LANSING — State lawmakers have re-launched a controversial $2.5 million grant to subsidize a rocket site somewhere in Michigan.
In an 18-0 vote on Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee cleared a supplemental budget bill that would award $2.5 million in “enhancement grants” — bureaucratic speak for pork — to a nonprofit planning to build a “low-orbit launch site within this state.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate.
It was the second time lawmakers have sought to fund Michigan’s entry into the space race.
Feb. 13, 2019: Whitmer kills $2.5M rocket plan pushed by Snyder
In the final hours of its lame duck session last December, the Legislature approved a $2.5 million grant for a rocket site. That was tucked into a $1.3 billion spending plan that included $115 million in lawmakers’ pet projects. But details of the Michigan Launch Initiative were so scant that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration refused to fund the project.
“We have no direction here,” Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, told Bridge in February.
The initial proposal did not specify where the launch facility would be built, beyond saying it would be “north of the 45th parallel,” which could include Alpena, Gaylord or another city Up North.
The proposal advanced Wednesday includes no language about the location, but specifies it would go to a nonprofit at least 10 years old and “promotes the aerospace industry” and fits criteria applying to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association. Gavin Brown, its executive director, previously told Bridge outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder championed the grant last year after meeting with Brown and a potential investor.
The rocket grant was one of five pet projects approved in December that Whitmer’s budget office halted citing drafting errors. Each of those projects — totaling $11 million — resurfaced in the budget bill approved on Wednesday.
That included a dam project in Gladwin County, a roads project in Muskegon Heights and a bridge project in St. Clair County. And the Dearborn Heights Fire Department would get $300,000 for “street and pedestrian structure upgrades.”
Wednesday's spending legislation, Senate Bill 150, would also fund efforts beyond last year’s earmarks. Among them: $2 million for the “Double Up Food Bucks” program, $5 million to prepare for the 2020 U.S. Census and $5 million related to implementing recreational marijuana legalization.
Speaking to reporters, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said he worked with the budget office to fix errors in the rocket grant and other earmarks.
Stamas said the rocket site could help Michigan develop its own space industry and bring jobs to communities around it.
“That’s good for our families,” he said. “We work with a lot of projects continuing to make Michigan competitive with other states.”
Weiss told Bridge the budget office "verified that the Senate language technically satisfies legislative intent" from the previous legislative session.
"As to the content of the bill, we have had and will continue to have productive discussions with the Legislature on the budget as the process continues to move forward," he added in an email.
The grant sought to add Michigan to the list of the states racing to tap into a growing commercial space market that major banks say could be worth $1 trillion to $3 trillion annually in a few decades.
Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, was among the committee members to unanimously advance the spending bill Wednesday.
“There were some mistakes made, and they’re being fixed here,” he said of the re-written earmarks. “I think the intention was there for the Legislature to do it the first time.”
Earlier this year, Whitmer halted one other lame duck earmark that was not resurrected in Wednesday’s budget bill: A $10 million grant to build water and sewer lines in Salem Township in Washtenaw County, a project that would benefit a company owned by Bobby Schostak, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
The budget office said the wording of that grant was broad and open to interpretation, and Weiss in February said the Schostak project “probably rose to the top of that list” of questionable grants doled out during lame duck.
The Schostak company wants to develop 800 homes as well as commercial development on the more than 560 acres it acquired in eastern Washtenaw County at a cost of more than $28 million.
Without the utility lines, the land cannot support those plans, and that’s where the Legislature directed funding.
The total cost of bringing water and sewer to the area is at least $30 million; the Legislature awarded another $10 million grant in 2017, also as a last minute add to a huge spending bill.
Stamas told reporters he backed that project and hoped it would eventually be funded, saying it would bring development to the community and add jobs.
Weiss confirmed Wednesday the grant was still under review and "not moving forward at this point."