Legislative Update: Soo Locks, Red Cross, stress management

Urging the U.S. to upgrade the Soo Locks

The Michigan Senate recently adopted Senate Resolution 105 to encourage the federal government to support plans to upgrade the Soo Locks. The Senate’s action came after Sens. Ken Horn, Wayne Schmidt and Tom Casperson held a rare joint hearing of three Senate committees in Sault Ste. Marie to discuss the growing need to modernize the locks.

Nearly 80 percent of all Great Lakes shipping traffic for one of the most important elements needed to fuel our economy — iron ore — passes through upper Michigan’s Soo Locks. About 10,000 ships sail through the locks each year, and tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in commerce rely on this single point.

Despite the locks’ economic vitality to the state, region and global economies, the most important and depended-upon lock faces an uncertain future.

When you consider that the current Poe Lock opened in 1968 and has not been upgraded during its 47 years of service, you can imagine why so many have come forward to call on the federal government to get to work and upgrade the locks.

If the Poe Lock were to go down, there is literally no other way for the 1,000-foot-long ships that use it to cross. Estimates suggest that a prolonged 30-day shutdown of this single lock would result in the loss of $160 million. The Lake Carriers’ Association predicts such a shutdown would affect Michigan’s economy so deeply that more than 22 percent of the state’s workers would become unemployed.

In today’s modern age, it is unacceptable that so much relies on so little when it comes to moving economically vital materials and supplies through the Great Lakes.

A 21st century Michigan economy demands a modern Soo Locks. Michigan businesses and jobs rely heavily on the locks, and leaders in Washington, D.C. must act to modernize the locks to continue Michigan’s positive momentum.

A week after the resolution was adopted, the federal government agreed to a $1.35 million cost-benefit analysis, which is the next step toward upgrading the Soo Locks.

Allowing income tax donations to American Red Cross

The American Red Cross has been one of our country’s most impactful and dedicated humanitarian organizations for more than a century. The Red Cross responds to tens of thousands of disasters every year — from helping a family after a house fire to assisting entire communities impacted by a hurricane.

Senate Republicans recently led the way to pass legislation that would give all Michigan taxpayers an opportunity to support the mission of the American Red Cross by simply checking a box on their state income tax form.

Senate Bill 429 would create an individual income tax checkoff in support of the American Red Cross in Michigan. This would allow taxpayers to choose to direct $5, $10, or more of their income tax return to the American Red Cross in Michigan. SB 428 would create the American Red Cross Michigan Fund to receive voluntary donations from the income tax checkoff to be distributed to Red Cross chapters throughout the state.

In addition to their humanitarian efforts, the Red Cross also is the largest single supplier of blood and blood products in the U.S. and our leading provider of health and safety courses, such as CPR, first aid and lifeguard training.

The donations would have no impact on the state budget, but they could help make possible a tremendous amount of good work.

Supporting Critical Incident Stress Management teams

Senate Republicans recently approved a measure designed to support Michigan’s Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams.

CISM teams assist emergency service providers — like police, firefighters and EMS workers — in dealing with critical stress, especially following a traumatic event.

People in high-stress professions are often vital to the public safety and they have found these services to be very helpful. However, without assurances of confidentiality, these service are not being utilized by many emergency service providers who could be helped.

Senate Bill 444 would define Critical Incident Stress Management and its key components, as well as outline confidentiality provisions. Critical Incident Stress is defined as the actual or perceived event or situation that involves crisis, disaster, trauma or emergency.

There are approximately 56 CISM teams throughout Michigan registered with Michigan Crisis Response Association (MCRA). MCRA provides training and support that follows the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation model. CISM teams respond to critical incidents, such as a natural disaster, assault, suicide or a death of a child or co-worker.

“If left untreated, a critical event can impact and change a person’s ability to cope with daily life. One major benefit of CISM team services is preventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Sen. Jim Stamas, sponsor of the bill. “In short, helping workers deal more effectively with critical stress is good for the employee, the employer and for the entire community.”

Thanksgiving Memories: Family bonds strengthen the Kowalls on Thanksgiving and beyond

On a November afternoon in Detroit, 12-year-old Mike Kowall was finding it hard to concentrate at school. His mind kept returning to thoughts of the upcoming weekend and the following week. It would be a short week, with no school on Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Young Mike couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving. The Kowall family, which included Mike’s mom and dad and his two younger brothers and younger sister, would either celebrate at home with cousins, aunts and uncles, or they would all head to an aunt and uncle’s house and celebrate there.

Either way, Thanksgiving was preceded by days of cooking and baking and other holiday preparations.

