Michigan lawmakers try to relaunch satellite site as they fix lame-duck spending errors

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
A satellite image of Feb. 23 conditions on the Great Lakes.

Lansing — Michigan would again try to spend $2.5 million to help an aerospace association create a low-orbit satellite-launch site and command center under a supplemental spending plan approved Wednesday by the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder had approved the funding late last year after lawmakers added $115 million of pork to a lame-duck spending bill, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration froze the project and several others pending further review.

The supplemental budget how heading to the full Senate would fix what lawmakers called “drafting errors” for five previously approved projects totaling $11 million. The Michigan Launch Initiative would likely include a rocket launch site in northern Michigan — near the 45th parallel — and a command center in Macomb County.

The “enhancement grants,” pet projects typically requested by individual lawmakers, include $5 million for dam improvements in Midland and Gladwin counties, $3 million for a Sherman Boulevard project in Muskegon County, $300,000 for the Dearborn Heights Fire Department and $200,000 for the St. Clair County Road Commission.

Whitmer has criticized the lame-duck spending spree the Republican-led Legislature went on in the final days before she took office, and it’s not yet clear if she’ll ultimately sign off on the revised projects. But Democratic lawmakers voted for them, and Budget Director Chris Kolb’s office worked with lawmakers to improve the language, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland.

The $11 million the state would provide through grants is not new money, Stamas said, telling reporters the budget bill would “correct errors” found in the lame-duck spending plan.

“It’s disappointing that we do have to fix it, but I think they were all projects that will bring value to our communities,” he said.

Funding for the Michigan Launch Initiative, a project of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, would help the state “lead in a developing industry and bring more jobs,” Stamas said. “I think that’s good for our families.”

The Whitmer administration also froze a $10 million earmark to facilitate a Salem Township redevelopment project involving former Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak. That project, which drew accusations of political favoritism by the GOP-led Legislature, remains under review and is not part of the revised spending plan.

The supplemental spending bill advanced Wednesday includes funding for programs Whitmer is expected to support, including $5 million for U.S. Census preparation, $5 million for implementation of the state’s recreational marijuana law and $2 million for the “double up food bucks” program that encourages welfare recipients to spend benefits at farmer’s markets.

The administration has made other supplemental spending requests that the Republican-led Legislature has not yet acted on, but Stamas said the discussions will continue.

“I don’t’ think this is the only supplemental we’re going to have in this process,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. “There’s a lot of negotiations that are going to happen. Nobody gets everything they want in this business, but I think this was a good starting point.”

Hertel secured $5 million for the state Bureau of Marijuana Regulation, which is working to create a business licensing program as part of the recreational pot law voters approved last year.

“It’s really more of a loan than anything else,” Hertel said, noting the General Fund spending will eventually be repaid through restricted fund taxes collected from marijuana businesses. “If you don’t give them the money, they can’t start the program, which means we’ll never get the money back anyway. So it just makes good sense.”

Separately, the Michigan Senate is moving ahead with fiscal year 2020 budget plans amid an ongoing road funding stalemate with Whitmer, who has proposed a $2.5 billion gas tax increase to help fund road repairs and other budget priorities.

“It’s obviously going to be a long and complicated budget season,” Hertel said. “I think that small victories early on might help the relationships to get big things done.”