Thursday, January 30, 2014

Michigan's charter schools want equitable funding

Gov. Rick Snyder said funding for primary and secondary education is up about $660 per student since he took office but the Michigan Association of Public School Academies says charter schools are not getting enough of it.

The association is asking its supporters to pressure the legislature to eliminate what it says is an $1,800 funding disparity for charter school students.   

“All children deserve to be treated fairly and given the same opportunity to find a great school and get a great education,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of MAPSA. 

MAPSA is helping its supporters send a message to lawmakers.

Snyder said in his recent state-of-the-state address that the state has picked up some of the retirement costs local districts previously had been carrying.

The Associated Press reported that excluding federal, preschool and adult education dollars but factoring in the state’s direct share of the retirement bill, Snyder’s budget office estimates state funding was $6,818 per student when he arrived in Lansing and is $7,484 today, a 10 percent jump.

The governor’s critics like to focus on the basic school grant level instead.
Snyder in his first year helped roll it back by $300 per pupil and locked in a previous $170 cut, AP reported. The grant has been raised $180 since and is currently $7,026, about 1.7 percent less than in 2010-11, the last budget approved by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.

Friday, January 24, 2014

In defense of Brooks Patterson

So we can’t read the controversial piece in The New Yorker about Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson unless we pay for it.

Folks, it isn’t worth it.

We don’t need to know what Patterson said in the article  entitled “Drop Dead, Detroit” because we have his 45-year record in public service, which speaks for itself.

It’s all out there for anyone to see, and we can judge for ourselves.

If  we live in Oakland County, we know it’s a great record. The county is one of the most solvent places in the country thanks to the governance of Patterson and his team — not to mention the Oakland County commissioners down through the years.

Does Oakland County owe its success in large part to Detroit? Duh. Detroit was only home to the auto industry and executives chose to live in Oakland County by the thousands.

Oakland was once one of  the five wealthiest counties in the country and it is because of Detroit.

Detroit is also the city that is a national embarrassment to Michigan. It is bankrupt. It was home to one the most corrupt mayors in the country’s history, Kwame Kilpatrick, yet Detroiters elected him twice.

The city has been in decline for decades, with its residents fleeing to places like Oakland and Macomb counties.  City officials have been warned for eons that financial disaster loomed. Yet what did they — or the citizens who elected them — do about it?

Is it in the region’s interests for Detroit  to recover? Is the Grand Canyon deep? A rising tide lifts all boats.

Do places like Oakland and Macomb counties need protection from Detroit? You bet. Just consider the possibility of rising costs of Detroit water and sewer services,  upon which Southeastern Michigan suburbia depends. Our rates could skyrocket due to a bankruptcy we didn’t create.

When, for years, Detroit wanted to improve Cobo Hall, did Patterson object? Only to the extent he wanted a fair shake for his constituents. He did his job, and he did it admirably.

Just look at how he is trying to protect the artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts, on which his constituents depend — and partially underwrite — for cultural enrichment.  

Patterson also knows that the county’s bond rating will not be helped in the long run by Detroit’s problems.

But would he rather have the Red Wings in Oakland County than Detroit? Is he happy the Pistons are in Auburn Hills?

Would he prefer that businesses locate in Oakland County instead of Detroit?

Would he rather people dine out in Oakland County than Detroit?

These are hard realities — facts, not even opinions. Patterson knows, and has demonstrated, that Southeastern Michigan’s fate is heavily influenced by Detroit and always will be. He has lived this and breathed this forever.

Patterson has a record he and his constituents can be proud of. Oakland would be wealthier today if Detroit was solvent.

But it isn’t. Detroit is more dead than alive.

Don’t blame Brooks Patterson for that.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Target’s health-care decision actually helps employees

What was the point of adopting Obamacare if it was not going to transform the health-care landscape?

While foes of the new Affordable Care Act are seizing on Target’s announcement that it will no longer provide health coverage to part-time employees as proof that ACA is doing more harm than good, that view is shortsighted.

