Friday, April 29, 2011

Pure Grand Rapids

Heh. Not so boring now, are we?




Actually, we still are - but it's a lot better than it used to be.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Mountain

Been a rough day. Between the natural destruction we see in the South, and the man-made destruction we see in Lansing, it might be nice to take a time-out here and remember it's still a beautiful world.

If you watch one video this year in full-screen mode, make it this one. It's simply amazing. Hit the little arrows to the right of the HD graphic, and head back to the Milky Way...





From the photographer's description:

This was filmed between 4th and 11th April 2011. I had the pleasure of visiting El Teide Spain´s highest mountain @(3718m) is one of the best places in the world to photograph the stars and is also the location of Teide Observatories, considered to be one of the world´s best observatories.

The goal was to capture the beautiful Milky Way galaxy along with one of the most amazing mountains I know El Teide. I have to say this was one of the most exhausting trips I have done. There was a lot of hiking at high altitudes and probably less than 10 hours of sleep in total for the whole week. Having been here 10-11 times before I had a long list of must-see locations I wanted to capture for this movie, but I am still not 100% used to carrying around so much gear required for time-lapse movies.

A large sandstorm hit the Sahara Desert on the 9th April (bit.ly/​g3tsDW) and at approx 3am in the night the sandstorm hit me, making it nearly impossible to see the sky with my own eyes.

Interestingly enough my camera was set for a 5 hour sequence of the milky way during this time and I was sure my whole scene was ruined. To my surprise, my camera had managed to capture the sandstorm which was backlit by Grand Canary Island making it look like golden clouds. The Milky Way was shining through the clouds, making the stars sparkle in an interesting way. So if you ever wondered how the Milky Way would look through a Sahara sandstorm, look at 00:32.

This was shot with my dream camera, a Canon 5D Mark II. And lots of expensive lenses. Ah, maybe someday...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

EPA's Earth Day State of the Environment Photo Project

up3573cranes
Sandhill cranes, UP. Once nearly eliminated in Michigan, they have made a good comeback in the past few decades.


Michigan, represent. Check out this cool project:

Got a camera? The Environmental Protection Agency wants you.

The federal agency has embarked on a yearlong campaign to collect photographs from across the United States and around the world for its State of the Environment Photo Project.

Launched just before Earth Day, April 22, the project is modeled after the Documerica effort during the 1970s in which the agency hired dozens of freelance photographers to capture thousands of images related to the environment and everyday life in America.

This time, the scope is global and it's driven by social media.

The EPA is calling on the masses to post their best photographs on Flickr.

In the first week, about 100 images were posted to a special group page set up through the photo sharing network. The EPA is tweeting about its favorites and sharing some of them on its Facebook page.

I'm terribly lazy when it comes to adding stuff to groups, but I joined up and will send in some shots of our beautiful state. Would be very nice to see something make the final collection. The Documerica project of the 70s is part of the National Archives; you can see those photos here.

Legislature Officially Jumps Shark

You knew it was coming.

A state House lawmaker introduced legislation Tuesday that would require candidates for president to produce a certified copy of his or her birth certificate to be eligible to appear on the Michigan ballot.

Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, said the legislation was aimed at "clarify(ing) a constitutional question that has arisen about a number of presidential candidates," and not about allegations surrounding the birthplace of President Barack Obama.

"I did not introduce this bill to continue the birther debate," referring to those who have questioned whether Obama was born in the U.S. and eligible to hold the office of president, Callton said in a statement.

Yeah right.

Mean, greedy AND stupid. We've got the complete package here in Michigan.

Comes a point where my outrage meter gets broken, and I start looking for more fulfilling intellectual pursuits. I think we've reached it now.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Phoebe Snow



"Either or Both", from one of my all-time favorite albums, "Phoebe Snow". This record came out when when I was nine years old in 1974, and thanks to my father's hippie friends, it was a staple of my childhood. I was ecstatic when I finally got the CD, released by Shelter Records in 1989, and every so often I pull it out and remember when...

Today is one of those days. RIP Phoebe Snow, and thank you for all the great songs. They are truly cherished.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Revenge of the Electric Car



During the debates over the bailout for the auto companies, it surprised and saddened me to see that there were quite a few folks on the left who advocated for letting GM die - and they pointed to the film ""Who Killed the Electric Car" as the motive for their reasoning. What they weren't taking into account, besides the loss of jobs and the thousands of shattered lives that event would have created, was that GM almost immediately started working on the Volt after the demise of the EV1 - and we are seeing those glorious results today.

Chris Paine, director of both films, recently traded in his Prius for a Volt. Pretty much says it all.

If the electric car gets revenge in a new film, then three automakers building them must be happy.

The documentary "Revenge of the Electric Car," directed by Chris Paine, opened Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival. It traces the efforts of General Motors Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Tesla Motors to build and sell electric vehicles.

Paine previously directed the 2006 film "Who Killed the Electric Car" which told the beginnings and the terminations of the first electric vehicles. It was very critical of GM's decision to kill its electric vehicle EV1 program.

"Revenge" follows the efforts of then GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and Tesla CEO Elon Musk to develop electric vehicles starting in 2008. "We focused on what kind of people it takes to really change something fundamentally," Paine said.

After GM dumped $1B into the EV1 program and couldn't find a way to make it successful, it was a big risk to turn around and try again - and the film shows the story of how close they came to losing it all.

The film has a heartbreaking scene of the empty darkened Warren Tech center as audio of President Barack Obama's June 2009 speech is played announcing GM's filing for bankruptcy.

But the film ends on upbeat notes: featuring footage of Obama at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant looking at a Volt and Lutz watching the 100th Volt come off the assembly line.

It also shows Nissan breaking ground on its expansion of its Smyrna, Tenn., plant to build the Leaf in the United States. "I can tell my kids , 'Hey we were on of the first to come up with this new electric vehicle," exclaims one of the employees.

Tesla is seen unveiling its new factory to build its Model S and the company's successful IPO launch on Wall Street. The company has sold nearly 1,800 Roadsters worldwide - more EVs than either GM or Nissan.

The best to everyone - soon we will have Ford and the others joining the ranks. It's still going to be a while until electric vehicles are truly mainstream, but we are now well on the way. This film doesn't have a distributor yet, but I hope it will be available through DVD or Netflix soon. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

UPDATE 4/26: New story this morning fits on this post:

The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf won the highest safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — a boost toward winning broad consumer acceptance of electrically powered vehicles.

IIHS, an industry-funded group that prods automakers to build safer cars, said the tests were the first conducted in the United States on plug-in electric cars.

The Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle with a backup gasoline engine, and the battery electric Leaf earned the top ratings of "good" for front, side, rear, and rollover crash protection.

IIHS said the milestone demonstrates that automakers are using the same safety engineering in new electric cars as they do in gasoline-powered vehicles. Both won "Top Safety Pick" honors from IIHS.

The Volt and the Leaf may look like small cars, but their weight may surprise you. It did me.

IIHS said the battery packs bring the vehicles' curb weights closer to midsize and larger cars. The Leaf weighs about 3,370 pounds and the Volt about 3,760 pounds.

That compares to about 3,200 pounds for Nissan's Altima, a midsize car; and about 3,580 pounds for Chevrolet's Impala, a large family car.

And with that weight comes better performance in crash tests. Also makes the fuel economy even more impressive.

Easter Egg Pride Sunday April 24, 2011

priderock2441
Heartside Pride Cleansweep Rock at Aquinas College


Those wacky Catholics, with their springtime tradition of roaming the woods and painting big rocks to look like Easter eggs... and this morning, I'm trying to remember the part in the Bible where Jesus dropped marshmallows from a helicopter. Maybe they have revised it again...

Ah, but I'm such a heathen, and cannot comprehend the deep meaning of such things. Most of the time I'm very grateful for that. On with the news, three bullet points that tie-in to the EFM law and the controversy surrounding it...


  • Speaking of really big intrusive government, Peter Luke looks at budget issues and local control today, comes to the same conclusion that I did, and also hits on the same thing that Rachel Maddow has been trumpeting: These Republicans loves them some big government when it comes to implementing their fiscal and social agenda. And it's not sitting well with the true believers on the small government side of the aisle.

