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January 8, 2010

Consumers Energy’s proposed coal plant passes major state air permit hurdle

Not much love for health care bill from union leaders

Part of health care bill removes bidding edge for nonunion

Trades erecting bigger, better Marysville High

Around the corner in 2010, new pro-worker rules

Fitter makes a rare bone marrow match, gives hope to cancer victim

News Briefs

 

Consumers Energy’s proposed coal plant passes major state air permit hurdle

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Consumers Energy’s proposed clean coal power plant near Bay City received a major boost on Dec. 29 with the issuance of a state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) air permit to advance the $2 billion-plus project.

The 830-megawatt plant is expected to create 1,800 construction jobs, about 2,500 indirect jobs, and then more than 100 permanent jobs after it starts operating in 2017. Overall, the plant is projected to provide a $1.2 billion economic boost to Michigan.

“The issuance of the air permit for our new clean coal plant is good news for Michigan. This permit moves our project a step closer to creating badly needed jobs and boosting the state’s economy,” said John Russell, Consumers Energy’s president and chief operating officer. “It also provides best-in-class protection for the environment with an offset for carbon dioxide emissions from the new plant and a substantial net reduction in overall emissions from our coal-fired generating fleet.”

Last fall, many – especially zealots in the environmental lobby – had assumed the plant was given the kiss of death by the Michigan Public Service Commission, which issued a report saying Consumers Energy had not shown the need for a new plant. That report came after Gov. Jennifer Granholm directed the Michigan DEQ to determine if there were greener alternative energy sources that could be built, instead of new clean-coal-burning plants.

The report determined that given the slow projected growth in the state, new clean-coal plants would not be not necessary, unless Consumers Energy could show how it would remove up to 958 megawatts of production by taking its old plants offline to offset the new power production. That’s just what Consumers did: the air permit for the new clean coal plant includes a commitment from Consumers Energy to retire up to seven of its older, less efficient coal units after the new unit begins operating at the company’s Karn/Weadock Generating Complex near Bay City.

Five of these older units will be retired following operation of the new unit, with retirement of the additional two older units dependent on customer need.

With the retirement of the old plants and when the new production is online, by 2018 emissions from Consumers Energy plants are expected to be reduced by as much as 91 percent for sulfur dioxide; 83 percent for nitrogen oxides, and 81 percent for mercury.

“The new coal plant will use state-of-the-art technology and be one of the cleanest coal power plants in the world,” Russell said. The next major step for the Consumers project is filing a certificate of necessity application with the Michigan Public Service Commission. The company expects to file that application in 2010, with substantial construction to start in 2012.

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, its affiliated unions and membership have been strenuously lobbying the governor’s office and state legislators, urging them to do what’s right for the economic health of the state, and issue air quality permits for the plant. An October rally brought 2,500 to 3,000 construction workers to the steps of the state Capitol Building, under banners and signs saying “Put us to work!”

 “Denying those air quality permits for the new Consumers Energy clean-coal plant was a job-killer, plain and simple,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “We have been experiencing construction unemployment levels in this state that we haven’t seen in our lifetime, and as we’ve pointed out all along, holding up those permits is holding up our own homegrown economic stimulus program here in Michigan. I give Gov. Granholm credit for finally coming to the rescue of Michigan’s construction workers, but there’s more work to be done.”

That work includes getting permits issued for another clean-coal plant proposed for Rogers City, by Wolverine Power Cooperative. Prospects for construction of the $1.2 billion plant were also dashed last fall by the same state Public Service Commission report, which stated: “Wolverine failed to demonstrate the need for the proposed facility to meet its projected capacity.” In other words, the PSC felt that the 600-megawatt plant was unnecessary, given slow anticipated growth in Michigan.

The Karn-Weadock and Wolverine plants have been the closest to starting work, but long-term, there is a total of $4.8 billion in coal-plant construction in Michigan that has been proposed and are in various stages of the permit process.