But true systemic change is not simple.  The point is, the system we had before Obamacare was broken, and its destructive impact on U.S. employment was never understood.  Our third-party payer system, where employers feel the brunt of insurance costs,  is a disaster that the ACA will eventually fix.

Target’s decision is a win-win-win-win situation. The employer wins by cutting its costs; employees win by gaining the chance for better coverage; insurance companies win by getting new customers; and prospective employees seeking a job win because perhaps Target can now afford to hire more of them.

“These part-time workers will most likely be better off under Obamacare plans, and Target’s decision to shift the employees into the marketplaces is definitive proof that the health law is  doing exactly what it’s intended to do,” reported the website Think Progress.

Numerous disincentives to third-party coverage were built into the law, mostly in the form of generous subsidies to individuals who buy their coverage at More and more employers will drop their coverage altogether, finding it more cost-effective to pay the fines rather than provide the coverage. But that is exactly the point. Why should employers be providing the coverage in the first place? We don’t expect them to insure our homes or cars. This is precisely what was wrong with our system in the first place, and you can find this assertion at conservative think tanks if you dig deep enough into their archives.

Both sides are guilty of oversimplifying ACA’s groundbreaking impact, not the lest of which was President Obama’s claim that you could keep your insurance if you liked it. Most people will, but to claim a major reform is not so major after all misses the whole point.

Obamacare is giving us all lessons in economics and health coverage. The sooner we learn them, the better off we will be. Then we can focus on continuing to change and improve the system.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Common Core: Model for bipartisanship

While much of the media was mesmerized by the so-called bridge traffic scandal involving New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, reporters largely missed a superb presentation by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Among other things, Fallin delivered what may be the clearest explanation of Common Core standards for public school students, and why states are embracing them.

The occasion was the National Governors Association's second annual state-of-the-states speech before the National Press Club.

Fallin said simply that  “governors are focused on raising academic standards for all students to ensure their success in college or a career training program.”

She said that is why “governors came together years ago to raise academic standards … to ensure our students could compete in their town, city or state, but with students from around the world.

“Those higher standards are called the Common Core State Standards. They outline what students need to be college- and career-ready.

“However, it is left strictly to individual states, districts and schools to elevate the quality of their students’ education to meet these more rigorous and relevant standards.

“Common Core is not a federal program. It is driven and implemented by those states that choose to participate. It is also not a federal curriculum; in fact, it’s not a curriculum at all. Educators and school districts will still design lesson plans, choose appropriate text books and drive classroom learning.

“The goal is to ensure our children finish high school with better critical thinking skills and the tools they need to succeed in higher education or the workforce.”

That’s pretty clear. Meanwhile, Fallin, a Republican, and Hickenlooper, a Democrat,  highlighted areas where states are taking the lead and the federal government is paralyzed by inaction.

Hickenloopr noted that “the fate of the states and the federal government are inextricably linked. More than 26 percent of most state budgets come from the federal government.”

Fallin said federal inaction has left states “to chart their own path and pursue their own policies where partisan gridlock has left Washington unable to address the nation’s serious problems.

“For governors, inaction is not an option. Where the federal government will not act, states are stepping in. Our message for 2014 is clear: states are leading, and we encourage our federal partners to work more closely with us, and to take note of and use the policy ideas coming from their state partners. Above all, please do not get in the way.”

Fallin and Hickenlooper’s presentation was carried on C-SPAN. It stands as a model of what Democrats and Republicans can do together.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bills would curb police right to seize your assets

Did you know that under Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws, someone does not have to be convicted of or even charged with a crime to permanently lose his or her cash, car or home to law enforcement?

Two Michigan lawmakers want to do something about it and have scheduled a meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23 to inform the public about the issue.

State Reps. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, and Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, are both sponsoring legislation to curb the practice.

Thurday’s meeting on "Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws and Reforms" will be held at the Royal Oak Public Library. 

Speakers will include McMillin, Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit,
Shelli Weisberg, legislative director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Dennis Marburger, the Oakland County coordinator of the Michigan Campaign  for Liberty.

