Michigan doles out millions in secret. Bills to change that may be tough sell
- Michigan lawmakers would be required to provide written explanations before requesting funding for projects
- Written documents would be available to the public at least 48 hours before vote
- Republicans, Democrats exchange shots on the floor over pace of transparency reform
LANSING — A Republican lawmaker wants legislators to publicly disclose key details of so-called “pork” projects — multimillion-dollar grants approved largely in secret during budget negotiations.
Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, is introducing two bills requiring lawmakers to detail the purpose of funding requests, who they would benefit and certify that they and their family members don’t have a stake in projects.
The written explanations would be made public at least 48 hours before the legislation comes to a vote, Runestad told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday.
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“Michigan's appropriation process is rife with corruption,” Runestad said during a phone interview. “Most of the time, it is just a few people in a room together, cutting deals left, right and center.”
For years, the grant process in Michigan has allowed lawmakers to approve funding for pet projects and submit documentation for the projects nearly a year afterward. Most of the time, Runestad said, lawmakers don’t know what they are voting on until immediately before the vote.
“Very often … this appropriation bill package is slapped on our desk, five minutes before we're going to vote,” he said.
Republicans have controlled the Legislature for decades and failed to reform the law.
They are now in the minority, and prospects for Runestad’s proposal are dim even though both lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the process.
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer criticized some projects supported by former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, as “pork.” In 2019, she delayed funding some projects — including a $10 million grant to extend sewer lines in Washtenaw County that would benefit land owned by a company headed by Bobby Schostak, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party.
But Whitmer has since defended some of the pork as necessary for budget negotiations.
Last June, the state Legislature approved more than $1 billion in pork funding, including another $15 million for the Schostak project. In the six months following the vote, state budget officials received documentation for just 111 of the 145 “enhancement grants” that totaled $700 million.
As of Monday, the deadline to submit documentation for those projects, a handful still had no documentation and the projects will not be funded as a result, according to Lauren Leeds, spokesperson for the state budget office.
Sen. Jeremy Moss, a Southfield Democrat who has for years championed legislation to improve transparency, told Bridge Michigan recently he expects Democrats-backed ethics reform to come in a few months, arguing it is “unrealistic” to “enact everything overnight or even in our first 100 days.”
Asked Tuesday if he would support the general idea of requiring more disclosure over pork funding, Moss said he is not considering legislation to address that specific issue but supports broader changes, including disclosing making public certain communications, such as exchanges between lobbyists and lawmakers.
He added the lack of transparency could be improved by better practices in the budget process even without legislation.
“We all share those goals of making the budget more understandable to the Michigan resident,” he said. “We need to know where this money is going because ultimately it's their tax dollars that are being invested elsewhere.”
Runestad slammed Moss and Democrats, claiming their pledges to make government more transparent are “shakier than watery nursing home cafeteria Jello.”
Moss said Runestad and Republicans had years to address the issue.
“All (Runestead) can do is sit back and complain about things that he could have taken care of when he was in the majority to begin with. It's only theatrics,” Moss said.
Michigan continues to rank near the bottom in government transparency, according to a 2020 scorecard from Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Coalition for Integrity.
— Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed
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