“We’re also going to keep fighting for permit approval for this plant, and the other plants proposed in our state,” said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council President Patrick “Shorty” Gleason. “The building trades are not anti-environment – but we are pro-jobs. These are companies that are right here, right now, willing to invest in Michigan jobs, and until now, the state has basically been telling them, ‘no thanks.’ I can’t understand that thinking, especially in this economy. I want to extend our thanks to everyone who contacted their legislators, and the legislators themselves for promoting good construction jobs in Michigan.”

Other proposed plants…

In addition to the $2 billion Consumers Energy unit in Bay City and the $1.2 billion Wolverine Power Cooperative facility near Rogers City, there are several other power plants in Michigan that are being proposed. All told, some $4.8 billion in new power production is being proposed in Michigan.

Following is where they’re at in the permitting process:

In Marquette, Northern Michigan University is proposing to construct a $55 million high-pressure boiler at their existing Ripley Heating plant. The plant would be capable of producing the required university’s thermal and electrical needs. At first they proposed to burn a mix of fuels, including wood chips, coal and natural gas.       They have since moved to a wood-only plant, which would burn waste wood as fuel from logging operations. Their application is before the state Department of Environmental Quality.

In Midland, we previously reported that the L.S. Power group had proposed a 750-megawatt, $2 billion coal-fired plant. In May, the owner decided to shelve plans for the plant, citing the poor economy and an excessive regulatory environment.

The Lansing Board of Water and Light is looking to replace its aging Erickson Station powerhouse with a $750 million to $1 billion, 350-megawatt plant that would burn coal and biomass fuels like waste wood and waste crops or grasses.

In Holland, the James De Young Generation Station Expansion is being proposed by the Board of Public Works. They’re seeking to expand the existing 11-megawatt plant with a 78-megawatt coal-fired boiler. Cost: about $250 million.

Last month the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the plant did not receive a $380 million federal grant it requested to fund the underground “sequestration” of carbon pollutants from the plant. The Holland Board of Public Works said it would continue to pursue a plant expansion.

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Not much love for health care bill from union leaders

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Union leaders were lukewarm, at best, to the Senate’s version of health care, which lawmakers passed on Christmas Eve. 

All unions, led by the AFL-CIO, vowed to campaign to pressure congressional negotiators to adopt the stronger House health care bill.

Senators approved the 2,700-page legislation, which would affect everyone in the U.S. and one-sixth of the economy, by a 60-39 party-line vote at 7 a.m., after marathon debate forced by the 40 Republicans.  All 58 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats voted for it.  All but one Republican voted against it: Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, was absent.

The legislation imposes new curbs, in several years, on insurance companies, including outlawing their common practices of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, denial of payments for care and ejection of policyholders when they get sick.  It requires everyone, except for undocumented workers, to buy insurance, and provides subsidies for those who can’t afford it.

But the Senate bill taxes 40% of the value of all existing health insurance policies worth more than $8,500 for an individual or $23,000 for a family.  It has no cost controls and lacks a “public option” – a key labor cause, designed to provide competition to the insurers, along with their high co-pays, deductibles and premiums.

IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill has joined forces with the Communications Workers of America and the CEOs of the two top major telecommunications firms to oppose the provision in the Senate’s health-care reform bill that would levy a tax on existing health care plans.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid jointly signed by Communication Workers President Larry Cohen, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, the group writes: “If (the provision) was intended to address only excessive or luxury health benefits plans, it will, in fact, impact the health plans covering tens of millions of workers, including those in telecommunications, manufacturing, construction, mining, public sectors….”

At least one union, the 150,000-member National Nurses United, blasted the Senate bill as a giveaway to the insurance companies.  In an interview on Air America, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, was caustic about how the insurers bought lawmakers’ support.

Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee Chairman Thomas Harkin, D-Iowa, promised the public option would be revisited in future legislation.  President Obama praised the Senate vote – and gave the back of his hand to the public option.

The deficiencies in the bill prompted a lukewarm reaction from AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka and other union leaders. 