McMillin called civil asset forfeiture reform an issue that crosses the political spectrum of left and right.

“Taking a citizen’s assets without a conviction certainly seems unfair,” McMillin said in a press release.

Irwin’s HB 5212 would require a conviction before citizens' assets could be kept. McMillin’s HB 5081  would bring transparency to the process. If passed, for the first time Michigan citizens could see how often people's assets are taken without a conviction and how the funds are used, among other disclosures, McMillin said.

According to a 2010 Institute for Justice study, Michigan has one of the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the nation.

Michigan  earned a D- from the institute in its report “Policing for Profit.” Currently, the government has to establish by a “preponderance of the evidence” that a property was involved in criminal activity to forfeit property, according to the institute. That is a much lower evidentiary standard than what’s required for a criminal conviction, which is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

So if HB 5213 is enacted, it would raise the bar, meaning prosecutors would need far more evidence to engage in forfeiture, according to the institute.

Michigan has recently witnessed several high-profile civil forfeiture cases. Two Detroit-area small business owners, Terry Dehko and Mark Zaniewski, had their entire bank accounts seized by the IRS, even though neither was charged with any crime, according to the institute. Over $100,000 in total was taken from the two men.

An even more controversial incident occurred when Detroit police raided and seized cars at an art gala.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Land may be competitive with Peters in Michigan U.S. Senate race

U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, has been considered a heavy favorite to win the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Carl Levin. But his Republican foe, former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is leading in three consecutive polls since last month.

The most recent is the respected Rasmussen Reports poll, which shows Land leading by 2 percentage points, 37 to 35 percent.

The Harper Poll showed her with a 44 to 36 percent lead on Jan. 13 and  Public Policy Polling gave her a 42-40 lead last month.

Referring to the Harper Poll, RedState’s Moe Lane said “it’s early, it’s one of a bunch of possible outcomes, it’s a Republican pollster (Harper), and so forth. But this is still pretty good news for Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land. And the Republican party in Michigan, because Harper also checked the generic race.”

While that showed Democrats leading by 1 percentage point, Land’s favorable-unfavorable rating was 32-18 percent with Peters at 18-18.

It would be foolish to underestimate Peters. Not only is he a brilliant campaigner, but Republicans crossed over in sizeable number to elect him to Congress from an Oakland County district in 2008 and re-elect him in 2010.  He was forced to run in a much more liberal district in 2012 due to redistricting, and his pronouncements since then have taken on a more partisan cast.

Peters is well informed on financial and budget-related issues and is Michigan’s former lottery commissioner. He ran for statewide office in 2002, losing to Mike Cox in the race for attorney general. A decorated Navy veteran, he served in the Persian Gulf War. 

Land was not the first choice of Michigan’s GOP party professionals. That designation went to U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, who decided to instead seek re-election.

Her prowess as a campaigner in a contest like this one is untested, and while she is raising substantial amount of money for the campaign, she has been slow on the draw in terms of setting up the apparatus of a campaign.

The point is, a race thought to lean Democratic may actually turn out to be competitive. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rick Snyder tiptoes onto national scene

For Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, it was a bold move.

He asked the legislature to pass a resolution urging Congress to initiate an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring the federal government to balance its budget.

It is an old idea. But for Snyder, who eschews national politics, it was his version of outspoken. He made the comments in his annual state-of-the-state address.

It comes four months after the governor told the Associated Press he hopes he is “a reasonable model for people to look at across the country."

Unlike his colleagues among Republican governors, Snyder rarely wades into national political waters. Nevertheless, some say he could become more active after he dispenses with challenger Mark Schauer, his Democratic challenger, in November’s governor’s race.  That appears an all-but-certain outcome.

No one would dispute that Michiganians are better off than when Snyder took office in January of 2011.

He carefully avoided specifics in his state-of-the-state address, but called for tax relief and more spending on roads  and schools. Details will come as he presents his budget in the coming weeks.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Time to put Benghazi behind us

A new U.S. Senate report on the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which an American diplomat and three others were killed, ought to lay the issue to rest.

