July 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Funding separates Dems in Oakland Senate primary

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Birmingham attorney Ryan Fishman entered the 2014 campaign season with nearly $95,000 in his war chest and a slew of endorsements in the Democratic primary for a key Oakland County state Senate race.

Clawson piano teacher Cyndi Peltonen, his opponent in the 13th State Senate District primary, began with a little more than $1,000 and has won an important endorsement from United Auto Workers Region 1.

“We don’t have deep pockets ... but it still comes down to one person, one vote,” said Peltonen, adding pointedly: “A lot of people are annoyed about the role of money in our political process.”

But money talks and Fishman is well financed and well organized. The 25-year-old attorney is looking not just to win the primary but take the open swing legislative seat in November — a district that leans 54.9 percent Republican, according to the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

“I see the seat as purple,” he said, adding that he’s a good fit for a district he describes as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal.”

The east Oakland County district — encompassing Royal Oak, Troy, Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and the Rochesters — has been represented by term-limited John Pappageorge, R-Troy, who narrowly beat Democrat Andy Levin nearly eight years ago.

The Democratic primary winner in November will likely face one of three former Republican state representatives who’ve been out of state government for at least a couple of years: Marty Knollenberg of Troy, Chuck Moss of Birmingham or Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski of Troy.

Fishman, who switched from Republican to Democrat last September, calls himself a “fiscally conservative, pro-business progressive.” He counts as one of his key endorsers Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who is looking for suburban legislative allies.

His opponent, 60-year-old Peltonen, has been a convenience store owner and supervisor but switched to teaching as her second career about 25 years ago. She also served two decades on Clawson’s school board.

Education is a key concern for Peltonen. Proposal A — the state-financed school aid plan passed in 1994 — is showing flaws and needs to be revamped, she said.

As an example, for-profit charter school firms focus on K-8 schools and eschew high schools, which are much costlier to operate, while collecting the same state aid as public school districts that have to provide both, Peltonen said.

It is a common theme for the two candidates.

Both say the growth of charter schools, from zero to 232 academies and 100,000 pupils over 20 years, is part of what’s putting a strain on the financing of the state’s public school system.

Both Fishman and Peltonen advocate stronger state oversight of charters, especially those run by charter parent companies accused of benefiting from school land transactions at inflated prices.

“The money is just going to profits, and those are tax dollars,” Peltonen said. “It comes right out of the School Aid Fund.”

But road funding promises to be the biggest issue for the district’s next state senator. Last month’s collapse of a Senate plan to raise up to $1.5 billion more yearly for Michigan’s battered roads could land in the lap of next year’s lawmakers if the shortfall isn’t resolved this fall or in December.

Fishman said he’d have voted for the plan, even though it’s not his preferred option. An opportunity was missed, he said, when the GOP majority “refused to come to any compromise” after rejecting what appeared to be “a consensus on the table involving a Republican governor and (Senate) majority leader and a Republican House ... in tandem with Democrats.”

The plan called for a switch from flat-rate fuel taxes to a proportional rate growing from 7 percent to 15.5 percent in four years. To gain Democrat votes, the homestead property tax credit would have been boosted $200 million. To appease some Republicans, November voters would have been offered the alternative of a sales tax hike for roads.

Fishman said he favors an increase in registration fees to get most of the needed road money. Fuel tax increases are an increasingly inefficient way to fund roads, he said, with gasoline prices “exploding” and motorists choosing efficient vehicles that guzzle less.

Peltonen said stiff fuel tax or registration fee increases are too harsh for Michigan residents struggling to make ends meet. She said she is more inclined toward earmarking for roads all or some of the state’s 6-cent sales tax on fuel, which now goes mostly to schools and local governments.

“All fuel taxes should go to roads,” said Peltonen, who also backs more money for mass transportation as way to head off the continual need to construct more roads and road lanes.