    All of this may not match the pledge of limited government a lot Republicans ran on, but if you’re now running the government, why limit yourself?

    They certainly didn’t with emergency financial manager legislation that a new non-partisan study makes clear does allow for the ripping up of collective bargaining contracts, the neutering of local elected officials and, with approval of the governor, the wholesale dismantling or merger of communities.

    The point is to make the prospect of an emergency financial manager so frightening elected officials and labor unions will be forced to agree to a balanced budget solution. And if they refuse or can’t, then the state has an obligation to step in. It’s not a new concept, as the takeover law has been in place for decades. This one is just more tough. And more likely to face legal challenge.

    More rural Republican lawmakers who don’t represent cities or schools under takeover threat -- yet -- are starting to raise questions as to how far Lansing should go.

    In other words, karma's a bitch - and the Pastor Martin Niemöller quote is appropriate as a warning for the expanded powers of this new law. Here is a link to the study from the Citizens Research Council that Luke mentions above, give it a read.

  • Julie Mack at the K-zoo Gazette brings some more perspective to the Benton Harbor story in this thoughtful column, and as some people have been trying to point out, it's a lot more complicated than a cable news show can take the time to tell you. I'd love to see Maddow do a whole hour on the story and include more of the timeline and details surrounding how this came to be in the first place. There are some very good questions being raised about cities in financial crisis - regardless of what caused it. Bottom line: Someone needs to take a stand on the EFM law. Maddow is on the right track, but she's highlighting the wrong things about Benton Harbor. We need an example where Snyder's budget actions are the direct and sole cause of a takeover or negated union contract or loss of property - and then send in the lawyers.

    This next point may be a better place to take a stand, for Snyder's budget cuts to the schools can certainly be used for this case, even if the problem started well before...

  • The real difficult fight is going to be in Detroit over the schools, and tomorrow the teachers, parents and and kids facing closure will make their case to DPS Emergency Manager Robert Bobb to save their local buildings. The DNews has a slew of stories on that issue today, follow the link if you are inclined.

    Closing the Catherine Ferguson Academy for pregnant girls is THE heart-wrenching story in Detroit, and the portrait of how such drastic measures are going to hurt the people who have found great solutions to the issues facing kids - and this one I will tip my hat to Rachel Maddow for highlighting. Watch this must see video:

    Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



    CFA is a monster success story - and now it's going away. And that's wrong. Just wrong. Look, losing part of a park is one thing, losing the positive pathway for a human life? That is something else entirely. While both are important issues that tie into the really big issue, I sure wish this had been the story that received the attention first.

    Stay tuned folks, this is far from over.

    Happy Easter to you all. May you find peace in the power of love, forgiveness and rebirth that surrounds this day.
  • Saturday, April 23, 2011

    The Clean Energy President



    Energy costs. It's on everyone's mind. Again. The President starts this week's address by acknowledging that high gas prices are hurting the average Joe, and that there isn't a "silver bullet" to fix the issue. All true. And then he goes on...

    But there are a few things we can do. This includes safe and responsible production of oil at home, which we are pursuing. In fact, last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003. On Thursday, my Attorney General also launched a task force with just one job: rooting out cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices, including any illegal activity by traders and speculators. We’re going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of the American people for their own short-term gain. And another step we need to take is to finally end the $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies we give to the oil and gas companies each year. That’s $4 billion of your money going to these companies when they’re making record profits and you’re paying near record prices at the pump. It has to stop.

    One thing that needs to be pointed out again about domestic oil production is that as recently reported as mid-2008, 75% of our offshore reserves are open to drilling right now. What was (and probably still is) happening is that the oil companies have discovered it's a lot cheaper to sit behind a computer and play the market rather than do all that expensive physical exploration that may or may not pan out in profits for them. And even if they did go on a drilling spree, the U.S. Dept. of Energy, under Bush mind you, claimed "opening the coasts to offshore drilling would have no significant impact on oil prices before 2030." Keep that in mind when the chants for "more drilling" start up again.

    Good luck with the speculators and subsidies, too. No one running for office is going to touch those with a ten-foot pole. But merely pointing out these facts about domestic oil production and the financial practices of the oil companies is a good thing, for it undermines any argument that they have about the need for further tax breaks or expanded leases. Use what you have first, and then maybe we can talk.

    Even at that, no amount of domestic drilling can make up for the massive amount of oil we import. The answer lies in reducing consumption, period. And here is where this President is definitely on the right track.

    Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy sources, we need to invest in tomorrow’s. We need to invest in clean, renewable energy. In the long term, that’s the answer. That’s the key to helping families at the pump and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. We can see that promise already. Thanks to an historic agreement we secured with all the major auto companies, we’re raising the fuel economy of cars and trucks in America, using hybrid technology and other advances. As a result, if you buy a new car in the next few years, the better gas mileage is going to save you about $3,000 at the pump.

    For all the kvetching about the costs associated with increasing fuel mileage that the auto companies used to do, you can probably hazard a guess that right about now they are happy they finally got around to doing it. Sales of smaller cars and hybrids have spiked in the 1Q because of the jump in gas prices - and this time domestic manufacturers were ready. Word today is that GM is ready to reclaim the number one spot in worldwide auto sales - quite a feat for a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy and literally cut in half only a few short years ago. And while part of this is due to Toyota's problems stemming from the earthquake and quality issues, even the AP admits that "(GM's) cars are better than in the past, especially small ones." So give GM some credit here. Consumers aren't going to buy just anything, and the company has certainly made huge strides towards producing a better product.

    Autos aside, we must also concentrate on domestic energy production, hopefully with more than a nod towards "clean, renewable energy" - and it's great to see the President put the word "renewable" in there. Taking a look at everything that falls under the umbrella of "clean" energy, renewables are still the way to go. So-called clean coal is a very expensive technology and still not very "clean" as it turns out, not to mention the environmental destruction associated with mining. Nuclear is also very expensive, takes a long time to build, and carries quite obvious danger, as we have recently seen. And natural gas, although abundant, is still a finite source over the long run and again puts the environment at risk to acquire. While these "clean" energy sources certainly need to be a part of the mix, we are better off investing in the technology of maximizing the energy return on new renewable products - better ideas to harvest the wind and the sun. Those are infinite. (Or, to put it another way, the day that those run out is the day we won't have to worry about anything ever again.)

    This is where the President needs to be willing to fight. He may have to drag some Democrats kicking and screaming with him, but this is not only a popular political issue - it's the right thing to do for our country.

    That’s why I disagree so strongly with a proposal in Congress that cuts our investments in clean energy by 70 percent. Yes, we have to get rid of wasteful spending – and make no mistake, we’re going through every line of the budget scouring for savings. But we can do that without sacrificing our future. We can do that while still investing in the technologies that will create jobs and allow the United States to lead the world in new industries. That’s how we’ll not only reduce the deficit, but also lower our dependence on foreign oil, grow the economy, and leave for our children a safer planet. And that’s what our mission has to be.

    In an age where all the attention goes to the extremes, reasonable people like this guy have a hard time being heard. A better slogan might be "win the sanity" rather than "win the future", but that doesn't "win the ratings" in our modern discourse, unfortunately. Sometimes his proclivity towards being reasonable with his rhetoric leaves the door open for certain people to undermine his vision altogether. Combine that with a Congress that is increasingly more beholden to the people funding their re-election campaigns than they are to serving the good of the American people, and we've got a problem. As you already know.

    But if he is willing to go to the mat for this one, we should be too. There is no doubt that we will be using renewable sources to fill the majority of our energy needs someday; we can save a lot of time, money, and human suffering if we get to it sooner rather than later.

    That is definitely worth fighting for.

    Welcome to the Boomtown

    Looks like the Republicans don't have to make these draconian cuts to your schools and cities after all.

    A spike in March income tax collections, lower-than-expected tax refund payouts and a generally improving revenue picture mean Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature may have as much as $500 million extra to work with in finalizing the state budget for 2012.

