BALDWIN -- State Sen. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, met with constituents to discuss issues of concern during his monthly coffee hour Jan. 31, in Baldwin.

Local resident Bob Wilcox presented VanderWall with proposals aimed at curbing sugar and artificial sweetener consumption.

In his proposals, Wilcox suggested the state require manufacturers to limit the amount of natural sweeteners in processed foods to eight grams per serving, and to add labels warning of the health hazard of consuming artificial sweeteners.

In addition, he suggested the state impose a tax on all soft drinks and fruit juices containing two common preservatives, potassium bonzoate and sodium benzoate, which, he said, have been found to cause DNA damage.

"The goal is to limit the health conditions linked to chronic inflammation caused by these products," Wilcox said. "According to what I have read, 45 of the most common health conditions are linked to this inflammation."

VanderWall said it would go against his core values to place a tax on a product or an ingredient.

"The government is here to help people, not tell them how to live their lives," he said. "We have been working on making sure we are promoting better living habits, but I would have a hard time dictating taxes on somebody's individual eating habits."

A bill has been passed by the federal government that manufacturers have to start labeling all the sugars that are added to a product, and that is exactly how it should be, VanderWall added.

"I think it is important that we do that, because there are a lot of processed foods," he said. "I appreciate you bringing this up and it is something we should look into. We have had many conversations in Lansing regarding some of these standards and what we can and can't legislate."

VanderWall said he thinks education is an extremely important part of it.

One program they have been working with, he said, is having a healthy eating instructor come to the schools to work with students on how to balance their dietary intake and how to make healthy foods.

Another program they are trying to get put back in the schools is the 10-cents a meal program, which uses fresh Michigan produce in school lunches, he said.

The program provides schools with up to 10 cents per meal in matching funds to purchase locally-grown fruits and vegetables with the goal of improving daily nutrition and eating habits for children.

"It's economical at 10-cents per serving, and it promotes Michigan fruits and vegetables along with healthy eating," he added. "These are things we are looking at that don't dictate what people can eat, or tax it, but promote a healthier lifestyle and a healthier diet."

Wilcox asked about the possibility of "reversing the marijuana laws," saying, he believed the majority of the people did not want it in their communities.

VanderWall responded there was no chance the law would ever be reversed because it would require a three-fourths vote in the legislature to be changed.

"Marijuana is here to stay," he said. "The majority spoke that turned out to vote and it passed."

There are issues that need to be addressed regarding the law, he said, and his committee is encouraging the governor to look at packaging standards.

"We need to be testing products to make sure they don't have mold or chemicals," he said. "We need to make sure it is clean."

The biggest challenge the state faces with respect to marijuana is addressing the black market, he said.

"The opportunity is there to change the law with respect to how many plants you can grow at home, because that is the greatest contributor to the black market," he said.

"You can grow up to twelve plants, and if you're a good grower, you can harvest about 2 ½ pounds per plant. If you have three or four harvests a year, that's a lot of marijuana per plant."

8th Street bridge funding

Pleasant Plains Township trustee Debra Russell asked VanderWall about funding for the 8th Street bridge that has been closed for more than a year after flooding from high water and heavy rain caused damage in February 2018.

"This is an important thoroughfare for our county, and it's been down for over a year," Russell said. "It is especially important for our fire department and emergency responders, and it seems like it keeps getting pushed further down on the list for getting funding."

VanderWall said it takes about a year after a local entity requests state or federal funding for them to be put on the list to receive that funding.

"If you reach out to our office, we can assist you in trying to find out where we are in the process, and we may be closer than you think," VanderWall said. "We can help you in getting through some of the red tape."

Russell also asked about the possibility of changing the requirements for the veteran's tax exemption form so that they do not have to reapply every year.

"I think it would be great if they could work on updating those forms so they only have to fill them out one time," Russell said. "A lot of our older veterans forget they have to fill it out every year and then they fall off the exemption roll."

VanderWall said he would reach out to their veteran's liaison at the state and see what can be done.

"Personally, I feel that once a person enrolls, they should be able to retain that exemption forever as long as they are still at that address," he said.

Highlights from 2019

"I've seen a lot of good things in the state this year," VanderWall said. "Our economic base is up higher than projected, and we're going to have around $700,000 in additional tax revenue. The economic outlook continues to be very good, but we need to make sure we, as legislators, don't do anything that will cause a downturn."

He said he has some concerns about the governor's decision to bypass state legislature to issue a $3.5 million bond debt to finance the state's road projects.

Since it bypasses Public Act 51, the majority of the funds can be spent where ever the governor wants, he said, so it is likely it will go into the main trunk lines and thoroughfares, rather than going to smaller cou nties and cities.

"With a debt that we will have to pay on for about the next 20 years, that concerns me," he said. "Also, by bonding and putting that amount of money into the system that quickly, when there are not enough crews to handle the work, that will cause inflated costs for any work that is done."

Other highlights of what the state has accomplished this year, VanderWall said, include a program for expectant and new mothers that will provide coaches to assist them with nutrition and infant care education.

"I have advocated for pregnancy and post-pregnancy coaches," VanderWall said. "It should be state-wide and not just regional, so we have more work to do there, but the governor had a great idea when it comes to the health of mothers and infants."

In addition, he said, the state has passed the remote pharmacy bill that will allow some of the more rural areas to have a pharmacy.

"A pharmacy in Baldwin can have a remote pharmacy in Irons, as long as the pharmacist is in the store and can be beamed to the remote location and communicate with the customer," he said. "That will save a lot of time and money over having to do mail-in prescriptions."

The health policy committee has been working on revamping the certificate of need licensing (CON) which allows for certain procedures to be offered in a hospital, he said, so that local hospitals have the opportunity to offer services and procedures that may only be available in larger hospitals.

They are also working on streamlining the prior authorization requirements for procedures and medications.

"If the insurance company says you need prior authorization, that can take up to 15 days in some cases, so we want to streamline that and make it a better experience for the patient and the doctor," he said.

In response to a question regarding using recycled glass and plastic in road construction, VanderWall said they are currently working with a company to test the use of plastic bottles in asphalt.

"A company that has been working on this asked if they could test the road in Michigan to se how it held up through climate changes," he said. "Early projections are that it will. That would take all the plastic bottles we have to be used for roads and take them out of our landfills."

"We have to be stewards of our environment," he added. "We use a lot of plastic and this would take that and put it to a secondary use that would be permanent. That's a huge win."

VanderWall said he is happy with the direction the state government is going, but they still have a lot of work to do.

VanderWall holds monthly coffee hours throughout his district. For additional information visit senatorcurtvanderwall.com