Filings: New group reserves TV time to tout Whitmer's road plan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A nonprofit that formed this month is reserving television ad time in Michigan to tout Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's new plan to take on debt to improve the state's highways, according to disclosures. 

Two days after Whitmer unveiled the $3.5 billion plan during her State of the State address on Wednesday night, disclosures filed by broadcast TV stations show that a group called Road to Michigan's Future has been reserving ad time in the state's major TV markets. The markets include Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Flint.

The disclosures themselves don't indicate how much the group will be spending. But the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network said the group had purchased $750,000 in ads, citing ad-tracking data from a firm called Advertising Analytics.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing, Mich. on Jan. 29, 2020.

The ads focus on Whitmer's new plan to sell up to $3.5 billion in bonds to create in an influx of money to invest the state's highways over the next fix years, according to a transcript included in one of the disclosures. The state will pay back the resulting debt over the next 25 years at a total cost of $5.2 billion — or $3.6 billion in "present value" discounting for inflation over that period, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

"The worst roads in the nation — right here in Michigan. They're dangerous, and the longer we wait to fix them, the more expensive it gets," the disclosed transcript says. "But Lansing legislators keep putting up roadblocks to road repairs. And we're paying the price. That's why Gov. Whitmer is moving ahead with a responsible bond plan to start fixing the roads now."

This description of a new TV ad from a nonprofit group called Road to Michigan's Future was included in a disclosure filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

The ad concludes with Whitmer's 2018 campaign slogan of "fix the damn roads" and says when Whitmer made that promise, "she meant it."

The ads could begin airing as early as Friday, according to a schedule included with a purchase on WJRT in Flint.

Road to Michigan's Future incorporated in Michigan on Jan. 15, according to filings with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. Its incorporator was Richard Wiener, who is a former lobbyist and served as chief of staff for Michigan's Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The governor's office "is not affiliated with any paid advertising on the new roads plan," said Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy. Mark Fisk, a partner at the Lansing-based public relations firm Byrum & Fisk, may have more information, Leddy said.

Fisk issued a statement on behalf of Road to Michigan's Future, saying the group launched to "support Gov. Whitmer’s bold plan to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads and deteriorating infrastructure without increasing taxes or waiting for the Legislature to act."

"Our mission is to educate the public about her plan and encourage lawmakers in both parties to start tackling this urgent problem before Michigan’s dangerous, worst-in-the-nation roads get even worse," he said.

Fisk was also the spokesman for a dark money group called Progressive Advocacy Trust, which spent more than $2 million to help promote Whitmer in the 2018 election. Progressive Advocacy Trust's involvement in the 2018 primary election triggered outrage by progressive activists and cries of hypocrisy as the Democratic Party publicly pushed for transparency and campaign finance reform. 

A contract disclosed by WJRT, a Flint TV station, shows Road to Michigan's Future purchasing ads that could begin airing as early as Friday.

Under federal law, nonprofits like Road to Michigan's Future don't have to disclose the sources of their funding. Multiple nonprofits linked to former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder boosted his agenda, including one called Making Government Accountable and another called New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund or the NERD Fund.

Snyder shut down the NERD Fund after critics questioned why the governor wouldn't disclose the fund's donors.

The website of Road to Michigan's Future also touts Whitmer's bonding plan.

"The Road To Michigan’s Future is committed to rebuilding Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure," the website says. "We support the governor’s plan to start fixing Michigan’s state roads right now, because we can’t afford to wait."

Republicans in the Legislature have slammed the bonding plan, saying that it doesn't actually fix the state's infrastructure problems and will create other issues in the future when the debt has to be paid off.

Others have emphasized that the bonding plan will only benefit state highways and no local or county roads. That's because under the law, the administration can only use its powers to bond against State Trunkline Fund revenues to support specific projects on state highways.

John Sellek, the founder and CEO of Lansing-based Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, called the ad buy "unprecedented" for a mid-term policy proposal.

"Since the roads cannot literally be fixed before the 2022 election, they are fighting to define what 'fixed' will mean in the minds of voters, and this is an aggressive way to do so," added Sellek, who worked for Republican Bill Schuette, who ran against Whitmer in 2018.