State legislators worried about middle class, local financing

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published January 8, 2014

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MACOMB COUNTY — Unemployment and the financial squeeze on the middle class in Roseville, Eastpointe and beyond are among the topics local officials in the state Legislature have been concerned about both in 2013 and going forward.

State Rep. Harold Haugh, D-Roseville, said Michigan’s unemployment rate was a major concern of his, as well as among his colleagues, and he is unsure that the current approach by the state’s government has done much to stimulate good job growth.

“I am a type of person who likes to get positive things done, and I think we have very limited positive activities in the state of Michigan,” Haugh said. “We are still third in the country in unemployment, and with tax cuts given to businesses and the passing of right-to-work, we were supposed to see a substantial increase in employment in the state of Michigan, and we haven’t seen it.”

State Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Eastpointe) said he feels unemployment in Michigan was still “unacceptably high” and stagnant, but he believes, in other areas, the worst is behind his district.

“We’ve seen improvement in the real estate market, which is a good sign,” Bieda said. “We hit rock bottom a few years ago, but things seem to have stabilized, and I’m feeling positive on that.”

Haugh also cited education funding as a major challenge to communities and residents of the state.

Looking ahead to 2014, Bieda said there are several issues he wants to address, both in already-introduced bills and others still in the idea process. He said funding for public safety is a major issue for a lot of communities and is something that the Legislature currently is working on.

“One issue we need to focus on is stability in local financing, particularly local governments and schools,” he said. “Going into the future, we need to come up with a much more stable source of revenue.”

A bill that would let cities put public safety special assessments before residents has already passed the Senate, Bieda said, and currently is awaiting action in the House.

Haugh said Roseville has done a “phenomenal job” balancing its budget, but he acknowledged part of that required reductions in police and fire personnel, as well as adjustments to employee compensation and health care. He said he wants to see more money get to school districts, as well as municipalities, from the state-shared revenue fund.

“I have always said in my entire 25-plus years of being an elected official that public safety is No. 1. You have to have public safety,” Haugh said. “I understand there is a plus-$500 million rainy day fund. My message is, ‘It’s raining.’”

Haugh is mindful that 2014 is an election year for the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state House and Senate, which he believes will dampen the desire to make any major new legislation a reality. Haugh encouraged residents to keep an eye on Lansing for the next six months.

Bieda was more upbeat that at least a few initiatives would make it through before election fervor grips Lansing and effectively halts business for campaigning. A bill to introduce bittering agents in antifreeze as a way to discourage children and pets from drinking the poisonous substance has cleared the Senate, and Bieda said the House should be taking it up in January or February.

He said he also is working on a bill that would allow no-excuse absentee voting; one that allows people to register to vote online through the Secretary of State’s website; one that would expand Freedom of Information Act requests to include the Governor’s Office and the Legislature; and a bill that requires full financial disclosure for Michigan candidates.

Bieda is working on a bill that would update the financial penalties for selling tobacco products to minors from the 1988 levels to a penalty more in line with inflation. He also has been working on a way to get compensation to people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

“I’m one of 12 Democrats among 26 Republicans (in the Senate), so it’s been an achievement getting things passed, but I’ve had more bills signed than any other Democrat this session,” Bieda said, adding that he has had eight bills signed into law.

Nevertheless, there are other election-related issues that Bieda is less upbeat about seeing any movement on this year.

“Transparency is important, too,” he said. “We have a terrible mix of campaign finance laws in the state, and there are huge parts not regulated — see the issue (of) ads that are not (financially) disclosed.”

He said he does not agree with taxing pensioners and the change to the state’s tax laws that Bieda feels shifted burdens to the middle class. Since he felt it was unlikely either of those issues would be addressed in 2014, Bieda said he is working on bringing more investment to Eastpointe, in particular, and Michigan, in general.

Both Haugh and Bieda are hoping for a good outcome in Detroit with its municipal bankruptcy, though Haugh is concerned about the broader impact of going after pension obligations as a way to get the city out of debt. He said that other states are watching Detroit’s bankruptcy closely to see how it handles the pensioner issue and that he feels it is a “terrible event” that people who rely on their pension for their livelihoods are facing potential cuts.

Bieda said the average Detroit pension is about $30,000 a year, and he said he is not only worried about them, but also the “jewels” of the city, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, and Sen. Tony Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, could not be reached by press time.

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