1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Creating equity in Michigan’s environmental laws and policies
ABOUT ERIKA GEISS:
Senator Erika Geiss is not afraid to fight for Michigan families and underrepresented communities. She is a fervent supporter of policies promoting social change, especially when it comes to uplifting communities of color and low-income families. She is the Assistant President Pro Tempore of the Michigan Senate, where she is also serving her second term.
Senator Geiss previously served two terms in the Michigan House of Representatives and then as the Democratic Caucus Chair in her first term in the Senate. Her major legislative accomplishments include improving the standards of care for pregnant and nursing prisoners at the state’s only facility for female inmates, improving communication with the Federal Railroad Administration to decrease blocked crossings in her community, and developing the standards of implicit bias training for health care professionals across the state as part of a broader strategy to reduce racial disparities in health outcomes.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology from Brandeis University and her master’s degree in art and architectural history from Tufts University. She is the granddaughter of Panamanian immigrants and has spent most of her adult life in Michigan.
She and her husband, Doug, live in Taylor and have two children.
ABOUT LISA WOZNIAK:
Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.
Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'm David Fair. On the first Friday of the month, we take on topics related to the environment on the first Friday of every month here at WEMU. Over the years, we've had a great number of conversations about environmental justice and the inequities that create greater hardship and worse outcomes for people of color and those on the low end of the income spectrum. Today, we have another opportunity to explore the ongoing efforts to change the future. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and she's my partner for WEMU's First, Friday Focus on the Environment. Fortunately, she knows who to talk to about making more of the long needed changes. Always good to see you, Lisa.
Lisa Wozniak: It's a pleasure to be here, Dave. And our guest today is State Senator Erika Geiss. Senator Geiss is a Democrat serving her second term in the Michigan Senate after serving two terms in the state House. She represents a newly-drawn first Senate district that includes Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Melvindale, River Rouge, and parts of Allen Park, Detroit and Taylor. She serves as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair, as well as the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus.
David Fair: Well, welcome to the show, Senator Geiss.
Sen. Erika Geiss: Thank you. It's good to be here with you both.
Lisa Wozniak: So, Senator Geiss, the Legislature has had a very busy year thus far, passing major pieces of legislation in just the first three months. As I mentioned in the introduction, you chair the Legislative Black Caucus, and many in the caucus are in key leadership positions in both the House and the Senate. Given this new reality in Lansing, are you seeing more attention paid to issues that are of particular importance to the caucus? And perhaps, more pointedly, have you been able to start the year tackling problems that have historically had adverse impact on people of color?
Sen. Erika Geiss: That's a great question. And, yes, it has been a whirlwind of the first ten weeks, being in a position right now where we have more members of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus be in key leadership positions, does place us, each of us, individually representing our districts, but also as members of the MLBC, to be in positions where the issues that affect, dramatically and often adversely, affect our committees are given the type of attention that they deserve and that has not been quite listened to in the same way in previous legislatures.
David Fair: Senator Geiss, in our time today, I do want to cover some of those issues in specific, and that would include some higher costs of food, housing costs and interest rates. They're all adding up on top of supply chain issues that have made the cost of home services skyrocket again. These are issues that tend to historically hit marginalized communities to a much greater degree. There is a coalition of housing and environmental advocates that want to use budget surpluses to seriously invest in making homes more energy efficient and healthier during the budget cycle. Will that make it through? And will it do so with a focus on communities in greatest need?
Sen. Erika Geiss: I hope that that will make it through. And then, we also have some excellent allies who are partners in addressing housing-related issues. Of course, it's only been ten weeks, so there will be many more pieces of legislation--policy-wise and appropriations-wise--that will come through. And so, such things regarding water affordability, for example, energy efficiency, being able to make sure that as we have experienced in the last few weeks of multiple storms and hopefully they are in our past now. We lost power, many people for multiple days, and addressing the fact that those energy bills are still high and that the compensation that has been offered by our two energy companies is not sufficient to capture the imagination to offset the fact that people lost whatever investments they made in, for example, the foods that they might have bought. So, there are so many areas that overlap and intersect. And I think we have to be very attuned to ensuring that when one policy area is addressed, that any intersecting policy areas are also addressed, so that we're not causing harm with our policies.
David Fair: 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment continues. I'm David Fair, alongside my co-host Lisa Wozniak from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And our guest today is state Senator Erika Geiss.
