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Blog Posts

For The Week Of February 15, 2018 Through February 21, 2018

Mid-Term Elections At Risk From … Communication?

By Christopher Klaver
Staff Writer
Posted: February, 21 2018 11:32 AM

There is evidence that Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 elections, and leaders of that nation have already threatened to do the same in the 2018 mid-terms.

With Michigan having several of the top now-Republican seats targeted by Democrats, we could be among the targets for these operatives.

So what do we have to look forward to as the election heats up: social media posts?

Make no mistake, there are some substantial crimes listed in the indictment handed down late last week. The charges allege that Russians, not only from their country but from ours, posed as Americans and conducted political activities without disclosing who they truly were and without registering as foreign agents.

There is a legitimate state interest in prohibiting, or at least disclosing, any foreign interests conducting electioneering. We should know who is providing campaign funds and assistance to whom.

But the crux of the news coverage has been that those involved “interfered” by posting false messages in an effort to spur divisions in the electorate. One recent story said the Russian operatives coordinated rallies on both sides of a contentious issue to bring the two sides together where they could clash.

If efforts to rile up voters with false information bring the downfall of our democracy now, after more than 200 years of it, then we get what we deserve.

False, or at least questionable, assertions and allegations about political candidates, denigration and name calling have a long, proud history in our political process.

That these messages can travel further and faster through the web does not change the nature of the communication, nor each voter’s responsibility to determine the veracity of the information before acting or passing it on to others.

If voters are not going to do some of their own research on the candidates and the sources of their information, they are going to fall victim to those trying to drive election results, whether it be foreign operatives or domestic interests not necessarily aligned with their own.

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What To Do About Choosing University Trustees?

By Zachary Gorchow
Posted: February, 20 2018 4:24 PM

This is sort of a rebuttal to and sort of a continuation of a blog my colleague John Lindstrom wrote last week on the debate about whether the members of the governing boards for Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University should continue to be elected by statewide voters.

The MSU Board of Trustees, as a result of its fealty to former MSU President Lou Anna Simon and in particular the comments of Trustee Joel Ferguson (D-Lansing) minimizing the significance of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal, has brought Michigan’s unique system of electing university governing boards front-and-center.

Relatively few large public universities have their trustees elected by voters. Among the 13 public universities that make up the Big Ten Conference, MSU, U-M and the University of Nebraska are the only three with boards chosen by voters, and Nebraska uses a district system instead of the statewide one in place for MSU and U-M (and Wayne State). In the Big Ten and nationally, governors tend to appoint most of the large public university governing boards.

The MSU board’s approach has prompted legislation to move Michigan’s three large research institutions to gubernatorial appointment for their governing boards. The legislation is likely going nowhere because Democrats have reacted negatively to the idea, and it will take Democratic votes in the Michigan House to attain the two-thirds majority necessary to put a constitutional amendment before voters.

The politics of the situation are easy to understand. If voters adopted the constitutional amendment, it would allow Governor Rick Snyder to replace the governing boards of all three universities. Democrats control the U-M and WSU boards, and the MSU board is a 4-4 split. Instantly, there would be, presumably, 8-0 Republican majorities on all three boards.

University boards would move to a spoils system. Critics of this system have noted it means appointees tend to be political supporters of the governor, even if they are well-qualified. And it means that the governor’s political opponents, even if also well-qualified, have no shot. Further, it means when a new governor takes office that quality board members will get replaced upon the expiration of their terms simply because they belong to the opposite political party.

The system’s supporters have countered that once appointed, the members are largely freed from partisan political concerns.

This is the system now in place for Michigan’s 10 other public universities (I’ve seen several people refer to 12 other public universities, but two of those are the University of Michigan-Dearborn and University of Michigan-Flint, which fall under control of the same board of regents as the main campus in Ann Arbor).

Part of the hue and cry about ceasing election of the MSU, U-M and WSU boards stems from the idea of taking the choice away from voters. And from a philosophical standpoint, that makes sense.

The realities of how those elections work, however, are completely at odds with that lofty ideal.

The candidates for the board are nominated by the political parties’ state convention delegates. As Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) pointed out last week, that means Republican nominees result from those who can meet conservative litmus tests even on issues that have nothing to do with university governance. No one said so on the Democratic side, but those hoping to win Democratic nominations generally have no chance unless they have the blessing of the United Auto Workers and/or other major unions.

