North Dakota shifts to defined-contribution model for public employee retirement system

Starting in 2025, North Dakota will be closing its defined-benefit pension plan for many newly hired public employees, who will instead be enrolled in a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan.

Supporters of the new law, HB 1040, say the change will help address the state’s long-term unfunded pension liabilities, which stand at $1.9 billion in the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System, or NDPERS. (This system does not include teachers.) North Dakota legislators also injected $200 million into NDPERS.

Opponents of HB 1040 say that by closing the defined-benefit system for new employees, the state will no longer have an important source of money to pay the benefits of retirees — namely, the pension contributions of those new workers. They argued that a better legislative solution was to shore up, but keep, the existing system.

Defined-benefit plans remain the predominant model for state retirement systems. However, more and more states are trying new approaches. According to a September 2023 study by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, five Midwestern states now use some kind of “hybrid” model in one or more of their systems: “cash balance” plans in Kansas and Nebraska (a worker accrues money in an account, which converts to an annuity upon his or her retirement), or a combination of defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Among those five states, Indiana has the highest percentage of public employees participating in a hybrid plan, the association found.

In a recent national study, the Equable Institute estimates that the average funded ratio among the nation’s largest state and local pension plans in 2023 is 77.4 percent, up from 75.4 percent in 2022.

The funded ratio is the value of assets in a pension fund divided by the value of promised lifetime income benefits, and it varies considerably from state to state (see map). The institute classifies the statewide pension plans of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin as “resilient” because they have funding ratios of 90 percent or more. All other statewide systems in the Midwest are classified as “fragile” (ratios of between 60 percent and 90 percent) or “distressed” (under 60 percent).

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Capital Closeup: In years ahead, Kansas will rely on outside commission to make changes in legislative pay

Kansas has joined the handful of other Midwestern states that employ a commission-style approach to setting the salaries of legislators. The change in practice is the result of this year’s SB 229. During the 2023 session, lawmakers made $88.66 per day, a figure that hasn’t gone up since 2009, according to the Kansas Reflector.

The concern in Kansas, as well as some other Midwestern states, is that unchanging, low levels of compensation keep many people from being willing or able to serve.

Under the new Kansas law, a nine-member commission (appointed by the Legislature, but with no current legislators on it) is tasked with studying compensation rates and retirement benefits and then issuing recommendations every four years. Minus legislative action, the commission’s recommendations on legislative compensation take effect (the first such change will be in 2025.)

In 2016, Minnesota voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment creating the independent Legislative Salary Council, which now sets legislative salaries every two years. The most recent change took effect in July and bumped annual pay up to $51,750. Prior to the council’s formation, legislative pay in Minnesota was $31,140 per year and had gone unchanged for a decade and a half.

The pay of legislators in Wisconsin is included in a compensation plan that covers other state elected officials as well as state employees. Developed by the Department of Adminstration (an executive branch agency), the plan must get approval from a joint legislative committee. Michigan has a State Officers Compensation Commission, but any of its recommended changes to the pay of legislators must be voted on and approved by the House and Senate.

Nebraska is the only Midwestern state where salaries are constitutionally prescribed; as a result, any change in legislative pay in that state — currently $12,000 a year — requires voter approval.

Two states in the region have statutory language that automatically adjusts legislative pay: in South Dakota, annual changes make the salary equal to 20 percent of the state’s median income; and in Indiana, the pay level is equal to 18 percent of the salary for trial court judges.

Minus the use of commissions or statutory formulas, legislators typically must initiate and then approve changes in their own pay. In early 2023, the Illinois General Assembly bumped up the annual legislative salary to $85,000; an automatic cost-of-living increase of 5 percent also took effect with the passage and signing of the state’s new state budget.

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As farmland comes under threat from development, ‘agrivoltaics’ is emerging as a potential option

The excitement in the roomful of legislators was palpable when they got a glimpse into a future in which solar energy and crop production may be able to coexist on the same piece of agricultural land.

