The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus prides itself as the legislative and authoritative voice in Lansing for thousands of African Americans in the state who are spread across several urban communities including Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and Detroit, the largest urban center. For years groups like the MLBC have reveled on their historic birth and evolution at a time when there were few Black state lawmakers across the country.
They have positioned themselves since their founding as the go-to group both in the state capitol and outside of Lansing when it comes to policy issues impacting Black voters in the state. Collectively, the group is made up of 19 members in the Legislature who hail from all urban centers.
With the signs of the times and changing dynamic of the Michigan legislature now in a fight for its soul as Tea Party activists in the legislature push for a stronger legislative voice in 2015, the question is, what kind of game plan does MLBC have to make sure Detroit and other urban communities are not relegated to the backburner?
It is not so much about how long policy groups like MLBC have been around. It is how effective are these organizations in championing the interests of their constituents? The obligation to faithfully represent the interests of those who elected them into state office could not have come at a more crucial time given where Detroit is and the rapid changes taking place in the city and its sister urban centers.
“We want to be on the front line when it comes to urban schooling. Detroit Public Schools has been dismantled and first and foremost we need to have our elected school board back in play,” said State Senator Virgil Smith, Jr., who assumed the chairmanship of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus.
“The Education Achievement Authority (EAA) and the Emergency Management models are not working. Emergency management is supposed to have gotten our fiscal house in order. They have not.”
Smith, who has been an advocate for auto insurance reform, said his goal is to “continue the tradition of making sure African Americans have a voice,” in the policy debates coming up in Lansing.
“We’ve got to put some real regulations on how charter schools operate,” Smith said. “This free-for-all Wild, Wild West it is not going to work and is not like charter schools are producing a better result than DPS. We don’t have the system to uphold these charters accountable.”
He noted that the continued exodus of students from DPS to other schools of choice, including charters, is not helping the district’s financial stability.
“If you are constantly seeing students walk out the front door you are never going to pay off your debt,” he said.
The relationship between the mayor and the Detroit members of the MLBC will be crucial in addressing a number of complex issues, including the fate of the Detroit Public Schools. Mayor Mike Duggan is set to give his second State of the City address on Feb. 10. The mayor’s speech will be significant because it is the first policy statement in post-bankruptcy.
Smith said he would like Duggan to address a couple of issues in particular in his address.
“In his speech the mayor needs to tell us what is his real strategy when it comes to redeveloping our neighborhoods,” Smith said. “I would like the State of the City to be neighborhood focused. There are great things happening downtown, but we need to know what the plan is to redevelop the rest of the city because we know Detroit is not a high-rise city.”
Smith said while he agrees with Governor Rick Snyder for talking about the “rivers of opportunity,” in his State of the State Address, “he did not lay out how he would achieve the rivers of opportunity.”
High auto insurance rates remain a front burner issue and MLBC plans to continue to speak out on it, especially when its leader is the vice chair of the Senate Insurance Committee. Smith also did his master’s degree thesis on this subject. He has yet to buy into the idea of a D-Insurance, proposed by Duggan during the mayoral campaign as the answer to the exorbitant rates Detroiters pay for car insurance in the city.
“A city operating an insurance company would not work in this environment,” Smith explained. “There is too much liability from the medical side. The elephant in the room is life time personal injury protection benefits and how hospitals interact with auto insurance companies when it comes to auto accident patients.”
Another hurdle in addressing the high rates in Detroit according to Smith is that “no one has defined what an excessive rate is. Our definition in the current insurance code is weak because it just states that if there is competition in a particular zip code, then an insurance rate cannot be deemed excessive.”
As a result of this unclear definition of excessive rates, Smith said the state’s own insurance commissioner cannot hold insurance companies accountable “because we have not defined what an excessive rate is.”
The ranking Democrat on the Michigan Senate Insurance Committee said moving forward “we need to do an education on auto insurance so people can make educated decisions.”
Smith said an insurance company can submit a rate change to the insurance commissioner’s office and can begin charging consumers because “once they submit the rate change, at that point they can start using that rate.”
He pointed out that there is no approval process in between.
“So the insurance commissioner is powerless. On the other hand, the Public Service Commission has to approve DTE Energy rates,” Smith said. “We don’t have that process for auto and home insurance. My goal is to educate folks so we can make a deal on what is best for our residents.”
Newly elected State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo echoed some of the issues Smith raised and said the new MLBC leadership is focused on a set of urban policy agenda to ameliorate the conditions of residents in urban communities “with a unified approach to realize meaningful solutions to increase academic achievement and reduce the escalated rates of the pipeline to prison if members truly harness their power.”
“As a member of the Detroit Caucus I am eager to work with every sector of civic leadership to ensure integration and coordination from the state, county and city government. I applaud the community-based approach that Mayor Duggan has launched with the land sale initiative and want to work closely with his administration to ensure a rebirth of our city by repopulating communities and that means we will need high quality schools where parents, students, and taxpayers have a voice,” Gay-Dagnogo said.
“Education must become the key focal point of all community stakeholders as it is the substratum many of the social ills our community face including the pipeline to prison, unemployment and crime.”
The freshman lawmaker said she is confident that Duggan “can ensure an economic rebirth of our city and region by helping to negotiate a fair and equitable community benefits agreement that will translate into partnerships for employability, great jobs, long-term residual benefits for residents, increased tax base and greater hubs for small business development.”