Lawmakers get up close look at Wayne-Westland’s career tech center

The one thing State Sen. Mike Kowall says he understands that not every student leaving high school is geared for a four-year college degree. He also has heard first hand from businesses about their difficulty in finding skilled people to hire.
 
"That's one of the resounding things I hear – companies and manufacturers talking about the lack of skilled workers," said the White Lake Township resident who represents the 12th Senate District. "Michigan has 65,000-75,000 unfilled jobs because of the lack of skilled people."
 
Kowall was among a group of state lawmakers a representative from the Michigan Department of Economic Development who recently toured Wayne-Westland's William D. Ford Career Technical Center to see the training that's provided for students and adults.
 
Hosted by School Superintendent Greg Baracy, Principal Steve Kay and Assistant Principal Sue Wilk, the group included State Sens. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, Patrick Colbeck, and Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, as well as State Rep. Robert Kosowski, D-Westland, who received a tour of the facility courtesy of the students.
 
According to Anderson, the onsite visit stemmed from a conversation Kowall had with Baracy in Lansing. Kowall asked Anderson about the center "and I told him to come and see the amazing things they're doing there," Anderson said.
 
"They're doing training you see at the community colleges," he said. "The William D. Ford provides different levels of training for these folks. We have a need for skilled tradesmen. They're doing phenomenal things at the center."
 
18 training programs
 
Built in 1981, the career technical center offers 18 distinct technical training programs. Each program has state-of-the-art equipment, technology and instruction to prepare high school and adult learners to gain skills directly related to the goal of employment.
 
The tour highlighted some of the classes and technology being used. Michigan is a test site for automated motor vehicles and the students showed off their Innovative Vehicle Design that they showcased at the North American International Auto Show in January. Automated vehicles are able to sense their surroundings and navigate without human input.
 
The center has competed in IVD competition through the Square One Education Network for more than 10 years. It has won state honors for an electric Thunderbolt II vehicle students designed and built and was named a Center of Science and Engineering Excellence in 2007 by the Convergence Education Foundation.
 
"Michigan wants to become the hub for autonomous vehicles," said Kowall. "That's going to be $1 billion for the auto industry, but they need the skilled workers."
 
Both Anderson and Kowall agree that not every student leaving high school is geared for four years of college. There is a need to encourage the students who aren't headed for college to move into other careers.
 
"It's terrific, if they have a master's degree or a PhD, but who's going to build our buildings," said Kowall, who is a cabinet maker by trade. "I have a friend who's a plumber and has done very well for himself. He makes over $100,000 a year. By all intents and purposes, he's very successful."
 
Anderson pointed out that when support for adult education declined it decimated that program at the center. The state's new rigorous high school curriculum also has had an impact. But the center has fined tuned its programs, dropping some classes and adding others, like EMT training, to rebuild enrollment.
 
Underutilized
 
"The one thing about the career tech center, I think, is that it is underutilized by business," he said. "It could be used to train employees. There are definite different levels of education for these folks and using the center can minimize the cost. There are careers that don't need a two-year college. The center can offer advanced training for some so they can move into a career."
 
Kowall was so impressed with the center that in a conversation with Anderson on the floor of the Senate he said that Gov. Rick Snyder and more folks from the MEDC need to visit it.
 
"The things they teach are things that need to be learned, that's why I went there to see it," he said. "I want to see what we can do as state government. I can't say enough good things about the center."
 
"I'm hopeful he'll do what he says," Anderson said of the governor visiting the center. "I hope he will get him down here. No worker can be left behind and as the governor said, career tech can do it quicker and for a lot less."
 

Fox17: Michigan Leads the World’s Research on Driverless Cars

From Fox17.com – "We are the state to put the world on wheels," said Kirk Steudle, Michigan Department of Transportation director.
 
Michigan lawmakers, including Governor Rick Snyder, say they're determined to keep Michigan at the forefront of automobile development.
 
While the thought of driverless cars can bring the futuristic idea of "The Jetsons" to mind, driverless car technology is already here. You may have seen it in this year`s Super Bowl ad where automatic brakes override distracted driving.
 