Presenter Charles Gould had shown them a picture of vertical bifacial solar arrays, an “upright” system that allows for solar production “between the rows” of working farmland. It’s a potential solution to an issue of concern for the Midwestern region: how to address the increased demand for solar power, which requires substantial amounts of land, while preserving farmland for food production.

With help from Gould and Kris Reynolds of the American Farmland Trust, state and provincial legislators explored this issue in July during a session at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting. The session was presented jointly by two MLC committees: Agriculture and Rural Affairs and Energy and Environment.

In the Midwest, farmland seems abundant. In actuality, it is a limited national resource. According to Reynolds, between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of U.S. farmland were converted to other uses, predominantly low-density housing due to population growth and urban sprawl. Some farmland, however, also is and will be used to produce renewable energy. (Many crops already are turned into energy products; most notably, 30 percent of all corn produced in the U.S. is used for ethanol.)

According to U.S. Department of Energy projections, ground-based solar could require about 0.5 percent of the land in the contiguous United States by 2050; that is about one-third of the size of Ohio.

But when this prediction was made, little did researchers know that engineers at various renewable energy companies were looking to reduce solar’s land footprint. When situated in an east/west configuration, vertical bifacial solar arrays can collect 27 percent more energy than traditional southfacing, slanted arrays, Gould said. That’s because energy production peaks twice a day for vertical arrays as they capture solar energy in the morning and evening. Peak production times neatly correlate with peak energy demands, Gould said.

Though more expensive than traditional solar arrays, vertical bifacial solar arrays collect less dust and snow, thereby increasing energy output, he added.

Gould, a bioenergy educator at Michigan State University Extension, suggested that for farmers who don’t want their fields divided with solar energy systems, these systems could be used as pasture perimeters. Legislators are likely to hear more about these kinds of emerging products and technologies as they explore policies around “agrivoltaics” — the dual use of land for raising crops for food, fiber or fuel and for generating electricity.

This year, for instance, Colorado legislators passed a bill (SB 23-092) establishing new agrivoltaics-based property tax exemptions as well as a grant program to study the use of solar and farm production on the same land. Gould and Reynolds each offered their own policy ideas. Among them:

  • Consider incentives for dual-use solar and agricultural production.
  • Prioritize solar production on buildings or land not suitable for agriculture. However, don’t limit production to non-agricultural areas: Many farmers welcome the stability of revenue from solar production.
  • Design laws and regulations in a way that allow for changes in technology and flexibility in system design.
  • Ensure under-served communities are fully represented in decision-making.
  • Map your state’s agricultural land and plan for agriculture, not just around it.
  • Safeguard your state’s most productive land and invest in purchase of agricultural conservation easements (PACE), which keep this land from being taken out of production for other uses.

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Blueprints for reform: North Dakota, Indiana and Michigan are reimagining their juvenile justice systems

For many young people, the manner in which they interact with the juvenile justice system is not working.

Increased trauma. Lower levels of educational attainment. High recidivism rates. A rise in behavioral health issues.

“Justice system involvement has a host of negative outcomes for young people, particularly [those who] are low-risk and committing low-level offenses,” Nina Salomon said in July at a session led by the Midwestern Legislative Conference Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

With help from Salomon and her colleagues at the CSG Justice Center, states such as North Dakota, Indiana and Michigan are exploring promising new strategies to turn around their systems, as well as the lives of young people. During the July session, a panel of policy leaders from those three states shared some of the advances being made.

Lisa Bjergaard, director of the North Dakota Division of Juvenile Services, spoke about the impact of HB 1035, a landmark law from 2021 that rewrote the state’s juvenile justice code.

“One of the most significant changes … was to broaden counsel for all youths that are facing court [action],” said Bjergaard, referring to a provision that young people automatically be provided legal representation (rather than access to counsel being based on their parents’ or guardians’ ability to pay).

