- Associated Press - Monday, January 1, 2018

The Detroit News. December 28, 2017

Teachers win refund; shortfall remains

Michigan can’t solve the underfunding of its teacher retiree health care account by demanding teachers contribute a small amount from their paychecks, now that the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled the 2010 levy unconstitutional.

Teachers will get a refund of the money collected between 2010 and 2012, when the tax was suspended pending resolution of the court challenge. The state had held $550 million in paycheck deductions in an escrow account during the legal fight. The money refunded will include about $4 million in interest.

The tax is now gone for good, but the shortfall remains. And so the state will have to find a different approach to filling it.

The 3 percent levy was an attempt to help pay for retiree health care. The unanimous 6-0 decision will put that money back into teachers’ pockets. Gov. Rick Snyder, who has fought in support of the law enacted during the Granholm administration, said he is pleased that the matter has been decided.

“The funding has been held in escrow, so Michigan will continue to have a balanced budget. We will not need to raise new revenue or remove funding from other priorities to refund the money that was collected for retirement health care,” Snyder said in a statement.

The money will be given back to more than 275,000 teachers and school employees like a hefty tax return.

Though the ruling settles this case, the problem of retiree health care is still very much at issue. Strides have been taken to solidify the program, and they must continue. There was good reason for Snyder to pursue former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s law. The state budget office has estimated the unfunded liability for retiree health care in the school employee retirement system (MPSERS) is more than $9 billion.

Reforms in 2012 to teacher retiree benefits changed the 2010 law to say teachers could opt out of the health benefits in retirement, meaning they had no obligation to contribute the 3 percent. And the retiree health care premiums for new teachers (and current teachers who opted in) were eliminated in lieu of supplemental contributions from the state placed into a 401(k) account that could be used toward health costs in retirement.

That helps in the long run. But the current obligations haven’t disappeared.

Undoubtedly, more state resources will have to be used to meet health care obligations.

This would be a good time for both the state and teachers to take an honest look at actuarial tables and make sensible adjustments in retirement ages so that teachers are not collecting retirement benefits for more years than they spent in the classroom.

In addition, the state has leeway to make changes to retiree health benefits.

As James Hohman, fiscal policy director at the Mackinac Center, has observed: “There is a state constitutional guarantee for pension benefits that have been earned. State and local governments can, however, trim post-employment health benefits - not just for future retirees but for current ones as well.”

It was a worthy idea to require teachers to invest more in their own post-retirement health care. But as the court instructed, the state will have to find a new approach to tackling the costs.

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The Mining Journal. December 28, 2017

Baldini leaves lasting legacy

The city of Marquette - and, really, the entire community - was handed a blow earlier this week when word came of the unexpected death of Marquette Mayor Tom Baldini.

Baldini passed away Tuesday after suffering a stroke over the weekend.

Baldini was elected mayor in November after serving as mayor pro tem. He also was elected to the Marquette City Commission in 2014 for a three-year term.

However, he was much more than a city official as his many friends and colleagues will tell you. In fact, former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard called him a “walking advocate and ambassador” for the Upper Peninsula.

Baldini taught government and economics at Marquette Senior High School from 1965-83, later becoming assistant to the superintendent for finances and personnel.

Former President Bill Clinton nominated Baldini to be U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission for Canada and the United States, whose duties entailed managing all the waters shared between the two countries.

In fact, Baldini’s accomplishments are too numerous to include in this small space, but they range from being district director for former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, 1st Congressional District of Michigan, to serving as the U.S. representative of the U.S. and Canadian Boundary Commission.

At the time of his death, he was a part-time instructor in the Political Science Department at Northern Michigan University and a member of the Michigan Technological University Board of Control.

Baldini also was active with the Economic Club of Marquette County, recently serving as program chair.

Many people would have been long retired at age 74, which was Baldini’s age. It appeared, though, he still had too much to achieve.

For a person obviously as interested and committed to the community as Baldini, there was much work to be done. So, his untimely passing leaves a huge void in the Marquette community.

