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Michigan doles out millions in pork in secret. Will Democrats pledge reform?

 The interior of the dome of the Michigan capitol building.
Michigan Democrats have criticized how Republicans doled out millions in taxpayers dollars to special projects. But will they do anything differently? (Lester Graham / Shutterstock.com)
  • There’s little transparency in how Michigan lawmakers dole out millions of dollars in pet projects
  • Rules allow legislators to delay providing details about the projects for nearly a year
  • Democrats criticize the process. Now that they are in charge, will they change anything?

When Congress passed a $1.7 trillion spending package in December, legislators allocated billions of dollars of pet projects for their home districts.

Outgoing U.S. Rep. Andy Levin joined in the spending spree, securing over $16 million in funding, including $4.4 million to help rebuild 9 Mile Road and $1.1 million for the Royal Oak Animal Shelter.

Sponsor

By congressional rule, Levin had to submit his name and the justification for the projects long before Congress would even consider them.

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“It has transparency built into it from beginning to end,” said Levin, an Oakland County Democrat who left office this month after losing reelection.

“I think that’s really important for accountability to the taxpayers.”

Had Levin been a Michigan legislator, requirements would have been far different — he would have had nearly a year to take credit and submit documentation for the projects.

The grants process in Michigan has long been shrouded in secrecy, the byproduct of behind-the-scenes deals to pass big budget deals. In exchange for support, lawmakers often negotiate million-dollar grants to benefit constituents and — occasionally — their political benefactors.

And most often, few know which legislator is asking for what project before the final vote is taken.

It’s been that way for years in Michigan. Now, with Democrats controlling all branches of state government for the first time since the mid-1980s, some want to lift the veil on a process that saw legislators and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer approve nearly $700 million in pet projects last June when a $77 billion budget was passed.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, chair of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, told Bridge Michigan he intends to push for ethics reform that would include more transparency, including during the grants process.

“As a lawmaker I didn’t even know the full scope of what was in the budget,” said Moss.

Nearly six months after the grants were approved, state budget officials say they have received documentation for 111 of the 145 projects which cover over $553.4 million in spending.

No documentation has yet been submitted for 34 projects covering $127 million in grants, including $15 million for a project in Washtenaw County that would benefit the real estate company of the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party.

Moss has the support of Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. He said he submitted documentation for one $20 million project that he didn’t recommend because the legislator who did has not yet stepped forward — and Irwin said he still doesn’t know who included it in the package of grants.

The money would pay to clean toxic land along the Huron River in Ann Arbor where a for-profit company wants to build a $100 million residential and commercial development, a grant first highlighted by The Detroit News.

“Transparency is always in style,” Irwin said.

It’s uncertain whether fellow Democrats are committed to changing the rules. 

A spokesperson for Whitmer, Bobby Leddy, said she has embraced an “open, transparent” budget process that can be “scrutinized to ensure that Michiganders are getting the best bang for their buck.” 

But Leddy stopped short of saying whether Whitmer would back changes to rules.

Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, chair of the Senate appropriations committee, sent a message to Bridge saying she was unavailable for comment Monday.

Grants for donors

Whitmer has defended the existence of the grants, saying they are part of the give-and-take nature of budget negotiations. 

But upon taking office in 2019, she blasted projects backed by her Republican predecessor, Rick Snyder, as “pork. Whitmer temporarily suspended payments to some of them, but ultimately approved all funding. 

Among the 2018 grants she held up was $10 million for utility work in Salem Township, which had already received another $10 million grant from lawmakers in 2017.

Despite Whitmer’s earlier criticism, lawmakers approved another $15 million for the project in June 2022. The funding came amid a slew of other grants, which were approved with only vague descriptions of the projects. They ranged from $240,000 for a culvert in a Macomb County park to $40 million for the proposed Joe Louis Greenway,  a 27-mile biking and walking trail in Detroit and neighboring communities.

The Salem Township grants, which were not requested by local officials, would aid in the development of land along M-14 owned by Schostak Brothers & Co.

The company’s CEO is former Michigan Republican Party chair Robert Schostak.

The company needs to have water and sewer service installed in the area to unlock its planned commercial and residential developments.

Schostak is a prolific fundraiser who gave campaign contributions to over a dozen legislative candidates in 2022, and gave the Michigan Republican Party $20,000.

He also contributed $100,000 to the Schostak Family Political Action Committee in 2021 and 2022 which later contributed thousands of dollars to candidates, including $40,000 to the leadership PAC of then-Speaker Jason Wentworth, $40,000 to the leadership PAC of then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and $5,000 to the leadership PACs of then-state Rep. Mary Whiteford and then-state Sen. Jim Stamas. 

Republicans are not the only ones who gave grants to political donors.

The Legislature and Whitmer approved $5 million for a program promoting skilled trades, an idea pitched by the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, a labor union that has long supported Democrats.

The program’s contact, according to grant documentation provided to Bridge by the state, is Lisa Canada, the political director of the union.

In October, about four months after the grant was approved, the union’s political action committee gave $100,000 to Whitmer’s leadership fund, $100,000 to the Michigan Democratic Party and $100,000 to the leadership fund of state Sen. Jim Ananich, who was term-limited from running again.

The PAC gave another $50,000 to the leadership fund of Democrat Donna Lasinski, the outgoing House minority leader who was also term-limited.

‘Breeding ground for corruption’?

Michigan has long been identified as one of the worst states for government transparency. Critics say the lack of transparency can erode trust in public officials who are approving hundreds of millions of dollars with little oversight and no formal review.

“When we don’t have these things, it’s hard for people to make informed decisions about who they want to represent them,” said Quentin Turner, program director of Common Cause Michigan, a nonpartisan organization that promotes “open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest.”

“It prevents accountability at the highest levels of government,” Turner said, and could be “a breeding ground for corruption and that’s not healthy for our government or our society.”

Levin, the former congressman, encouraged Michigan lawmakers to “check out what we created” in Congress.

So far, of the 111 Michigan projects for which there is documentation, many are attributed to Stamas, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee before he was term-limited out of office on Jan. 1.

Stamas is listed as the sponsor on 17 projects totaling $122 million, including $1 million for the Midland Business Alliance Foundation that is working to develop an industrial park in the city of Coleman. 

Tony Stamas, the former senator’s brother, is president and CEO of the foundation — a fact that was disclosed in the grant documentation.

Sponsor

But some of the Stamas-sponsored projects were actually pitched by other senators, including $2 million for the Traverse City Curling Club. Then-Sen. Wayne Schmidt backed that one. 

Schmidt did have his name on five other projects, including $12 million for building a Special Olympics facility in Grand Rapids, $6 million for a Traverse City housing project, $1 million for a northern Michigan railway study and $350,000 for a Traverse City marketing campaign.

Schmidt acknowledged his backing of a $14 million grant for a passenger ferry to northern Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island, where the year-round population is 525. 

“It was me,” he told Bridge.

Schmidt said the grants help smooth the budget process, where billions are at stake and politicians on both sides of the party divide are seeking a solution.

“It helps to get it done,” he said.

But Schmidt too agreed that there should be more openness.

“I would not be opposed to putting people’s names on things,” he said. “Everybody should be willing to defend it.”

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