    The outlook is to be clarified at a revenue-estimating conference May 16. But the improving numbers are complicating the budget process, as some lawmakers and interest groups push to soften planned cuts while GOP leaders worry about a return to "business as usual" and a missed opportunity to put chronic budget deficits into structural balance.

    "We can … put money in areas that are hurting," Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, minority vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday. He wants to offset revenue-sharing cuts to Detroit and other big cities while increasing spending on education.

    Nah. Republicans are going to make these cuts anyway. This is what they have always wanted to do.

    That would be a mistake, said Rep. Chuck Moss, who chairs the committee. He wants any extra money put in the state's depleted Rainy Day Fund or used to pay down debt.

    "This is the story of the last eight to 10 years, where you would get good news and you would put off making hard decisions," said Moss, R-Birmingham.

    Here is a brief recap of those "hard decisions" they made to cut $1.5 billion from the kids, the college students, the seniors, the poor, the sick, and the disabled.

    The plan hashed out Thursday in the Senate slashes $735.5 million from K-12 schools, $213.1 million from universities and $10 million from community colleges. Statutory revenue sharing, which helps communities pay for police, fire and other basic services, would be cut by nearly $400 million.

    The Senate on Wednesday cut $290.2 million from Community Health, $201.1 million from social safety net programs and $101.1 million from prisons. The budget plan was opposed by Democrats, unions, teachers and advocates for the poor.

    All totaled, the cuts recommended by the Senate in all state departments equal $330 million more than Snyder recommended in his February budget plan.

    Went out of their way to bring more pain to the people who can't fight back. And you can afford private schools and your own security and fire protection, can't you?

    No?

    Well, that's just too bad.

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    Happy Earth Day 2011


    Have you hugged your planet today?


    Happy Earth Day to you all - a few stories from around the state and the country...

  • The City Council in Ann Arbor is looking to wind energy to help them reach a goal of 30% renewable use by 2015. The Council this week "directed staff to conduct an evaluation of options to purchase long-term, fixed-rate renewable electricity from wind turbines constructed in Michigan." Not only do they want to save the environment, they want to employ Michigan workers to do it. That's the attitude we need.

  • Our friends at Uni-Solar have announced they will be opening a manufacturing facility in LaSalle, Ontario that will employ 80 people. Why Ontario? Because they have the policy, and they are expected to create 70,000 jobs and close their coal plants by 2014 because of it. "United Solar will manufacture its proprietary thin-film solar laminates in the facility specifically for sale in the Ontario market. The Ontario-made product is an important component in complying with the domestic content requirement of the Ontario Power Authority's feed-in-tariff program." Hmmm. Maybe we should do something like that. Oh wait...

  • Unfortunately for us, Consumers Energy has put a freeze on enrollment in its pilot feed-in program, leaving solar manufacturers, city leaders, environmental groups and others to send many letters and hold many meetings to get the company and politicians to reconsider this short-sighted action on the popular program.

    “We thought that if we put together a pilot program and worked with a smaller number of customers so that if, in the future, it was required,” said Dave Ronk, the Consumers engineer responsible for resource planning, “we would have already learned how to do it efficiently and effectively.”

    If it "was required" being the operative words there - and we elected the Republicans. Shame on us. Can we afford to wait until 2014? Or will all the jobs be somewhere else by then? Go read the MLUI story about Consumers - it's a good one.

  • Someone is out there pushing for the jobs and policy, and I sure am happy to see her smiling again - even if it is for the Little Rock, Arkansas TV audience. Governor Granholm kicked-off a nationwide tour for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Clean Energy Program yesterday, and will be visiting states across the country this year to drum up support for a nationwide energy policy. Can't think of a better person to lead the charge, and I'm starting to think we need to build this revolution from the ground up - the overwhelming support is already out here. Can we get Congress to listen?

  • Paging Dr. Chu. Dr. Chu, to the courtesy phone, please. Someone needs to go kick the US Department of Energy in the ass when it comes to these guaranteed loans for domestic renewable energy manufacturers. Sunvia Inc. was all set to open a facility in Saginaw to make solar panels, but plans have been put on hold because the feds are taking their sweet time reviewing applications. Haven't heard anything lately about the Wixom project at the old Ford plant either - as of last summer, they were still waiting for word on their loans as well. C'mon people. Every day that goes by is a day we lose in the race for these jobs. These companies can't wait around forever.

  • Nissan has made a race-car version of the Leaf. Weighing 40% less than the regular consumer version, it can go from 0 to 62 mph in 6.85 seconds, and has a top speed of 93 mph. That will last you twenty minutes, so, short races for now. But someday...

  • Hydrogen fuel cell cars may see research funding for commercialization cut by Congress, which will put that technology on the back-burner for now. Honda makes a model called the FCX Clarity that can get 240 miles on a tank of hydrogen fuel, but even though that fuel is 60% cleaner than a regular combustion engine - it's produced from natural gas, and the technology is still very expensive. And again, you would have a infrastructure refueling problem to think about. So, goodbye to that, for the near-future anyway.

  • And about that natural gas. Fracking. Bad. Toxic. Big spill of drilling chemicals in Pennsylvania this week escaped containment, traveled through farm land, and headed for the streams. And it turns out that even the companies that use this stuff don't know what's in it. So, no. Let's rethink this idea, OK?

  • Earth Day freebies! From Starbucks to the U.S. National Parks, check out this list of participants for some goodies.


    Here's to hoping for continued progress on this Earth Day 2011. Go plant a tree. Or write your Congresscritter. And take care of your own space, because every little bit helps.
  • Thursday, April 21, 2011

    The One Where Senator Casperson Ends Up With a Moose Head in His Bed



    Gotta love our Yooper friends. They are up there, getting all loud with their Frances-McDormand-in-Fargo accents, and sticking it right in Tom Casperson's ear over school cuts, service cuts, his "wealthy backers", Lansing's lack of response to their postcards, taxes on their pensions, you name it, they are pissed off about it. Watch the video and see Casperson try to back-peddle on, geez Norm, almost every Republican policy that has been proposed so far, or you can read the story in the Mining Journal:

    The town hall meeting, held in the Marquette County Circuit Courtroom, was standing room only. The mood of many in the audience may have been best summarized by one man who, during the discussion, shouted, "We're all worried! This is why we're having this heated conversation! Everyone in this room is worried!"

    Snyder's budget also calls for cuts to K-12 funding which would result in a $471 reduction in per pupil funding for fiscal year 2012.

    Mike Flynn, a member of the Ishpeming school board, said the Ishpeming district, among other money-saving cuts, has already closed its middle school, moving its fifth- through eighth-grade students to the high school; privatized its custodial service; contracted bus maintenance; laid off staff; and plans on laying off three more teachers at the end of the year.

    "If this cut happens we will be forced, possibly, to lay off as many as 11 more teachers ... our Ishpeming students cannot afford a cut of this magnitude," he said.

    Flynn asked everyone in the audience who supported not cutting the schools budget to stand. Nearly everyone in the room jumped to their feet while cheering and clapping.

    Here's a great quote from a gentleman in the video, fast forward to 12:00 if you want to see it...

    "Both houses of the legislature are Republicans, as well as the governor, so whatever happens in the next two years, the Republicans are going to be blamed for it. I don't recall you, or most of the other people who are Republicans, running on anything like what is being foisted upon the state."

    Crowd erupts in applause and cheers at this point. The Mining Journal has the rest of his quote:

    Dave Kallio said the governor is foisting his corporate agenda onto the state and offered Casperson some political advice.

    "If you guys get behind and just follow his lead you're going to be doing things that the people of Michigan didn't want. We may have wanted a surgical cut here and there, we didn't want a butcher knife ... I would suggest to you and your fellow Republicans that you temper some of his ideas and think about the people of this state and do your best to solve problems without hurting people the way it appears the government is headed," he said.

    Unfortunatley for Mr. Kallio and the rest of the people in that room, the Republicans are taking a butcher knife to the budget. A big one too. And they're using a blindfold as they wield it. You can read some of the horrific things they are doing in committee here, and when they are done voting it all through, you can be sure that there will be lists of the carnage available for all to use as they see fit.