“There were no store-bought alternatives to much of what we ate. Everything was from scratch,” Kowall recalls today. “So our food was hard-fought.”

Anticipation would rise as the aroma of baking bread permeated the house. On Thanksgiving morning, the family would be up early and head to the Detroit Parade. On the way home, they would stop for hot Vernors or hot chocolate.

When they arrived at their Thanksgiving destination — their home or a relative’s — the whole house would smell of turkey roasting in the oven. Then they would wait for the relatives to arrive.

“It was a real traditional, wonderful Thanksgiving,” Kowall said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

But that particular Friday afternoon at school was different. A school official came into the classroom to talk to the teacher, disrupting the lesson. Mike’s teacher was visibly upset. Then she delivered the news that would change Mike’s life — and a nation — forever: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Kowall remembers the day vividly.

“Of course, we were sent home from school early,” he said, “My mother was making fruitcakes, and she was crying. But she couldn’t stop baking. I remember she was upset with me because I had eaten all of the dried apricots, and she needed more for her fruitcakes. So she sent me to the store to get some more.

“In the midst of that horrible tragedy, my mother and father maintained a sense of normalcy for us. Life goes on, and we had to carry on.”

The importance of tradition, family, and thankfulness carried the Kowalls through the Thanksgiving of 1963 and beyond.

It’s those same values that Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, treasures today.

“Looking back to the original reason for the holiday, Thanksgiving means being grateful and giving thanks,” Kowall said. “It is being grateful for the many blessings we have in this state and country, and it is being thankful for family and understanding the importance of family.”

Kowall is thankful for the many wonderful memories of Thanksgiving as a youth. He was born in the city of Detroit at 18th and Buchanan, down by the old Tiger Stadium, and he was raised on St. Marys Street in northwest Detroit. He remembers that time fondly.

“We not only had the Eastern Market, but at that time we had the Western Market as well,” he said. “That was a wholesale market. You could buy a live turkey directly from farmers and dispatch it yourself. But Dad had enough of that growing up on a farm.”

He remembers the traditional Thanksgiving meals of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and homemade breads.

“My aunt was famous for her pumpkin pies. Mom was famous for her homemade whipped cream. The dark meat from the turkey was always the best. And then, the next day, having turkey sandwiches with gravy on top. It doesn’t get much better than that — but I never did like cranberry sauce.”

Kowall and his wife Eileen strive to maintain Thanksgiving traditions with their family — a task made more difficult with their two daughters and two grandchildren living out of state.

“Thanksgiving will be at our house this year,” he said. “The tradition will continue. Of course, as the family evolves, the tradition evolves. But, as always, no matter what, we begin the meal by saying grace, and giving thanks to God for his many blessings.”

Celebrating Michigan Adoption Day

All kids deserve a safe, stable place to live and grow. For many children, this is made possible through adoption into loving homes.

We celebrate Michigan Adoption Day each year on Nov. 24 as a time to acknowledge the new Michigan families united through adoption and to bring attention to the thousands of children in foster care who are looking for permanent homes with loving parents.

On this day, participating courts throughout the state will finalize adoptions and hold parties for adoptive families. It is part of a day-long celebration of these loving families and the joy they bring to so many adopted children every year.

We should continue to make finding a loving home for every Michigan child one of our top priorities. Connecting children with caring families is important for everyone involved, and the Senate Republicans are proud that Michigan has a day each year dedicated to focusing on that goal.

Getting to Know… Sen. Wayne Schmidt

Why did Sen. Wayne Schmidt have to get rid of his first car, a 1971 Olds Vista Cruiser station wagon? What is his advice about cell phones at dinner?

Learn about these questions and more as Sen. Schmidt, R-Traverse City, opens up about the influences in his life and enjoying life growing up and living in Northern Michigan.

The light-hearted interview is the latest installment of the Michigan Senate Republican Blog’s “Getting to Know You” series.

The Deer Hunter: Booher has uncanny attraction to deer when driving

Blog - Booher 1It’s that time of year when motor vehicle accidents involving hitting deer start to spike — an annual trend that will continue into December. In fact, nationwide drivers have a 1 in 169 chance of hitting a deer this year. In Michigan, those odds increase to 1 in 97. In Sen. Darwin Booher’s district, the odds are 1 in 60. In Booher’s car? Well, the odds are a bit greater.

Booher has hit nearly a dozen deer since being first elected to the Legislature in 2004.

“I am just lucky I guess, or is that unlucky?” Booher jokes. “I have totaled five vehicles hitting deer since joining the Legislature and wrecked three others. The average I had to pay to fix my cars that were not totaled was around $3,800. Now, I just buy used cars that are dependable, but not all that pretty. I like big Mercurys. They hold up pretty good. That way, if I hit another deer, it won’t be so expensive.”