Lawmakers like Senator Mike Kowall said Michigan is a world leader in car research.
 
"I thought where better to keep the research and development? We're probably looking at close to a $1 trillion effect on just the Big Three," said Senator Kowall.
 
Late last year, Governor Snyder signed Senate Bill 169 into law, to approve testing of driverless cars on Michigan roads. He and Steudle said safety is a driving force behind autonomous vehicles.
 
"One of our goals is to drive fatality rates down to zero. Last year there were over 900 people killed on Michigan roadways. If we can get cars that refuse to crash, we can save those 900 people," added Steudle.
 
At the 2014 North American International Auto Show, Governor Snyder announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC). The MTC is a public and private research effort to move people and freight with automated technology. The goal is for Ann Arbor to become the first U.S. city with a fleet of "connected," driverless cars by 2021.
 
"By and large we don't see being able to make it to automated vehicles, at least not driverless vehicles, high levels of automation, without also having this communication element. The communication really serves as the foundation for the future of automated vehicles," explained Jim Sayer, research scientist with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).
 
Researchers say the University`s "Safety Pilot Model Deployment" program is the biggest group of "connected" vehicles in the world.
 
For the past 18 months, UMTRI has been collecting data from more than 2800 "connected" vehicles. Drivers volunteered their personal vehicles, including a few heavy trucks, motorcycles and a bicycle, to be installed with small radios that essentially talk to each other.
 
Researchers say these radios listen and transmit signals to other "connected" cars and city infrastructure, like streetlights and curbs, that are also equipped with similar radios in Ann Arbor.
 
"What we've done with the Safety Pilot Model Deployment is we've created a sandbox; a sandbox that automotive manufacturers and suppliers and developers can come and evaluate the products that they envision, both connected and in the future automated vehicles as well," added Sayer.
 
More than 21 and a half million miles of driving data has been collected. It all goes to the U.S. Department of Transportation to show how "connected" technology between cars and infrastructure could lower fatal car accidents and energy consumption.
 
"We're going to go through, I think, a 15 to 20-year period of dumb cars to smart cars and the transition in-between," said Steudle.
 
Steudle also said he expects automation to help with road redesigns, and believes it will start with Michigan freeways.
 
"If the car is smart enough to drive itself, and it's not texting or eating a sandwich, or doing all kinds of other distracting things, it's going to go right down the middle of that lane and maybe move a little bit. But you don't need that space between them. So a future highway could have vehicles closer together," explained Steudle.
 
Steudle said driverless cars would also help cut congestion and traffic jams.
 
"The computers in the car will be smart enough to say `here's the progression of all these traffic signals,' and `driver, if you would go 36 miles per hour, you will make the progression and you won't have to stop at any of these,'" said Steudle.
 
Officials said driverless cars mean fewer wrecks which could help lower insurance rates.
 
"We've never seen insurance rates go down, but this would be a good reason for them to go down, if you can pretty well assure people that your car is not going to get into an accident," said Senator Kowall.
 
There are still a few issues to be worked out like funding and communication security between cars, and then which should come first, connected cars or infrastructure?
 
"I think we are very well-situated with the building blocks, and we are in the lead. But I also think this is like all technology, it changes, it moves fast, and we've got to keep moving in front of it," said Steudle.
 
Coming this Spring, the University of Michigan is building a 32-acre autonomous village on its North Campus, where all cars and infrastructure will be "connected" to enhance this research.
 
 

Detroit News: State funds for Detroit pension-DIA deal likely to come with strings

 
LANSING – One of the key elements of the proposed plan of adjustment to resolve the Detroit bankruptcy, made public Friday, is the so-called grand bargain designed to protect Detroit pensioners and the artwork of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
 
But a separate – and perhaps no less grand – bargain may be required in Lansing to get the Legislature to sign off on a $350-million state commitment over 20 years that is one of the cornerstones of the deal.
 