However, his service can serve as an example to everyone. As U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, put it, Baldini’s legacy is a “lasting reminder to all of us of what it means to serve.”

To be a true public servant, that person has to be committed to the betterment of the community, regardless of pay or recognition. The accomplishments matter the most, and Baldini’s impact - from teaching a high schooler to serving on an international commission - will be felt long after his death.

We salute Baldini’s dedication and commitment, and hope others follow in his footsteps. That’s surely what he would have wanted.

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Times Herald (Port Huron). December 28, 2017

Water monitors funding should be permanent

Wednesday morning, in a new display of transparency and neighborliness, Imperial Oil sent out a press release warning that it was restarting its Sarnia refinery and things might look a little different across the river. Before the restart, the plant had been shut down for maintenance.

Imperial warned to expect elevated flaring - those flames when the refinery burns off excess volatile gases at the tops of its stacks - and heavier than normal steam discharges.

Wednesday evening, it sent another notice - the brilliant orange glow of massive flares pulsing through thick clouds of steam was not what plant operators had expected. An equipment failure during the restart caused the extra fireworks.

Except for the light show, there was no indication that the incident had any negative effect on air or water quality on the Michigan side of the St. Clair River. This time.

It is another warning that what Chemical Valley does is as complicated as it is potentially dangerous to the environment and all the people downwind and downstream. Even during heightened scrutiny during the restart process, dangerous things can and do go wrong with the chemical plants. That is likely true of any manufacturing process, but a malfunction in a factory that makes car parts isn’t going to spill toxins into our drinking water.

That’s why we spent $2.5 million in state and federal grants a decade ago to create a real-time monitoring network to protect water plants and users downstream from Sarnia. The system was designed to continuously monitor water as it was drawn into plants and to sound an alarm if chemical contaminants were found.

The state and federal grants that kept the system dried up in 2011. Soon after, municipalities started switching off the system to save money. Now, only Marysville has its system keeping watch. Every other plant, from Port Huron to Monroe, is depending on timely notice from Chemical Valley to save it from sucking in a chemical spill and distributing poisons to customers.

Gov. Rick Snyder, though, has signed a supplemental appropriation of $375,000 to bring the entire monitoring network back online.

There are only three problems with the offer.

It’s optional. The same water plants that chose budget savings over safety after 2011 don’t have to take the money or turn their systems back on.

It’s probably not enough.

It’s temporary. What happens when that $375,000 is gone?

This is too important to gamble with. If the state can’t fully and permanently fund the monitoring system, then municipalities must get their ratepayers to foot the bill. It is hard to imagine that any water customer would say no to protecting the quality of water delivered to his home.

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Midland Daily News. December 28, 2017

Inspire each other to do good

The holiday season is filled with much joy in many lives.

But sometimes it is also filled with sadness, the result of crime or poverty or other common failures. It is disappointing, but it does happen and it must be reported.

We cannot help but notice some of the amazing stories of goodwill and joy that have occurred lately. And they help to fill us with hope.

Just in the last week we reported about a local couple, Robert and Virginia Clipper, who celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. They have worked together for a lifetime and have each other’s company and friendship as a reward.

We watched how students at Meridian High School know there are local residents with financial needs, so they gathered together to spend their time and money to make sure the families received an enjoyable Christmas.

We heard how a bus driver in the Bullock Creek school district spent his money to make sure the children on his route received gifts and a personal note of appreciation. It brought at least one person to tears that this man, who is really only an acquaintance to these kids, would invest that much in these young people.

And we read about a story of triumph from the Associated Press about how two lifetime best friends in Hawaii learned that they are actually brothers. They started a childhood friendship that lasted 60 years and capped it off with an unbreakable bond of brotherhood.

So when the world or even our community seems to have more strife and discord than joy, it’s good to think back to stories like these. We live in a community of many strengths. Let’s draw on those in the coming year to inspire each other to do good.

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