Also under the new law, more low-risk youths are getting connected to social services and diverted from formal involvement with the juvenile justice system. Additionally, risk and needs assessment tools must be used in making diversion and placement decisions.

With HB 1035 in place, Bjergaard said, various state agencies and groups are forming new partnerships to advance its goals, as well as to streamline or strengthen related services, funding and staffing. Last year, Indiana legislators passed HB 1359, a byproduct of work done by the state’s Commission on Improving the Status of Children.

“Data became the real elephant in the room that we needed to discuss … because we weren’t collecting it with integrity or fidelity,” said Rep. Wendy Rep. McNamara, author of HB 1359.

With new data-collection requirements in place, state leaders can better understand what happens to young people as they move through the system, as well as identify the services and resources that are improving outcomes. Indiana also is broadening behavioral health services, redesigning how it screens for risks and needs among young people in the system, expanding the use of diversion and transitional services, and developing standards for juvenile probation.

Some of those same structural changes may be coming to Michigan as well, under a bipartisan, 20-bill package now under consideration. It is the result of Michigan’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform — a group of legislators, judges, executive branch leaders and other stakeholders that produced a statewide blueprint for reform.

Michigan Rep. Sarah Lightner, who has been involved with reform groups for several years, said part of this new legislative package aims to improve young people’s representation in judicial proceedings, regardless of their financial standing — for example, better oversight of the county-based indigent defense system, as well as an expansion of appellate services for juveniles.

Michigan Sen. Sylvia Santana added that if the package becomes law, the placement of young people in residential placement centers will be reduced while community-based services will be expanded and better funded. Those and other goals would be met by:

  • expanding diversion opportunities for youths who are not a public safety risk,
  • creating a statewide juvenile public defense system and best-practices standards,
  • strengthening standards and quality assurance for local probation practices and statewide residential programs,
  • measuring system performance, outcomes and equity, and
  • establishing an advisory board for impacted youths and their families.

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Health leader shows how ‘place’ determines varying health outcomes — and why states should care

Why would a health insurer pay for new bedding and curtains, as well as the removal of carpets, for some select households in Michigan? Because “place matters” when it comes to health — both in terms of costs and outcomes.

People in those households had asthma, Shannon Wilson explained during a July presentation at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting, and they were part of a larger community that accounted for an outsized portion of Priority Health’s asthma-related costs. By removing and replacing those items, while also connecting individuals in those households to health professionals and an asthma management plan, the health insurer thought it could reduce costs while improving lives.

The investment paid off.

“We saw about a 40 percent reduction in inpatient admissions, a 60 percent reduction in the length of time that someone stayed in the hospital, and almost a 40 percent reduction in [emergency department] visits,” said Wilson, vice president of population health for Priority Health.

The root cause of asthma-related visits had been addressed not through a medical intervention, but by understanding and then addressing place-based determinants of health. “We were able to really change the trajectory of those families,” she said.

She believes that success story provides valuable lessons for state leaders on health policy. One is to look “beyond the 20 percent,” referring to how much clinical care contributes to variations in health outcomes among the U.S. population. The other 80 percent is driven by individual behavior, socioeconomic factors and the physical environment.

Mold and allergens in homes. Lead in the drinking water. Communities that aren’t walkable. A lack of affordable housing options. Those and other place-based factors contribute mightily to health outcomes and costs.

“Today’s fastest-growing populations are the least healthy,” Wilson noted.

That means the cost of health inequities will rise and rise if not addressed; one study, for instance, pegs the current total cost at $320 billion and has it increasing to $1 trillion by 2040. “We have to get this under control; it is not a sustainable system,” Wilson said.

She urged legislators to consider adopting more place-based health policy strategies, using a three-step approach: 1) “Understand the context” and root causes of the inequities, 2) try interventions based on what you’ve learned, and then 3) evaluate whether they worked.

“We have to get to a place where people have the opportunity to be as healthy as us,” Wilson said, regardless of where they live.

