Michigan Lawmakers Could Vote on Health Care Bill Today

When Michigan state lawmakers return from a two-month recess today, they are expected to vote on a proposal that would limit how much public employers pay for their employees’ health benefits.

Municipalities, counties and school districts could instead opt to pay 80 percent of health costs under a plan that was approved Tuesday by a joint subcommittee on a 4-2 vote. Republicans would like to include state employees, but that would require a separate resolution passed by a two-thirds majority, according to the Detroit News.

Under the plan, known as Senate Bill 7, public employers would meet a hard-cap contribution of $5,500 for a single employee, $11,000 for an employee and spouse and $15,000 per family. Municipalities and counties can opt out of the rules with a two-thirds vote of their governing boards, but school districts cannot.

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Foreclosures Decline, While Foreclosure Businesses Thrive

GTJ's Frank Oliver clears out a foreclosed home in Roseville, Michigan. Photo by Kate Davidson

Foreclosure activity dropped by more than a third this past year, according to the group RealtyTrac. But despite the national slowdown, regional companies that take care of foreclosed homes are still thriving. Their job is to keep empty houses clean and safe from the forces that depress local property values: squatters, thieves and decay. Dawn Hammontree probably never expected to see their work firsthand.



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Your Housing Stories, in Six Words

Ray Gauss II

Changing Gears is kicking off a new feature. Inspired by Smith Magazine, and possibly Ernest Hemingway, we’re asking people to share stories of what the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest means to them. But there’s a catch. We want these stories in six words.

Listen to the result of our request for stories about the housing crisis. Take Mary Beth Matthew’s submission for example, “2007 bought ex’s half, 2011 underwater.” Set to music, it’s creative, poignant, and even funny.


You can also contribute to our current six word story-your “Plan B.”

Six-word poets: Marcus Bales, Amanda Thomas, Becky McRae, Matt Lechel, Christopher Lada, Manuel Magana, and LaGaspa McDougal.

Music by Steve Osburn, produced by Cade Sperling.



Midwest Memo: Obama Plans Detroit Visit, Agriculture Peaks in Michigan

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Agriculture potential expands in Michigan. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow met in Western Michigan on Monday to discuss ways to grow Michigan’s agriculture industry. Vilsack anticipated this will be the best year for farm income in U.S. history, and Stabenow said Michigan can grow its second-largest industry into biotechnology, reports our partner station Michigan Radio. As a farmer told them at their meeting, “agriculture is doing things,” in Michigan, he said. “Industry is not.”

2. President plans Detroit visit. In what will be his eighth visit to Michigan since becoming president, Barack Obama will join union members during Labor Day festivities in Detroit next week. Organizers do not believe the President will walk in the city’s annual parade, but expect he will make a speech at a to-be-determined site afterward, according to the Detroit Free Press. Obama may use the visit as an opportunity to highlight the government’s intervention in the auto industry in 2009.

3. Rock Hall shows some Respect. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will honor Aretha Franklin this November, during the venue’s 16th annual American Music Masters this November. Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Hall in 1987, and wrote in a statement that she is “thrilled and delighted to be honored.” The exhibit, “Lady Soul: The Life and Music of Aretha Franklin” will be a week-long celebration and work in conjunction with the museum’s ongoing “Women Who Rock” series.

Extent of Ford-Toyota Partnership and its Impact on Jobs Not Yet Known

The location of their first meeting, a clandestine airport lobby, remains a secret. But Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally and Toyota chief Akio Toyoda are willing to share everything else – including hybrid technologies.

Ford will partner with Toyota on hybrid technologies, the companies announced Monday. Photo by Slobodan Stojkovic via Flickr.

Months after a chance encounter at a nameless airport, the two automotive leaders announced Monday their companies would collaborate on hybrid technologies for rear-wheel drive pickup trucks and SUVs. Both hope the move expedites the arrival of hybrid models in the marketplace at more affordable prices for consumers.

Ford’s F-series pickups have been the best-selling in the United States for the past 25 years, according to our partner station Michigan Radio. Toyota’s Prius has been the top-selling hybrid in the U.S. since it’s inception. Is it a complementary marriage or awkward entanglement with a competitor?

