- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

Detroit Free Press. March 26.

Lawmakers finally confronting the cost of Michigan’s neglected roads

As a long-awaited thaw exposes more of the ravaged moonscape to which many Michigan roads have been reduced, motorists and their elected procrastinators in Lansing are at last confronting a reality Gov. Rick Snyder noted in his 2013 State of the State address:

Michiganders can pay more at the gas station, the treasurer’s office or the repair shop, but there’s simply no avoiding the toll that decades of neglect have taken on the roads on which we rely to get to work, supply our factories and retailers and facilitate tourism.

The question is not whether to invest in a long-term roads fix, but how much and how quickly.

The good news is that responsible lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have begun to recognize that addressing the state’s crumbling infrastructure is more urgent than the election-year tax cut that many were championing only a month ago.

According to the Michigan Information and Research Service, Republicans and Democrats in the House are making progress on legislation that would add $300 million to $400 million in annual road funding to the $215 million already appropriated for emergency pothole repairs. Elements under consideration include several that the Snyder administration has championed for more than a year: a new wholesale fuel tax that generates more revenue when gas prices rise; the equalization of levies on gasoline and diesel fuel, and lower weight limits for trucks.

These are all reasonable options for increasing the state’s investment in roads. But the Legislature’s ambitions remain inadequate to the need for a long-term road plan that includes a sustainable maintenance schedule and the development of public transit options that promote redevelopment of the state’s urban centers and reduce the stress on its highways. Lawmakers also need to do more to incentivize repair and improvement of local roads, which also suffer from a lack of funding and long-term planning.

Legislators are notoriously reluctant to make long-term investments in an election year. But Michigan’s unusually harsh winter has highlighted and exacerbated infrastructure deficits that had already reached the critical stage. Motorists who are paying real money to replace tires and wheels or realign vehicles humbled by crumbling roads can no longer be placated by token tax cuts that don’t begin to compensate for their increased repair costs.

What is needed is a maintenance program that extends beyond next year’s freeze-and-thaw cycle and suggests that state policymakers are thinking about the needs of a new generation of employers, workers and consumers. Anything less constitutes a continuation of the legislative dereliction for which Michigan motorists are already paying an exorbitant price.

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Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell). March 27.

Making electricity deregulation work

We’re all about paying less for electricity, but we’re unconvinced that a bill pending in the Michigan House would lead to lower bills, and we’re satisfied to see this legislation on a slow track.

Energy deregulation is getting a lot of attention recently, in spite of the fact that a bill that would allow more utilities to sell electricity in Michigan seems unlikely to advance in the Legislature.

Gov. Rick Snyder has already indicated his skepticism, and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, calls the idea “a strategic mistake.”

Even so, Michigan’s big utilities are making known their opposition, with Consumers Energy already bankrolling issue ads on television and radio opposing House Bill 5154.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, the bill would remove the current cap on electric choice. Michigan law allows customers to choose another electricity provider, but only up to 10 percent of a utility’s electric sales.

The bill also would deregulate rates for Detroit Edison Co. and Consumers Energy, allowing rates to fluctuate with the market without Michigan Public Service Commission review.

The utilities’ opposition to deregulation will no doubt trigger skepticism among consumers and lawmakers understandably wary of monopolies and their impact on rates.

Michigan residents already pay more for electricity than consumers in neighboring Ohio and Illinois, both of which allow competition. A recent poll found that 58 percent of likely Michigan voters would support lifting the cap, a majority that held up in both political parties.

Yet the allure of reducing rates through increased competition may be illusory. Among the 24 states that have enacted electricity deregulation plans, the results are mixed.

Utility executives hoping to reverse public opinion on the issue could point to Pennsylvania. Hundreds of thousands of consumers who signed up for variable-rate plans were surprised to find their monthly bills had tripled or quadrupled in January and February as the demand for power increased during unusually cold weather and the price of electricity went through the roof.

The lesson in Pennsylvania, however, isn’t that deregulation can’t work, but rather how deregulation is implemented requires careful attention to detail and regulatory oversight of how retail providers of electricity set rates. Transparency, of course, is essential.