    Then maybe Lake Superior won't be the only place that will see blue waves in 2012, if you catch my meaning. Unfortunately you are stuck with Casperson until 2014, unless you are bored and want to start collecting signatures or something...

    Leaving Las Vegas



    Life springs eternal
    On a gaudy neon street
    Not that I care at all


    I've always loved this song, and it has been playing in my mind quite a bit this week. Above is a great extended live version, one of the best I've ever heard.

    To me, it speaks of a sorrowful victory. Of a sadness in triumph. Of leaving a place, either physically or spiritually, that your instincts have told you is wrong for you, but yet you were still drawn to the promise of fulfillment that is inherent in anything that brings a rush to the psyche...

    Oh I'm banging on my TV set
    And I check the odds
    And I place my bet
    I pour a drink
    And I pull the blind
    And I wonder what I'll find


    ... and so you came back again and again, even though you knew going in that the odds would always favor the house, and it would most likely beat you in the end. Still you played, until some defining event happened where you realized that what attracted you in the first place, well, it wasn't really real at all...

    I'm standing in the middle of the desert
    Waiting for my ship to come in
    But now no joker, no jack, no king
    Can take this loser hand
    And make it win


    ... so you finally decide with quiet confidence to make the break ...

    I quit my job as a dancer
    At the Lido Des Girls
    They had me dealing blackjack until one or two
    Such a muddy line between
    The things you want
    And the things you have to do


    ... and you swear you won't be back - but the house is betting you will, and they are probably right. And all you can do is smile.

    Plus, Sheryl Crow is smokin' hot. Enjoy.

    Michigan Wins Gold Shovel for Economic Development in 2010

    In 2009 Michigan received a Silver Shovel from Area Development Magazine, for 2010 we brought home the Gold - thanks to all the battery plants that have started up.

    Our Annual Shovel Awards recognize state economic development agencies that drive significant job creation through innovative policies, infrastructure improvements, processes and promotions that attract new employers as well as investments in expanded facilities. The Gold Shovels are presented annually to the states that have achieved the most success in terms of new job creation and economic impact.

    Each of the 50 states was invited by Area Development to submit information about its top-10 job creation and investment projects. Only those projects that began to materialize in 2010 were considered. Area Development gave the Shovel Awards to the states with the highest weighted scores based on the number of high-valued added jobs per capita, amount of investment, number of new facilities, and industry diversity.

    They break it down by population; under 4 million, 4-9 million, and 9+ million - meaning we were the top amongst the big boys, beating out the states of Texas, North Carolina and Georgia. Granted, it was the batteries that put us over the top, taking the first four slots in our top 10, but automotive projects were also strong in the other Gold Shovel winners Indiana and South Carolina. Dow and BioDri made the list for alternative energy, Four Winns for boats, Diplomat Specialty for a call center - and, here is one that has been in the news lately - Whirlpool for placing its headquarters in Benton Harbor.

    In the other economic competition, the 2010 Governor's Cup award from Site Selection Magazine, things got a little weird. They base the award on number of new and expanding companies, job creation, and dollars invested. After placing third for the past couple of years, we slipped down to 7th. Still a top 10 finish, which is good, but for whatever reason they decided to picture the new governors that took office just this year - obviously not in office yet for projects that started in 2010. Texas took the Cup, and Governor Perry went all 10th Amendment in the interview as the reason for their success, also strange since the last we heard Texas hadn't seceded from the nation yet. So, let's back slowly away from a competition that is giving credit to people like Kasich and Corbett and Snyder who weren't even around, and features a guy that uses the award as a platform to advocate for a new civil war.

    Point being of all of this, as of the past few years, we still were very competitive with all the so-called low-cost southern states. We will be able to say the same after Snyder and the Republicans finish scrambling our tax code and economic development efforts?

    "I want to work with him, I do," said Brandenburg, the Harrison Township Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, "but I can't because he has a $900 million money grab in there, and there's no guarantee that the tax cuts for businesses will generate a lot more jobs."

    Guess we will find out, won't we.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Cadillac Snyder Protest Draws Over 300 People

    I continue to be impressed with the number of protesters that are showing up in smaller towns. 500 in Adrian last Saturday, today in Cadillac...

    Hundreds of northern Michigan residents rose before dawn to let their first-term governor know they're not happy with his ideas.

    State residents are showing up in droves to express their objections — and sometimes anger — with budget measures proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican majority in the state Legislature.

    "I think this thing has taken on a momentum of its own," said Dave Stout, of Cadillac, who helped organize an early morning demonstration at Snyder's breakfast appearance in Cadillac. The Tuesday event drew more than 300 protesters outside the Wexford Civic Center.

    Pretty big number for a cold Wednesday morning. I'm just waiting for the next EPIC poll...

    (yes, it was Cadillac on a Tuesday. Sorry for the errors, was trying to do a bunch of things at once when I first posted this...)

    A Salute to the Photojournalists

    It's something I came to way too late in life, but something that I just love to do. Writing my opinions is one thing. To capture history? That lasts forever. It's real. And it's magical.

    The photogs who travel to areas of conflict though - they are the real heroes. We take their shots for granted as they put their hearts and lives on the line everyday. From the WaPo shooters who won a Pultizer for their heart-wrenching work in Haiti, to these brave guys in Libya...

    Tim Hetherington, the Oscar-nominated film director and conflict photographer who produced the film “Restrepo,” was killed in the besieged city of Misurata on Wednesday, and three photographers working beside him were wounded.

    The wounds to two of the photographers — Chris Hondros and Guy Martin — were grave, according to a colleague at the triage center where they were being treated Wednesday night. Their prospects for survival were not immediately clear.

    ... a deeply-felt salute of appreciation goes out today. Thank you for your work and your courage.

    UPDATE: Some of the images sent today from wounded photographer Chris Hondros are here.

    UPDATE 2: The NY Times has reported that Chris Hondros has passed away. RIP.

    The Real Reason Behind the Expanded Powers of the Emergency Financial Manager Law

    There has been a bunch of hype and hyper-activity surrounding what is going on in Benton Harbor, to say the least. A lot of the concerns are very legitimate, but once again we are getting distracted by the shiny objects of the day, for example, Jean Klock Park, and most have missed the real reason behind the expanded powers of what was already a very powerful law. We can argue details all day long, but in doing so we miss the big picture and motivation, and that is - wait for it - budget cuts for regular folks, tax cuts for business folks. An issue that is becoming very complicated, really boils down to being something that is just that simple. It's the Republican Way.

    Contrary to what is being said, state officials are NOT intent on coming into a community and "taking the land", or any of the nefarious motives that have been put forth by generally well-intentioned people; they are intent on having local officials make cuts and extract concessions from working people, period. Republicans aren't being greedy. They are being lazy. Or, to put it a better way, their laziness ultimately serves their greed. It's a two-fer. They are trying to wash their hands of the budget cuts made at the state level, and push all the responsibility and consequences down to local officials. Avoiding blame is what they are best at. We should know that by now.

    State Treasurer Andy Dillon, having had his feelings hurt by unions before, admits to the whole thing in so many words in his op-ed at the Freep.

    The primary motivation for this law was the new fiscal reality facing local governments throughout Michigan and the recognition that the old ways of doing things weren't working. The new approach is not a power grab or an effort to subvert collective bargaining rights. In fact, the goal is to give local executives and their partners the tools and incentives they need to avoid financial emergencies and maintain local control.

    The greatest point of contention with this process is that, if local management and their labor counterparts can't or won't make the tough decisions necessary to address financial problems -- and after a number of preliminary steps -- an emergency manager may be given the power to modify or terminate provisions within a collectively bargained contract.

    Watch the words "may be given", we will come back to that in a second.