The attack has been investigated backwards and forwards. Turns  out almost everyone shares blame for the humiliating terrorist assault, not the least of which ought to be the American people who elected the administration in charge at the time and then re-elected it two months after the assault.

The bipartisan report blames the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and even the ambassador himself, J. Christopher Stevens, who rejected protection from the Pentagon shortly before the attack.

The report is reassuring evidence that our government can still do commendable investigative report in spite of the partisan rancor that divides Washington.
The Benghazi attack has been amply probed by the State Department, CIA and Congress. Four State Department officials were suspended in the aftermath of the killings.

People who want to blame former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now have solid evidence of her shortcomings. But so what? She long ago accepted responsibility  and numerous necessary changes have been and are being made in the department. If further accountability is necessary the public just may have that chance if she runs for president in 2016.

There is nothing left to say. People made mistakes. Guess what? Security was insufficient at Pearl Harbor in 1941 but the American people continued to support President Roosevelt anyway.

 Any charges of conspiracy by Fox News or anyone else tied to Benghazi are baseless. The facts are now out there for everyone to see — as they should be.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

AARP's rival has good Social Security plan

A group that brands itself as a rival to AARP is pushing non-partisan reforms to Social Security that Congress ought to consider. 

Although the  seven-year-old Association of Mature American Citizens calls itself a conservative alternative, the group’s proposal lacks the privatization features that have doomed other plans advanced by groups on the right side of the political spectrum.

AMAC might do better if it eschewed political labels because, in fact, its proposals are voted on by the group’s membership, using a tool that ensures that members can only vote once.

“Our members choose the issues and drive the agenda,” said Andy Mangione, AMAC’s vice president for governmental relations. 

And members have overwhelmingly chosen Social Security and its future as their major concern.

“People don’t save enough for retirement — we know that,” Mangione said.

AMAC’s proposal, for which Mangione has been lobbying on Capitol Hill, takes a two-pronged approach. The first facet would maintain the same or increased benefits for those with lower earnings and the second would   provide a means for all earners to have more income available at retirement.

 It would guarantee cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients annually, using a tiered approach to calculating the COLA. No increases were granted in 2009 and 2010, even though gasoline and food prices rose.

  For beneficiaries with a household income  level less than $20,000,  COLAs would range from a 3 to 4 percent increase..

 For beneficiaries with a household income  between $20,001 and $50,000, the COLA range would be 1.5 to 3 percent.

For beneficiaries with a household income  of $50,001 or higher, the COLA range would be from 1 to 2 percent.

AMAC’s plan also would phase in a change in the earliest retirement age. Starting in 2016, it would add three months each year so that by 2023 it would be 64 instead of the current 62.

Starting in 2017, it would phase in a change to the normal retirement age by adding three months each year so that by 2024, it would be 69 instead of the current 66 to 67, which depends on the birth year.

AMAC’s plan also would lower benefits for higher income earners while maintaining the same benefits for those with less income, beginning in 2019.

The current annual Social Security trustee report projects a shortfall in the program’s trust fund of 4.5 percent in 75 years. If AMAC’s proposals were adopted, there would be a surplus of .17 percent.

Meanwhile, the plan also calls for a voluntary, portable tax-deferred Early Retirement Account program implemented through employers. It would allow the employee to set aside up to $5,200 annually and the employer to contribute up to $2,600 annually. Both employees and employers would be eligible for tax deductions.

Unlike 401K plans, which are routinely tapped into for a variety of reasons, the ERA would not be available until retirement. Enrollees could accumulate up to $354,000, Mangione said.

AMAC’s common-sense proposals apparently are catching on. Membership is growing by 40,000 every month, and has doubled to about 1.1 million from 500,000 in 2012. AMAC seeks to designate representatives from each  of the nation’s 435 congressional districts and eventually hopes to organize state chapters.

AMAC membership costs $16 annually and is available on the organizations’s website at Anyone over the age of 50 may join and 40 percent of the group’s members are not retired.