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Reid Wilson: Policy breakthroughs are continuing in states amid a deep national partisan divide

Between 2015 and 2021, the amount of spending by lobbyists in state capitals jumped from $1.75 billion to $2.21 billion. And it’s little wonder, Reid Wilson said during a keynote session in July that kicked off the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting: A lot is getting done and tried in those capitals.

He pointed to several new policy innovations and trends, often being pursued with bipartisan support.

They range from new investments in mental health (988 lifelines and more counselors in schools) and infrastructure (rebates for electric vehicles, road and bridge repairs, and broadband grants), to the pursuit of new laws that shore up election systems and address concerns about the impacts of social media and artificial intelligence.

“What happens in Des Moines or Madison today will happen in 25 other states next year, and then become federal policy in a few years,” said Wilson, who is one of the nation’s most respected political journalists as well as the founder and editor of Pluribus News, which covers state-level policy across the country.

The job of elected officials is more complicated than ever before, Wilson said, because of the general mood of the country and a deep partisan divide. “The American malaise right now is very bad, and it’s been happening for a long time. Americans are not in the mind to give the president the benefit of the doubt, no matter which party he’s from,” he said. “This speaks to something really deep and fundamental right now.”

In 1999, he said, Democratic and Republican voters agreed on four of the five “top” issues facing the country. In 2023, they agree on none. “We’re just about two countries living side by side,” Wilson added. Despite these challenges, a Pluribus survey of state legislators conducted earlier this year showed most of them were satisfied with their jobs; many, too, felt the 2023 session in their states was more productive than the year prior. At the same time, many legislators report that partisan division is on the rise in their respective state capitals.

“I hope you fight against this in your states, but I have the increasing sense that which infects D.C. is creeping into the states,” Wilson said. Responding to audience questions, Wilson said some of the causes of this creep include the state of constant campaigning, as well as in both the rise of partisan “infotainment” news channels and in declining news coverage of state legislatures.

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With staff support from CSG Midwest, state and provincial legislators come together to advance Great Lakes policies

In early September, legislators from both sides of the border traveled to Québec City for a one-of-a-kind event that explores Great Lakes-related policies and the role of state and provincial legislators.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus meets in person once a year. With staff support from CSG Midwest, the GLLC also holds policy-focused institutes for legislators, tracks state and federal bills, holds web-based meetings, and gives members the chance to serve as a voice for the region on federal Great Lakes policy.

At this year’s GLLC Annual Meeting, members passed five resolutions, including policy statements on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, climate resiliency and the Brandon Road invasive species project. The caucus also updated its strategic plan and policy agenda. Click the links below to learn more about actions taken at the recent meeting, as well as information about GLLC membership, which is free and open to all legislators from the Great Lakes states and provinces.

New GLLC policy resolutions »
GLLC policy agenda »
GLLC strategic plan »
GLLC leadership team »
How to join the GLLC »

CSG Midwest and the GLLC thank the Joyce Foundation, Charles S. Mott Foundation, Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation and National Assembly of Québec for supporting this year’s meeting and the continuing work of the caucus.

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‘Truly unifying issue’: A look at food insecurity and the role states play in addressing it

Out in the fields of western Michigan, before he became a state lawmaker, “Farmer Rog” was doing a job that ultimately would help shape his legislative agenda. Agricultural products — “off-grade,” but edible and healthy — were regularly being delivered every week to Roger Victory’s produce facility.

“What was our job? Was it to recondition [that product], to get it into the food system?” Victory said. “No, it was just to be disposed of — semi-loads of product with $10,000, $20,000 of potential market value. And it wasn’t just one semi. It was two semis, three semis a week.”

Across the Midwest, lots of food is being produced by farmers like Victory, yet there are households without enough to eat.

food security“Couldn’t there be a better way?” Victory thought as he composted that “excess product” in his fields. Finding answers has been a legislative priority of his ever since coming to Lansing.

Victory told that story in July to fellow legislators as part of his introduction of a featured session at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting on “Food Security: Feeding the Future” — the focus of his MLC Chair’s Initiative for 2023.