Republican convention delegates elect their nominees through one-person, one-vote secret ballot. Theoretically, Democratic delegates elect their nominees through an open ballot process with votes apportioned according to congressional district through in practice, powerbrokers sort out the nominees in advance and the convention rubber stamps those choices.

And then voters, carefully vetting the nominees based on the issues, make their grand pronouncement on who is fit to lead the three universities in November elections in even-numbered years.

Well, no. Voters generally have no idea who the candidates are or what they stand for unless there’s a famous name in the mix. Former MSU head football coach George Perles didn’t get elected to the MSU board because of his views on tuition and the cost of room and board.

So voters default to their basic partisan leaning, whether through using the straight-ticket voting option or going through the candidates one by one.

There’s a reason Mr. Ferguson lost re-election in 1994 and won back a seat in the 1996 elections. It’s the same reason Republicans dominated the board races in 2010 and 2016 while Democrats did so in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014.

In big Democratic years, Democratic university board candidates win. And in big Republican years, Republican candidates win. 1994 was a historic Republican sweep, so Mr. Ferguson lost. 1996 was a solid Democratic year, so Mr. Ferguson won.

Defenders of the current system note, rightfully, that upending the U-M and WSU boards because of the fiasco at MSU makes little sense. Indeed, blowing up the electoral system for the three universities because of a hopefully once-in-a-century scandal at MSU feels like a knee-jerk reaction.

There’s no way to know if a board consisting of members chosen through a different system would have responded differently.

That said, regardless of the MSU situation, the current system, which dates to the 1908 Constitution, has flaws, and they are obvious. A serious research project by the Legislature into whether there’s a better system would be fascinating and maybe even lead to genuine reform.

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Maybe Appointing University Governing Boards Is Not The Best Idea

By John Lindstrom
Posted: February, 16 2018 1:28 PM

In the last few weeks this reporter was in a Lansing area restaurant when one of the Michigan State University trustees came in with a friend. They shared a glass of wine while sitting in a corner. While this reporter watched, no one came over to the trustee to criticize him, denounce him, demand he resign the university.

All this may be apropos of nothing, except that at least in the Lansing area right now the only person more hated than the MSU trustees is convicted sex offender Larry Nassar himself. The university’s stunning failure to stop Nassar from sexually abusing girls and young women led not only to his conviction and the resignation of former President Lou Anna Simon, it has led the university’s faculty governance to pass a vote of no-confidence in the trustees. Another group calling itself the concerned faculty of MSU has posted an online petition that among other things demanded the trustees hold public hearings so the public could tell the trustees what they thought of them and then resign or be impeached.

And there’s been a series of newspaper editorials, including one from The New York Times, demanding the board members resign. As of this writing they have not done so.

And of course politics is part of the furious response as well.

Constitutional provisions have been introduced – HJR DD* which would require the elected governing boards of MSU, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University be appointed by the governor as are all the other university boards and HJR EE* that would limit the elected governing boards to four-year terms instead of the current eight years – but their potential success is uncertain. Both Democrats and Republicans like being able to nominate and elect folks to those boards.

Out of the horror of the Nassar scandal one issue not been talked about much is the potential effect it could have on all Michigan’s public universities. When lawmakers talk about change, they are not focusing on one school but all 15 universities. To date, even with three elected boards, the universities have been able to steer largely clear of rocks and sandbars that state politics can hide.

In recent years, universities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi – where lawmakers and governors have greater authority over the universities – have been subject to fights and confrontations. Go back even further in history where in states like Texas and Washington, the legislatures enacted huge increases in tuition costs, not one penny of which went to the universities. Instead, those increases went to the states’ general funds.

Michigan does have a constitutional provision guaranteeing university autonomy. And the universities have used it both to the approval and annoyance of the Legislature and the public.

But there are other ways to assert political control and one of those could be making it that all university boards are appointed by the governor. Supporters say the fact those appointments would be subject to the Senate’s advice and consent provisions which would head off the possibility that politics would enter into university operations. But would it really?

What would be the odds that given the power to select all university governing boards a gubernatorial candidate, from any party, would not promise to select persons who reflect certain beliefs and values? Given certain political moods at different times, how likely is it those boards accountable to a governor and not the people or the university itself could resist being used to accommodate those moods?

