Ready to face off in the polls, Hoitenga and Gabert answer questions on bills

BIG RAPIDS — Election Day is a little more than a week away, and the ballot includes the race for the next state representative for the 102nd district, with Republican Michele Hoitenga facing Democrat Douglas Gabert.

In a questionnaire emailed to each candidate, Hoitenga and Gabert were asked to give their views on what qualifies them for the job and some of the bills proposed or recently enacted in the state. The Pioneer gave the candidates two weeks to fill out the questionnaire, with a 250-word limit for each response.

Pioneer question: How have you grown as a candidate since the primary election?

Douglas Gabert

Douglas Gabert

GABERT: Until filing as a candidate in April, I’ve spent my life in mostly deliberate obscurity. From filing until the primary, my candidacy was fairly low key, and by today’s sound and fury standards, it still is, but less so. After the primary, I’ve worked harder and have gotten out and about more. Going door to door and through social media, I’ve often encountered people who have disagreed with me on issues and have had some mutually respectful conversations with many. These have made me think about, rather than just dismiss opposing views, and have been a good antidote to the tendency to remain only in one’s own circle during this polarized election. On the other hand, I’ve felt others’ anger and have at times been taken aback at its intensity. I am hopeful, but not confident, that this country will come together after the election. I’ve also run into those who have said they never vote. This is a significant percentage of the electorate, in a way the largest third party, that neither side seems able to reach and I am disappointed in myself when I cannot change their minds. In other areas, by studying, I have learned more about the issues, and this has been in part due to the need to complete questionnaires such as this and preparing for speaking engagements. Running for office is difficult but we need to do this for our democracy to function.

Michele Hoitenga

Michele Hoitenga

HOITENGA: A current Michigan State Representative told me prior to the primary election, “win or lose, you will be forever changed by this experience,” and he was right. Anyone who runs for office must endure great scrutiny and judgment. People are especially anxious this political cycle. There are so many facets to campaigning and campaign laws that many people do not understand the intensity of it. Designing mailers, fundraising, attending events, managing campaign finance software, knocking on doors, social media updates, placing signs, picking up signs and replacing signs and the list goes on and on. Campaigning is literally a full-time job and on top of campaigning, I have a business and served as mayor. I hope this proves to people I am able to successfully handle many tasks under great pressure. My Christian faith keeps me grounded. I have spent many years of my life being a public servant and this has allowed me to serve in the biggest capacity yet. My job as state rep. will be representing everyone within the district, both Democrats and Republicans alike. Regardless of partisanship, we share the same concerns and must work together to bring forth thoughtful solutions to today’s challenges and I am more prepared than ever to accomplish this. The personal, spiritual and professional growth in my life from this campaign has forever changed me; I am wiser, stronger and will continue to grow as a person through this journey.

Where do you stand on some the bills in the House right now, such as the proposed beer tax bill or the amendment to the boundaries of the state? 

GABERT: The proposed beer tax increase introduced by Representative Tom Hooker has some laudatory goals. The estimated $60 million a year it would generate would fund alcohol treatment programs, fetal alcohol syndrome prevention and more. But by raising the beer excise tax around 250 percent it goes too far and I would oppose it. The bill, with no co-sponsors, probably has no chance of passing anyways. Representative Potvin introduced House Bill 4264, which would clarify Michigan’s boundaries. Ferris Professor Emeritus Richard Santer, a geographer, has advocated for years for legislation spelling out Michigan’s borders and displaying Michigan’s map accurately, in particular including areas of the Great Lakes under Michigan’s jurisdiction. I support this as long overdue, and with Michigan accurately depicted with its water we will see how much larger the state is than just the two peninsulas and how essential the Great Lakes are to Michigan. I hope the bill passes before the end of this legislative session. Of other legislation pending in the House, I support HB 5015 (2015), parts of which encourage energy conservation, alternative sources of energy and protect consumers from rate increases without hearings and notice. I support HB 5966, with its senate companion SB 1118, introduced just a couple of weeks ago which would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to toughen the statewide lead in water standard. This was something Governor Snyder called for months ago but it has taken Democrats to introduce the legislation, as no legislation was forthcoming from Republicans.

HOITENGA: Let’s begin with what government’s role should be in our lives. The goal of state government should be in line with the Michigan Constitution which gives a very specific outline for a legislator’s job. I will not support bills that hinder, stifle or eliminate freedoms that are afforded to us by our constitutional rights. I would not vote in favor of tax increases of any kind unless my constituents agreed it was a necessary tax. Government’s duties must include investing in more infrastructure, roads, water and sewer infrastructure, internet, first responder services and so forth for the sake of thriving communities. The only way schools and communities can flourish is from strong businesses with good paying jobs. Michigan also must take care of our veterans who selflessly served our country with sufficient health care and services. Foremost, a good legislator can address the needs of a district by listening to the citizens. I will achieve this with consistent in-district constituent meetings throughout our communities. With this said, I would not vote in favor of the proposed beer tax bill but the amendment to the boundaries of the state was a bill that appeared necessary. Testimony given at the state capitol by Big Rapids’ Dr. Santer stated, “Michigan educators, geographers, historians and others need an updated boundary description to communicate the true area of citizen responsibility. There have been so many boundary changes since the well-known 1836 Toledo War, that a 21st-Century boundary description is long overdue. (Mlive, 2016)”

Where do you stand on the recently passed medical marijuana bills?