“This is a truly unifying issue,” Victory said. “We all have constituents who struggle every day to put food on their tables and to feed their families.”

Nationwide, more than 9 million U.S. children and more than 24 million adults living in a household with some degree of “food insecurity,” including some households reporting “low” or “very low” levels of food security.

Recent policy actions in Victory’s point to the possibility of some “win-wins” for legislators and their constituents. For instance, Michigan is providing more dollars to a grant program for food banks to purchase excess food from agriculture producers in order to better meet the emergency food needs of households. New investments are being made to build stronger local food systems and supply chains. And state funding is going to a Double Up Food Bucks program that opens new markets for farmers’ locally grown foods while boosting support for individuals who receive food-assistance benefits. (See bottom of this page for details on these and other recent state actions in the Midwest.)

“There’s enough of us now who believe that we can solve this problem; I don’t think we want to just manage it anymore,” Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, said about food insecurity, singling out some of the advances in that state during a panel discussion at the MLC Annual Meeting.

Formula for success: Strong economy plus expanding reach of SNAP

Rates of food insecurity are regularly measured by the federal government, and are based on responses from U.S. households to a series of survey questions.

“It’s become the leading indicator of well-being for vulnerable households in America; I really think it has surpassed the poverty rate,” said Professor Craig Gundersen, a leading researcher on food insecurity and the Snee Family Endowed Chair at the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. Those surveys show that progress has been made in recent years: Rates of food insecurity among U.S. households fell 40 percent between 2014 and 2021, Gundersen told legislators.

The most recently available federal data puts the U.S. rate of food-insecure households at 10.4 percent (when averaging the years 2019, 2020 and 2021). Four Midwestern states — Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota — have a “statistically significant” lower rate than the national average. Every other state in the region is close to the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Household Food Security in the United States in 2021.”

Authors of that USDA report cite several contributors to the state-by-state variations. On the policy side, state laws and programs affect access to unemployment insurance, nutrition assistance and the earned income tax credit. In turn, access to these as well as other safety-net and/or anti-poverty programs influences rates of food insecurity.

Differences in state-level economic characteristics play a role as well. For example, lower average wages lead to higher rates of food insecurity, as do higher costs (for housing and food, in particular) and unemployment rates. At the household level, families with children have higher-than-average rates of food insecurity (12.5 percent in 2021). This is especially true of households with children headed by a female with no spouse: Nearly 1 in 4 of these households report being food insecure, compared to 7.4 percent of married-couple households.

What has led to the recent decline in overall U.S. rates of food insecurity? Gundersen pointed to two factors during his July presentation to the MLC: Strong economic growth “raised up” more households, while enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which provides food assistance to low-income people — also rose.

Not only did SNAP reach more households in need, he added, policy changes increased the level of benefits.

Though recognizing that SNAP has its critics, Gundersen praised the federal-state program and its structure. According to Gundersen, it reaches those most in need, gives them dignity and autonomy when making food purchases, can be used at virtually all food retail outfits, and does not discourage work among recipients.

“Every discussion about food insecurity … has to involve SNAP,” Gundersen said about the nation’s largest hunger-fighting program.

Each month, around 40 million Americans receive help from the program, with benefits provided via an electronic benefits transfer card that is only redeemable for food purchases. In fiscal year 2022, the average monthly benefit, per household, was $438.99.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the percentage of state residents in the Midwest participating in SNAP in FY 2022 ranged from a high of 16 percent in Illinois to a low of 6 percent in North Dakota. Nationwide, the center says, more than 65 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; 36 percent are in families with members who are older adults or disabled; and 41 percent are in working families.

Among Gundersen’s policy ideas for state legislators: Find ways of streamlining the SNAP recertification process so that households in need of assistance don’t lose benefits. “There is [too much] churn where people are off the program and back on the next month because they missed a notification or there’s some sort of glitch,” he said. “Let’s make recertification a lot more streamlined.”