Dan Weber, a family business owner in New York, founded AMAC because he felt the other major 50+ organizations were too liberal and did not represent his views.

But Mangione emphasizes that only members can set the agenda, and they are polled on a weekly basis. The group does not support candidates and has met with 140 members of Congress from both parties.

“We will meet with anybody,” Mangione said.

AMAC’s Social Security reforms should appeal to everyone. They include incentives to save, protection for those with lower incomes, modest restraints for everyone and small reductions in benefits for those with higher incomes.

Congress and the public should rally behind these ideas.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

ACA enrollment figures are encouraging

Young people either are or aren’t signing up in sufficient numbers to balance costs in the new insurance market created by the Affordable Care Act, depending on which partisan source you are believing.

The best factual source, however, is Kaiser Health News (, which deals only in the facts.

KHN reported that “nearly a quarter of the 2.2 million people who have enrolled in health coverage in the health law’s insurance marketplaces are young adults — the population that’s hardest to reach and yet most vital for the financial stability of the new exchanges.”

That about sums it up.

"More than 6 million Americans have now either signed up for a private health insurance plan through the Marketplace or for Medicaid coverage," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

"Through December, 30 percent of those who enrolled were under age 35, with 24 percent being between the ages of 18 and 34 — consistent with the proportion of the population in this age group and in keeping with where Massachusetts enrollment was at this point," Sebelius reported. "More importantly, it is a sign of a clear demand for health insurance."

Commenting on the data, U.S. Rep Sander Levin of Royal Oak, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, pointed out that:

• 54 percent of those who have signed up are women and 46 percent are men;

• 30 percent are age 34 and under;

• 79 percent selected a plan with financial assistance.

KHN reported that a recent survey by the Coomonwealth Fund, a non-partisan research group, found that 41 percent of those who had shopped on state marketplaces were ages 19 to 34.

Meanwhile, "a study in November by the Kaiser Family Foundation )KHN us an editorially independet program of the foundation), downplayed concerns about so-called death spiral if not enough young people enrolled. Under a worst-case scenario in which just 25 percent of enrollees are age 18 to 34, then insurers would have to raise premiums by just 2.4 percent in 2015.

The bottom line is that Obamacare is here to stay. It won't be repealed. If it needs to be improved, let's fix it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Detroit police chief touts value of responsible armed citizenry

It is almost impossible to have a rational discussion about gun control. Many people sincerely and honestly believe that a more restrictive policy toward gun ownership will curb cataclysmic occurrences such as the killing of 26 people at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Ct. in December of 2012.

That’s why Detroit Police Chief James Craig gained such attention as he suggested a responsibly armed citizenry helps lower crime rates.

“A well-armed, good citizen can be the biggest deterrent to violent crime,” Craig told Fox News.

“Research bears this out,” Craig said, and he has  the statistics to back it up. There has been a 7 percent drop in violent crime in what has been characterized as the nation’s most violent cities. There has been a 14 percent drop in homicides and an 8 percent drop in non-fatal shootings

“Responsibility plays a key role here,” he added.

Craig cited a Department of Justice study that he said suggested “that a well-armed good citizen can be the biggest deterrent to violent crime.”

Craig, who has worked in four cities, said he used to routinely deny requests for concealed-carry weapons permits. He said he experienced an “aha moment” when he was chief in Portland, Me., where crime rates were low and the number of CCW permits was relatively high.

“Violent criminals here know their biggest fear is being met with an armed citizen,” Craig told Fox News. “They are more fearful of an armed citizen than of a police officer.”

Craig said some criminals in Detroit have taken to wearing body armor as a result.

Perhaps the answer lies in all sides agreeing to a responsible concealed-carry strategy. Until mental health is tackled as  a serious issue, tragedies such as occurred in Sandy Hook may continue, and tilting at the gun control windmill is unlikely to be productive as a strategy to counter them.



Friday, January 10, 2014

Rand Paul leads the way on NSA spying issue

Pity poor Rand Paul. He really is just a sanitized version of his father, Ron Paul.

