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Michigan lawmakers OK’d $681M in pet projects. Months later, details scant

Michigan legislators approved nearly $700 million in pet projects this summer as part of an agreement to pass nearly $77 billion in overall spending. (Bridge file photo)

Nearly three months after Michigan legislators approved nearly $700 million in pet pork projects, state budget officials know little about how the money is spent or who asked for it.

For the vast majority of the grants, intended for economic development, housing, recreation, infrastructure and job-training projects, the state budget office doesn’t know who is supposed to get the money.

And they may not know until May 1, 2023, the deadline for submitting detailed information about the projects that was written into legislation — and long after lawmakers who pushed for the grants face re-election.

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So far this week, budget officials confirmed they have received documentation for 19 grants totaling nearly $75 million — a fraction of the 145 grants and $681 million approved by lawmakers.

The state won’t distribute money until it receives information on the grants, including who is sponsoring them and specifics about the projects. The long lag also means lawmakers can wait months before releasing details on the projects or admit they supported them.

 

When the Legislature agreed upon $76.9 billion in spending bills on June 30, dozens of legislators secured grants for pet projects in their communities or across the state.

It’s part of a long-standing process in Lansing that allows lawmakers to pass spending bills with widespread support and few complaints: Everyone can get something for their constituents.

The latest grants included $15 million for a private development in Washtenaw County that has ties to former state GOP chair and prominent Republican donor Robert Schostak. 

Other grants raising eyebrows benefit projects to clean up industrial property along the Huron River in Ann Arbor and $100 million to underwrite a new satellite campus for University of Michigan in Detroit.

Project after a PAC donation

The state budget office released some details Wednesday on projects ranging from $11 million to help with operations at Sturgis Hospital (submitted by state Sen, Kim LaSata, R-Niles) to $250,000 to help the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department with marine patrols (submitted by state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills).

Of the 19 projects that the budget office now has some details about, Democratic legislators submitted 13, and Republicans submitted six. Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland; Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, Bayer; Rep. Carol Glanville, D-Walker; and Alex Garza, D-Taylor, each submitted information on two different projects.

Republicans hold a 57-53 majority in the state House and a 22-16 edge in the Senate.

Among the grants was $8 million for a Laborers International union training facility. State Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, sought the grant.The facility would be built in Perry in Frederick’s current district, roughly halfway between Owosso and Lansing.

In April, the union’s political action committee donated $5,500 to his campaign fund. In October, it donated $5,000.

Bridge Michigan has sought a comment from Frederick.

Most of the grants are for projects within the legislator’s district: Garza secured funding to improve the ball fields for the Taylor North Little League program in his hometown. Hertel secured two grants in his district, $5 million for mental health programs and $2 million for the Potter Zoo in Lansing.

But others were supported by legislators who do not live in the district where the project will occur. Stamas supported a $10 million grant for a hospital in Grand Rapids for children’s rehabilitation. He lives across the state in Midland.

State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, backed a $13 million grant to help fund economic development in Battle Creek, which is not in his current legislative district. However, he is now running for the state Senate in District 18, which does include Battle Creek.

More money for Schostak-related project

The lack of information about the current crop of grants stands in contrast to what happened as Gretchen Whitmer was becoming governor in 2019. 

The Democrat inherited a supplemental budget bill that included $115 million in “enhancement grants”

Within a month, the state budget office had information on all of the projects, which included money for zoos, ferries, museums, veterans and others. 

Most included the name of the legislator asking for the money, who it would help and details on how it would work.

At the time, however, no legislator acknowledged a $10 million grant to help pay for new water and sewer lines necessary for the project affiliated with Schostak. When the paperwork was filed with the state, the section listing the legislator’s name was blank.

After media reports about the grant, former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, whose district was more than 150 miles away from the project, admitted In late January 2019 that he pushed for the grant. 

As of Thursday, the state doesn’t officially know who asked the most recent $15 million for that project. Leaders of the community affected, Salem Township, said they did not make the request.

The money would assist in construction of sewer lines that would make a commercial and retail development possible on land just off M-14 along the only undeveloped interchange between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Schostak’s company has owned the land for years in anticipation of unlocking development.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 11:52 a.m. Sept. 22 to delete incorrect information about a political donation.

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