The good news for Gov. Rick Snyder and others who support the plan is that very few lawmakers say they reject out of hand approving the money, which would likely come from Michigan's share of a 1998 legal settlement paid by tobacco companies.
 
The bad news is that the strings some lawmakers want to tie to the money in return for their support are already many and varied: Some lawmakers want a regional water authority in Detroit, others want to make the DIA a statewide institution, some want the management of the city's pension boards to change, while still others want to make sure local governments other than Detroit share equally in any Lansing largesse.
 
"Things could get really silly, really quickly – you could get all kinds of things tacked on," said Jeff Williams, CEO of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. In the House, "we'll have to see how the nose count goes with a clean bill, and what do you have to add to it to get to 56 (votes)."
 
The state's proposed $350-million commitment is part of a bigger deal brokered by Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen under which foundations and the DIA would pledge another combined $465 million to bolster city pensions while preventing a sell-off of DIA artwork.
 
Tom Shields, a political consultant with the Republican firm Marketing Resource Group in Lansing, said Snyder may be able to cobble together enough votes from Democrats, term-limited Republicans and moderate GOP members – but it won't be easy.
 
"People want to see Detroit do well; they just don't want to pay for it," he said. "That will be a tough vote for anybody running for re-election, especially for Republicans and suburban Democrats."
 
Rep. Phil Cavanagh, D-Redford Township, said: "I hope legislators see the value in approving this money. My worry is that there's going to be strings."
 
Snyder has defied the odds before, selling the Republican-controlled Legislature on a pension tax in 2011 and expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act last year.
 
But he has also had some notable failures: road funding, auto insurance reform, and legislation to expand and codify the Education Achievement Authority.
 
The governor may have to dip deep into his well of "relentless positive action" to push through the bankruptcy plan.
 
So far, Snyder has stressed that the money would be part of an overall settlement of litigation that is potentially problematic for the whole state. And he has emphasized that it would be conditional on the settlement being a final one in which unions, retirees and others would drop their objections.
 
Williams said those talking points address two of the deal's biggest obstacles: Anything that smacks of a Detroit bailout is trouble, as is any suggestion that the money might just be one piece of an ongoing financial commitment, he said.
 
State Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, said he's hearing more from constituents who oppose any financial help for Detroit than from supportive Detroit pensioners who have moved to northern Michigan.
 
"They tell me, `If we bail out Detroit, who are we bailing out next?' " Schmidt said. "I am not leaning any one way, other than to say many more constituents are saying don't do it."
 
Both Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said last week they expect the state's contribution to be dealt with outside the regular budget process, in part, to get it done quicker. Work on the budget isn't expected to be completed until early June.
 
Richardville, R-Monroe, said he knows it's going to touchy.
 
"But I would actually say it's progressed quite a bit," Richardville said. " I have a caucus that's been very fiscally responsible. How do we make sure that if we agree to this that the same kind of problem doesn't exist in the future? That's the major question they're asking."
 
Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, said he's leaning very heavily toward supporting the state help for Detroit and that most of the members of the Republican caucus still have an open mind about the deal.
 
"We're going to need to understand what amount of money is going to be involved, how it's going to be paid and, most importantly, what assurances do we have that it will be spent in a manner that's appropriate?" he said.
 
Walsh said he also is thinking holistically – that it's better to help pensioners now than push them onto public assistance.
 
Rep. Michael McCready, R-Bloomfield Hills, said he supports the funding as a way of settling the bankruptcy issue and putting it behind Detroit and Michigan once and for all. In fact, he said he would prefer to make the payment in a lump sum, rather than spread it over 20 years.
 
And Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, who was born in Detroit, said he is leaning toward supporting the funding plan because he thinks it will help not only Detroit, but Oakland County.
 
"It's a real hard sell for some of the members in other parts of the state," Kowall said. "But the majority of us in Oakland County have more at stake at making sure Detroit succeeds.
 
"There are such good things on the horizon for Detroit, we just have to get beyond decades of not paying attention."