By that it is meant that Ron Paul is unpolished, not conscious of his image, candid, even brusque. He really doesn’t care what people think of him; in fact, he wasn’t really interested in seriously competing for the presidency, and was most concerned about crusading for his brand of strident libertarianism.

He really wasn’t a Republican either, nor were many of his followers, who proved it in November of 2012 by staying home by the millions rather than vote for Mitt Romney, thereby paving the way for President Obama’s re-election.

By contrast, Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, has sought to conceal that very same libertarianism under a veneer of tact, emphasis and context, preferring instead to reveal it only on issues in which the people are really engaged. Unlike his father, however, he takes himself seriously as a presidential candidate and seeks to use the Republican Party as a vehicle to achieve that end.

There really is no substantive difference between the two on the issues, including a decidedly isolationist or non-interventionist foreign policy.

That said, Rand Paul knows what issues might catch the public’s fancy and talks about them in a timely fashion.  One on which he has played a key role is the domestic spying issue connected to disclosures about the extent of surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency.

Rand Paul has launched a petition drive seeking support for a class-action lawsuit against NSA.

Because of the scope of the NSA’s activities, Paul told MSNBC “every person in America who has a cell phone would be eligible for this suit.”

“We now have several hundred thousand people who want to be part of this suit to say to the government and the NSA, ‘No, you can’t have our records without our permission or without a warrant specific to an individual,’” he said.

This is God’s work, supported by people across the political spectrum.  It is interesting that this issue wouldn’t even be on the table — as Paul acknowledges  — were it not for the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now a fugitive from the United States.

Snowden’s disclosures led to a review of NSA’s practices by the Obama Administration, which is expected to recommend major reforms in the NSA surveillance program next week.

All of this suggests the criminal status the U.S. has placed on Snowden might be inappropriate. Some people regard him as a national hero. But that is another subject for another day.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

This criticism of Obama is not constructive

There is something unseemly about former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s tell-all memoirs.  

He said President Obama didn’t believe in his own strategy for Afghanistan. 

 Who isn’t confused  about what is happening in that part of the world.  Who blames Americans if they feel increasingly hopeless about the Middle East in general.

Clearly polls show the country is war-weary.  The Afghans and Iraqis just don’t seem to want to do enough to help themselves, although their own domestic political situations should make all of us grateful we don’t live there.

Why did Gates feel he had to speak out now? What does he hope to accomplish? As former head of the Pentagon, shouldn’t he, of all people, respect the chain of command?

It’s so easy to attack a president. George W. Bush became a hapless target of critics in his second term and now it is happening to Obama. With three years to go in his term, it seems that constructive criticism would be more suitable than the dirty laundry Gates is exposing in his book, “Duty.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Weather hysteria is not productive

God bless the Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy — again — for decrying the excesses of governmental officials.

This time is cites hysterical weather-related traffic pleas and restrictions, citing examples from public officials in Lansing and Indianapolis.

The public didn’t need much encouragement to skip work or school, impeding progress, commerce and economic recovery along the way. But if a mature adult knows his automobile is functioning well and the roads are clear, he or she ought to be able to make short trips to the library or grocery store, or show up at work.

Kudos to Oakland government on Monday for telling county employees if they weren’t going to make it to work, they needed to take a personal day.

And if wind, rain, snow or sleet couldn’t stop delivery of U.S. mail, apparently the cold temperatures could, even in areas where mailboxes were accessible in West Bloomfield Township.

The day’s normal activities — school, work,  buying and selling — benefit all of us. Stay safe, yes.  But let’s add some common sense. Adults in a democratic society only need advice; they do not need to have their freedoms taken away.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Extend jobless benefits, but pay for it

Extending unemployment benefits for three months ought to be a non-controversial proposition, but that’s also true about the notion of paying for it.

Democrats say simple compassion makes the issue an emergency. But our national debt is an emergency too, and we shouldn’t be adding to it.

