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    This interview took place with Don Noble, a lobbyist for the MEA. It was conducted through a correspondence of emails from November 13 through November 23, 2009.

    1. What did you do prior to becoming a lobbyist for the MEA?
    Prior to becoming a lobbyist, I taught Middle School Science for eight years, and then worked for MEA as a UNISERV Director for twenty-three years. UNISERV is an acronym for unified services, which encompass a number of topics such as member advocacy, political action, bargaining, public relations and administrative law. It involves working directly with local school districts and the MEA members working in those school districts.

    .
    2. How long have you held your current position?
    I have been a lobbyist for MEA for seven years.

    3. What are the statewide goals of the MEA?
    The goals of the MEA are contained in a thirteen page document which can be found on the MEA website www.mea.org. It is a public website and the document to which I refer can be accessed via the links on the left side of the home page by clicking on legislative priorities. A general description of the goals can be summed up by the first few paragraphs of the legislative agenda read:
    "MEA's Legislative Program supports initiatives to advance the following goals: safety and order in every school, every student ready to learn, every school building in good condition, every classroom connected to current technologies, quality state-certified educator(s) in every classroom/program, and adequate numbers of instructional and non-instructional support staff and supervisory/administrative staff.
    MEA supports a quality educational program in every higher education institution, delivered by qualified full-time faculty and staff."
    MEA supports legislation to provide increased state funding for quality and equitable programs in Michigan's public K-12 schools, intermediate school districts and higher education institutions that addresses the total social, economic and educational needs of all students. Mandated programs shall be fully funded by state and federal governments."

    4. What is the most challenging thing you are dealing with right now?
    MEA assigns lobbyists by committee assignment as well as geographic area. My committee assignments include tax policy, appropriations, health policy and insurance. All of those areas have been challenging for the last several years as the State of Michigan has experienced a protected recession coupled with a structural deficit in our tax system that would not yield adequate revenue to fund the basic government services even in a booming economy. The State currently collects less than forty percent (40%) of the taxes that are contained in the tax code, and forgives over sixty percent (60%) of the taxes in the tax code through deductions, exemptions, credits and waivers. The end result has been continuing budget reductions since fiscal year 2002, and even with the tax shifts and income tax increase of 2007, the fiscal year 2010-2011 school aid budget will be more than a billion dollar less than fiscal year 2008-2009, and the general fund general purpose budget will be almost two and a half billion dollars less than the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

    There are currently over three hundred seventy five tax bills pending action in the House Tax Policy Committee and Finance Committee. Most of these are bills are more tax cuts, while some would actually attempt to restructure our tax system. The debate continues on whether more business tax cuts would stimulate Michigan's economy which seems to ignore the fact that dozens of tax cuts enacted in the last fifteen years have not caused a robust economy, but have actually exacerbated the problems of funding necessary basic services such as education, public safety, transportation and human services. The question then becomes whether the State can remain competitive for attracting new business it cannot provide a reasonable quality of life for highly educated, highly skilled employees. Most of my time is now spent working in coalition with various interest groups to attempt to get the legislature to create a tax system which reflects the economy of the State and which would provide a stable and adequate stream of revenue to provide the required basics services. This is very difficult to do in an atmosphere where withholding further tax reductions is defined as a tax increase.

    5. What is the MEA's position on Andy Dillon's proposed health care plan for the state employees?
    House Bill 5345, commonly called the Dillon Health Plan is opposed by MEA and many other public employers and employee groups. The bill would create one or more insurance plans or self-insured plans chosen by a board of thirteen members who would be appointed by the Governor. Employee groups would then bargain over which of these plans they would be under and what level of premium sharing and co-pays they would have. The backers of the bill claim that this plan would save hundreds of millions of dollars through pooling and administrative efficiencies. Expert witnesses including an insurance actuary and the House Fiscal Agency Director have testified that it is impossible to predict any savings without having the actual insurance specifications. Most people have the opinion that any savings would come from cost shifts to the employees through premium sharing and co-pays or through reduction in coverage.

    6. How does this compare to the MEA's position on the national health care bill currently being debated?
    Comparing the Dillon plan to the National Health reform plan is trying to compare apples to oranges. The thrust of the two concepts are completely different. MEA opposes the Dillon plan, and supports the Obama plan. The following illustrates some of the differences.

