How Michigan pork spending rose tenfold to $1B under Whitmer (with GOP help)
- Lawmakers have approved $2 billion in pet project grants in the past two years, far more than in the previous four years combined
- Despite approving new transparency rules, lawmakers have still not disclosed which legislator backed each grants
- Some of the grants have created controversies but lawmakers defend them as overdue investments
When Michigan lawmakers went on a spending spree in the final days of a Republican administration in December 2018, newly elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was one of the loudest critics.
Before relenting, she threatened to veto projects like $1 million for the Lowell Showboat, a floating event space run by a nonprofit in west Michigan that sponsors cruises and other events on the Flat River.
“The current governor doesn’t like it, but we’ve (concluded) we need to live up to the letter of the law,” Kurt Weiss, a spokesperson for her budget office, told Bridge in February 2019.
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Flash forward six years, and Whitmer and the Legislature have presided over one of the biggest pet project spending sprees in generations in Michigan.
The $113 million in grants — handpicked by lawmakers, often late at night — approved in the final days of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration have grown nearly tenfold.
In each of the past two years, lawmakers have taken a budget surplus swollen by billions in federal pandemic aid and carved up over $1 billion in for more than 200 pet projects, from parks and museums and pools to fire stations, housing developments and skilled trades centers.
Republicans controlled the Legislature in all but one of the past six years. Democrats who took over last year changed rules they said would add transparency to a process that Whitmer and others have criticized as secretive.
But last week was the deadline to announce sponsorships on 2023 grants, and the state has still not released any information about them, leaving residents in the dark about who championed what project.
The next deadline: Sept. 30, over a year after the money was approved, when the state is required to post updates on the grants and how much money has been spent.
“It’s not optimal transparency,” said Bob Schneider, a former director within the State Budget Office who served under both Snyder and Whitmer.
He said Democrats’ new disclosure requirements are an improvement, but that’s a low bar.
Asked by Bridge Michigan about the spending (which she approved), Whitmer’s spokesperson lauded her record and attacked Republicans.
"Gov. Whitmer is proud to have signed five balanced, bipartisan budgets that pay down billions in debt and invest in Michigan schools, roads, public safety, and economic development,” said Whitmer spokesperson Stacey LaRouche.
“The fact is, this process was abused by the previous Republican Legislature, and the governor believes there is more we can do to bring greater transparency and accountability to the enhancement grant process. She looks forward to working with the new Legislature to get it done."
GOP loves pork too
Before Whitmer, no-bid pork projects picked by lawmakers were constrained by Michigan’s fiscal woes.
Snyder faced a billion-dollar deficit upon taking office in 2011 and was budget conscious for his eight years in office.
“The reason Rick Snyder got elected in the first place was our budget was in a shambles,” said Republican Beau LaFave, a former state representative who ran for secretary of state in 2022. “We were in a financial disaster.”
Snyder and the Legislature made sweeping changes, rewriting the tax code and fixing the budget.
In 2017, lawmakers approved nearly $39 million in grants. The next year, they grew to $113 million, led by Republicans like LaFave.
A champion of tax cuts, LaFave said he was proud to secure $500,000 in 2018 for the U.P. Military Museum in Delta County.
“That was some of the pork I brought home,” LaFave said. He said the facility, which contains military memorabilia from families across the region, also secured another $1 million in private donations.
Often, lawmakers approve pots of money for competitive grants, with state administrators establishing criteria and accepting applications from municipalities, school districts, nonprofits and others.
The decisions are then made by administrators who determine which applicants best fit the criteria.
But with the one-time grants, lawmakers make the call.
‘They had all the power’
The state’s finances turned around amid the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered by federal relief grants and an unexpected increase in tax revenues.
In 2022, when Republicans still controlled the Legislature, the state spent $1 billion in one-time grants. That included $2 million for the Traverse City Curling Club, which has 130 members, and larger ones, including another $15 million grant to help develop the land owned by the company where Robert Schostak, the former state GOP chair is a director, and $40 million to develop a “greenway” around Detroit.
The following year, Democrats took control of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years.
Lawmakers approved another $1.3 billion in onetime pet projects, according to estimates from Schneider, the former budget official.
“They had all the power to do with what they felt was in (Democrats’) best interest,” said former state Rep. Rodney Wakeman, a Saginaw area Republican. “It was being spent at historic levels.”
Wakeman left office in 2023 just as Democrats were taking over. He said he wondered how they would allocate the money after so many years “in the desert.”
But by the next summer, he said he had his answer. An estimated 90 percent of the money went to projects in Democrats’ districts.
Former Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said the surge in spending is an investment in Michigan after years of neglect.
“One person’s pork is another person’s virtuous need,” he said.
LaGrand lauded the 2023 grants, like a $35 million one for two new fire stations near him, that help communities across the state.
But he acknowledged that a “win” for Grand Rapids might mean less money for projects in another city that’s just as deserving, like Flint or Saginaw.
“That’s the messiness of how we do politics in America,” he said.
State Rep. Kristian Grant, D- Grand Rapids, said Democratic leaders solicited advice from representatives and senators early in the year to develop priorities to help communities in need.
“We had a ton of requests pour in,” she said. “We were able to find some really awesome projects.”
She said she secured a $35 million grant to build two new fire stations in her part of the city, where LaGrand is the former state representative, which she said had the slowest response times because of the proximity of existing stations.
And she backed a $6 million grant to renovate the Martin Luther King Lodge into community space in Grand Rapids.
Grant said she looked for projects to help young people and one that reduce violence. She also backed grants for the John Ball Zoo ($14 million) in Grand Rapids and a $5 million grant for the city’s children’s museum.
‘Voters have right to know’
Grant and LaFave, the former state representative, agree there should be more disclosure and more transparency.
“I think that the voters have a right to know,” LaFave said.
The money, after all, is taxpayer money, Grant said. “These belong to the people of Michigan. It’s always prudent to ask questions about what dollars are being used for,” Grant said. “It helps keep the system working as it should.”
But that’s not how it has worked, at least so far. Lawmakers decide in private what to put on the big budget wish lists, drafting vague spending descriptions.
The better way, former state budget administrator Schneider said, would be to create pots of money and use competitive grants, with set guidelines and objective decisions. Should state dollars go to one community’s park because its playground equipment is worse than another applicant? Or does it go to the community with the more powerful lawmaker?
“From a good budgeting perspective, that’s (competitive grants), the best way to do it,” he said.
But he acknowledged that even state administrators could favor the powerful to ensure their own budgets are protected by key lawmakers. “(It’s) not perfect.”
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