The unprecedented extension is necessary due to the weak pace of our economic recovery, but that should be blamed, at least partially, on politicians of both parties. While it is true economists disagree on the importance of reducing — or at least not adding to — the  $17-trillion national debt, the risks of not seriously addressing it are certainly greater than any temporary cost of dealing with it.

We have seen the evidence of economic collapse due to profligate public spending in places like Greece, Cyprus and Detroit. And when the crisis comes, there is little warning, just as there was little warning for the financial crisis of 2008.

What U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said the other day about extending the benefits may not have been popular, but he at least was one of the few in Congress with the courage to say it.

“What I have always said is that it needs to be paid for, but we also need to do something for long-term unemployed people and that is we need to create something new that would create jobs,” Paul told ABC News.

“So what I’d like to do when we get back is one, if we extend it we pay for it, but two, we add something to it that would create jobs … I do think, though, that the longer you have it, that it provides some disincentive to work, and that there are many studies that indicate this,” Paul said. “So, what I’ve been saying all along, we have to figure out how to create jobs and keep people from becoming long-term unemployed.”

The price tag to the government for extending the benefits is $6.5 billion. It can easily be paid for with agreed-upon reforms of the nation’s farm subsidy program, reductions in military spending or cuts to non-essential bureaucratic programs in the Departments of Education or Transportation.

Congress ought to be able to get this done, but the temptation to play politics with the issue may be formidable.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Religious liberty at stake? Really?

If you look at the actual facts of the case in which the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged claims that the federal government is infringing on its religious liberty, any fair person can see how frivolous the arguments are.

The case revolves around the government’s requirement that employer group health insurance policies provide access to birth control services.

Religious organizations are exempt from the requirement if they choose. It’s that simple. All they have to do is fill out the form and give it to their insurance carrier.

The insurance carrier is then required to offer the service to employees, if it qualifies for any government assistance. The service is, in essence is then paid for through government subsidy and not the policy holder, in this case Little Sisters.

However, in this particular case, the insurance carrier also qualifies as a religious institution and, thus, is not forced to provide the contraceptives coverage.

The Little Sisters argue that the very act of filling out a form that in other circumstances would allow the insurer to provide the services violates the organization’s religious liberty.

We’re splitting hairs here folks.

Religious liberty, like personal liberty, does not free a person or group from the necessity to comply with laws in general. We are all subject to the law.

Actually, the government itself defines religious liberty. As Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. points out in his argument in the case, it is the Internal Revenue Service that defines religious employers. The IRS code spells out the definition of non-profit organizations regarding, as Verrilli states, “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, conventions or associations of churches, and the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.”

The Little Sisters organization claims the regulations governing contraceptives “violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 … which provides that the government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless the application of that burden is the least restrictive means to advance a compelling governmental interest.”

Notice that the verbiage gives the government — which is, after all, the people — rights too. “Compelling governmental interest.”

As Verrilli points out, courts previously have held that to qualify as an infringement, the alleged violation must be  “indisputably clear.”

RFRA itself defines infringement as an act that “substantially” burdens a person’s exercise of religion.

Let fair-minded individuals weigh in on this case. Read Verrilli’s argument. Then decide whether you really think the Obama administration is an enemy of religious liberty.

At this writing, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has issued a retraining order that sides with Little Sisters. She can either rule on the case’s merits herself or refer it to the court as a whole.

The case proves two things. First of all,  any constitutional guarantees are worthless if you have a bad government.

Secondly, regardless of how this case comes out, it illustrates that the United States is a world model for religious liberty. All the Little Sisters have been asked to do to claim their freedom of conscience is sign a paper.

Is that unreasonable? You be the judge, but in fairness, read Verrilli’s argument first.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Mental health courts: Real achievement for Michigan

Although many states beat Michigan to the punch in creating mental health courts,  officials from all branches of government should  nevertheless be commended for finally embracing the concept.

Thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of people will benefit as a result.

It is well known that too many victims of mental illness end up in our criminal justice system when what they really needed was treatment, not punishment.

Mass shootings, like those at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Ct., appear to be persuading the general public that ignoring mental health as a policy issue can lead to horrible disasters.

