- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

Detroit Free Press. June 10, 2015

Bring public university boards out of the shadows

Higher education is supposed to be all about transparency: Free minds going where the evidence leads, with research methods and results open to the scrutiny of interested parties across the globe.

But when it comes to governance, Michigan’s public universities operate mostly in the dark.

Since 1999, when the state Supreme Court ruled that Michigan State University trustees could interview candidates for the MSU presidency behind closed doors, the elected governing boards at Michigan’s public universities have claimed blanket immunity from the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act that require virtually every other legislative body to do the public’s business in public.

University boards typically negotiate budgets, discuss massive capital expenditures, and hash out policy matters behind closed doors. They meet publicly only to cast perfunctory votes formalizing the agreements struck in private.

In recent months, the University of Michigan Board of Regents has employed that opaque process to select a new president, set tuition rates and approve half a billion dollars in construction projects, all with virtually no public debate. On one occasion a few years ago, the regents flew to New York en masse for a series of closed-door consultations with consultants on education and health policy.

The Michigan Constitution mandates that university boards conduct only their “formal” sessions in public. In an alarming effort to expand its exemption from public scrutiny, U-M has challenged even this grudging nod to accountability, arguing in a recent court brief that even its sham formal sessions are discretionary.

The Free Press and the Lansing State Journal have asked the Michigan Court of Claims to limit the universities’ exemption from the Open Meetings Act and enjoin their governing boards from further violations of the act.

But stronger medicine is required to counteract the governing boards’ condescending arrogance, and the state Legislature has taken encouraging steps to administer it.

The House Oversight Committee has begun hearings on a resolution that would compel university boards to play by the same rules that city councils, public school boards and other governing bodies that spend taxpayer dollars do.

A proposed amendment to the state constitution would require the universities to conduct most of their meetings in public and make the minutes of their deliberations public records subject to public inspection under the Freedom of Information Act. The amendment would preserve necessary exemptions that allow all public bodies to take up some legal and personnel matters in private.

It’s unclear when or whether the Oversight Committee will vote on the proposed amendment, which would require the assent of two-thirds of both houses and a majority of Michigan voters to become law. The full House green-lighted a similar amendment last year, but state Senate leaders declined to bring it to a vote.

But committee vice-chair Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, argues persuasively that it’s time for the Legislature to drag the state universities’ elected boards into the sunshine. “Students and taxpayers and general residents have a right to know what’s happening,” he told the Free Press, “and it can’t be simply the votes taken in public.”

That’s a succinct summary of the principle on which representative democracies depend. Legislators in both parties should jump at this opportunity to bring the state’s public universities within its scope.

But maybe, if it costs us too much, we can.

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The Detroit News. June 9, 2015

Burial is the best option for nuclear waste

Canadian efforts have been meticulous for proposed Ontario facility; safety must continue as top priority

Nuclear power is one of the greenest forms of energy. Producing electricity at nuclear plants adds no carbon to the atmosphere. But the plants do produce waste, and that has to be dealt with. There are no really great options for storing the radioactive byproduct. So really good solutions must be embraced.

That is what’s motivating Canadian officials as they seek to develop a nuclear waste dump in Kincardine, Ontario.

And the fact that the underground facility would be just about a mile from Lake Huron, which along with the other Great Lakes is the source of drinking water for 40 million people, is what is motivating opponents who are worried about the potential for contamination.

About 150 communities in both Canada and the United States have passed resolutions objecting to the project and at least 77,000 people signing an online petition at the Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump website.

Canada’s environmental regulators recently announced a decision on whether to allow the project is being delayed until December to accommodate a 90-day comment period. A ruling had been expected by Sept. 3.

There is a lot of misinformation about the dump. It will not hold contaminated liquids, but rather 200,000 cubic meters of low and intermediate radioactive waste, including gloves, mops and other items used at nuclear plants. It will be buried more than 2,200 feet below ground in rock that is 450 million years old. That’s nearly three times the depth of Lake Huron.

The underground dump will be at the sprawling Bruce County nuclear facility, which has been operating since 1971. Currently, much of the waste is stored at the facility in a manner far less secure than the proposed permanent dump.

