Tracking money in Michigan budget requires sleuthing

Associated Press

Taylor — How do Michigan lawmakers spend money? For curious taxpayers, it might require a map, census data and a Google search to get answers.

Deep in the new budget that started Oct. 1 are $10 million in grants to recipients identified only with general descriptions and the population of their unnamed community.

Among the 20 projects: $30,000 to revive a dilapidated greenhouse, $250,000 to paint a water tower, $250,000 for drone development and $2.5 million for a youth fair.

The greenhouse is at Kennedy High School in suburban Detroit, and the water tower belongs to tiny Athens, south of Battle Creek. The drone project is at the Alpena airport, and the summer fair is in the Kent County district of a senator who has a crucial role in deciding where tax dollars are spent.

The Associated Press got help from the House Fiscal Agency, which shared the list. Otherwise it would have required a little detective work.

For example, the budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder has $100,000 for a “recreation complex located in a county with a population greater than 1,700,000 and in a city with a population between 17,000 and 18,000.” Answer: the city of Wayne in Wayne County.

A project might have merit, but the wording in the budget “has the effect of obscuring from the public’s eye where their money is being spent,” said Patrick Anderson, an economist and former deputy state budget director.

“It appears to create a classification in which many could fit but in fact only one fits,” Anderson said.

The Michigan Constitution requires super-majority approval from the Legislature for some targeted spending. A broadly worded earmark can be a way around it. Bills are drafted by lawyers at the Legislative Service Bureau.

Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, said legislators know where the money is headed.

“The use of population description in identifying where these funds go is a common practice. … There’s nothing intentional about trying to hide them,” said Hildenbrand, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I tell folks, ‘If you have a project that’s going to benefit the public, bring it to your legislator. Make your case,’” he said. “It never hurts to ask.”

Indeed, Hildenbrand knows. He used his clout to get $2.5 million to expand a Lowell Township park in his district. Another $2.5 million is earmarked to move the county youth fair, also in his district.

“They’re landlocked,” he said. “We’re getting more exhibitors, more animals, more visitors. I felt it was worthy to bring forward as a project for the county — and the entire state.”

Lawmakers gave $1 million to the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, a biomedical research hub. The Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit is getting $500,000. The Redford Union school district in suburban Detroit can count on $100,000 for computers. Heritage Park in Taylor is in line for $95,000, and the Westland recreation complex is getting $100,000.

Some recipients are not as well-known. Covenant Community Care in Detroit, identified in the budget only as a “charitable nonprofit community health center” in a city of more than 600,000 people, has been granted $275,000.

Albion, described in the budget as a “financially distressed city” in Calhoun County, has been awarded $950,000 to improve its wastewater system. City Manager Sheryl Mitchell gave credit to Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek.

“It’s huge,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have lead issues, just infrastructure that needs repairs constantly.”

Some didn’t know about their state aid until contacted by the AP. Kyle Wright, a senior at Kennedy High in Taylor, said he’s tried for three years to raise money to rehab a run-down greenhouse at his school. A $30,000 grant, plus $5,000 from Masco Corp., should do it.

“We want to help the local food banks get access to fresh produce,” Wright said. “My principal told me something that stuck in my mind: You want to leave a place better than when you came.”

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