Michigan & Federal Roundup: July 2015

This July, keep an eye on: at the state level, education policy, getting roads fixed (or not), “faith-based adoption” measures; at the federal level, the Obvious Topic, Net Neutrality (celebrate!?), crowdfunding goes national, federal budget cuts, and that ongoing trade fight.





1. Teacher evaluation reform: insert balloon deflating noise here.

Teacher evaluation, like most education reform, is becoming public policy’s Kanye West: everyone feels some kind of way. The problem seems to be that nobody can agree on what to do about those feelings.

The deets: Honestly, people can’t even decide what the bill even means. To some, it’s a defanged version of an effort to consolidate evaluation under consistent state standards; to others, it’s a watered-down version of a strong statement on local school board authority. What it seems to amounts to is a slight meandering around the status quo, with the bulk of the power to determine evaluations left with individual school boards.

Is it good news? As you can probably guess by now, this is one of those things that is mediocre news to most and terrible news to some. Nobody denies that ed reform is critical at a national level and particularly in our hard-hit Michigan cities, but actual progress remains a steady Needs Improvement.

(Source)(Absolutely biased, but very interesting, source)

2. Dodging potholes is still a Michigan pastime.

There are many states vying for the dubious honor of being king of potholes, but Michiganders know we’re hard to beat. Much as in education, everyone wants better roads; also like in education, nobody seems able to agree on how to achieve that.

The deets: Proposal 1 hoped to raise $1.2 million for road agencies and about $600 million for other areas of public interest, including restoring tax credits for low-income workers. The pain point was cost: Michigan sales tax (exempting fuel) would have risen by 1%, and the bill set the stage for price hikes on wholesale fuel and vehicle registration fees. Voters have rejected this bill, and Lansing now has to hunt for alternatives as road quality continues to decline. There are a few alternatives, but critics have raised concerns that they take away from schools and other public funding areas.

Is it good news? There exists good news, which is that 85% of our “trunklines” (interstates and highways) are still considered “good or fair”. But in a state where driving is not only a cultural lifeblood but absolutely necessary, our per capita spending on roads is 50th place out of 51 states-plus-DC. And bad roads cost us -- Michigan motorists spend over $300 per year in extra repair costs, more in metro areas like Detroit. Finally, even if our highways are driveable, close to a third of our bridges are rated “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete”; while these don’t necessarily mean unsafe, they do limit the usage of these structures.

(Source)(Source)(Source -- yes, it’s Wikipedia, but it’s just for a definition)

3. “Faith-based adoptions”: pre-emptive euphemism or protection?

There have been a rash of bills seeking to protect religious freedom recently. Snyder has just signed into law Michigan’s own, establishing the rights of faith-based adoption agencies to turn away couples they feel violate their religious beliefs.

The deets: This bill slipped into Snyder’s office with unexpected speed; Senate Republicans held an off-agenda vote on it and Snyder signed off on it the day after it landed on his desk, marking unusual efficiency for Lansing. The bill allows faith-based adoption agencies to turn away couples based on “sincerely held religious beliefs”, a recurring theme in laws meant to “protect religious freedom”. Agencies that do so are obliged to refer these couples to another agency that is willing to assist them.

Is it good news? Obviously, mileage will vary wildly. The raw facts are as follows: 17 of Michigan’s 62 adoption agencies are considered faith-based. The ACLU is certainly preparing a legal challenge. The bill moved very quickly and passed in the month prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. At this time, Michigan has no non-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals.





Did anyone really expect this not to be here?


1. That thing that the SCOTUS just did.

Well, here we are, after a battle through the courts that wasn’t quite Hunger Games, but merits at least some kind of Gladiator reference. Everyone not living under a rock knows that after protracted legal fights and the consolidation of two different suits, the Supreme Court has finally delivered a definite ruling on same-sex marriage.

The deets: Look at that picture of the White House. Google pictures of people celebrating. There’s a great deal of jubilation surrounding this decision, for obvious reasons, and not much that needs to be said: SCOTUS has made same-sex marriage the law of the land (secular law, not a religious mandate, despite fears of some opponents).

Is it good news? The legal language of the majority opinion relies on defining marriage as a fundamental unit of society and therefore a dignity to which all individuals are entitled based on the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. The dissent essentially accuses the Court of flexing the language beyond what was intended. The extent to which Chief Justice Kennedy writes about children and the benefit of marriage for children sets an interesting stage for the question of same-sex adoption. As for the answer to the question: it’s definitely intriguing news. And also, many people will want to get married, and some states will continue to try not to marry them.