Along with firearm deer hunting season, the season of deer-car crashes has also begun. And the 12-county 35th Senate District is a prime location for a deer-car collision.

“I tell people that even through I’ve hit 11 deer, I’ve missed dozens more,” said Booher. “Especially around this time of year, when bucks are breeding, they will just walk right out in front of you like they don’t have a care in the world.

“I have had some pretty bad accidents, but one was really bad — setting off both air bags and almost causing me to go off the side of a bridge. There was literally nothing left of that deer. I can tell you someone was watching out for me that day.”

October and November historically have the highest number of car-deer crashes in Michigan. For all of 2014 in Michigan, there were nearly 46,000 deer crashes that resulted in 1,329 injuries and eight deaths. Annually, there is an average of 134 deer-vehicle crashes each day.

So what can you do to make sure you are not added to this list?

Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologist Joe Robison says that drivers should think about deer when driving and drive defensively. Deer can appear at almost any time.

“Most injuries and deaths occur when motorists veer to avoid the deer,” said Robison. “So when a deer crash is unavoidable, it is important to have your hands on the steering wheel, slow down and stay in your own lane. Also, deer often travel in groups. If you see one deer, there will likely be more. Often it is not the first deer that gets you it is the second or third one following the first.”

Some point to deer hunters, noting that they’re a major reason deer are scampering about so much. Not so, says Robison. According to him, it is more due to the deer’s breeding season, or rutting season, that will cause a deer to move more often this time of year.

“Periods of high deer movement around dawn and dusk and seasonal behavior patterns, like the fall breeding season, increase the risk of auto-deer collisions,” said Robison. “Changes in collision rates from year to year are a reflection of changing deer densities or population levels — more deer in a given area increases the potential for collision.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are approximately 1 million auto accidents with deer each year, resulting in more than 10,000 injuries, 200 deaths, and more than $1 billion in vehicle damage.

Since deer are unpredictable creatures, and their actions and movements can be erratic, it is important for drivers to stay alert, avoid speeding, limit distractions, and expect the unexpected.

Booher would add staying off your cell phone to that list too.

“I can’t tell you how many people I pass on the road who are on their cell phone,” said Booher. “Especially during this time of year, I would just put the phone down and keep your eyes on the road. I have avoided hitting many deer simply by seeing them on the side of the road before they darted out. Often it would give me time to brake and avoid the deer altogether. Be aware and be alert, that’s my advice.”

Experts say to avoid swerving when you see a deer. Brake firmly, but stay in your lane. It’s better to hit the deer than to swerve into oncoming traffic or off the road into a tree.

“Don’t swerve to avoid that deer,” Robison said. “That is how most fatalities occur — not from actually hitting the deer. It is what you hit trying to avoid the deer that kills you.”

Seven safety tips to help drivers minimize their risk of hitting a deer:
1. Watch for deer, especially at dawn and dusk. Keep a close eye on the roadways and the side of the roads.
2. Slow down. Watch your speed during dawn and dusk. More deer-related accidents occur at night because deer are hidden from the driver’s sight and car headlights can disorient deer —causing them to run in front of a moving vehicle.
3. Watch for deer-crossing signs. These signs are posted in areas where accidents and deer activity have been reported. Be mindful that absence of a warning sign does not mean deer inactivity.
4. Use high beams at night when there is no oncoming traffic. The high beams will better illuminate the eyes of deer on the side of the road. If you encounter a deer, switch to low beam so the animal is not blinded.
5. Honk your horn and flash your headlights to frighten deer away.
6. Deer seldom run alone. If you see one deer, others may be nearby.
7. Wear your seat belt at all times. Reports show that 60 percent of fatal accidents with deer were the result of people not wearing a seat belt.

Have a safe and successful deer hunting season

Hunting has always been a favorite tradition and pastime of many Michigan families, and the Michigan Senate Republicans remain committed to protecting our hunting rights.

Michigan attracts more hunters than any other state because our great outdoors offer something to interest every hunter. As a result, hunting contributes $2.3 billion to Michigan’s economy.

More than 614,000 hunters in Michigan harvested about 329,000 deer last year, more deer than in any other Midwest state.

While the regular firearm season from Nov. 15-30 is the most popular deer hunting season, it’s not the only one. Archery season continues Dec. 1 to Jan. 1; muzzle-loading season in southern Michigan is Dec. 4-20; and late antlerless firearm season runs from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1.