“We’ve been safely transporting to the Bruce site these waste materials,” notes Neal Kelly, media director for Ontario Power Generation, which would build the dump. Kelly says half the material that would be buried is already at the site but is stored in above ground buildings. It comes from the 20 nuclear reactors that OPG owns in Ontario. High level, spent fuel that is being stored at individual nuclear plants in Canada won’t go into the dump. Disposal of that sort of waste is a problem yet to be resolved in both countries.

The power company says the proposal and site have been thoroughly vetted by scientists and geologists, who confirmed “the rock at this site is ideal for this type of repository.”

Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, says after reviewing the technical merits of the project, the department doesn’t have any concerns.

The Great Lakes should not be placed casually at risk. But the reality is that the failure of both the U.S. and Canada to develop comprehensive and coordinated nuclear waste disposal policies means the lakes are already being threatened by waste stored above ground at sites that are less secure than is desirable.

Getting this waste below ground and into permanent storage should be a high priority. Unless scientific evidence suggests that the Ontario dump site presents a real threat to the Great Lakes, it is a better option than pretending that nuclear power can continue to be a viable means of energy production without a strategy for dealing with dangerous waste.

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The Mining Journal (Marquette). June 9, 2015

War against sea lamprey is worth waging

If you live on or near the shores of any of the Great Lakes, the subject of invasive species is one you very likely pay close attention to.

In recent times, the issue of Asian carp has been in the forefront. The federal government, assisted by several states - principally in the Great Lakes Basin - have spent millions of dollars to keep the species out of the Great Lakes.

Other aquatic invasive species include the Eurasian water milfoil and the zebra mussel. A fair amount of money has been spent by various governments and other entities over the years to beat them back, too.

It might be argued, however, that the granddaddy of all invasive species is the sea lamprey, which has been creating problems in the Great Lakes and elsewhere for many decades.

The parasites hit indigenous fish populations - especially white fish, lake trout and herring - particularly hard. All of the above has had a very real economic impact, which is why the war against the lamprey continues.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service technicians are scheduled to treat Lake Superior waters off the mouth of the Dead River later this month in an effort to kill lamprey larvae burrowed in the lake bottom. The lampricide treatment is expected to be completed in about a day and is scheduled to be conducted from June 16-25.

We’ve heard people argue that the war against the sea lamprey, and perhaps by extension, other invasive, is unwinnable so why spend the money?

Even in tight budget times with results that aren’t 100 percent effective, we believe it’s a war worth fighting. That’s because the lakes, and the economy they help support, are essential and central to life in this area.

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Midland Daily News. June 9,2015

State dealing with business tax credits

News of tax credits for companies in the name of job growth crosses the pages of this newspaper often.

The state is liable for $9.5 billion in business tax credits into 2031. Tax credit redemptions have been creating a budget crunch.

But do these credits have any benefits?

At least one major manufacturer is showing it means business when it comes to making tax credits count.

Ford Motor Co. said it will invest $3.1 billion in Michigan facilities over the next 10 years to qualify for its maximum tax credits under a deal announced Monday that limits the state’s liability for incentives issued to keep auto jobs in the state.

The deal combines and revises four agreements the automaker struck with the former Michigan Economic Growth Authority between 2009 and 2011. The deal does not change the overall number of retained jobs that Ford can qualify for, currently set at 40,200, but it caps the total value of credits at $2.3 billion through 2025.

Ford will have to put serious effort in its infrastructure in the state to qualify. If they do that and support in-state jobs, then it is easier to swallow such a large credit.

More than $3 billion seems like a large investment, but Ford has already made strong investments in U.S. production. Over the last year, Ford has spent an estimated $1 billion retrofitting plants in Dearborn and near Kansas City, Missouri, and a Michigan metal stamping factory to produce its new F-150 pickup truck. And in 2013, the company invested $555 million at its plant in Flat Rock to build the new Mustang.

The revised deal will provide a framework and some oversight as other companies work on their own agreements. At least six other companies are working on similar deals.

Tax credits are an important tool in retaining business and creating jobs, but oversight is an important part of this process.


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