The basic idea of a mental health court is to allow suspects suffering from mental illness to be able to appear before judges in a setting where their special conditions can be addressed. 

Michigan has been methodical in its approach. It tested the idea of mental health courts in pilot counties, including Oakland and Macomb. Then officials empirically studied the outcomes. 

A three-year evaluation of 10 Michigan mental health courts found that participants re-offend at significantly lower levels than comparable groups of offenders who do not participate in the mental health courts.

The evaluation, which was conducted by the State Court Administrative Office, found that one year after starting the program, mental health court participants’ recidivism rate was 300 percent lower compared to similar offenders. The difference persisted even after the courts no longer supervised the offenders: 30 months later, over a year after graduation, participants had a recidivism rate of 18.97 percent, compared to 43.22 percent of the comparison group.

Mental health court participants also enjoyed improved mental health, education and job outcomes, the survey found.

“... Results show that mental health courts have reduced recidivism, improved medication compliance, improved quality of life, and assisted participants in averaging over 300 days of continuous sobriety prior to graduation,” the SCAO report states. The mental health courts show good outcomes even for mentally ill offenders with substance abuse problems, who “are generally believed to be especially difficult to rehabilitate,” the report adds.

State Court Administrator Chad C. Schmucker said that the survey, which followed 331 mental health court graduates, provides “evidence that these programs really do work.”

“The central premise of mental health courts is that, by addressing the offender’s mental health issues, we can prevent future crimes and also help the offender become a contributing member of society,” Schmucker said.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley last week signed a four-bill package of legislation allowing for the expansion of Michigan’s the program.

Calley was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to serve as chairman of the Michigan Mental Health and Wellness Commission. He also is chairman of the Mental Health Diversion Council, which is housed within the Michigan Department of Community Health and provides recommendations for ensuring that offenders with mental health or substance abuse issues receive appropriate treatment rather than jail time. This legislation is a key component of the council’s plan.

“The most effective and humane way to deal with the problem of recidivism is through a comprehensive system of ‘smart justice’ that recognizes the connection between enforcement and prevention,” Calley said. “Mental health courts play a critical role in that system. They have demonstrated their value by ensuring public safety, easing the strain on our corrections system and providing mentally ill offenders with needed treatment. Allowing for the creation of additional mental health courts is both compassionate and cost-effective. Breaking the cycle in which jail becomes a revolving door for mentally ill offenders means a safer, healthier Michigan.”

Concerning the legislation, HB 4694, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Ken  Cotter of Mt. Pleasant, sets forth relevant definitions for mental health courts and the process for creating a mental health court. A circuit or district court may adopt such a program by statute or through court rules.

 HB 4695, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Gail Haines of Waterford, statutorily creates mental health courts in Michigan. It sets forth the requirements for someone to complete a mental health program. An individual participating in the program must abide by all court orders

HB 4696, whose chief sponsor was Rep. John Walsh of  Livonia,  requires an individual to plead guilty or no contest to their criminal charges in order to be admitted to the program.

HB 4697, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Margaret O’Brien of Kalamazoo County, deals with the collection of data and expenditure of funds. Under the bill, each mental health court must collect data on each individual participant and the entire program as required by the State Court Administrative Office.

“Mental health courts have proven to provide mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system with a solution to their illness instead of incarceration,” Haines said. “The corrections system is not the most appropriate venue to address the mental health needs of individuals, and too often their needs go unattended. These reforms will save the taxpayers money, and more importantly provide the proper rehabilitation of offenders and allow them to become productive citizens.”

 “This reform shows what good government can accomplish, especially when all three branches of government work as partners," Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr. said. "Michigan courts showed, through pilot programs, the worth of these mental health court programs in reducing recidivism and returning offenders to productive, responsible lives. The benefits — to the offenders, to their families, and to society — are far-ranging and profound. Mental health courts are changing lives."

Mental health courts, done the Michigan way, should benefit all of us. The executive, legislative and judicial branches of Michigan’s government deserve to be commended.