as the 2006 Surgeon General's Report indicates, the science supporting the need to greatly reduce second-hand smoke is clearly there.
Although I appreciate that an individual has the right to smoke if they so chose, I think the overwhelming public health concerns-not to mention the economic impact of bloated health care costs-should lead us toward policies that tend both to reduce smoking and limit exposure to second-hand smoke.
As far as the economic impact of public smoking bans, there are many studies indicating there is actually an economic benefit to the hospitality industry in states and communities where smoking bans exist. That being said, I think the best way to change state law to forbid smoking in bars and restaurants would be through a ballot initiative. Putting the question of whether to ban smoking in bars and restaurants should be a question for voters.
Seals: Well, you should know that I am a non-smoker. I had regularly been forced to sit in smoke filled restaurants, restrooms, and other establishments which claim to have a "non - smoking area." Nevertheless, as I sat in my non-smoking area, I often smelled the smoke and could not breathe! Many establishments are not set-up to really keep the smoke out of non-smoking area. I believe the owners mean well, but sometimes, it just doesn't work. Here in lies the problem.
I believe it is your right to smoke. HOWEVER, I should not have to inhale second hand smoke. But every person should have the choice and the business owner ought to have a choice, too. There needs to be some type of compromise on this issue where all rights are respected, even those of us who are non-smokers. We all know the impact of second hand smoke!!! I would like to be part of the discussion on this issue so I can hear what smoking advocates have to say regarding my concerns.
Review: Are there any local leaders, or leaders in general that you admire or have inspired you?
Coulouris: It's hard to pick one or two people whom I admire for everythingthey are or everything they've done. But I can think of many public figures from whom I draw inspiration or whom I admire for particular reasons. For example, I admire the way Al Gore has been working to raise public consciousness of global warming and force us to reckon with the grave threat that climate change poses.
I admire people who are passionate about an issue but who maintain the ability to be effective advocates-I tend not to be drawn to polarizing public figures. I admire the way former Governor Milliken has become a voice for compromise and decency in Michigan politics. I have to admit I also admire the way Prosecutor Mike Thomas so thoroughly commits himself to the cause of public safety in our community. I think he is a real, honest to goodness public servant who sees the "big picture" but also cares about the doing "little things" well. It has been a pleasure to work for and learn from him over these past few years.
Actually, there are many journalists and investigative reporters whom I admire. I have always regarded journalists working in the free press as enormously important safeguards of our democracy. Sometimes journalists make mistakes, but the work that they do is so important to our system of government that I can't help but have deep admiration for journalists when they do their job well.
Seals: Rev. Roosevelt Austin and Father John Sarge. I admire them both for their faith and the fact that they put their faith into action.
Many people have talked about our city and county problems but both of them jumped in feet first to do something about them. They were on local boards and sat in places of authority where they could articulate the problems of the community as well as highlight our assets. They both could work with people from every walk or life and give them their respect and attention.
Even though Rev. Austin has retired and Father Sarge as moved to another area of the County, both of them still pray for this area and send an encouraging word to all the leaders. Both of them have inspired me. Their faithfulness encourages me to go on with the work of rebuilding this community.