One recent example from the Midwest: This year’s passage in Indiana of SB 334, which directs state administrators of SNAP to simplify the certification process and lengthen renewal periods for the state’s disabled and older residents.

A ‘meal gap’ among certain groups, and in many rural areas

Gundersen also pointed out some not-so-good news to the region’s legislators about trends in food insecurity. He said rates remain high among certain groups, particularly African Americans, Native Americans and people with disabilities. Those disparities remain even when controlling for income.

“The gap between Whites and Blacks in the Midwest is astounding compared to other parts of the country,” Gundersen said. (It’s nearly 15 percentage points.)

Nationwide, too, the most recent USDA study showed much higher rates of food insecurity among Black and Hispanic households: 19.8 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively, compared to 7.0 percent of White households.

There are other notable disparities as well, across the region and entire United States; for example, food insecurity tends to be higher in rural areas. According to the hunger-relief organization Feeding America, which tracks county-level data for its “Map the Meal Gap” study, 89 percent of the U.S. counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are rural.

In the Midwest, Michigan has 42 counties with elevated rates of food insecurity (11.9 percent or more of the population), and nearly all of them are concentrated in the state’s northern region and Upper Peninsula. Many of Ohio’s 46 counties with higher-than-average food-insecurity rates are in the rural, southeast part of the state. In South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota County, 26.3 percent of the residents report being “food insecure,” one of the nation’s highest rates. This county has a mostly Native American population. In four other Midwestern states — Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin — the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity also have high numbers of Native Americans.

According to Feeding America, of the 34 million people in the United States experiencing food insecurity, 8.2 percent are Native American, a group that makes up less than 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Disability: ‘The leading predictor of food insecurity’

Here is another striking disparity: Nationwide, 93 percent of households with non-disabled adults are “food secure,” but the rate falls to 76 percent for households with disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 64.

“The leading predictor of food insecurity in the United States today is disability status, especially mental health,” Gundersen said. “So if we want to talk about food insecurity in the United States today, it’s really a story about disability. … Figuring out how we can improve the wellbeing, how we can make things easier for those facing disabilities, has to be part of [the] discussion.”

Addressing food security goes hand in hand with addressing the nation’s mental health crisis, he said. And for individuals who have difficulty traveling due to a disability, states can help by making SNAP certification simpler and by investing in programs that enable the home delivery of meals. Knight said some Michigan food banks are partnering with private businesses such as DoorDash, and through another pilot initiative, “fresh food pharmacies” are opening inside of health clinics.

“How do we get food to people who can’t get to the food? We’re trying to be creative and innovative in that,” Knight said, adding that states can help by partnering with local food banks on these programs.

The causes and effects of being food-insecure

Panelists for the MLC meeting session also pointed to various studies showing how health outcomes and costs, as well as the academic success of young people, are tied to food security. “One of the great predictors of graduation rates is third-grade reading levels, right?” Knight said. “But if they’re not well fed, they will never be well read.”

University of Toronto Professor Emerita Valerie Tarasuk, a pioneer of research on food insecurity in Canada, said the correlation with health also is clear.

“[It] takes a huge toll on health and on health care budgets,” she said. “An adult in Canada who is in a severely food-insecure household, in the course of a 12-month period, burns up more than double the health care dollars of somebody else who’s food-secure.”

Canada does not have a food-based assistance program such as SNAP. It instead relies on cash transfers to provide low-income households with the financial resources they need. According to Tarasuk, those transfers have not kept pace with recent spikes in the price of food, housing and other necessities. As a result, food-insecurity rates in that country have been on the rise.

It’s a reminder, too, that income levels and a social safety net are not the only determinants of food insecurity; prices of goods, especially food, play a role as well. According to Gundersen, giving farmers “the freedom to operate” helps keep food prices low and contributes to food security. Tarasuk, meanwhile, urged legislators to look at broader economic metrics — for example, the wages being paid to workers.