(Source)(Did you know SCOTUS rulings are public and pretty solid reads?)

2. Net Neutrality lives! Net Neutrality lives?

Net neutrality became something of a poster child for a complicated bevy of legal actions surrounding the Internet and communications. In short, supporters of net neutrality consider the internet akin to essential public utilities (like water or electricity) and believe that level of service be equal for all customers, not subject to corporate interests.

The deets: After some interesting turnabouts, the Federal Communications Commission has released its strongest Internet regulations yet. The new rules protect internet service from being delivered unequally based on corporate spending (essentially, it means no “fast lanes” for web content that can afford to pay for them, guaranteeing delivery of your local Mom’n’Pop pasty store website at the same speed and quality as that of national conglomerate Pasties’R’Us).

Is it good news? Net neutrality advocates say yes; telecom companies say no. On the consumer end, cat videos will continue to stream to us at the same speed as ever; the effect may be felt more by the small business community and the community of internet-users that, to put it delicately, like to share.


3. Crowdfunding, the feds, and small businesses.

Speaking of small businesses, some news for the entrepreneurs out there: states are taking action to make real crowdfunding investment possible. No longer will the murky waters of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo be the only recourse for small contributions to big dreams.

The deets: Really, the feds were supposed to handle this as a postlude to the 2012 JOBS Act, but regulation stalled, so here we are. An increasing number of states have passed legislation surrounding equity crowdfunding (including Michigan, back in 2013!), hoping to encourage small investments in small businesses by providing some protection for investors while simplifying the process for entrepreneurs.

Is it good news? The goal is to make it easier to start businesses, so it’s hard to call this anything but good news. The difficulty is the extent to which regulations vary from state to state and the fact that, without formal federal rules, investment is limited to within-state transactions. Still, there’s hope that the growing number of states turning attention to crowdfunding will help push the topic back to priority in DC.

(Source)(Source)(Source if you’re into the technical nitty-gritty or are an entrepreneur)

4. Does anyone really feel bad about budget cuts for the IRS?

This is a very serious blog, but this item is just schadenfreude. Yes, taxes are a critical component to the smooth running of government and delivery of public services like schools, police and fire departments, and road crews. But come on, the IRS had its budget cut.

The deets: That’s it, the IRS had its budget cut by over $800 million. That’s the whole thing.

Is it good news? Alright, more soberly, this could mean a number of things for the average US resident. The intent of the Republican-supported bill is to force the IRS to streamline and deliver better customer service; whether less money will accomplish this goal is a perhaps dubious gamble. There are also some concerns raised about cybersecurity in the face of such a large budget cut. The bill passed on purely partisan lines, but IRS funding is such an unpopular topic that we are unlikely to hear any of this on campaign trails.


5. That Trade Bill (TPP).

Ah, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is the one everyone wants to have feelings about, but can’t be sure what feelings to have, largely because the bulk of the negotiations has remained private, up to and including the text of the bill itself.

The deets: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an effort at a trade bill akin to NAFTA, seeking to establish a set of regulatory standards for trade between countries linked by the Pacific Ocean -- with the notable exception of China. Opponents criticize the bill for much the same reasons as NAFTA was criticized for back in the day, including loss of certain sovereignty rights (for example, corporations can sue governments that they claim are violating the trade agreement); there are also more modern criticisms that surround intellectual property protections (the bill may open the avenue to control of the Internet) and environmental protections (linked to sovereignty). President Obama was granted fast-track authority for the bill in June, which means that the text of the bill -- still not publicly available -- may pass as early as August.

Is it good news? It’s really difficult to say with certainty whether this is definitively good or bad, given the amount of vague hand-waving that has surrounded the vague hints as to the actual content of the bill. From historical context, there are legitimate criticisms of NAFTA that still remain issues today (from a Canadian perspective, there is a great deal of concern about what it means should US companies in particular seek to purchase Canadian natural resources, something that is currently happening to fire-ridden British Columbia’s freshwater reserves). Put it this way: we had all best keep track of it.

(Source)(Source)(Source specifically on sovereignty)


Kathy (@kathypercapita) has been a passionate Detroit advocate since moving to Michigan for City Year Detroit. She was an inaugural Challenge Detroit Fellow and has now gone native by working tangential to the auto industry. She once accurately predicted the outcome of the 2004 federal election on her Livejournal, but only about five people saw it.