GABERT: The package of bills establishes a licensing system to grow, sell and transport medical marijuana. Medical marijuana will also be taxed and non-smokable marijuana will be legalized. The new laws are a mixed bag and there are parts I support and parts I oppose. On the one hand, it takes medical marijuana dispensaries out of a legal gray area. Eight years after voters approved legalizing medical marijuana, dispensaries thrive in some counties and are raided and shut down in others. This package will put dispensaries on more solid ground. The testing portion of the legislation will benefit consumers by labeling medical marijuana on a tiered system. Consumers will better know what they are getting. Legalizing non-smokable medical marijuana (edibles and pills) will allow consumers more choices in how they use marijuana and the state would gain revenue from the tax. However, the licensing fees haven’t been established yet and could be prohibitive for some, as could the cost of medical marijuana itself (although the likely increased supply may keep prices from rising). The regulation of medical marijuana at every step from growing, testing and distribution seems like regulatory overkill. Much better would be to just legalize marijuana for personal use. Tax revenue could still be had, but far fewer regulations would be needed and the criminal justice system would spend far less time and money in prosecuting a victimless crime. We ought to allow for personal freedom and responsibility and declare an end to the war on this drug.

HOITENGA: Regardless of my personal stance on medical marijuana, in Nov. 2008, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Initiative was approved by 62.7 percent of voters, legalizing medical marijuana. On Sept. 21, Governor Synder signed legislation that offered guidelines and regulations on medical marijuana. The new legislation imposes a new tax and establishes a state licensing system to grow, process, sell, transport or test marijuana. Non-smokable forms of the drug also become legal under these bills. Another measure within the bills created a monitoring system to track marijuana from “seed to sale” and alert any excess purchases. These are all positive measures, and I especially like the idea of allowing local municipalities and townships to have more control over their own communities. I have listened to many communities discussing their options and some are enticed by the tax revenue this will generate. The money would be split as follows: 30 percent to the state; 30 percent to counties with a marijuana facility; 25 percent to cities or townships with a facility; 5 percent to the Michigan State Police; 5 percent to county sheriffs; and 5 percent for a law enforcement standards commission. Communities can limit the number of dispensaries. This legislation is a step in the right direction to help terminal patients who are suffering and do not want to take man-made medications with horrendous side effects. While the bill was meant to clear up the law, townships, police, lawyers and dispensary owners still feel they are left to interpret the laws.

The third-grade reading bill was just passed. Do you see this as more helpful or hindering for teachers and students?

GABERT: I see the retention portion of the bill, holding students back if they are not proficient in reading starting in the 2019-2020 school year, hindering teachers and students. Retention has not been shown to be an effective remediation measure. Students found not to be proficient in reading can be promoted if proficient in other areas and receiving remedial reading instruction, or if parents or guardian request it and the request is granted by the superintendent. The decision to retain or promote a student should be made at the teacher and principal level, as superintendents are less likely to know the student as well. Districts with higher poverty show a significantly higher percentage of students not proficient in reading at third grade. Parents or guardians living in poverty are less often likely to be as effective advocates for their children than affluent parents or guardians so the law could have the effect retaining or promoting children based on socio-economic factors, factors which the law does nothing to address. The law is an improvement over an earlier version, which allowed retention without exceptions and it does have its positives in that it recognizes the importance of literacy at this grade level and provides funding for remediation, both for literacy coaches and for additional instruction time, but the law as written takes the decision to retain away from those closest to the student, that is teachers and parents or guardians.

HOITENGA: In general, I am not a proponent of legislating schools at the state level because all schools are not “one size fits all.” I am a proponent of allowing local school officials and teachers the authority to decide what is best for their students. To get some insight from an educator’s perspective, I recently asked a group of teachers this question about the third-grade reading bill, which would prohibit schools from promoting students to fourth grade if they are a full grade-level behind in reading. Most teachers I spoke with agreed that if a child is not sufficiently reading by the third grade, then something has broken down in the child’s progression and needs to be addressed. The breakdown can come from cognitive issues or socio-economic or family issues. It was also many of their opinion(s) that it is easier on a child to be ‘held back’ in kindergarten than in third grade. By the third grade, the child has built relationships with peers and would be embarrassed by being held back. The bill did offer exemptions that allow for input from educators and parents to provide an outlined program to enhance the child’s reading goals. I find the bill both helpful (for the student) and hindering (revenue needed to enact programs), but it places a high emphasis on early intervention (more than retention) and I would rather see a child held back for one grade than to hold him or her back for a lifetime of reading struggles.

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Posted by Meghan Gunther-Haas

Meghan is the education reporter for the Pioneer and Herald Review. She can be reached at (231) 592-8382 or by email at mhaas@pioneergroup.com.

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