“We can see very clearly from Canadian data that even a small increase in the minimum wage reduces the rate of food insecurity,” she said.

Another session panelist, Michigan State University Professor M. Jahi Johnson-Chappell, wrote a book detailing how a community in Brazil dramatically reduced hunger. He shared his global insights during the discussion. The first step, Johnson-Chappell said, was having political leaders recognize food as a “right of citizenship.”

That didn’t mean directly providing every person with a meal, he said, but instead creating conditions to ensure access to it (just as a right such as free speech doesn’t guarantee access to a newspaper, but creates an environment where it is available to citizens).

Once the “right to food with dignity” was recognized and taken seriously, Johnson-Chappell said, a series of interventions followed. Central to the effort were new partnerships with local farmers.

“We saw decreases in infant mortality and infant malnutrition of 50 to 70 percent, a decrease in diabetes of about 30 percent, and it was one of the few Brazilian cities that saw increases in fruit and vegetable consumption,” said Johnson-Chappell, director of Michigan State’s Center for Regional Food System.

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A relationship worth working on: Region’s legislators can deepen cross-border economic, personal ties

What do a former Midwestern governor, a former chair of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, a farmer-turned-member of the Canadian Parliament (MP), and a social worker-turned MP have in common?

They all believe deeply in the importance of the U.S.-Canada relationship.

During a July session at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting, all four shared stories and insights on the role of state and provincial legislators in strengthening cross-border ties. Canadian MPs Randy Hoback (Saskatchewan) and Brian masse (Ontario) were joined on the panel by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (Minnesota).

The session took place in downtown Detroit, just a few miles from the busiest crossing along the U.S.-Canada border.

On a single day, $2.6 billion in trade occurs between the two countries, Hoback noted, a system of open commerce that allows U.S. and Canadian businesses to make products together and opens markets for the Midwest’s agriculture producers, manufacturers and others.

During his time as governor, Snyder said, one of the most striking aspects of the relationship was how it defied party lines on issues such as trade and the Great Lakes. He worked equally well with Canada’s Liberal and Conservative leaders during an important juncture: negotiations over a new international crossing in the Detroit-Windsor area.

Masse thanked Snyder for his support of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which is expected to open for traffic by 2025 and is the result of a deal reached in 2012 by Snyder and then-Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper.

Canada is paying for the design, construction and operation of the six-lane, 1.6-mile bridge. In return, Canada will have sole authority to charge tolls. The bridge is expected to make crossing times shorter and more reliable, an important development in helping maintain and expand this region’s cross-border supply chains.

But there are potential challenges ahead for the relationship as well.

Hoback, for instance, highlighted the upcoming six-year mandated review of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2026; it’s a review that could pose risks (and rewards) to the two countries’ economic relationship, he said.

Masse noted, too, that there is ongoing pressure for governments on both sides of the border to compete against each other for jobs and businesses. One recent example: competition for a new battery plant that ultimately landed in Windsor.

“The auto industry pressured local, state and federal governments for incentives,” he said. “I don’t want to compete for auto jobs versus Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other states. I want to compete for auto jobs [with] Europe and Asia and have us work harder together with regional policies in North America.”

Despite the strength and longevity of the U.S.-Canada relationship, the panel and audience lamented the lack of knowledge that citizens of both countries, especially young people, have about the other country.

People living along the border, particularly political leaders, have the chance to change that, the panel said. Participate in binational events such as the MLC Annual Meeting, talk to someone you don’t know from the other country, and share best practices, Hoback said.

Or even steal an idea or two.

Early in the discussion, Snyder talked about organizing youth trips to the new Detroit-Windsor bridge to get students thinking about the two countries, bridge engineering and cross-border trade. Masse plans to take that idea and use it in Canada.

Likewise, Snyder challenged state and provincial lawmakers to find one action item on U.S.-Canada relations and apply it to their legislative work. There are plenty of items to choose from, as Snyder learned from plans for the new bridge as well as his six-year tenure leading the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.