That the governor can now name the governing boards of 10 schools and they do not kowtow to political whims may actually be more a benefit of MSU, UM and WSU’s boards being elected. Because they are truly accountable to the electorate at large that helps provide some cover to the other university boards. Lawmakers know there is effectively little they can do to force universities to bend one way or another so long as the three major schools are free from them.

But the shock and disgust at MSU does show that change is needed, yet it is a change that can be enacted not by law but only by collective will. The trustees or regents or governors or whatever they are called need to take it upon themselves to behave as true oversight agents. They need to insist on open accountability, on a public review of budgets, procedures, practices, contract review, personnel policies, academic certifications, student issues and the like.

A university president once told this reporter that governing boards should not question the school’s administration but accept that the administration has thought out the best options and enact them. If nothing else, the Nassar debacle demonstrates that governing boards should make university administrations squirm a bit and stand up to tough questioning.

If governing boards did do that, the MSU trustee might still drink his wine in blissful anonymity, but also could tell anyone who might ask that more was being done to ensure the best governance of a university.

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On Tax Cuts Vs. Services, Democrats Go For Tax Cuts

By Zachary Gorchow
Posted: February, 15 2018 12:01 PM

When it comes to taxes this year, the Legislature had Governor Rick Snyder over the proverbial barrel, as a lobbyist once said of the position in which it put former Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams during the 1959 cash crisis, and as that lobbyist advised then, today’s legislators kept Mr. Snyder there until he screamed “uncle.”

First, the Legislature overrode Mr. Snyder’s 2017 veto of legislation that speeds up the phasing out of applying the sales tax to the value of a trade-in when purchasing a vehicle.

Then, majority Republicans who have chafed for years at Mr. Snyder’s reluctance to cut individual income taxes, realizing that Mr. Snyder could not stop them if they pursued tax cuts with bipartisan support, seized on Mr. Snyder’s proposal to prevent Michigan income taxpayers from losing their personal exemptions as a result of an unintended consequence in the federal tax law.

Michigan law now allows a $4,000 exemption, with the amount rising annually by inflation, rounded to the nearest $100. The Michigan Income Tax Act says Michigan taxpayers can claim the same number of personal exemptions as they claim on their federal taxes. The end of the federal personal income tax exemption thus also means the end of the Michigan one.

Mr. Snyder proposed a technical wording change and a modest boost in the personal exemption to bring it to $4,500 by 2021 instead of the $4,300 where it likely would have stood by then.

Republicans swiftly and unsurprisingly upped the ante. House Republicans called for a $4,800 personal exemption by 2021 and Senate Republicans a $5,000 one. House Republicans proposed a new tax credit for seniors 62 and older. Senate Republicans proposed bringing back a tax credit for parents with minor children.

Mr. Snyder never flatly said “no,” but he warned against acting fiscally irresponsible and reminded legislators of all the tax cuts coming online in the coming years.

The governor last week suggested a proposal “in between” his and lawmakers. He did get Republicans to drop the credits, but the personal exemption plan fell “in between” the House and Senate plans at $4,900.

Absent a threat to go scorched earth on the Legislature if it overrode another veto, and anyone who has observed Mr. Snyder for his seven years in office knows that is not in his DNA, Mr. Snyder had no leverage. The Legislature easily could have and would have overrode a veto. He also caved on a House Republican push to grant amnesty to some 300,000 motorists with a cumulative $637 million in unpaid driver responsibility fees and agreed to that plan too. Again, with Democrats backing that legislation, he had no leverage.

One of the interesting storylines is that Democrats, who typically ally themselves with the groups reliant on the state budget (K-12 schools, social service programs, universities, local governments, et al), ditched them to back tax cuts. Schools opposed the trade-in bill because most sales tax revenues go to schools. And the Michigan League for Public Policy, whose priorities generally are in sync with legislative Democrats, opposed the $4,900 personal exemption plan.

“We were disheartened today to hear that the Legislature and governor have reached an agreement on an increase to the state personal exemption that will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue in the coming years with little benefit to most families,” said Gilda Jacobs, a former senator and House member who is the president and CEO of the league. “Simply put, the juice is not worth the squeeze on a tax cut right now. Lawmakers are making bad decisions today that will force future legislators to pay for them with significant cuts to the services residents value and rely on.”

Mr. Snyder isn’t the only one in town feeling a knife in his back right now.

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