Harold Haugh sometimes feels as if he’s spent the past four years as the most hated man in Michigan. Especially around the Fourth of July.
Haugh, a former state representative from Roseville, introduced the 2011 legislation that permits the sale of more powerful fireworks in Michigan, a law that has generated loud criticism across much of the state. As an online petition drive to repeal the law gains momentum, agitated residents from Mackinaw City to Monroe say they marked another Independence Day weekend in neighborhoods that sounded like a war zone.
Mortars, Roman candles and other types of skyrockets have emerged as standard ammunition for many July 4th revelers.
In an interview with Bridge, Haugh said he has no regrets about his legislation, which legalized the sale in Michigan of high-powered, high-volume fireworks previously available for purchase only across the border, in states such as Ohio and Indiana. He noted that the law achieved its three stated goals: Creating jobs, generating new tax revenue, and putting vacant buildings back to use with fireworks vendors.
Yet, the former Roseville mayor said he remains reluctant to talk about the legislation after facing an explosion of biting comments – either by name or by inference – on TV and radio, in newspapers and thousands of emails, and particularly on social media.
Perhaps the nadir was a letter Haugh received from Warren’s colorful mayor, Jim Fouts, accusing Haugh’s legislation of making life hell for military veterans, small children, Alzheimer’s patients, kittens and puppies in his community. “Night after night, the sound and smell of fireworks permeate the night,” Fouts wrote, “keeping adults, children and pets awake and shattered.”
Four years later, Haugh remains under fire and ducking for cover.
“My wife tells me to get over it. So, I’ve moved on,” said the ex-lawmaker, who was term-limited from the House after 2014.
One of Haugh’s former Democratic colleagues, state Rep. Henry Yanez of Sterling Heights, has introduced a package of bills that would repeal the law. But that legislation has yet to receive a committee hearing.
The online petition to repeal Haugh’s law, launched on the MoveOn.org website last week, already nears its goal of 25,000 signatures. At that point, the petition would be presented to the state House and Senate for consideration.
The petition notes: “The result (of the 2011 law) has been a drastic increase in the amount and violence of private fireworks displays all over the state of Michigan, thereby endangering people, pets and property. It is not worth the additional revenue.”
Michiganders’ love/hate relationship with fireworks – flocking to public displays while denouncing private use in residential areas – was reflected in the Legislature’s handling of the issue. The 2011 bill to liberalize the fireworks sales passed by margins of 97-10 and 34-1 in the state House and Senate, respectively.
A change in the law enacted in 2013 won adoption by an even more-lopsided margin. Those amendments provided for limits on displays to the three days surrounding 10 national holidays and a ban between midnight and 8 a.m.; in larger communities, the cutoff is 1 a.m.
The vendors who have benefited from the 2011 law assert that, while some people hate the airborne arsenals, the public overall is speaking with their dollars. Business is booming.
Sales in Michigan have shot up dramatically, from $17.5 million in 2013 to $26.4 million in 2014, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing And Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the safety inspection program for fireworks stores and temporary tents.
In turn, fees collected by the state from fireworks sales jumped from $674,000 in 2013 to $1.9 million last year. The LARA’s most recent annual report shows that another $600,000 was generated last year in permit fees paid by vendors.
Fireworks retailers must pay an annual certificate fee — $1,000 for permanent stores and $600 for temporary ones — and collect a six percent fireworks “safety fee” on all sales.
The money adds up quickly because the state now has more than 200 brick-and-mortar stores where commercial-grade fireworks are sold, and nearly 700 temporary facilities popped up last summer.
Revenue from the controversial law serves as a strong incentive for pro-business lawmakers to keep the statute in place. Haugh said he will play no role in any future public debates over fireworks but he suggests that local officials and legislators who call for repeal face an uphill climb.
“If they can get the votes, God bless ‘em,” said Haugh, who is now a political consultant. “Those that don’t like fireworks will always have their opinion. But the bottom line is that we’ve had those fireworks for years and years.”
Before Haugh’s legislation took effect, Michigan outlawed the sale of aerial pyrotechnics, though the law was routinely violated, but mostly with relatively tame explosives that delivered a “pop,” not a ”boom.” Yet, even with the subsequent restrictions on fireworks displays, local officials say that police do not have the manpower to fully enforce the current law.
As for safety concerns, the fireworks industry that lobbies for keeping the law argues that many injuries and deaths are due to a lack of “common sense” by reckless users of the explosives and that alcohol is often a factor. One case of apparent recklessness unfolded on June 28, when an Oakland County man died after holding a large commercial-grade mortar shell next to his head just as it exploded.
Haugh noted that back in 2013, even tighter restrictions were proposed in the Legislature, including municipal bans on all commercial-grade fireworks, but those provisions were defeated.
Perhaps the untold irony of the story is that Haugh has never lit a fireworks fuse, not even on a tiny firecracker or bottle rocket. His wife loathes fireworks. Yet, he can’t seem to shake the reputation of a pyromaniac politician gone awry.
“Like I said,” he explained, “I’ve moved on. I’m focused on something else."
Chad Selweski is a political writer. His blog is “Politically Speaking." You can follow him at @cbsnewsman on Twitter