    What Andy isn't pointing out here is that the state itself has a big hand in making sure that the "old way isn't working" and creating this "new fiscal reality" by slashing the funding for schools and cities. This is disaster capitalism at its finest. In this case, the aftermath of a brutal recession has collapsed property values and tax collections at the local level, and state Republicans are exploiting the problem with even more state budget cuts, all so they can turn around and give more tax cuts to business interests. "Tax cuts" as a causation gets lost in the outrage and fear over these expanded powers - and that's exactly the way the Republicans want it.

    "Fear will keep the local systems in line, fear of this battle station", a wise villain once said. And that's is what is happening with the expanded powers behind the EFM law. The locals are stepping up as quick as they can, because they are afraid the Empire will visit them next. Last night, they held a training session...

    More than 300 people attended the training on Michigan's tough and controversial new emergency manager law for local governments and school districts. Fewer than one-third of them were looking for jobs as emergency managers or as consultants to oversee consent agreements for less seriously distressed local units. Most were local government and school district officials interested in making sure they never need an emergency manager.

    Just make those cuts yourself, and you won't ever see us. Promise.

    The new law, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in March, provides a three-step process that allows local officials to retain control during the first two steps as they try to prevent the third step from happening, said Daly, a former city manager in Three Rivers.

    The steps short of Treasurer Andy Dillon appointing a financial manager have received relatively little attention compared to the emergency manager stripping elected officials of their powers to spend money and enact policies, or telling employee unions their negotiated contracts are void.

    But Daly and others who spoke at or attended the conference said they expect Michigan will see far more consent agreements — being discussed as a possible solution to the city of Detroit's financial woes — than emergency managers, who play a role similar to receivers and were known under the previous law as emergency financial managers.

    Under consent agreements, local units make pacts with the state to take certain actions to improve their financial situations, such as preparing a three-year plan or performing a forensic audit.

    Bingo. The deed will be done at the local level. The threat of fascism may be more powerful than the actual law itself, because to push the full force of the law would see repeated fights in court, and they really don't want that. "Consent agreements", especially in Detroit, are preferable to state and local officials. And here is a very interesting tidbit:

    If an emergency manager is appointed, a prudent manager would negotiate proposed changes with public sector unions whether required to or not, said several public sector union representatives who were part of a panel.

    If contracts are trashed, the "mistrust, fear and anger" an emergency manager is faced with as an outsider will only grow, said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan.

    Also, emergency managers can't break contracts on their own, only with the agreement of the state treasurer, the session was told.

    Oh really. Interesting how that hasn't been highlighted before, but then again the hype surrounding the expanded power of the new law wouldn't be as scary then, would it. Of course not.

    The media attention surrounding this is ultimately a good thing. Every move from here on out will be scrutinized. But don't be distracted by the shiny object du jour and the media hype surrounding it (yes, even the lovely Rachel is guilty of that at times) - keep your eyes on the main issue. How do we stop this? We can't, really. Follow the lawsuit filed in Detroit, and see where that ends up. There is a good chance that what they have passed is unconstitutional - but that will be for the courts to decide.

    In the meantime, the fear of law will drive your locals to make some horrific cuts to public safety and schools - focus on the outrage of THAT, not on something that you can't prove is happening. Take the very tangible results of these budget cuts - lost jobs, increased classroom size, less police and firefighters on the street, loss of health care services in your community - and carry those into 2012.

    The Republicans are already trying to play CYA on the K-12 school cuts by taking more money from health care and prisons; watch and see what happens next, wait for the damage that occurs when finally vote these cuts though (because we can't stop them) and Snyder signs the bills. Pay attention to the fallout.

    That will be the real issue, the results of the overall fiscal policy. Quality of life for the everyday citizens in the face of more tax cuts for the wealthy is the meme that is quickly taking hold across the land - don't lose sight of it, because in the end, that is the ultimate battle. That is what this is all about.

    Isn't it?

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    The Latest from the "Really Bad Idea" File

    Can't see why this might be a problem, can you?

    A Detroit prosecutor has filed a petition in district court to stop a Florida fundamentalist Christian preacher, who recently caused riots in Afghanistan after he burned a Koran, from holding a rally outside a large Michigan mosque.

    Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the threat of violence was too great to allow Terry Jones to hold the planned gathering on Friday near the Islamic Center of America -- the largest U.S. mosque -- in the heavily Muslim Detroit suburb of Dearborn.

    A hearing on Worthy's bid to block Jones and his supporters from holding the rally at the mosque will be held on Thursday in a Dearborn court. The petition is dated April 15.

    Prosecutors argue that the planned gathering by Jones could incite a riot, citing hundreds of email death threats against the preacher.

    Oh, and just so everyone knows, Jones comes in peace - but he's made it clear that he and his followers will be armed.

    "We have made it very clear that we are coming there with very, very peaceful intentions," Jones told the television station. "We will be armed. We do have concealed weapons permits."

    Worthy wants the gathering to be held in one of Dearborn's "free speech zones" away from the mosque - but even at that, this sounds like it's going to be a huge problem.

    Pray that no one gets hurt - here or elsewhere - over this guy's antics.

    UPDATE 4/20: Dearborn says "no thanks".

    Dearborn has denied a permit for Quran-burning Pastor Terry Jones' planned protest outside the Islamic Center of America.

    City spokeswoman Mary Laundroche said it's possible that Jones could be arrested if he carries through with the protest. He's due in 19th District Court in Dearborn on Thursday to answer prosecutors' claims that his demonstration could cause a riot and demands he post a "peace bond" to cover police costs.

    Dearborn officials said Jones can still demonstrate at one of two "free speech zones," including City Hall. Before denying the permit, city officials expressed concern about public safety, traffic and disruptions to nearby churches.

    Jones isn't likely to relent. He's said for weeks that he plans to demonstrate outside the Ford Road mosque with or without a permit. Earlier today, Jones said the mosque is the ideal site for his protest against "radical Islam" and Sharia, or Islamic, law.

    He says he won't burn a Quran this time. Um, good. I would hope that if he does show, people just ignore him. An arrest just brings him publicity, and that is what this is all about. Don't feed his ego.

    Biggest. Solar. Farm. Ever.

    Wowza.

    The U.S. Department of Energy is offering $2.1 billion in conditional loan guarantees to support what will be the world's biggest solar power plant, the government's largest commitment to date to solar energy.

    The aid will support construction of the first two units of Solar Trust of America's 1,000 megawatt solar thermal Blythe Solar Power Project, the DOE said yesterday. Solar Trust of America is a joint venture between German companies Solar Millennium and Ferrostaal.

    "For the first time in mankind's history, a solar power facility will be built at a scale and output capacity equal to the very largest coal-fired and nuclear power plants operating in the world today," Solar Trust of America Chief Executive Uwe Schmidt said on a conference call with reporters.

    The first two units of the project near Blythe, Calif., will be capable of producing 484 MW of electricity using solar thermal trough technology. The project will create over 1,000 construction jobs and 80 operations jobs and will avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those generated by about 123,000 vehicles.

    Solar Millennium's technology makes electricity by using trough-shaped mirrors to heat a fluid that generates steam that turns a turbine. The Blythe project's total price tag is estimated at north of $6 billion, with the first phase costing about $2.8 billion.

    That may seem like a large amount of money, but for some perspective on that figure, consider that Michigan spent $1.36 billion on imported coal in 2008 alone. California doesn't have a lot of coal-generated power in-state, but they import more electricity than any other state - some from coal plants in nearby states. And while this project doesn't create a lot of long-term jobs, it sure will help cut down on the need for fossil fuels.

    More of this, please.

    Snyder Flip Flop Alert : MEDC Claims Michigan Business Tax Incentives and Credits to Continue

    Flip, Feb. 18, 2011, "Snyder budget: The era of the tax credit is over":

    In case there was any question, Gov. Rick Snyder made it plain today: Business tax incentives as Michigan knows them will be gone.

    With elimination of the Michigan Business Tax and a new 6 percent corporate income tax in place, Snyder proposes eliminating tax credits for brownfield redevelopment, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority program, alternative energy, energy, film, renaissance zones and others.