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Amid Economic Uncertainty, One Chicago Restaurant Gains Ground By Bartering For Goods and Services

Cheesecakes and pastas. Computers and cars.

What do they have in common? They’re items that Chicago restaurant owner Richard Wohn procured through trade instead of cash transactions. Many of the items in the dining room of the Fireside Inn, the North Side eatery he’s owned for 22 years, have been obtained the same way.

Barter has been a long-time component in Wohn’s business strategy, he tells our partner station WBEZ. Amid economic turmoil, the practice has been gaining in popularity. From its small-scale roots, industry insiders estimate the barter business was worth $8.4 billion in 2004. Given the proliferation of free classifieds and barter services that have emerged since then – and more dubiously, of cash-strapped wallets – they believe the barter economy has only grown.

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Ford, Toyota To Team Up On Hybrid Development

Big news from two auto big auto companies with big ties to our region. Ford, the second-biggest American auto company, and Toyota, Japan’s biggest, said today they’ll be teaming up to develop a new hybrid-electric system for light trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The pair have signed a memorandum of understanding, with a formal agreement coming by next year.

Until now, the two companies have been working independently on hybrid systems for rear-wheel drive vehicles. But now, they’ll pool their resources, hoping that the project will let them bring hybrids to consumers “sooner and more affordably than either company could have accomplished alone,” according to the announcement. Continue reading “Ford, Toyota To Team Up On Hybrid Development”

In Six Words, What Is Your Plan B?

The recession has meant big changes for many people across our region. For some, it’s meant the end of the careers they thought they’d pursue, and forced them to come up with Plan B.

Has this happened to you? What did you do, and how do you feel about having to change course? In six words, we’d like to hear about your Plan B. Share your story in this survey from our Public Insight Network. Your Plan B may help some people come up with their own.

Midwest Memo: Milwaukee May Not Comply with Wisconsin Law; Measuring Cleveland’s Urban Garden Potential

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Milwaukee’s employee-benefit conundrum. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s Common Council are unsure whether the city is exempt from a new state law that requires public employees contribute more toward benefit costs. The city’s attorney says Milwaukee should not comply. The governor’s chief counsel says yes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the disagreement centers around the state constitution’s home-rule provisions and terms of a decade-old legal settlement. Following the new law could save the city $8.2 million annually, but risks a lawsuit.

2. Chicago schools’ financial trouble. An 82-page analysis of Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 budget says that a “fiscal calamity” lies in the district’s near future if cuts are not implemented, according to the Civic Federation, which released the report Monday. The organization endorsed decisions like denying teachers a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and raising property taxes, according to our partner station WBEZ. The Federation said those decisions will look small if other remedies are not implemented to the $5.9 billion annual budget by 2014.

3. Urban garden potential. Two Ohio State researchers say as much as $115 million in produce could be grown on vacant land in Cleveland, enough to meet 22 to 100 percent of the city’s fresh food demands. “We were definitely shocked it was really possible to be self-reliant,” Parwinder S. Grewal, co-author of the study, told the Columbus Dispatch. Cleveland holds 5.3 square miles of vacant lots, and the city has recently loosened regulations to make urban gardening more palatable.

Your Story: Preserving Jewish Community in a Changing Detroit

Joshua Goldberg and some of the Backstage Pass MI cohort

Detroit’s shrinking population is well-documented, as are the many incentives offered to people to move back into the city center. These efforts are a mix of hyping what Detroit can become and offering economic incentives for those willing to give it a try. A group of Jewish organizations in Metro Detroit has been using the same formula to keep young Jewish people from leaving the area.

The Jewish population in Michigan is less than 1 percent, according to the U.S Census. The overwhelming majority of those 87,000 people live in Metro Detroit, in an area east of M5 and north of Interstate 696, according to Joshua Goldberg of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. But the area’s Jewish population has been falling steadily for at least the last few decades. Mirroring a trend in the state overall, in the Jewish community the young people are leading the march out of state. Continue reading “Your Story: Preserving Jewish Community in a Changing Detroit”