“The labor movement has been fighting for health care for nearly 100 years and we are not about to stop fighting now, when it really matters,” Trumka said. “But for this health care bill to be worthy of the support of working men and women, substantial changes must be made. The AFL-CIO intends to fight on behalf of all working families to make those changes and win health care reform that is deserving of the name.  The absolute refusal of Republicans in the Senate to support health care reform and the hijacking of the bill by defenders of the insurance industry have brought us a Senate bill that is inadequate: It is too kind to the insurance industry.

“Genuine health care reform must bring down health costs, hold insurance companies accountable, assure Americans can get the health care they need and be financed fairly.  That's why we are championing a public health insurance option: It is the way to break the stranglehold of the insurance industry over consumers that has led to double digit premium increases virtually every year.  Employers must pay their fair share. 

“And the benefits of hard-working Americans cannot be taxed to pay for health care reform – that's no way to rein in insurance companies and it's the wrong way to pay for health care reform.  Those are the changes for which we will be fighting in the coming days.”

A statement to his members by Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said “SEIU does not accept that this monumental effort…can be over without a fight. A fight to make it work for you and your families.  We held a meeting with our international executive board…We talked about everything that makes this reform meaningful…but we also recognized, that like you, we have concerns. It is becoming clearer that for many people, care will still be too expensive to afford, that some of you would face an additional burden because your health insurance benefits would be taxed, and the best way we saw possible to hold insurance companies accountable was no longer an option.”

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Part of health care bill removes bidding edge for nonunion

Organized labor doesn’t like a lot about the dueling health care bills in the House and Senate, but the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), whose contractors hire IBEW electricians, said they support an amendment to the Senate bill that helps level the playing field for union construction employers.

Initially, under a small business exemption in the Senate bill, up to 90 percent of construction industry employers would not have been required to provide health coverage for their employees. That would have provided nonunion contractors a tremendous cost advantage over union employers when it comes time to bid projects.

But an amendment inserted by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) requires construction industry employers with over $250,000 in payroll, or more than five workers, to provide employee health insurance or pay a penalty.

“We commend Sen. Jeff Merkley for standing up to sponsor this amendment,” said Lake Coulson, NECA executive director, government affairs. “Construction employers who fail to provide health care for their workers should not gain a competitive advantage.”

A majority of NECA contractors are currently classified as small businesses, and they already provide health insurance for their employees. The exemption would have written into law a competitive advantage for construction employers who don’t provide health insurance for their workers.

“I believe that all construction employers should accept providing health insurance for their workers as a basic responsibility,” said Mel Buttrum, owner of Service Electric Co., Snohomish, Wa. “It is possible to run a profitable business while paying living wages and providing generous employee benefits. NECA members do it every day. I’m proud to be a member of an organization that recognizes the value of protecting our workers.”

The Merkley amendment limits the exemption. The amendment was co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and has wide support throughout the Senate.

Predictably, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors hates the amendment. A Wall Street Journal article quoted the ABC’s Geoffrey Burns as saying 95 percent of ABC contractors provide health care insurance. The other five percent, he said, don’t, “because their margins are so thin they can’t afford to do so.”

Added ABC President and CEO Kirk Pickerel: “At a time when our industry is facing the worst construction economy in decades, the last thing contractors need are vast new mandates from the federal government dictating to them how they will run their business.”
NECA has been out front in favor of the amendment, whose fate lies in the upcoming House-Senate conference to come up with a single national health care plan.

“The Merkley amendment is about fairness,” said NECA CEO John M. Grau. ”Without the Merkley amendment, too many construction employers would be exempt from providing health coverage for employees. NECA strongly supports the Merkley amendment, and we will continue to speak out on issues that will affect both contractors and employees.”

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Trades erecting bigger, better Marysville High

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

MARYSVILLE – Marysville High School has traditionally been the center of community activities, since the city lacks a conventional downtown area.

That focus on the high school won’t change when the new academic year starts in September – but the high school itself is going to be much different. In fact, students will be going to be a brand new building.

