Michigan budget has $950M in no-bid pork projects, some transparency reforms
- Michigan budget deal includes $950M in pet projects
- Democrats add disclosure rules for earmarks
- Hundreds of no-bid projects eyed, including many in Detroit and Lansing
LANSING — Michigan lawmakers funded more than $950 million in statewide pet projects as part of a massive $82 billion budget deal on Wednesday, allocating money for everything from firehouses and downtowns to swimming pools and affordable housing.
Democrats, in full control of state government for the first time in nearly 40 years, are adding rules they say will begin to reform what has been a controversial earmark process.
For the first time, the state will be required to publicly post the sponsors of certain no-bid grants on department websites — but that will not be mandated until Sept. 30, 2024.
- Michigan set to become 22nd state to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youths
- Early voting, beer in college stadiums await Whitmer’s signature
- Michigan to receive $1.5B to extend internet to 210,000 in rural areas
The new rules will require lawmakers to submit a sponsorship letter to the state by Jan. 15 — about six months from now — and precludes lawmakers from seeking a grant if they have a "conflict of interest" with the intended recipient.
The budget also includes new "clawback" language designed to help the state recoup any misused or unspent funds from grant recipients who fail to comply.
The new earmark rules follow Bridge Michigan reporting on a $25 million grant secured last year by then-House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, that was awarded to one of his former legislative aides.
The state health department paid out nearly $10 million to a nonprofit run by the ex-aide to Wentworth before suspending the grant amid an internal probe by the Office of Inspector General, which investigates fraud, waste and abuse.
That grant was among roughly $1 billion in pork projects lawmakers funded last year as part of a budget deal between the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
"We have taken major steps to address transparency in this budget," Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, said in a floor speech. "For the first time in the state’s history, we are making investments more easily accessible so taxpayers can see where their money is being utilized."
The new earmarks include $900,000 for a cricket field in Troy, $200,000 for a disc golf course in New Buffalo, $250,000 for upgrades at the Crown Boxing Gym in Lansing, $600,000 to rehabilitate the old Lee Plaza apartment building in Detroit and $1.6 million for the Grand Rapids ballet.
The new earmark disclosure rules do not go far enough, argued Sen. Jim Runestad, a White Lake Republican who has proposed related transparency legislation that Democrats have not taken up. Legislative sponsors should have been made public before the budget vote, he said.
"Disclosure before a vote should be a minimum requiring transparency on how we are spending the people’s money," Runestad said. "That shouldn’t be controversial."
Majority Democrats defended new grants included in the final budget plan they negotiated with Whitmer.
"A lot of these are one-time funds that are facilitating these projects, and I think that's exactly what that money should be spent on."
Republicans were able to negotiate some of their own earmarks into the budget, according to House Appropriations Vice Chair Sarah Lightner, R-Springport, who also defended the process.
"A lot of our projects aren't necessarily pork projects — they're projects that are very important to us," Lightner told Bridge Michigan.
"A lot of it is local infrastructure and housing — the issues that we're trying to address in the state. Trying to give people a hand up, not a hand out."
The new disclosure rules could be "useful" and help shed light on the pet projects, but earmarks still are "not the way the state should be doing business," said James Hohman, director of fiscal policy for the free market Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
"State budgets should be used to benefit (all) the residents of the state, not any legislators' particular constituents," Hohman said.
A traditional grant process, with competitive bidding, is a better way to “ensure the public as a whole benefits from the projects and that they meet some outcomes that are determined to benefit the public," he said.
The budget deal includes more than $764 million in grants for specific community enhancement, economic development, health care, housing, public infrastructure, public safety and workforce development projects.
There’s another $181.6 million for “critical infrastructure” specific road and bridge projects, and nearly $100 million for educating projects, including construction projects at specific schools.
There's also dozens of other earmarks sprinkled throughout the budget, including $28 million earmarked to support skilled trades training programs, up from $24 million that had been proposed in an early House budget bill.
New grants include:
- $234.4 million for 69 public infrastructure grants, including $50 million for downtown Pontiac, $20 million for the city of Wyoming, $20 million for the Greektown corridor development in Detroit and $5 million for the Grand Rapids Children's Museum.
- $122 million for 68 community enhancement projects, including $12 million in statewide YMCA grants, $5 million to help redevelop the historic Fisher Building in Detroit, $5 million for a Special Olympics Center in Grand Rapids and $5 million in improvements at the West Michigan Chamber of Commerce in Holland.
- $66.2 million for 14 economic development projects, including $12 million for a Midtown Cultural Center Planning Initiative in Detroit, $10 million for a Workforce Development Center in Adrian and $10 million for to redevelop the former Marygrove College in Detroit.
- $91.1 million for 11 health care projects, including $30.3 million for a medical center in Saginaw, $20 million for the Henry Ford Health Center in Detroit, $10 million for Detroit firefighter health care support and $5 million for a mobile cardiac imaging service by the Southfield-based Corazon Imaging.
- $39.3 million for 11 housing grants, inducing $18 million for a Muskegon Shaw-Walker housing development, $7 million for a housing project at the Detroit-based Pope Francis Center.
- $176.4 million for 23 public safety projects, including $40 million for the Macomb County Jail, $35 million for Grand Rapids fire stations, $30 million for "freeway cameras" and $15 million for Bloomfield Hills Community Safety.
- $35 million for 12 workforce development grants, including $10 million for a "student success center" at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, $5 million for an AFL-CIO Workforce Development Institute and $5 million for a Global Michigan Talent Initiative.
There are other earmarks sprinkled throughout the budget that may not be subject to the sponsor disclosure rules, including several in Lansing — the capital city and home to Anthony, the Senate budget chair.
There's $40 million for affordable housing and other corridor improvements in Lansing, along with another $40 million to develop a "campus plan" for the city that includes modernizing municipal administration buildings.
A historic community pool in Lansing also appears in line for $6.2 million in funding, as originally proposed by the Senate. But that money will come from two sources: $1.2 million from a public infrastructure grant, and $5 million from a separate earmark.
A separate pot of critical infrastructure grants, awarded through the Michigan Department of Transportation, will fund 27 separate road, bridge, rail and airport projects.
That includes $20 million for a rail grade separation project in Trenton, $20 million for construction of a US-131 business loop interchange in Kalamazoo and $20 million for a movable bridge in Grosse Ile Township in Wayne county.
See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:
- “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
- “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
- “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.
If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!