State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) addressed the University’s chapter of College Democrats on what he considered key issues, including education, the environment and equality.
Irwin began his talk on Thursday by stressing the importance of the College Democrats as an organization.
“I want each of you to think about how you can be a part of making a community a better place,” he said. “I want to encourage you to understand that the group you’re involved with here is a genuinely important group.”
He then moved to one of the focuses of his policy agenda: education. Irwin discussed the problems he has faced in the state legislature with funding higher education and the effects that has on students.
“There was a time in our state’s history when you could go to college — even at a place like this — you could work while you were here and pay your bills just off of a part-time job. It's not like that anymore,” he said. “In my parents’ generation, the state of Michigan paid for 70 percent of the cost of college. Today, based on the money that the state legislature appropriates, we are paying for about 15 percent.”
Irwin then highlighted the change in momentum on this issue.
“The shift has made it so that now we’re talking about student debt,” he said. “Now we are realizing that this is a tremendous weight around the neck of our young people. College is supposed to be a tool for social mobility, but it is not serving its purpose like it used to.”
Irwin also discussed the environment. He spoke about energy policy and specific environmental measures in the works from Lansing.
“Right now, what’s being proposed is a movement towards natural gas, a further reliance on fossil fuels, the elimination of the renewable portfolio standard and maybe even an elimination of the state’s energy efficiency standard,” he said.
Irwin mentioned a new team he is a part of that is trying to sell renewable energy on an economic platform.
“I actually teamed up with some of my Tea Party colleagues, and we will be called the Green Tea Coalition,” he said. “We are trying to sell renewable energy as a free-market issue.”
Irwin’s last big issue was equality, an umbrella under which he discussed a wide variety of issues — from race to marijuana.
Specifically, he brought up a petition he is sponsoring to legalize marijuana. If the pending measure receives a certain number of petition signatures, it will go to the state legislature. If the state legislature does not enact the measure, it will appear on the next statewide ballot.
Irwin noted that having the issue on the ballot would be beneficial for the Democratic Party, as it would attract more young voters. In this vein, he passed around a petition for the ballot measure to garner more signatures in its support.
“Everything I've looked at shows that bringing this on the ballot brings on a lot of additional 18- to 35-year-olds — people who don't always vote, but if they were to go in large numbers the Democrats would win,” he said.
On the issue of marijuana legalization as a whole, Irwin talked about the waste of public money that is caused by holding trials for low-level drug offenses associated with marijuana.
“It's crazy that we’re either locking people up or just really ruining their days over marijuana,” he said. “There’s nothing productive coming out of this.”
In light of the recent community college shooting in Oregon, Irwin also touched on gun control during his speech. The issue has also been contested on an administrative level on campus, based on a state law that allows open carry of weapons in gun-free zones for individuals with concealed carry permits.
The University, along with some other schools in the state, has banned weapons on campus and is subsequently struggling to hold this ban in the wake of a lawsuit filed by open-carry activists who say that the school bans aren’t legal.
Irwin addressed the issue by discussing the difficulties he was facing in Lansing with a Republican-controlled legislature. He also expressed his own concerns regarding the risk of allowing guns to be carried in schools.
“When somebody walks in the door with a gun we don’t know if that person is going here to pick up their kid or if they’re going to do harm,” Irwin said.
After the event, LSA senior Allie Ravid said she thought gun control was the most important issue discussed at the event.
“The Republicans are crazy, and I feel so unsafe if there are guns at my school,” she said. “There is literally no reason that I can think of that guns should be in elementary schools, or middle or high schools or college.”
Public Policy senior Max Lerner, College Democrats chair, commented on the importance of hosting speakers like Irwin at the University.
“I think that it’s really important to connect students with the elected representatives in Lansing,” he said. “I think that tonight we heard a lot of the good that Democrats are trying to do in Lansing and a lot of the bad that Republicans have been pushing through the legislature recently. Issues such as education really affect us here, so I think that having these leaders on campus is a really important part of what we do."