    Q. Who's affected?

    A. House Bill 5345 (Michigan Health Benefits Program):
    It is a proposal to eliminate collective bargaining over health benefits and limit Michigan public employees (including current and retired workers in K-12 districts, charter schools, intermediate districts, community colleges, universities, municipal and state workers) to a short list of state government-designed health plans.
    President Obama's health reform:
    All Americans, extending coverage to the uninsured and allowing those with coverage to keep it are affected.


    Q. What will it do?
    A. HB5345:
    It is a proposal to eliminate collective bargaining over health benefits and limit Michigan public employees (including current and retired workers in K-12 districts, charter schools, intermediate districts, community colleges, universities, municipal and state workers) to a short list of state government-designed health plans.
    When the state-run health plan runs a deficit, all taxpayers will be affected.

    Obama Plan:
    Allows people with insurance to keep their current plan; ends discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions; insurance companies will not be allowed to drop coverage when people are sick and need it most; caps out-of-pocket expenses so people don't go broke when they get sick.
    For those without insurance, a new insurance marketplace called the Exchange will allow them to compare plans and buy insurance at competitive prices; provides tax credits for individuals and small businesses; provides a public health insurance option for those who can't find affordable coverage.


    Q. How does the proposal affect the state and federal budgets?
    A. HB 5345:
    Speaker Dillon claims the proposal could save $900 million. There is no proof that purported savings will materialize. If there are any savings, they will come from significant benefit reductions and increased employee out-of-pocket costs. Many states that run health plans for public employees are having financial difficulties with the plans, even running deficits. If the Michigan plan runs a deficit, taxpayers will be forced to pay the bill regardless of cost.
    Obama Plan.
    Obama estimates his plan will cost $900 billion over 10 years. Most of the money will be reallocated from current health care expenditures. Additional money will come from reduced health care costs and premiums paid by consumers.


    7. What kinds of tactics do you use to influence state public policy?
    Public policy gets influenced in many ways. The most effective influence on politicians who create public policy is through their voting constituencies. To that end, a primary role for me as a lobbyist is to facilitate meetings between legislators and MEA member constituents in the legislator's district. The form of those meetings is to have ten to fifteen members meet to talk with the legislator. The purpose is to explain local conditions, and what potential impact pending legislation would have locally. Other forms of communications for that purpose is to generate phone calls, letters and emails to the legislator's office, and occasionally, on issues of critical importance, a rally might be conducted on the Capitol grounds. On a personal basis, my main function is to testify at hearings, and to meet with legislators to brief them on the impact of pending legislation on MEA and MEA members.


    8. Who are your typical opponents? Allies?
    There are no permanent friends, and there are no permanent enemies. Coalitions form and break up depending on the issue. MEA sits in a coalition with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce on insurance issues, but can never seem to agree on taxation issues. MEA is in coalition with the Michigan Association of School Boards on school funding, but oppose each other on many issues such as administrators retiring and then hiring back to the same position through a third party to shift benefit costs to the retirement system. Some coalitions are very broad based and some merely consist of a couple of groups depending on how universal the issue is.


    9. What are successes you have had?
    Frequently success is defined by what does not happen as much as it is defined by what does occur. Often, the goal is to fix legislation rather than defeat it, or to compromise in order to reach prospective goals. One example of success this fall was to create flexibility in how schools where going to implement the budget cuts imposed by the State rather than have the State dictate what programs would have to be sacrificed locally. A small success in light of the magnitude of the budget cuts, but it still allowed local priorities to be recognized. Another example was the "Failing Schools" legislation that was passed by the House. That set of bills started out totally unacceptable to MEA, and ended up being supported by MEA as the House passed them. That was done through six months of meetings with the sponsors of the bills and working with the concepts that the bills contained rather than reacting to the specific verbiage.


    10. How have your opinions of state politics and policy changed as you have become more involved in government?
    Having worked with the political process as part of my MEA duties since I started with MEA, I must say that term limits have caused many problems for public policy in Michigan. This has been done because of several things. First, legislators have no institutional knowledge on which to base a broad view of the world. Second, compromises get made through trust. Legislators are not in office long enough to build relationships that would enable them to make effective deals. And lastly, we have lost the capability to mentor effective leadership. All of this has led to our elected officials governing with in a very parochial manner.

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    The Michigan Policy Network is a student-led public education and research program to report and organize news and information about the political process surrounding Michigan state policy issues. It is run out of the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, with participation by students from the College of Social Science, the College of Communication, and James Madison College. 

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