- Associated Press - Monday, September 1, 2014

Daily Press (Escanaba). Aug. 25.

Let inspectors do their jobs

Perhaps the best friends Americans have in government are the inspectors general who act as watchdogs to root out waste and sometimes, crime by politicians and bureaucrats. There can be no reasonable doubt that without them, mismanagement and crime in government would be even more rampant than is the case.

Inspectors general from dozens of federal agencies now say President Barack Obama’s administration is trying to keep them from doing their jobs.

During a presidency saturated with questionable and often outrageous behavior, this may well be the most unsettling. In effect it amounts to Obama and his cronies trying to give a green light to abuse of taxpayers.

The inspectors general have appealed to Congress in a letter outlining some of the obstructionism they face. Among the abuses:

- The Peace Corps withheld some records sought in an investigation of volunteers who were sexually assaulted.

- The Justice Department attempted to withhold documents sought in three separate cases.

- The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board resisted turning over some records sought by an inspector general.

- Obama’s administration has been called one of the most secretive in history, routinely blocking public and press requests for information. Now, it blocks even the government’s own inspectors general.

This is unacceptable. Congress should stop it.

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The Detroit News. Aug. 25.

Late school start doesn’t help kids

If you have out-of-state friends with children or pay attention to national media, you’ve probably caught on that “back to school” has already happened in most states. But not for another week for most Michigan public schools.

The 2005 law, signed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, prohibits public schools from starting the school year until after Labor Day.

It’s all about preserving a week or two of summer before classrooms consume the daily lives of families. The powerful state tourism lobby was behind this provision, and attempts to change course in the past few years have failed. In fact, the discussion rarely takes place in Lansing anymore, as most lawmakers consider it to be a futile effort.

But it’s a change that needs to happen for the sake of student achievement. Michigan lags behind its neighboring states when it comes to national standardized test scores, not to mention it clearly falls behind the curve nationally.

Add to that Michigan has one of the shortest school years and is one of only four states specifically to place tourism ahead of schooling. According to the Education Commission of the States, which surveyed laws around the country related to school year length and start times, Michigan requires 170 days and 1,098 hours, while the majority of states require 180 days.

Tourism is a major industry in the state, and its success is beneficial to the state’s coffers. The Pure Michigan campaign has drawn thousands of new out-of-state visitors to Michigan’s pristine lakes and dunes.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t justify tying the hands of educators. In 40 states, districts have the option to set their own start time and many begin in August, some as early as the first or second week. They should have that choice in Michigan, too.

Kyle Guerrant, deputy superintendent for administrative and support services for the Michigan Department of Education, agrees that Michigan students are at a disadvantage.

“We need increased opportunity for kids,” Guerrant says. He also points out that as Michigan children will have to compete both nationally and globally, this will continue to be an issue of importance. Top-performing schools outside the U.S. often have even stricter and longer school years than the best states in this country.

Under current law, individual districts can seek a waiver to start earlier or move to a year-round school. Not many do, although Guerrant says he’s seen an uptick in waiver applications.

While education department officials support a longer school year, in addition to an earlier start, Guerrant says they haven’t brought this argument to the Legislature in recent years. The last time the state board formally called for doing away with the post-Labor Day start was 2009.

Gov. Rick Snyder advocated for additional money for schools that chose to extend their school years. While the Legislature agreed to include that funding in next year’s budget, lawmakers didn’t extend it to future budgets.

That’s unfortunate, as studies have shown the long Michigan summer breaks lead to summer learning loss, especially among children who can least afford it, such as those from low-income families. Year-round schools don’t necessarily have many more classroom days throughout the year, but they are spaced out more beneficially for children.

Lawmakers should make improving the education of Michigan’s children their top priority. That includes allowing schools more flexibility to set school start times.

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Grand Haven Tribune. Aug. 25.

Aramark jail service too ‘private’

Gov. Rick Snyder recently announced that his office would soon be monitoring the $145 million contract with Aramark Correctional Services that, up until that point, was under the watchful eye of the Michigan Department of Corrections - sort of.

This shift was brought on by reports of food shortages, contraband smuggling, food-related prisoner unrest and Aramark employees getting a little too fresh with inmates.

In July, four Aramark employees in Ionia were dismissed for having inappropriate sexual contact with inmates inside a walk-in cooler.

More than 80 Aramark employees have been banned from prison property for various infractions since the company took over last December. The move to privately contracted food service eliminated 370 state jobs. The three-year contract was expected to save the state $14 million a year.

So, now that the duties of monitoring the Aramark contract have been shifted to the governor’s office, what will be done differently? Will it stop this unacceptable behavior and service? Union officials are skeptical and believe the governor seeks to shield the contract from public scrutiny because his office is exempt from the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

As taxpayers who pay for the contract with Aramark, we have the right to know how that contract is being serviced, and that only those services within the contract are being rendered. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case.

The state has fined Aramark nearly $300,000, or 0.002 percent of the $145 million the contract is worth, but there are no plans to cancel the pact. Most would agree that fine isn’t very impactful.

Snyder has asked Aramark to improve its staffing and training in addition to establishing mutually agreed-upon training metrics. All of that should be obvious.

State officials need to closely monitor this system - with full public transparency - and hold Aramark accountable for the actions of their employees. But we don’t hold out much hope that will actually happen.

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Midland Daily News. Aug. 25.

Tax refunds might take a health care hit

It might be a little early to be throwing up red flags about income tax returns, but if you are one of the millions of people getting tax credits to help pay for your health insurance premiums, you might want to look into the matter soon.

According to an Associated Press story today, any tax credit overpayment might be deducted from your income tax refund if you made more money this year than you initially estimated when you applied for that tax credit.

This is especially important for people who count on that refund for paying, say, winter heating bills. This particular point about how the health care changes and the tax act interface has not really been explained. Those who will be affected by this part of the law are usually the ones who can least afford it.

“More than a third of tax credit recipients will owe some money back, and (that) can lead to some pretty hefty repayment liabilities,” George Brandes, vice president for health care programs at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, told the AP.

H&R; Block, the tax counseling company, said consumers whose incomes have grown this year should act now and contact HealthCare.gov or their state insurance exchange to update their accounts while there is still time to affect the refund.

“As time goes on, the ability to make adjustments diminishes,” warned Mark Ciaramitaro, H&R; Block’s vice president of health care services. “Clients count on that refund as their biggest financial transaction of the year. When that refund goes down, it really has reverberations.”

While the administration of President Barack Obama told the AP that it is constantly urging newly insured consumers to report changes that could affect their coverage, we haven’t seen those messages, and we doubt the people who are getting the credits have heard that message either

This repercussion is just another in a laundry list of unfortunate side effects of a law that was hastily put together, ill-advised and overly bureaucratic and complex.

That those who can least afford it could be getting a January surprise is a shame, and the fact that many people who previously used the 1040EZ form might have to hire a professional could be a double hit next year.

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