    Flop, Apr. 19, 2011, "Officials: Snyder will continue tax relief for Detroit urban development":

    The head of Detroit's economic growth agency said Monday he is confident Gov. Rick Snyder will maintain tax relief for major urban developments even as he tries to kill state tax incentives used in virtually all downtown developments.

    "The names (of the tax credits) may change, but the support of the governor is there," said George Jackson, president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. "One thing I can assure you, Gov. Snyder is very sincere in regards to the importance of the city of Detroit, and we've been working very well with (Snyder) toward a solution."

    Jackson made the comments here Monday at an official groundbreaking ceremony for downtown's latest example of a major redevelopment made possible by the state's historic preservation and brownfield redevelopment credits: The planned $53 million renovation of the Broderick Tower into mostly apartments.

    Jackson said he and other economic development officials from across the state have met at least six times since February with Snyder and officials from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which approves the state's current tax incentives. Talks continue to hammer out details about broad-based relief that would keep urban development going.

    Snyder's office did not return calls Monday, but Michigan Economic Development Corp. spokesman Michael Shore confirmed the meetings have happened.

    "The essence of what we do won't change," Shore said. "The (tax) support will continue."

    But... but... but... has anyone alerted the rest of the media on what appears to be a major flip-flop in Snyder administration fiscal policy? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

    Actually, I'm in favor of targeted tax incentives to diversify our economy, and I also like the idea of historic preservation and brownfield redevelopment too. I also agree there does need to be a limit set - where that floor is, I don't know. After we have diversified enough to where another collapse of the auto industry doesn't take down the whole state again perhaps. And, since other states are not laying down their incentive weapons, we can't either. That's just a fact of business life.

    But what is going on here is that the Snyder administration made a big show to the public of saying they would eliminate these tax incentives - while at the same time they are giving city and economic development officials a wink and a nudge and telling them, "Don't worry, the payoff will continue. You just have to talk it over with our friends in the partisan legislature too, see, and get their approval. Maybe make it worth their time..."

    Yeah. Like that. Conspiracy theory? Not really, because you can almost guarantee that is what is going on already, to some extent - the Snyder people are just going to officially add "more government" to the mix.

    Come to think of it, for a guy who has indicated we need to "get government out of the way", that's a flip-flop too...

    UPDATE: Funny this gets press on a MEGA credit announcement day:

    Five companies will expand or locate in Michigan and one brownfield redevelopment project will rise under tax incentives granted Tuesday by the Michigan Economic Growth Authority.

    The companies involved estimate that projects will generate up to $163 million in new private investment, adding a projected 1,376 jobs.

    ...

    For the year to date, the MEGA board has approved agreements to assist the expansion of 39 companies that are projected to invest $758 million and create or retain nearly 9,000 direct jobs. It has also approved five brownfield redevelopment projects with projected new investment of more than $300 million.

    So it's business as usual, which is fine by me. The complete and utter lie to the public about eliminating these credits is still a bit disturbing though. Don't make me dig up Cassis to complain...

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Snyder Recall Petition Language Filed With the State Today

    OK, this HAS to be a record for fastest recall filed.

    A group that wants to recall Republican Gov. Rick Snyder says it will file its proposed petition wording with the state of Michigan this morning.

    Michigan Citizens United, which last month filed paperwork to form a political action committee, announced the development Sunday on its website, firericksnyder.org.

    The group, a coalition of people angered by measures Snyder announced in his Feb. 17 budget, as well as his support for sweeping new powers for local government and school district emergency financial managers, said once the petition wording is approved, it plans to start collecting signatures on May 8.

    They need to collect 807,000 valid signatures; they claim that they will shoot for 1.1 million just to make sure. The earliest day they can turn them in is July 1st.

    Wow. I honestly didn't take this seriously. Can they do it? Unknown, but the numbers on these protests have been pretty impressive. Another one was held Saturday in tiny Adrian - and they had 500 people show up. Lots of very unhappy people out here. So maybe...

    UPDATE: Just wanted to add that just because I blog something doesn't necessarily mean I endorse it. There are many dangers in going down this road - but if these folks want to put in the time and effort to do this, be my guest. I will sign a petition and I would vote for recall because I believe that the overall fiscal policy of this administration will hurt this state in the long run. And, since the Republicans are refusing to listen to the concerns of those protesting, and haven't shown any inclination to "bipartisanship", a recall looks to be the only way to send a message.

    I would rather the time and effort be put into finding and funding candidates to run for the House in 2012, but that's me. You guys do what you feel you need to do.

    Echo

    Me, April 16:

    But let it be known - this is the end game. This is it. This is what the Republicans intend to do at the state and federal level. You are seeing it in motion right now. Everything that benefits regular people of America - schools, health care, public safety, worker's rights, the environment, you name it, everything that makes this country a great place to live - is slated for destruction, so they can give the uber-rich all the money.

    The NY Times, April 17:

    Six months after voters sent Republicans in large numbers to Congress and many statehouses, it is possible to see the full landscape of destruction that their policies would cause — much of which has already begun. If it was not clear before, it is obvious now that the party is fully engaged in a project to dismantle the foundations of the New Deal and the Great Society, and to liberate business and the rich from the inconveniences of oversight and taxes.

    Me:

    That the kind of country you want to live in?

    Krugman:

    So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so — and take their case to the voters.

    That's the mighty big "if". It seems that, one more time, we may have a case where Democrats are content to sit back and let the Republicans push the envelope too far to the right, feign shock and outrage when they do, and then just stand there and reap the reward when a public begging for relief from the nonsense turns to them again. A cynical outlook, to be sure, but when you have seen this movie before...

    It's not about what Democrats claim they believe anymore. It's about what they are willing to stand up and fight for as a team. It's easy to simply complain about the cruelty of the Republicans; it's a lot harder to be willing to put your beliefs on the bottom line and risk your position in life - especially when your team tends to dissipate at the first sight of difficulty.

    Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them - because there is a lot more at stake here than just the next election.

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    The Noblesse Oblige Deficit

    Income Gains at the Top Dwarfed those of Low and Middle Income Households-8


    From E.J. Dionne, a must-read column on the ruling class and the deficit:

    Those elites will have no moral standing to argue for higher taxes on middle-income people or cuts in government programs until they acknowledge how much wealthier they have become than the rest of us and how much pressure they have brought over the years to cut their own taxes. Resolving the deficit problem requires the very rich to recognize their obligation to contribute more to a government that, measured against other wealthy nations, is neither investing enough in the future nor doing a very good job of improving the lives and opportunities of the less affluent.

    “A blind and ignorant resistance to every effort for the reform of abuses and for the readjustment of society to modern industrial conditions represents not true conservatism, but an incitement to the wildest radicalism.” With those words in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt showed he understood what a responsible ruling class needed to do. Where are those who would now take up his banner?

    Good question.

    Is It Summer Yet? Sunday April 17, 2011

    Big Bay Point Lighthouse
    Big Bay Point Lighthouse, Lake Superior, built in 1896. Close your eyes and whisper "It will be summer again, it will be summer again, it will be summer again" over and over and make this cold wind go away...


    When the headlines follow your thoughts. I uttered this sentiment to an industry professional just the other day...


  • "Clean energy race falls to states, private sector as Congress puts up roadblocks" reads the Freep this morning. The green revolution is going to have to come from the bottom up, at least for the next year and a half. Maybe longer, who knows - but it is coming, and states like California with its shiny new 33% RPS by 2020, and cities like Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor with their renewable energy targets are leading the way. Make no mistake, the loss of federal policy/funding is going to hurt, but hopefully this is just a short pause in the progress.

  • Continued press will help with the effort, too. The Freep is featuring the 2011 Michigan Green Leaders awards today, with stories from businesses and the political world that highlight how far we have come. Follow that link to see the winners.

  • The world itself paused on clean energy efforts in the 1Q of 2011 as investment overall dropped 34%. Ouch. Part of the reason is cutbacks on incentives in Europe, part of it was a "hangover" from a flurry of investment in the 4Q of 2010. Look for it to bounce back again, especially if oil prices continue to climb.