Hunting guides and details on current rules and regulations can be found at www.michigan.gov/hunting. On the site, visitors can learn about other hunting seasons and how to get a license.

In the “Where Can I Hunt” section, hunters can create and print customized routes. The Mi-HUNT feature enables hunters to view 7 million acres of state and federal public lands and printable hunting maps highlighting the vegetation of most interest to hunters.

Michigan Senate Republicans urge all hunters to keep safety in mind. Most hunting-associated injuries and casualties are preventable. Please follow gun safety rules like wearing “hunter’s orange” and never mixing hunting with drinking alcohol.

Have a safe and successful hunting season!

Michigan Senate salutes America’s heroes on Veterans Day

Senate veterans committee chair Sen. Margaret O’Brien and the Senate’s three veterans, Sen. Jim Stamas (U.S. Army and National Guard) and Sens. Vincent Gregory (U.S. Marine Corps) and David Knezek (U.S. Marine Corps), joined together to thank America’s Heroes on Veterans Day.

Let us never forget that we owe our liberty to the courageous veterans who put their country before themselves.

Understanding this debt to our veterans and their families for their enormous sacrifices, the Michigan Senate is proud that our state has made significant strides to express our deep appreciation for the service of Michigan’s veterans in a real, meaningful way.

The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) provides valuable services — from job resources to medical benefits and transition assistance — to our state’s more than 660,000 military veterans.

The Michigan Senate encourages all veterans to ensure they are receiving the support and benefits they earned serving the nation by contacting the MVAA at 1-800-MICH-VET or on their website at www.MichiganVeterans.com.

In memory of the late Sen. Robert VanderLaan


On Thursday, the Michigan Senate adopted a resolution of tribute offered as a memorial for Robert VanderLaan, a former senator and Senate Majority Leader who passed away on Nov. 1 at the age of 75.

Following the reading of the memorial resolution, Sen. Dave Hildenbrand spoke about VanderLaan’s life and legacy and asked for a moment of silence.

Blog - VanderLaan“Let us remember Senate Majority Leader VanderLaan’s service and leadership in this chamber and may his family, friends and coworkers know of our thoughts and prayers during this most difficult time,” said Hildenbrand.

Here is the language of Senate Resolution 114, as adopted by the Senate:

A resolution of tribute offered as a memorial for Robert VanderLaan, former member of the Senate.

Whereas, It is with great sorrow that we learned of the passing of Robert VanderLaan, a member of this legislative body from 1963 to 1982. He will be remembered as a statesman, a successful businessman, and a true gentleman; and

Whereas, Robert VanderLaan was born in Dutton, Michigan, and spent nearly his entire life in western Michigan. He attended the one-room Smith School and Grand Rapids Christian High School before earning degrees at both Calvin College and the University of Michigan; and

Whereas, Robert VanderLaan had a lifelong passion for politics. He began his career as a political science teacher. At the same time, he worked his way up from the grassroots and was identified as a rising star in the Michigan Republican Party. He was a delegate to every Republican state convention beginning in 1952 and served as Paris Township (now city of Kentwood) trustee, clerk, and supervisor. In 1962, he was elected to the State Senate, defeating a long-serving incumbent. He served his constituents in the Thirty-first District with distinction for twenty years, as Senate Majority Leader from 1970 to 1974, and as Senate Minority Leader from 1979 to 1982; and

Whereas, Robert VanderLaan was a leader in the state legislature throughout some challenging and formative times. Serving with integrity and putting his Dutch work ethic into practice, Robert VanderLaan’s leadership skills were evident as he formed coalitions, forged compromises, developed solutions to complex problems, and worked effectively with members from both sides of the aisle. He demonstrated grace under pressure and steady leadership, working with Governors Romney and Milliken through two recessions when the state economy was faltering and unemployment was rising. As Majority Leader, Robert VanderLaan was able to guide legislation through a Senate evenly divided along party lines; and

Whereas, Robert VanderLaan was extremely active crafting legislation and engaging in dialogue with colleagues. He sponsored legislation on campaign reform, raising the minimum wage, and allowing public school buses to transport students to private schools. He also supported the controversial establishment of the state’s first income tax. He served on the committees on Senate Administration and Rules, State and Veterans’ Affairs, Finance, the Legislative Council, and as chairman of the committees on Labor and Senate Business. He also was involved with and held office in many government leadership organizations, including the National Conference of State Legislative Leaders, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, and the Executive Committee of the Council of State Governments; and

Whereas, Following his time in the Michigan Senate, Robert VanderLaan remained a fixture in state politics. He united in bipartisan partnership with former Speaker of the House Bobby Crim and founded one of Lansing’s best known lobbying firms, Governmental Consultant Services, Inc. He served as chairman of the company for twelve years; and

Whereas, Today, we honor the memory of Robert VanderLaan, an accomplished public servant whose legacy of leadership will long continue to enrich our state; now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate, That we offer this expression of our highest tribute to honor the memory of Robert VanderLaan, a member of this legislative body from 1963 to 1982; and be it further

Resolved, That copies of this resolution be transmitted to the VanderLaan family as evidence of our lasting esteem for his memory.