McCarthy & Smith Construction Services and the building trades are in the process of erecting a new school that will replace the existing building, which opened in 1930. The 238,000 square-foot new high school, under construction on land just east of the existing building, will include 25 general classrooms, eight science labs, eight specialty media centers and four computer labs, plus new and improve cafeteria space and common areas.

“The community is very excited about the new school,” said Marysville Schools Superintendent John Silveri. “The existing high school has much less room, has lots of nooks and crannies, and has crowded, narrow halls. It just doesn’t meet our needs any longer, and we would have had to sink a lot of money into it.”

Plans call for the old high school to be demolished after this school year. Athletic fields will be built on a substantial portion of the old school’s footprint. The new Marysville High School and its reconfigured campus will get to spread out over 34.5 acres.

Constructing the new high school, plus renovations to one middle school and three elementary schools are being performed under a $74.6 million bond issue approved by district voters. Silveri said the new high school building incorporates wish list items that have been taken from other school designs, like flexible classroom space, interactive white boards in all classrooms, improved air quality and plenty of natural light.

The new building will include a swimming pool, an auditorium seating 970, and both main and auxiliary gymnasiums with a total of six basketball and six volleyball courts. The building is expected to serve a high school population of 750 next year, with the capacity to serve 915.

Doug Underwood is the senior project manager on the job for McCarthy and Smith, working with field superintendents Keith Bowman and Brian MacAskill. Underwood said “it’s a very tight sight, there’s a lot going on and it’s a challenge to fit everything.” Not only is there an active high school next door, but the project leaders also have to account for the installation of some 49 miles of underground geothermal loop piping that will help heat and cool the building. That system is expected to save the school district about $80,000 a year in heating and cooling costs.

“The tradespeople and the contractors are performing well and doing a good job out here,” said MacAskill. “You walk through and you can see the quality is there. This will be a nice, well-built building.

“This is a big deal for the community,” Silveri said. “People here really identify with the school district and are really fired up about the new high school. I get stopped constantly and asked about how it’s coming along.”

THE FRONT OF the 238,000 square-foot new Marysville High School, located in a city of the same name south of Port Huron.

USING A COME-ALONG to adjust a stairway installation in a commons area at the new Marysville High School is Trevor Thorner of Iron Workers Local 25, working for Sterling Erectors.


Around the corner in 2010, new pro-worker rules

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Forcing more disclosure on union-busters – and how much money companies spend on them – and ordering companies to resume counting ergonomic injuries, are among the highlights of the Obama Labor Department’s proposed rules agenda for next year.

In electronic web chats, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and other officials emphasized the agency would once again go to bat for workers’ interests, not just with the rules proposals but with increased enforcement.  OSHA, for example, is hiring 100 more inspectors, she said.

There are “22 new regulatory items on the agenda,” Solis added, besides DOL’s emphasis on “green jobs, more reinforcement, protection of workers, and helping returning veterans receive employment assistance and job training.” Proposals include:

*Re-establishing a separate ergonomic job injury log column in OSHA reports, and ordering companies to report faithfully within it.  The now-departed anti-worker GOP Bush regime got the then-GOP Congress – in the very first law Bush signed in 2001 – to abolish a Labor Department rule designed to reduce ergonomic injuries. 

Ergonomic injuries, also known as repetitive-motion injuries and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are estimated to be up to one-third of all yearly job injuries.

Not satisfied with abolishing the ergonomic injury rule – which labor pushed for a decade through administrations of both parties – Bush ordered DOL to stop even counting MSDs.  Solis is reinstating the ergonomics count, but not the rule.

“This is not a prelude to a broader ergonomic standard.  We are simply putting the MSD column back on the OSHA log as was originally intended in the 2001 issuance of OSHA's record keeping standard. MSDs continue to be a major problem for American workers, but at this time, OSHA has no plans for regulatory activity,” Solis said.

*Forcing more disclosure of union-busting.  “Under the Labor-Management Reporting Disclosure Act” – the 1959 GOP-passed Landrum-Griffin law –  “an employer must report an agreement with a consultant hired to persuade employees as to their collective bargaining rights,” Solis said. 

