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Lawmakers: Michigan Gov. Snyder swapped pork projects for votes in lame duck

Lame duck spending

As the end of the last legislative session loomed, Gov. Rick Snyder and legislators agreed, with no formal debate, on spending more than $113 million on projects around Michigan. Zoom in and click to see what projects were funded and how much was awarded.

Source: Michigan Senate Bill 601

For eight years, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder cast himself as the consummate non-politician, governing by spreadsheet and deliberation rather than arm-twisting and vote swapping.

“I’m not a horse trader — I’ve never been known for that,” Snyder said in December. Instead, he told reporters, he takes “each piece of legislation seriously. And I will look at it, and if I believe it’s in the best public policy interests of our state, I’ll sign it. If it’s not, I won’t sign it.”

But lawmakers and others told Bridge Magazine the Republican governor changed his tune in the last days of the Legislature’s lame-duck session, agreeing in the early hours of Dec. 21 to support spending $113 million on legislators’ pet projects in exchange for votes on his plan to fund environmental cleanups, roads and schools.

Related: Michigan lawmakers spread millions in pork. Did your town get a cut?

“It is the one glaring exception to his eight years,” said former state Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy.

“They (the Snyder administration) were playing hardball.”

Bridge spoke to five lawmakers who said lawmakers were promised projects funding in their districts in exchange for votes on Snyder priorities.

A Bridge analysis of 74 projects funded that morning suggests some votes were more important than others, with a marked disparity between project funding that went to Democratic and Republican areas.

Democratic strongholds Detroit, Saginaw and Flint ‒ whose combined populations make up 13 percent of Michigan ‒ received money for eight projects totaling $3.5 million, $2 million of which was for a golf tournament.

In contrast, Republican-leaning Grand Rapids/Kent County alone received 11 projects worth $21 million, while sparsely populated northern Michigan got 12 projects and nearly $16 million, including $1 million for the ferry on Beaver Island (population: 655).

Four projects were funded in the northern Michigan district of now-House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, including $500,000 for road work on Mackinac Island (which doesn’t allow cars) and $1 million for a yet-to-be-opened cultural center in St. Ignace.

“It’s good to be in power,” now-former state Sen. Coleman A. Young II, D-Detroit, said.

Young said he pitched a couple of ideas, including $500,000 to help the Detroit with water stations after lead was found in the drinking water at schools. Republican leaders didn’t include the project in the bill.

“I'm glad that policymakers realized that there is money in the budget that can accomplish a lot of priorities. I am disappointed that their priorities included over a hundred million in pork-barrel projects,” said James Hohman, director of fiscal policy for the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Chatfield and Snyder didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Nothing ever dies in Lansing

The spending spree began after Snyder spent months trying and failing to persuade fellow Republican lawmakers to approve more money for the environment.

In June he proposed raising taxes on landfills and water systems to increase recycling, fund nearly $70 million per year in toxic cleanups and improve water and sewer systems.

Bills to do so died of inaction in mid-December. But negotiations continued.

“I wouldn’t count it dead until the end, to be honest with you,” said Bill Rustem, a former adviser to Snyder and an environmental policy consultant, told Bridge Magazine at the time. “There’s always a way.”

By the early hours of Dec. 21, legislators still balked at Snyder’s plans to pay for his projects by dipping into the state’s massive school aid fund.

Snyder wanted to divert up to $178 million in state income taxes from the school aid fund, replaced with new Internet sales taxes, and add $114 million to road funding this year and nearly $70 million for environmental cleanups.

Republican legislators were reluctant, forcing Snyder and his aides to do what politicians the world over have done.

The self-professed tough nerd became the tough pol.

Howrylak and others say that in order to get the 56 votes Snyder needed for House Bill 4991, the Snyder administration had to make promises in a related spending bill, Senate Bill 601.

State Rep. Larry Inman, R-Traverse City, didn’t flinch when asked by Bridge if his support for HB 4991, which he felt could hurt school districts, was triggered by an agreement to give the Traverse City schools $700,000 to pay off an audit initiated by the state.

“You got it,” he told Bridge.

Legislators pulled two all-night sessions during lame duck as they wrestled with hundreds of bills, many controversial for their potential impact on incoming Democratic leaders (Snyder vetoed a number of them). It was just after midnight on Dec. 21 when the spending bill was getting worked up and negotiations went into overdrive.

“There’s no question there was some give and take on that bill early in the morning,” Inman said.

Early morning texts

It was early on Dec. 21, just after midnight when Linda Teeter, a member of the women’s auxiliary of the South Haven American Legion post, got the text.

“Are you up?” asked State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, Teeter recalled to Bridge.

It was about 2 a.m. and Schuitmaker wanted details on the money that leaders from the American Legion post in South Haven had requested from local lawmakers.

The post wanted help repay a loan it had secured after its building was in jeopardy of sliding down a hill toward the Black River. It had to spend nearly $400,000 to build a retaining wall. But that loan reduced the post’s ability to help area veterans with counseling and basic needs, Teeter said.

With Schuitmaker’s help, the funding request made it into the bill: The Edward W. Thompson Post 49 is now scheduled to get $85,000 in Michigan taxpayers money.

Some may call it pork; Teeter calls it justified.

“We’re gratified because it allows (the post) to carry out the mission they want – to help veterans and their families,” Teeter said.

In Owosso, off I-69 between Lansing and Flint, city leaders said they’re grateful for a $327,000 grant to a local armory building. The local chamber of commerce bought the building from the state, intending to turn it into a hub for budding entrepreneurs and nonprofits and to house economic development efforts.

But when the chamber took control of the building, officials found that it needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. So they asked the state, its former owner, to help.

Jeff Deason, president and CEO of the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he reached out to Republican Rep. Ben Frederick, a former mayor of Owosso. He agreed to move it forward, Deason said.

He said the organization is grateful for the help and the building has become an asset for the town.

Extraordinary process

Even critics of the process told Bridge the projects that were funded have value.

Young, the Democratic senator from Detroit, wanted to help his community – just as others wanted to help theirs.

“You want to be able to add value to the lives of people I was elected to serve,” he said.

But the spending occurred outside a normal appropriations process that typically includes several reviews and assessments of needs.

“There’s almost an unending number of projects that could be (supported),” said Howrylak, the Republican from Troy.

No doubt, he said, some are “great ideas.”

But to get HB4991 passed, Howrylak said Republican leaders and the governor agreed to over $113 million in spending to pick up key votes.

The $113 million won’t go toward the state’s woeful roads, except those on Mackinac Island, and it won’t go toward funding state employee pensions or boost the rainy day fund.

“(Those are things) we could all benefit from,” Howrylak said.

And though the money was called “new” money – tax money that exceeded projected spending – former State Sen. Morris Hood, D-Detroit, questioned how it could be “new” money after all the cuts that he said the state has endured in education, revenue sharing and other areas of the budget.

“It came down to who can convince the chairman that their project is the best project,” Hood said. “There’s no checks and balances to it, there’s no metrics.”

Republican Curt VanderWall of Ludington, then a state representative but now a state senator, was able to secure nearly $2.5 million for his district covering the far northwestern portion of the lower peninsula.

It’s almost as much as Detroit got.

Leelanau County got $2 million for renovation of an old coal dock. Trail and road work will also get done in the district.

“I was really fortunate,” VanderWall said. “And I think a lot of it was building a good relationship with the appropriations (house) chair (former State Rep. Laura Cox),” he said.

Cox didn’t return phone messages.

Young had a different take.

“To the victors,” he said, “go the spoils.”

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