Lansing Update: December 15, 2006

In this issue of Lansing Update:

  1. Governor to Sign Welfare Reform Legislation
  2. State to Award New Michigan Promise Scholarship
  3. MCC to Seek Support for ‘Net Neutrality’
  4. New Report Troubling for Michigan Children
  5. Jack Kevorkian to be Paroled from Prison

Governor to Sign Welfare Reform Legislation

Last year Governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed legislation that sought to reform the state’s general assistance program, but after having reached an agreement with legislative leaders the governor has announced she will this week sign similar measures into law.

House Bills 6580 and 6587 and Senate Bills 1500 and 1501 passed the Senate and House last week as the legislature finished work during its “lame-duck” session. Among other provisions, the bills will create a 48-month time limit on assistance benefits for Michigan residents and implement sanctions for those who violate work requirements.

An important detail that struck the agreement between the legislative and executive offices was a provision that the 48-month clock would stop when a person is exempt from work requirements, when they are working and in compliance with state standards, and when the recipient’s county’s unemployment rate is 25 percent above the state average the previous month.

There would be a 90-day sanction for the first two violations of work requirements and a one-year sanction for the third, however recipients would also be able to have their first sanction terminated if they can show within 10 days of the first violation that they are meeting their work requirements.

The lifetime limit also comes with a 12-month extension clause if a person faces barriers to employment, such as the local labor market, problems with child care or transportation or if the state for some reason cannot meet its obligation to the education and training services it is required to provide.

A person could be exempted from work requirements if they are caring for a child three months or younger or when the individual or a relative the individual is caring for becomes temporarily or permanently disabled, either physically or mentally, and has medical documentation for proof. The Department of Human Services would also be allowed to promulgate rules granting further exemptions for extenuating circumstances.

Michigan Catholic Conference has consistently advocated against a lifetime limit and harsh sanctions for welfare recipients. As the bills moved through the legislature the Conference supported education and job training initiatives in order to help move residents toward self-sufficiency while opposing measures that would produce harsh living conditions for the state’s poor population, especially children.

State to Award New Michigan Promise Scholarship

During its “lame-duck” session the legislature passed and the governor signed into law legislation that increases the amount of and alters the disbursement schedule for the Michigan Merit Award scholarship.

Prior to the enactment of the new award any student who fared well on a state standardized test would receive $2,500 for the first two years of post-secondary education. The new award, titled the Michigan Promise Grant, raises the amount granted to each student to $4,000 and also makes the award available to those students who do not score well on the state’s test.

The Michigan Promise Grant will provide students who perform well on the Michigan Merit Exam $1,000 each year for the first two years of college or technical training and another $2,000 on the completion of that coursework. Students who do not score well on the test can qualify for the entire $4,000 by completing two years of college or training.

Michigan Catholic Conference has supported the scholarship since its inception and testified last month in favor of the increased amount, but encouraged lawmakers to ensure the solvency of the funds so that those families who most need the scholarship will have access.

Funding for the new Michigan Promise Grant will continue to come from a portion of Michigan’s share of the revenue from the 1998 multi-state settlement agreement with tobacco manufacturers.

MCC to Seek Support for ‘Net Neutrality’

In an effort to protect Internet-based religious speech, Michigan Catholic Conference next legislative session will work with like-minded groups for the adoption of ‘net neutrality’ provisions, an issue that failed to gain support during the final days of the legislative session.

In a letter sent to members of the Michigan Senate before that chamber addressed cable deregulation legislation, the Conference argued: “Unless there are protections in place against Internet access providers’ control over content, noncommercial religious speech is threatened.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [Link no longer available —Ed.] has argued in favor of net neutrality at the federal level, making the case that new Federal Communications Commission rules allow Internet service providers to control speech by speeding up or slowing down access to web sites based on whether or not the site collects fees for premium services.

In his message for the 40th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the “distortion that occurs when the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good.”

The entire text of the Conference’s letter in support of net neutrality may be accessed by clicking here.

New Report Troubling for Michigan Children

A growing percentage of Michigan children depend on public assistance in some fashion, according to a recently released Kids Count in Michigan study.

Statewide, 15 percent of children lived at or below the federal poverty line in 2003, the most recent year for which there is data. That is down from 18 percent in 1997.

But the percentage of children whose families are eligible for Food Assistance Program benefits, at or below 130 percent of poverty, rose to nearly 20 percent in 2005 from just above 10 percent in 2000. The percentage of children eligible for Medicaid has grown to 32.1 percent in 2005 from just over 20 percent in 1999.

More children have adequate prenatal care, 78.2 percent in 2002–04 from 76 percent in 1995–97. And the number of births to teen mothers dropped over that period to 34.4 per 1,000 births from 47.7 per 1,000 births. But the percentage of low-birth weight babies increase to 8.2 percent from 7.7 percent. And the infant mortality rate held steady at 8.1 deaths per thousand live births.

More children are also being confirmed victims of abuse or neglect, 11.1 children per 1,000 in fiscal year 2004–05 from 7.9 per 1,000 in FY 1996–97. Abuse and neglect are also an increasing reason for out-of-home placements, with 6.7 such placements per thousand in FY 2004–05 and 5.8 in FY 1996–97, compared to .9 placements for delinquency per thousand children in FY 2004–05 from 1.6 in FY 1996–97.

The Michigan League for Human Services [Link no longer available —Ed.], which compiles the annual report, said much of the environment for children can be blamed on the economy. The report also found continuing racial disparities in the state, with higher levels of poverty and low birth weights among black children than among whites.

Jack Kevorkian to be Paroled from Prison

The Michigan Parole Board on December 13 announced that Jack Kevorkian, the physician who admitted to assisting in the deaths of over 130 individuals, will be paroled from prison no later than June 1, 2007 for health reasons.

Sister Monica Kostielney, RSM, Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO, released the following statement after the parole board’s announcement:

“The State has a human rights obligation to provide its prisoners with proper medical and psychological treatment; unfortunately, the parole board has instead scheduled for release an individual who perpetrated the crime of murder over 130 times. There must be a proper balance between compassion and justice. Unfortunately, justice was not served in this circumstance. Assisted suicide represents an affront to the dignity of the human person, a crime against life and an attack on humanity.”

In 1998 Michigan Catholic Conference worked tirelessly with the Citizens for Compassionate Care coalition to defeat Proposal B, a ballot proposal that would have legalized the “prescription of a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill, competent, informed adults in order to commit suicide.”

The proposal was soundly defeated, 71-29.

Editor’s Note: The 94th Michigan Legislature will formally conclude on December 29, the date for which both the Michigan House of Representatives and Michigan Senate have declared sine die.