Lisa Wozniak: So, Senator, you mentioned the recent power outages and indeed, you know, thousands and thousands of people throughout southern Lower Michigan were without power for many days, as you said. What is the Legislature's role, in particular, in holding the two utilities accountable, and what are the next steps in doing so?
Sen. Erika Geiss: Well, I know that both Representative Helena Scott on the House side and Senator Sean McCann on the Senate side did have hearings with the energy companies. I'm sure that there will be--I imagine I should say--there will be more of those. The Public Service Commission is the governing body over the utilities. And I think that this is a space where the Legislature and the Public Service Commission need to really work together to be able to make sure that energy is affordable and accessible and reliable and that we're holding our energy companies responsible. This is something that, especially today as we learned during COVID, energy is something that is a necessity for everybody.
Lisa Wozniak: Right. You know, I was going to pivot quickly and ask because there's another issue that's been really plaguing southeast Michigan. And, yes, our energy companies need to be held accountable. It sounds like we also need to do a little bit of accountability in terms of what we're doing with our toxic waste, because Michiganders woke up a few weeks ago to news that toxic waste from the Ohio train derailment was being shipped to the area--to Romulus, in fact. And they were surprised and I would say outraged. And this deep injection well has been there for years, right in the middle of a highly-populated area. So, many think this is unthinkable, and there's a desire to shut it down. Can steps be taken to do just that?
Sen. Erika Geiss: Yeah, that has been...trying to get that deep injection well shut down permanently has been a decade long issue. Nobody in Michigan knew it was coming here until it was on its way is a deeper issue. And I think that one of the things--one of the problems--is that other states have a much higher threshold of what is allowable to be stored, however you wanted to find it disposed of. And Michigan doesn't. So, that's a space where we could do something where we are seeing that we are not going to accept it. And I will say Romulus was part of my old district, both in the Senate and in the House, not that far from where where I live, in fact. And, you know, it is remarkably concerning. In fact, a lot of this material is being transported across the country, whether it's by truck or by rail or whatever that method of movement is. That's something that should be concerning to everybody because that type of derailment could have quite easily happened here.
David Fair: So, we have time for one more question. And I want to talk a little bit about transportation--not rail transportation, but EVs and personal transportation. It's all part of the larger mobility issue. We're seeing more scooters, some increased accessibility to public transportation, and more walkable communities. But it seems to me it's been kind of piecemeal--community to community. Is there a plan to guide the Legislature into comprehensive mobility with equity in mind?
Sen. Erika Geiss: That is a great question because that is one of my goals. I really want us to look at how we're doing--how we're handling--regional transit. And I know that there are people who really want to see more state-- east to west, north to south--transit as well, which is needed. But I think we really need to make sure that the various options that people want are made available to them for transit. And they definitely need to be accessible. Last term, in fact, we were doing a town hall geared towards members of the disability community. We did it at our Taylor Community Library, and I learned that the accessible bus line stopped running after our town hall would have ended. Many of the very people who would have been able to attend would have been able to get there but not returned back home. So, there are gaps in the existing system. There are people who are going to be, unfortunately, priced out of these, even as more of them become available, and they become a larger percentage of our personal vehicular stop. And we have to make sure that the people who either are able to obtain EVs, not to mention the fact that we need a reliable energy grid so that people can charge their vehicle, you know, we need to make sure that we have reliable, alternate forms of transportation available for every Michigander who wants to or needs to use them, and so that they can get to the places they need to go: school, work, medical appointments, recreation, the market, all the things that we need to get to throughout our days.
David Fair: Well, we could spend literally hours talking about the measures that are needed to ensure environmental justice and a future sustainable environment. But our time today has come to an end. I want to thank you for sharing the time and the insight, Senator Geiss.
Sen. Erika Geiss: Thank you. And I would love to be able to have more of these conversations.
David Fair: And we shall do it.
Sen. Erika Geiss: Hopefully, we'll get some things done this year on these issues.
David Fair: That is Democratic state Senator Erika Geiss. She represents Michigan's first district and is chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and the Senate Infrastructure and Transportation Committee. The other voice you've heard today is that of Lisa Wozniak, the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and my co-host for WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. And, Lisa, we'll see in May.
Lisa Wozniak: I look forward to it, David.
David Fair: For more information on today's feature and to visit our First Friday archive, pay a visit to our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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