“An exemption to these reporting requirements is the ‘advice’ exception.  It provides no report must be filed by reason of a consultant's giving or agreeing to give advice to the employer.  The department believes the exemption may be overly broad because indirect efforts to persuade are considered ‘advice’ and not reportable under the current interpretation of the exemption,” she added.

In a separate on-line chat, Deputy Assistant Labor Secretary for Labor-Management Standards John Lund said “we will enforce” the law “with respect to all entities” it covers – including, though he did not explicitly say so, the union-busters.

Lund also said his office yanked back a Bush rule forcing further disclosures by teachers unions and other public sector unions.  “This matter has not been finally decided.  The issue is under consideration and will be the subject of an open and transparent rulemaking process.  At that time, we will welcome all comments,” he said.

While Solis didn’t mention it, the Obama administration also yanked back additional heavy reporting rules Bush planned to pile onto individual union officers and shop stewards.   Bush wanted to add those to his previous rules forcing unions to disclose line-item spending on everything from paychecks to paper clips.        

* The Wage and Hour Division is hiring 250 new investigators and will concentrate on industries with high violation rates that “employ vulnerable workers,” Deputy Administrator Nancy Leppink said in her on-line chat.  They include agriculture, restaurants, janitorial, construction and car washes, “among others,” she said.

Leppink told two questioners, including one from the Laborers, that her division is trying to make it easier for workers to report wage and hour violations, such as lack of overtime pay, underpayment of Davis-Bacon wages or the minimum wage.  “Many employees are fearful of losing their jobs in this economy and, thus, unlikely to file a complaint if they are cheated out of their wages,” the first questioner commented.

“The Wage and Hour Division does accept third-party complaints on Davis-Bacon and other acts, as long as the third party has sufficient information to indicate a probable violation and coverage under the act.  The third party complainant can call the local Wage and Hour office or our toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE.” Leppink replied.

Leppink also told questioner Margaret deMerteliere that DOL is “working on a new public service campaign, ‘We Can Help,’ to inform workers of their rights under wage and hour laws. We hope to roll this campaign out in early 2010..”

* A proposed rule ordering coal mines to cut miners’ exposure to breathing coal dust.  Breathing the dust causes “black lung” and other diseases.  The present rule, setting a limit of 2 milligrams of coal dust per cubic meter of air, was set in 1972, the Mine Safety and Health Administration said.  A 1995 federal study, which Bush never acted on, called for a lower limit and listed tougher enforcement actions.

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Fitter makes a rare bone marrow match, gives hope to cancer victim

By Laura Mead
Escanaba Daily Press

(Reprinted with permission)

BARK RIVER –  Many know Christmas to be the season of giving, and one of the greatest gifts one can give is the gift of life. This is very possibly what Jason Feathers of Bark River gave to a 74-year-old leukemia patient, through a donation of bone marrow he made Dec. 21.

Jason made the decision to become a donor in June, after he and his wife, Janel, read an article about a 16-year-old boy who was in need of a bone marrow transplant.

Moved by the young boy's story, the couple and their 18-year-old daughter, Larissa, decided to add their names to the National Marrow Donation Program Be A Match Registry.

"It was an article that if anybody read it, they'd want to try to do something about it," said Janel.

"We figured that one of us or our daughter would probably be a chance to match him because he was of Native American descent, as we are," added Jason.

Unfortunately, the young boy passed away in August. But only a month later, Jason received a call from the registry notifying him that he was a match for an elderly female with acute myelogenous leukemia.

Jason and Janel were thrilled to have the opportunity to help someone.

"It made me think about her (the patient's) family, and how they must be feeling, because we were so happy that he was going to get a chance to do this," said Jane. "We were so excited for her."

In the five days leading up to the donation, Jason had to get a series of injections of a drug called filgrastim which boosts the level of stem cells in your body.

On Monday, Dec. 21, Jason went to the blood center in Milwaukee where he went through a Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC) donation, which is a nonsurgical procedure, that is similar to donating blood, but for an extensive period.