It’s disheartening to see campaign-style ads used to, essentially, head off the legislative process. Given the public’s interest in electric choice, Shirkey’s bill deserves cautious study.

Now would be a good time to learn from the experiences of other states where electricity deregulation is already part of the landscape.

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The Holland Sentinel. March 24.

End the driver responsibility fee money grab

We can all debate what the role of state government should be, but one thing it definitely shouldn’t be doing is imposing criminal penalties just to raise revenue.

That’s what Michigan has been doing since 2003, when it instituted “driver responsibility fees” - state penalties for certain driving offenses that are piled on top of the fines imposed by local courts. The fees weren’t established for law enforcement purposes, but to raise revenue for the state treasury - a simple “money grab” in the words of state Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland. The fees might not fit the legal definition of “double jeopardy” (being tried twice on the same charge) but they definitely constitute double punishment, and Michigan is long past due in getting rid of them. We support HGB 5414, a bill sponsored by Haveman, to eliminate the fees.

Driver responsibility fees are charged when a driver accumulates seven or more points on his or her record or commits one of several dozen significant driving offenses, and can range from $150 to $1,000 a year for two years. Not surprisingly, the weight of the fees falls most heavily on the poor, many of whom keep falling farther and farther behind in an onerous spiral of mounting charges; unable to pay the penalties, including the “license reinstatement” fee, they often decide to drive outside the system with neither license nor insurance. An estimated half billion dollars in driver responsibility fees have never been collected.

We editorialized against driver responsibility fees in 2010, and it appeared then that the Legislature was ready to scrap them. That didn’t happen. The fees for driving with an expired license or without proof of insurance were eliminated in 2012, but the system remains in place.

We don’t mean to condone or trivialize the unsafe driving that triggers the fees. With the exception of racking up too many points,, the offenses associated with the fees are extremely serious and potentially deadly, such a reckless and drunken driving. Those offenses deserve serious punishment, but if the extra state fees make the financial cost too much for drivers to meet, what good are they? Establishing fines that thousands of people cannot pay only encourages evasion of the law.

As it is now, driver responsibility fees don’t deter bad driving, they just kick people when they’re already down. We wouldn’t condone a town setting up a speed trap on the highway to cover its budget deficit. Neither should we continue a system that punishes people twice just to get a few more dollars for the state treasury.

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The Mining Gazette (Houghton). March 26.

No one is immune to telephone scams

In many ways, those of us who choose to live here are insulated, to an extent, from some of the problems that seem to plague larger cities. Violent crime, while certainly not nonexistent isn’t as prevalent as it is elsewhere.

Often we read about problems facing other areas somewhat safe in the knowledge that “those kinds of things just don’t happen here.”

But we did get a dose of reality recently when we learned that a massive scam operation, operating in all 50 states and targeting as many as 20,000 people had hit the Keweenaw.

As Kurt Hauglie reported in a page 1 story Tuesday, a Houghton man was targeted by a nationwide operation where targeted individuals are called by people posing as Internal Revenue Service agents.

The scam is sophisticated to the extent where these individuals offer names, badge numbers and similar identification.

The strong arm tactics include threats of arrest, notification of employers and even deportation.

And as we learned this week, anyone with a telephone is a potential victim. And to quote Houghton Chief of Police John Donnelly those who perpetrate these scams “are relentless.”

But thankfully, being a target doesn’t necessarily make you a victim.

The IRS has a number of tips to avoid this current scam and many others.

Keep in mind these are sophisticated scams, and the call may show up as the IRS on a caller ID, and the caller could know personal information such as your social security number or citizenship status and other personal details.

Often, after threatening targets with jail time or drivers license suspension, scanners will hang up only to have an accomplice call back posing as an officer from another agency.

The IRS reminds the public of two important pieces of information.

An initial contact will not be made over the phone and is always started through the mail, by letter.

The IRS would not attempt to collect a debt with a credit card over the phone.

If you have any questions regarding your tax status call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

If you think you may have been targeted by an IRS scam you can report the incident at 1-800-366-4484.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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