Political funds flow to Michigan lawmaker who secured $18M earmark
- A Michigan lawmaker who gave $18 million to a private developer got more than $15,000 in political donations from officials at the firm
- State Rep. Will Snyder, D-Muskegon, denies “any connection” and says the housing project will be a game-changer for his district
- The funding was among more than $1 billion in earmarks that Michigan lawmakers included in the state government budget
LANSING — A Michigan lawmaker who helped send $18 million to a for-profit housing project last year received more than $15,000 in political contributions from the private developer, according to records reviewed by Bridge Michigan.
But Rep. Will Snyder, D-Muskegon, said he does not think there is “any connection” between the fundraising he disclosed last week and the no-bid grant he worked into a record-setting $82 billion state budget.
"I would never tie any type of legislation or budget to any type of campaign contribution," Snyder told Bridge, saying he was not promised any donations for the project, which he touted as a game changer for his district.
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Grant records released this week by the State Budget Office show Snyder sponsored the $18 million grant for Parkland Properties, a firm working to convert a long-vacant Muskegon building into apartments and condominiums.
Separate campaign finance reports filed last week show Parkland Properties officials last year pumped more than $15,000 into Snyder's political action committee and re-election campaign.
Most of that came from Parkland President Jon Rooks, who donated $11,000 to the Will Snyder Majority Fund after the first-term Democrat included initial funding for the Shaw-Walker furniture factory redevelopment in a May budget bill.
Rooks, the developer, denied promising political donations in exchange for state funding, telling Bridge his firm contributes to and works with politicians across “all levels of government” and “on both sides of the aisle.”
While records confirm bipartisan contributions — Rooks gave $5,000 to the Michigan House Democratic Fund last year, while he and colleagues gave a combined $6,500 to House and Senate Republicans caucuses — the contributions to Snyder have turned heads.
"It's a quid pro quo — it's pretty hard not to see that," said state Rep. Jim DeSana, a Monroe County Republican who voted against the $82 billion budget and is a sharp critic of the earmark process, arguing it invites corruption.
In an email, Rooks said the $18 million earmark his firm received will support a $220 million project to “take one of the largest blighted structures in the state and convert it into over 550 housing units targeted primarily at the attainable housing market (also known as the ‘missing middle’).”
Michigan lawmakers have in each of the last two years loaded up the government budget with more than $1 billion in funding earmarked for specific projects. The money, made possible by federal stimulus that gave way to large state surpluses, was added when both Republicans and Democrats controlled the Legislature. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ultimately signed the budgets into law.
Several of the earmarks have proven controversial, and at least one – a $25 million grant awarded to a former legislative aid in 2022 – sparked an ongoing criminal investigation by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office.
The Muskegon funding is among a series of earmarks that lawmakers gave to for-profit firms in the current budget.
By allowing lawmakers to pick “winners and losers” instead of seeking competitive bids, the resulting projects are usually “more expensive, and there's going to be more waste involved," DeSana argued.
"And unfortunately, there's probably going to be somebody who's going to get a campaign donation for steering the money in that direction."
‘Taxpayers deserve to know’
Democrats, who took control of the Legislature last year, continued the earmark process but added some new transparency rules to the budget before sending the $82 billion spending plan to Whitmer’s desk for signature in June.
Lawmakers were required to file grant sponsorship documentation by January 15. And for the first time, the state government will be required to publish that information on a public website.
Under the law, the public website is not required until Sept. 30 — more than a year after the funding was approved. But the State Budget Office this week agreed to voluntarily provide the sponsorship list to Bridge months before the due date, disclosing which lawmaker backed each of the more than 320 grants.
In a joint statement, Democratic budget leaders said they worked with the budget office to make the early release happen "because we also value transparency and agree that taxpayers deserve to know how tax dollars are spent."
The local grants "and the openness around them are points of pride," said Senate Appropriations Chair Sarah Anthony of Lansing and House Appropriations Chair Angela Witwer of Delta Township.
"Legislators worked hard to advocate for the needs of their constituents and these grants will help fund improvements throughout our state."
‘Once in a lifetime’
Snyder, the Muskegon Democrat who sponsored the $18 million grant for Parkland Properties, told Bridge the project represents a "one-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to help alleviate a "great housing shortage" in Muskegon.
It’s part of a Democratic effort to support areas that have been under invested in for the last 40-50 years, Snyder said, noting Parkland had already purchased the building, making it a project he thought could be completed quickly.
Rooks, the private developer, registered as a lobbyist last February as the annual budget process began and a month later made his first-ever contribution to Snyder, a $1,225 donation to his re-election campaign.
Records show Rooks donated a combined $11,000 to the Will Snyder Majority Fund PAC in June, September and December – after the budget was done.
Rooks also reported $500 in lobbying expenses, and two other Parkland officials donated additional money to Snyder.
Snyder, a freshman lawmaker, said those contributions were likely the result of his position as a leader in the Muskegon community.
"When you know people that have been around the community doing some of the work as long as I have, and as long as Mr. Rooks has as well, I think those inherent relationships are totally different and built in over time,” he said.
The redevelopment project will create more housing units "than have been built in the City of Muskegon in the last 30 years," Rooks said in an email, predicting it will fill gaps in housing for lower and middle-income families.
Rooks in July told Bridge that a "large portion" of the former Shaw-Walker furniture factory will be devoted to “attainable housing” units reserved for individuals who earn 140% or less of the regional average median income.
Lakefront views, French balconies, tennis and pickleball courts, theater, a game room and restaurant are among the amenities touted by developers.
State Sen. Jon Bumstead of North Muskegon, who was one of six Senate Republicans to vote for the budget bill in June, did not sponsor the Parkland Properties grant but previously told Bridge he supports the project.
“If we have a developer that's willing to risk his neck out there, I don't mind helping a little bit,” Bumstead told Bridge at the time. “The developer has a history of getting a hold of projects and seeing them through, so I don't think there's going to be a risk.”
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