"The procedure went really smoothly," said Janel. "The whole time I was really proud of him and I wanted to tell everyone in the room. Everybody was wonderful. The nurse stayed with him the whole time, and when it was over, everybody was cheerful."

The 74-year-old woman received the stem cells from Jason's body the next day, however, he doesn't know whether it helped or not. Donors and recipients typically aren't allowed direct contact with each other for a year.

"We thought about her all day yesterday, wondering how her procedure was, and if it was making her feel good right away," said Janel.

Now that Jason has gone through the procedure, he really wants to spread the word about how easy and relatively painless donating marrow can be.

"I'd just like to get the word out," he said. "People think it involves drilling into the bone, but no it doesn't. That's just one of the methods. It's not as painful as people think."

"It's just a moment of your time that could change someone's life," added Janel.

Jason said if only more people donated marrow, matches would be made much more quickly, and more lives could be saved.

"It's not difficult to do this," he said. "I was able to help someone after only two months. If everybody just did it, without a reason to do it, imagine how many more people could be helped."

To sign up to be a marrow donor, call the National Marrow Donor Program at 1-800-627-7692 or visit www.marrow.org

PLUMBERS AND PIPE FITTERS Local 111 member Jason Feathers of Bark River, smiles while getting blood drawn –  a precursor to giving bone marrow – at a blood center in Milwaukee on Dec. 21. Feathers donated bone marrow to an elderly female leukemia patient.  The odds of finding a suitable bone marrow donor who is not a family member are about one in 20,000.

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News Briefs

House would move road money to Mich.

WASHINGTON D.C. – “Jobs for Main Street” was adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 17, which would push $847.5 million to Michigan to fund a higher level of road and bridge work.

The bill also contained an additional $42.1 million investment to Michigan’s state clean water revolving fund to support water infrastructure projects.

The overall economic investment measure spends $75 billion nationwide on transportation, construction, and support for states to retain police, firefighters and teachers. The measure now moves to the Senate for consideration.

“With 5.9 million long-term unemployed, extending unemployment benefits is absolutely essential to help unemployed workers weather this economic storm. But an extension of jobless benefits alone is insufficient,” said U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Southfield). “We must do more to help create jobs and get people back to work.”

The bill, said Teamsters President James Hoffa, “helps those who are the true victims of this recession – the men and women of the middle class. We have seen billions of taxpayer funds go to the fat cats on Wall Street over past year. It is past time that working Americans get the relief they so desperately need.”

Congressman Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) sponsored a proposal, that was included in the final legislation, to waive state matching grants for federal highway money for states like Michigan “that have been hit especially hard by the economic crisis.”

Michigan’s inability to come up with money for a 20 percent match of available federal dollars for highway funding meant the state was looking at dropping some 200 highway repair programs from 2010 through 2014.  However, this legislation, if adopted by the Senate, would restore some of those jobs but is still seen as only a short-term funding fix for states like Michigan.

 "Our road projects and the jobs that go with them just went through a near-death experience, but this legislation gives them new life," said Schauer. "Without taking action, MDOT would have to start canceling road projects that could create thousands of construction jobs by next fall. This bill waives state matching funds in the medium-term, which will allow those projects to move forward so we can put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges.”

Congressman Schauer sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to take up his legislation to increase the federal share to 100% for states like Michigan that have been hit especially hard by the economic crisis. After working closely with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members, the substance of Schauer’s bill was included in the Jobs for Main Street Act.

"Without the Jobs for Main Street Act, the Highway Trust Fund will decline, states such as Michigan will not be able to provide their 20 percent match, and we’ll stand to lose any economic progress we have made so far. The House acting on this bill helps assure that states' surface transportation programs will be fully funded, that Highway Trust Fund revenues will be invested, job creation will go forward, and we will be gaining jobs rather than losing jobs," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. "I thank Rep. Schauer for his support on this important matter and will continue to work with him to bring good, solid, family-wage jobs to Michigan and the rest of the country."

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