News, Notes and a Few Comments from the State Capitol July 2014

Net Neutrality Threatens Even Playing Field for Online Retailers

I remember doing a radio story many years ago about downtown development here in Lansing. It was in the early ‘80s, and I had struck up a conversation about the importance of a location on “Main Street,” and how it can be a huge advantage for those who can afford to buy or rent in such locations.

My source noted that he wished everybody could have the best location, but that would be physically impossible.

Fast forward about a quarter century. I’m talking to an internet retailer who boasted that the new “world wide web” presented the ultimate in fairness regarding “location.” That is, the website of a small shop loads at the same speed of a website at a large shop.

Everyone was essentially in the same “location,” meaning the little guys (with good ideas/products/services) could compete with the big guys (with good ideas/products/services), and you didn’t have to pay a higher rent for a better “location.”

The debate over net neutrality, which includes the argument that you should be able to get a faster loading site if you’ve got the bucks, potentially changes that debate. That itself indeed generates revenue, for someone. But it also could, according to critics, stifle innovation and young web-based entrepreneurs.

ACLU and Others Fight Against Phone Tracking Technology

It’s hard enough to keep track of technology in the home. It’s even harder to keep up with technology others can use to spy on your home.

That’s how I read things following recent testimony in a Michigan House committee, which discussed “Stingray”
and “Hailstorm.”

Say what, you ask?

I asked the same thing.

This is apparently technology that’s been around quite a while now, and has been used to blanket areas by scanning and intercepting all incoming and outgoing calls. Not just the calls dealing with criminal or domestic terror activity, but also the daily, and private activity of innocent, law abiding citizens.

And that’s where the American Civil Liberties Union, and many others, both conservative and liberal, are locking arms in protest, citing the huge potential for abuse here on the home front.

For the record, the devices have been sold on the international market for some time and usage in that arena has become commonplace.

Chris Soghoian of the ACLU told the legislative committee that they can not only intercept your calls, but they can be used to jam calls, block specific numbers and block calls.

This could be done by law enforcement, your nosy neighbor and, of course, corporate versus corporate espionage.

The devices are very good if you’re fighting crime and terror. Not so good if you’re an innocent victim having your privacy invaded, or worse, having a cell phone call fail while making an important family-related call, or the like. (Apparently 9-1-1 calls specifically are not jammed when these devices are used).

Real Estate Continues to Bounce Back

Michigan State Housing Development Authority Executive Director Scott Woosley is bullish on Michigan’s housing market. He says they’re seeing more buyers, and 2014 through 2016 should be “very positive” years. Also, he adds, “banks are cooperating,” in terms of home loans.

However, there are still issues. Notably, Woosley says, appraisals are still sometimes based on a history (historical comparables, or comps) that can go back two years.

It’s resulted in situations where, for example, an agreed-to price of $150,000 for a home hits a bump in the road with a bank only appraises the house at $80,000 (remember the bust?). That can result in a loan approved at say, only $50,000 or so.

Woosley says they’re working with banks to try and convince them that they “just need to be a bit more myopic in (the) appraisal process.”

Hard Numbers Matter When Talking About Michigan’s Business Climate

With all those “best and worst” surveys out there dealing with Michigan’s business climate, it’s become virtually impossible for the average adult to know what any of
it means.

One recent survey from “Chief Executive” magazine, questioned CEOs about a variety of “critical measures” including tax and regulatory “climate,” the quality of the workforce and the quality of the
living environment.

In that study, Michigan came out among the worst states in the nation, at 45th, and that was also down a notch from the previous study, which had Michigan in 44th place.

Overall, Texas was No. 1 and California was 50th.

But a different publication not that long ago, Site Selection magazine, placed Michigan 8th overall.

What gives?

Doug Rothwell, CEO of “Business Leaders for Michigan,” says it’s pretty simple. The “Chief Executive” survey, he says was based on perception, not specific numbers. But he notes, Michigan scores better in surveys that deal in hard data, such as job growth and gross domestic product.

Bicyclists’ Fees and Toll Roads in Michigan?

Should bicyclists also pay a user fee for Michigan roadways?

Some have said they should, but bicyclists are quick to point out that they already support roads, through taxes that supply revenue to the state’s General Fund, which in recent years has helped to
support roads.

Others have questioned if that’s enough, since motorists pay both the gas tax as well as taxes that go into the
General Fund.

The question was briefly raised during a recent legislative committee in Lansing, during testimony on bike trails in
the state.

Michigan House Republican Ken Goike of Macomb County, noted “I’m not opposed to bicyclists, but there’s significant costs to our transportation funding on (bike lanes and trails).”
There have been some who have suggested registration or other fees for bikers.

But John Lindenmayer of the Michigan League for Bicyclists says they “are not necessarily in support (of that).” But he adds that many bike lanes carry minimal costs since the needs often involve
lane paint.

In the meantime, the idea of toll roads has surfaced now and then in Michigan for decades, but it never gets off the ground.

While you can easily get into the complications regarding toll roads and the federal government, in that special application is required under federal law to allow tolls to be collected on highways that get federal aid, let’s just say that many continue to support tolls as a way to help pay for roads in Michigan.

Still others have said that Michigan is not a prime candidate for toll roads, because it’s not the kind of “pass through” state, like Indiana and Ohio is, meaning that a higher percentage of motorists paying tolls will either be Michiganders, or tourists whose destination is Michigan.

After all, it must have been easier for those states to sell the toll road idea, since so many of those paying in were just out-of-staters passing through.

But Mike Nystrom of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association says toll roads can and should be considered a piece of the long-term road funding puzzle.

Motorists accustomed to traveling Michigan freeways for “free,” might not agree however.

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