MIRS-Bills Would Up Invasive Transport Penalties

A package of bills introduced in the Senate this week aims to crack down on folks transporting aquatic invasive species. 
 
"What we're trying to do is get it across to the people that are smuggling invasives, mostly to Toronto, that if in fact if they do that, they get caught, we're taking their licenses away. We're taking their trucks. It's just going to be so punitive that it's not gonna pay to do it," said Sen. Mike KOWALL (R-White Lake), who is leading the package. 
 
It's an eight-bill package, from  SB 0795 to  SB 0802. 
 
SB 0795 would establish a felony for bringing in aquatic invasive species. For a violation involving a prohibited non-aquatic species, the current two-year, $20,000 felony would stand. 
 
But should this law pass there would be a higher penalty for a violation involving an aquatic prohibited species: a $100,000, three-year felony. 
 
Other bills in the package include penalties such as suspension of fishing licenses and commercial motor vehicle licenses. 
 
Patty BIRKHOLZ, West Michigan Director at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV), said the legislation was a good step. 
 
"Any time we can do anything to increase the penalties dealing with invasive species to keep them out of our water is a positive thing," Birkholz said.
 
She pointed to the potential consequences aquatic invasives could cause. 
 
"Sometimes people forget that they not only threaten the ecology . . . they also threaten our economy. What is pure Michigan about? It's about our natural resources," Birkholz said. 
 
Sen. Arlan MEEKHOF (R-West Olive), sponsor of  SB 0796, said that the measures would only apply to people who were knowingly transporting invasive species. 
 
"What it simply does is penalizing somebody if they knowingly transport invasive species. So it's not for if one just happens to be on your boat trailer and you're not intentionally doing it," Meekhof said. 
 
Kowall said that when it comes to the trafficking of invasive species, being on an international border "increases it dramatically." 
 
The bills have been referred to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes. 

Sen. Mike Kowall announces comprehensive legislation to combat aquatic invasive species

LANSING—State lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday that addresses continued threats posed by the illegal introduction, possession, use, transfer or sale of prohibited aquatic invasive species, said Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, lead sponsor of the eight-bill package.

“Aquatic invasive species present a significant risk to the ecosystem and overall health of the Great Lakes,” said Kowall, author of Senate Bill 795. “As more and more invasions have been tracked in the region, it has become apparent that unless sweeping measures are taken, the health of the basin, its habitat and the fishery will continue to decline.”

An invasive species is one that is not native to an area and whose introduction causes, or is likely to cause, economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

SBs 795 – 802 would increase the fines for the illegal possession of aquatic invasive species; allow for the seizure of all equipment used in the introduction, possession and sale of these species; allow for the suspension of related commercial licenses; and suspend the responsible party’s right to fish and hunt in Michigan.

Sen. Howard Walker, sponsor of SB 800, expressed his appreciation for the measures.

“This package of bills is a great follow-up to the legislation we passed three years ago on this issue,” said Walker, R-Traverse City. “The stories we’ve heard about semis coming into our state with loads of prohibited species should concern everyone. Passing these bills should make people think long and hard about transporting these aquatic species across our border.”   

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has reported that the invasive species bighead and silver carp are spreading to lakes, rivers and streams in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes region. They are not yet established here but are well-suited to the climate of the region.

Biologists expect that if these carp establish themselves, they will significantly disrupt the food chain that supports the native fish of the Great Lakes, diminish fishing opportunities and reduce the desire for recreational boating activities in areas inhabited by these fish.

Michigan law currently bans the possession of a select list of aquatic invasive species and expressly prohibits the possession, sale, transport or transfer of those prohibited species. However, there recently has been an increase in the trafficking of these species.

“Increasing the fines and enacting other penalties will help to serve as a serious deterrent for the recent increase in this activity,” said Kowall.

Kowall’s bill:

  • Increases jail time from two to three years and maximum dollar fines from $20,000 to $100,000 for the possession of a prohibited aquatic invasive species;
  • Provides for the seizure and forfeiture of a vehicle, equipment or other property used in a criminal violation involving an aquatic species; and
  • Requires the court to order any commercial fishing license to be suspended for one year for a person who commits a criminal violation involving an aquatic species. For a second and subsequent violation, the licenses would be revoked.

