Conservative group billboards target Whitmer's road funding veto

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A conservative group began sponsoring billboard advertisements Friday that attack Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto of $375 million in extra transportation funding.

The ads from the Michigan Freedom Fund debuted in the Lansing area a day after budget negotiations between Whitmer and Republican lawmakers faced another setback inside the state Capitol.

"Fix the damn roads?" the billboards say, referencing Whitmer's 2018 campaign slogan. "Whitmer vetoed $375 million from our roads and bridges."

The Michigan Freedom Fund began sponsoring billboards on Nov. 8, 2019, in the Lansing area to target Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto of $375 million in road funding.

Whitmer made nearly $1 billion in vetoes at the end of September to budget bills approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Her administration said the budget bills didn't do enough to fund roads, communities and schools and hoped the vetoes would draw Republican lawmakers back to the negotiating table.

The $375 million mentioned in the billboard ads would "only rebuild about 39 miles on the freeway and fix about four bridges in a state with over 1,000 bridges in poor condition," said Whitmer Communications Director Zack Pohl in a Friday statement. 

"While the DeVoses flush their money down the toilet on political attack billboards, the governor will remain focused on actually solving problems for the people of Michigan," Pohl added, referring to the West Michigan GOP family affiliated with the Freedom Fund.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a Lansing-based nonprofit, works to protect "the civil liberties of all Americans," according to its website.

Its political action committee, the Michigan Freedom Network, spent $250,321 during the 2018 election year, mostly on supporting Republican candidates. The PAC has received heavy financial support from members of the DeVos family.

The billboard ads, which are scheduled to run for a week, are a good way "to remind people of the governor’s words and her actions," said Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

Asked about Whitmer's veto being a strategy to secure additional, long-term road funding, Daunt responded, "That strategy has shown to be an absolute failure. If she’s holding out for a tax increase ... it’s going to continue to be a failure."

Whitmer has advocated for a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase phased in over two years, which would amount to a more than 170% hike over the current 26.3 cents a gallon. It would eventually generate $2.5 billion annually for road and bridge repairs.

Once fully implemented, the plan would boost road funding $1.9 billion over current spending levels and end a $600 million General Fund dedication for more road aid, freeing up that money for schools and other priorities.

Whitmer's vetoes struck money from a wide array of initiatives, including $1 million that went to a nonprofit that helps people with autism, $13 million for road patrols, $16.6 million in payments to rural hospitals and the $375 million in transportation funding.

The Legislature initially added $400 million to the transportation budget that it paid for by trimming other departments, moves that GOP lawmakers called "efficiencies" and setting priorities. The Whitmer administration labeled them misguided cuts that compromised prison operations, cyber security and social service programs.

Whitmer campaigned on a slogan of "fix the damn roads." But her gas tax increase plan has met resistance from both Republicans and Democrats. House Minority Leader Chris Greig, D-Farmington Hills, labeled the 45-cent proposal an "extreme" in August.

In the last weeks, Republican lawmakers and Whitmer have been negotiating a way to restore some of the $1 billion in vetoed funding and alter another $625 million in transfers Whitmer's administration made within the Legislature-approved departmental budgets.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has been pushing for a change in state law that would limit the governor's ability to make budget transfers going forward. Whitmer has repeatedly said she won't permanently give away a power of the governor's office.

On Thursday morning, Whitmer said the sides were "close" to negotiating a new spending bill. The talks broke down a few hours later when the Senate adjourned without taking any action, but the House and Senate have sessions days scheduled next week before a two-week break.