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Michigan Democrats push $800M in pet projects to help unions, their districts

a pool without any water
Senate Democrats earmarked $6.2 million for Lansing to help rehabilitate the shuttered Moores Natatorium, a public pool listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Michigan House, Senate budget bills include $800 million for special projects
  • Democrats say they’re being more transparent than past years by adding earmarks earlier in the budget cycle
  • Much remains secret about the process, though, as critics call for new disclosure rules

LANSING — Lawmakers in Michigan's Democratic-controlled Legislature have already proposed $823 million in pet projects as they craft a new state budget — and more could be on the way during final negotiations. 

The earmarks include millions of dollars for economic development, preservation of historic buildings —  as well as one swimming pool and nearly $1 million for a “wearable technology innovation center.”


Most of the money would go to local governments or nonprofits in areas represented by majority Democrats, while millions of dollars goes to skilled trades training programs run by unions that give big to the party.


Pork projects have proven controversial in recent years, most recently a 2022 spending spree with $1 billion in earmarks, including a $25 million health and fitness park grant pushed by then-House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, that went to his former aide. The state has since suspended the project and ordered an investigation.

Democrats, who now control the Michigan Legislature for the first time in 40 years, say they have added transparency to the process, including money in initial budget proposals rather than inserting most at the last minute like last year.  

Even so, legislators still aren’t required to identify who is pushing the earmarks or provide many details of the projects.

"We are being really intentional about transparency," Senate Appropriations Chair Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, said this week as lawmakers were negotiating final spending plans with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration. 

"At the same time, what I've heard from our members is that there's been historic disinvestment and our communities," Anthony continued, arguing Democratic lawmakers are "fighting for…  issues that matter to low-income communities, marginalized communities."

“So whether those would be considered earmarks, or just us actually looking at things through fresh eyes, I think it'll be exciting to see where we are trying to prioritize these state dollars.”

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, blasted the Senate Democrat budget plan as a "spending boondoggle" that will ensure money gets “splashed around in members’ districts” with little oversight or review.

"All the same crap that Republicans were doing, they're going to do the same thing,” said Runestad, who has proposed new earmark transparency legislation that Democrats have not acted on. “This stuff should be vetted through - all of these items.”

The back-and-forth comes as legislative leaders this week reached a "target agreement" with Whitmer's administration on department-based spending numbers, paving the way for fine-tuning of what is expected to be a roughly $80 billion state budget. 

All told, the Senate is proposing $380 million in earmarks, including $25 million for 10 water infrastructure upgrades, such as a river flood prevention project in Midland and more than $19 million for lead pipe replacement in Muskegon, Washtenaw and Macomb counties. 

Many of the earmarks still use coded language to direct money to specific projects while providing few details about what the funding will be spent on or even where.

The Senate plan includes:

  •  $6.2 million to rehabilitate a historic pool in a city with a population between 106,000 and 109,000. That appears to target the Moores Park Natatorium in Lansing, a historic but closed public pool that local residents have been pushed to re-open for several years. 
  • $25 million to prepare an unspecified site for redevelopment in a city with a population between 107,000 and 108,000 — an apparent reference to Dearborn, home of Ford Motor Co. 

Anthony declined to say whether Senate Democrats will add additional earmarks to the final budgets, which could be up for votes as soon as next week.

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, said he would prefer to use most of the state's nearly $4 billion general fund surplus to support statewide initiatives but acknowledged Republicans also have "priorities in some of our districts" as well.

"I think it should be done in a more transparent way than it's been done in the past," Nesbitt told reporters Wednesday, suggesting Democratic leaders could voluntarily add new earmark disclosure rules without the need for new laws.

Money for union programs

Separate House budget bills propose $443.5 million in earmarks, including $24 million for three associations and organizations to provide skilled trades and energy job training across the state. 

The budget language does not specify which organizations would receive the funding, but the money appears to be earmarked for union groups based in Lansing, Warren and Delta Township. 

