The Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, wants to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot, one that would require a statewide vote for the New International Trade Crossing bridge to go forward.
There’s little mystery as to what this is really all about. The bridge company is entirely owned by one family -- Manuel “Matty” Moroun, his wife Nora and their son, Matthew Moroun.
They have been fighting attempts to build a second, publicly owned bridge for years. So far, they have succeeded -- even though a new bridge has widespread corporate support.
Their latest tactic is this ballot drive, led by a committee named “The People Should Decide.”
Its website states:
“The people should decide whether state government may construct or finance new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles. Consistent with this policy, and to shield the people from unnecessary burdens, the State shall not undertake ownership and development or use state funds or resources for new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles unless first determined to be necessary and appropriate by majority vote of the people.”
For years, the family has fiercely fought to protect its monopoly by opposing a proposed new bridge, which would be a joint public-private project constructed two miles downriver. The Ambassador Bridge, which was built in 1929, is the only way heavy freight can cross the river, something essential for the automotive industry.
The government of Canada says a new bridge is essential -- as does Gov. Rick Snyder and most Michigan business interests.
The Legislature, however, has refused to vote on a new bridge. The governor is expected to soon announce a proposal to build the bridge without legislative approval -- which may account for the timing of the Moroun family’s ballot initiative.
But could their effort torpedo the governor’s?
That’s highly uncertain. Even if the proposed constitutional amendment gets on the ballot, it is uncertain whether it could affect a deal if one is arrived at prior to voter approval, according to Tom Shields, spokesperson for the coalition supporting a new bridge.
By law, about 325,000 signatures have to be submitted by the first week in July to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Mickey Blashfield, the head of The People Should Decide, said the goal is to gather between 450,000 and 500,000 signatures.
He wouldn’t say what the budget is for paying to get signatures, but confirmed that “a firm is in the field” and that extensive grass-roots organizing is also under way.
It is legal for backers to pay circulators to obtain signatures to put measures on the ballot -- and you need extra, because some are always invalid. The market price per signature ranges from $4.50 to $6.00. Assuming an average cost of $5.25 and a 500,000 signature goal, the cost alone of obtaining signatures would be $2.63 million. Add to that the costs or any legal expenses and advertising.
What does all this mean?
First of all, it proves that the monopoly Ambassador Bridge operation is profitable indeed. Most people I talked with said a full-blown statewide campaign to pass the proposed amendment would cost at least $5 million. These expenditures are, of course, a business expense and therefore would constitute a nice tax deduction for the Detroit International Bridge Co.
Nevertheless, that’s still a lot of scratch to put on the table for a gambit that might or might not work. A spokesman for the new bridge said the language in the proposal might not be effective, because it refers to the use of “state funds,” whereas the new bridge would be financed up front by the Canadian government.
Putting a ballot proposal in play may also accelerate Gov. Rick Snyder’s attempts to get the NITC built. The rumor in Lansing is that the administration is aiming to make an announcement at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Policy Conference on Mackinac Island at the end of May.
But beyond all that, should a measure designed to protect a privately held monopoly from competition be inserted into the constitution of the state of Michigan?
Constitutions are meant to be basic governing documents, not collections of special interest provisions for individual profit-making companies.
Cynics might conclude that in wanting to put this issue up for a public vote, the Moroun family is working to obtain the best democracy money can buy.
This is nothing new, of course. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2010 Citizens United decision, held that it’s OK for bored billionaires to put unlimited money into political action committees.
Michigan’s notoriously weak campaign finance reporting laws have never posed much of a barrier to various interests -- including the Morouns -- scattering millions of “contributions” into willing legislative hands. Indeed, some skeptics have suggested lawmakers would be perfectly happy if the Snyder administration found a way to get the new bridge under way without legislative approval, since that would avoid the risk of voting against the hand that feeds them.
What is clear is that the case for a comprehensive reform of Michigan campaign reporting laws has never been greater. We are now tolerating a system that produces the best -- or worst -- democracy money can buy.
And that is a terrible way to manage the affairs of our state.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.