Senate passes comprehensive road funding plan


Blog - Roads graphicSenate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, issued the following statement upon the passage of a plan to fund Michigan’s roads:

“The Senate Republicans passed a commonsense, responsible plan to repair our roads and in doing so renewed our commitment to making government more accountable and efficient. The core principles of the plan remain the same: Existing resources are redirected to reflect roads as a priority in the state budget, new revenue is generated for a long-term solution and taxpayer dollars are returned to our hardworking taxpayers.

“Road funding and the condition of our roads have been growing concerns over the past several years. We have seen different iterations of a road funding solution, but none that garnered enough support to begin the process of repairing and adequately funding our roads. It has taken years to come up with a road funding plan and in that time the cost of bringing our roads up to better standards has increased. No one likes to pay more for services, but the people who drive the roads and cause wear and tear on the roads should contribute to road maintenance. Additionally, as technology improves and driving habits change, we know we need to diversify how we pay for roads and a responsible increase in registration fees brings added stability to road funding.

“State government has a responsibility to maintain safe roads and bridges and the people of Michigan expect the Legislature to address this issue and meet basic infrastructure needs. I had hoped that the legislature could pass a plan with strong bipartisan support, but unfortunately few Democrats were able to put politics aside and be part of a solution. I am grateful for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who joined with my caucus to vote for a commonsense road funding plan, and I am disappointed by Democrat leaders who chose to sit out their responsibilities in favor of throwing political punches.

“I have been realistic in my expectations that ultimately a road funding plan would include compromise in order for all parties to agree. For me, long-term tax relief had to be a component of the plan. I firmly believe that we can always find ways to make state government more accountable and responsible. We are asking for more from our taxpayers in order to improve our state and it only makes sense that we return available dollars to our hardworking families.

“My Senate colleagues and I have demonstrated that we are committed to improving our roads and reforming transportation funding. The bottom line is the citizens of Michigan made it clear that road funding should be a priority of state government. The priorities of the taxpayers are the priorities of the Michigan Senate. I look forward to passage by the House and support from the governor.”

Under the Senate-passed plan, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019, $150 million in General Fund revenue would be redirected and dedicated to a newly created section of the Michigan Transportation Fund. In FY 2020, the redirected revenue would grow to $325 million and then to $600 million in FY 2021 and beyond making roads a priority for state spending.

Additional revenue would be raised through an increase in the state gas tax and diesel tax to 26.3 cents on Jan. 1, 2017. The gas and diesel tax rates would then be indexed to the rate of inflation beginning Jan. 1, 2022 in order to keep pace with the increasing costs of maintaining roads and bridges. This change in fuel tax rates is expected to generate $400 million when fully implemented.

In addition to an increase in fuel taxes, another $200 million would be generated from a 20 percent increase in registration fees for passenger vehicles and trucks effective Jan. 1, 2017.

When fully implemented, the combination of redirected funds and new revenue would result in approximately $1.2 billion for Michigan roads and bridges.

The Senate plan also presents an opportunity to control the growth of government. Senate Bill 414 creates an automatic rollback of the state income tax rate each year that General Fund revenues exceed inflation.

Each fiscal year, General Fund expenditure growth would be limited to the rate of inflation times 1.425 with the initial rollback scheduled to begin on Jan. 1, 2023. Economic growth over and above the designated rate would be returned to the taxpayers in the form of an income tax rate reduction.

Beginning in Fiscal Year 2018, changes to the Homestead Property Tax Credit will result in $200 million in tax relief for families.

Additional bills in the package also require road construction warranties. MDOT and local agencies would be required to competitively bid for most projects that exceed $100,000 and townships would be encouraged to issue Requests For Proposal for projects of a certain amount that include at least 50 percent township resources. The plan also creates the Roads Innovation Fund to hold the state accountable for road quality.

To keep pace with changes in technology, the package institutes a process and fee schedule for taxing alternative fuels and imposes an additional registration fee for hybrid and electric vehicles.

The package is comprised of Senate Bill 414 and House Bills 4730, 4376, 4737 and 4738.

For more information please visit www.fixingmiroads.com.

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