For instance, one $8 million skilled trades training grant would go to “a nonprofit association chartered in 1912” with headquarters in a city with a population between 111,000 and 114,000. The Michigan Pipe Trades Association, which includes 14 local unions, is headquartered in Lansing and was chartered in 1912, according to its website

While unions run some of the state’s largest job training programs, they are also prolific donors to Democrats. Pipefitters political action committees donated more than $525,000 to Democratic groups and lawmakers in 2022 and the quarter of 2023, according to state campaign finance records

Rep. Will Snyder, a Muskegon Democrat who chairs the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity budget committee, said unions have a history of working with the state on skilled trades training and also received earmarks under prior budgets approved by Republican majorities. 

Last year, for instance, the state budget negotiated between Whitmer and a GOP-led Legislature included a $5 million grant for the Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights to promote skilled trades careers. 

"They provide a good product, and they have a history," Snyder said of union groups. 

By including earmarks in budget bills months ahead of a self-imposed July deadline lawmakers hope to meet, Snyder told Bridge he aimed to "shine a light of transparency on the process" and "allow scrutiny if need be."

"The public could see it," he said of his budget bill, which included more than $300 million in earmarks. "Everybody can see it."

Snyder acknowledged funding could still be added or cut during final negotiations with Whitmer. But the House "tried to do projects with regional impact," including some in Republican areas, he told Bridge.

"It's going to be a budget that represents the values of the people in the state of Michigan, and it's going to have huge investments throughout the state and in workforce talent development,” Snyder said. 

The House plan also includes $10 million for infrastructure development at an 800-acre site on Five Mile Road in a county with a population of more than 1,750,000 — an apparent reference to a planned Michigan International Technology Center in Plymouth and Northville townships. 

There's also $1 million for a nonprofit to renovate and preserve a historic 1889 schoolhouse in a city with a population between 36,000 and 39,000 — Muskegon, apparently.  

And $500,000 to repair a historic "3-story Queen Anne House built in 1887" and located in a city with a population between 36,000 and 39,000 — also apparently Muskegon. 

The House also wants $2.5 million for a student aviation center at a community college in a county with a population of between 90,000 and 98,000 (which seems to be Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City) and $850,000 for a "wearable technology innovation center" at a private university established in 1932 and located in a city with a population between 76,600 and 78,000 (Lawrence Tech in Southfield).

Reform efforts stunted

Runestad, the Oakland County Republican, last month proposed new legislation that would require lawmakers to publicly "sponsor" earmarks with a written statement describing the name of a project, location and intended recipient. 

They’d also have to disclose any personal interest in the project and explain “why the legislatively directed spending item is an appropriate use of taxpayer funds.”

Majority Democrats have not taken up the legislation and instead referred it to a committee where bills are rarely acted upon.

Over the course of his 8 ½  years in Lansing, Runestad said he has personally secured two budget earmarks: $1.2 million for a Meals on Wheels kitchen in his district and $1.8 million to help repair a historic Ford family retreat.

"That was for the whole community, and I'm proud of them," he told Bridge Michigan. "I'll put my name to them. I'll scream from the heavens, ‘I did that’. But all these other money gushing requests… they should be transparent."

House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, has called for similar transparency reforms and questioned whether Democrats will add additional earmarks to the final budget with little opportunity for public debate in committee. 

Like Runestand, Hall has said lawmakers should attach their names to the earmarks from the start, so it's clear who is requesting the funding. And he suggested the money should only be distributed to local governments or agencies — not nonprofit or for-profit companies. 


"I'd like to see us prohibit those projects going into (the budget) because it seems like they're creating more trouble than it's worth," Hall told Bridge earlier this month.

"Both parties have used (the earmarks), but I'm seeing the need for some reform there, and I compliment you for shining a light on some of those things that need to change.”

Snyder, the Muskegon Democrat who helped craft the House economic development budget, said he is “not opposed to any discussions” about how the earmark process could or should work in the future. 

"There's a significant amount of one-time money that our state has right now," he said, referencing the state's budget surplus and a historic influx of federal pandemic relief dollars. 

"That might make it look like there's a lot more (spending) this year or last year, but I don't see that happening forever."

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