For those living near the border, MP Masse suggested hiring employees from both countries. (Some of his parliamentary interns are from Michigan.) Hoback encouraged families to explore study-abroad opportunities in Canada or the United States.

All of the panelists, too, recalled the days of easier border crossings and argued that an enhanced identification or driver’s license should be enough to cross the border — no passport required.

Finally, to build better cross-border relations, Peterson urged legislators to listen. He explained that the most successful people he knows are those who actively listen to and understand others.

Organized by the MLC Midwest-Canada Relations Committee, the panel discussion was moderated by Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center.

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In Michigan, a public-private partnership takes a sector-specific approach to building a skilled workforce

In many economic sectors and parts of the country, the United States does not have enough workers to fill open positions (see map for Midwest).

One strategy being pursued in Michigan to build talent pipelines in high-demand areas: a unique public-private partnership known as Sector Strategies Employer-Led Collaboratives, a brainchild of the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO).

“[We] leverage the power of multiple employers within an industry coming together to say, ‘This is what I need in a person. These are the skills. These are the competencies. This is the education, the credentials that I need them to have,’ ” Deb Lyzenga, an LEO division administrator, said during a July session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting.

“Then we start bringing in our educators, our workforce system, our labor partners.”

Michigan now has more than 60 formally identified employer-led collaboratives, in sectors such as energy, health care, mobility, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, information technology and hospitality. The state provides grants and technical assistance.

Working together, business leaders from the same economic sector identify common in-demand, unfilled positions; pinpoint barriers to hiring; evaluate recruitment strategies; and establish agreed-upon outcome metrics to track the collaborative’s progress. They also develop employee training plans that can be implemented throughout the sector and in educational institutions.

Once a collaborative has met, articulated its goals and executed a plan, the department helps evaluate progress.

“We go back to the employers and we say, ‘How did that work? Did you hire the people that you wanted to? Are they up to speed in their job as fast as you expected them to be? Tell us what the gaps are,’ ” Lyzenga said.

“As a workforce system, it’s systemic change. We’re starting to talk the same language.”

Earlier this year, the state awarded $4.6 million in grants to develop new collaboratives and maintain existing ones.

During the session, organized by the MLC Education and Workforce Development Committee, lawmakers heard from individuals directly involved with the employer-led collaboratives.

Deborah Majeski, manager of DTE Energy’s Center of Excellence Workforce Development, has been part of an energy-focused collaborative since 2016.

“We have well over 5,000 different job roles that we offer,” Majeski explained. “Michigan’s energy [sector] accounts for more than 116,000 energy-related careers, with the demand [projected to grow by] 7.5 percent between 2020 and 2030.”

From this collaborative, myriad training programs have been integrated into secondary and postsecondary schools; for example, a college-credit-awarding program known as the Energy Industry Fundamentals Course will be offered this fall at six Michigan high schools and seven community colleges. It prepares students to enter 15 job roles in the energy sector — roles that are available to individuals of varying educational attainment levels.

At Henry Ford College, 40-foot telephone poles have been built on campus for prospective electrical line workers as part of the Power and Trade Pathways Program, through which students can pursue an associate degree or certificates in various energy-related skilled trades.

The collaborative also helps expose middle and high school students to possible careers in renewable energy, via virtual field trips and accompanying workbooks.

A newer collaborative is focused on electrical vehicle manufacturing. The initial focus of this “EV Jobs Academy” has been to collect workforce data and share results with industry leaders.

“Our labor-market intelligence really informs our regional training strategies, [our] curriculum development,” Michele Economou Ureste, executive director of the Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan, said.

Once top occupation sectors and related skills are identified, she added, the EV Jobs Academy will work with Michigan colleges and universities to develop new learning and training opportunities on a shared online platform.

At the same time, it is collaborating with other industry groups to secure grants from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and to develop new apprenticeship opportunities for prospective workers in the EV manufacturing field.




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