  • Chrysler has announced they will offer a consumer line of natural gas powered vehicles starting in 2017. Hard to tell if this will catch on or not. If it does, it certainly will make for a cluttered infrastructure of gas, electric, and natural gas fueling stations.

  • Speaking of those stations, Kalamazoo now has a public electric car charging station downtown, its second in the city. Once again, thank you Consumers Energy.

  • Auto critic Mark Phelan of the Freep spends a week with the Volt. He's impressed. Another good "everyday life" review.

  • One thing overlooked about electric cars - they don't pay the gasoline taxes that go to fix the roads. And other things. Oops, never thought about that. Oregon has though, and they are considering a road usage tax per mile to make up the difference. Washington (state) is considering a flat yearly fee. This is something that everyone is going to need to consider eventually.

  • The Great Lakes Bay Economic Development Partnership isn't waiting on MEDC to go after the new GE solar panel plant; they are submitting a proposal soon. Good for them.

  • On the environmental front, the NY Times points out that the new batch of Republican governors are turning back the clock on environmental protections for their respective states. How sad. Do we have to set the rivers on fire again before we learn this lesson? And, after the budget deal that announced cuts to Great Lakes Restoration, out comes a report that invasive mussels are doing a number on the ecosystem that surrounds us - and it's happening faster than we know. Fingers crossed we wake up and take care of the world around us, because we will pay the price if we don't...

  • ... and on the flipside of that, we have companies and consumers taking the initiative to preserve the planet, which is a great thing. Chicago-based Green Planet Bottling is making 100% plant-based water bottles, and Oakland Community College has introduced the product on campus. The bottles are reusable, and compost within 80 days. Let's hope they catch on. Coke went to a formula with 30% organic material in 2009, so we are getting there.

    That's it for This Week in Green. Much better than budget battles, isn't it? Have a great day everyone.
  • Saturday, April 16, 2011

    Is Benton Harbor the Fuse That Leads to Detroit?

    I've been watching the amazing Eclectablog's diary at Kos (where some folks need to chill on the hyperbole) go right through the roof over this last night, and now our state media has finally gotten into the game as well. The rubber is meeting the road in Benton Harbor on the new sweeping powers of the Emergency Financial Manager law, and you have to believe that this is just a warm-up skirmish for the upcoming war that is going to be Detroit - both for the school district and the city government alike.

    A little back story: The idea of the state appointing an Emergency Financial Manager for local governments in distress actually dates as far back as 1988, and that led to Public Act 72 of 1990 (Blanchard did it!). Basically, it said that in order for the state to protect it's own credit and fiscal operations, any city or school district that was on the verge of bankruptcy would receive a review of their finances from a state-appointed team, and, if that panel found that the city or school district did not have an adequate plan to get out of trouble, a manager would then come in and help clean up the mess.

    The manager could hire staff and direct existing staff. They did not need public approval for a new fiscal plan. They could do anything they wanted with the outstanding financial obligations (i.e., the bills). They could renegotiate labor contracts, but they could not abrogate those contracts. They could eliminate positions except of those of elected officials, cut pay and benefits even for elected officials, sell property, review payroll - anything but touch retirement. They could not raise taxes. They also had the ability to start Chapter 9 bankruptcy if all else had failed.

    By the end of January of 2010, Benton Harbor hit the wall. The city's finances, mismanaged for years, were out of control with no hope of recovery. Governor Granholm followed the law as written by PA 72, sent in the panel, who reported the need for a manager. By the end of March, the city, on the verge of failing to meet payroll, was denied an appeal and the Governor approved a state manager. Some city officials were relieved, some upset - and down the road they went.

    Fast forward to now. Snyder and the Republicans took the existing law a few steps further, too far to be constitutional, some believe, including myself. It gives the state the ability to review a district or city's finances sooner, the EMF the ability to end labor contracts, call for elections to raise or extend property taxes, force consolidation with other local governments - or even dissolve the city or district altogether. Local elected officials can be stripped of powers, but not removed from office - and that's exactly what has now happened in Benton Harbor.

    In a move believed to be the first under sweeping new state legislation, Emergency Manager Joseph Harris suspended decision-making powers of city officials Friday.

    Officials only can call meetings to order, adjourn them and approve minutes of meetings as part of the order issued Friday.

    The action is likely the first since Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in March a new statute that grants more powers to emergency managers appointed by the Treasury Department to take over distressed schools and communities.

    Look for the lawsuit challenging this to be filed soon, I'm sure. The ACLU is investigating the genesis of these new, broad powers - but it should be obvious. Republicans want to bust union contracts, period. Whether they can get away with it or not is a question for the courts to decide.

    And like I said above, I believe this is a warm-up for Detroit, and perhaps the 150 other school districts that Snyder's budget cuts are going to put closer to bankruptcy. DPS EFM Robert Bobb has indicated that he "planned to exercise his power as emergency manager to unilaterally modify the district's collective bargaining agreement", and by law the school district has now sent out 5,466 layoff notices to its union employees, and 250 pink slips to their administrators as well. (that is nearly a yearly occurrence anyway lately - but this time it takes on a new urgency.)

    Bobb, under order by law to produce a plan to balance the books, came up with closing half of Detroit's schools by 2014, 70 to be exact. He doesn't want to do this, as class size is expected to swell to 60 and parents would flee the district costing the schools even more money - but the state has given the order. Some schools may turn to charters, and a GM-style bankruptcy that separates the bad debt has been talked about. Whatever happens, it's going to be seismic.

    As far as the city goes, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is asking for benefit concessions from city employees and a new tax on casinos to help balance a budget that has a $155 million deficit and could grow to $1.2 billion by 2015, and his plan is already meeting resistance. Bing claims that, "If we are unable or unwilling to make these changes, an emergency financial manager will be appointed by the state to make them for us" - a bit of leverage, given what is going on with the Detroit Public Schools, and now this takeover in Benton Harbor. The heat is getting turned up fast in Motown, and it should reach a boiling point soon.

    I've tried to wrap my mind around Detroit a hundred times now, and I just don't have a good answer. I hope that they can find a way to stability with as little pain and disruption as possible, but given Snyder's massive budget cuts to schools and cities, and now this appointed dictatorship of an EFM law they have passed, it's even harder to see a solution. Mix in legal action from the unions and angry parents over the schools - it's going to be a rough road indeed.

    Wish us luck America. We are going to need it. Stay tuned...

    UPDATE: Thanks to emptywheel and the Political Carnival for the links - hope this explanation gives some context to what is happening here. It's a difficult issue, and in the case of Benton Harbor, has been a long time in the making.

    One important story that has been overlooked in all the recent reports is the lawsuit filed in federal court that is challenging the new provisions of the law:

    The city's two pension funds sued Gov. Rick Snyder and state Treasurer Andy Dillon in federal court today to block part of a new emergency manager statute.

    The suit alleges the emergency manager statute is unconstitutional, would modify the City Charter and collective bargaining agreements and allow for the removal of pension fund trustees. The suit also claims the law could potentially allow for the funds to be dissolved and have the assets transferred to another retirement system.

    Keep an eye on that one - the courts are where this battle will ultimately be won or lost, and that could take years.

    Michigan House Republicans Vote to Give Massive Tax Cuts to the Wealthy, End Medicare

    Maybe this isn't getting a lot of attention because it doesn't have a chance of passing the Senate. Or maybe it isn't getting attention because it is just so far-fetched that no one believes it could ever happen. But let it be known that every US House Republican from Michigan voted to end Medicare as we know it, make huge cuts to Medicaid and turn it into a block grant, slash funding for food stamps and other critical programs - all while giving the wealthy even bigger tax cuts and making the federal deficit worse than it is.

    You would think that something as dramatic as the destruction of the federal government's social contract with its citizens, the policies that keep us from being a full-blown Third World country, would garner at least a bold font headline on Michigan newspaper sites, but no.

    Maybe they are waiting for Sunday. Or maybe they just don't care. I honestly don't know. This was the lead story at both the New York Times and the Washington Post last night, and it still is close to the top this morning. Here, we have a one-liner at the Freep that leads to this:

    In a prelude to a summer showdown with President Barack Obama, Republicans controlling the House pushed to passage on Friday a bold but politically dangerous budget blueprint to slash social safety net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid and fundamentally restructure Medicare health care for seniors.