SBs 795 – 802 have been referred to the Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee for consideration.

Spinal Column: Propane shortage has eased slightly but supplies remain tight

By Sen. Mike Kowall
15th Senate District

More people in Michigan heat their homes with propane than do residents of any other state. Because of this year’s extreme winter, with its record-low temperatures, keeping heating supplies stocked has been more important than ever. The cold has affected all fuels used by consumers—natural gas and heating oil as well as propane.

But this has been a highly unusual time for the propane industry in particular. Uncommon circumstances involving four factors—crops, cold, pipelines and exports—have reduced the inventories of propane and raised its price.

Crops. Farmers throughout the upper Midwest harvested abundant grain crops this fall. The yield was much larger than normal, and above-average rainfall totals meant the crops were very wet. Before grain crops can be stored, they must be dried. Drying these crops required massive amounts of propane to fuel the drying equipment.

Cold. This past fall was colder than normal. Then, when fall left, early winter arrived with its unusual “Polar Vortex,” causing severe and dangerous cold. The low temperatures in both fall and winter drove the demand for propane higher.

Pipelines. Two events involving propane pipelines caused the price of the fuel to increase and supply to decrease. The Cochin pipeline transports a significant amount of propane from Canada to the Midwest. The pipeline was shut down for repairs, causing suppliers to travel farther for their propane, raising associated transportation costs. Meanwhile, the flow of a Midwest pipeline previously in propane service was reversed to allow the pipeline to begin moving ethane to the Gulf Coast.

Exports. Finally, U.S. supplies of propane are down due to increased exportation of the product. In 2013, more than 20 percent of total U.S. propane was exported, a fourfold increase from just five years earlier.

As a consequence, Michigan is one of more than 30 states to declare a propane energy emergency.

The state has taken steps to alleviate the shortage. To help service residents with available supply as quickly as possible, Gov. Rick Snyder has issued executive orders exempting motor carriers and drivers transporting propane and heating oil within Michigan from certain regulations and requirements.

Gov. Snyder and governors from six other Midwestern states last week sent President Barack Obama a letter formally asking for assistance in dealing with the propane supply shortage.

In addition, the Michigan Public Service Commission is monitoring the state’s propane supply and is leading an effort with other affected states to monitor and coordinate responses.

As a result, though supplies remain tight since the emergency was declared, the shortage has eased slightly.

To conserve your propane, follow these tips offered by the Michigan Propane Gas Association (MPGA):
•    Turn down your thermostat 5 to 10 degrees, if possible.
•    If you have a propane hot water heater, reduce hot water usage.
•    Do not heat any rooms or buildings that do not have to be heated.
•    Reduce stove use if you have a propane stove.
•    Avoid calling your propane supplier until your gauge shows you are below 25 percent.

The MPGA also recommends the following steps for working with your propane retailer:
•    If you are out of propane or if your propane company is not able to provide propane, seek other options. There are multiple propane companies servicing every county of Michigan.
•    Work with your propane company to get your home on a regular delivery schedule.
•    Discuss payment plan options with your propane retailer. Some retailers will help you spread your projected annual cost of propane over many months, spreading out the cost of seasonally higher bills.

Financial assistance may be available in the form of the Home Heating Credit. The Michigan Department of Treasury is now processing the credit, available to low-income Michigan utility customers, including propane customers. In addition, the Michigan Public Service Commission announced $89 million in grants to 14 organizations located throughout the state to help low-income customers with energy assistance for this heating season.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the state’s propane supply situation, do not hesitate to contact me toll free at (866) 301-6515.

My fellow lawmakers and I, along with the administration, will continue to monitor the propane situation in Michigan. As always, the health and safety of our residents is our paramount concern.

This column first appeared in the Spinal Column. Senator Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is the chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee. He serves the citizens of the 15th Senate District, representing western Oakland County.