    ...

    The plan by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., exposes Republicans to political risk. It proposes transforming Medicare from a program in which the government directly pays medical bills into a voucher-like system that subsidizes purchases of private insurance plans. People 55 and older would remain in the current system, but younger workers would receive subsidies that would steadily lose value over time.

    Democrats and many budget experts say this spending-cuts-only approach is fundamentally unfair, targeting social safety net programs while leaving in place a tax system they say bestows too many benefits on wealthy people.

    "Many budget experts" have called it a complete joke that makes our deficit worse in the long run. Paul Krugman hasn't stopped talking about it since it was released. Here's one passage from his last column:

    Then people who actually understand budget numbers went to work, and it became clear that the proposal wasn’t serious at all. In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.

    Here's another, from a different column:

    In particular, the original voodoo proposition — the claim that lower taxes mean higher revenue — is still very much there. The Heritage Foundation projection has large tax cuts actually increasing revenue by almost $600 billion over the next 10 years.

    A more sober assessment from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office tells a different story. It finds that a large part of the supposed savings from spending cuts would go, not to reduce the deficit, but to pay for tax cuts. In fact, the budget office finds that over the next decade the plan would lead to bigger deficits and more debt than current law.

    Every Michigan House Republican voted for this. And barely a peep out of our papers. Hat tip to Chris Gautz at the Jackson Cit-Pat, who stays on top of Tim Walberg news, and managed a short story yesterday. If you remember, Walberg and his out-of-state Club for Growth money made it a point to attack Mark Schauer in this last election over Medicare:

    The Wall Street Journal has also recently pointed out that Ryan's plan keeps in place the much-maligned $500 billion in cuts to Medicare that Republicans said were in President's Obama's health-care law.

    During last year's campaign, millions were spent on TV ads attacking then Congressman Mark Schauer, who is referenced in the Journal's story, for voting for the cuts. Walberg at the time said the cuts would "hurt seniors."

    And it wasn't just Schauer; that ad ran across the country. Now, Walberg and the Republicans have turned around and voted to eliminate the program as we know it altogether.

    Does anyone else feel like their head could explode, or is it just me? The Democrats have voiced outrage with a few e-mails about holding people accountable, but seeing as how this is the spring of '11 and the next election is so far away, chances are this fades into the background of the next outrageous and absurd move that comes along.

    But let it be known - this is the end game. This is it. This is what the Republicans intend to do at the state and federal level. You are seeing it in motion right now. Everything that benefits regular people of America - schools, health care, public safety, worker's rights, the environment, you name it, everything that makes this country a great place to live - is slated for destruction, so they can give the uber-rich all the money.

    That the kind of country you want to live in?

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    GM Leads All Companies in Clean Energy Patents in 2010

    Wow, it's a good thing the nice President and the Democrats saved them from total liquidation, isn't it, Senator Shelby.

    General Motors received more clean energy patents in the past year than any other company, a study released Friday said.

    GM's 135 patents represented nearly 14 percent of the 1,881 US patents obtained by 700 organizations in 2010, according to an analysis by the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index.

    The successful patent applications came as GM made major investments in research and development despite years of intense restructuring and a 2009 government-backed bankruptcy filing.

    "US clean energy patents were at an all-time high in 2010," said Victor Cardona, co-chairman of the Cleantech Group at the Albany, New York law firm of Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti, which specializes in intellectual property and published the index.

    "GM has clearly put forth a lot of effort in a range of clean-energy technologies, resulting in its appearance at the top of the list for the first time."

    Company officials said GM's patents covered hybrid electric vehicles, fuel cells and solar energy, with a focus on improvements to current and future technologies.

    This comes on the heels of the news that the Big Three will add as many as 35,000 new jobs by 2015 - and nearly all of them are going to be in Michigan. We won't ever reach the total employment that we had before, but as these companies consolidate and streamline operations, the thought is they will center everything here. Yea, us.

    Most of that hiring will be in Michigan, (Sean McAlinden, senior economist for the Center for Automotive Research) emphasized. By 2015, employment by the Detroit Three in Michigan should increase to about 137,000 from 101,936 in 2010 -- a gain of about 35,000 jobs. At the same time, he expects employment by the Detroit Three outside of Michigan to fall slightly.

    He also expects that total automotive employment in Michigan, which includes non-Detroit Three jobs at suppliers and other major automakers, will increase to 166,400 by 2015 but will still fall far short of recent industry highs.

    "Two of every three Big Three jobs in the United States will be located in Michigan" by 2015, McAlinden said.

    Great news. Since the Snyder administration is all about cuts, cuts, cuts and has not said a word about diversifying our economy or creating new jobs - we are going to need all the help we can get out of autos. And yes, we probably are in danger of putting all our eggs in one basket again - but it sure beats the alternative.

    Be sure and thank the President for saving our state and making all this possible. The comeback of the American auto industry has been quite a story, and it seems to keep getting better all the time.

    The Turtles Breathe a Sigh of Relief

    Breaking from Gongwer:

    Republican former U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra announces he will not run for U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

    And there was much celebrating across the marsh...

    No Representation for the 3rd District: Amash Votes "Present" 17 Times

    If we have to eliminate a congressional district in Michigan, might as well make it the 3rd. Congressman Amash keeps finding excuses to avoid taking the tough votes, and it's getting to the point where we don't have representation on some of the bigger issues facing the Congress.

    There's nothing unusual about voting "present" in the U.S. House of Representatives: It's an easy way for a congressman to record his attendance without taking a position on a politically risky bill. In the last three months, nearly 20 members have availed themselves of a "present" or two over the course of about 272 votes.

    Then there's Justin Amash, the newly elected, 30-year-old west Michigan Republican fresh from one term in the state House.

    He has had 17 "present" votes -- including two Thursday.

    His reasoning has been as varied as the legislation itself. The "present" votes have come on the big issues like defunding Planned Parenthood and NPR, and they have come on bills that he deems may be unconstitutional - key word there is "may". He is making judgments based not on what his constituents may want or need, but on his own personal interpretation of how the law should work. Isn't that better left to the judicial branch?

    And, while other members have learned to live with the fast pace of legislation, Amash uses the excuse that he hasn't had time to read bills - but he has plenty of time to run to Facebook and post his explanations for not taking a stand one way or another. The media thinks that's something to celebrate, but it's hard to see how communicating with constituents is something unusual. It should be expected of your representative. Just because he does it on "social media" doesn't make it any different than sending out a newsletter, or posting on the traditional congressional web site. Seriously folks, Facebook has been around for seven years now. Get over it.

    His "independence" of party leadership is beside the issue as well.

    amash9744Already, he has voted contrary to Republican leadership on several occasions. In some cases, he did so because he considered the measures -- as sympathetic as he might have been to their bottom lines -- unconstitutional. In others -- such as in the case of a bill this week to extend a commission created for the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth -- it's because he said he thinks Congress has enough to do without taking on jobs better left to private groups.

    Amash also has staked out an impressive series of "present" votes -- 17 of them so far, many more than anyone else in the House.

    Conservative-leaning Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren has called him a "coward," and others suggest he's not willing to make tough choices.

    "It's unacceptable for Rep. Amash to vote 'present' when Michigan families depend on him for critical decisions," said Haley Morris, the Midwest press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

    This is a man who is serving only himself. We aren't paying him to second-guess the system or play constitutional lawyer, we are paying him to represent the wishes of the district. And while he comes up with a bunch of clever excuses for his behavior and is doing this on bills big and small, he appears to be avoiding the tough votes so they can't be used against him in the next campaign. Other congress members can find a way to get the job done within the framework of the rules of the House, as imperfect as they may be. While Amash may be trying to pass himself off as eccentric or independent, you have to wonder if perhaps that's only a masquerade that belies his personal arrogance.

    Time for the 3rd to get new representation. If Amash won't step up to the plate and make the tough calls for whatever reason, we need to find someone who will.